The DC Universe by Neil Gaiman review

Over the past forty or so years, there are three big names that helped change the perception that comics are just silly stories for kids.  Fans knew that all along, of course, but these writers definitely showed that even the zaniest of comic characters could have true literary merit.  They are Alan Moore, Grant Morrison, and Neil Gaiman.  Whether you enjoy their individual styles or not, you can’t deny that these three men are veritable giants of the medium.  Whether they’re deconstructing superheroes, lending legitimacy to D-list characters, or crafting mythologies that are nothing short of Shakespearean, Moore, Morrison, and Gaiman are some of the most important voices in comics.

While we’re all familiar with their respective works on, say, Watchmen or Batman or The Sandman, I often find their more obscure stories to be just as fascinating.  That’s what makes a collection like The DC Universe by Neil Gaiman such a gem: it may have a highly-regarded (and righfully so) story, but it doesn’t overshadow any of the other tales collected.  There’s a lot of Batman, some Green Lantern and Superman, and even appearances from Deadman and Metamorpho.  It’s a great collection of stories that show why, even in shorter form, Gaiman is one of the best writers the medium has ever seen.

Collects stories from Secret Origins #36, Secret Origins Special #1, Batman Black and White # 2, Green Lantern/Superman: Legend of the Green Flame, Solo #8, Wednesday Comics #1-12, Batman #686, and Detective Comics #853.

Kicking things off is a short Secret Origins story focusing on Poison Ivy.  The concept is pretty interesting: a representative from Belle Reve comes to Arkham Asylum under the guise of a prison inspector so as to evaluate Isley’s potential on the Suicide Squad.  Given that it’s a dude Waller sent to investigate Ivy, you can probably already tell that things will not end well.

Ivy is a lot more flirtatious than I’m used to, rather than being outright seductive and sensual, and it’s a little strange seeing her almost… cute.  She still totally ruins this dude’s life, of course, so I guess she isn’t that far removed from the Ivy I’m more familiar with.

Mark Buckingham, whom I know best from Fables, provides pencils, and they’re fine.  His faces lack detail, so they often get swallowed up in his inks, but it does give the story a certain unsettling mood.  Most of the pages are laid out in a nine-panel grid, too, so it’s when Buckingham strays from that the story looks its best.

Buckingham does channel a pretty mean Sheldon Moldoff, though, so there is that.  It’s an interesting short, but not remotely the best thing I’ve read from Gaiman.

Next is the first of two “big stories” in the collection, and the one that drew me to this in the first place.  Secret Origins Special #1 is collected in its entirety here, and while Gaiman only wrote two of the four stories, considering the other two were written by Alan Grant and Mark Verheiden I think we can give it a pass.

The framing story, “Original Sins,” is written by Gaiman and focuses on a news crew who want to show the more “human” side of Batman’s foes.  They want to get the Joker, but find that to be a fool’s errand, so they interview one of the Penguin’s henchmen, the Riddler, and Two-Face’s ex-wife.  It’s a good concept that fits with the different stories.

“The Killing Peck,” written by Alan Grant and illustrated by Sam Kieth, is the Penguin’s history as told by his goon Knuckles.  Ultimately, it’s a basic tale of bullying and revenge, showing Cobblepot as a young man who grew up to get payback on his tormentor.  It’s not bad, a rather well-told story, but it’s not particularly interesting as a Penguin story.  It’s kind of weird, too, as we see him bulk up as a teen so he can punch out a bully.  Grant also has Cobblepot elongate a lot of words, too, which is just strange and a bit distracting.  At times, it doesn’t really feel like the Penguin that we know and… well, know.

Then again, with lines like “as for Batman — that overrated athlete in fancy dress — his brain is too dim to divine even the simplest of the Penguin’s schemes!” there are some flashes of brilliance.  With a visual style that’s appropriately unsettling and even a little gross, it’s a familiar Penguin story in the broad strokes that seems a bit alien when you look at the finer details.  Still, it’s about a petty man who thinks highly of himself and wishes ruin on those who don’t, which is decidedly Cobblepotian.

“When is a Door: The Secret Origin of the Riddler” is… precisely what it sounds like.  This one’s written by Gaiman with pencils from Bernie Mireault and inks from Matt Wagner.  Yep, that one.

Taking place at an old prop factory with bunch of oversized items (yes, there’s a giant typewriter there), Riddler waxes on about anything and everything without appearing to say much.  It’s very obtuse and meta and, frankly, fascinating.  This is a Riddler who seemingly remembers the Sixties TV series and its forgotten villains, a man who laments the passing of fun pranks in favor of death and gloom.  He’s aghast that the Joker has begun murdering people.  This Riddler is clearly an artifact of an earlier time while, simultaneously, being an enigma.  Fitting, that.

Mireault’s art is a bit exaggerated and sketchy, giving the story a sort of sinister undertone.  There isn’t anything that stuck out to me as fantastic, but it’s still fascinating to look at.

If you’ll forgive me, this story is curious and strange, as much a riddle as Nygma himself.

The originally untitled final story, now simply and fittingly called “Two-Face,” closes out the origins.  Grace Dent, Harvey’s ex-wife, regales the news crew with the story of what made the former D.A. turn to crime.  Coming from someone who genuinely loved him, it’s a rather heartbreaking story, and the most familiar of the three origins.

In fact, I think I liked this one the most.  It’s very traditional, but Verheiden’s scripting is solid and well-paced.  The Penguin story was a bit too weird and off-center, and while I dug the abstract nature of Gaiman’s take on the Riddler it was more interesting as a storytelling experiment than an actual story.  Harvey’s story is a tragic one already, so adding the emotional element makes it more so.  Factor in some arresting art from Pat Broderick, Tom McCraw, and Dick Giordano himself and “Two-Face” is an excellent read.

The framing story concludes with reporter Steve Jones getting his wish for a meeting with the Joker, but not in a way he wanted, I’m sure.  And call me crazy, but I think there’s a John Constantine cameo in there too.

While the Secret Origins Special isn’t perfect, it’s consistently interesting with a great storytelling device.

A Batman Black and White short follows and man is it crazy.  The idea is that Batman and the Joker are actors performing their roles for the purpose of comic book stories.  They’re amicable and friendly while rehearsing their lines, discussing the woes of show business and talking about their families.  It’s a fun little meta narrative that’s right up Gaiman’s alley, and the art from  Simon Bisley provides an interesting grotesque counterpoint.

The writing and visual styles don’t quite match, but that makes the story more memorable.  Seeing these exaggerated figures complain about extras getting to the smoked salmon while they’re left to do heavier lifting in the scenes is so surreal that I couldn’t help but love it.

Besides the Joker wearing a swastika, which I don’t understand at all.  It’s weird, though not in a good way, and the only explanation I have is that it’s a tie to Bruno in The Dark Knight Returns.  And the less we think about Bruno, the better.

“Green Lantern/Superman: Legend of the Green Flame,” the next story, is a pretty crazy work with a crapload of great artists.  Seriously, the story is broken up into chapters and each section is illustrated by the likes of Mark Buckingham, Mike Allred, and Jim Aparo.  At its core it’s a simple tale of Clark Kent and Hal Jordan’s friendship… until they investigate an old Lantern battery that accidentally explodes and kind of almost kills them so they meet up with Deadman who says they’re only mostly dead so being slightly alive they can still come back to life and oh yeah the Phantom Stranger is there too and they learn a lesson about science and magic before coming back to life and parting ways as bros.

It wraps up a bunch of Action Comics Weekly stories, so it might be less esoteric reading those.  As it is, it’s a great looking, kind of confusing piece of writing that’s nonetheless pretty engaging.  This was when Hal Jordan was simply boring, not a murderous psychopath or a stupid cocky jerkface, so I kind of liked reading him confide in the always personable Superman.  There’s an afterword for the story from Gaiman himself, in which he describes the genesis of the story.  It’s almost more interesting than the story itself, but it does contextualize a lot of it and makes it a better read in retrospect.

A quick Deadman story follows, taken from an issue of the anthology series Solo.  Brand talks with a young girl on a staircase, sharing stories about different people he’s “taken over” to experience life again.  It’s remarkably sad, and Teddy Kristiansen’s simple style reinforces the melancholy.  It’s a nice, quiet surprise, though it’s quickly overshadowed by…

Yeah, this is a lot of fun.  Originally published in 2009 as part of the weekly anthology series Wednesday Comics, “The Element Man” is pure goofy adventure.  It follows Metamorpho and his supporting cast as they search for the fabled Star of Atlantis diamond, with a bunch of silly little asides and throwaway gags to sweeten the deal.  The story itself is fun enough, but it’s Gaiman’s light touch and irreverence that makes it truly memorable.  I mean, at one point Metamorpho asks if there will be any dinosaurs along their journey.  His response to being told there may be a couple?


Yeah, this was written just for me, it seems.

There are also little “ads” on some pages that feature kids talking about the Metamorpho fan club (“Kids!  If you synthesize a new element you can win a free trip to the set of the Metamorpho TV show!”), and Mike and Laura Allred’s brilliant visual design is just delightful.

Yep, pretty sure you can play an entire game of Chutes and Ladders with that.

The Allred’s style fits well with a character like Metamorpho, and they play really well off of Gaiman’s script too.  There’s a two-page spread where Metamorpho and Element Girl have to move across a grid laid out like the periodic table that is just amazing.  The visual design is impressive enough, but Gaiman incorporates each of the symbols from the table in the dialogue and it’s just fantastic.  I had great fun reading this one, in all its creative lunacy.

And finally… “Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader?”

You could write an entire thesis on this story, and I’ve no doubt at least three people have used it as a source for their dissertations.  It’s a thematically rich tale that’s as brilliant as it is abstract, with a visual style that allows Andy Kubert to celebrate all eras of Batman’s history while making everything look timeless.

So, instead of dissecting every single panel and investigating their finest details, I’ll just appreciate it for what it is: a story about Batman.

Not a Batman story, but a story about Batman in general: his motives, his origin, his compassion, his reason for being.  It’s a celebration of Batman in the guise of a wake, a story about the only possible end for the Caped Crusader when he won’t ever have a true ending.  Gaiman draws on every element of Batman’s history to show that even though some of the different stories seem like they can’t possibly exist in the same universe, they have one thing in common: they have Batman.  And in each and every one of those stories, Batman fights because he’s Batman.  It’s not a tough-guy punchline to an easily set-up joke; no, it’s a true statement that gets right to the core of the character: Batman fights on because that’s what Batman does.

While it’s thematically similar to Alan Moore’s Superman tale “Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?”, this is incredibly different in its storytelling.  Moore’s work was a brilliant if straightforward story that was, appropriately, the last Superman story.  Literally, that is; it was published as the last story featuring the Silver Age Superman before being rebooted after Crisis on Infinite Earths.  “Caped Crusader,” however, is more of a case study.  It explores what makes the character work, how other characters respond to his mission, and what could possibly end the story of the Batman.  Like the best of Gaiman’s work, it’s esoteric and literate while still celebrating the best things about comics: the characters themselves.  I wouldn’t say you should give it as reading material to someone who is completely fresh to comics, but it’s something that every fan of Batman should read at some point.

And truly, it has one of my absolutely favorite lines in any comic I’ve ever read.

“Everyone’s worth it.”  That’s up there with “you’re much stronger than you think you are” and “I love you, Lois Lane.  Until the end of time” from All-Star Superman for me.  It sums Batman up perfectly: even if he’s depicted as a grim avenger of the night, Batman is still out there doing good.  He wants to save innocents from criminals, and save criminals from themselves.  He believes in rehabilitation instead of retribution, wanting to stop crime and change lives.

Because it’s worth it.

Bonus features: An afterword, “or love letter,” from Gaiman himself and a short but excellent sketchbook from Kubert.  The afterword .  Kubert’s sketchbook details a few of his layouts from “Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader?” and showcases some of his “tribute” designs for Batman and several of his rogues.  I particularly love the looks at his Jack Burnley Penguin and his spot-on take on a Jerry Robinson Joker.  There’s even a Bat-Mite appearance for those who are so inclined.

Value: It hovers around twenty bucks either physically or digitally, but considering “Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader?” by itself is around $15, I’d say it’s more than worth it for the additional stories.  Plus, it’s sure to be subject to some ComiXology sales, so definitely pick it up then.

Overall: One absolutely brilliant story accompanied by more than a half dozen really good ones, and all by the same great writer.  As I said, “Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader?” makes this worth it on its own, and the other stories are varied in theme, tone, and style, so you really get a grasp of Gaiman’s already recognized range.  You probably already have a copy of the Alan Moore DC Universe collection too, so this will look good right alongside it on your shelf.

SCORE: 9/10


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