“Arena” is that rare sequel that far exceeds the original. In fact, it might be the best issue of Batman/Superman so far.
Yes, long-delayed Annual is directly connected to the 3-part video game-themed storyline (Game Over, Boss Fight, & Endgame) that had Mongul using gamers and plants to take over the world or– it doesn’t matter! Thankfully, you don’t need to read those issues to enjoy the Annual. Anyone who wants to take Greg Pak’s series for a test-drive can do so as the Annual stands well on its own as a complete 1-issue story and it gives you the gist of what happened to Mongul in its opening pages: Mongul was defeated, but just as the final panel of “Endgame” promised, he has a son who wants revenge and that’s what we’ll be dealing with in “Arena.”
The new villain and son of Mongul introduced in this issue is named Jochi, which was actually the name of the son of Genghis Khan… who was a Mongol chieftain. And it’s fun facts like that, folks, that make me be the best reviewer in town– depending on the town…well, definitely in the top 3 at least. Jochi looks just like his pop only smaller, but he makes up for it by displaying more personality than Mongul did in all three chapters of his assault on planet Earth. He also has a more clear-cut plan of attack than video games and plants– a really, really big gun! Being from Warworld, Jochi of course wants to make a contest out of catastrophe so he invites Batman and Superman to fight for their planet’s salvation in an arena. They can each bring two partners as well and together they can compete in tag-team, Mortal Kombat-like fights to the–damn, I guess we tied video games into this after all.
Since Batman and Superman won’t kill they’ll have to get a bit more creative than that, though and so while we do have some fun action with our heroes in the ring, we also have a subplot in which two other characters secretly try to shut down “The Big Gun.” I don’t know why I’m being so secretive about who the World’s Finest’s partners are, they are on the cover after all. Which, by the way, isn’t the cover a bit one-sided? The Bat-family are totally getting their butts handed to them!
While it is the Batman/Superman Annual, it’s actually the sidekicks who get the most attention, Red Hood and Supergirl specifically. Steel and Batgirl mostly stand on the sidelines throughout the issue, occasionally offering an update on the state of the Big Gun and giving a witty remark or two (Barbara’s “eidetic memory” plays a big part and I’ve gone over how much I hate that before in other reviews. It’s essentially a super power. I’d rather her just be a bright girl who works really hard. However, I was happy to see her shown as being so tech savvy again). Jason and Kara however actually get involved in the tournament, engage in barbed conversations with The Man of Steel and Dark Knight, and prove to have some chemistry together that may be explored more deeply in the future. But on a negative note, Jason is still using those ridiculous magic swords (“energy blades” but Jason himself refers to them as magic swords at one point) and I am AMAZED that DC still hasn’t changed Supergirl’s outfit. It has to be the worst New 52 costume of any hero. Thigh-high boots with the knees cut out? We’re anti-briefs on all superhero costumes but apparently Kara has to have a big red shield drawing attention to her nether-region? How has this character not gotten a makeover? Another heroic partner in this issue is Krypto, but he doesn’t really offer a whole lot to the story other than a nice visual here or there.
Speaking of nice visuals, the over-sized book is divided into three acts that are illustrated by one artist each. The first act and epilogue are by fan-favorite artist Jae Lee and following him are Kenneth Rocafort and Philip Tan, who both appear to be imitating Lee’s style at times as backgrounds are incredibly sparse throughout. Expect to see some interesting alien character designs from Rocafort, marvelous panel layouts by Lee, and dynamic action from Tan. These three artists complemented each other rather well, I thought, but the most memorable page for me was by Lee, who created a bat-shaped panel in which we see the tragedy that befell Barbara and Jason ever-present in Batman’s mind as he pleads with them to stay behind. The beautifully painted shot shows Red Hood and Batgirl in the foreground while the background is comprised of the faded image of both of them suffering all those years ago. It’s an image that stuck with me.
It’s a fun and quick-moving tale with great artwork, plenty of action, and good characterization (Jochi even gets an arc). It ends in a bit of a deus ex machina and the rules for the tournament are pretty loose, but overall I’d say this Annual was a success and well-worth picking up.
- The rules for the tournament were quite unclear. What counts as a defeat? Just getting tossed out of the ring? Jochi is defeated initially, but how? All Batman did was address the judges, say he defeated Jochi and when Jochi agreed it counted as a victory. Why is it that murder was only a requirement for the final round? That doesn’t sound like the Warworld I know!
- Batman didn’t seem to go to War World with any sort of plan. He picked only one person to go with him (even though 2 were required) until Batgirl showed up and only then did a strategy fall into place. With the world on the line, it seemed odd that The Dark Knight would just improvise.
- The deus ex machina ending bugged me. Just as Earth is about to be destroyed… “Oh yeah, I can make the phantom zone projector suck up threats as big as that entire world” Why don’t we just use this Phantom Zone machine to solve all of our problems then? Why didn’t we just send War World to the phantom zone in the first place and save ourselves the headache? At the very least we could’ve just teleported “The Big Gun” to the phanom zone and sent War World packing
- You love a good tournament storyline
- The idea of the Bat-family and Super-family teaming up sounds like fun
- Any trip to Warworld is a good trip to Warworld
- You love Jae Lee’s art
- You’re a sucker for any story that has Batman and Superman fight each other
It’s a great Annual issue that anyone can pick up and one of the best issues of Batman/Superman to date. There are a few minor missteps here or there, but this was definitely a fun read that I highly recommend.