In times of crisis and craziness, sometimes you’ve gotta just take a break and enjoy some comfort food. For a comic book site, that means we’ll talk about Batman.
For my family under quarantine, that means we ate a month’s supply of junk food in the first three days.
First, some context.
It’s been a minute, but sometime in 2018, DC comics and Walmart teamed up to put out 5 dollar 100-page giant comics, a relationship that still continues to this day.
Initially, it was a unique experiment, and DC pulled some of their top creators to work on books starring their top characters in an effort to ensure its success. Each book, Superman, Teen Titans, Batman, Justice League, etc. would feature at least one new story and several reprints to help a more general audience get excited about the characters.
My favorites of these were the seasonal specials, which would highlight one-shot stories tied to the holidays or Halloween horror. I was much more excited for a reprint of Swamp Thing’s origin than part 3 of a new 52 Nightwing story. For more on that, Check my review of the Halloween book and part one of what we’re talking about today.
Otherwise, some of the missteps of the experiment would get in the way. Pardon me while I kvetch for a paragraph or two. Walmart’s distribution was spotty, with some stores not getting new books consistently. They weren’t put out to customers at the same time, either. Your Wallymart might put a book out a week early or two weeks later than other Walmarts, if at all. A lot of times the books that made it to the shelves would be in rough shape, even before the Walmart clientele got to them. Bent corners, page tears, or some kid-spilt slurpee sticking pages together were all too common occurrences.
Also, some of the backup stories would run too long. Books would be re-branded mid-story, so that Justice League turned into Wonder Woman, or Teen Titans became Titans with new #1 issues, but including part 6 or 7 of an ongoing tale from before the name change. For something designed to hook new readers, it seemed confusing for sure.
Plus, there was no mention where readers could go next if they wanted more comics! Those are the grievances, but there were also plenty of positives.
First, there have been some remedies since the initial launch of the program.
$5 Giants are no longer Walmart exclusives, which means your local comic shop could order them as well. That’s fantastic news if you wanted back issues, as that’s a common feature of the comic shop, but not a thing that Walmart would do. If you missed part one of a story and wanted to go back and get it but the story was on part 3 already, you were out of luck. Walmart also still gets copies, often with distinct covers so DC gets the benefit of the Walmart exposure, just not with the hang ups. Also, the latest crop of books are featuring more all-ages titles like Scooby Doo, the Super Hero Girls, and Teen Titans Go! They also tie into events like the recent TV crossover with titles like Crisis. All good ideas on the exposure front.
Also, the original content from the Batman and Superman books, Batman: Universe and Superman: Up in the Sky, was released to comic shops in individual issues, as well as forthcoming graphic novels. This meant if you wanted to read Batman by the guy who writes Superman or Superman by the guy who was writing Batman, you could have your shot with more traditional distribution models. I’ve heard rumors the other original work was going to be collected possibly down the line as well, so I’m sure the success of Batman and Superman will go a long way to seeing that Wonder Woman collection seeing the light of day.
Today, I want to look at Batman: Universe by Brian Michael Bendis and Nick Derington. This story was one of Brian Bendis’s first stories after he jumped ship from years at Marvel, and he immediately shows off all the skills that made him a valuable asset. First, he humanizes Batman. Bendis’s Batman is not the grim and gritty super-ultra-perfect detective who can do no wrong. This Batman loves dinosaurs. Who doesn’t? But it took Bendis to point out that Batman does keep a giant Dino replica in his cave. He lets Batman talk instead of just standing grimly, and it’s a ton of fun. Batman gets to be in socially awkward situations, like when Green Lantern bringing up how Bruce has never bothered to visit his house.
Bendis’s Batman shares in the fun, awkwardness, and oftentimes ridiculousness of a variety of craziness. He doesn’t know everything going into every situation, and while he’s fallible, the readers know Batman is going to figure a way out of his predicament. Batman stories mean so much more when there’s at least the appearance that he could not be perfect. Readers know when he’s shot point blank that there’s going to be another issue of Batman next month, but the fun is watching it all unfurl. Of course, he still has all the antidotes and tech to survive any situation, but that’s always been part of the fun of Batman, too.
Next, Bendis highlights the relationships that Batman has with his supporting cast. Whether it’s Batman being chided by his butler Alfred (who doubles as his man in the chair while on missions) or his interactions with Dick Grayson, you get a taste of the Batfamily and what makes them great. You also get a taste of the DC Universe heroes as well when Batman interacts with folks like Jonah Hex, Green Arrow, Green Lantern, or the people of Thrangar. We see how Batman fits in, even when he’s thrust into situations where he decidedly doesn’t fit in. Somehow he ends up with his own old west outfit or Batwings or even his old Batman 2000 armor and the story goes on. It’s just like Batman to be able to adapt to any possible situation accordingly.
Finally on the writing front, Bendis brings out the bad guys from all corners of the DC universe too. The Riddler, Deathstroke, and Vandal Savage all serve various purposes across the story, but so do the Green Lanterns, the people of Thrangar, the citizens of Gorilla City. The story purposefully hops along quickly, never spending too much time in one place or on one pairing of heroes as Batman Brave-and-Bold’s his way about 12 pages at a time.
Every different encounter leaves the reader wanting more: more time with more Riddlers, more time with Batman and Green Arrow hanging out, more time watching as Alfred passive-aggressively deals with Bruce. Bendis never takes things too seriously, but never disrespects the essence of the characters involved.
It also helps that the Nick Derington art is beautiful. Derington’s style is just enough everything. He’s just sketchy enough that it feels a little dangerous. He’s just cartoony enough that the action and excitement and emotion of the situations shines through. And he’s just realistic enough that everything, no matter how fantastical, still remains grounded in reality. His double-page spreads and action sequences show off a deftness in storytelling. Batman becomes Billy from the old Family Circus cartoons, but instead of getting into messes, he’s kicking Ninja with his old sidekick or breaking into a stronghold.
Derington uses the flat colors that I wish more artists would utilize, where his art still pops and feels like the best comic books can offer. The shading and variations are subtle and never get in the way.
Ultimately, Batman: Universe is Bendis and Derington not just having fun with Batman, but having fun with the entire universe around comic books.
It’s not bogged down with continuity concerns (Ric Grayson has no place here), nor is it bogged down with unnecessary complexity or inaccessible references. There’s no hidden secret agenda that changes everything you’ve ever known about these characters, there’s just a convoluted Vandal Savage plot that spans time and space and everything in-between, all in the space of one reasonably sized graphic novel. Everything you need to know is provided in the story, and if you know more, or want to know more, you have enough information to get you started on where to look next. It’s just Batman and pals jumping through time trying to solve a crime that just so happens to involve saving the world several times over.
If you’re looking for a great entry-level book for new or lapsed readers, you would do well to recommend this one. This story isn’t setting out to change everything in comics, just to celebrate it and have fun in the process. A re-invigorated Bendis does what he does best, and Nick Derington proves that he’s just not along for the ride with his art, but that he’s a star attraction as well. Together they produced a great done-in-one story that leaves you wanting more. A+
Until next time, I’ll be waiting for the next excellent bat-book to come down the pike!