Thursday, January 22, 2009

Batman and S.E. Hinton, Together Again-- "Showcase Presents Batman and the Outsiders" 1 Review!

Showcase Presents Batman and the Outsiders
Publisher: DC Comics
Scripts: Mike W. Barr and Marv Wolfman
Art: Jim Aparo, George Perez, Bill Willingham, Steve Lightle, Dan Day, Jerome Moore, Alex Saviuk, Jan Duursema, Rick Hoberg, Trevor Von Eeden, Romeo Tanghal, Mike DeCarlo, Sal Trapani, Pablo Marcos, Bill Anderson

Capsule Review: Batman quits the Justice League and forms a new team with Black Lightning, Metamorpho and a group of would-be heroes he conveniently finds lying around somewhere. They all learn to love and share and care while battling less than menacing villains, then team up with the Teen Titans and Ronald Reagan in this fast-paced artifact from a kinder, gentler time when samurai could kill at will and Batman would just mildly disapprove.

Batman stewards a group of outcast greasers as they fight for respect against the socs in a small Oklahoma town. When Johnny Cade accidentally kills head soc Bob Sheldon, he and Ponyboy take it on the lam, and Batman must make a desperate choice between justice and his new friends. This massive black and white volume reprints some of S.E. Hinton's finest, most moving works of young adult/superhero fiction.

Actually, in this collection, Batman can’t get any of the stupid, jerky Justice League for Jerks to help him invade Markovia, a fake-ass sovereign nation along the lines of Latveria, the Grand Duchy of Fenwick or Mipos to rescue a key Wayne Enterprises employee, so he throws a bat-hissy and quits the group, then runs off to take care of business himself. Coincidentally enough, Markovia is absolutely crawling with B-list super-powered weirdos eager to join an overly emotional basketcase in a bat-costume on his highly personal quest for whatever he thinks justice is this month.

And that’s how Batman forms the Outsiders. OUTSIDERS ROLE CALL!

Cambot... Gypsy... Tom Servo... Crooooowwww...

No, no, no. No more silliness. There's Geo-Force, a super-powered prince with a name like a forgotten Ted Turner-produced 1980s pro-environmental cartoon for kids; Halo, a perky amnesiac whose brainlessness would overwhelm even Melody of Pussycats fame; Metamorpho, the zombie-faced guy who can change into anything as long as his own leering face remains attached; Black Lightning, whose lightning isn’t black but who gets that name because that’s how we identified our African American heroes back in the day; and Katana, the fierce sword-wielding Japanese woman made up of about a thousand samurai clichés and a bad haircut.

What’s funny about Katana is her sword isn’t actually a katana. I mean, she code-named herself after a weapon she doesn’t even use! That’s almost like Batman wearing his bat-guise and calling himself the Great Canadian Grizzly Bear.

While fondly remembered, none of the stories here are exactly classics. The villains lack interest and threat (Agent Orange? Force of July?), the dialogue tends toward the clichéd or expository, the personal conflicts aren't particularly compelling. And the entire justification for Batman’s quitting the Justice League is pretty arbitrary. Conveniently, the State Department asks the League to stay out of Markovia, and that means not only can’t they help Batman, but also Batman can’t take covert action on his own. But don’t Superman and the others regularly act against various threats without Justice League sanction? Don’t they have some kind of plausible deniability? Is anyone going to be fooled if Batman quits the League, completes his mission, then rejoins his buddies in their little super-club a year or two later (as he apparently did)?

And even though his close friend is involved, it seems Batman is suddenly interpreting his anti-crime mandate pretty liberally. Suddenly, it's imperative that he save everyone on Earth from everything. And he just as whimsically narrows it again when Black Lightning tells him Katana’s killed three people in cold blood—she immediately admits as much-- and Batman shrugs it off. Just eggs and omelets, I guess.

Come to think of it, it’s amazing how lightly Katana gets off in this more genteel 1980’s comic. If this were “re-imagined” for today’s audience, the killings would’ve been lovingly rendered in photo-realism but digitally colored with blood everywhere and a lot of murkily rendered shadows. And then she’d brood over her justifications for the next five issues and Batman would snarl at her in between disembowelments. And bowel movements. Nowadays Batman gets pissed when Batgirl stops a guy’s heart temporarily, but just twenty years ago, slashing them to death with a razor-sharp sword was okey-dokey.

It also makes no sense Batman would attempt to hide his civilian identity from his teammates, yet constantly hang out with them as Bruce Wayne and tell them about all the stuff Batman makes him buy. With Superman, the whole “Clark Kent wears glasses” disguise is part of the willing suspension of disbelief, but here there’s really no logical narrative reason Bruce Wayne (depicted as a dorky ass by Barr, more like Clark Kent played by Christopher Reeve than the familiar drunken playboy version) has to be so solicitous of Batman’s new allies. I can understand why the dimwitted Halo can't figure it out, even when Bruce Wayne is constantly taking her on shopping trips (which, by the way, is more than a little disturbing; she’s about 15 and looks 25 and he’s roughly twice her age and it comes off as a Pretty Woman kinda thing which is just… it’s... it's gross).

But what about Katana and Geo-Force, who have the capacity for higher thought? It stands to reason they’d notice Wayne and Batman are the same guy at some point.

Logic problems aside, each issue of the Outsiders comes across as an action-packed, streamlined example of mid-80s comic book entertainment efficiency. Barr keeps the narrative moving and moving fast. There are subplots galore, such as the secret of Katana’s blade and Halo’s amnesia, but the main stories themselves rarely last more than an issue or two. The abrupt scene changes can make for some choppy reading for those of us now accustomed to slow-moving, drawn out origin arcs full of post modern self-referential dialogue ripped off from Joss Whedon and Quentin Tarantino, but also makes these condensed comics crackle.

Jim Aparo’s clean art scans like Neal Adams lite, with a few Alex Toth touches. Just simple, straightforward, easy-to-follow visual storytelling. No funky shaped panels or jumbled pages, no relying on “widescreen” panels to avoid drawing backgrounds. Here's what happens when you take Aparo's art and sculpt it:

You get something that's a reasonable facsimile of an actual human being. Believable proportions, yet still recognizably heroic. Not every comic book artist translates so well into three dimensions.

Aparo contributes one of the few halfway decent Tokyo backdrops in Western comics when the Outsiders head to Japan to pursue all of Katana’s personal mysteries. As someone who’s lived in Japan for almost five years, I’m very sensitive to visual verisimilitude whenever superheroes make the Pacific leap to my adopted home. Aparo’s Tokyo streets are somewhat wider than in the real city, but he makes up for it by carpeting them with little dots accurately representing the teeming, urban crowds. You are rarely alone in Tokyo. Aparo also makes an attempt to carbuncle the buildings with advertising. It’s been a while since I read the Chris Claremont/Frank Miller Wolverine miniseries, but I don’t remember being nearly so convinced the characters were actually where the story claimed they were. Jim Aparo does at least as good a Tokyo as the TV show Heroes; not perfect, probably not exact if you’ve actually lived here, but close enough for superhero work.

Visual verisimilitude is one thing, characterization is another. Katana is one of a long line of arrogant, angry Japanese in American comics, probably dating back to the blatant propaganda of WWII. She's very much in the mold of Sunfire, the second Dr. Light and Silver Samurai. It’s like half the people in comic book Japan are angry yakuza or members of ancient ninja clans clinging to a devotion to Bushido via Hollywood and Michael Crichton. And the other half are their innocent victims. I don't think I've ever read a Japanese character in an American comic book that made me believe the author had done anything more in terms of research than watching Charles Bronson and Toshiro Mifune in The Bushido Blade, or part of the Shogun miniseries.

And yet, I still find her engaging. She's the Wolverine of the group, a welcome antidote to Geo-Force's blandness and foil to Halo's dippy blonde routine, especially once Barr sticks the two of them together in a surrogate family relationship.

On a related note, now that I've learned Buffy the Vampire Slayer devotes a few issues to Japanese settings, I'm going to be checking that out soon.

About halfway through the book, there’s an Outsiders/Teen Titans crossover with bucktoothed turncoat Terra as a major player. I quit reading Teen Titans just prior to the Terra storyline, having pledged my loyalty to their competition, Uncanny X-Men. Thus I have no idea of the importance of this brattish bowl-cut kid in Titans lore. In the 1980s, you weren't allowed to read both books and blood-drenched rumbles between fans were commonplace at conventions. I remember one time Sodapop...

So I want to ask longterm Titans fans-- was Terra always so obnoxious? She’s like the uncute mutant offspring of Lauren Tewes during her coked-up Love Boat days and Molly Ringwald during the first season of The Facts of Life, but with Jo Polniaczek's worst tendencies and none of her good points. Wolfman even gives her some faux tough girl dialogue about only giving her friends her "name, rank and serial number."

It’s no coincidence Geo-Force and Terra have similar powers and costumes, and George Perez fills lots of tiny panels with dozens of leaping, punching figures with surprising clarity. Maybe not so surprising considering that’s Perez’s reputation after all these years, but it’s still impressive to come across it almost by accident in a book about the Outsiders. Dr. Light, once and future rapist, makes an appearance and, thanks to the soul-crushing, plot-hole-riddled slop that was Identity Crisis, he has a retroactive creep-out factor that threatens to spoil every page he’s on. Finding him in an old comic like this is like finding someone’s soiled underwear when you turn back the covers on your supposedly clean and unslept in motel bed. Can't fault Wolfman or Barr for another writer's drippy doings years after the fact.

The book's happiest surprise is the Trevor Von Eeden issue. It’s jarring to see Von Eeden’s expressionistic drawings after hundreds of pages of Aparo old school formalism. The collision of Barr’s stripped-down script and this almost avant-garde art approach makes for some fascinating creative dissonance that might’ve propelled this book to A-list status. After all, the 80s were a time of artistic experimentation and super-star pencillers. Just think of Frank Miller on Daredevil as his art turned uglier and uglier (he contributes the cover to Outsiders Annual #1, reprinted here, and it looks almost stodgy) over the years, Bill Sienkiwicz tossing around oceans of black ink on New Mutants after a deathly dull Sal Buscema run almost killed that book, and the amazing Steve Bissette/John Totleben run on Swamp Thing back home at DC.

And I don’t mean to kick Bill Willingham while he’s taking so many shots lately, but his art here comes off like the poor man’s John Byrne, minus a lot of the appeal. It's adequate and probably worked better in color, but in the reprint it looks like lots of tiny tic-tac lines that give everything the same monotonous texture. It probably worked better in four-color than here in black and white, but von Eeden’s thick-thin edginess and heavy spotted blacks pop off these pages much more powerfully than Willingham’s bloopy Byrneisms. Much more to my taste is the Dan Day/Pablo Marcos Paul Gulacy rip-off from Outsiders issue #13, even with the wonky, distorted figures.

Well, it probably sounds as if I hate Batman and the Outsiders, but actually this book is a lot of fun. There’s even a guest appearance by Ronald Reagan at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. How’s that for a straight-from-the-time-capsule moment? Willingham probably loved drawing that story.


D Shannon said...

Reading them again after - eek, decades! - I was surprised at the level of simplicity and lack of convolution and self-referentialism of the storylines. Not simple in a bad way, just more straightforward than what I'm used to today. Lots of throwaway I'm-An-Issue
-In-Disguise villains (Agent Orange? Force of July?) and nothing world-devastating.

Joel Bryan said...

D Shannon- Yeah, that's exactly it. I remember enjoying these much more when I read them as a teen, and while I still find them entertaining they don't have the force or verve of contemporaries Marv Wolfman on Teen Titans or Chris Claremont on the X-books. Partially because of the humdrum villains.

Fun stuff. I like Barr and Aparo and Katana, and it's nice to read the original team again but it falls short in a number of ways.

And thanks for reminding me to stick Force of July in the review!