By Greg Pak, Jae Lee, Kennith Rocafort, and Philip Tan
It was difficult to disconnect myself from the notion I was reading a 1980s or 1990s martial arts movie while in the middle of Batman/Superman Annual #1. It has all the best aspects of those movies, not to mention a rapid, easily digestible story. It had great action, plenty of snappy one-liners, and a good deal of brooding character drama. Unfortunately where it excels in fun it lacks in overall meat and potatoes; for a $5.99 cover price it certainly delivers a fast read. There just isn’t a whole lot there by the end of the issue, and it was hard to extrapolate much beyond baseline interactions between appearing members of the cast. Honestly it had everything that makes a tangential annual story great, (and yes, I’m aware this is an epilogue to the most recent story arc in the main book), even Krypto. But like most other New 52 books out there, it was difficult to walk away feeling like there was any sort of lasting impact.
One of the biggest issues is this lingering necessity, a parasitic growth, which requires Batman to have this antagonistic attitude towards everything. Even with Superman, a character who is traditionally considered one of Bruce’s closest friends (refer to just about every Golden Age Worlds’ Finest cover where they’re actually smiling and having a good time together). So why is it always a requirement, especially within the New 52, for Batman and Superman to have this weird conflict of trust? It adds absolutely nothing to either character, and replaces the potential for actual drama with an eye-rolling dramatic facsimile.
For instance, early in the issue Batman harasses Superman about misusing or abusing the Phantom Zone, to the effect that he always wants to keep his “friend” thinking. So Batman wants to remind Superman to keep his powers in check, to not acquire a god mentality. That seems reasonable. Yet when faced with having a convincing fight with Superman, Batman can’t be bothered to think beyond whipping out a piece of kryptonite and laying the smack down. Are we sure Superman is the one with the god mentality problem?
There are some bright spots in the story to be sure: Mongul is great, Batgirl’s muted appearance is excellent, Krypto jumps into the action, and Steel gets to do something. Pak has shown he’s ready to bring some imagination, creativity, and excitement to his work at DC, his Action Comics work is definite proof of that. But this issue feels like a huge step backwards, like it just needed to be done and forgotten, a disappointment given the potential set up in the beginning.
The strange decision to have three different artists illustrate each chapter makes this comic an even more difficult read. Reading through every chapter, the visuals start at their peak in the beginning, slowly diminishing to boring and muddled by the time the third chapter starts. Of course Jae Lee’s unbelievable use of negative space and shadows to accentuate the very dynamic movements and gestures of his figures is always a treat to witness. Yet paired with Lee, Rocafort and Tan’s extremely line heavy styles clash with Lee’s minimalist art so dramatically it’s like each chapter is its own comic, utterly lacking cohesion.
All in all this annual has some high points, and a lot of low points. If you’re into the whole “every superhero has to be dark and gritty and brooding and angry” theme of the New 52, this is the perfect comic for you. Otherwise check out Pak’s Action Comics, or Adventures of Superman, and Batman ‘66 for something more palatable.