The idea of Batman as an urban legend is a curious one, and I have conflicting feelings about it.  On the one hand, it makes sense and gives him a sense of mystique.  “Have you heard about the Bat-Man?” lowlifes and criminals will whisper to each other in hushed tones, almost afraid that even uttering his name will summon this mysterious figure of the night.  It’s an approach that definitely works early in his career, when he is truly more an idea than a man, meant to stoke fear into the hearts of the superstitious and cowardly lot of criminals that plague Gotham.

But then it all kind of falls apart, the bigger the character gets.  You can’t really say that “the Bat-Man” is merely an urban legend when he’s constantly parading around with a sidekick who dresses in the brightest colors imaginable, drives a friggin’ sweet car, and punches murder clowns and question mark aficionados in the face.

Oh, and also there’s a big flashlight with his symbol on top of police headquarters.

Not to say Batman doesn’t still have an air of mystery and terror about him, but there comes a point where he ceases to be a rumor, a bogeyman to scare criminals, and is recognized as a real person.

So, yeah.  Batman: urban legend?  Sometimes, but only at first.

Still, it’s a cool title for a comic book, and I have been clamoring for a Batman-centric anthology title for years now.  Does Batman: Urban Legends hit the spot, though?

Well, like my thoughts on Batman’s status as an urban legend, my feelings about this new series’ debut are complicated.  Like any anthology title, or any comic that contains multiple stories from just as many creators, its success relies upon consistent quality.  If everything isn’t going to be great, though, then something needs to achieve greatness to make up for any shortcomings.

Sad to say, nothing here is really, truly great.

However, none of these stories are truly bad either, so there’s hope yet.  There are four different tales from a grab bag of truly amazing talent, so I’ll go ahead and just break them down one by one and then average it all together in the end.  Read on, true believers.

Cheer

It’s not a bad idea to kick off an anthology series with what’s surely the most highly anticipated story of the bunch.  I mean, you’ve got Chip Zdarsky– who writes the best superhero comic on the stands*, full stop– writing a Batman and Red Hood story, with art from Eddy Barrows, Eber Ferreira, and Marcus To, colors from Adriano Lucas, and letters from Becca Carey.  That creative team right there should push several thousand units on pedigree alone.

While it is a good story, it sadly isn’t a great one.  At least, not yet.  There are some interesting ideas here, and with five more parts to come there’s definitely room for improvement, but so far it’s just “okay.”

Well, better than okay, as all of the individual parts range from good to great.  The writing is solid, with Zdarsky hitting on some genuinely powerful emotional beats, the art is fantastic, and the lettering and effects are clean and strong.  There’s just… something missing, keeping everything from really coalescing into a truly great story.

The ingredients are there, too, as Batman and Red Hood are on the hunt for the supplier of a new drug called Cheer.  It’s grounded and fairly realistic, without feeling overly dour and fatalistic.  I think my main problem with the narrative is that it never feels like the various plot threads are connected, but that disconnect isn’t actually intentional.  Jason and Bruce are both investigating the case, yet there isn’t any weight to their conflict.  Like, we know that things are shaky between the two, but it never seems like that plays any part other than the tension needing to be there.  It’s unrealized potential.

There’s still some pretty strong character work, though, particularly with Jason.  This is pretty much his story, with Batman in a supporting role, and Zdarsky makes Red Hood… kind of likable, to be honest.  In his hunt for Cheer’s supplier, Jason comes across a young boy named Tyler who is for all intents and purposes abandoned, as his father is absent and his mother is in an illicit drug-induced coma.  Jason takes pity on the kid, and appoints himself as his protector, which leads to some pretty sweet interactions.  I particularly loved a scene where Jason gives Tyler his mask to help him be brave, and the kid picks out his own superhero code name.

A few flashbacks are peppered throughout the story too, showing some of the early days of Bruce and Jason’s crimefighting relationship.  Eddy Barrows and Eber Ferreira handle the “modern” plot, while Marcus To tackles the flashbacks, and the difference in art styles is used to great effect.  Where Barrows and Ferreira are more detailed, To’s pencils are simpler and cleaner, using fewer lines.  Each artist is great in their own way, though, and To’s style makes the flashbacks have a brighter, optimistic quality that is contrasted with the harsher, grimier reality of the present.

Props to Adriano Lucas for using colors that further highlight the differences in each setting.  The palette is similar across the board, but the application is unique to the different artists, which is a great choice.

Like I said, there are a lot of great aspects to this story, it just hasn’t quite grabbed me as much as I wanted it to.  With five parts to go, though, there’s plenty of time for it to do so.  Here’s hoping.

SCORE: 7/10

New Roots

When I was looking at the list of stories at the beginning of the book, this one intrigued me for one simple reason: it’s the only one that isn’t listed as part 1 of a multipart story.  That’s refreshing to see, as an anthology book should mix up longer arcs and one-and-dones in equal measure, depending on what the creative teams want to do.

Alas, that interest was short-lived, as this is not a one-and-done story at all.  No, it ends with a message stating the story will be continued in another book.  Again, not the worst thing in the world when done well, but in this case it reads like too many of these types of stories have in similar books: an ad for another title, on sale next month.

As for the actual story, it’s fine for what it is.  I don’t mean to sound dismissive, it’s just that the promise of Harley Quinn, Poison Ivy, or both together isn’t going to sell a book to me.  I appreciate each character in smaller doses, and they can definitely make for a compelling duo.  As the central focus, though, it’s not for me.

Taken on its own merits, the writing from Stephanie Phillips is strong.  She really makes you feel for Harley, who feels like she’s lost the one person who’s never made her feel “less than.”  It’s brightly colored by Ivan Plascencia in the flashbacks, contrasted with the gloomier greys and blues of Harley in the present, which like the previous story differentiates between the optimistic past versus the pessimistic future.  Laura Braga has a strong visual style, using some creative layouts and sequencing along with some unique panel borders to give the story a nice visual identity.  The always great Deron Bennett uses clear lettering with some nice character-specific caption boxes to deliver the text, so on a technical level everything is up to par.

It’s just that initial feeling, that this is only a prelude to entice us to buy another book that weighs it down. Poison Ivy’s current status in the DCU has been teased since last fall, and the closing blurb telling you where to continue this story takes what could have been an interesting, standalone short and makes it feel like one small part of a whole.

SCORE: 5.5/10

The Caretaker

Now here we have a story that surprised me, in the best way.  I really like the Outsiders as a team, and love the individual characters.  Black Lightning is cool, Katana is endlessly compelling, and Metamorpho is one of the unsung greats of the DC Universe.  The original Batman and the Outsiders series has some of the best creators of all time working together to deliver some of the most underrated DC stories of the Eighties, and it’s one of those rare teams where almost every individual character could stand on their own to be the driving force of a story.

That said, I haven’t been a huge fan of recent outings with the team, either in the Batman & the Outsiders ongoing or the backups in recent Future State titles.  It’s the latter in particular that made me a little leery for this story, for though the creative team is strong and would definitely be ideal for these characters, I wasn’t sure what to expect.

Thankfully, I was impressed with this short story, and I’m really interested in seeing where things go from here.

The main problem is I can’t really say why I ultimately got hooked, because that would spoil things.  The final page made me say “holy crap” out loud, and then laugh for the better part of a minute because it was just so bonkers.  I loved it.

So, I’ll just say that Brandon Thomas has a good grasp on these characters, and that the simple story is briskly paced.  It’s largely told in flashback, with Black Lightning recounting what happened earlier in the day to get him where he is in the bookends of the story.  we get a sweet boat chase and a fight against a bunch of ninjas, all wonderfully illustrated by Max Dunbar and Luis Guerrero, and some great sound effects from Steve Wands.  Shameless plug: I recently interviewed Wands, so check it out.

What makes it fun to read also keeps it from being really deep, as there isn’t much of an emotional core or an exploration of individual characters.  Still, it’s great popcorn entertainment with a gloriously crazy twist ending, and it left me excited for more.

SCORE: 7.5/10

The Long Con

Where I went into Future State liking the Outsiders as a unit but feeling let down by their showing in the event, it was the opposite for Grifter.  Yeah, sure, Grifter is cool.  He has a cool name, a cool look, cool abilities, and his name is Cole Cash.  “Cole” is almost “cool,” so yeah, he’s a cool dude.

I’m just… not interested in him, most of the time.  Like Harley Quinn, I appreciate Grifter in small doses and as a supporting character, but in the case of Cash I’m always a bit guarded.  Is he part of a story because his inclusion makes sense, or his he merely here because he’s cool?  In my experience, it’s more often the latter when he pops up in a DC book, so giving him his own stories can be hit or miss.

Thankfully– and surprisingly– I really, really liked the story Matthew Rosenberg told in Future State.  It was a simple bodyguard/protection/transport job, but enough action and humor was injected to make Grifters one of the surprises of Future State for me.

While his solo outing here in Urban Legends won me over in the end, it took a while to get there, so it wasn’t quite as successful as I would have hoped.  Rosenberg is once again on scripting duties, and truth be told, I’ve liked everything I’ve read of his.  That mainly consists of The Punisher and Hawkeye: Freefall, but like Grifter, those are both characters that I never thought I’d enjoy reading, but ended up having a blast.

The problem here is two-fold: one, it takes a while to get going, as the first dozen or so pages kind of drag.  We get an extended flashback (and I just realized every story in this issue uses this device in one way or another) of Grifter in battle with his brother at his side, which leads into the present where he tries to infiltrate a swanky garden party.  Rosenberg has a good handle on Cash’s swagger, which borders on goofiness in the best way, and I laughed out loud a few times.  That’s reinforced by Ryan Benjamin and Antonio Fabela’s art, which is at its best in various bits of comedy.  There’s a sequence where Cash is frisked before being allowed to meet the Penguin that’s particularly hysterical.

Most of the action is pretty good, too.  Saida Temofonte in particular gets some cool effects in, like a “FSHOOM” meant to evoke an electrical charge or a neat “TCHUK” when Grifter steals and cocks a gun from a holster in one smooth motion.

It’s a bit aimless, though, with a beginning that goes on a bit too long and a lack of direction in the latter half.  I think we’re supposed to think that Grifter commits a particularly heinous act off panel, but it’s never really clear what Rosenberg is trying to get through in the story.  It’s that heinous act that is the other main problem, and while I won’t go into specifics, it takes a familiar character who has already gone through a less than pleasant transformation recently, and then leaves them… well, quite possibly without any chance at redemption or reversion.  It left a bad taste in my mouth, but it’s also left somewhat ambiguous, so I could just be reading too much into it.

Overall, much like the first story, this is fine, with some definite room to become great.  Still, for a highly anticipated new series with some truly great creative teams attached, “fine with room to grow” isn’t what I was expecting or wanting.

SCORE: 6.5/10

Recommended if:

  • You’ve been wanting a Batman anthology series.
  • You like Batman.
  • You like Harley and Ivy.
  • You like the Outsiders.
  • You like Grifter.
  • The creative teams are pretty awesome, too.

Overall: “Fine with room to grow” about sums up my feelings, and I wish I could be more positive here.  I mean, Batman by Zdarsky?  More Rosenberg Grifter?  Wackiness with the Outsiders from Brandon Thomas and Max Dunbar?  This should have been a home run, but instead it was more of a base hit.  Hopefully the upcoming chapters find the stories hitting a stride, along with leaving room for some solid standalone one-and-dones.  As it is, Batman: Urban Legends is a great idea that falls short in the execution.

SCORE: 6.5/10

*Daredevil, if for some reason you didn’t know.