Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Batman/The Shadow #5 Review



Pen-Ultimate?!?


Written by:Scott Snyder and Steve Orlando
Art by: Riley Rossmo, Ivan Plascencia and Clem Robins
CoverPrice: $3.99
Release Date: August 23, 2017


This crossover involving two of the most iconic vigilantes in the history of pulp fiction is drawing to a close and I must say I’ve found the series intriguing and interesting rather than downright exciting. Snyder and Orlando have woven a story that acknowledges Batman’s literary debt to The Shadow, while refusing to smooth over the differences between them. Indeed, their diametrically opposed views on the killing of criminals form the thematic tension at the heart of the story that somehow needs to be resolved if the pair are to succeed in their bid to stop the Stag (along with the Joker) entering Shamba-La, the mystical paradise in which The Shadow was ‘born’. Given how last issue ended, it’s difficult to see how they can complete this particular mission. After all, it’s hard to stop crazed criminals entering a pocket paradise when you’re bleeding out on a slab. Still, this is comics. And there is going to be an issue 6. Let’s keep an open mind, eh?



Last issue ended with Batman receiving an allegedly fatal wound from which, the logic of publishing and 75+ years of history tell us, he will surely recover, but which nevertheless presents some problems from a storytelling point of view. It’s to the creators’ credit that they grasp this particular nettle from the start, although, it must be said, their grip on it loosens somewhat as the story goes on. The comic opens with a top-down panel of Batman on the operating table with Alfred in attendance and The Shadow standing watching. A couple of observations are worth making here. Batman is in full costume, including cowl. Between the first page and the next (the caption on the second page says “Hours later”) the costume has been removed. I’m not a medical expert, but wouldn’t it be better to remove the outfit before operating? Secondly, last issue we saw Batman being stabbed in the chest (well, ‘sternum’ might be more accurate), just below the bat symbol. This would support the notion that the Stag is obsessed with stabbing people through the heart. In this image, though, the wound is clearly lower and to Batman’s left side. I know it’s a relatively small thing, but it bugs me.



Anyway, The Shadow’s definitely a glass half empty chap, because he announces that the dagger the Stag uses ensures his victims’ deaths (and “prehistoric dagger interwoven with metaphysical circuitry” is exactly the kind of line we all got into comics to read) even while Alfred’s still operating on him. Alfred’s response is, as you might expect, spirited, but the following page sees him accepting defeat. Bruce’s blood isn’t coagulating properly and his arteries (yikes!) aren’t closing as they should either. Imagine my surprise, then, when, just a few panels later, Bruce wakes up smiling and then proceeds to sit up and get out of bed.

Look, this is comics. I get that. But… there comes a moment when a creative team needs to consider the very real possibility that it might be asking too much of a reader’s ability to suspend their disbelief and whether there are things it might do to reduce the likelihood of the reader, I don’t know, running around their dining room laughing uncontrollably at how insane this all is. (Not that I actually did that, you understand. But, I wouldn’t blame anyone who did.)

The weird thing is that this isn’t the oddest thing about this opening. No, that dubious honour belongs to the startling revelation that apparently Batman has worked out The Stag’s secret while on the operating table. That’s some pretty sharp detecting right there. (Okay. He could just be testing a hypothesis when he awakens, but that isn’t how it’s presented by the dialogue.) This revelation is somewhat spoiled by Riley Rossmo’s cover but it is that The Stag is not one man but many, a revelation that throws into doubt The Shadow’s own detection skills (he’s been fighting The Stag for years, after all, apparently in the firm belief that he’s an immortal – and solo - murderer) and tips the scales of the mysticism-rationality opposition that has been the second key source of tension in the series firmly in the ‘rationality’ camp’s favour.



How do I feel about this? Honestly, I don’t know. I guess I’m uncomfortable with the idea – partly because I quite like stories in which Batman has to confront a supernatural threat, but mostly because I don’t think the creative team has sold this particular revelation all that well. In any case, I think there’s something more going on here than just a bunch of people playing murderous dress-up, and there are a couple of solutions I can think of which enable both The Shadow and Batman to be right. I guess we’ll see next issue.


This issue sees a scene shift to somewhere on the Faroe Islands, a place I’m only dimly aware of due to their football team’s irregular encounters with the England team and the heavy metal band Tyr. The Joker and The Stag are there because they’ve captured Harry Vincent and Margo Lane and taken them to “a dark place” which, we later find out, contains a portal to Shamba-La. Rossmo’s art here is really rather impressive. He does gothic very well and the panel of Lane and Vincent suspended upside down from the cavern’s roof, a twisted network of skull-encrusted roots in the foreground, is gothic gold. Plascencia’s subdued colours are excellent here, too. There’s a wonderfully crepuscular, subterranean atmosphere in this sequence and Orlando does a pretty good job of matching Vincent and Lane’s dialogue to that sense of morbid gloom. Lane, remember, is embittered by The Shadow’s somewhat utilitarian approach to their friendship and her scorn for Vincent’s continued loyalty is a nice touch.

This is followed up when Batman and The Shadow arrive to perform their inevitable rescue. I’m not going to spoil too much of the rest of the comic, other than to say that it ends on a visually impressive note whose following ‘shock’ revelation is something of a damp squib. I am, however, interested enough in this story to want to see how it ends and I still have hopes that we’ll get a satisfying conclusion, both narratively and thematically. We shall, as always, see.

On the whole, then, this is a perfectly serviceable issue. Despite my misgivings about Batman’s ongoing ability to walk upright never mind function as a costumed vigilante, the action crackles along at a decent pace and my suspicions that the Joker’s plan to capture Lane and Vincent would turn out to be a meaningless diversion have proved to be unfounded. Rossmo’s art, the odd weird facial expression apart, is generally very good indeed and he really does seem suited to this kind of murky, pseudo-mystical story.



There are some engaging moments between The Shadow and Margo, and the ongoing tension between The Shadow and Batman continues to be interesting, although the sense that Batman now has the upper hand has altered the dynamics of their relationship considerably. My issues with the story are less to do with the direction in which it’s taking me and more to do with the ways in which each next step is revealed. Then there’s the Joker. If there are, in fact, three Jokers wandering around in the DC Universe, the Joker that appears here must be the camp, overly talky and slightly crap one. His relationship with The Stag is odd to say the least and his dialogue isn’t quite witty enough to elevate his portrayal into something truly memorable. The Stag, on the other hand, remains one of the most interesting things about this series and I’ll be disappointed if he does indeed turn out to be exactly what Batman has theorised in this issue. In terms of design, he’s a great villain and I hope we see him again after this series.

Bits and Pieces:

As penultimate issues go, this one isn’t bad at all, but neither is it an unalloyed triumph. How much you’ll enjoy it depends very much on how easily you can take Batman recovering from his fatal knife wound and how you feel about the issue’s central revelation about The Stag. For me, there’s enough here to keep me reading and Rossmo’s art on occasion taps a wonderfully twisted and gothic vein. The series continues to ask interesting questions about the two main characters. Here’s hoping we get some satisfying answers in next month’s finale.

7.2/10


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2 comments:

  1. I've stuck with this one, and will stick with it to the end, but I find this mini to be one of the worst Batman stories I've read in a while. If I wasn't such a big fan of both Batman and Shadow, I would have dropped it with issue 2. The art is ridiculous, especially when it comes to The Shadow's cape and scarf. The story is full of holes. The villains team-up is sketchy to say the least. Batman having a healing factor to rival Wolverine is just. . .eye rolling. Like I said above, I SHOULD have dropped this with issue 2, but I want to support projects like this so they keep getting made, but I damn sure hope they do a better job next time. . .both Batman and The Shadow deserve better.

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    1. Thanks for your comment. I'm probably a bit more forgiving than you are when it comes to this series' shortcomings. (And I actually quite like Rossmo's portrayal of the Shadow, implausibly long scarf included.) I do find some of the thematic stuff interesting and the series does occasionally hit some genuinely unsettling beats. But, yes, the story is not as well told as it could be and it certainly assumes a trust from the reader that it hasn't really earned. I do really like The Stag, though. I hope the team doesn't screw him up next issue. :)

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