Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Fair Trade -- Showcase Presents: Batman And The Outsiders

Showcase Presents: Batman And The Outsiders
When I first got into superhero comics in the very early 90s, I was, for the most part, a Marvel Zombie. I read a couple of Image titles (ShadowHawk, woo!), but mostly I read X-books and other random stuff which the Big M was kicking out. I eventually started reading DCs, namely the Superman titles plus manstays like Green Lantern and Flash. It pretty much continued on this vein for many years, to the point that by the turn of the century the only DC I read was Flash, and Power Company, but that one didn't really last. It wasn't until I got out of college that I got more "into" the DCU as a whole and started to learn about it's history. Ironically, I owe that mostly to Identity Crisis and frequent poster Adama. I distinctly remember a conversation over AIM with him while I was at work one day, and he was complaining about what the first 2 issues of IdC was doing to Silver Age Villainy, and my awesome response of "What's IdC?" lead to me reading his copies and asking him who the heck people were, then picking up JSA and going from there, and at this point I would call myself a much bigger DC fan than Marvel. So, given this, it's needless to say, before a couple of years ago, I was not really sure just who the heck the Outsiders were.

I had heard the name from the second series, but never read it, so the history of this team with Batman and all that was new to me. I started reading Winnick's new Outsiders after "OYL," and liked what I read, so I sought out information on the history of the team, and was surprised at how long that name had been kicking around. This team sounded pretty interesting. I liked Katana from the current series, and had taken a shining to Black Lightning when I read a few issues of his series. Plus, Jim Aparo had become one of my favorite DC artists, so when DC announced this trade, I added it to my pull list.

The verdict? I'm glad I did.

Other bloggers have tackled BATO as well (The Comic Treadmill has a series of excellent critiques, starting here with the launch and early issues), and it does have it's fair share of shortcomings. The excuse for this team coming together is pretty flimsy, even by team book standards. And Mike Barr, that magnificent bastard, does have a tendency to create foes for his team which conveniently feature five members so everyone can pair off. No series is perfect, and this title is no exception to that rule. But despite these, and in some instances, certainly because of them, this collection is a delight and a success.
Doing battle with Agent Orange, BATMAN AND THE OUTSIDERS #3
Yeah, the setup for the team is weak, but honestly, I didn't care about that too much because once things get rolling it really doesn't matter. This is superheroics in a broad sense, but Barr differentiates things from the more staid Justice League by peppering the stories with early-80s versions of social awareness and urban (sur)realism. When Agent Orange rails against the US government for using the chemical which scarred him in Viet Nam, or Black Lightning is targetted for causing a girl's death, or a supposedly benevolent doctor tortures his supervillain patient and covers it up, Barr shoots for something outside the traditional black-and-white contrast. Of course, it never really goes all the way into ambiguity, but it makes for fun reading in the same mold as the best issues of Power Man and Iron Fist. Another benefit is that Barr writes every issue (save for the crossover with New Teen Titans, which was a team-up with Wolfman), and his devotion to his characters is readily apparent. Everyone is not only consistant, but grows, insofar as one can grow in such a series. His Batman, especially, is a character I like to read: he's a tough boss, sure, but he's not so surly and edgy that we cannot relate to him. He's a teacher and a taskmaster and a counseller all rolled into one, molding his team into heroes he feels can carry on his fight when he's gone. Everyone gets a chance to be in the spotlight, too, as we get origins or features on Geo-Force, Black Lightning, Katana, Halo, and Metamorpho as well.

And it looks wonderful. There's not enough nice things to about Aparo's art, which looks as crisp and dynamic in black and white as it does in color. His Batman, always shrouded in shadows, is an ominous presence, and he makes even the strangest costumes (Halo) work. Given the nature of this series -- translation: there's a lot of fighting -- Aparo is right in his element. Everytime Black Lightning unloads his lightning punch on some poor sap, you feel it, and when Katana collapses some guy's lung, the cut is visceral. And it's not just the heroes, either -- each new enemy Barr throws against the Outsiders gets a unique visual style which helps round them out as baddies, from the Force of July's patriotic duds to the Master of Disaster's elemental looks to Agent Orange's militaristic uniform and gas mask. The villains themselves are of the "made up" variety, but that was the norm for this period. Not every issue has to feature Darkseid or Brainiac, ya know? The Force of July deserved a better fate than what they got, I say!

Fighting for true freedom, BATMAN AND THE OUTSIDERS ANNUAL #1There are some problems to go with all of this, as well. There's a handful of tales in here which seem to be somewhat rushed, as if Barr wrote himself into a corner and had to wrap things up quickly. It's not that bad, but it is there, and it can be disappointing to have a twist occur for what seems to be little more than the writer's whim. Also, some of the character moments fall flat, namely Metamorpho, who hardly has anything to do but pine for Sappire Stagg, at least until right near the end of the volume. Another complaint is the lack of the Bat-universe at large in this title, which I can understand even if I don't share the sentiment. The Outsiders run in their own circle in Gotham, and save for Maxie Zeus, we don't see any of the regular Bat-Rouges; I count that as a plus, personally, but it is a little unusual for a series with "Batman" in the title.

All in all, though, I would call these relatively minor problems with what is, at it's core, a solid action mag. Like all Showcase volumes, it's an attractive phonebook style trade, and you get more than 500 pages for your money, so its a good value. The stories are light and easy, great for reading before bed or when you're waiting for dinner to cook. I'd heartily recommend this book to any DC fan, or to a younger reader looking for a way to get into comics.

And, with any luck, we'll get a second volume. Think I'll go write a letter to DC's collections department.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Dude, I had totally forgotten about that convo! I get a little choked up thinking about my role in getting you back into comics ::tear::

...but seriously, Batman and the Outsiders? I had no idea they had a Showcase coming out! (where have I been?!)

Damn you DC, why must you take all my money? WHY?!