Review: Superman/Batman: Torment collected hardcover (DC Comics)

Monday, October 27, 2008

[Contains spoilers for Superman/Batman: Torment]

It's hard to say whether Superman/Batman: Torment presents the right direction for the Superman/Batman title. That is, Torment tells a good (not great) Superman/Batman story, but flies in the face of continuity to do it. This is something we also saw in the previous volume, Superman/Batman: Enemies Among Us, though Torment is even more loosely connected, and I'm not sure this trend will necessarily work for the title.

Consider Torment versus the first, and possibly best, Superman/Batman story, Public Enemies. Public Enemies took place distinctly shortly after Batman: Hush, and dealt with Superman and Batman's overthrow of President Luthor -- a monumental event in DC Comics history that began the universe's move toward Infinite Crisis. Now consider Torment, which takes place in a tricky period after Luthor's fall but before Infinite Crisis*, and whose relevance is quite essentially nil. There's a very minor Final Crisis tie at the end, but overall this book affects nothing, and is even set in the past where it can't affect anything. Both stories are like summer blockbusters, and in that way perhaps worthy of the Superman/Batman title; but whereas Superman/Batman (mainly under Jeph Loeb) used to be built on summer blockbuster events, Torment is all the fanfare without the relevance.

Which is not to say that Torment is a bad story. Most of the appeal of the tale came for me in Burnett's mixing of DC's two main fear-based bad guys, the Scarecrow and Desaad; in that way, Torment covers some new ground. Torment also offers some techno-punk-eseque scenes of Batman amongst the New Gods, and it's always exciting to see the "normal" Batman in these "paranormal" situations (though unfortunately, Torment, for a Superman/Batman tale, becomes largely Batman's story when Superman is lost to mind-control early on). This was also my first introduction to the New God Bekka, married apparently to Orion, and I found her difficult relationship with Batman quite interesting; there's a great moment when the two must stand in an awkward embrace, hidden from the Parademons that surround them on all sides.

I did struggle to understand what Burnett was trying to say about Superman and Batman here -- not that every comic has to have a "message," but oftentimes Jeph Loeb's Superman/Batman stories explored in some underlying way either the heroes themselves, or questions of justice or heroism. The "torment" in the title seems to apply most directly to the way in which Superman is plagued by Scarecrow-induced fears at the beginning of the story (though Scarecrow, strangely, also falls away about halfway through the tale). "Torment" can also apply, a bit more metaphorically, to the way Batman suffers for his desire for Bekka, and indeed his consideration of the way he's denied himself love throughout his life.

Though nicely moving, I didn't think these insights into Batman were especially new, and indeed many of them are no longer true of the more emotional post-Infinite Crisis Batman. There's a good moment in the end where Superman, newly rescued, celebrates being alive while in contrast Batman, cut off from Bekka, rues the day -- but this served in a way only to reinforce the separate directions in which Burnett seemed to be pulling the story.

Superman/Batman: Torment isn't a bad story, and artist Dustin Nguyen creates a visual feast the whole way through. But Superman/Batman used to be a super-relevant must-read -- and if the trend shown here continues, I'll soon be questioning whether to even pick it up right away. I hope that's not the case.

[Contains full covers, Dustin Nguyen sketchbook section]

Up next: More Superman with Superman: The Third Kryptonian!

* For you continuity wonks out there, the problem is the appearance of Lex Luthor in this trade. Pete Ross is president here, placing the story after Superman/Batman: Public Enemies, where Lex Luthor went missing before Infinite Crisis -- except Lex appears here, seemingly still in charge of Lexcorp (called Lex-Com in the story). One might suggest that Lex was simply operating under the heroes' radar during this time, except that Batman actually questions Lex in the story! We might perhaps resolve that maybe Batman knew where Lex was during this time, but Superman didn't, but there's any number of stories to contradict this. In all likelihood, Burnett and his editor just didn't concern themselves with where this story fit into continuity. I think the continuity lapse takes away from the story, but others might disagree.
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6 comments:

  1. Gotta disagree with you on this point:
    "Public Enemies took place distinctly shortly after Batman: Hush, and dealt with Superman and Batman's overthrow of President Luthor--a monumental event in DC Comics history that began the universe's move toward Infinite Crisis."

    One of the reasons I disliked Public Enemies is that it does not deliver what it promises. Superman and Batman do not take down Lex Luthor - rather, Superman and Batman are present when Luthor self-destructs. Luthor's plan makes virtually no sense whatsoever - he makes a flimsier claim than the Bush administration's justifications for Iraq, and really expects that the whole nation will turn on its favourite son in the wink of an eye? Luthor is that arrogant, but he isn't that stupid.

    Not to mention that the villain army part, which, while a cool fight, is illogical in the extreme: were all these wanted criminals expecting a pardon because they brought in other wanted criminals?

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  2. Loki my friend, I thought you were going to argue with where I placed Public Enemies chronologically, not my statement that it was monumental. :)

    Well, to each their own. I think Superman and Batman intend to take down Lex, and then Lex does it to himself ... but I won't argue the fine points. There is a bunch that's inexplicable in Public Enemies. But it's also grandiose superhero fun on a scale DC hadn't done before, and woke DC up on it's path toward Infinite Crisis, and in that way I call it "monumental." But I understand your point as well.

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  3. Hey, being reading your web regularly for reviews, love what you've started especially with the DC timelines stuff to keep me updated of what to buy.

    Regarding Superman/Batman, I've being collecting the softcover paperback due to budget constraint and I'm curious as to is DC going to produce this Superman/Batman:Torment on softcover?

    From the way it looks, only the next book Superman/Batman:The Search For Kryptonite is coming out in softcover skipping this issue.

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  4. Indeed the Torment paperback seems to be missing, but I imagine this is a low enough priority for DC that it might be solicited just last minute, if at all. I would be surprised if it never makes paperback, but then again, I'm still waiting for Flash: Wild Wests in paper, too.

    You aren't, I'd mention, missing much. It's a fair story, but continuity-wise there's nothing that'll be picked up again short of a minor nod to Death of the New Gods.

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  5. Just found this post. I re-read Torment again (for probably the twentieth time) and thought I'd check the 'net to see how many other readers enjoyed it as much as I do. It is such a great read with stunning pencils from Nguyen (assuming you like his Mignola/Quesada style). Pick up the trade, folks. One of my favorite Batman stories ever.

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  6. Tell me more why Torment is one of your favorite Batman stories. I find the bit with Bekka, with Batman struggling to contain his desires, quite effective (and how this parallels, indirectly, the characters of Orion and Batman, an uncommon comparison), though I don't necessarily rank this story as highly as you seem to.

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