Today, Drew and Mark are discussing Batman 21, originally released April 19th, 2017. As always, this article contains SPOILERS.
Drew: I was late getting into comics, so by the time I first read Watchmen, its cynical tone and psychologically nuanced characters weren’t the subversive breath of fresh air they were in 1986. Indeed, in the wake of Watchmen‘s success, publishers pumped out plenty of imitators over the past 30 years, but mostly by replicating the tone and approach to characters (honestly, I’ve read so many deconstructions of superheroes at this point, I’m not sure I have any ideas about them left to deconstruct). For this reason, the tone and characters of Watchmen have always struck me as well-done, but largely unremarkable — and before you sound off in the comments, I can assure you I understand how ahistorical this perspective is, but it’s how I feel. But I still love Watchmen deeply because of its formal perfection. While its idiosyncratic aesthetic may make declaring “perfection” highly subjective (or at least qualifies it with some serious “apples and oranges” hedging), I’m still in awe of its disciplined layouts, masterful pacing, and rich details.
All of which is an explanation to why I’m so wary of “The Button,” the crossover event that promises to introduces (however temporarily) the Watchmen characters to the DC Universe. Resurrecting the characters seems like just about the least interesting (and thus, perhaps the most insulting) way to honor Watchmen‘s legacy, once again missing the element that is most remarkable about Watchmen. Suffice it to say: my expectations for this issue were exceedingly low. Curiously, writer Tom King and artist Jason Fabok seem inclined to confirm my worst fears in the opening of the issue, which hits us with two three-panel pages before landing on a gratuitous splash page — the kind Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons held back until the final chapter of Watchmen. (Indeed, King and Fabok go a step further with a full bleed, leaving no gutter around the image, and blowing the whole thing on what amounts to an establishing shot).
But then King and Fabok settle into Watchmen‘s signature nine-panel grid. At first, it seems like they’re completely missing the point, intercutting between Batman playing with the titular button and the hockey game he inexplicably has on in the batcave.
Sorry to include both pages, but I want to emphasize how poorly paced this sequence is — we get 18 panels that mostly convey the information broadcast in those first two panels. There may be some nuance in the specific language King uses as the announcer doubts the “fun” of all of this violence, but these two pages ultimately boil down to “Batman has button, hockey players have fight.”
But this is all a feint. King and Fabok are confirming our worst suspicions — that they don’t understand the formal appeal of Watchmen, and that this will be related only in that it reintroduces its characters — only to utterly reverse them as the issue kicks into gear. The button has a multiverse-rippling reaction to Psycho Pirate’s mask, leading Bruce to call Barry Allen. Barry is tied up, but promises to be at the batcave in one minute. And so, a countdown timer starts.
This sets up yet another fully bled splash — this one two pages — and while the longer time in the nine-panel grid and genuine surprise of the image make it better than that first one, I’m most intrigued by the grid with the timer. It seems like a simple, perhaps even gimmicky, addition, but it allows King and Fabok to be remarkably specific about the rapidity of events — something that matters a great deal when battling the Reverse Flash.
But first, they reset our expectations. We get a full nine-panel grid of countdown, establishing that each panel represents about one second. Then, they slow down to catalogue a volley of Speed Force-powered punches over the course of three seconds:
Not only does the timer give us a sense of pacing (Reverse Flash is punching at about four punches per second or pps), Fabok reveals a much more nuanced understanding of the formal possibilities of the nine-panel grid. We still get the same kind of strict intercutting we got with the hockey fight, now alternating between closeups and these wider silhouette shots, but Fabok places Reverse Flash in the central panel, and colorist Brad Anderson bathes the north, south, east, and west panels in yellow, creating a striking yellow cross that literally pushes Batman to the margins.
When Batman is able to strike back a few pages later, the timer makes it clear that he can’t match Reverse Flash’s pps, maxing out at about one:
Under other circumstances, we might assume these punches have the same duration as the ones Reverse Flash landed earlier, but the timer makes it clear just how much time is passing between panels.
Once the fight — and the device of the timer — comes to an end, King and Fabok are able to continue to demonstrate their command of the nine-panel grid, utilizing the subsets of the grid to tell satisfying beats. My wariness returns as the plotting moves beyond “they fight,” but if King and Fabok can keep the formal fireworks going (and Joshua Williamson and Howard Porter can do the same over on The Flash), I might actually enjoy this thing.
Mark, I’m excited to hear your thoughts on this issue! Was the fun of that timer enough to keep you engaged, or did spending the first chapter of this story on one fight feel like a waste? Did you come into this issue skeptical? Did you leave it with cautious optimism?
Mark: Before Watchmen was the point that I stopped putting any stock into the notion of Watchmen characters as untouchable stock. Not because I thought Before Watchmen was particularly interesting or showed that DC could be trusted to treat the characters as more than an opportunity to cash in on Watchmen‘s cultural cache, but because it was an event so slavishly devoted to the original work as to be mostly forgettable and—worst of all—dull. But while Before Watchmen never spawned Before Before Watchmen, a company never sits on an asset this beloved for long, so it was only a matter of time before DC found a new way to trot out Dr. Manhattan and the gang.
When it was revealed in Rebirth that Watchmen, or at least some elements thereof, were being brought into main DC continuity my first thought was, “This is dumb.” But my second thought was, “Well, at least they’re actually taking a risk.” Before Watchmen and the equally faithful and equally unremarkable film adaptation are the limits of my Watchmen try-hard attention span, but a potential trainwreck? I’d buy that for $1. So, yes, I’m game for whatever DC has in store for this crossover to end all crossovers, because at least they’re trying something new (well, new-ish).
Not that there’s much to judge this initiative on in Batman 21. The groundwork is being laid, but it’s going to take a lot of fisticuffs to get there.
Pacing, as you mentioned, Drew, really undercuts the effectiveness of Batman 21. I really like the bones of the issue; there’s a lot of fun to be had in exploiting the time mechanic, and King and Fabok structure the main fight in a unique way. But while the confrontation between Batman and Reverse Flash is itself meaty, the issue as a whole comes across as slight—like the first satisfying 1/3 of a longer issue. I turned over the last page and commented out loud, “That’s it?!” On my second readthrough the underlying thinness of the whole issue was even more pronounced. Batman’s initial futzing with the button becomes transparently interminable when you recognize that it comprises almost a full 10% of the issue’s action for essentially no narrative gain.
I have a complicated relationship with King’s Batman in that I admire many disparate facets of it without ever being able to fully embrace it as a whole, but that’s been my experience with the Rebirth not-a-reboot as a whole. Still, I’m genuinely looking forward to seeing how this whole deal shakes out. So much of DC’s output lately has been about giving fans what they want, and folding in Watchmen feels like the one wildcard. I’m ready for thing to get a little bit messy.
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 Comixology and download issues there. There’s no need to pirate, right?