Wonderbat! It’s the romance you’ve demanded here at last, just long enough for it to be broken by a dead Diana and a Bruce who’s let the guano go to his brain! How did the Dark Knight of Gotham become the Prince of the Dark Knights? Find out in Batman: The Merciless #1! Spoilers ahead!
The Bat-writer of the Dark Multiverse
My two favorite writers at DC are Tom King and Pete Tomasi, by a pretty wide margin. If King is the mind, then Tomasi is the heart. He made me care about a stuck-up, murderous brat in Batman and Robin, and he’s been killing it on Superman since Rebirth began. I think the reason he has done so well in these sorts of books is that—as fantastical as the scenarios may get—he always grounds his characters. They’re believable and relatable, the way they interact with one another rings true, and they actually grow as people.
I know I’ll continue to get pushback for saying this, but my big beef with most of these Metal one-shots is that the Batmen are not very believable or relatable. I know that it’s the Dark Multiverse and all, but every single one of these things has featured a Bruce driven to evil by some sort of loss. That’s a pretty basic, obvious technique for trying to get us to care; and trying to make us invest in these villains is a much better plan than making them pure evil.
But what is Earth -11 Batman’s motivation for turning evil? He lost his love, Wonder Woman, at the hand of Ares. Mad with grief, he took Ares’ helmet (against Diana’s warnings) and became The Merciless, who is pretty much what his name implies. Losing a loved one is a circumstance that most of us can relate to—either through first-hand experience or the fear of it. The same was true in The Drowned and Dawnbreaker. But just as in those stories, the loss is followed by a leap that’s hard to accept, and we’re left with an unsympathetic tyrant instead of a tragic figure.
Again, I get that it’s the Dark Multiverse, but you can’t have it both ways—you can’t set someone up as a tragic figure and then explain it away when the outcome isn’t believable. And this is Bruce Wayne we’re talking about here! If he somehow found himself dropped into Middle Earth, he would be the one man pure enough in heart to cast the ring into the Cracks of Doom, whatever he lost along the way. He wouldn’t be stupid enough to use the weapon of the enemy like he does here. And as long as the Joker lives, I cannot imagine Bruce driven over the edge by losing a loved one.
Unbelievable villainous Batman aside, this book is not Tomasi’s best writing. There’s way too much dialogue and way too much narrated exposition; and the quality of much of it leaves a lot to be desired, as well. Look at this doozie of an opener from Steve Trevor:
I’m pretty sure if he would have talked like that on Themyscira, Diana would have thrown him back in the water.
Look at just how much text is on this spread, too. We have one image, and all of this exposition to read, and if we think we’re going to catch a break when we turn the page, we’re wrong:
This is why people abandon their principles and become evil versions of themselves. Lane’s panel at top left reads like a list of Easter eggs, and the next two seem like a clunky way of reminding more casual readers who everybody is. By the time the KRAKOOM turns them all into officers on the bridge of the Starship Enterprise, I’m feeling pretty merciless myself and hoping that Evil Wonderbat dices them all up into pieces so I don’t have to read their dialogue anymore.
It looks pretty, but sometimes I wonder what the heck is going on
Manapul always manages to eke out something beautiful, and this is mostly that. But his layouts here are mostly a mixture of bland and confusing. Take this panel, for example:
Even after seeing his sword on the cover, I found this very confusing. The angle of his hand (as read in the knuckles) doesn’t match up with the angle of the sword, so it doesn’t look like he’s wielding something. To me, it looks like he’s firing an energy blast from his hand. And since I haven’t seen the sword glowing before this point, it’s a reasonable error. Really, unless you notice that the sword handle from the previous page is no longer against Bruce’s back, then it isn’t super obvious. The bottom row of panels makes things clearer, but it made for a very confusing first read. The top of the next page is also a bit confusing. What is this? Is there something rising from Bruce’s footprints? What is it? As best I can tell, we don’t find out.
Things get a bit more focused (and, consequently, interesting) towards the end of the book, but after struggling through the rest of it, it’s not enough.
- You’re collecting the whole set.
- You’re content to stare at the texture of Manapul’s artwork. I won’t judge—it’s purdy.
- You’re drinking the Dark Multiverse Kool-Aid and you think it tastes great. Oh yeah!
While it benefits from a tighter origin story than some of its counterparts, The Merciless still feels like a book unworthy of its creators. Neither Tomasi nor Manapul seem on their game, and solid lettering from Napolitano doesn’t make the glut of text more palatable. If you’ve got the extra scratch and want to make a set, pick it up. But you won’t miss any vital Metal components by skipping, so there’s very little incentive to do otherwise.