Review: Batman and the Outsiders Vol. 2: A League of Their Own trade paperback (DC Comics)

I went back and read the first volume of Bryan Hill’s Batman and the Outsiders in preparation for reading Batman and the Outsiders Vol. 2: A League of Their Own, and I found I liked it better than before; the second volume, too, is an improvement. Though the book still feels clumsy around the very edges (and, we now know, the next trade will be the last), Hill does better here with the relationships between the characters — more realistic — and also the interrelationships, how certain new team members interact with established characters in differing ways. In the end — and of course, this would have to come as the book is now ending — I felt I could finally see how this team could be worthy of at least some of the “Outsiders” monikers worn by teams in the past.

[Review contains spoilers for this title and Batman: City of Bane]

Hill’s Outsiders remains more of a base action book than I might like, and its use of Ra’s al Ghul as a generic cackling supervillain continues to grate. Between Hill and artist Dexter Soy, too, the characters sometimes seem to stare emptily and sometimes move in explicable ways between panels. But League of Their Own is surprisingly talk-y from the get-go, and Hill gets the unexpected high-profile priviledge of addressing reactions to Alfred’s death in Batman: City of Bane from both Black Lightning and Superman(!). Add to that Ra’s causing a death in Lightning Jefferson Pierce’s own community in the first chapters, and all of the sudden we have a story more emotional and personal, and with higher stakes, than in Hill’s Batman and the Outsiders Vol. 1: Lesser Gods.

On one hand, Black Lightning and Katana is not a romantic pairing I necessarily subscribe to — they’ve been friends for so long, why not just respect their friendship? But Hill does have a couple scenes here — again, long and conversational — where mainly Jefferson explains why he’s not in the right headspace to have a relationship with Tatsu, with measured and emotionally intelligent dialogue of the kind I don’t think we see in comics that often. (Artist Max Raynor, too, offers lovely, clear art in a mix of Jim Lee and Dan Jurgens for sequences of Lightning and Katana in the included annual.) On the other hand, Hill also deepens the platonic friendship between Signal Duke Thomas and Orphan (née Batgirl) Cassandra Cain, and what they see in each other and what they have in common makes more sense now. I think Hill’s cheating a bit by changing Signal’s “light” powers to “shadow” powers, taking what seems the narratively easier path, but assuredly Signal and Orphan now make a more logical fighting force, too.

Among this book’s surprises, perhaps the biggest is that Hill makes Lady Shiva compelling, herself having fallen from her once A-list bad guy status a la Ra’s. Seemingly Shiva has defected from Ra’s and wants a variety of things — power, of course, but also to reconnect with her daughter Cassandra, and it’s Shiva who’s hit the hardest when Ra’s demonstrates his new alien power by decimating her childhood village. I still can’t tell if Hill has Shiva setting the Outsiders up or not — it’s just as possible that Shiva is hurt by Ra’s actions as that she has no affection for her past and the explosion is solely to garner the Outsiders' sympathies — but that ambiguity is part of what Hill’s doing well. Meanwhile, Black Lightning especially is drawn to the freedom Shiva represents of crime-fighting without the guilt of morals.

It is with Shiva joining the team, and also the young metahuman Sofia, that this began to feel more legitimately “Outsiders” to me. Before, with essentially a four-person group (plus Batman), this team felt more like Christopher Priest’s Justice League Task Force or a Titans group than Outsiders — two young heroes being shown the ropes by two mentors. Adding another adult and another teen hero doesn’t necessarily combat that, but who those new team members are — sometime-villain Shiva and the brainwashed, confused Sofia — speaks to an oddball “outsider” group that’s no so far off from Mike Barr’s 1990s Outsiders (with the Eradicator) or Dan DiDio’s team, if not quite rising to the level of Barr’s originals or Judd Winick’s stellar lineup.

I’m not optimistic, but if I had my druthers, with one volume of Bryan Hill’s Outsiders to go, I’d like to see some effort made to square up this current Outsiders group with the Outsiders pictured in the lead-in to Dark Nights: Metal, Dark Days: The Forge. Obviously the answer is that there was never an intended in-story explanation — Hill has treated this like Lightning and Katana’s first team-up, when Forge would say they’ve met before — but I’m sure there’s a way to elide that. Basically, if Hill’s Outsiders is on its way out, and with all the halting push at DC lately to roll back continuity to earlier times, it’d be nice to see the original Outsiders get their lives back before this is done.

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One always likes to see a series improve, and that Batman and the Outsiders Vol. 2: A League of Their Own is better than its predecessor is heartening; Hill succeeds in indeed making these new Outsiders a league of their own. That this improvement heralds the end of this title is unfortunate, but that’s comics; time will pass and DC will arrive with a new Outsiders team, undoubtedly. (Fun fact — I checked after I wrote this line, and the last time I reviewed an Outsiders comic prior to this series was 2012.)

[Includes original and variant covers]


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