Batman: Universe began as a crazy crime caper, which in turn led to forays into Gorilla City and Thanagar, and now finds Batman and Green Lantern in the old west, trading barbs with Jonah Hex. It’s an exercise in escalating zaniness, and I absolutely adore it.
I can also understand why it’s not everyone’s cup of tea. Truth be told, I want to read grounded, mystery-focused stories as much as anyone, where Batman needs to use his wits and detective skills to solve crimes. I’m all for a street-level Dark Knight who fights for his city, taking on threats to the people of Gotham alongside his like-minded allies.
Batman: Universe, by contrast, has Batman, Green Lantern, and Jonah Hex hunt down Vandal Savage in an old mining town and then, after Hal mysteriously disappears into thin air, Bruce and Hex have a showdown with a bunch of ninjas. Oh and also Bruce and Hal dress like cowboys.
Batman, cowboys, and ninjas. Be still my heart.
So, yeah, this book isn’t necessarily “everything a Batman story should be,” but it’s a great example of what a Batman story can be. If you’ll allow it to take hold of you, Bendis and Derington’s story is crazy, comic booky goodness that serves as a pretty solid thesis for Batman working in pretty much every situation. No, he’s not sticking to the streets, and there isn’t a lot of detective work besides some cursory investigation and problem solving. It does show that Batman is focused and driven, and he’s willing and open to working with other heroes to defeat evil and find radioactive Fabergé eggs and what have you. The circumstances may not be what you think of when you think of Batman stories, but Batman still feels like Batman throughout the proceedings.
Even if he’s quippier and more verbose than a lot of readers prefer. Which, again, I’m totally okay with.
Out of all the issues so far, this one feels the leanest in regards to plot progression, largely because it mostly takes place in a relatively isolated area. It’s pretty dialogue-heavy, which is fine when it’s as light and snappy as Bendis’ style. I mean, I’m not going to champion this banter as Eisner-worthy or anything, but it’s exactly what this series sets out to be: fun.
And really, that’s what this book is: a breezy, grand entertainment. It’s silly and ridiculous, with its tongue planted firmly in cheek, sending up Silver Age weirdness while paying loving tribute to it at the same time. This is the kind of book that you could imagine coming out in the Fifties, with a cover featuring Batman and Green Lantern brandishing six-shooters and cowboy hats over their costumes, and a cover blurb dramatically announcing “SHOWDOWN IN THE OLD WEST!”
Oh yeah there are also ninjas. I almost forgot.
I’ve loved Bendis’ writing on this book, particularly how it leans into weird silliness and lets Batman be focused without having to be grim. It’s Nick Derington, Dave Stewart, Josh Reed, and Tom Napolitano’s visual storytelling that really makes this book sing, though. Simple visual gags like Bruce and Hal emerging from an Old West store in newly-acquired clothing are successfully played for laughs, and the more obvious humor of Jonah Hex vomiting after flight lands without coming across as… well, too juvenile. That retching “HUUAAGG”? Delightful.
And then there are the action scenes. Derington masterfully frames Bruce and Hex’s showdown with a bunch of ninjas through different panel layouts, opting for both wide shots and close cropped paneling. Stewart’s coloring is phenomenal in this sequence in particular, with the wider shots showing a lovely light blue sky, transitioning to orange backgrounds in the two twelve (!) panel pages, back to the blue when the fight is over. That palette shift really helps set the fight apart from the bookending sequences, similar to how shifting aspect ratios in a film can reinforce the action on the screen.
In the best way, Batman: Universe isn’t exactly a book that warrants deep analysis. It wears its intents right on its sleeve, in that it is simply meant to entertain. The MacGuffin of the Fabergé egg doesn’t carry any sort of symbolism or deeper meaning. No, it’s just an item that a bad guy wants, so the good guys need to get it before him. This book is a case study in the axiom that Batman is a character that can work in any type of situation, be it a hyper-realistic detective story to an interplanetary science-fiction adventure and anything in between. In taking Batman from the streets of Gotham to the old west and back again, I’d say that so far it’s successful in proving that true.
Overall: This is an entertaining romp that makes Batman and Green Lantern cowboys and also has a fight with a bunch of ninjas. While it may not be a story that’s meant for everyone, it’s definitely a book that is meant for someone, even if that someone is me. The dialogue is sharp and snappy, and the visual storytelling is absolutely amazing, from the pencils to the coloring to the lettering. Batman: Universe is one of the most entertaining books on the stands, and one that I look forward to reading each month for the sheer thrills it provides. As an entertainment, issue 4 here does not disappoint.