Review: Batman Eternal Vol. 1 trade paperback (DC Comics)

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Monday, December 08, 2014

As I've said before, sometimes if something isn't good, it's a consolation at least that there's a lot of it. Such is the case with Batman Eternal Vol. 1, which is about a 500-page trade, such that if you take it along on a plane trip you'll have plenty to occupy you until you touch down. And I appreciate that whereas sometimes DC has collected their weekly series into four or more volumes, the first year of Eternal will be done in two volumes that, again, offer a hefty amount of reading.

This doesn't make up for the fact that Eternal bows significantly under its own weight. Trimmed down to a monthly series, Eternal might make for a peppy Bat-epic, but as a weekly title, Eternal is bloated and repetitious. The book would seem to have a number of lofty goals, including serving as something of a backdoor pilot for DC's newly revised line of Bat-titles and adhering the New 52 Batman mythos closer to the Gotham TV show. But this volume of Eternal turns out to be a lot of prelude for the supposed "real" story in the next volume, and I think it'll leave readers wondering if all this build-up was worth it.

[Review contains spoilers]

The gathered Bat-writers -- including Scott Snyder, James Tynion, and others -- start well enough. The book re-introduces a variety of fan favorite characters, including mobster Carmine Falcone, detective Jason Bard, Vicki Vale, Batman: The Cult villain Deacon Blackfire, and later Spoiler Stephanie Brown. Lieutenant Forbes shows up, a character I never thought we'd see again after David Finch's Dark Knight. The inclusion of Spectre Jim Corrigan is always good, though I'm not sure his chummy relationship with Batman quite jibes with the established New 52. And fast-paced events early on that end in Commissioner Jim Gordon accidentally killing a train full of people are quite gripping, though I worried toward the book's conclusion that perhaps Eternal spends its most shocking moments first and then doesn't have quite the drama later on.

Indeed it seems like Eternal packs its best material into the beginning, perhaps to hook the reader, before delivering lesser goods later on. Certainly one example is the fine art by Jason Fabok that starts out the piece. Though there's also nice work from Dustin Nguyen and Andy Clarke, the book later uses a couple of artists whose names I didn't recognize, and there's a noticeable drop in the art quality, which corresponds to the increasingly convoluted story.

With Gordon in jail, the book turns mainly to an escalating gang war between Falcone and the Penguin, and seemingly supernatural goings on at Arkham Asylum. I am admittedly predisposed against this "Gotham Underground" concept first introduced in Catwoman, finding the idea of semi-magical cities under Gotham a bit too fantastical even for comics (and not in keeping with Batman's dark urban aesthetic). That Eternal brings back Deacon Blackfire from Jim Starlin's superlative Cult is definitely notable (even despite that Blackfire is a ghost), but the supernatural story seems to change its focus too often -- from Blackfire as the main antagonist to the Joker's Daughter, to a new villain called Mr. Bygones who's confusingly drawn differently between two issues, and then later Batman reveals he thinks it's all the work of "extradimensional aliens" (one of many instances where the characters "just know" the answer to a mystery).

How exactly Batman comes to that conclusion is muddy enough, but more so that the Underground story seems to shift with the wind (or the writer). It is hardly an enticement to Ray Fawkes's new Gotham by Midnight series, though fortunately that title seems enticing enough all on its own.

The Falcone storyline has the opposite problem, that it's essentially twenty-one issues of the same thing over again. Falcone attacks Penguin's territory or Penguin attacks Falcone's, or there's a gang war that's about to happen or is happening or is just about to break out again. Clearly the writers' newly created history that Penguin ousted Falcone and took over his criminal empire some years ago is an attempt to make some of the Gotham TV show canon; there's nothing wrong with that necessarily, but in practice too much time is spent rehashing the same events.

Compounding the problem is that in the conclusion, when Penguin and Falcone have finally been jailed at Blackgate, we come to understand that all of Falcone's actions over twenty-one chapters have been because he was "bored" and also in part to draw out his own predecessor, pretending to be dead, Rex "The Lion" Calabrese. If, as I suspect, this is the last we see of Falcone in these pages, then Falcone's inclusion in the story becomes simply incidental, a character who ran Batman in circles for a while but didn't really change anything, and whose only purpose, perhaps, was to put the name "Falcone" in a new Batman comic. Even Falcone's final revelation that he's just a pawn in someone else's game falls flat, since essentially the story's been telling the reader that since the beginning.

Who the book's mystery villain actually is remains to be seen, but the suspects the writers offer at the end of Eternal Vol. 1 only muddle things more. The first is the sudden appearance of Hush Tommy Elliot. While it's fun to see Hush join the New 52, his out-of-nowhere arrival seems meant mostly for shock value. Remember Jeph Loeb built up Elliot alongside Hush, so the final revelation of the villain had some meaning; here, simply arrives and stabs Alfred, and there's no real emotional resonance to the character besides that he's a mysterious bandaged man unless you bring it with you from other stories.

Second, while I've long understood that writers Scott Snyder and Kyle Higgins didn't get to do all they wanted with the characters from their pre-Flashpoint Batman: Gates of Gotham, the swift inclusion of Gates's Architect is a continuity-bending nightmare. I pity the new comics fan reading Eternal who comes to the end of volume 1 and with their curiosity piqued, tries to find out more about the Architect, a character who appears in a book that's outside current Batman continuity and that features Red Robin (but not the current Red Robin, a different Red Robin) and Black Bat, who was never Batgirl and has no actual equivalent in the New 52. Here again, the writers might've been better off building up Architect ahead of time, instead of introducing him as someone who Batman's already met when the audience can't actually seamlessly pick up the story being referenced.

I did like the "modern" spin the writers put on future Spoiler Stephanie Brown. Whereas in the previous continuity Stephanie tried to "spoil" her father Cluemaster's crimes mainly because of family slights, here Stephanie is actually hunted by her father while seeking to prevent his apparently cataclysmic plans. The idea of "spoilers" wasn't so ubiquitous when Chuck Dixon introduced Stephanie in the 1990s, but the Eternal writers take this to its twenty-first century conclusion and posit Stephanie as a blogger, initially doling out her "spoilers" online. That's well and good and clever, and only falls victim to Eternal's ongoing problems late in the book when an issue retroactively casts Stephanie as a mid-level celebrity gossip blogger, an aspect that isn't present at the beginning of the book and doesn't make a lot of sense as it relates to a high schooler.

With strong touches of Batman: The Cult, Year One, Gotham, lead-ins to Gotham by Midnight, Arkham Manor, and the revamped Catwoman book, and appearances by nearly the entire Bat-family and a handful of classic villains, Batman Eternal Vol. 1 would seem to have a lot going for it. What it lacks, however, is the sharp focus of DC Comics's seminal weekly series, 52, the brass ring for which all their other weekly series so far have strived. Eternal goes in too many directions, offers too many tangents, and doesn't ultimately reward the audience for their attention; all in all it was less than what I'd expected.

[Includes original and variant covers, character and cover sketches]

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  1. I understand how hard it must be to come up with enough material to fill a year-long weekly series, but I think the team behind Batman Eternal went way overboard, to the point that the series feels overstuffed and unfocused, and many of the mini arcs feel like distractions from the main plot. I think the book would have benefitted from a structure similar to 52 and Futures End, where all writers collaborate on every issue, and each of them handles one or two subplots.

  2. Regarding the first paragraph - the Amazon solicitation suggests we'll be getting three volumes of Eternal. It currently only lists issues 22-34 in Vol 2. Otherwise, spot on review. The first three issues were really quite good as a set up. The rest was . . . fine?

    1. When the Batman Eternal TPBs were first listed in the Edelweiss catalog, vol. 1 was set to collect issues #1-20, while vol. 2 would collect #21-40. That struck me as odd because it meant the final volume would be significantly thinner than the first two, with just 12 issues.

      If the new listing for vol. 2 is correct, then the issues will be even more unevenly split (21 for vol. 1, 13 for vol. 2 and 18 for vol. 3) than expected. I guess they decided how to split them based on which issues would make for the best act breaks for the overall story, regardless of how thick each TPB would be.