Review: Forever Evil: Arkham War trade paperback (DC Comics)

Thursday, February 26, 2015

I'm a big fan of Peter Tomasi's work; some of my favorite stories from the past decade, and ones I still hold as a benchmark against other books I read, were written by Tomasi. So, when I say that Tomasi and Scot Eaton's Forever Evil: Arkham War is not very good, I say it with a little disappointment but not much consternation. Tomasi can and is doing better, I'm sure, in the final pages of Batman and Robin and in Superman/Wonder Woman. Arkham War strikes me as the kind of hastily-prepared event tie-in miniseries of the kind we saw around Countdown to Final Crisis and elsewhere; I'm willing to chalk up the book's shortcomings to the vagaries of hastily-prepared event tie-in miniseries without necessarily taking it as a referendum on the creative team itself.

[Review contains spoilers]

Arkham War is a Bane story, a good one of which the New 52 has sorely lacked to this point. The presence of Bane co-creator Graham Nolan in the initial Villains Month spotlight chapter is an early hint that things might be on the right track, and indeed Tomasi and Nolan's first issue with Bane in warlord/"rallying the troops" mode might be the best of the book.

The successful telling of a Bane story here, however, encounters a variety of impediments. The first is that we lack much context for how Bane is meant to be understood in the New 52. Bane exists and he's an enemy of Batman, so we can generally surmise that "Knightfall" happened, though we don't know for sure. Red Robin Tim Drake's continuity is fairly different, and Azrael Jean Paul Valley doesn't seem to exist, so we equally know "Knightfall" didn't end like it did before. What happened to Bane after "Knightfall"? In all the times he mentions Bruce Wayne in Arkham War, does Bane still know Batman's secret identity? Neither was it made clear, in having not yet read the second volume of Talon, how and why Bane arrived to Santa Prisca and began building his army.

The second and more important problem is that despite Nolan kicking the book off, Tomasi never utilizes Bane as well as Nolan and Chuck Dixon did (nor has anyone, really, besides Christopher Nolan, and Gail Simone, though hers was a somewhat different Bane). There's a hint of Bane's moral ambiguity, but it's mostly trite -- Bane befriends a kid, Bane stops some gang members auctioning off supplies -- of a kind I think we've seen before. There's nothing about this particular Bane story that differentiates it from others or that feels like Tomasi puts his own mark on it.

This goes for the other Bat-villains included here, too. Penguin gets a couple good scenes, but Scarecrow is a somewhat generic "loony" villain, and others like Clayface, Man-Bat, Poison Ivy, and Professor Pyg only amount to so much window dressing. The book posits a No Man's Land-type situation, and we're reminded how much better all the characters involved were treated in No Man's Land. One of the book's more auspicious attributes is the inclusion of the Court of Owls Talons and especially setting up Bane as the Talons' leader, but again there's not the nuance here to the Talons that was found in Scott Snyder's Batman "Owls" books.

Really a good amount of Arkham War is given over to knock-down, drag-out battles. Not that this doesn't have its place, but to an extent Arkham War seems to treat Batman villains like Superman villains. Because Bane is in the lead, the use of action is a bit more natural, but it quickly becomes repetitive -- Bane vs. Killer Croc, Bane vs. Talons, Bane vs. Man-Bat, etc. Batman villains, however, really aren't about punching or kicking, and "Knightfall" itself did a nice job making the Arkhamites scary instead of superheroic, as did Snyder's recent Death of the Family back-up stories.

Further, the fights just aren't that interesting. In part it seems Tomasi doesn't give Eaton enough to work with, and in part at times Eaton seems to draw angles that are just beside the action instead of detailing it. (Also Eaton's depiction of Bane in a bat-suit, which is supposed to be a big turning point, falls flat because Eaton's Bane comes off looking like a gorilla shoved into a tin can instead of something fear-inducing or majestic.) In the climactic battle, the Arkhamites pump themselves full of Venom and rampage against Bane ... and then Bane just waits until the Venom wears off and then defeats them. In the epilogue, Batman knocks Bane unconscious and wins simply by pummeling him, leaving entirely aside the fact that Bane is Venom-powered.

Arkham War is important perhaps only because it leads in a variety of ways into Batman Eternal; having not read Arkham War before Batman Eternal, there were a number of points I was confused about -- having to do mainly with the dispensation of the various Arkhamites -- that Arkham War clears up. Arkham War itself follows immediately from the Batman #23.4: Bane issue, collected here, and also the Detective Comics #23.3: Scarecrow issue, which is not, and this did cause me some confusion in the beginning whether I'd missed some sequence in which the Arkhamites split up Gotham into districts. Tomasi's Scarecrow story really ought to have been included here. (It doesn't hurt to read John Layman's Detective Comics Vol. 3: Emperor Penguin and the follow-up volumes before Arkham War, too.)

I liked Geoff Johns's Forever Evil a lot, and the shared-universe fan in me likes how it's all played out in these six-seven issue miniseries and Justice League titles, giving a good comprehensive sense of events playing out simultaneously across the DC Comics world. Forever Evil: Arkham War is a piece of that puzzle, and one that makes sense to have included, but unfortunately it emerges as nothing more than average superhero comics. Those involved can do better, but this one doesn't live up to that.

[Includes original and variant covers, Scot Eaton sketchbook section]

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  1. This one is definitely a case that made more sense as singles than as a collected edition. It acted as a darkly humorous counterpoint, along with Rogues' Rebellion, against the far more dire and grim Forever Evil. Read in tandem with that series, it was refreshing, but as a stand alone it seems to have little point and few consequences.

    1. Appreciate the comment. "Darkly humorous" is an interesting statement. I didn't find that Arkham War was funny -- not that I thought it was trying to be funny and wasn't, but it didn't seem to me trying to be funny. You had a different read?

  2. Yeah, I hated this. Bought the trade because the story sounded insane and fun, and it was just so incredibly dull. Sold it on ebay right away.

  3. At least it was mercifully short. Blight went on for an eternity (especially the first half), trying very hard to be important and integral to the main story, but failing miserably.

    1. Interesting thing I found about Blight, David, was that it read better as a trade. I read the single issues and was bored senseless, but I found, when reading the trade that the story held together very well and should be looked at as two separate story arcs. I ended up liking the story a lot.

    2. I'll be reading Blight in trade sooner than later. I know it goes through a couple different series. Would you say it's better read sequential -- Part 1 & 2 in Justice League Dark, Part 3 in Phantom Stranger, etc. -- or modularly -- read all the JLD together, read all the Phantom Stranger together, etc.? A connected story or related stories?

  4. I was a little disappointed in this one because, as you mention, a lot of the characters are written in a very flat way. I'm particularly unhappy with Professor Pyg, who is written as a boilerplate scientist who happens to wear a pig mask; compare to his much more disturbing portrayal in Batman Eternal (or to the incomparable Grant Morrison's work).

    That the Scarecrow issue is uncollected maddens me; it introduces the concept of the villains dividing the city and gives a nice counterpoint to Bane's issue by explaining in what state Bane will find Gotham. (The Two-Face issue might have fit here too, as it explains what Two-Face is up to while the city is being carved up, though I wonder if this will go in the "Batman & Robin" collection in which he stars.)

    1. Pyg didn't stick out to me in Batman Eternal Vol. 1, but maybe what you're referencing is in Vol. 2 (or I just missed it).

      The Two-Face issue unfortunately is not collected in Batman and Robin, as we eventually determined in the Villains Month Trade Guide.