Batman/Superman 5

Alternating Currents: Batman/Superman 5, Drew and ScottToday, Drew and Scott are discussing Batman/Superman 5, originally released November 6th, 2013. 

Drew: Ironic detachment is a dangerous thing in a work of art. It calls our attention to the weaknesses of a story, but it can’t do much to address those weaknesses. In calling our attention to the foibles of a work of art, the artist is intentionally leaving them in, which either means they’re either left there intentionally (maybe just to point them out), or they’re actually unavoidable, in which case, making fun of them is entirely superficial. Either way, it makes the art about itself, which is great if the point of the art is to comment on the limitations of the form, but starts to break down if it needs to make any other points. Unfortunately, Batman/Superman 5 aims for something beyond its postmodern trappings, and falls firmly into this latter category.

First things first: the entire issue is printed sideways — that is, landscape. It’s such an fundamental formal affect that it forces the issue to justify this decision. That’s not an uncommon phenomenon in art (think of the higher frame rate of The Hobbit), but that formal affect may not actually be relevant to the work at hand (for example: the fact that cavemen didn’t paint on canvas does not represent some kind of creative decision on their part). In this case, turning the issue on it’s side (or just making us think about the physicality of the book itself) we’re forced to consider the comic as an object (intriguingly, the digital edition — which is much more naturally oriented for landscape layouts — makes us think about the physicality less, as this issue requires none of the zooming and panning I’m used to with digital comics). The effect is a heightening of my awareness of “comics,” both as physical objects and as pieces of culture.

The first page emphasizes this idea, offering a split page of two of comics most iconic characters.

SuperBatmanThis isn’t a work of sequential art at all — the scene depicts a conversation between these characters, and the only sense of time comes from the text — making the page feel more like a poster than a piece of a narrative. That sensation continues onto the second and third pages, which maintains this split-screen effect, delivering images that again aren’t technically sequential.

The pattern finally breaks on the fourth page, where the story kicks into gear: Clark is busy smashing asteroids, so he’s tagged Bruce in to stop Metallo. Only, it turns out it isn’t Metallo at all (again, drawing our attention to the artifice) — it’s some kind of tangible hologram generated by a video game designed to allow players to actually fight superheroes. The game was “designed” by Hiro Okamura (a Heroes reference, effectively cranking the postmodernism of this issue up to eleven), but was actually the work of Mongul, who wanted to tap into the war-making capabilities of human gamers.

This issue may be too meta for me to parse entirely (and if I’m saying it, you know it must be true), but the things that really intrigued me here were the other gamers Hiro brings in to fight Batman. It would have made sense for them to each get their own avatar, but instead, they all work together to impersonate Nightwing. It’s an interesting commentary on the collaborative nature of creating comic books, and writer Greg Pak gets in some sly digs by having one of the collaborators — the only one devoted enough to be wearing a Batman AND Superman shirt — effectively go rogue.

The issue starts to fly off the rails when those collaborators start to comment on the action as if it were a video game, complaining that it’s the “lamest, most self-refferential story-within-a-story” they’ve ever seen. They disagree over what Batman sounds like, complain about the narrative, and even chafe at being taught a lesson.

"Hey look! It's clever!" "Yeah, a little TOO clever..."Ugh. Listen, I wrote a column for my college’s newspaper about writing columns for the newspaper — I get indulgent self-reference — but this feels less like a story and more like Pak figured out how to turn winking and nudging into a comic book. This issue wouldn’t be able to support its own recursiveness even without the alien pollen (or whatever) that either makes people super mad or super strong AND mad (so…space steroids).

I don’t know, Scott. The first arc of this series worked for me as a dual character study, but Pak jettisons almost all of the character work in favor of absurd sci-fi contrivances and all-but-breaking the fourth wall. Pak’s sense of Bruce and Clark’s relationship remains strong (and I’d love to see more of how this developed between the first arc and this one), but they have such little screen time this issue, it almost doesn’t matter. Did you find more to like here, or were you as distracted by all the postmodern wankery as I was? Also, do you have any idea what Jimmy Olsen is doing bankrolling a video game?
Scott: Don’t be silly, Drew, everyone knows there’s lots of money in photojournalism! Honestly, I have no idea what that is about, but now we’re looking at a situation where both of Clark’s closest friends are incredibly rich. But I suppose if there’s one guy who wouldn’t feel inadequate in that role, it would be Superman. He can fly, for Chrissake!

To answer your other question, Drew, I did feel that the quirks of this issue distracted me more than they drew me into the story. On the one hand, the sideways pages are easier to read on Comixology. If this were a digital-only release, I’d say it was a stroke of genius. But to hold a physical copy of the issue, you have to wonder what the point of it is. Like Drew said, it heightens your awareness of the comic as a physical object. It forces you to consider how you hold the book, how you turn the pages- things you’d normally pay no attention to. It’s a minor annoyance, and one that would be easy to forgive if it were justified in some way by the content. That justification is really the key. Frankly, I found that lack of motivation for the sideways pages more irritating than anything about the layout itself.

The other reason I found it difficult to get into this issue was that it feels so different than the first four issues of the series. It’s most noticeable in the art. Jae Lee established such a distinctive, gothic-influenced style, that the transition to Brett Booth’s more conventional pencils is rather jarring. Lee’s style probably wouldn’t fit this story as well as it fit the first arc, but I’d formed such a strong association of this title with that style that it felt like I was reading an entirely different series. I don’t mean to take anything away from Booth, I actually like his style quite a bit. There are some pretty visually clever moments in this issue, like when Toymaster calls himself a “big picture guy” while gesturing to a big picture of himself.

Big Picture GuyLike the art, Pak’s writing is also a distinct departure from the style of the first four issues, and I have to wonder which style is more representative of the series moving forward. While the duplicate characters made the first four issues an interesting challenge to keep up with, they never felt cluttered the way this issue does once the gamers get involved. Pak is probably best off keeping the focus on Batman and Superman. A bold thought for a series titled Batman/Superman, I know.

For a complete list of what we’re reading, head on over to our Pull List page.  Whenever possible, buy your comics from your local mom and pop comic bookstore.  If you want to rock digital copies, head on over to DC’s website and download issues there.  There’s no need to pirate, right?

7 comments on “Batman/Superman 5

  1. I’ve tried to like this book, but so far it’s really been leaving me cold. I don’t think Batman and Superman’s dynamic has been that great aside from a few moments, and maybe this is partly because B/S is edited by the Superman editors at DC, but I really think it’s mostly skewed heavily toward Superman so far. This was the first issue in which Batman got more focus and he mostly just acted vaguely racist and needed to be saved by Superman. I’m not saying Batman should never need help, but a book like this doesn’t really work when it’s written with one of the two alleged main characters being a bit of a chump who constantly needs to get bailed out by a God-like being. Didn’t much like the self-referential aspects either. I’ll be reading at least until the end of the arc just to give it a fair shake, but I’ve been rather disappointed by this book so far. Ultimately I think Pak’s work on Action Comics may end up stronger because it allows him to put all of his attention on the character he seems to appreciate more.

    • I think it has a lot to do with the artists involved. I felt like the first arc was actually way more Batmany, but that was 90% because Lee’s art had this harsh gothic style. Booth (while we’ve seen his style in Nightwing) feels very Supermanish to me. Who’s Pak got drawing Superman for him on Action?

      • Aaron Kuder.

        Yeah, this issue really goes to show how much an artist can effect the tone of a book. Seeing Booth’s art here made this issue instantly feel like an issue of Nightwing, which couldn’t really be more different than the previous four issues of this series.

  2. “Can we just skip the cut scene?”

    Sigh.

    That is exactly how I felt about this issue. And I totally get that this is Pak making fun of me for being impatient with a one convoluted story while giving my willing attention to so many others. But like, I need something to latch on to – it wasn’t really until I read this write-up that I realized Hiro’s game was somehow projecting physical images into reality that I understood that that’s what was happening.

    • But like, by putting those words in that character’s mouth, he’s either making fun of us for being impatient, or making fun of the book by intentionally making it boring. Either way, it’s not really something I want to read. Self-deprecation is charming in a stand-up setting, where the comedian is doing all of the work, but breaks down in comics, where the audience plays a much bigger role in the experience.

  3. Drew, the Hiro Okamura iteration of Toyman actually predates Heroes’ Hiro Nakamura by several years (he was created in 2002 during the first storyline of Jeph Loeb’s Superman/Batman–making both his shirt and his appearance here all the more appropriate–while Heroes first aired in 2006). I’m actually a big fan of Hiro Okamura and was happy to see him show up here, even if he doesn’t appear to be the technological genius he was pre-reboot.

    I actually enjoyed much of this issue, especially the idea of bringing a DC fighting game to life and Mongul trying to to recruit an army from Earth’s hoards of video game addicts, but the Jimmy Olsen appearance was weird and the sideways pages jarring. Was there any point to flipping the pages at all?

    • Jimmy Olsen is rich now. God, doesn’t anyone read Scott Lobdell’s amazing Superman book? You all really need to get on that. Huh…I seem to be bleeding from my eyes as I type that. How odd.

      Anyway, yeah Jimmy is rich now. From a family inheritance, I think. I appreciate that Pak is utilizing continuity there (even if it’s from a source I don’t particularly like).

      Also Spencer, I enjoyed seeing Hiro back as well. I really liked him in the Pre-52, as he wasn’t always quite sure which team to play for. Correct me if I’m wrong, but didn’t they eventually reveal (retcon) that Hiro was just another robot that the “real” Toyman used? I was bummed by that reveal, so I’m glad that he’s getting a second chance now.

      This issue wasn’t as strong as the first few, and the landscape format was great…for digital readers anyway. Ultimately, I feel that Pak was going for a more lighthearted tone, so I’m okay with that if only because I feel the DCU needs a lot more of that in general. Here’s hoping he finds more of a balance in the issues to come though, because he may have gone a bit overboard with the lightheartedness here.

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