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.
This 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.
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.
Like 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?