Anthology series are often by their nature very hit or miss. Any given comic has some likelihood of either being good or bad, and when you collect them like this you roll the dice over and over again. With a whopping 64 pages, Batman: The Brave and the Bold #1 almost feels less like an anthology and more like a handful of full-sized comics stapled together. More than that, all but one of them are a “part 1”, meaning that DC is staying inside its comfort zone of relying on miniseries. So if what you’re looking for is the first issues of multiple series all sold as a bundle, then I’ve got good news for you.
Batman: The Winning Card part 1
The headliner of the collection is undoubtedly meant to be “Batman: The Winning Card part 1”. It’s written by Tom King, DC’s “prestige” golden boy right now, and it’s a retelling of Batman’s pivotal first encounter with the Joker. It’s a story that has some big clown shoes to fill given its canonical importance and how many other times its been retold in comics, movies, TV and video games. My personal favorite, and the one I often choose to consider canon, is Ed Brubaker’s Batman: The Man Who Laughs.
King’s adaptation leans heavily into the suspense of Joker’s mind games, where it’s the characters waiting for something to happen that brings out the drama. One of his strongest talents as a writer is detective fiction, such as in his recent Gotham City: Year One series, and that remains true here. The scenes with Captain Gordon and the GCPD scrambling to try and protect the victims whom the Joker has targeted are great. It’s a literal ticking clock as everyone waits to see if Joker will somehow make his announced move, and each time the story cuts back to them the tension continues to build.
That suspense is helped in no small part by Mitch Gerads’ incredible art. His almost impressionist colors and detailed linework create a comic that’s both beautiful to look at and dripping with a haunting atmosphere. It’s no surprise that he and King continue to work together, as their styles compliment each other so well. Even the things you don’t see manage to be effective. Throughout most of the story Joker’s dialog is presented as disembodied text styled like the speech cards from an old silent film. It evokes an homage to 1928 film The Man Who Laughs (note: not the Brubaker comic of the same name), which was the original inspiration for the character. It also creates a haunting, ghostly presence for the Joker, which looms over the reader as the apprehension builds.
Of course I can’t give Gerads all the artistic credit. I’d recognize Tom King’s art style anywhere, like what was used for these children’s drawings. King is the Michelangelo of our age, and will surely be remembered for his paintbrush more than his pen.
If there’s one element of the story that I was not a fan of, it’s actually the sections with Batman himself. Intercut between everything happening with the Joker is a sequence of Batman interrogating a man at a train yard. Whatever gravitas the scene might have had is totally undercut by the ridiculous overuse of censored swear words. This is a problem that I think a lot of comics have in general, where they want to be “adult” and include cussing, but always need to censor them with a @$%@ and end up looking more childish than if they had just skipped it entirely. This story takes that to the extreme, with page after page of *&%# so that it becomes hard to even pay attention to what little actual words are printed. Imagine if in the middle of The Dark Knight, one of Joker’s goons starts swearing but it was overlaid with a loud BEEP every time despite everything around it being meant to come across as extremely serious. It’s an unfortunately glaring distraction in an otherwise promising start to the story.
Stormwatch: Down with the Kings part 1
Despite the comic’s title, not all of the stories here are Batman related, which includes “Stormwatch: Down with the Kings part 1”. In fact it has almost no connection at all aside from a brief appearance from Phantom-One (who is at least two degrees of separation from Batman, being Ghost-Maker’s former sidekick). Instead, what we get is an introduction to Stormwatch, a covert black ops team tasked with handling dangerous threats to Earth. For anyone not familiar with semi-obscure DC teams from the 90s, think Suicide Squad, but in space.
The story devotes a decent amount of time to simply listing off the various team members and what their powers, personalities, etc. are. It’s not the most elegant way to deliver information to the reader, but it’s quick and effective so that it can jump into the action as quickly as possible. These kinds of team books live or die based on the characters and their dynamics, and while we haven’t yet seen much of their rapport, they’re all interesting enough to get me invested. Namely, they’re almost all sufficiently weird that they don’t simply blend in with every other similar team out there. You always need some sort of hook, and a team leader who’s a chain smoking skeleton in a suit certainly checks some boxes for me.
Once the mission properly begins, it almost immediately jumps into high gear and remains exciting throughout. Jeff Spokes’ art and colors brings the fight to life as the ebb and flow of the battle swings from one side to the other. The device they’re after turns from a standard MacGuffin to a pivotal element of the fight itself as the set piece plays with time dilation to keep things fresh. Overall it’s a great, relatively self-contained adventure to give you a taste of the team before (hopefully) building more narrative meat in future issues.
Superman: Order of the Black Lamp part 1
Ok, now we’re getting into the stories that aren’t full sized comics in their own right.
The story opens with a framing device of Clark needing to write an editorial about what Superman means as a hero. This acts as a sort of meta-commentary and offers insight as to what he thinks about himself. It’s a self evaluation heavy with ennui and a longing for the excitement of the way things used to be. The day to day adventures of Superman have become so rote that they’re not interesting anymore, as Clark finds himself remembering back to a childhood Summer romance whose name he can’t recall. Clark even mentions feeling like he needs a thesaurus to deal with how often “Superman saves the day” comes up (which as someone who regularly writes reviews for superhero comics, I can extremely relate to).
Just as Clark and Lois discuss how repetitive everything has become, a mysterious package arrives in the mail. Inside is a decoder ring from a TV show that Clark used to watch as a kid. Instead of an Ovaltine advertisement, it reveals a cry for help and a map. Suddenly all of Clark’s languor is made moot as he is whisked away on an adventure straight out of a 40s pulp novel with hidden cities and mysteries abound.
“Superman: Order of the Black Lamp part 1” clearly has a theme it’s going for, and it focuses in on it hard. I say this as a good thing, because having a strong thematic core is an element of writing that can elevate a comic above most of its peers. The story ties into the ideas of nostalgia and the inevitable weariness of routine. I think it’s clear that Cantwell is intentionally presenting such an old fashioned adventure given how much of the story is about Clark’s tiredness with how thing have become. It’s an angle that I’m excited to read more of as the series continues.
Heroes of Tomorrow
I am so burnt out on dystopian cyberpunk Batman futures. I get it, Batman Beyond was a great show, but between reviewing the Batman Beyond: Neo-Year series, the dreadful Future State: Gotham, and now this, they all just start to blend together. It’d be different if any of them seemed to be doing anything interesting with the cyberpunk setting to make them stand out, but aside from the obligatory neon lights, Joker-gangs-inspired-by-the-original, and armored suits, they all just end up being incredibly dull.
The narration that Batman gives about how he’s the only one who can help the helpless in Gotham is the same speech I’ve heard him give a hundred times before in one form or another. The fight with the Joker robot is well drawn (this is still Dan Mora we’re talking about) but makes little sense and never creates any sort of investment or reason to care. The reveal that the two brothers he saves are named Richard and Jason doesn’t elicit any emotion whatsoever either because it doesn’t mean anything.
This story was billed as the first of a new Black and White series, which has traditionally been a creative space where really interesting stories and concepts could be made. To see it be yet another hollow cyberpunk Batman is extremely disappointing. Dan Mora is one of, if not the best artist working at DC right now. Him being attached to any series is enough to get me interested. However, as a writing debut, I sadly can’t say it’s something I want more of.
- You want a diverse collection of different superhero stories
- You’re excited to see a retelling of Batman and Joker’s first meeting
- Almost 70 pages of content for $8 sounds like a good deal
Batman: The Brave and the Bold #1 is a mostly really solid collection of distinct stories, ranging from suspenseful thriller to action packed team-up. Not all of them work, but for the ones that do it’s a wide array of first chapters that show a lot of potential.
DISCLAIMER: DC Comics provided Batman News with a copy of this comic for the purposes of this review.