Batman Europa gets the full cinematic treatment in this opening salvo of a story that’s going to crisscross the continent as Batman and Joker team-up after clashing here in “Berlin”.
The premise is wonderfully simple (I love simple: it’s effective, to-the-point, and means things can move without the need for a lot of exposition). Here, Batman discovers he’s been infected with a lethal virus. When he traces the Batcomputer’s hack that warns him of the dose to Berlin, he finds Joker is already one step ahead of him in discovering the hacker–because he’s infected too.
Now let me just say this up front: there’s absolutely no reason these two should work together. There’s no reason Batman shouldn’t put Joker in a cage and be done with him while he goes on to seek the cure alone. So the premise is deeply flawed right out of the gate. There’s no special knowledge or skill that Joker has that should warrant Batman dragging his nemesis along (especially since Joker will undoubtedly wreak havoc the whole way). Batman’s basically opting to babysit a seriously dangerous psychopath while trying to save his own life.
But we’ll just put that to the side because, you know, comics. I’m okay with the premise because it’s fun and so I’m totally willing to suspend my disbelief. You can get away with a lot if the characters and circumstances are compelling enough (even when the plot is pure formula) and story writers Matteo Casali and Brian Azzarello have platinum-standard material to work with here, even if they could have motivated the team-up a little better.
This is an expensive book even though it does give you 30 pages of content. The artwork alone, however, softens the price of admission. I have been critical of Jim Lee’s work for a while; it’s felt rushed, sometimes sloppy, and even downright uninspired in a couple of books in recent years. But here he’s finally been given the time and subject to produce exceptional work: I don’t think Batman and the Joker have looked this good since before the New 52 (and make no mistake, I really like Greg Capullo’s early run–even Joker with his face cut off at the beginning of Death of the Family).
Layouts from Giuseppe Camuncoli are absolutely stand-out: clear, bold storytelling that focuses on the visuals, which is something Casali and Azzarello support with a rather spare script. This is a strong marriage of the medium in which Lee’s pictures are worth all the words that we don’t need in the first place. There’s no heavy-handed interior monologue or intrusive narrative. We just get clear action, clear establishing shots, clear character interactions. I love a book this visually stunning. It does some things for the pacing that some may not like (more on that in the bit), but for me, it gives the book a true re-read value. I enjoyed pouring over these pages three times before sitting down to write this review and will likely peruse it again this evening. It’s a book you just want to come back to. In terms of beauty, I would rank it right up there with J.H. Williams III, Juan Ferreyra, and Lee Bermejo (high praise from me since, as I mentioned before, I haven’t exactly been fond of Lee’s work recently).
Casali and Azzarello’s script, as I mentioned, it quite spare. Batman feels appropriately reserved and they write Joker well: not too over the top (if there can be such a thing), and un-subtly sinister without being purely evil. In every way the characters are written as though Scott Snyder’s incarnations never existed and, even liking some of Snyder’s work as I do, I find this very refreshing.
“Miss me?” Why yes, actually. I always do.
Other bits to celebrate:
- Guest appearance by everyone’s favorite sewer-dwelling villain.
- Alfred with two hands.
- Gorgeous colors from Alex Sinclair; he matches Lee’s finishes very well with gently crosshatched highlights (a very nice touch!)
- Lee’s cover is awesome, but so is Bermejo’s. If you’re picking this up today, you may have a hard time choosing! There’s also a third (a black & white variation on Lee’s cover), just to make things more complicated.
All of my “downsides” about this book, I consider very minor. But I’m going to provide detail here as a measure of my engagement with the material. Hopefully the score reflects my sentiment well enough overall so that it’s understood that these are nitpicks about a book I really really really enjoyed.
I already mentioned that the plot is a bit wobbly so there’s no point beating that horse.
I do want to talk a little bit about the style and pacing of the story however. This is an expensive book with eight pages more than the usual comic, but the layouts are big and splashy (there are 4 splash pages, in fact). While I love the room they’ve allowed for the art to breathe, some people might feel like not a whole lot happens here when you consider this is 25% of the whole story. I opened this review by comparing this book to a cinematic experience, but if this was a two-hour movie and it took 30 minutes to get to this place, we’d definitely be in trouble in terms of pacing. If it were a 60-minute cartoon and this was 15 minutes we might be okay, but even that could be pushing it.
The pacing issue falls firmly under “your mileage may vary”. I wasn’t bothered by it at all, but then I could read two-hundred pages of Batman and Joker watching paint dry and commenting on their hangnails, and probably be riveted. I also prefer breezier books in general. If I want a lot of blah blah blah to pour through, I’ll read 19th century literature (which I love, but it’s not comics and it’s not what I want from comics).
That said, Azzarello and Casali’s script can be a little too fragmented at times. The opening splash of Gotham has the title “Berlin” on the bottom and our locale gets a wee bit lost if you don’t see the tiny “Gotham” thought box up top. Especially since we’re working in media res, with the opening pages setting up the Batman/Joker conflict and then flashing back to how it began. Later there are other instances where the train of thought is cropped in ways that makes following it a bit of a challenge at first. This is typical of Azzarello’s style. I’m not as familiar with Casali.
Lastly (and very leastly) I have minor quibbles with Pat Brosseau’s lettering. He gives Batman a “?” for a response and it looks like the letter “P” to my tired eyes. I wouldn’t even remark on it except it happens at the height of the action and it threw me right out of the story. Especially since we don’t even need it to begin with. Batman’s face tells us well enough that he’s stymied (and the stuttering “I…” is more than sufficient). Though Brosseau does nicely with a wide variety of sound effects, this blip and that fact that he recycles the triple HaHaHa from the Joker across multiple pages jumped out to me as items that were not as well integrated as lettering should be.
Because that always works, right Joker?
- Batman-Joker team-up. Who doesn’t want that???
- You just love Batman old-style, without all the fuss and muss of continuity and labyrinthine plots.
- You miss the Joker–remember when he was so awfully cool and you just enjoyed watching Batman catch him and beat him in the face repeatedly?
- You want artwork that will burn your eyeballs, it’s so beautiful to look at. Seriously, this is like looking at the Ark of the Covenant: you can’t avert your gaze even as it kills you. Fortunately, you won’t die reading this, though it may spoil you rotten.
It’s got its quibbling flaws, but who cares: Batman Europa is exquisitely rendered and the characters shine. I’ve missed Batman and Joker for years now, so this is like an early Christmas gift that’s going to keep giving into the new year. It’s a shame this book is only running four issues. If they’re all this good, I might cry when it concludes in February 2016. In the meantime, I’m looking forward to our dying duo’s travels to Prague in December!