Review: Superman/Batman: Worship trade paperback (DC Comics)

Monday, November 21, 2011

I have been wary of these Superman/Batman books of late. With no ties intentionally to continuity and a mission just to "tell stories," the individual issues have tended to be hit or miss -- there's some gems among Mike Johnson and Michael Green's Superman/Batman: Night and Day, but Joe Kelly's Big Noise overall disappointed. Continuity is not the be-all and end-all, of course, but at times this title seems aimless.

Superman/Batman: Worship gave me special pause not only because it seemed to be one of these disconnected stories (this turns out not to be the case), but also because former DC Comics president Paul Levitz's writing has also been hit or miss for me. His first outing on the new (pre-DC Relaunch) Legion of Super-Heroes series, The Choice, was great stuff, but his Superboy and the Legion of Super-Heroes was not, and I recall calling his JSA: Ghost Stories "stodgy."

Worship, however, is a delight. With art by Jerry Ordway, the "Worship" story feels like its cut from the 1990s Superman "Triangle Titles" heyday, while at the same time adhering to the unspoken rules of the Superman/Batman title. Add a few contemporary twists at the end, and Worship emerges as something entirely satisfying -- a little bit classic, a little bit new.

[Contains spoilers]

In the main, the "Worship" storyline contains just four characters -- Superman, Batman, Lois Lane, and Lex Luthor. Levitz tells the story from their four perspectives, and Worship is at its best in the second and third chapters of that storyline, when Levitz parallels the thoughts not just of the heroes, as Jeph Loeb and others have done before him, but of all four characters. This little change gives the story unexpected depth -- we see not just how Superman and Batman try to solve their case, but also how Lois works alongside them, and how Lex moves to foil them. There are interesting ideas here that may not hold up to a lot of scrutiny. but serve as wonderful tidbits for consideration -- that Lex ramps up crime around Crime Alley in Gotham at times when he wants Batman distracted because studies show Lex that Batman has a focus on that area; and that even as Batman can't tell who's behind it, he's so attuned to crime in Gotham that he can tell there's a force working behind the crimes.

"Worship" is in part a re-telling of a series of Silver Age stories in which Lex Luthor becomes the "Superman" of a planet called Lexor, on which Superman is considered a villain. Levitz presents the concept of "worship" mostly in a negative context here; Superman considers early on that mankind creates their own (often erroneous) religious explanations for cosmic events. We see this both in the cult that worships Superman to the point of trying to kill Lois (egged on by Lex), and the aliens of Lexor who misunderstand Superman's intentions and worship Lex.

In an unusual storytelling choice, Levitz does not actually tie the two plot threads together, but rather ends the third issue with Batman and Superman's dual confrontations with Lex. The stories' connections are thematic rather than explicit and I appreciate Levitz letting the readers think for themselves. Further, the slightly unfinished nature of the entire tale again evokes the "Triangle Titles" era; we could just as soon imagine Lexor would show up again a few issues down the road (maybe Maxima would land there, or Draaga would try to take it over) as that Levitz would revisit it again in the final part of "Worship."

That last chapter is Superman/Batman #75, and rightfully so it's an anniversary-type time-travel tale that involves the future Legion of Super-Heroes and the past Superboy. For time travel in Superman/Batman, I might have liked to see some usage of "young Batman," too, but having Batman make a rare appearance beside the Legion is fun nonetheless. Only the hardest heart, too, could fail to be moved by Batman nursing a Kryptonite-infused Superman back to health in the Bat-cave while the Legion ventures into the past; great choice by Levitz to keep Batman on screen here, rather than replacing him with Alfred. A throw-away line or two, if you're into this kind of thing, keeps the timeline of the Superman/Batman story nebulous, but puts the Legion appearance just before Levitz's Legion: The Choice.

Long-time DC Comics artist Jerry Ordway is in top form in Worship. Throughout the "Worship" story (mainly in the first three chapters), it seems we have Ordway's colored pencils without inks, giving the sequences a painted quality; in the fourth chapter, Ordway's black lines are darker, and images like the close-up of Brainiac 5's face are rich with detail that show Ordway still at his best.

Ordway drew the original comics adaption of Tim Burton's 1989 Batman movie, and his depiction of the cowl still looks like Michael Keaton's; the artist follows this with a cape attachment, however, that looks more like Adam West's. It's no matter; if Ordway's imagining of Superman and Batman is a little dated, then it's dated in a way that depicts the characters from some of their best stories, like Ordway's "Dark Knight Over Metropolis.". Though almost twenty years old, those "Triangle Title" stories still hold up, and I'd be happy to see Ordway join his old teammate Dan Jurgens as part of the DC New 52 Superman relaunch any time.

Worship starts off with a Batman Beyond tale by Levitz; sequentially, I think this came out just before the new Adam Beechen series. This issue, Superman/Batman Annual #4, proceeds a little slower, with Levitz telling the reader a bit too much and offering a couple of unnecessary scenes to forward the action (as if an influx of criminals from Metropolis wouldn't signal the new Batman to visit that city without first re-confirming said influx on a computer for a page). You'd have to be hard-hearted again, however, not to be touched by the two final panels before the splash page, and I did appreciate DC including a preview of Beechen's Batman Beyond at the end of this book, treated with some Superman/Batman trade dress. If you like Batman Beyond, this is hardly a meal, but it is a passable appetizer, especially when "Worship" satisfies otherwise.

[Contains original covers, Batman Beyond miniseries preview]

Superman/Batman: Sorcerer Kings, I have a hunch, may be the final Superman/Batman collection that DC publishes, what with the DC Relaunch and all. That being the case,
Superman/Batman: Worship is a lovely penultimate collection, forward- and backward-looking, evocative of great team-ups past and yet firmly rooted in this title and the present era. This one surprised me and I give high marks to all involved.
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6 comments:

  1. I thought this was the best arc in the series since Green and Johnson finished their run. The one strike against it is that Ordway couldn't paint all chapters and switched to regular pencils at the end.

    It's a shame that the Superman/Batman collections stopped just shy of collecting Joshua Hale Fialkov's excellent 3-parter that ended the series. That really made me eager to see him get another crack at writing DC's big guns.

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  2. I just ordered vol. 5-9 of this series and decided to holdoff on the last two collected books.

    One, because the previous nine volumes are also available in hardcover, which I ordered. One format just looks better on my shelf.

    Two, the last two trades, by Casey then Levitz, didn't seem to get positive reviews so I thought I'd be good to skip them.

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  3. Overall, I liked Worship....though; if you've read the entire S/B run, you could see it becoming progressively weaker by the end. I'm always wary of Levitz too, but he does a decent job and Ordway...well, he's Ordway!

    I think; in the end, we should all be very surprised that a title with NO continuity ties and NO "big-name" writers/artits since issue #33 in 2007 (IF you cound Verheiden, just because of his Battlestar Galactica fame).....survived as long as it did, with decent sales and impressive stories/art from basically "no-name" creators (in fact, it's given Green/Johnson a "name").

    I think it proves the power of fans' desire to see Superman & Batman together.

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  4. Regarding sales of the title, I noticed that S/B was one of just a handleful of DC books that I'd see on the "newsstand" (magazine sections of book stores, pharmacys, etc.). It could be that those sales helped keep the title going.

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  5. haha "handful" not "handleful", sorry!

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  6. Jon makes a good point regarding Superman/Batman's success "against all odds." The new DC Universe Presents is kind of a descendant of Superman/Batman, I guess -- like Superman and Batman Confidential, DC has tried on and off to make character-focused or "short story" titles with rotating creative teams with not much success, I think, but Superman/Batman worked and maybe DC Universe Presents will, too.

    The first official present-day Superman/Batman team-up in the new DC Universe ought be interesting. Not sure how a story co-written by Keith Giffen and Scott Snyder might turn out, with two seemingly different styles/tones, but maybe if Snyder wrote it all himself ...

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