Halftime Leisure

Riddle Me This, Riddle Me That: Who Still Cares about the Grumpy Young Bat?

April 22, 2014

Writer Scott Snyder and Artist Greg Capullo’s Batman series is a line that I have been recommending to people since the start of the DC Comics continuity reboot back in 2011. For the unaware, DC was growing increasingly concerned with the level of confusion and complexity that their decades of stories have created. And rather than include a summary page at the beginning of each comic, change the writing process, or simply make there some sort of bible that writers and readers would have to follow, DC simply just erased seventy-plus years of stories and started anew.

Most of the comics in the wake of this reboot have been absolute garbage, due to their baffling new interpretations of characters and/or poor writing and art.  The worst offense, for example, was that the character Starfire—once a fan favorite due to the massively popular Teen Titans animated series—was changed to be much more lewd and emotionless, so as to pander to pre-teen boys.  She became, as Dave Willis put it in his webcomic Shortpacked!, “an amnesiac, emotionally-attached sex prop who has no friends and doesn’t enjoy things because enjoying things is super lame”. But, for all the doubt and disappointment that came with the reboot, there were a few comics that shined and took advantage of the opportunity of a new continuity.  Snyder and Capullo’s Batman was one of them.  The early issues featured Batman’s tense and sometimes terrifying fight against a new villain group called the “Court of Owls” and blew readers away with its amazing, unique art and intense story telling.

But as time has gone on, the shine of the Batman line has started to fade.  Capullo’s art still amazes, but Snyder’s writing just doesn’t have the same pull as before.  The last miniseries, “Death of the Family”, featured a faceless Joker’s attempt to kill Batman’s allies in one night, but the comic was never as interesting as I’m sure Snyder and DC were expecting, simply because no one actually died.  There were some shocking and gross-out moments, but the fact that the whole series ended on a whimper and another moment of Batman brooding and feeling alienated simply took all impact out of the whole event.

Now, Snyder and Capullo are trying to turn the pace around by focusing on Batman’s earliest days of crime fighting with the event “Year Zero.”  And although it features my favorite Batman villain (the Riddler), the story just never feels fresh or interesting.  Unfortunately, by focusing on Batman’s earliest days, Snyder has run into a serious problem.  By presenting a younger, less experienced, and sometimes emotionally unstable Batman, Snyder is pretty much forced to present all the clichés Batman has become known for over the years.

And I mean that EVERY SINGLE Batman cliché: the initial distrust but eventual bonding with Commissioner Gordon, the constant reliving of his parents’ death in a manner to help Batman have feats of rage-filled strength, Batman blaming himself for things he could have never predicted, Batman doing something Alfred constantly tells him not to do, Gotham City Police being the most cartoonishly morally corrupt police force in the universe, a nihilistic villain, and so on.  You name it, and it’s probably in here somewhere.

While I certainly can’t blame Snyder for including these ideas (they are still appropriate to this story line, regardless of how overused they are), I just can’t help but feel bored as I read stuff I’ve seen in a million other Batman comics.  Batman #28 is not only a typical Batman comic in almost every sense of the word, it’s almost a representation of how narratively stagnated the character has become.

There are some moments in the comic that are not only just cliché, they are outright bad.  One of the villains, who goes by the incredibly creative name “Doctor Death,” has an amazing visual design, but his multi-page nihilistic speech is irritating and does not differentiate the character from the thousands of other nihilistic villains in comics.  He gives the typical spiel about life having no meaning and mentioning someone he loved died.  Overall, he’s a character that has so much potential for a horrifying storyline and interesting discussions on the limitations of science, but Snyder wastes all of this potential and we only get a boring goon that’s killed in two panels instead.  You’d think a guy with a name like “Doctor Death” and looks like what happens if you put Play-Doh in the microwave would be more psychotic and interesting, but instead we get half-baked philosophizing.

Snyder also includes a reference to the infamous “Goddamn Batman” line from Frank Miller’s All-Star Batman and Robin.  It’s poorly set up and is only there to be a huge, conspicuous wink to the audience, but anyone who is looking for good writing instead a reference to a dead meme will most likely groan instead of chuckle.

There are good moments in this comic, however.  The opening pages of Bruce having a memory of a humorous exchange with his parents as a child is both interesting and emotional. It’s very rare to see Bruce Wayne have actual good memories of his past, and you can tell why Bruce was as traumatically affected by their death as he was. When his parents are nonentities, as they are in many other comics, it’s hard to really see why Batman actually would be affected as much by their death.  We simply have to assume they were loving parents and that their death was super tragic.  But even a small moment like this can shed volumes on exactly why their death transformed Bruce Wayne into Batman.

Another bright spot is the Riddler.  Though I can’t stand his new design (his fedora, ridiculous sideburns, and cheap cloth domino mask make him look more like a frequent to r/atheism than a hyper-intelligent super villain), Snyder presents the Riddler in a truly intimidating, yet still lighthearted, light.  He likes showing off his intelligence with references to Archimedes and other references to history and mythology and still maintains that arrogant nonchalance that has been missing from his character since Batman: The Animated Series.

His plans and riddles, however, need work.  His plan to control Gotham City is almost Joker-levels of genocidal, and, to my knowledge, he actually hasn’t told a riddle yet.  Once again, such a presentation might be due to this being his first attempt at crime, but it still seems like Snyder is just writing the Joker again rather than trying to figure out what makes Riddler unique.  The Riddler, in my mind, is more like the character Jigsaw from the Saw films.  His riddles are always focused on one or two people and supposed to be intellectual challenges.  In this comic, however, he doesn’t even seem to give the people the chance to even figure out what he’s doing.  Secrecy was never Riddler’s strong suit.  He’s a diva and wants the attention.  That’s why he tells riddles in the first place.

The art still continues to be the highpoint of this series.  Capullo’s unique and sketchy style is unparalleled by anyone else in the business, and the coloring job by FCO Plascencia (a person, not a company) is breathtaking.  Plascencia uses a huge color palette, including a lot of neon and secondary colors that most colorists would not even consider. The entire comic can vary in shade and tint from panel to panel, and the fact that he is willing to use purples, greens, and oranges is something that more people need to appreciate.  Even as the writing fades in quality, Capullo and Plascencia seem to only be improving as time goes on.

Batman #28 is a frustrating comic.  There are so many good parts and the art continues to be absolutely fantastic, but it just can’t help but feel weighed down by a cliché story.  I appreciate Snyder’s attempt to flesh in Batman’s earliest days, but I almost feel like he didn’t really have a plan for the event and is now on auto-pilot, filling in the issues with whatever Batman cliché he can think of. Not even the Riddler can make me care about the young Batman’s struggle, and I fear that I might soon be taking this line off my list of recommendations for the new 52.  Considering how few comics are on that list, I really hope DC gets their act together.

Photo: Benjamin Mazzara

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