Friday, March 23, 2012

Batman: Life After Death (comics)

Writer: Tony Daniel
Artist: Tony Daniel, Guillem March
Collects: Batman #692-699

Of the stories that came about while Dick Grayson played stand-in for Batman - as Bruce was missing in action at the time, presumed dead - this one was probably the biggest that didn't involve the name Grant Morrison. It had a few tie-ins, happened to be referenced by other books and so on. Unfortunately for Tony Daniel, he has the unenviable task of following Morrison on the book after Grant moved on to Batman & Robin.

Gotham is caught in a gang war. The new Black Mask has made a play for the city at the same time the mob has returned to town. In the middle of this struggle is Dick - still new to his role as Gothams protector - who has to find a way to stop it. Of course, with old foes like Professor Strange helping the Black Mask, it won't be easy.

The two issue story that follows it puts the focus on the Riddler and an old partner from his past who'd really like to stick a knife between Eddies ribs.

First off, I've got to give Tony Daniel credit for ambition. He wastes absolutely no time in bringing back elements from the first three years of Batmans career. It requires stones to bring back the mob - famously dismantled after the events of Year One, The Long Halloween and Dark Victory wiped out most of the controlling family - even if it isn't for them to take center stage. There's also the return of Dr. Death and Professor Strange, neither of whom I can recall seeing in a long time. The Reaper even turns up. The friggin Reaper! From Year Two of all stories!

But ambition alone doesn't make for a good story. To his credit Daniel manages to put together an interesting plot; it's far from great but it's fairly engaging. I also have to give him praise for at least making an attempt to have everyone sound different. It's nowhere near perfect - I hate his "voice" for Bullock - but it's worth noting, as you'll find a few creators out there who seem to forget to give everyone a different personality.

He comes with his weaknesses, though. While the plot holds your attention fine, it doesn't have a lot of direction. By the end it's still unclear exactly what it was Black Mask was hoping to accomplish, much less why he needed some of the villains he recruited. I'm okay with leaving things open to be tackled in future stories, but for a six issue arc we end with far too many questions and little idea why the events occurred in the first place.

Tony Daniel also falls into something that I suspect will be a pattern among DickBats stories; that you could take him out and put Bruce in without losing much at all. For all of the crowing from some creators - and fans - about how Dick in the cowl afforded new opportunities, we see little of it. Dick sounds and acts a lot like his mentor in this book and there's little here to mark it as something you could only do with Grayson under the cowl.

Then there's also my annoyance with the Riddler story. It exists for no other reason than to revert Riddler back to full on villainy. Look, Riddler's an iconic rogue, but lets face facts; it's very, very rare that the character is the center of a classic story. On the scant occasion he is it's usually in the Arkham games or the cartoons. His role as a reformed private detective offered a lot more potential and here it's just thrown away. I'm not sure why Tony Daniel thought this was a good idea, but it irritates me.

I've always known Tony Daniel best from his artwork. I've been a fan of his since as far back as his stint on Geoff Johns Teen Titans. He was far from perfect, but he could pump out some pretty visuals and it seemed like he was constantly trying to progress as an artist.

Here, his work comes with good and bad. His storytelling is still off at times; some panel transitions are choppy, making it difficult to understand what's happening. Then there are the panels you simply cannot make heads or tails of; the worst is a panel where Reaper destroyed a still-moving vehicle, but his pose, body language and position leave you wondering how the hell he managed it. TD still has a long way to go.

Oh, and Catgirl; that costume is just... yuck.

But man, sometimes he can just put out pages that simply pop. One of my favorites is in the fourth issue of the main arc. In the background, the Falcone mansion engulfed in roaring flame. To Batmans right, the gasoline can he discarded. We see his cape and cowl; within the cape, his body is completely covered in shadow with only the chest emblem visible. He looks like a specter. It's a striking page for sure.

The coloring is the star of the Riddler story. It's pretty varied, with deep to bright colors and occasional neon used for certain scenes. The colorist for that story really ought to get more work. As for the artwork itself, it's by Guillem March; if you're familiar with his style you already know if you'll love or hate it.

My Opinion: Try It

This book is best described as a middle of the road Batman adventure. I expected a total wash, but there's enough good here to be worth a look. Given time, perhaps Tony Daniel can improve his craft and become one of the better writer/artists in the business. In the meantime, Life After Death is worth a checkout if the local library has a copy, but it isn't something you'll want to add to your bookshelf.

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