BOOK REVIEW: Batman: A Death in the Family by Jim Starlin, et. al.

Batman: A Death in the FamilyBatman: A Death in the Family by Jim Starlin
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This collection gathers comic books first published in the late 80’s, telling the story of the demise of Jason Todd (the second Robin) and the rise of the third Robin, Tim Drake. There is an intriguing interactive element to the story of Todd’s death as readers were allowed to vote on whether the character would be killed off or not by way of a phone hotline. The challenge for DC was that when readers did decide to ax Todd the publisher couldn’t tell whether the decision reflected a preference for a lone-wolf Batman, or whether they just didn’t like Todd.

The reason it might have been the latter is that Jason Todd was written as a much more sassy, impudent, and disobedient Robin than his predecessor, Dick Grayson (i.e. who’d shed sidekick status to become Nightwing.) Todd’s teenage insolence can be seen in this story when Batman puts him on probation after some rash action while crime-fighting. Having found a clue that puts him on the trail of his birth mother, Todd goes on a global walkabout searching for her. With comic book convenience, Todd’s pursuit of meeting his mother brings him back across the path of a Batman who is out to stop the Joker. When Robin is asked to maintain surveillance on the Joker while Batman sets off to interrupt a convoy of poisonous gas, the seeds of self-destruction are sown.

This isn’t a Gotham-centric Batman story, but reflects the geopolitics of the 1980’s. Batman and Robin reunite in the Middle East, and the story proceeds to the United Nations as the Dark Knight attempts to end the Joker’s reign of madness. When the Iranians make the Joker their Ambassador to the United Nations, Superman is brought in to make sure an enraged Batman doesn’t do something that will cause an international incident. Superman’s role is neither extensive nor, given his vast powers, particularly interesting.

When DC was putting together this collection, they apparently thought that leaving the story with a bitter, despondent, and angry Batman wasn’t the way forward, and so they include the story of how Tim Drake becomes the third Robin. (Even though it makes for an odd narrative kink and tone shift.) Drake is a boy Sherlock Holmes. Having deduced that Batman is Bruce Wayne and noticing that Batman has become more reckless in the wake of Todd’s / Robin’s death, Drake stalks Dick Grayson in an attempt to get him to return to being Batman’s sidekick. Grayson isn’t interested in the demotion, and the guilt-ridden Batman has no desire to partner up again, feeling that he got the last one killed.

I enjoyed this collection. The fact that it includes powerful consequences gives it some emotional resonance and narrative tension. (Of course, in comic book fashion, Todd doesn’t stay dead, but that doesn’t happen until long after this run.) I found the shift to the “Teen Titans” books (i.e. the part involving Drake and Dick Grayson) makes for an odd turn-about in the story. But it’s understandable as it’s a dark story line otherwise. (I would have preferred more on the front end to show why I should care that a rash and disrespectful twit got killed doing what he was told not to. Long time readers will have some sympathies for Todd [his execution by readers was of a narrow margin, after all], but just based on this book one may feel Todd got what was coming.)

This book presents a crucial moment in the Batman canon, and should be read by any one interested in the Dark Knight’s story.

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BOOK REVIEW: Injustice: Gods Among Us by Tom Taylor

Injustice: Gods Among Us #1Injustice: Gods Among Us #1 by Tom Taylor

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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If you’re among those who were distraught over Superman’s uncharacteristic behavior at the climax of the Man of Steel movie, this graphic novel isn’t for you. However, the author and illustrator do know how to build tension and keep it rolling. That’s the good news. The bad news is that they achieve this via a mountain of corpses. If you’re good with that, you’ll likely enjoy this work. If not, you may find it a tad dark and / or gratuitous in its violence.

With the movie Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice filming for a summer of 2016 release date, many are wondering how a Batman versus Superman battle might occur (and how the Caped Crusader could credibly avoid being smashed to pulp 30 seconds into the movie.) This comic offers one possible approach—though it’s exceedingly unlikely to be the tack portrayed in the movie. (This book is ancillary to a video game, and wouldn’t necessarily be seen as core canon of the Justice League.)

This book consists of six parts. In part I, the Joker outwits Superman, tricking him into an act that is so horrendous that it will shake the Man of Steel’s core values. In part II, Superman takes a proactive stance against global conflict. In part III, the U.S. government supports a covert action designed to give them leverage against Superman, and to dissuade him from enforcing his previously announced ceasefire. Aquaman and his nautical army oppose Superman in the fourth part because the former is displeased with a dictator setting rules in the maritime domain—even if it is a largely benevolent dictator. In the penultimate part, Batman and Nightwing resist Superman’s attempt to clear out Arkham Asylum and to put the lunatics somewhere where they can’t keep breaking out and causing trouble (as the Joker caused for Superman.) In the final part Batman is exposed to a life-altering event (as Superman had been at the book’s beginning), but the bulk of this section is just picking teams for the epic game of superhero dodgeball that is presumably to unfold in later volumes.

What worked? The setup in which the Joker bests Superman is well-played. The Joker’s willingness to die for the ultimate prank, his perfect psychopathy, and his love of sowing the seeds of chaos make him the perfect man for the job. Harley Quinn gets a few laughs in this otherwise morose book. There’s a lot to think about in terms of the morality of a benevolent dictator. If a god-like creature, i.e. Superman, were to exist on Earth, what should he/she/it take on and what should he leave alone? That’s a question that’s at the core of this book. As in many good storylines, there’s a blurring of the lines between good and evil, a blurring which is essential to have a Batman versus Superman battle make sense.

What doesn’t work? We come into the middle of the Joker’s plot and are supposed to accept that he and Harley Quinn could pull off the phenomenally complex plan in a manner in which it seems easy. It involves hijacking a nuclear sub, successfully taking control of and reprogramming a nuclear weapon, and not only giving Superman a hallucination but controlling the nature of the hallucination. For these events to play out, the Joker needs more than his usual complete lack of moral compass; he needs access to far greater intellectual ability than he usually has to display. And that’s not the only point at which events seem a little too easy. (However, yes, I do realize we are talking about a world in which there are people who can fly under their own locomotion and make complex constructs out of thin air. I didn’t say it was a deal breaker. I’m just saying there were some opportunities for tension missed.)

There is also a death that should have a profound impact on Batman, but which he seems to shrug off pretty well after a couple of hours of bereavement—and possibly some behind-the-scenes Catwoman nookie. I assume the effects of said death will play out in later volumes, but it seemed gratuitous given its lack of effect within the volume. Unlike the death that fundamentally alters Superman’s course, Batman seems to remain unchanged. I’m presuming that the death wasn’t just to create an excuse to bring Selina Kyle (Catwoman) into the storyline, and addition of mixed outcomes. Kyle’s left-of-Marx preachiness will grate on the nerves of politically conservative readers. (Not that it should, regardless of one’s views, one should be able to accept that realistic character development will include individuals with extreme views—just as one sees such individuals in real life… or on Facebook. I’m just saying that, sadly, in our world people don’t want to hear opposing views unless they are being lampooned, and so some will stay away just to avoid hearing characters spouting views contrary to their own. I don’t know how we got there, but…)

I enjoyed this comic overall. Like most entries in its genre, it’s a quick read, and it’s better written than most.

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