Review: Batman: Life After Death hardcover/paperback (DC Comics)

Monday, February 14, 2011

I've been pleased to find lately that comics can still surprise me. Whereas Tony S. Daniel's Battle for the Cowl was over-narrated, with mis-presented characters and some dark, hasty artwork, his Batman: Life After Death is a near-perfect tour de force. Daniel offers a compelling protagonist in the new Batman Dick Grayson, a cogent mystery in the identity of the new Black Mask, and enough twists, turns, and continuity notes to keep me riveted throughout. After Bruce Wayne returns, I couldn't see much purpose in following any book but the Grant Morrison-written Batman Inc., but if Daniel keeps the quality on Batman that's found here, then that's another for my list.

[Contains spoilers]

Skeptical as I had once been about Dick Grayson's role as Batman, Grant Morrison and Judd Winick went a long way toward convincing me that the idea could work, and Tony Daniel cements it. Daniel's Grayson-Batman has not the edge of the Wayne-Batman; he falls into a number of different traps and doesn't seem necessarily surprised with himself for having done so. A young boy who helps Grayson gets killed, and Grayson's reaction is neither too emotionless nor too vengeful, as Bruce Wayne might have been; instead, in a small moment, one senses that Grayson mourns the child both for how the child reflects himself and how the child reflects his fallen mentor.

Grayson's battle against Black Mask in this story is a team effort, involving Alfred and Robin, but also to a large extent Huntress, Oracle, Catwoman, and Commissioner Gordon. The Bat-family shows a level of teamwork that we haven't seen previously -- a variety of heroes came to Bruce Wayne's aid during Batman RIP, but it was nothing to the extent of Catwoman as Grayson's informant or Huntress watching his back to foil a thief. Though it's not stated explicitly, I think Daniel even wants us to intuit that Gordon knows this isn't the original Batman and assists him accordingly. Dick Grayson is the Batman prince, essentially, being assisted by his forebear's couriers to accept rule of the kingdom. Helped immensely by Daniel's art -- which looks enough like Jim Lee's to give this entire whodunit airs of Hush -- Life After Death is swift and fresh and makes Bruce Wayne as Batman, frankly, feel a little stodgy.

I'll admit Tony Daniel had me guessing right up until the end as to the identity of Black Mask. (See how a bunch of nice Collected Editions readers discussed essential "Batman: Reborn" with me while tiptoeing around said spoiler.) Black Masks's identity in retrospect is fairly obvious (Brad Meltzer's theory of "who benefits" wins again), but I stuck for a long time with the answer being Arnold Wesker, the deceased Ventriloquist (despite that we just saw his corpse in Blackest Night) with a few quick detours into thinking it was Two-Face. Daniel writes a cogent Batman mystery, complete with viable clues and red herrings; at times it seems the Batman series has to be either a superhero title or a mystery one (Morrison's Batman and Robin being more the former, Paul Dini's wonderful run on Detective Comics being more the latter), so Daniel's good combination of both is a breath of fresh air. Here again, it's hard not to find good parallels between Life After Death and Hush, especially if you liked Hush as I did.

To that end, it's perhaps no coincidence that Daniel pays homage to Hush writer Jeph Loeb's Batman: The Long Halloween early in Life After Death, bringing that series firmly into continuity at least for the time being. Daniel returns the gangster Mario Falcone, balancing out Batman's often predictable rogues. Not only does Daniel leave unclear whose side Falcone is on, it also looks like he'll revisit the question of Catwoman's true parentage as presented in Loeb's Dark Victory. In fact, Daniel's story is full of these kinds of touches, from the villain Fright last seen in Winick's Batman: Under the Hood, to the Reaper from one 1971 Dennis O'Neil Batman issue (#237, also an unofficial DC/Marvel crossover). I did not expect this level of detail from the writer of Battle for the Cowl -- was shocked by it, frankly; Life After Death went a long way in building for me a new respect for Tony Daniel's work.

Daniel's final two chapters of Life After Death focus on the Riddler with art by Guillem March, reminiscent of Francis Manapul. The story is rather confusing; aside from a suggestion that the Riddler remembers that Batman is Bruce Wayne and senses the current Batman isn't Bruce, I couldn't exactly say what else we're supposed to take from it all. I trust, however, that the Riddler is someone Daniel intends to come back to; the Reaper doesn't have a truly important role in Life After Death either, but I'll spot Daniel some extra characters as he builds what's starting out as an impressive Batman run.

As Superman: New Krypton comes to an end, I can honestly say I'm ready to see the Man of Steel back to normal flying over the streets of Metropolis again (Grounded notwithstanding). As for Batman, I'm not so sure. Grant Morrison, Judd Winick, and especially Tony Daniel have all gone a long way toward making Dick Grayson, and perhaps Batman, more interesting than they've been in a while. Yes, I know that what Grant Morrison writes is where it's at, and so that means one more volume of Batman and Robin and then Batman, Inc. -- but, as the Bat-status quo turns once again, to an extent the Bat-title I'm most excited about is Tony Daniel's.

Contains full covers. Printed on glossy paper.

Not to mention, in these days of five or six-issue trades, or even hardcovers, Life After Death contains eight issues, and feels especially thick as compared to a five-issue Justice Society or six-issue Doom Patrol collection. One hardcover, eight issues, one writer and just two artists -- now this is what I want to see more of from DC.
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13 comments:

  1. None of my monthlies come out this week, so now I'm inclined to pick this up. I'd been tempted by this, but the cover price kind of scares me off (not so bad on Amazon, though). Like that it's eight issues, though.

    One thing - Daniel hints that Gordon knows this isn't the "real" Batman under the cowl, but Morrison outright SAYS it. In the Quitely issues of B&R, Gordon says something like "Hmm, I don't think that's him." In the Frazer Irving (not a spoiler), he outright tells Dick, (misquoting, I'm sure) "The guys on the force like you better than the other guy."

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  2. Maybe it was Daniel's own Battle for the Cowl (I'm not sure) when there seemed to be some attempt by Dick to present himself to Gordon as the "original" Batman, but I think suspension of disbelief is pretty well stretched as of Batman & Robin: Batman Reborn -- when Jason Todd screams at Dick in front of Gordon and pretty well most of Gotham, it seems, that Dick is a poor replacement for Bruce -- that Gordon wouldn't have put it all together.

    I don't mind, for one, that Gordon knows, nor do I mind suggestions even that Gordon knows that Bruce is Batman, though I get why purists might shy from that.

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  3. Gordon would pretty much have to be an idiot not to recognize that it was a different guy. He's had too many up-close experiences with Batman not to notice that he's suddenly shorter, for example.

    Though I am not in the camp that necessarily believes that Gordon knows Bruce = Batman, I do think he'd be likely to recognize the new Batman as the former Robin/ Nightwing. One thing I never liked about Prodigal was Gordon treating DickBats as just another AzBats-esque replacement.

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  4. Where does this fall in the continuum?

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  5. Now, if the Bruce Wayne Batman is taller than Dick Grayson, would Dick wear lifts so the criminals think it's the same Batman? Is there an instance of another superhero for whom Dick wants that person to think he's the original Batman? All potentially interesting stories.

    I'd read Batman: Life After Death before Batman vs. Robin, and also before Arkham Reborn (that is, Life After Death, Arkham Reborn, then Batman vs. Robin). Batman vs. Robin is the most forward-moving of the three stories, leading toward Return of Bruce Wayne and such, so that's the one I'd end with; Life After Death is more a "day in the life" of Dick Grayson, so to speak, between the larger events.

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  6. I actually kind of felt Arkham Reborn was ruined by leaving the entire reveal to this story. All it would have taken is a little bit of dealing with revealing who Black Mask was on it's own terms - though understandably waiting until Daniel made the first reveal of it - instead of a completely jarring shift three quarters of the way through Hines Arkham story.

    @Matches: I didn't care for the resentment he started to have towards Batman by No Mans Land, but I understand having Gordon being icy to another replacement. He'd just had a very bad experience with a replacement Batman, had his faith in Batman thusly shaken and was beginning to feel jerked around. It stands to reason he'd be in absolutely no mood for another deception or wannabe - no matter who it was - especially when he'd thought the real deal was finally back.

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  7. A review of Arkham Reborn is coming up next, by the way, and if to an extent I have not specifically focused on Black Mask's identity here in this review of Life After Death, I will discuss it directly on the review of Arkham Reborn. I'll say now that for my tastes, I liked the way Life After Death and Arkham Reborn coincided (even sharing a scene from two different perspectives), and I didn't mind the way Life After Death fits between the second and third parts of Arkham Reborn and re-casts that story -- the re-casting, I felt, was another instance of the great psychological whirlwind that is Arkham Reborn -- but that's just my take on it.

    In No Man's Land, that one scene (Rucka's, was it) outside Gordon's house where Bruce lifts his mask to Gordon's turned back ... one of my favorites, the "Gordon knows" debate notwithstanding.

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  8. I just re-read that scene in NML yesterday. Great stuff. I was struck by how much of the seeds of Gotham Central were planted by Rucka as early as NML.

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  9. I am so frustrated that everything is coming out in hardcover these days! I much prefer paperbacks but I hate having to wait an extra six months or more for them.

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  10. Some like hardcovers but don't like the cost; some like paperbacks but don't like the wait. I think we have not, as yet, really found the happy medium in collected comics; it's a popular format but not a perfected format.

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  11. I prefer paperbacks because they are cheaper and I don't like dustjackets, but I hate the extra YEAR wait (definitely seems longer than 6 months!). I've finally caught up in my reading, such that I have all the GL trades in paperback, and am waiting for Blackest Night in June. At this point I'm tempted to make the jump to hardcover, but seeing things like the JL: Generation Lost HC being more expensive per issue ($3.33 vs $2.99) is enough to keep me away.

    Back to the paperbacks, I'm finding this lag to be really frustrating. Like, by the time I read Batman RIP and Final Crisis, Bruce Wayne was already making his return in the monthlies! It really takes the impact away of a major character's death when you know going in that they come back a year (and a half?) later. Same with Martian Manhunter.

    For those buying hardcovers, do you run into those problems too? It seems the hardcovers come out shortly after an arc is finished; is there less spoiled for you by buying it so soon?

    The other option, of course, is (now that I'm almost caught up) to switch back to monthlies. But there are so many things I prefer to having a book than a half dozen pamphlets to deal with.

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  12. It's not so much the cost of hardcovers that I dislike (although it's certainly a factor), it's the experience. Somehow reading comics in hardback just doesn't feel right to me. They also take up way more space on the shelf, and I agree with Mr. Simms above about the dustjackets too.

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  13. I don't have much love for dust jackets either, but I have come to very much enjoy hardcover comics. I like being able to sit with a book and not worry about curling the paperback cover; I like the heft and perceived permanence; I like that a hardcover holds its own in a bag with other things.

    Buying in hardcover, however, in no way saves you from spoilers; I picked up Batman: The Return of Bruce Wayne just a week or so ago, and already I know about Batman, Inc., etc. I think spoilers will always be a problem with trade-waiting, even if collections came out faster -- but I would like to see DC publish their collections faster nonetheless.

    Regarding the price of hardcovers, as I mentioned in my interview with the Berline Tagesspiegel, I think we're only going to see these prices increase. A collection used to be a discount way to read a whole story, but DC (and the other companies) know that the collections are just as popular as the single issues now -- the fact that they published seven Blackest Night hardcovers in one month demonstrated that they knew there was a significant audience out there waiting for these books.

    Rather than the single issues being the more expensive option, and a trade being cheaper but meaning you have to wait (cost versus wait being the trade-off), now I think the situation is that issues are cheaper, but collections are the preferred format (mine, at least), so the trade-off is cost versus convenience. Personally, even if trades quadrupled in price (please, no), I don't think I'd go back to single issues; I like the collected format better.

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