Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Batman/The Shadow #6 Review and SPOILERS

The Student Becomes The Teacher. No, Really.

Written by Scott Snyder and Steve Orlando
Art by Riley Rossmo
Colours by Ivan Plascencia
Letters by Clem Robins
Published by: DC Comics and Dynamite Entertainment
Cover Price: $3.99
Release Date: September 27, 2017

This coming together of Batman and one of his more influential antecedents reaches its climax in this issue and there is, in my mind, a fair amount of promise the series now needs to fulfill. So far, we’ve been introduced to the intriguing notion that The Shadow has woven himself into the tapestry of Batman’s personal history as a way of training him up to be his immortal replacement. In The Stag, we’ve also been given a villain whose costume design is genuinely unsettling and whose very nature seems to be up for grabs, a mystery whose answer must surely be revealed in these pages. The last issue left us with several important questions in urgent need of answering. Who is The Stag? Who or what exactly comprises his glowing ‘army’ currently in the process of tearing down Shamba-La, the mystical haven in which The Shadow was born? How will a fatally wounded Batman survive this encounter, much less triumph in it? Will The Shadow and Batman finally reconcile their differences? Which one of them was right about the nature of the universe? Will the Joker start doing something useful? Or meaningful? Will Orlando deploy yet another plant metaphor? Will the last five months of reading this title have been, after all, worth it?

There really is only one way to find out…

That’s one hell of a cover right there. Not so much for the artwork itself, but more for what it represents. The Batman-as-Shadow in mid-leap firing his machine pistols, his red cape flying up behind him like jagged bat-wings, seems to indicate that The Shadow’s plan to hand his role and identity over to Batman is going to come to fruition in this issue. It’s at times like this that I wish I collected action figures. Then I could wistfully hope for a Bat-Shadow variant figure that includes twin machine pistols, ammo pouches hanging from his utility belt, an utterly pointless red scarf and a red bat symbol-embossed form-fitting leather uniform. It looks pretty impressive. Does it actually appear in the issue, though? Hmmm.

I must admit I wasn’t sure exactly what to expect when opening this issue, but I’m pretty sure that three Cthulhu-esque monsters floating against a huge geometric grid laid over a purple cosmic background telling Batman he was dead wasn’t it. I’ve seen weirder means of exposition, though, and… Ah. No. Actually, no. I haven’t. The three Cthulhu-heads explain to Batman (and the reader) what Shamba-La is in terms that are meant to imbue the revelation with a certain sense of mystery but come close to rendering it impenetrable. When you start throwing phrases around like “higher thaumic frequency” (‘thaumic’ means magical, in case you were wondering) and “ballast torch” around, you risk losing your reader pretty quickly. 

Thankfully, the gist of the background is easy enough to pick up. Shamba-La acts as a real-world anchor for a group of extra-dimensional ‘teachers’ who have, for reasons not entirely explained, taken it upon themselves to attract the world’s worst in order either to kill or cure them. The Stag is the second of two brothers who, long ago, reached Shamba-La. The first entered and refused the teachers’ offer of redemption; the second, left holding his brother’s crisped body in his arms, vows vengeance and becomes… the Stag.

This is where things become… unsatisfying. There have been two theories put forward about the Stag so far. The first is The Shadow’s idea that the Stag is immortal, a descendant of Cain and has slaughtered his way through history in an effort to get to Shamba-La. This, according to the ‘teachers’ currently explaining everything to us and Batman, is almost certainly untrue. The second theory is Batman’s and it is that the Stag is not one man but many, an army of murderers working towards a common goal. This, obviously, is the version we’re meant to accept. The problem is that it’s unsatisfactory on a couple of levels.

For one thing, it doesn’t address the Stag’s choice of name, costume or catchphrase. For another, it conspicuously fails to explain why the Stag’s ‘army’ are rendered as glowing versions of the ‘main’ Stag and remain silent while the ‘main’ solid-looking one is able to say his line about being ‘an honest signal’. At the end of the book, when the Stag is defeated, Batman unmasks the ‘main’ Stag revealing a face that looks remarkably like the face of the surviving brother in the teachers’ flashback. What he doesn’t do is unmask any of the glowing Stags who are sprawled unconscious in the nearby snow. There’s still a mystery here and it’s… irritating. Are we meant to think that the ‘main’ Stag is in some sense a reincarnation of the original one? The ‘teachers’ mention the word ‘lineage’, which would suggest custom and continuity, but the art suggests something more supernatural. We’re not going to get an answer any time soon, unfortunately.

After revealing (some of) the truth about the Stag, the ‘teachers’ offer Batman (who they’ve already declared dead at this point) a choice – take up the mantle of The Shadow and become an immortal crusader against evil or return to Earth mortal, but healed of his life-threatening injuries. Batman chooses the latter course of action and, in the process, says some interesting things about the role of Batman and the notion that it’s bigger than just one man, which is something that has been touched on in a range of stories recently, not least Snyder’s run on the title in the New 52 and, of course, Batman Eternal. Say what you like about this series, but this is a pretty big moment and a fitting one for a series that has already challenged our understanding of the character of Batman.

I’m not going to spoil too much about the rest of the issue, but I will say that the main plot’s resolution depends on The Shadow shooting an all-important maguffin we’ve only just been introduced to and, considering the build-up to this moment, it’s just a little contrived – although, to be fair, the moment is rendered all the more dramatic by the fact that Batman has to allow his mind to ‘meet’ with The Shadow’s if he’s to survive the experience.

That’s not to say that the issue is not without its problems. The Joker, despite having a couple of good moments, is clearly superfluous to proceedings at this point, whatever inherent menace he may once have brought to the story having long since dissipated. The stakes are not especially high. Or at least not emphasized quite strongly enough. Together, Batman and The Shadow must save the lives of the ‘teachers’, which, obviously, is important to them, but, without a clearer idea of what their death would mean for the rest of the world, the sense of threat is somewhat muted. That said, there are things at stake for both Batman and The Shadow and the creative team do a good job of conveying The Shadow’s anguish as he chooses to save the ‘teachers’ while sacrificing his chance at ending his ‘service’ as The Shadow, something that he looks on as a ‘sentence’.

The final pages of the issue present a moment between Batman and The Shadow that turns out to be surprisingly touching and leaves me with hope that the forthcoming second series may well be worth checking out. Yes, it’s a ‘student becomes teacher’ moment, but, with these two characters, it really works rather well, especially because The Shadow doesn’t look like he’s going to be a particularly willing learner. 

On the whole, then, I feel quite positive about this issue and the series as a whole. While elements like the Stag and the whole resolution of the Shamba-La plot don’t quite work as well as they might, the series still manages to say something interesting about the characters of Batman and The Shadow and offers a new paradigm for the pairing going forward. Riley Rossmo’s artwork is generally excellent, although his faces can look a little rushed, particularly in action sequences. His layouts, however, are superb. They’re both highly imaginative and easy to follow. His character work is similarly imaginative and dynamic; I would love to see him tackle a Swamp Thing or Animal Man title for DC at some point in the future. He can do Lovecraftian tentacle-monsters and the occasional crumbling ruin remarkably well and he uses both the main two characters’ capes to good dramatic effect.

Bits and pieces:

As an ending to the series, this issue (just about) does the job. While you may, like me, find the issue’s revelations about the Stag and use of the Joker disappointing, Rossmo’s art is creepy and unsettling when needed and there is a fair amount of action to be enjoyed. Perhaps most important of all, though, is the issue’s redefining of the relationship between Batman and The Shadow, which points to an intriguing second series later next month. A mostly satisfactory ending to a mostly satisfactory series.


No comments:

Post a Comment