Batman and the Outsiders Vol. 1 review

Batman always works alone… except for those times that he doesn’t.  This is one of those times.

Immediately after another one of those times.

Point being, Batman is often portrayed as a dark, grim loner who doesn’t get along with people.  Dark?  Sure.  Grim?  When he needs to be.  Loner?  Considering Robin debuted less than a year after he did…

So even though Batman works plenty well as a street-level vigilante, he can be just as effective as part of a team given the right dynamics.  Enter: the Outsiders.

Created by the brilliant duo of Mike W. Barr and Jim Aparo, Batman and the Outsiders debuted in 1983 and ran for 32 issues before being retooled as Adventures of the Outsiders.  Combining old and new characters, the series followed Batman as he led a group of heroes on  missions that the Justice League couldn’t (or wouldn’t) accept.

Encompassing the first year or so of the series’ run, Batman and the Outsiders, Vol. 1 collects issues 1-13 of the series as well as Brave and the Bold #200 and New Teen Titans #37.  Spoiler alert: it’s pretty great, so get yourself acquainted with this classic yet often neglected gem of a series.

It all begins with Lucius Fox.

After Bruce Wayne’s cherished confidant and business partner is kidnapped in the nation of Markovia, Batman tries to get the Justice League to take action and extradite Fox.  The League, however, are quick to decline, citing the potentially disastrous diplomatic repercussions of practically invading a sovereign nation.

Batman, naturally, is having none of this.  So he quits.

Right from the get go this book has an intriguing premise and asks some pretty tough questions: what is the extent of the Justice League’s jurisdiction?  Saving the world from alien invaders is a no-brainer, but meddling in affairs between nations?  How do they decide what’s right?  It’s a question that was even posed in Captain America: Civil War, and really helps to ground this and establish it as more than “just another team book.”

The series never really digs too deep into those weightier issues, so that’s a bit of a missed opportunity, but it more than makes up for it in the character interactions and dynamics of the Outsiders team.  Batman’s goal isn’t really to start another team, just get his friend back from a foreign power, and to do so he enlists the aid of Jefferson Pierce, alias Black Lightning.  Also present, though for his own reasons, is Rex Mason, aka Metamorpho, who is trying to find a doctor who can help cure him of his freakish appearance.

Both of these guys are pretty awesome, I must say, especially Metamorpho.

Seriously, that guy rocks so hard.

Things eventually take a turn for the three heroes, resulting in Batman and Metamorpho being subdued and imprisoned.  Lightning breaks them out of prison, of course, and let’s just take a moment to appreciate how great Jim Aparo is.

No joke, this guy is my favorite Batman artist of all time.  His lines are clean, his expressions are priceless, and he’s just an all-around legend.  When I think of Batman, it’s Aparo’s that comes to mind: tall, lean yet fit, and in that fantastic blue and grey suit.  And, of course, the yellow oval on the chest.  Gotta have that.

I could seriously spend this entire review just talking about how awesome Aparo is, but I’ll spare you.  I’m pretty sure you already know that anyway, so let’s move on.

Three more characters come into play in the Markovian job, all of whom were created for the series.  There’s the young amnesiac Halo, a woman who can emit powerful “auras” that have different effects; Geo-Force, the alias of Brion Markov, the young prince of Markovia who is given superpowers by the same doctor that Metamorpho is looking for; and Tatsu Yamashiro, the Katana.  You know who she is.

As plot-driven as the individual issues are, this series is all about the characters.  Batman learns to warm to others and trust his allies easier, Black Lightning is reeling from an earlier tragedy that all but made him give up heroics, and the mystery behind Halo’s identity is a long game that stretches beyond these initial issues.  Katana is the breakout star, though, and it only took thirty years for her to get her due.  With a backstory that is marred in tragedy and a surrogate mother/daughter relationship she has with Halo, Tatsu has earned her moment in the sun.  With key roles in Suicide Squad and DC Super Hero Girls, she is almost a household name, and her popularity began as an Outsider.

One thing I really like about this collection is that the stories are short.  Shorter stories means more stories, so you get a lot of bang for your back and it’s really easy to just pick up and read a issue or two.  Longer arcs are fine when they’re warranted, but I like episodic storytelling just as much as serialized storytelling.  Both formats have their place, and the former works best for this book.

In fact, hardly any of the stories run longer than two issues.  Even the crossover with the Titans is over and done in two installments, which is almost unheard of these days.

Oddly enough, that’s one of the weaker stories in the book.  It’s by no means bad, as you’d expect from Marv Wolfman, George Perez, Barr, and Aparo, all of whom were at the top of their game here.  It just… doesn’t quite click.  It’s good, but not great.

There’s a moment in Barr’s foreword where he tells a story about Aparo drawing this issue.  Seeing how many characters are involved, he asked Barr if they’d all be like this.  I kind of got that feeling, too: there are a lot of characters to juggle here, and while the creative teams are more than up to the task, it doesn’t feel as big as it should have.  A lot of that might have to do with the villains involved: the Fearsome Five.  So, in addition to eight members of the Titans and six members of the Outsiders, there are five villains, and Dr. Jace who is being held captive.  That’s a lot of characters for one book, even two.  This was also just a few months before “The Judas Contract” in New Teen Titans, so there’s a lot of story going on in the background behind the main conflict.

Ultimately, though, there are some nice character beats.  Batman and Robin had been on rocky ground for quite some time, and they share a nice moment of mutual respect.

Even if Batman is a big fat hypocrite for getting on to Dick about not sharing his secret identity with the Titans.  But, you know, baby steps.

The characters in this book are so strong that it’s easy to forget that they don’t face many memorable villains of their own.  Really, though, that’s the case.  The awesomely-named Baron Bedlam is a pretty despicable foe in the opening chapters and most fans are sure to know at least two members of the Fearsome Five, but besides that the Outsiders don’t face any notable enemies.  It’s almost refreshing in a way, though, as the solid character work and team dynamics are more important than trying to churn out new ongoing threats.  I’d say the biggest threat the book faces is that it’s kind of dated at points, but that kind of comes with the territory.  It’s never a distraction, though, and the writing is still remarkably solid and easily readable.

And have I mentioned that Metamorpho rules?

Because Metamorpho rules.

Bonus features: The full cover spread for the Titans crossover, the introduction by Mike W. Barr, a sketch and completed house ad by Jim Aparo, and the basic character designs for Halo, Katana, and Geo-Force.  Not an awful lot, but it sure looks good.

Value: It’s a great read for sure, though I can’t help but feel that fans of this run already own the material in one way or another.  There’s plenty of material and most of it is at the very least good, but with a price tag just shy of thirty dollars I’d say try to get it on sale for now.  If it drops to twenty bucks or less, jump on it.

Overall: A great introduction to a different part of Batman’s history.  Full of likable characters and some stunning artwork, the collection rises above the slightly dated storytelling to be a great collection of stories.  Even though Batman gets top billing, this is just as much a series about the Outsiders, so the individual characters don’t get lost among the greater team.  While I wouldn’t recommend it to somebody brand new to Batman, it’s definitely worth checking out if you’re a long-time fan or just looking for something a little off the beaten path for the Caped Crusader.

SCORE: 8.5/10