"I'd like to see the government get out of war altogether and leave the whole field to private industry."
- Joseph Heller
Many comic-book readers love them. I did when I was younger. Of course, back then, a "big" story was a Superman adventure that took three chapters - complete in one issue - to tell. My beloved comic books took me to such epics as the Fantastic Four's 37-page smackdown with the Sub-Mariner in 1963's FANTASTIC FOUR ANNUAL #1, the two-issue teaming of the Justice League and Justice Society in JUSTICE LEAGUE OF AMERICA #21 and #22, and, from there, moving on to thrilling adventures which might take three, four, or even more issues to tell.
The first crossovers I can recall is when the Avengers' search for the rogue Hulk crossed over from their title to that of the FF, and, some years later, a Challengers of the Unknown story that was concluded in an issue of DOOM PATROL. The concept lay fallow for a few years after that until Marvel, mostly in the form of editor Roy Thomas, took it out for a quick spin every now and then in the various titles Thomas was writing.
From my vantage point, the crossover concept really came into its own with Steve Englehart's Avengers-Defenders War. I was still a relative newcomer to the Marvel offices, having started working there in late 1972. I was excited by this "war" story and how it bounced back and forth between the two titles.
The next giant step for the crossover epic was DC's CRISIS ON INFINITE EARTHS, which impacted near every book in the DC Universe, usually not for the best. The core CRISIS was and remains one heck of a terrific story, but the ancillary issues were almost uniformly mediocre. Like many grand endeavors, this one never seemed to have a solid exit strategy and it showed in the aftermath.
DC and Marvel kept doing company-wide crossovers and somewhat smaller group-title-wide crossovers. Some of these were well-done. Some stunk up the comics shops from the get-go.
My youthful love for these "big stories" diminished with every new crossover. It seemed my lack of enthusiasm was often shared by the creators pressed into service to cobble together the individual chapters of these would-be epics. Extended stories that began well enough collapsed under the strain of my too great expectations and their too many issues. The alarming trend of more recent efforts has been to use wholesale degradation and slaughter of characters to feed the infernal crossover engine. I don't really think I need to name names here.
However, despite my distaste for recent "big" stories, I keep hoping the NEXT one will be the one the comics companies do right. You can beat the young-at-heart comics fan with a crowbar and blow him up, but his basic optimism endures.
So it is with your faithful Tipster. Hearing of DC's BATMAN: WAR GAMES event, I volunteered to review the event's first wave of issues...with an option to extend my (solely critical) involvement after reading and reviewing that first wave. My editors agreed and here we are.
The structure for this admittedly one-side debate is somewhat different from my usual columns. I'm going to read each issue and review it immediately after reading it...before I even so much as glance at the next chapter. This is as close to a live performance as I can manage in a print publication. I'm hoping it turns out to be entertaining and informative. That said...
Cry Havoc and let slip the dogs of BATMAN; WAR GAMES, be they fine pedigrees or mangy mutts. I caution you that SPOILERS (of the non-costumed variety) will almost certainly find their way into my doubtless compelling commentary on these comics.
BATMAN: THE 12-CENT ADVENTURE #1 features "No Help," a prelude to WAR GAMES. This is mostly narrated by the Spoiler with cutaways to a Kobra attack on a science lecture/society event attended by Bruce Wayne. The Spoiler, fresh off a short and unhappy stint as "Robin," is investigating a surprising gathering of the biggest crime-lords in Gotham City. Her aim is to prove herself worthy of service in the Batman's army.
Writer Devin Grayson uses the concurrent events to bring new readers up to speed on what's been happening in the Batman's world. It quickly becomes obvious that she's doing this, but you'll hear no objection from me, especially since she enlivens the back story with amusing dialogue between Bruce and his faithful butler Alfred, and affecting introspection from the Spoiler. As a reader who only occasionally reads an ongoing Batman title, I appreciate the leg-up on this major story line.
Sadly, WAR GAMES loses a couple of points right off the bat. The art is acceptable, but never rises above that level. It tells the story, but there's nothing fresh in the angles or the staging of the pages and panels. Even worse, Bruce just doesn't look like himself sans his Batman suit. Ditto Nightwing, though we get some good shots of Alfred and the first Robin.
I also have concerns about what seems to be the trigger event of WAR GAMES: someone killing off the majority of the city's crime-lords. I've seen this in dozens of books, movies, TV shows, etc. Given that this story is scheduled to run through three months of multiple Batman titles, over two dozen issues all told, WAR GAMES is going to have to show me something new in order to win me over. It needs to take me where I haven't been before.
On my scale of zero to five - see the convenient sidebar for the skinny on my ratings system - BATMAN: THE 12-CENT ADVENTURE #1 picks up a respectable three Tonys.
DETECTIVE COMICS #797 ($2.95) continues from the prelude with undercover hero Orpheus and his bodyguard Onyx fleeing the mobster massacre. Batman distracts the cops - too easily - so he can get a private look at the scene. From there, "Flashpoint" by Andersen Gabrych sets up and progresses the situation:
Only 8 of the 21 people at the meeting have survived. Violent grabs for power and turf are beginning with a unhealthy dollop of revenge thrown into the mix. The resources of Batman, his allies, and the city itself are going to be hard-pressed to cope with the escalating violence, much less figure out who was behind the meet in the first place.
Batman somehow determines that "a foolish old man reaching for a lighter" was what kicked off the exchange of gunfire, something which should have been more visually evident. The prelude did show someone named "Cross" reaching for something, but that individual wasn't drawn as an old man. If it turns out the mastermind behind the meeting never intended to kill off these gangsters and his that plan - whatever it was - went south strictly due to capricious fate - that would be a fresh and welcome take on the familiar bit. Hope springs eternal.
Points to Gabrych for his use of TV reporter Arturo Rodriguez to give a civilian-eye view of the proceedings and to puncture the absurd-from-the-moment-of-its-conception notion that the Batman is considered an urban legend. Points also to "Jock" for a terrific cover and to Pete Woods and Nathan Massengill for equally terrific interior art.
Backing up the lead story, the Riddler and Poison Ivy appear in the first chapter of "Low" by writer Shane McCarthy and artists Tommy Castillo and Rodney Ramos. The story, which doesn't seem to have anything to do with WAR GAMES, is paper-thin, but the visuals, especially Tony Avina's colors, are exceptional.
Based on the WAR GAMES material, DETECTIVE COMICS #797 picks up four out of five Tonys.
I'm starting to get into this.
A.J. Lieberman's "Behind Enemy Lines" in BATMAN: LEGENDS OF THE DARK KNIGHT #182 ($2.50) very effectively portrays the growing crisis in Gotham City and the Batman's mounting concern that he can handle the situation. Apart from the miscue of the Batman thinking he's never needed help before - he's not stupid and he's almost always used allies - and Oracle looking a little shaky, this is the most solid chapter of WAR GAMES so far. It's got a solid role for Orpheus (heroes of color are very much under-represented in the DC Universe), a slick and eminently logical move by the Penguin, and strong interior art by penciller Brad Walker and inker Troy Nixey. That adds up to four out of five Tonys for the issue.
The smiling hero on the cover of NIGHTWING #96 ($2.25) is so out of step with the reality of the dark turns which Dick Grayson's life has taken it could constitute false advertising. I like this Scott McDaniel/Andy Owens art, but it would be more suitable for a pin-up than the cover of a WAR GAMES chapter.
My knowledge of Nightwing's current sorrows come by way of the online comics community. However, even if I wasn't aware of them, writer Devin Grayson's "A Sort of Homecoming" does a decent job of conveying their emotional weight if not the specific details behind that weight. Kudos are likewise due penciller Mike Lilly and inker Owens for supporting this emotional content with body language and clear storytelling.
This issue moves WAR GAMES along nicely. We get new recruits in Nightwing and Tarantula, the intriguing information that the crime-lord Batman believes inadvertently triggered the gang war was also the only mobster who didn't bring a bodyguard to the meet, a good scene with (former Robin) Tim Drake, a sense of the soul-chilling tensions between Nightwing, Tarantula, and Oracle, and also the sense that Tarantula (who I've not seen prior to this) might not be as irredeemable as the online fans have led me to believe. In short, this was another satisfying chapter of WAR GAMES and, as such, it earns four out of five Tonys.
Pretend I haven't been reading the dozen or so Batman comics published every month. Wait, you don't have to pretend I haven't been reading them. I haven't.
Assume that part of the editorial thinking behind WAR GAMES is that a big story might attract new or lapsed readers to the Batman line. I don't think that's an unreasonable assumption. After all, it's what brought me here.
Unfortunately, BATMAN: GOTHAM KNIGHTS #56 ($2.50) apparently assumes that every one of its readers knows all the details of the current Bat-titles intimately. Lieberman's "Rules of Engagement" has close to a dozen key or supporting characters not identified by name anywhere in the story. I'm pretty sure "Hush" is one of them, but, if so, it's knowledge I picked up via online osmosis and sans any help from the writer.
Is that Marvel's Moon Knight working with the Penguin? Who is the black gangster who makes a very bad choice of who to ally with? Who is Henry Aquista and why should we care about the young woman whose photo is shown in the last panel of the story? If I had to guess on that one, I'd guess Henry is a gangster and the woman is either his wife or daughter. Subtlety isn't a virtue when it comes to the cliffhanger of a serial like this one.
Outside of an excellent scene between Batgirl and Tarantula, Lieberman took me right out of WAR GAMES. I'm making a substantial commitment of my reading time here and I expect the writers to keep me informed at every step. Lieberman fails to do that.
The art on this chapter bothers me as well. Every character looks short. While it might be fun to live in a world where my own diminutive stature was the average, it's not realistic. It simply adds to my lack of enthusiasm for this chapter.
BATMAN: GOTHAM KNIGHTS #56 is not a good comic book. The best rating I can give it is a disappointing one Tony.
ROBIN #129 ($2.25) is everything the previous chapter wasn't. Bill Willingham's "Alamo High" doesn't pull any punches in showing the brutality of the Gotham gang war while providing me with enough information to pull me back into the story. Despite hanging up his cape, Tim Drake is as heroic as they come, instantly accepting his responsibility to his friends and fellow citizens and doing what he has to do. The story barrels from one heart-stopping moment to the next. I barely had time to catch a breath as the action moved from the city streets to the corridors of Tim's high school and the most jaw-dropping cliffhanger I've seen in years.
Add superlative art by penciller Giuseppe Camuncoli and inker Lorenzo Ruggiero to the mix and you can see why I give ROBIN #129 the full five Tonys.
(P.S. I now know who the girl in the afore-mentioned photo is. In addition to being the daughter of one of the gangsters, she's a classmate of Tim's. Knowing that in GOTHAM KNIGHTS #56 would have given that issue's ending more of a punch.)
James Jean's cover painting for BATGIRL #55 ($2.50) captures the deadly atmosphere of WAR GAMES. Inside this issue, "Total War" by writer Dylan Horrocks and artist Sean Phillips amps up the sheer horror of the city-wide conflict as it becomes clear that families of Mafia chiefs are being targeted and killed. I had thought Darla Aquista was going to be kidnapped and used as leverage against her father, but it now appears she was to be killed as well.
Batgirl starts out the issue by rescuing a four-year-old boy from his would-be assassins. A four-year-old boy. Then, with the Batman and his agents already stretched too thin, there comes the realization that Tim Drake's high school is under attack and that former Robin is in danger. Oracle rallies the troops to the scene, her efforts to coordinate their actions - she has the school plans and can monitor communications - are stymied by Batman's refusal to relinquish command. The issue ends with the sound of a gunshot and stunned close-ups of Batman, Batgirl, and Oracle. That's a "can't wait to see what happens next" moment that just punches the reader in the gut and leaves him gasping for breath.
BATGIRL #55 deserves and earns the full five Tonys. Although I haven't been mentioning editors here, I will point out this makes two "fives" for Michael Wright, who also picked up a "four" on this month's issue of NIGHTWING.
CATWOMAN #34 ($2.50) takes us away from the crisis at the high school, but features a revelation as shocking as any seen in either ROBIN or BATGIRL. Ed Brubaker's "Cold Hard Facts" starts off with the gang war coming into Selina Kyle's supposedly off-limits "East End." It's a good action sequence, well-staged and well-drawn by penciller Paul Gulacy and inker Jimmy Palmiotti, but it's a bit of a letdown from the previous WAR GAMES chapters.
The action slows when Selina brings a wounded child to Leslie Tompkins' clinic for treatment. A subsequent conversation between the two women bothers me more than a little, with the doc blaming the Batman's career for escalating the violence in Gotham. Y'know, if someone wants to the question Batman's methods, I can see their making a case. If they want to question the sanity of the current version of Batman, I could get behind that. But violence was part of Gotham before Bruce Wayne's parents were murdered. There's no reason to believe it wouldn't have continued to escalate and some evidence that Batman's presence has kept it from getting even more out of control. I realize Leslie's exhaustion contributes to her statements here and that she truly does abhor violence, but I think she's more than a little wrong in this judgment.
The meaning of the chapter's title becomes clear when Catwoman leaves the clinic to attempt to rescue some gang kids heading into an ambush. She gets there too late to prevent Mister Freeze from murdering them - he was hired by the Mafia, who are retaliating for the hits on their own families, regardless of whether or not all of the gangs were involved - but manages to defeat him way too easily. This chapter is sinking fast.
Until the issue's last five pages.
When Catwoman meets the Spoiler and learns it was the Spoiler who called the gangs to the meeting. Trying to impress the Batman, the young woman had taken a plan she found on Batman's computer, a plan which would have secretly put the gangs under Batman's control and thus allowed him to know their every move in advance, and put it into motion. But the main guy, Batman's undercover agent, one Matches Malone - an identity Batman sometimes uses - didn't show up and the whole thing turned into a shootout.
The Spoiler doesn't know that Malone is the Batman. Catwoman does know, but doesn't tell the distraught young woman whose hope was that Batman would take her back into his team once the plan was underway. The issue ends with the apparent revelation that Batman himself is the cause of this deadly gang war.
Brubaker gets points for the "oh, wow" moment, though I will be sorely disappointed if this turns out to be the real explanation for WAR GAMES.
Do we really need more comics about our favorite super-heroes screwing up and causing disasters? I don't.
Still, for now, CATWOMAN #34 keeps my interest in this story high. Five pages do not an issue make, but they do earn this comic book a respectable three Tonys.
BATMAN #631 ($2.25) brings the first act of WAR GAMES to its conclusion. The issue is a mixed bag.
The Matt Wagner cover is very effective; the interior art much less so. Most of the male characters look like they are related to each other. Ditto the female characters, though, thankfully, they don't look as if they're related to the male characters. As with BATMAN: THE 12-CENT ADVENTURE, there aren't any fresh visual ideas in the panels and pages.
Willingham's "Last Stand at Alamo High" is a solid script, but not up to his ROBIN story. He's aware of potential new readers and does a good job bringing them up to speed, but falls into a common pitfall of comics crossover events. In BATGIRL, there were issues between Batman and Oracle on how to proceed. They have apparently worked those out in between chapters because it's not mentioned at all in this comic.
Worse, the single gunshot that made the ending of BATGIRL #55 so effective isn't mentioned at all. Maybe it was meant to be the shot that struck Darla, but, if that was the case, the same sound effect should have been used in both issues. Coordinating these crossovers is a bear and a mean one at that. I understand such problems arising, but my understanding doesn't excuse them.
The "urban legend" garbage is sent to the dump - forever, one can hope - in this issue as TV camera actually record the presence of Batman, Batgirl, and Nightwing on the scene. That's a good move as is the unfortunate media reaction to their presence. While I'm hoping for logical developments, let's hope the media does what the media would do in real life and talk to the civilians caught in the gang war. I can't imagine many of those folks would have a problem with what Batman and company did at the high school.
The act ends with the survival of Darla Aquista in doubt. She has been seriously wounded and the Batman doesn't think she's going to pull through. Not to belittle her situation - Willingham wrote the character so well in ROBIN that I want her to make it - but it just isn't as big an ending as the act deserved. It doesn't take WAR GAMES to the next level.
BATMAN #631 was a tough call. I liked much of it, but I think the book needed the bigger ending. It picks up a respectable, but, in this case, disappointing three Tonys.
BATMAN: WAR GAMES is off to a fairly promising start. Will I read the remaining acts? I will. I hope for drama and surprises that shake up Batman's world without diminishing or disrespecting the character and his allies.
Will I review subsequent issues? I'm on the fence there. As I read them, it will likely come down to whether or not I think I have anything new or vital to say about them. If you keep reading this and future issues of CBG, I expect you'll learn the answer to that question e'er long.
Regular readers of TONY'S ONLINE TIPS know I did continue to read BATMAN: WAR GAMES after writing the above column. You'll find my reviews of the second act issues in the archives:
I started reviewing the third act, but only reviewed DETECTIVE COMICS #799 (October 26) before deciding to, instead, write a short overview of the entire third act. I'll be bringing you that piece later this week, likely followed by reviews of the issues of select Bat-titles which followed WAR GAMES.
One more item for today. You'll find new TONY POLLS questions awaiting your vote at:
This week, we're asking about the Christmas/holiday gifts you give to your friends who are also into comics and related areas of art and entertainment. The new questions will remain active until sometime after midnight next Sunday.
Thanks for spending a part of your day with me. I'll be back soon with more stuff.
ZERO: Burn your money before buying any comic receiving this rating. It doesn't *necessarily* mean there's absolutely nothing of value here - though it *could* - but whatever value it might possess shrinks into insignificance before its overall awfulness.
ONE: Buy something else. Maybe I found something which wasn't completely dreadful in the item, but not enough for me to recommend it when there are better comics available. I only want what's best for you, my children.
TWO: Basic judgment call. I found some value, but not enough to recommend it. My review should give you enough info to decide if you want to take a chance on it. Are you feeling lucky today, punk? Well, are you?
THREE: This denotes something I find perfectly respectable. There are better books out there, but I wouldn't regret buying this item. Based on my review, you should be able to determine if it's of interest to you. Let the Force guide you.
FOUR: I recommend anything earning this rating. Unless you don't like the genre, subject matter, or past work of the creators, I believe you'll enjoy this item. Isn't it uncanny how I can look right into your soul that way?
FIVE: Anything getting this rating is among the best comicdom has to offer. You should buy/read this, even if the genre/subject matter doesn't appeal to you. It's for your own good. Me, I live for comics and books this good...but not in a pathetic "Comic-Book Guy" sort of way.
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