Despite the odd bit of wonky storytelling, the ongoing exploration of the relationship between DC’s most iconic non-powered hero and the pulp giant on which his character is based continues to be an engrossing and, more often than not, entertaining read. In the first series featuring Batman and The Shadow, we saw the pair in Gotham and the mythical environs of Shamba-La. In this, the third issue of their second adventure, we see them in the setting of the boardroom of Wayne Enterprises as they try to make a dent in the nefarious vast criminal empire of the Silent Seven (or, if we’re being honest, two). Batman and The Shadow as vigilantes of the stock market? Alright, then…
My review for the first issue of this Dynamite/DC series ended with a forlorn hope for better things. After an initial issue that attempted to hook me with action and mystery, but instead only managed to alienate me with a confusing in media res opening and dialogue from the Melodrama 101 handbook, I must confess my expectations for this issue were on the low side. Imagine my surprise, then, when this afternoon I read a comic book that not only was reasonably easy to follow but also delivered a bona fide emotional punch to the gut. Yeah, I know. Let me tell you all about it…
It’s that time of the month again. I’d like to say that the arrival of The Unexpected is… unexpected. But it isn’t. I’d also like to say that my unanticipated enthusiasm for the title that started with issue 1 and quickly faded with the subsequent two issues has been magically rekindled and that issue 4 is exciting, intriguing and, perhaps most important of all, coherent. But it isn’t. So, in an attempt to provide something genuinely unexpected for those hardy readers who have stuck with the series up to now, I’m going to present this review as an inner (now outer, I suppose) dialogue between the naïve somewhat innocent me who kind of likes Orlando and can see what he’s trying to do and the cynical more analytical me who thinks that it’s no good having grand ideas if you can’t execute them properly and that Orlando’s hackery is a stain on the collective good name of DC Comics (not that, at this point in their history, it’s otherwise exactly spotless). If nothing else, it should at least provide an interesting insight into the tortured divided soul of this long-time comic book fan and sometime reviewer.
Here we go…
I liked the first issue of this New Age of Heroes title, but the moment Steve Orlando has to start explaining things is the moment nonsense begins to swarm like flies on a dog turd and so it proved last issue which, shorn of original artist Ryan Sook’s vibrant visuals, was nowhere near as entertaining. Orlando’s penchant for throwing in obscure continuity references into his stories is quickly becoming legendary in these parts. Will Orlando manage to restrain this instinct and tell a coherent story? You know the drill…
This series surprised me last month. That first issue was a rip-roaring full tilt ride into multidimensional madness and it was populated by a range of interesting new characters who, although they spoke with the overblown idiom of most Steve Orlando creations, nevertheless managed to intrigue the hell out of me. That half of them were dead by the end of the issue seemed to me to be a bold statement of intent from the creative team. Put bluntly, these guys are not messing around. The question is… where do we go from here? For once, I have no actual idea. And I kind of like that. Buckle up then, pilgrims. It’s going to be a bumpy ride. Probably…
The Unexpected? Hmmm… It’s difficult not to allow one’s prior experiences with a writer or artist to affect your expectations when their name appears on the front of a new book. Steve Orlando has some strengths (his imagination appears to be appropriately large and insane for a comic book writer, for a start), but it’s safe to say that I’ve tended to feel his weaknesses outweigh them. So what should I expect from The Unexpected? A plot driven by melodramatically delivered infodumps and glaring non-sequiturs? Cack-handed dialogue that would make Edward (“It was a dark and stormy night…”) Bulwer-Lytton blush all the way down to his bushy sideburns? Or will the unexpected really happen and Orlando deliver a ‘new age of heroes’ book that thrills, intrigues and hooks the reader just like comic books should? You know, there really is only one way to find out…
This coming together of Batman and one of his more influential antecedents reaches its climax in this issue and there is, in my mind, a fair amount of promise the series now needs to fulfill. So far, we’ve been introduced to the intriguing notion that The Shadow has woven himself into the tapestry of Batman’s personal history as a way of training him up to be his immortal replacement. In The Stag, we’ve also been given a villain whose costume design is genuinely unsettling and whose very nature seems to be up for grabs, a mystery whose answer must surely be revealed in these pages. Last issue left us with several important questions in urgent need of answering. Who is The Stag? Who or what exactly comprises his glowing ‘army’ currently in the process of tearing down Shamba-La, the mystical haven in which The Shadow was born? How will a fatally wounded Batman survive this encounter, much less triumph in it? Will The Shadow and Batman finally reconcile their differences? Which one of them was right about the nature of the universe? Will the Joker start doing something useful? Or meaningful? Will Orlando deploy another plant metaphor? Will the last five months of reading this title have been, after all, worth it?
There really is only one way to find out…
Well, we’re half way through this pairing of two of popular fiction’s most famous vigilantes (or a quarter of the way through considering the recent announcement of this series’ follow-up mini) and things are heating up nicely. Last issue saw a couple of significant revelations about the nature of The Shadow’s relationship with Batman, and it also left Batman tied up in an underground cavern surrounded by a gathering of his most vicious enemies. (Well, most of them. Where’s Kite Man?) This means we’re probably due a huge fight in this issue, doesn’t it?
Depending on how things turn out with this limited series, it might well be that this issue is seen as a real step up in both impetus and overall quality. It might be that this issue turns out to have significant implications for both Batman and The Shadow for some time to come. At this point, I have no way of knowing for sure. What I do know is that I enjoyed this issue quite a bit more than I did the previous two. Allow me to explain.
In many ways, The Stag is the perfect partner for The Joker. As this issue’s opening couple of pages demonstrate, The Stag has nothing to say beyond his enigmatic catchphrase and The Joker is loquaciousness personified. I know I’ve expressed my disappointment with some of the dialogue in this series, but the introduction of The Joker has seen a marked improvement in its quality. There are still some problems but even the opening pun, weak though it is, is enjoyable. The Joker is, after all, a character you should have fun with if you’re a writer and the Snyder/Orlando combo go to town here and do a pretty decent job of conveying The Joker’s mercurial mania.
The Joker and The Stag, however, are not this issue’s only double act. While you might think that The Batman and The Shadow would be this issue’s other compelling partnership, you’d be mistaken. Batman has The Shadow in chains and imprisoned in an underwater base; he has a brief conversation with him in which The Shadow reveals some interesting information about The Stag (like the fact that he’s descended from Cain – a House of Mystery reference? Hmmm…) and that he’s been ritually murdering ‘good’ people for decades in an effort to get to Shamba-La, the same place in which The Shadow was ‘born’. But Batman doesn’t stick around much after that initial infodump, leaving the Unexpected But Surprisingly Interesting Conversation of The Issue award to go to… The Shadow and Alfred.
Now, this just worked for me. While it is true that Alfred’s tale about his time as an MI6 agent chasing down a fugitive in the Canadian wastes could do with a bit of fleshing out, there is nevertheless a clear sense that Alfred is prepared to accept the more esoteric elements of The Shadow’s story in a way that Batman simply isn’t. Although there is still an occasional niggling problem with the dialogue (“I have never seen pitch as dark as in that place” – black; it really should be pitch as black), there is a gravitas to this section that serves to anchor the book a little more thoroughly in, if not the wider Batman universe, then certainly in the Alfred-Bruce relationship that forms an important pillar of it. That this rather serious conversation is contrasted with The Joker’s more flippant dialogue makes it all the more effective.
When Batman interrupts (almost as if on cue) that conversation, the resultant battle is rather satisfying. Rossmo’s artwork (which hasn’t always impressed this issue) is excellent here, particularly when The Joker starts choking Bats from behind and his vision starts blurring. That confrontation ends badly for Batman and he wakes up bound and surrounded by a rogues’ gallery of his villains.
All this is intercut with that Alfred-Shadow interaction and it is in these pages that the boldness of Snyder and Orlando’s vision for this series is made clear. Now, I know there’s a spoiler warning at the top of this review, and I know that I’ve just told you a fair bit about the plot of this issue, but in the next couple of paragraphs I’m going to get into some nitty-gritty including Easter eggs that have profound implications for the rest of the DC Universe. If you’d rather not read them being imperfectly explored by a raving Englishman, you might be better scrolling down to concluding paragraph, where you’ll find a more general summary of my thoughts. If you’re still here, let’s get stuck in…
During his conversation with Alfred, The Shadow makes clear a number of things that had previously only been hinted at. And goes quite a bit further than that, too. To Alfred’s consternation, The Shadow repeats his claim that he has mentored Batman before. Not only that, but he has done so in a variety of guises. In a way, that he is confiding in Alfred is entirely appropriate. Both of them, it would seem, have adopted a somewhat paternal role to Bruce. The Shadow, however, drops an intriguing and shocking revelation. Bruce is not the only hero whose development and training he has supervised. In a really rather impressive full page, it is revealed that he has trained many other heroes. These include heroes I don’t recognise, but some I do – Green Arrow, Catwoman and the Crimson Fox. Now, that is quite some claim. The notion that The Shadow has been training some of DC’s established heroes to fight against The Stag is, on the one hand, pretty bold and exciting; on the other hand, it does mess about with established continuity to a degree that may well be unacceptable for some.
My own feelings are mixed. I’m prepared to go with it for now. It does raise the stakes for this series and that’s all to the good. I’m just not sure about how this works out in practice. The Shadow tells Alfred that his plan was to raise an “army” to combat The Stag; in the next breath, though, he reveals that each one of his soldiers has been cut down by The Stag before they could complete their training. With Catwoman and Green Arrow included, though, that claim is demonstrably false. It is, to this reader at any rate, a confusing moment in the comic.
The Shadow then reveals that Batman is his last student, before going on to say that Batman is, in fact, The Stag’s final target. There are, I suppose, objections that could be raised here, not least whether Batman qualifies as a ‘good’ man. Commissioner Gordon’s closing monologue in ‘The Dark Knight’ is echoing in my head at this point, though, and The Shadow makes a valid point that, in giving up a “human life to protect others”, Batman has certainly proven himself to be one of “Gotham’s best”.
But there’s one more revelation. And it’s one that ends the issue. Now normally, I don’t like spoiling issue endings, but I need to here. As The Shadow leaves to go and save Batman, he announces that he had been ‘training’ Batman to become the next Shadow, a claim that is so bold as to be almost ludicrous. Coming hot on the heels of all the other things the Shadow has supposedly done in the background of Batman’s history, this seems overly sensationalistic and almost disrespectful to the character. That said, it does suddenly make this series matter in a way that, say, the Planet of the Apes/Green Lantern series doesn’t.
Where we go from here is unclear. The Shadow will presumably find Batman and rescue him, but, beyond that, I’m not sure. My gut tells me we’re going to end up in Shamba-La by the time issue 6 rolls round and that The Stag’s true nature (and possibly identity) will be revealed at that point. What’s of greater interest now, though, is to what extent The Shadow’s interventions in Batman’s past (and, indeed, in the wider DC Universe) can be regarded as canonical and how exactly his plans for Bruce can be reconciled with what we already know about the character. Getting those answers is something of which I’m much less sure.
In the sense that it has dramatically raised the stakes for Batman and provides some clarity as to what this series is actually about, this issue is an improvement on the first two. That is not to say it is perfect. Rossmo’s art leans towards the sketchy side of things at times and the dialogue, although considerably better, still sometimes lapses into characters talking at rather than to one another with perfectly reasonable questions left unanswered by the people who have the answers but are too enamoured of their own verbal cleverness to give them. That said, some of the dialogue works rather well. The Shadow describing himself as “a glint in the peripheral vison of [Bruce’s] mind’s eye” is rather elegant, for example.
Whether you enjoy this issue will probably depend on how receptive you are to its rather bold central revelations. The plot is more sharply focused than in previous issues and dialogue is, for the most part, clear and accurate and, in some cases, memorable and emotionally engaging. The addition of The Joker is enough to mix things up in terms of plot and action and The Stag remains an enigmatic, interesting villain. In addition, this issue injects a sense of urgency into the narrative and, although the ‘surrounded by villains’ ending might be overkill, the prospect of seeing The Shadow and Batman take them on is appealing. In short, with this issue, this series might just have turned the corner.
(This review first appeared on the Weird Science DC Comics website.)
The first issue of this DC/Dynamite crossover did a reasonable job of getting our two crime-fighting vigilantes together and presenting the reader with an intriguing if somewhat confusing mystery about just who The Shadow is and why he might have killed Lamont Cranston, a pleasant enough man who turned out to be a descendant of the original Shadow. That issue ended with the revelation that The Shadow is actually Bruce Wayne’s old mentor, Henry Ducard. How will Batman respond to this revelation? And what path will the story take, now that the initial mystery of The Shadow’s identity seems to have been cleared up? Well, there’s only one way to find out…
The first page of this issue poses a number of questions. Why does Bruce not respond to The Shadow telling him that he has been “living in” Ducard and has always “been here… behind [him]”, one of the more startling revisions of Bat-history this tale presents to us? Why does he instead choose to speak in simple accusatory statements? Why does he decide to put his mask on for the soon-coming fight? Protection? The comfort of the familiar? It can’t be either to hide his identity or to frighten The Shadow, can it? The Batman/Shadow fight is pretty engaging. Rossmo’s good at the kind of slightly warped perspectives that in another sort of book would be distracting but here feel appropriate. His Shadow is particularly impressive. Nevertheless, the fight feels a little strained and disjointed and this is due almost entirely to issues with dialogue.
The two characters have a curious conversation in which Batman tries to convince The Shadow (or himself?) that he is the killer of Lamont Cranston and The Shadow tries to convince him otherwise. When the dialogue is reasonably direct, it works pretty well. (The “Only a fool trusts his eyes.”/”I trust my mind.” exchange is particularly tasty, highlighting that, when dealing with a being with the power to ‘cloud men’s minds’, Batman’s mind might be a liability.) When it moves into the realms of more enigmatic pronouncements, it becomes decidedly less successful. “Reason softens you. Time slackens the mind.” is a particularly bemusing example. Even more mystifying is the fact that Batman has run “facial recognition” on The Shadow and found him a “perfect match”. How exactly, given that he is currently fighting a Shadow inhabiting Henry Ducard and the emergence of The Shadow, as far as I understand it, warps the facial features of Cranston anyway? When The Shadow actually tells Batman who’s really killed Cranston (no, not the original – the other one), Batman refuses to believe him, dismissing it as a “convenient alibi” which prompts The Shadow into launching into a potted personal history. This is fine up to a point and we do get the line that Bruce doesn’t really “know what evil lurks in the hearts of men”, a statement with which, given the various traumas that have happened to him in his life, Batman would be entitled to take issue. He doesn’t, though, instead opting to ask how The Shadow knows about him, a question that is really rather redundant given that he’s just watched his former mentor turn into The Shadow just before his eyes.
The conversation ends somewhat inconclusively with Batman vowing to investigate The Shadow’s claims that The Stag is operating in Gotham and killing “the best” of Gotham’s citizens. This is something that those who have read the recent Batman annual will already know. The Stag is a new Orlando/Rossmo creation and seems to have been devised mainly for this series. More of him in a moment. The Shadow disappears pretty much as he did last issue, leaving Batman having to high-tail it back to Gotham and the reader to ponder whether The Shadow’s claim that he “trained [Batman] for years, through Ducard, and [his] other faces” is merely a nice metatextual nod to The Shadow’s formative influence on the character or meant to be taken literally.
The action then moves to Margo Lane’s Long Island mansion where both she and Harry Vincent are being told by The Shadow that they could be on The Stag’s hit-list. Neither Lane nor Vincent are particularly impressed with this current iteration of The Shadow and Lane in particular is horrified at The Shadow’s decidedly utilitarian approach to his associates. The Shadow’s response (that “humanity is a luxury [he] can no longer afford”) is not especially reassuring. In the meantime, Batman, deciding to assume that The Shadow is telling the truth, delves further into Lamont Cranston’s murder and discovers that it might be connected to the mysterious death of Barry O’Neill who was murdered (by The Stag, not that Batman knows that) at the end of Orlando’s story in that aforementioned Batman annual. It seems that O’Neill and Cranston were both recipients of a Gotham ‘humane’ award which is given to three deserving recipients each year. The third surviving recipient is none other than… Leslie Thompkins, philanthropist physician and one-time surrogate parent of Bruce Wayne.
Needless to say, Batman hotfoots it to Thompkins’ clinic where he arrives just in time to prevent The Stag from killing her with the ancient dagger used to kill Cranston and O’Neill. The fight is brutal but Thompkins herself intervenes, shooting The Stag in the head. Batman is aghast, but finds out that Thompkins is actually The Shadow in disguise. Another verbal and physical altercation ensues and, when The Shadow reveals that The Stag is seeking Shamba-La, the mystical place where the original Cranston took on the mantle of The Shadow, and needs one more kill to find it, Batman reveals he knows where The Stag is heading. The final page sees The Stag in (presumably) Arkham meeting up with probably the one Batman villain you don’t want an immortal murderer teaming up with. (Hint: It isn’t Kite Man.)
In some respects, this is an improvement on last issue, although the same problems that bedevilled the story then persist here. The principal one is the dialogue. There are some interesting things happening in this story. The contrast between Batman – a victim turned vigilante – and The Shadow – a villain turned vigilante – is potentially very exciting and is rich in dramatic possibilities. The Stag looks phenomenal – a pale-masked killer, horned, androgynous and evidently mystical in origin. Arguably, he’s the most interesting thing about this issue and lends a distinct air of otherworldly menace to the proceedings. But the dialogue too frequently gets in the way.
I’m not going to pretend that writing portentous, symbolically significant dialogue is easy, but when it goes awry the effects can be rather jarring. When Vincent complains to The Shadow that he’s been serving him for eighty years and wants to know when his debt will be paid, The Shadow’s “Your suffering at the yoke of culpability is an instant next to mine” has numerous problems. Firstly, you suffer ‘under’ not ‘at’ a yoke. Secondly, ‘culpability’ means ‘blame’ and feels odd here. A more appropriate word might be ‘guilt’ or ‘penance’. Things would be improved with a ‘but’ between ‘is’ and ‘an’, too. It’s not that the idea behind the dialogue is not appropriate; it’s just that the language used to convey it is simply not precise enough. That said, there are a couple of dialogue triumphs in here, too. Margo Lane’s “You spent us like ammunition” is wonderful. The dialogue isn’t all bad.
There are other issues too, though. If ‘Thompkins’ is really The Shadow in disguise, why is she seen talking into a hand-held voice recorder as if she really is Thompkins when no one else is around? Why, during that conversation with her voice recorder, does she make a reference to The Shadow? What does a surgical assistant making “stubborn mistakes” entail?
That’s not to say that the issue is terrible. It really isn’t. There’s a sense of Batman being on the edge here. This situation has rattled him – to the extent of him objecting when Alfred calls him ‘master’. His desperation when ‘Thompkins’ is threatening to kill The Stag is convincing too. Thompkins shooting The Stag in a Crime Alley clinic is evidently too close to home for him. There are flashes here of that Batman/Shadow contrast I mentioned earlier; Batman certainly seems to be aware of it and desperate to prove that his less lethal methods are superior (both morally and functionally) to The Shadow’s. The problem is that it’s all just a little too melodramatic, a little too emotionally heightened. There was an opportunity for a more emotionally grounded Bruce to contrast with the (perhaps) rattled Batman during the Batcave scene with Alfred, but it just doesn’t quite come off. Batman is a driven, almost obsessive character, of course, but hitting that one note repeatedly is going to get old sooner rather than later.
This series, then, is still not quite the out and out triumph it could be, although there are signs we might get there soon. Rossmo’s art is, if anything, more impressive this time round. That final page is gorgeous, for a start, and The Stag is one of the creepier new characters I’ve seen in quite a while. The plot continues to intrigue and the Batman/Shadow contrast, although not as expertly set up as it could be, is strong enough that this reader is interested in seeing how it plays out. Next issue… well, next issue could be very special. We’ll have to see. For now, this is worth a look.
(This review first appeared on the Weird Science DC Comics website.)