Today, Patrick and Spencer are discussing Batman 7 and Nightwing 5 (aka, parts one and two of “Night of the Monster Men”), originally released September 21, 2016. As always, this article contains SPOILERS.
Patrick: If I had to guess conservatively, I’d say that we’ve covered a billion crossover events over the last four years on Retcon Punch. These kinds of stories always beg the narrative question “why?” The commercial question is a lot easier to answer: I’m reading Batman, and I’m certainly not going to skip an issue of Batman, so I might as well pick up the attendant issues of Nightwing, Detective Comics, and whatever else might be participating in this story. The result is usually a tonal mess, superficially tying together the storytelling styles of a disparate set of teams with some arbitrary commonality. “Night of the Monster Men” cuts a different swath through the series bearing its banner, uniting them under one writer, the always excellent Steve Orlando, and a unified artistic vision.
Patrick: Plotted by both Tom King and Steve Orlando, Batman 7 seems hellbent on unifying the reader’s conception of Gotham in this very specific moment in time. Just like Rebirth in general, it’s an approach that borders on sycophantic – or it would be if only, y’know, it weren’t so damn fun. Within the first couple pages, readers of Nigthwing and Detective Comics are welcomed in with specific references to those series. None of them are as explicit as the loss of Tim Drake, but it actually feels satisfying to see that reverberate around the Gotham-verse so immediately after it happened.
But the issue does much more than simply drop references to events that just happened. The opening page draws in on the morgue, immediately introducing the soon-to-be monstrously reanimated corpses that will presumably function as the chief antagonists in this story. It’s juxtaposed with a decidedly old-timey narrative tactic – the oddly prescient news report. It’s a weather report, warning the citizens of Gotham to seek shelter, something that is certain to effect all the heroes in Gotham, just as it did in Zero Year. And then, maybe just to prove his street cred, Orlando tosses in a reference to Chase Lawler, and his hit song “Your Wild Hunt,” which is a sly reference to some weird 90s-ass story about a character called the Wild Huntsman. Orlando is establishing a sense of reality, and that reality extends back a couple issues in several directions, but also back through Zero Year, and even further to the 1990s Manhunter series. It’s no coincidence that artist Riley Rossmo slowly dollies in on his subjects, insisting on that same unity of space that Orlando asserts with all those gentle nods to continuity.
Check out the way the size of the panels increase as we move closer to the subjects. That’s such a cool way to nail the reader’s immersion, and it’s something I didn’t even notice on my first two read-throughs.
The other task that the first issue of a crossover has to overcome is that it has to establish a threat worthy of a team-up. I love Orlando and Rossmo’s solution here, which is as elegant as it is disgusting. The first monster is huge — three or four stories tall — and grotesque as all get-out. More importantly, we learn early on that these are undead creatures, and our first baby-boy possesses virtually no intellect or awareness. That lets Batman play a little bit tougher with these guys than he would against other giant villains. Because this is an issue of Batman, Bruce gets all the coolest moments, including a fist-pumping moment where he bails on the Batplane in favor of a sleek new Batjetpack.
And as cool and as fun as that is, I could really have just read 20 pages of Rossmo’s lumbering child-beast smashing his way through Gotham. The issue may end with some teases about the monsters’ origin, but the majority of this issue is locked into some pretty exciting action. Spencer, were you enticed by the breadcrumbs leading back to Hugo Strange and Psycho Pirate? Or did you just want to see Batwoman and Nightwing get into the brawl?
Spencer: Hugo Strange’s presence throughout this run of Batman has been a pretty bizarre one, Patrick — he’s had almost zero screen time, yet still looms large over the story, as every threat Bruce’s faced has, in one way or another, been orchestrated by Strange. To be honest I’ve found that somewhat frustrating, but I’ll admit that our brief peek at Strange in this issue does finally have me intrigued.
And also disgusted. Intrigued and a little disgusted.
In Batman 6 Amanda Waller informed us that Strange had traded Psycho Pirate to Bane for some Venom, so I can only assume this new buff Strange is the result; what Strange plans to do with his newly Schwarzenegger-ed self, and what that has to do with Monster Men or Psycho Pirate or Gotham, though, is beyond me. I’ve seen attempts to tie multiple stories to a singular central threat like this fail before, but I’m hopeful that King and Orlando can pull it off, if only because I’m genuinely curious what Strange is up to.
Like Patrick, I too enjoyed this issue’s attention to continuity, and especially the way it brings together events from these titles’ opening stories to paint a very specific picture of Gotham at this exact moment. Readers of Batman know Bruce is still dealing with the death of Gotham, while readers of Detective Comics have seen him cope with the “death” of Red Robin, but Batman 7 really drives home the fact that both these events essentially occurred simultaneously. It leads to Orlando’s characterization of Batman as someone so determined to stave off further loss of life that he’s practically unhinged, and that’s a take I enjoy because it expresses Bruce’s grief through compassion instead of anger. Orlando also incorporates some All-Star Batman-esque quips into the proceedings, which is always welcome.
Orlando and King’s gift for characterization also extends to the supporting cast. Batman sends Orphan and Spoiler to oversee the evacuation, and in order to comfort a concerned evacuee, Stephanie mentions that she used to hike to the evacuation site with her mother all the time. This is such a human moment, and it really emphasizes Spoiler as the Bat-Family’s “normal” member, the one who’s able to connect and empathize with Gotham’s citizens in a way Batman isn’t always capable of.
Bringing the entire Bat-Family (minus Barbara and Damian, who’s much missed) together also allows Orlando to dig into their hierarchy and relationships, but that’s something he focuses on more in Nightwing 5.
Spencer: In fact, while Batman 7 is ostensibly about Batman’s epic battle with a giant monster, Nightwing 5 shuffles the team’s struggle against two new monsters to the background. Thankfully, the monster stuff is still satisfying — Roge Antonio and Chris Sotomayor are putting out their best art to-date, and the monster designs are intriguing both on their own, and as a unit. Notice how the first monster is blue and how we only ever see its heads (its legs are obscured in all but one panel), while the second monster is red, and the panels tend to focus on its massive underside. I don’t know if that means anything, but it sure is a compelling visual contrast.
Orlando and Tim Seeley’s real focus here, though, is on how Batman’s partners deal with his grief-stricken leadership style.
Batwoman takes a bit of a back seat throughout both these issues, largely because she’s practicing what she preaches, showing Batman respect and trusting that he knows how to handle this situation. She’s not so sure that he’s doing the same, though, and she has a point: Batman’s pulling a move usually reserved for Superman, putting himself in danger so that his teammates won’t be. It’s valiant, in a way, and certainly understandable considering current events, but in the right light, could certainly be construed as patronizing. Duke seems to think so, although he ultimately follows Batman’s orders because he knows he can do good in the Cave too. He’s practical like that.
Considering that it’s his book, it’s fitting that Nightwing has the most nuanced response. Early in the issue he disobeys Batman’s orders and sticks around long enough to rescue a falling citizen — all the while giving Bruce some serious lip about his pushing him away. Ultimately, though, Dick sticks to Batman’s plan and even defends them to Duke as “what [Bruce] needs right now.” Other than Alfred, nobody in this book’s closer to Bruce than Dick Grayson — he’s able to talk back to Batman with no consequence, but ultimately cares about him enough to put his own feelings aside in order to support him, even if he doesn’t agree with Bruce’s choices.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, Batman’s newest recruit, Gotham Girl, openly defies him.
But this, too, is grounded in her character — her powers and mental instability may endanger her, but she’s too compassionate to let people get hurt if she can help them. Honestly, Gotham Girl is the best suited of Gotham’s heroes to tackle the Monster Men, and that alone shows not only how outclassed Batman and his allies are by these creatures, but how out-of-place Gotham Girl is amongst the Bat-Family as well.
(Also, Claire is wearing Duke’s Robin jacket here — how cute is that?!)
Ultimately, I don’t know if “Night of the Monster Men” has any big statement to make, but even if the story just spotlights Batman and his allies redefining their relationships while battling monsters, well, that’s like catnip to me. Patrick, how about you? And hey, there’s plenty I overlooked here — Duke’s special project, the Chekov’s “Wayne Watchtowers,” the evacuees’ possible transformations in the cave — any thoughts?
Patrick: Yeah, it’s almost like the plotting is moving along too breathlessly to make a grander point. You mentioned Wayne’s Watchtowers, but the issue is so jam-packed with cool ideas and teases that suggest a Batman that’s always a couple steps beyond what we’d expect of a normal superhero. He’s like the ultra-Boy Scout: always prepared, no matter what the scenario. I love the Bat-Beacon – rows and rows of street lights all projecting a holographic images of Batman comforting the city in a time of crisis. That sort of thing does a great job of continually re-focusing the reader’s attention on the citizens of Gotham, which is so damn in important in a story like this. One of the dangers of a story like Zero Year or End Game is that we can’t stay properly invested in the human cost of whatever supervillainy is taking place. We’re kinda trained to keep our eyes on Batman, and take all of our dramatic cues from him, but there’s so much more impact seeing the effect to people on the ground.
For the most part, those “people on the ground” are cordoned off from Batman and Batwoman, and are currently chilling in the caves with Spoiler, Clayface and Orphan. If this is where we’re seeing the real growing threat, there’s pretty good reason to believe that our heroes ain’t seen shit yet. Remember, the emotion-amplifying Psycho Pirate is at least partially behind Strange’s plan, which means a psychologically fractured Clayface and a grieving Steph are going to be particularly vulnerable to manipulation. I love the way Orlando subtly reminds us what Steph’s going through – Bullock chides her for her dour attitude, probing with the facetious question “Your dog die or something?” Steph’s response:
Spencer mentioned the coloring of the beasts in this issue, but I’d argue that the color all around is stellar. Sotomayor frequently hones in on a single color to anchor individual pages, building the palette around that anchor color. It’s not always possible, but whenever he can let that color be dictated by character, he takes that opportunity. For example, that motorcycling Batwoman scene Spencer posted above is dominated by Kate’s red hair and the lining in her cape. Red’s the color of Batwoman, and Sotomayor slathers the page in it. Or when Nightwing investigates the monster-corpse situation at the morgue (“you’re the detective now”), everything bathed in a very Nightwingy electric blue.
Back at the caves, when Orphan is taking stock of the growing chaos brewing between their storm refugees, it’s less of a color, and more of a design aesthetic that rules the page. There is a lot of black on this page — including some instances of extra-wide black gutters — but that scratchy red junk that appears in the background behind Cass’ head in the second panel extends to the increasingly aggravated crowd.
So, yup: two issues in, and “Night of the Monster Men” is very much working for me. It’s everything I want from a comic book – smart design, dynamic character relationships, threats from all sides and non-stop action.
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