Earth 2 Vol. 4: The Dark Age might be a passable alternative-DC-Universe title, if somewhat unremarkable among other superhero books and maybe a tinge too similar to the author's and others' works. But what's truly disheartening here is that in the five issues of Dark Age, Taylor takes what was the New 52's answer to a Justice Society title and transforms it into another Justice League title. An in-continuity Elseworlds title is interesting, but I can't get quite as enthused about it as I could when this was a "DC of yesteryear" book.
[Review contains spoilers]
When a new writer comes on a book, it's not entirely unexpected that the writer will make the book their own. The New 52 Green Arrow book is a good example of where each writer has by and large preserved what the teams did before, but in the late 2000s Superboy series (to pick a random example), Jimmy Palmiotti (with one Dan DiDio) picked Superboy out of his long-time weird science aesthetic and stuck him in a more urban, realistic setting. That's fine; I'd rather a writer pen their own stories well than finish someone else's stories poorly.
To that end, it's understandable that Tom Taylor might go his own way with Earth 2. It is probably hard to match the breadth of previous writer James Robinson's esoteric Golden and Silver Age DC knowledge, and I didn't expect that Taylor's Earth 2 would be quite so out there as Jim Lockhart and Stormy Foster. And to be fair, Taylor's joining Earth 2 seems largely based on the success of his Injustice: Gods Among Us, so the fact that Taylor's Earth 2 more closely resembles Injustice than Robinson's Earth 2 may not be all that surprising.
But still, I was surprised that Taylor quickly eliminates or incapacitates most of Robinson's main Earth 2 characters, including Green Lantern, Flash, Atom, Dr. Fate, and Sandman (Captain Steel, who made a big impression in Earth 2: Battle Cry, is also MIA). Instead, by the end of Dark Age, Taylor's focus characters appear to be Superman, Batman, and Aquawoman, essentially Justice League analogues. Robinson's Hawkgirl is still around, thankfully, though indeed Hawk-characters toe the line between belonging to the Justice Society and the Justice League; there's also Red Tornado, but she's Lois Lane, which puts her on the Superman/Justice League side, plus Jimmy Olsen.
Indeed I'd argue there's a specific shift here from Justice Society to Justice League characters. Having Red Tornado be Lois Lane is clever and gives her a more immediate connection to the new Batman and the rest, but I'd as soon have seen a female Red Tornado android be Ma or Maxine Hunkel, putting a modern twist on an old character. Similarly Taylor dubs Jimmy Olsen "Accountable," with super-technology powers, but this could as easily have been Henry King, codename Brainwave. There's really no Justice Society touchstones in the book at all, to the point one worries if there ever will be again.
Maybe unfairly, but it's hard not to hear echoes of Taylor's Injustice in the book. Things go post-apocalyptic fast in Dark Age, and we end up with Batman leading a ragtag group of heroes against a tyrannical Superman; the parallels are too clear. Taylor also has a character murder the Joker again, the book's most on-the-nose moment (especially since, in retrospect, it's unclear why this specific Batman should have such a grudge against the Joker). As well, the real meat of the book involves Batman Thomas Wayne freeing an agoraphobic Kryptonian from an underground bunker, essentially the plot of an issue of Flashpoint (and with visual similarities, too). There's an earlier suggestion that the captured alien might have been a Martian, not a Kryptonian, and I rather wish Taylor had gone that route, which would have mitigated the Flashpoint similarities at least a little bit.
There's not a giant amount to Dark Age, which mostly involves Batman gathering allies and escaping the World Army Arkham base (a story that probably didn't need four issues to tell) intercut with scenes of Superman wreaking Injustice-esque mayhem, the most over-the-top of which being Superman spearing the White House with the Washington Monument. Taylor's Earth 2 Annual #2 is engaging, telling a kind of mod era tale of Thomas Wayne (Bruce Wayne's father, not his sometimes-brother) with a cogent mystery at the center. I would have preferred that the new Batman turn out to be an adult Dick Grayson perhaps, a la DC's Silver and Bronze Age, but the Annual is an entertaining tale for what it is.
To be sure, based on Injustice, there's no question Tom Taylor can tell an entertaining story. Though Earth 2 Vol. 4: The Dark Age does noticeably ramp up the violence, there's nothing here that specifically acquits Earth 2 or the New 52 poorly. But ultimately Taylor tells one story here slowly, whereas James Robinson packed almost a half-dozen stories into his last volume, and in that way, Taylor's first Earth 2 volume doesn't measure up. I grant sometimes it takes a volume for a writer to hit their stride on a series, and I'll be sticking with Earth 2 because of all the Futures End/Worlds End stuff, but I'm hoping for more of a return to form next time around.
[Includes original and variant covers, sketchbook section]
Next week, Batman Vol. 5: Zero Year: Dark City and Harley Quinn Vol. 1: Hot in the City. Don't miss it!