Cam is unfortunately not available this week, so I’ll be filling in for him.
This month’s Batman: Urban Legends has a mix of new stories kicking off with part/chapter 1, as well as a couple that look into the pressures of taking on a superhero role. As with most anthology collections, there is a wide range quality but one story in particular really stood out and I cannot wait to see more of it. I think in general this type of book is a good format to get a bit experimental with ideas because even if one falls flat, there are still four other stories to make up for it. It’s a format that western comics should adopt more often, as it means publishers aren’t penalized for taking risks.
The Signal and the Outsiders Part 1
Duke Thomas lives a tough life. That is the core premise of this story as we get a glimpse into what it’s like for him day after day. The story opens with Duke giving a recap of his experience working with The Outsiders as his narration is overlaid against a series of action splash pages from missions they’ve had. Each image looks like a comic cover, complete with logo, and Albuquerque’s art packs each one with enough action that the reader is able to get an idea of all the insane adventures that they go on as a team. Laying them out back to back also hammers home just how much hero work Duke is expected to do. So much that it may be too much.
If the ‘cover” pages conveyed the action-packed nature of Duke’s life as The Signal, the story pulls no punches in showing how massive a toll it takes. The story transitions from mission to mission, picking up the pace more and more until it all starts to blend together into one, long, unending struggle. We see all the responsibilities that Duke has using a format that normally would show one day at a time, but here subverts that expectation by showing that much of it happens on the same day. It’s a great example of visual “show, don’t tell” storytelling that puts the reader into the same headspace that Duke is in.
All of this is setup to get The Outsiders to contact Batman with concerns that Duke is pushing himself too hard. It’s nice to see Batman show concern for all the various bat kids he’s taken under his wing, even when they’ve ostensibly gone off on their own. Too often people think of him as this solitary brooding figure, but here we see him playing an active role in helping his allies with personal issues when it’s clear they need it.
Part 1 of this story sets up Duke’s personal struggle clearly, and builds a sense of attachment between him and the people around him. It’s not much of a story in and of itself quite yet, but is a solid foundation for future installments.
Batman & Etrigan the Demon in: “Blood In & Blood Out”
I always love Batman stories that manage to incorporate the supernatural elements of Gotham. One of the most fun characters to do that with is Etrigan the Demon. His irreverent attitude coupled with his connections to literal Hell juxtapose nicely with how seriously Batman takes everything. Unfortunately, Blood In & Blood Out tries to cram too much into what limited space it has to be able to fully enjoy the Hellish weirdness.
Like many Batman stories, this one starts with Bruce at a seemingly innocuous charity event. However, unlike those stories, that only last for a single page before absolutely everything goes crazy. We go from people casually talking to the next panel where a wizard is screaming, his giant henchman is there, Jason Blood is turning into Etrigan, and Bruce’s date is transforming into a (legally distinct from Marvel’s) Hulk. It creates some pretty severe tonal whiplash, and once the volume gets turned up to 11, it stays there for the rest of the story.
Because everything happens so extremely and suddenly, it’s very easy to get confused as to what exactly is going on. I’m still not sure how or when Bruce changed into his Batman costume while all of the above events were going on. The story throws a lot of Etrigan lore at the reader, but all of the characters are too busy screaming at the top of their lungs and flexing to be able to properly take it in. The underlying story that’s there is interesting and I’d like to have been able to appreciate it more, but the tone and pacing here ramps up way too quickly for that to happen.
The Pennyworth Files, Chapter One: The Fall of the Scales
This story was an absolute delight to read. I was already a fan of Chris Burnham’s art from his days of working with Grant Morrison. The expressive and detailed way he draws faces gives each panel so much emotion that’s a joy to look at. However, I was unsure of what to expect from his writing. I could not have been more pleasantly surprised.
I always love a good detective story, and this story nails it. From the opening inciting incident in a mysterious antique shop to the gathering of clues and following up on leads. The jade earring that Alfred tracks down is presented to the audience in such an enigmatic way you can’t help but be intrigued. All of the clues which he uses to figure out where the thief ran off to are presented so naturally that don’t feel like they’re just handed over for the sake of moving the plot along. Alfred notices the fishy smell and Russian speech, and so uses his contacts and friends to figure out where he might find Russian fishmongers. Each step of the way, the plot thickens as the mystery gets stranger. It feels like it’s pulled right out of a Sherlock Holmes story.
It makes sense that Alfred would have a love of detective work. In addition to his ever-slightly-changing canon backstory as an MI5 agent, the character was originally introduced to comics in Batman #16 as an amateur detective who also promises to be Bruce Wayne’s butler. Sleuthing has been in his blood since the beginning. In fact all of his characterization in this story is perfect. His gentlemanly demeanor is consistently unassailable even in the most dangerous of circumstances. There’s the little touches like the fact that of course Alfred spends his free time in antique shops and tea shops. I also love the little cutaways to Batman in action-packed danger as a contrast to this narrative. Alfred has always been one of if not the best character in Batman comics, and that’s on full display here.
I cannot wait to read more of this story. I’m trying really hard to not get my hopes up too high, as there are plenty out there which start strong and then fail to stick the landing, but so far this has almost everything I could want out of a comic.
Night Terrors is another story, like The Signal and The Outsiders, which tackles the issue of how difficult it can be for a young man to be a hero. This time, it’s a story of Tim during the early part of his career. As you might have guessed from the title, the fear associated with going up against murderous psychopaths as a teenage boy is a recurring theme. It opens with Tim having a nightmare where he is killed by the Joker, and Dr Destiny plans to use people’s dreams to induce fear on the populace at large. I actually wish that it did more with the theme of fear, because aside from being the reason why Batman and Robin need to stop the bad guy, it only ever manifests as a reminder that Jason was killed by the Joker, which Bruce is afraid of.
The fact that Tim and/or Bruce fear that what happened to Jason could happen to Tim has to be one of the most well-trodden concepts in Batman mythos. Before Judd Winick brought Jason back as the Red Hood, it was the defining legacy of Jason Todd. This was especially true in the early days of Tim’s career, where this story is set. Alan Grant and Norm Breyfogle’s Identity Crisis in Batman #455-457, where Tim first donned his own Robin suit, focused almost exclusively on that concept. It even had fear as a major theme, using Scarecrow as the main villain. If Tini Howard wants to revisit that well, she needs to bring something new to the table. That doesn’t really happen here.
The art is appropriately atmospheric and battling crazed madmen who have taken over Arkham is always a fun time, but there’s nothing in this story that feels any different from what others have done dozens of times before.
Belle & Beau
Greg Hahn definitely has a message he wants to tell. The story follows Isabelle and Kevbo, two working class folks who pick up odd jobs working for various big name villains in Gotham. Right off the bat we’re told just how rough people in the service industry have it, with Isabelle narrating about the low minimum wages are and Kevbo being denied a tip for his delivery job. It’s a lot of ideas that are extremely applicable to the real world, and the story makes sure you know that. Isabelle talks about how they’re always told to “pull themselves up by their bootstraps”, there are multiple scenes of wealthy villains abusing workers, and we get an extremely on-the-nose parody of Martin Shkreli.
I have absolutely nothing against heavy political messages in stories. Plenty of my favorite comics and books are extremely overt with where they stand. However, you still need to tell a story first. That part of the assignment is almost an afterthought here. There are technically heists involved as they steal from the rich, but they happen in the background or in a couple panels. The vast majority of text is narration devoted to Isabelle ranting about the economic injustices against the working class. Those injustices are real, and absolutely worth talking about in a story, but it can’t be the only part of the story.
The concept of a couple of working class heroes stealing from the criminal bosses who run Gotham is a great idea. It’s something I wouldn’t mind at all revisiting in the future. However, that story cannot just be the main character talking directly to the audience about its political message. By all means have a political message, but show it with the story itself, don’t just say it.
- The Alfred story alone is arguably worth checking this out
- You’ve wanted to see Duke get more of a spotlight
- You’re a fan of exploring the difficulties of young heroes living up to their roles
This issue is a mixed bag. We got two different looks at what it’s like for a young hero to fill the role of vigilante, an Etrigan story with maybe more action than there was room for, some political commentary, and a bit of Alfred playing detective. While most of the stories aren’t anything spectacular, Chris Burnham’s opening chapter of The Pennyworth Files was incredible and I look forward to reading more chapters soon.
DISCLAIMER: DC Comics provided Batman News with a copy of this issue for the purposes of this review.