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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