Batman: Universe
began as one of the best Batman comics of the year: a no-holds-barred, rip-roaring adventure serial that approached its conflicts with a wink and a smile.  Rather than painting Batman as a gruff, dour creature of the night, Brian Michael Bendis and Nick Derington gave us a Batman who was more adventurer than vigilante, and– what’s more– he even seemed to like his chosen “vocation.”

Each successive chapter was still a massive entertainment, whether the action took Batman to Thanagar and gave him literal wings to fly with their police force, or sent the Caped Crusader and Green Lantern to the Old West to rub elbows with Jonah Hex.  Yet there was something missing after the first issue or two, something that didn’t feel quite as grand and fun as the debut chapter promised.  I’m really not quite sure what it was, other than perhaps the all-too-common lack of momentum needed to fill out a six-part arc that’s all but required these days.

Yeah, I think I’ll go with that.  Had Batman: Universe been, say, two or three issues, or even a single-giant sized 80-Page special, I think it would have been something truly amazing.  Imagine starting off with that first amazing issue, and then having Batman go on various adventures throughout the DC Universe over the course of fifty-some pages, and then wind back up on Earth with an army of cowboys, Thanagarians, dinosaurs, and Nightwing in tow for a final showdown with Vandal Savage.

But, alas, I have fallen into the trap of trying to grade the comic I want, not the comic I’ve been given.  Despite its shortcomings– not the least of which is some unfortunate narrative padding, especially in the latter half of the series– Batman: Universe has managed to end on a relative high note, and is well worth a read.  It absolutely peaked in the first issue, at least as far as the writing goes, but it’s still been a jolly good time, and I liked this issue at least as much as its immediate predecessor, at least in the broad strokes.

My enjoyment, in large part, comes from just how weird things get.  If you’ll recall, the previous issue ended with Batman getting trapped inside the prototype White Lantern power ring that’s been the MacGuffin of the entire series.  Issue 6 here opens with Batman still in the trippy landscape of the Ring, which is brilliantly rendered by Derington and colorist Dave Stewart.

Those faint, swirly background colors, and Batman’s deadpan “uh-oh”?  Yeah, this is my kind of book.

Unsurprisingly, the book continues to look absolutely amazing.  Derington is an absolute monster with his layouts, whether he’s using some fairly straightforward paneling, splash pages, or double-page spreads.  He truly has a cinematic eye, knowing how to make the reader’s attention move across the page to get the most out of the action.

Action scenes like the one above look outstanding, with great use of perspective and figure placement to give the spread a truly epic feel.  It feels less like a static image and more like a screen grab from an animated film, like we’re actually looking at a snapshot of a scene that’s in motion.  Stewart’s use of color is great, too, with the transparent greens of the Green Lanterns’ blasts contrasting against the more opaque orange trails from the jetpacks on the backs of Savage’s ninja army.

There are some other moments that, out of context from the actual story, are absolutely stunning too.  They’re not so much spoilers as images that should be enjoyed in the reading of the comic, but I’ll go ahead and highlight two of my favorites:

Spoiler

This is the one everyone is going to want as a poster: Batman, surrounded by his greatest allies and most notorious enemies.  It’s just… I mean, you can see it.  Derington’s style is unique enough that he’s easily distinguishable from other pencilers, yet he’s able to capture the classic looks of these recognizable characters while putting his own unique twists on their designs.  It makes me wish that we could see an extended run of a Batman book with Derington on art, because really, that Man-Bat, Freeze, and Bane?  Incredible.  Even character like Ventriloquist and Anarky, who I’m normally lukewarm toward, look amazing.

And then there’s this showy piece, which I mean in the absolute best way, because I love it oh so much:

Classic Superman!  Aquaman riding a sea horse!  Mister Miracle!  The Metal Men, guys!

I love everything in that image, including (and especially) Batman and Savage fighting across time and space.  It’s that weird comic booky greatness that made me love this book in the first place, and part of what moved me to give this issue a passing grade.

So, yeah, the book looks great.  That goes without saying, even though I just spent like 400 words reiterating the fact.  Where this issue in particular falls short, and very nearly falls apart, is in the actual narrative.

As I mentioned before, out of context, there’s a lot of great stuff here.  It never meshes or gels together, though, because the writing feels really rushed.  Bendis traps Batman in the Ring, which is an interesting idea, and then Savage gets ahold of said ring and wipes Batman from existence.  Again, it’s a great idea.  An entire universe where Batman doesn’t exist?  You could write an entire series around that by itself.

And that’s the problem: this concept is introduced so late in the story that it doesn’t have any time to develop, to the point that I barely realized what was actually going on until the final pages.  Not in a “the pieces are finally coming together” kind of way, either, but it literally is not clear what has happened until there is a brief exposition dump almost after the fact.  It was an ambitious choice, to be sure, but it was too much too late.

Regardless, this was a fun adventure to read, even with its flaws.  I love a more swashbuckling Batman who meets even the most outlandish of trials and situations with a deadpan, steely resolve.  Hopefully we can get more Bat books like this going forward, especially when they look this great and are this much fun.

Recommended if:

  • You love Nick Derington and Dave Stewart’s amazing artwork.
  • You like Batman going on some high concept, crazy adventures.
  • You can forgive some narrative hiccups when the end result is a grand entertainment.

Overall: Yeah, I wish this series had ended as strong as it started.  Had the visual storytelling not been so impressive, I wouldn’t have enjoyed it half as much, but props to Derington and Stewart for making one of the best looking Bat books of the year.  There are lots of great ideas here, so while the book isn’t ever bad in any way, Bendis’ reach exceeded his grasp with the story he was wanting to tell.  A truly brilliant concept is introduced late in the game, one that could sustain an entire arc by itself, and it’s effectively glossed over and resolved just as quickly as it was proposed.  Still, I cannot stress enough how great this book looks, and it’s just a ton of fun and lacking in pretension.  The world can use more comics like that.

SCORE: 7/10