Review: Batman/Superman: The Archive of Worlds hardcover/paperback (DC Comics)

I will admit to an assumption, which is that when a new writer comes on a title for just one storyline and then the title is cancelled, that there was some fundamental flaw in the writer’s take that just didn’t catch on with readers. And that was doubly so my assumption with the cancellation of Batman/Superman after Gene Luen Yang’s Batman/Superman: The Archive of Worlds. Without taking away from Yang’s accomplishments across a wide swath of comics, I’ve found his work coming in on mainstream, established titles to be among his weakest, and my guess was that Archive would show similar troubles.

While it may still be that Archive of Worlds didn’t catch on (but perhaps, in hindsight, more likely that the title got canned so as to relaunch with a new issue #1 for new series writer Mark Waid), it turns out I enjoyed it far more than I expected. Despite a little silliness around the edges, Yang does well with a multiverse-crossover concept that never quite needs to utter the world “multiverse.”

Archive turns out to be a meeting between the Golden Age Superman, the Golden Age Batman, and “our” Superman and Batman that’s utterly charming at every turn. Where Yang’s writing slips, it’s often hidden by the simpler tropes of the older characters; a crackerjack team of artists doesn’t hurt either. I’d have read more about a Superman and Batman meeting each other for the first time across dimensions; I wonder if Yang will ever have a chance to revisit.

[Review contains spoilers]

Let’s leave aside right at the beginning the abject silliness, even for comics, of an alien villain known as, who later metamorphosizes into (he ought meet the also technologically named Hodor_Root of Yang’s Superman: Before Truth), and whose “Archive of Worlds” is filled with what appears to be Earth filmstrips. The puns and malapropisms and coincident metaphors are never fully explained, nor are they as humorous as I think Yang intends them to be (a difficulty I had with his New Super-Man, too). For me, however, the good ultimately outweighed the bad; one would hope that if this Superman and this Batman (and Robin) ever return, their alien overlord wouldn’t come with them.

[See the latest DC trade solicitations.]

The overarching antagonist is easy to overlook, however, in the glow of a an alt-dimension Superman from “The World of Tomorrow” meeting a similar Batman and Robin from “The World of the Knight.” Yang styles both of these like Golden Age versions of the characters, but that’s more in youth and context, not simplicity — Superman’s still keeping his identity hidden from Lois Lane and Jimmy Olsen; Robin is very much the “sensational character find of 1940” Dick Grayson. This makes for a classic but fresh-feeling “first encounter” story, with artist Ivan Reis often evoking the history of such stories in panels that remind of Jerry Ordway. There’s also much comparison of analogue characters between the two dimensions that put me in mind of Dave Gibbons and Steve Rude’s 1990s Superman/Batman story World’s Finest.

Yang posits, and the characters eventually understand, that this alt-Superman and Batman (and multiple Lex Luthors and Loises and so on) are imitations of the “real” Superman and Batman, being ours from “Earth-Zero,” the so-called “reality behind all realities.” It’s some nice, nuanced sci-fi from Yang, and an interesting concept — as good an explanation for the multiversal versions of these characters as any, if DC didn’t already have a different bright shiny new paradigm to play with.

Equally it keeps Archive from being too easy to write off — this is not just a one-off story about an alt-dimension Superman and Batman, but rather a one-off story about an alt-dimension Superman and Batman interacting with each other and with our own Superman and Batman. Plus, Archive intersects a couple times with Infinite Frontier — I sincerely doubt anything will come of those ties, but it’s always fun when DC has a touchpoint that the other titles can refer to and branch off of, like the heady days of “Countdown to Infinite Crisis.”

As mentioned, Ivan Reis brings some strong Jerry Ordway vibes to this work, which seems wholly fitting for the concept. Whether by design or necessity, the story uses Reis' one-issue break to homage DC’s space, western, and horror characters, with art by Emanuela Lupacchino, Steve Lieber, Darick Robertson, and Kyle Hotz. Later, in a flip-book style Annual epilogue, the book offers Franceso Francavilla, an almost obscene get for a book like Batman/Superman, and — no slouch either — Paul Pelletier. Put another way, not only is Yang’s Archive good, the art is near better than the book deserves.

Yang and Pelletier wrap up with a Mr. Mxyzptlk/Calendar Man team-up. Again, my expectations were low; conflict with Mxyzptlk is a much visited well for the Superman/Batman/Batman/Superman series. But Yang surprises again as Mxyzptlk gives Calendar Man control of the comic’s own panels, and then pulls off a couple of reaching-between-panels gags like something out of Olivia Jaimes' Nancy. It’s a bunch of fun, and with one of those gratuitous Infinite Frontier mentions to boot. (My only knock would be a particularly gruesome panel by Pelletier that seems out of sync with the comedic tone of the story; see also, back in Archive, where Pelletier has Commissioner Gordon doing a spit-take so voluminous that Gordon would have had to have a whole cup of coffee in his mouth at once to accomplish it.)



Sure, you could probably skip Batman/Superman: The Archive of Worlds; DC never quite knows what to do with this series, what ought be a front-runner is very often playing second fiddle, and that Mark Waid’s upcoming version seems set outside the mainstream doesn’t do much to make me think that’ll change. But this story is good, better than I expected, and certainly continues to forward the idea that Gene Luen Yang’s Superman prowess may lie in modern spins on the superheroes of the 1940s.

[Includes original and variant covers, designs by Ivan Reis]


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