The epilogue to Battle for the Cowl, the big Batman event that completely reshuffled the state of affairs in Gotham City, came out this week, completing the saga. But was it any good? Spoilers ahead...
The past eighteen months have not been the kindest to DC Comics on the creative front. With the major exception of Sinestro Corps War, DC has (in my opinion) fumbled most of its major events. Though Final Crisis and particularly Batman: RIP have improved in my estimations since I first read them, neither really cohered into a single captivating story, and the execrable Countdown almost made give me up on comics completely (which I suppose one could argue wouldn't be such a bad thing, but such an argument would be wrong).
But now, DC appears to be eschewing these massive crossover epics in favor of slightly smaller, more contained events like Superman's "New Krypton" arc, the just completed weekly series Trinity (more on that tomorrow), and the upcoming Blackest Night. The results thus far have been largely promising but, sadly, the big black eye in DC's quiet creative renewal has been Battle for the Cowl, the Batman event that was supposed to reveal what Bruce Wayne's disappearance will mean for Gotham City going forward but has spent most its run exploring seemingly unrelated, far less interesting territory. Let's take a look at the various parts of this event one at a time.
The Main Story
The main three-part Battle for the Cowl miniseries, written and drawn by Tony Daniel, starts with a lot of potential. Setting up a massive war for control of Gotham, it pits a patchwork network of heroes against not only the two ruling criminal factions (led by the Penguin and Two-Face respectively) but also a newly returned Black Mask, who has captured the rest of the Gotham City rogue's gallery and forced them to do his chaotic bidding.
Meanwhile, Dick Grayson and Tim Drake try to sort out who will take on the mantle of Batman, with Dick not even entirely sure there needs to be a new Batman. Their decisions are complicated by the emergence of a mysterious new Batman, who is clearly well-trained, has connections to Bruce Wayne, and favors a brutal style of justice. I'll give you one guess as to who that might be. (It's Jason Todd.)
The miniseries tries to pack far too much story into just three issues, particularly when the last chapter is mostly just the big showdown between Dick Grayson and Jason Todd. Although the Black Mask's absurdly convoluted plan to remove his criminal rivals just about makes sense - though I'll admit I had to reread it to understand completely what was going on - it doesn't ultimately seem to have much to do with the titular battle for the cowl. This is, I suppose, one of the narrative problems of this entire event, as it's not so much telling its own compelling story as setting up a new status quo for the Batman books, and apparently the Black Mask is a big part of that.
Of course, based on that premise, I would have expected more time devoted to those who actually claim a part of Bruce Wayne's legacy. Tim Drake in particular is given short shrift, as his primary function in the story is to dress as Batman for reasons that aren't quite explained (does he want to be Batman or this meant as some sort of psychological boost for the people of Gotham?) and get the crap beaten out of him by Jason Todd. Damian Wayne becomes the new Robin because they happened to have a spare suit handy, I guess. Only Dick Grayson is really developed properly, although his internal conflict is a bit dull - he's completely fine with becoming Batman, but isn't doing it because Bruce apparently felt there wouldn't be any need for a new Batman after he was gone.
Jason Todd is the biggest disappointment here. I would have been completely fine with declaring his character radioactive and quietly retiring him after the mess that was Countdown (a bit like what happened to Hawkman in the nineties), and I'm still unclear what the point of his character is. There might once have been potential in casting him as a dark (well...darker) mirror to Batman, but he's long since degenerated into a ranting psychopath. It seems distinctly unfair to make the battle for the cowl come down to a fight between Dick Grayson and a raving lunatic.
Much as the flimsy pretext for a showdown between Dick and Tim Drake would have been unavoidably contrived, at least it would have been a more legitimate exploration of the varying interpretations of what Batman is all about. That's this series's problem in a nutshell - it never really seems to be about Batman, and all the exploding chaos never seems to get you any closer to what the story really ought to be.
Azrael: Death's Dark Knight
One of two tie-in miniseries meant to set up new ongoing titles, Azrael: Death's Dark Knight is by far the better of the two. Writer Fabian Nicieza worked wonders with the recently canceled Nightwing and Robin books, and he's talented enough to bring make Azrael readable despite its flaws.
The story is needlessly complicated, involving two warring factions of an ancient order fighting over the Suit of Sorrows, which gives its wearer great power and the cost of his sanity. The more peaceful faction gives the suit to Michael Washington Lane, one of the "Ghosts of Batman" from Grant Morrison's recent run on Batman. Talia al Ghul tries to recover the suit so that her son Damian can use it to better claim his legacy as Bruce Wayne's son, and then Nightwing gets involved because the previous wearer of the suit killed a cop. Oh, and someone is running around who looks like Batman, but I'm not really sure what was going on there.
It's a convoluted tale, and not a terribly involving one at that, but Fabian Nicieza adds some little touches that do much to improve the quality of the story. For a start, Michael Washington Lane is actually a pretty interesting character, who despite his grief and brooding still gets some interesting lines and makes some surprising choices. He's not a complete retread of the somewhat unhinged vigilante archetype, and that's a good thing.
Nightwing and Talia also make interesting supporting characters, both adjusting to the vastly altered landscape of Gotham City in unexpected ways. Their uneasy truce in issue 3 sets up an intriguing status quo for the upcoming Azrael series. Nightwing is willing to give Lane a shot at redemption, although it's hard to know how long that tolerance will last when the new Azrael goes around chopping people's legs off, as he does on the last page.
My big problem with the miniseries is Frazer Irving's art. As a general rule, I think the standard comic book drawing style is the standard for a reason, and I don't usually like looking at art that wildly deviates from the norm (I still have mixed feelings about Frank Quitely's style, for instance). His style lends itself relatively well to the historical brushstrokes of the character, but regular characters like Nightwing, Detective Bullock, and Ra's al Ghul look pretty funky when drawn by Irving.
Azreal: Death's Dark Knight is a deeply flawed series with a drawing style I really don't care for, but if you had to read one thing from Battle for the Cowl, you could do a lot worse. If that sounds like damning with faint praise, that's probably because it is, but his previous work leaves me inclined to cut Fabian Nicieza quite a bit of slack.
Oracle: The Cure
This was, hands down, the most disappointing of the various tie-ins, if only because of its grossly squandered potential. There are some promising elements here - Barbara Gordon is a great character, the Calculator is a worthy adversary for her, and a miniseries about a paraplegic character with the subtitle The Cure implies some pretty major developments lie ahead. Indeed, considering how long she has been away from Gotham City, her return should have had intriguing implications for not only her father the Commissioner but also the larger Batman family.
Instead, the whole thing is one big ludicrous riff on Second Life that is less interested in the Batman world than it is in pointless globetrotting, picking up on minor plot threads from Final Crisis and Teen Titans, and people's heads exploding. I really wish I was making any of that up. It always amazes me that any story set in a universe like that of DC Comics would bother with virtual reality when there are actual, honest to goodness superheroes in the real world. And, unsurprisingly, the depiction of the internet in Oracle: The Cure is roughly as absurd and unrealistic as it in every other story about the internet ever made.
Writer Kevin Vanhook, who just about pulled off the mindless fun of Superman and Batman vs. Vampires and Werewolves (the title pretty much says it all), manages a couple nice touches as he explores how Barbara deals with her paralysis and the painful memories of the Joker's attack all those years ago, but that's pretty much the only thing he gets right (and even then the narration is presented from a rather irritating third person omniscient perspective). The different art styles of Julian Lopez and Fernando Pasarin are both workmanlike but don't gel together particularly well. And Guillem March's covers go a bit overboard in appealing to the prurient interest, even by the standard of comic books.
But perhaps my biggest problem with the miniseries is what it doesn't do. It's an unconscionable cheat to call the miniseries The Cure, spend so much time on Barbara's condition, introduce an element that could magically fix any ailment, and then never even acknowledge the obvious conclusion - that this series is all about Barbara getting out of the wheelchair. This possibility isn't even hinted at, as the story lurches to an ending that is equal parts abrupt, cruel, and uninteresting.
Honestly, I still have no idea what this series was meant to say about the character. Considering it teases the new monthly Batgirl series, you'd think this series would have had more to do with, well, Batgirl, but neither Barbara's old identity nor the current Cassandra Cain incarnation figure in the story. Instead, Barbara Gordon is in pretty much exactly the same situation at the end of the story as she was at the start (other than a pretty decisive victory over the Calculator, but honestly, who cares?), and for a miniseries that flies the Battle for the Cowl banner, you'd really think this would have had something to do with what's going on in Gotham City.
The bookends to the whole event introduce and resolve a whole bunch of intriguing storylines - too bad most of them are ignored during the rest of Battle for the Cowl. The four stories follow reporter Vicki Vale as she returns to Gotham and tries to track down the suddenly elusive Bruce Wayne, Stephanie Brown as she resolves to be the Spoiler again, Leslie Thompkins as she tries to rebuild the old life in Crime Alley that she had abandoned, and Harvey Bullock as he teams up with new partner Jamie Harper (late of the Robin monthly series) to investigate a mysterious murder.
Of these, only the Bullock plot really carries over into any of the other stories, specifically the Azrael: Death's Dark Knight miniseries. This is a shame, as I'd say these four stories come the closest to striking the tones of difficult change and renewal that I would have associated with the emergence of a new Batman. I suppose I'm being slightly unrealistic in what I want from comics - after all, atmosphere alone can't carry an action-packed event on its own, and atmosphere is the primary strength of Gotham Gazette.
Ultimately, these are more vignettes than stories, but they're damn good ones. Although it is a bit odd that the epilogue ends with Vicki Vale arranging photos and newspaper clippings on a wall (while sexily posing in underwear for some reason - OK, I know the reason, but Battle for the Cowl is honestly just gratuitous and a bit off-putting in its voyeurism) that prove to her that Bruce Wayne is Batman. Surely the point of this whole damn Battle for the Cowl is that that's yesterday's news?
The five one-shots represent, somewhat surprisingly, the most consistently successful thread of Battle for the Cowl. Commissioner Gordon follows the head of GCPD as he comes to terms with Batman's death, with quite a bit of help from Mr. Freeze. The Network looks at the team Nightwing and Oracle have cobbled together to keep a semblance of order in Gotham, while Man-Bat follows Dr. Kirk Langstrom as he searches for his wife and realizes, for all his good intentions, none of the heroes want any part of him.
Arkham Asylum features Dr. Jerimiah Arkham as he surveys the wreckage of the mental institution in the wake of the events of Batman: RIP, and The Underground features the Riddler and Catwoman as they deal with the criminal underbelly of Gotham of which they were once a part.
The only real weak link here is Arkham Asylum, which is predictably grotesque and doesn't seem to do much beyond introduce a trio of deeply disturbing characters. Man-Bat is surprisingly effective in capturing the deeply conflicted nature of Dr. Langstrom, as he tries to do good while wrestling with the monster within. (Sure, that story was better the first time around when it was called The Incredible Hulk, but writer Joe Harris does a good job with the material.)
Perhaps the real reason why the other three one-shots work as well as they do is that they actually deal with characters I care about. Instead of introducing a new Azrael or sending Oracle to Hong Kong to fight the internet (or whatever), the other three are all about Gotham City and characters whose stories are intertwined with it, including Commissioner Gordon, Mr. Freeze, the Riddler, Catwoman, Batgirl, and Huntress. None of them are particularly groundbreaking or revolutionary, but they do the best job of showing what Batman's disappearance means to those left behind, and they're pretty entertaining stories to boot.
There was only one Battle for the Cowl tie-in from a regular series, but Secret Six #9 is easily the best thing to come out of this whole mess. Considering the team of amoral and vaguely reformed supervillains features two members with major Batman connections - Bane, who infamously broke the Caped Crusader's back in the early nineties, and Catman, who rather obviously based his look and name on the Batman - it's only nature they would find some way to figure into the craziness in Gotham City.
Half of the Secret Six spend a hectic night foiling a massive kidnapping plot out of what they say is respect for Batman's legacy. Bane and Catman debate which of the two has more of a right to assume the mantle, something neither is quite willing to admit they desire. Meanwhile, Ragdoll has rather disturbing donned a Robin costumes (but then, everything Ragdoll says and does is inherently disturbing, which Catman amusingly points out).
One of the most consistently satisfying aspects of Gail Simone's Secret Six run is her ability to contrast the morality of her team and those of traditional superheroes. A tense standoff between the three villains and Nightwing leads it open to interpretation whether their brutal means make them no better than the kidnappers they defeated or if Nightwing is just a sanctimonious little dictator who has simply taken the right to dictate what's right and what's wrong, as Catman argues. Honestly, I'm tempted to agree with Catman, but then it is his book.
Either way, this is a superior exploration of the fragile line that these darker vigilantes walk in the name of doing the right thing. Who'd have thought the man who broke the bat and the guy in the lame cat costume would offer the best meditation on what it means to be Batman?
Overall Grade for Battle for the Cowl: C+