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Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Review: Batman/Superman #1

As much as people love their superheroes, people love even more to see their heroes meet and work together to fight off some sort of evil.  It is the reason comics/movies like Avengers are incredibly popular with readers and viewers.  There is just something about seeing multiple superheroes together that is exciting for everyone.  Perhaps it is the blending of people who fight crime for different reasons, or perhaps it is that putting two superheroes in the same comic makes it cheaper for those who like both, but teaming up heroes usually means magic and dollar signs.  This is especially the case when these heroes are put in the hands of a writer who understands their distinct personalities and how they work, finding the best way to make the opposites attract.  No two heroes match this definition like Batman and Superman.  Although both are loved for various reasons, comparisons between the two iconic DC characters are severely limited due to their varying tactics and general views on morality.  DC has decided it is time to tell the story of how these characters met in The New 52.  With the title World's Finest already taken, the comic is aptly titled Batman/Superman.  Can writer Greg Pak and artist Jae Lee give us a pairing of Batman and Superman that is as epic as their names imply?  Only one way to find out...

Investigating the murder of eight Wayne Enterprises employees in Metropolis, Batman/Superman #1 sees Clark Kent heading to Gotham City for answers.  As can be expected, a visit to Gotham City would not be complete without running into billionaire playboy Bruce Wayne, whom Clark immediately recognizes.  The two do not get off with a great start, and the same can be said for their caped alter egos, as Batman's attempt at stopping a murder is infiltrated by Superman.  The meeting of these two is short-lived, however, as a time-space bending event hurtles both Batman and Superman into a completely new set of challenges.

Anytime you have two or more superheroes meeting, it is almost a rule of thumb that there must be some sort of logical reason for the two joining forces.  While we do not see Batman and Superman teaming up in this book, we do get to see the very first time these two characters met in the New 52.  When this book was announced, many worried this book skirted continuity as it seemed the characters had never met before Geoff Johns' Justice League.  Such concerns are more or less ignored in this opening issue, but the fact that these two initially meet through the guise of their secret identities should not be enough to ruffle many feathers.  Continuity sometimes can be a little fluid if the story being told is believable and done well.  It is hard to say if that is the case for Batman/Superman as the story here is just a tad bland, but with a taste of intrigue.  Greg Pak has Clark Kent and Bruce Wayne meet in a way which feels natural, but this meeting is under conditions which may not be as cataclysmic as some readers might expect.  Nothing like we saw with Darkseid's appearance in Justice League.  In terms of Batman and Superman meeting, things are not exactly the definition of meet cute as the two clearly hold an animosity toward one another: Batman finds himself worried about what Superman may be capable of, and Superman misreads the entire scenario and interprets Batman as a murderer.  Where this issue gets just a little bit odd is in its latter pages, where we find Catwoman possessed by some sort of spirit with control of space-time, sending Superman to an alternate universe.  There, Superman runs into a completely different Batman, one many DC readers will recognize as the now deceased Batman of Earth 2.  Although it may be too early to give any true judgments on this story, this idea seems a bit silly on Greg Pak's part.  Detailing Batman and Superman's first meeting in the New 52 is interesting on its own merits, it does not need the Earth 2 element.  Getting to see the Earth 2 versions of these characters again, while nice, feels like a step back from what could have been a potentially engaging story on its own.  The meeting of DC's most iconic characters has some moments which feel cliche, but the entire scenario is one which feels much more believable without a journey to an alternate universe.  Again, though, Greg Pak could easily prove this reviewer wrong in coming issues.

Since Batman and Superman are such apples and oranges as characters, it can be a bit difficult for writers to have a strong handle on how both characters would act.  As this is Greg Pak's first  big comic outside of the Marvel Universe, such worries about his abilities to write Batman and Superman would be completely justified.  From one issue alone, it would seem that Pak has a decent enough handle on the character of Superman.  Much of the characterization of both heroes in this issue is done through thought boxes, which actually works out much better than it may sound.  Pak is writing a younger Superman than we are currently getting in any other New 52 books, so it is a bit understandable why he makes some of the decisions he does.  This is a Superman who seems to be more guided by his powers than anything else.  Though we do get a very nice discussion of Pa Kent's warnings to Clark about Gotham City, we mostly see him relying on his super powers to interact with others.  A man sitting on a park bench watching a kid being bullied is instantly recognizable to Superman as Bruce Wayne, something which catches Wayne off guard.  Easily the more interesting use of Superman's abilities in this issue is his ability to hear someone's heart beat.  Such an examination of this power makes for a very poignant end to the issue, silly Earth 2 elements aside.  On the whole, however, Scott Snyder seemed to have a much better hold on how Superman thinks in the premiere issue of Superman Unchained than Pak does here, but Snyder also has the distinct advantage of writing for a Superman who is more cemented in his career.  Unlike Snyder, however, Pak writes Clark Kent beautifully.  Although we do not see Clark much in this issue, his interactions with Bruce Wayne are very well-written.  As this series continues, however, Pak will undoubtedly find his way around the Man of Steel.

When it comes to writing Batman, Pak seems a lot more comfortable than he does with Superman.  Most comic readers are very familiar with the idea that Bruce Wayne is a disguise for his true identity as Batman, and Pak capitalizes on that very well in this issue.  While he may not be the world's greatest detective just yet, Pak writes Batman in a way where we already see the seeds firmly planted for that detective role.  Pak's Batman is one who is constantly analyzing and re-analyzing a scene before making a call, and it makes these moments even better when Superman clearly throws him off his game.  Perhaps what is so fascinating about reading this version of Batman is that he is seeing Superman through new eyes, making the character a mystery for him to solve.  Batman already has a very clear idea of what some of Superman's inherent abilities are, but, as we see, he does not know everything yet.  It will be interesting to see if Pak capitalizes on moments like this more often as it makes for some brilliant dramatic irony as well as demonstrating Bruce's intelligence.  Initially, it was a bit worrisome in the way Pak writes Bruce early on as the character comes off as very stand-offish, but it is made abundantly clear that Batman does everything for a reason, he just does not always share what that reason is.  In many ways, it feels like both of these characters are relying on instincts they have begun to master: Batman in his methods of decryption, Superman in his understanding of his powers.  Eventually these characters will have to learn to rely on each other, and, when that happens, Greg Pak may just have an intriguing little comic book on his hands.  Hopefully we will get to see Pak write a Batman solo book in the future as he clearly understands what makes the hero tick.

This review is going to be a little bit different from some of the other spotlight comics reviews here on Geek Rex, as some additional time will be spent focusing on the art of this issue.  The reason for that is simple: the art in this book is absolutely stunning.  Having just finished drawing Before Watchmen: Ozymandias, artist Jae Lee is a more than welcome addition to the New 52.  Lee's character designs are absolutely to die for.  Though the image on the cover of Superman's New 52 costume is a little less than stellar, Lee absolutely knocks Superman's t-shirt and jeans costume out of the park.  Batman is also drawn in an interesting way, with much of the art highlighting how Batman must use a lot of gadgets to perform his heroics.  Where Jae Lee really excels as an artist, however, is in his backgrounds.  It is a style which may not appeal to some readers, but Jae Lee's more deconstructionist approach to backgrounds makes for some very visually engaging panels.  Not every single panel is going to give you every detail of the street.  In fact, for one scene in particular, the only representation of a park which is present is a bench, a statue, and a rather large thorn bush with the occasional park lamp sprouting from it, the rest is a foggy haze of clouds.  This is the kind of style Lee gave to his work on Ozymandias and it works incredibly well here as a method of highlighting Gotham's mystery and the horror which can lurk underneath.  As mentioned, this more theater of the mind approach to decorating panels may be met with a lot of ire from more than a few readers, but Lee's art works in perfect harmony with the story Greg Pak is telling.  It is entirely possible that, if the writing of this comic ever goes completely down hill, Jae Lee's art alone will be worth the $3.99 price tag.

Though Jae Lee's art is stunning, it would not be nearly as effective without its colors.  June Chung and Daniel Brown do an excellent job of giving this book exactly the colors it needs.  The aforementioned scenes in Gotham are done in a black and grey which seem both indicative of Batman as well as the more depraved aspects of the city itself.  Such darkness in color also allows for Superman to stand out even more when he arrives in his fury of blue, yellow, and red. While the same color palate is used for much of the issue, nothing ever blends in too much with the background and none of the art is every confusing or difficult to make out.  While the story moving to Earth 2 may be weak, it also opens up for some very striking color changes.  A moment where Catwoman is no longer possessed by this yet unnamed antagonist is incredibly eye-catching.  The colors in Smallville at the issue's end are a nice juxtaposition of the more grungy Gotham City.  Although Metropolis is also very dark in this issue, making one wonder if this is not the shining city on the hill until Superman has truly risen as a hero.  It is also more than worth mentioning that the way the panels in this issue are designed are equally as stunning as the art.  Early on, we have both Batman and Superman reflecting on their past, and this is done in a splash page that is not only beautifully drawn, but laid out in a way which is down right gorgeous.  A page resembling posters for the recent Great Gatsby adaptation is also very well done.

Overall, Batman/Superman #1 is an inaugural issue which, mostly, lives up to its hype.  While the story is a little weak in places, it is difficult to fairly assess the quality when Greg Pak is not through with us just yet.  Even then, any short-comings on the story front are more than made up for with a writer who clearly understands both of these characters (but one just a tad more than the other).  More angry fanboys may still be upset over this issue as it makes no attempts to answer any questions about continuity, but one would be hard pressed to say this is not a comic at least worth trying.  If for nothing else, this book should be owned by everyone as the art is absolutely stunning, brought out by colors and page layouts that are to die for.  Yes, it seems Greg Pak and Jae Lee are setting us up for a comic that is going to do justice to these legendary superheroes.

Rating: A

Summary: Batman/Superman #1 is a little bit weak on story with some elements seeming too forced, but that is more than made up for with great characterization and even better artwork.
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