Monday, January 16, 2017

Review: DC Universe: Rebirth – The Deluxe Edition

Review DC Universe Rebirth The Deluxe Edition Geoff Johns Gary Frank Ethan Van Sciver Ivan Reis Phil Jimenez Superman Batman Wonder Woman Flash Barry Allen Green Lantern Dr. Manhattan Watchmen DC Comics hardcover comic book
Writer: Geoff Johns
Artists: Gary Frank, Ethan Van Sciver, Ivan Reis, and Phil Jimenez
Collects: DC Universe: Rebirth Special #1 (2016)
Published: DC, 2016; $17.99

The recent publication of DC Universe: Rebirth – The Deluxe Edition, an eighteen-dollar hardcover version of the three-dollar softcover special issue released in summer 2016 to spearhead the latest relaunch of DC’s superhero line, makes now seem as good a time as any for me to resume posting on this blog. And while I only wish that I could in good conscience make some ham-fisted analogy between the “rebirth” of DC’s publishing line and that of With Great Power, the fact is that I find the Rebirth special off-putting in quite a few respects.

I probably haven’t read as many DC comics as the average DC fan, but I’ve certainly read a lot more than the average person in general. I only mention that because this book left me scratching my head at least once every few pages, and I can’t see it faring much better with the average non-comics reader or even with more seasoned comics readers who may lack an intimate knowledge of DC history. Of course, it would seem that the book was never meant for those audiences. DC president Diane Nelson suggests as much in her introduction to the hardcover edition: “I find it hard to believe that anyone reading this deluxe edition of DC Universe: Rebirth has not yet read it in another form, be it print or digital,” she writes. And while it’s a little sobering to see a major publisher of corporate comics openly admit to repackaging the same material for the same small group of fans over and over again (be it conceptually, as in the intensely nostalgic bent of the entire Rebirth line, or literally, in terms of trade paperback and hardcover collections of single issues), it’s also a little surreal to see that fact so baldly acknowledged by the company’s president in the opening pages of the Rebirth initiative’s flagship book.

The main story of the Rebirth special, which concerns itself primarily with the characters, histories, and interpersonal relationships that were erased from DC continuity as a result of the publisher’s “New 52” relaunch in 2011, is easy enough to follow; it’s the interstitial scenes and cutaways that make the overall book something of a muddle. In between scenes depicting the pre-New 52 character Wally West as he encourages the major characters of the post-New 52 DC Universe to remember his existence, writer Geoff Johns and his team of artists (Gary Frank, Ethan Van Sciver, Ivan Reis, and Phil Jimenez) jump around in time and space to tell brief vignettes about various other characters. The trouble is that many of these vignettes come and go without contributing anything to the book’s main story, instead leaving the reader with a handful of apparent revelations that make little sense if you’re not familiar with what, say, Blue Beetle or the Atom have been up to since 2011 (and how that differs from what they were up to before that).

Even a lot of the reveals concerning DC’s more popular characters fall somewhat flat. Among them is Batman’s discovery that there have been three Jokers (rather than just one) running around Gotham City since 2011. This idea might have been interesting as the payoff to some larger ongoing mystery in Batman’s corner of the DC Universe, but instead it just sort of drops into the story with a dull, embarrassing thud: it feels less like a deliberate plot development than it does an officially-sanctioned No-Prize designed to make sense of five years’ worth of conflicting editorial decisions regarding Batman’s nemesis.

The reveal that the pre-New 52 version of Superman has been living in hiding for the last five years is a little more interesting, but like many other sequences in this book it’s undermined by the book’s poor page layout. Superman’s vignette is similar to most of the other vignettes in the Rebirth special in that it runs for two pages; rather than being organized as two-page spreads, though, many of these sequences are instead split in half by a page turn. Not only does this make for some really choppy reading at times, but it robs several of the more potentially impactful moments of their significance. Take the page on which Aquaman proposes to Mera, for example, which arguably would have resonated more strongly had it not been paired with a page depicting the mournful, cordoned-off scene of the New 52 Superman’s death. The page break in the middle of the pre-New 52 Superman’s story fosters something more than just thematic incongruity, though, and I had to flip back and forth between the story’s two pages just to figure out how a particular character could have suddenly appeared in the scene without Superman’s noticing.

In general, these short sequences inflict a sense of bewilderment similar to what one might experience in the final pages of a Marvel crossover event. But whereas a book like Marvel’s Civil War, which bombards the reader with a flurry of short sequences that essentially preview the series and story arcs that follow that series, arguably earns the right to show us where characters like Spider-Man, Luke Cage, and the Punisher stand at the end of the story – that is, by virtue of having just portrayed these characters over the course of its seven issues – the Rebirth special offers no preceding context for the multiple previews it forces readers to endure.

But worst of all is the way the Rebirth special extends DC’s deeply immoral exploitation of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen, by contending that the most fan-beloved aspects of DC history were erased by Watchmen’s Dr. Manhattan. For one thing, this is yet another ad hominem attack by DC on Moore, who Johns effectively blames here for how poorly received the DC’s New 52 initiative was – for having “weakened” the DC Universe by instigating a “war between hope and despair,” “love and apathy,” “faith and disbelief.” What Johns seems to forget is that Moore and Gibbons’ series was in fact a deconstruction of how insipid mainstream superhero comics had become by the late 1980s, not a call for superhero comics to become more dark and cynical. The publisher learned all the wrong lessons from Watchmen, and to call the thirty-year-old series to the carpet for that is both mean-spirited and dumb.

That’s not even what’s most upsetting about this book, though; more importantly, the Rebirth special promises to introduce the characters of Watchmen into the DC Universe for the first time. While this is not strictly illegal – the nature of Moore’s 1985 contract ensured that the rights to Watchmen would revert to him only once the series had gone out of print, and DC has assiduously reprinted it ever since – I have yet to see or hear a convincing argument that the decision is anything less than unethical. Both Moore and DC fully expected that the rights to Watchmen would revert to the authors – that’s how such arrangements had always worked out, and there was nothing unusual about this particular deal at the time – and it was only Watchmen’s tremendous success, ironically, that kept it permanently in print and forever out of Moore’s legal control. So while DC’s inclusion of Moore and Gibbons’ characters in the Rebirth special may be lawful in that regard, it violates the spirit of the initial agreement, which held that Moore and Gibbons were, at the end of the day, the rightful owners of Watchmen.

The widespread apathy of comic book readers toward this outrage has taken a range of disturbing forms, from criticisms of Moore’s physical appearance and religious beliefs to the absurd argument that a corporation such as DC cannot be expected to act against its own interests and should therefore be supported in the exploitative position it has taken against Moore (and other creators over the years). These same readers valorize characters, like Superman and Batman, that frequently act against their own personal interests for the betterment of society: who fight, among other things, corporate greed (e.g., Lex Luthor) and strive to improve the world by directing the profits of big business toward global welfare (e.g., Batman’s charitable Wayne Foundation).

That fact raises a significant question: while it’s true that most corporations don’t act for the common good, does that really mean that we can’t expect them to? In the cases of DC and Marvel, in particular – companies that generate billions of dollars on the backs of characters that espouse altruism, charity, and moral responsibility – should we not demand even the slightest emulation of the positive qualities they so relentlessly promote? Should we reward and celebrate these companies when, as in DC Universe: Rebirth, their actions represent not only a bullheaded unwillingness to redress past wrongdoing but also a concerted determination to persist in that wrongdoing? These are the moral questions, unwittingly, with which the publishers of contemporary superhero comics force us to contend.

Thursday, July 28, 2016

Review: Uncanny X-Men, Vol. 1: Revolution

Review Uncanny X-Men Volume One Revolution Brian Michael Bendis Chris Bachalo Frazer Irving Triage Tempus Emma Frost White Queen Cyclops Scott Summers Magneto Magik Bendis is off to a great start AR Augmented Reality Marvel cover trade paperback tpb comic book
Writer: Brian Michael Bendis
Artists: Chris Bachalo, Frazer Irving
Collects: Uncanny X-Men #1-5 (2013)
Published: Marvel, 2013; $24.99 (HC), $19.99 (TPB)

Brian Michael Bendis’s Uncanny X-Men exists at a strange remove from All-New X-Men, being at once a companion piece to the writer’s other flagship X-Men title and a series with a coherent raison d’etre of its own. The first collected volume, Uncanny X-Men, Vol. 1: Revolution, focuses on the shambles Cyclops and his cohort (Emma Frost, Magneto, and Magik) find themselves in as they attempt to train a new generation of mutants. (It’s ironic, isn’t it, that Bendis’s “all-new” characters – Tempus, Triage, Fabio, and Benjamin – make their home in Uncanny, while the stars of All-New are the time-displaced “all-old” X-Men of the 1960s?)

Some of the most interesting and best-written moments in Revolution are actually ones previously seen in All-New X-Men, Vol. 1 and Vol. 2, presented here with a focus on the character interactions we didn’t see in Bendis’s other X-book. When Cyclops & Friends show up at the Jean Grey School to recruit more mutants to their cause, for example, Bendis overlays the war of words between Cyclops, Wolverine, and Kitty Pryde with a psychic showdown between Emma Frost and her former protégés, the Stepford Cuckoos. The girls feel betrayed by Emma’s apparent loss of her mutant abilities, casting a harsh light on Emma’s own sense of betrayal – one directed at herself on the one hand, but also at Cyclops, both for unintentionally breaking her mutant powers and for breaking her heart as well.

As fascinating as moments like these are in their own right, they also serve as consistent springboards to what gives Uncanny X-Men its own identity in relation to All-New X-Men: the “broken” nature of its cast’s mutant powers in the wake of Avengers vs. X-Men. If All-New is about inexperienced young mutants learning to utilize their talents to their fullest potential, then Uncanny is about experienced older mutants half-conscious of their new limitations but who try to do what they think is right anyway. Throughout Revolution the utter inability of Cyclops and his team becomes increasingly disconcerting, especially considering that half of them are completely untrained. While the team narrowly escapes potentially deadly encounters with Sentinel robots and the Avengers in this volume, it seems only a matter of time before Cyclops’s hubris will result in tragedy. Chris Bachalo’s artwork, fittingly, is as beautiful as it is unsettling, his frequently off-kilter panel layouts creating a near-constant sense of unease and impending danger.

The final issue collected in Revolution features painted artwork by the equally talented Frazer Irving, but unfortunately the story itself – about denizens of the demonic Limbo dimension coming after team member Magik – leaves much to be desired. As longtime readers of this blog might recall, I’ve never been too keen on demons serving as the antagonists of superhero comics (see also: my reviews of Superman: Kryptonite Nevermore, Batman – The Dark Knight: Golden Dawn, and Nightwing, Vol. 1: Traps and Trapezes). At best such stories tend to read essentially as cardboard cut-outs of one another, offering up supernatural excuses for the main character(s) to fight endless hordes of generically ugly bad guys. At worst, though, they legitimize the use of sexually violent language and imagery as a plot device; just consider the number of stories we’ve all read and watched about death-cults sacrificing virginal young women to Satan (or some other demonic entity). Only adding to the unpleasantness is that these types of stories tend to wrap themselves in pseudo-religious mumbo-jumbo, adding yet another dimension of poor taste to the proceedings.

Review Uncanny X-Men Vol 1 Revolution Uncanny X-Men #5 Brian Michael Bendis Frazer Irving Magik Dormammu Limbo Mindless Ones and now you must be punished Marvel comic book issue

In Revolution we have the worst of all these worlds, with characters threatening to “damn” and “punish” each other and Magik in particular singled out as a “stupid mortal girl,” a “broken doll” who “must be punished.” Magik, for her own part, sprouts horns and hoofs and begins referring to herself as “the Darkchilde.” It’s pretty insufferable stuff. It never gets quite as perverse as some of the character’s earlier appearances – I’m thinking especially of Chris Claremont’s Magik (Illyana and Storm) and the hopefully never-to-be-reprinted Magik miniseries of 2000-2001 – many of which more explicitly evoked pedophilia and rape. But even so, one might hope that this character’s thirty-plus years of publication would be long enough for us to have moved past this brand of storytelling.

Revolution ends right in the middle of this dreadful story, leaving it to drag on for another two issues in the series’ next collected volume. I’ll say more about the story’s conclusion should I get around to writing about that book, but in the meantime it’s worth noting how irritating it is that both this volume and All-New X-Men, Vol. 2: Here to Stay end on cliffhangers. Since characters weave in and out between All-New X-Men and Uncanny X-Men, this makes it impossible to read either series in trade without spoiling the other, even if you switch from one series to the other between individual collections. (And that’s to say nothing of how both series interact with Brian Wood’s X-Men, Rick Remender’s Uncanny Avengers and, eventually, Bendis’s Guardians of the Galaxy and Miles Morales: Ultimate Spider-Man.)

In short, while the first four issues collected in Revolution represent some of the strongest work by both Bendis and Bachalo in recent years, the way this volume ends sends up serious red flags. I’ve mostly enjoyed Bendis’s two X-Men titles so far, and I sincerely hope this isn’t a sign of things to come.

Friday, June 3, 2016

Review: All-New X-Men, Vol. 2: Here to Stay

Review All-New X-Men Volume Two Here to Stay Brian Michael Bendis Stuart Immonen Wade Von Grawbadger Marte Gracia David Marquez time-displaced original X-Men Angel Warren Worthington III Marvel Girl Jean Grey Cyclops Scott Summers Beast Hank McCoy Iceman Bobby Drake Thor Captain America Black Widow Hawkeye Avengers the possibilities seem endless, because the story treads on genuinely new ground comicbookresources.com bonus digital edition included AR Augmented Reality Marvel cover hardcover hc comic book
Writer: Brian Michael Bendis
Artists: David Marquez, Stuart Immonen
Collects: All-New X-Men #6-10 (2013)
Published: Marvel, 2013; $24.99 (HC), $19.99 (TPB)

All-New X-Men, Vol. 2: Here to Stay delivers on the promise of the series’ first volume with a story that, even more so than Vol. 1: Yesterday’s X-Men, prioritizes character development over plot. In fact, this volume represents some of writer Brian Michael Bendis’s strongest character work in years.

There is forward plot progression, to be sure, with Mystique gathering the villains Sabretooth and Mastermind for a crime spree that comes to a head in the next volume. But the real star of Here to Stay is the series’ time-displaced version of Cyclops, who wastes little time, following the events of Yesterday’s X-Men, in stealing Wolverine’s motorcycle to search for answers about his present-day self. As one might imagine, this makes for an amusing series of misadventures in which Cyclops comes to grips with the modern world as Wolverine tries to track him down.

The first two issues of Here to Stay, beautifully illustrated by guest-artist David Marquez, culminate in a conversation between Cyclops and Mystique (who this young version of Cyclops has never met). Mystique acts as something of a sounding board for Cyclops at first, allowing him to talk through the major events of Yesterday’s X-Men and granting readers the clearest access to his thoughts that we’ve had so far. But what makes this sequence most interesting to me is that it can also be read as a total inversion of Bendis’s much-celebrated Ultimate Spider-Man #13, in which Peter Parker comes out as Spider-Man to Mary Jane Watson (who, prior to this issue, thought Peter’s big secret was that he had a crush on her). The same honesty that characterized that conversation initially seems present here as well, with an empathetic-looking Mystique offering seemingly thoughtful advice to the angst-ridden Cyclops. Bendis turns that perception on its head, though, in the very next scene:
  Review All-New X-Men Volume 2 Here to Stay All-New X-Men #7 Brian Michael Bendis David Marquez Mystique Raven Darkholme screw them all Marvel comic book issue
It’s a pretty surprising moment given the nature of the conversation that’s just taken place, and again, it strikes me as a particularly clever twist for those with an affinity for Bendis’s previous work.

The time-displaced Jean Grey develops in interesting ways here too, with the ethics of her newly acquired mind-reading powers brought repeatedly into question. The other three original X-Men – Beast, Iceman, and Angel – are given a lot less to do this time around. Angel in particular feels like a dead weight on this series, and despite a tedious subplot in which he fights generic Hydra robots alongside his present-day counterpart, his only real function here is to have his thoughts questionably manipulated by Jean. And while I’m not confident that the plot development teased by this volume’s cliffhanger ending – Angel’s departure from the Jean Grey School for the present-day Cyclops’s New Xavier School (and, thus, for the series Uncanny X-Men) – will make the character any more compelling or relevant, the prospect of a slightly decluttered cast in All-New X-Men is a hopeful one.

One final thing I couldn’t help but consider as I read these issues is exactly when Bendis proposes the original X-Men to have been formed. All signs seem to point to the late 1980s: the young Cyclops is baffled by cell phones and water bottles, and there are repeated references to the present-day Cyclops being around 40 years old while the younger version “looks twelve” (although I suspect he is closer to sixteen). For two and a half decades to have transpired since the formation of the X-Men contradicts the (frankly stupid) principle of Marvel’s “sliding timeline,” which would have us believe that all the events of the modern Marvel Universe have taken place over the course of less than ten years.

Here to Stay may lend some credence, then, to a theory advanced by Rich Johnston: that Marvel editorial at one point was purposefully seeding such continuity aberrations in order to justify a future “quarantine” of the X-Men and Fantastic Four franchises – the Fox-controlled film rights of both being the subject of much dismay among top executives at Marvel and Disney – from the rest of the Marvel Universe. It’s impossible to render a verdict based on the issues collected here, of course, but it’s something I’ll certainly keep in mind as I continue to read this series.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Review: All-New X-Men, Vol. 1: Yesterday’s X-Men

All-New X-Men Volume One Yesterday's X-Men Brian Michael Bendis Stuart Immonen Wade Von Grawbadger Marte Gracia time-displaced original X-Men Angel Warren Worthington III Jean Grey Marvel Girl Cyclops Scott Summers Beast Hank McCoy Iceman Bobby Drake this is the place to start reading the X-books ign.com bonus digital edition included AR Augmented Reality Marvel cover hardcover hc comic book
Writer: Brian Michael Bendis
Artist: Stuart Immonen
Collects: All-New X-Men #1-5 (2013)
Published: Marvel, 2013; $24.99 (HC), $19.99 (TPB)

All-New X-Men, Vol. 1: Yesterday’s X-Men is one of the most compelling superhero time-travel stories in years. The X-Men have featured in more than a few such storylines over the last several decades, with a staggering number of the franchise’s major characters hailing from one alternate future or another. It’s become quite a lot to try to keep track of, and it wouldn’t be inaccurate to characterize X-Men continuity, at this point, as being just shy of impenetrable. In All-New X-Men, though, writer Brian Michael Bendis scales back the onus other writers have often placed on the reader by effectively reversing the conventions of the typical X-Men time-travel story. The series makes no demands of us to keep track of alternate pasts, presents, and futures; the dystopic world it takes as its subject is our own.

The book’s high concept is that the Beast, in an effort to show a newly militant Cyclops the error of his ways, has brought the original five X-Men from the past to the present day. Much of the story takes place from the viewpoint of the time-displaced X-Men, thus casting a spotlight on just how far afield the franchise has come from those early issues by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. To the original X-Men, in fact, their present-day incarnations are often entirely unrecognizable – literally so, in the cases of Iceman and the Beast – with the notable exception of Jean Grey, who in the present has been dead for quite some time. The original Jean thus takes on an almost messianic quality in the eyes of several characters, including Storm, Wolverine, and Kitty Pryde – all strangers to this Jean, as they weren’t introduced until years after Lee and Kirby left the original series. Wolverine is especially affected by Jean’s “return,” and perhaps as a result his relationship with the time-displaced X-Men is the most vexed of any of his peers.

And while the young Cyclops’s showdown with his present-day self serves as the book’s climax, it may be Warren Worthington, the Angel, who ultimately inspires more pathos than any other character in Yesterday’s X-Men. While Bendis doesn’t give him a lot to do in this volume, Warren effectively closes the book with perhaps the most heartbreaking lines imaginable in a story so obsessed with the disparity between past and present: “No one is mentioning me. No one is talking about what has happened to me, Bobby. Where am I?” Although the dramatic irony of Warren’s question will be lost on those unfamiliar with the events of Rick Remender’s Uncanny X-Force, the overall effect is still to underline how unsettlingly bizarre the world of the X-Men has become in recent years.

This volume’s only real weakness is that the original X-Men don’t get much face-time for the first few issues it collects, which focus more on the present-day Scott Summers and his efforts to establish a team of new mutants. As such, we get various de facto origin stories for new characters taking up space in a series ostensibly focused on the five original X-Men, and as a result we don’t see much of our protagonists until about halfway through the book. Bendis is setting up in these first few issues for his run on the rebooted Uncanny X-Men, which centers on Cyclops’s new team and began just a few months after All-New X-Men. Why that series couldn’t have just launched concurrently with All-New in order to give the original X-Men more time to develop on their own is anyone’s guess.

But the real issue that arises from Cyclops’s presence in Yesterday’s X-Men is that it undermines one of the book’s central premises: that what Cyclops is doing is terrible enough to warrant the Beast’s mucking about with the timestream in order to stop him. In point of fact, though, the Cyclops we encounter here seems pretty darn reasonable; while he engages in violence against “normal” humans with some frequency, he does so without killing anyone and only in order to save the lives of otherwise defenseless mutants. Thus, while future volumes in this series will see the characters of All-New X-Men come to view Cyclops with a greater degree of complexity, for the time being their opposition to Cyclops seems pretty thinly motivated.

Like many recent Marvel collections, Yesterday’s X-Men utilizes the company’s “Augmented Reality” app, which allows smart-phone users to access extra content by scanning obnoxious-looking red boxes littered throughout the book. This isn’t the first collection I’ve encountered with this “feature,” but it’s one of the more shameless in its execution. In one scene, Kitty Pryde prattles on about her concern for the Fantastic Four when they don’t answer her phone call; the panel’s “AR” box, when scanned, takes the reader to a minute-long advertisement for Matt Fraction’s Fantastic Four and FF series. It’s one thing to do a little tongue-in-cheek cross-promotion via editorial captions – a tradition inaugurated by Stan Lee himself in the early Silver Age – but it’s another to present such content as “bonus material” that adds value to a book. (Lest we forget, it wasn’t so long ago that collections like this cost a whole five dollars less.)

These criticisms aside, All-New X-Men is certainly one of the more interesting and original series to come from Marvel as of late. Despite the time-travel hook, Bendis seems committed to focusing on characters more than making a further mess of X-Men continuity, and for that reason alone I’ll be paying attention to where this series goes.

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Review: Nightwing, Vol. 1: Traps and Trapezes

Review Nightwing Volume One Traps and Trapezes Kyle Higgins Eddy Barrows Eduardo Pansica Trevor McCarthy Dick Grayson Batman Bruce Wayne Raya Saiko DC Comics New 52 Cover trade paperback tpb comic book
Writer: Kyle Higgins
Artists: Eddy Barrows, Eduardo Pansica, Trevor McCarthy, Geraldo Borges
Collects: Nightwing #1-7 (2011-12)
Published: DC, 2012; $14.99

If Scott Snyder’s aim in Batman, Vol. 1: The Court of Owls was to revise Batman franchise history at the macro level – by introducing the idea that Gotham City could be controlled for decades, without Batman’s knowledge, by a secret society of criminals – then Nightwing, Vol. 1: Traps and Trapezes operates at the opposite extreme. It revises franchise history at the micro level, by exploring the relationships between Nightwing (Dick Grayson) and several new characters with ties to his circus roots. The book’s strength lies not in its revelation of major “secrets,” but rather in its supporting cast members and the catalyzing effect they have on the main character.

The most interesting of the new characters is Raya, a redheaded woman who looks strikingly like Dick’s on-again/off-again love interest, Barbara Gordon. When Haly’s Circus returns to Gotham City and Dick sees Raya for the first time since his parents’ death, sparks fly between them instantly. (The book insists, ridiculously, that Dick’s parents were killed five years ago, which would make Dick around 19 or 20 years old – despite the fact that he and Raya are clearly portrayed as being in their mid- to late twenties, at the youngest.) In this respect, Traps and Trapezes is the polar opposite of a book like Batman: The Dark Knight – Golden Dawn, which does a comparatively poor job of retrofitting a new character into the history of an established one. Golden Dawn’s greatest flaw was that, for all its efforts to play up Dawn Golden’s importance to Bruce Wayne in scenes set during their childhood, her characterization in the story’s present was positively nonexistent. Where Traps and Trapezes succeeds, by contrast, is in its making Raya an integral part of the story’s forward momentum, rather than dwelling on her and Dick’s past relationship.

The fact that Raya has little in common with Barbara Gordon, apart from her looks, is an important element to the story. Their differences are underscored when Barbara guest-stars (as Batgirl) in the book’s fourth issue; whereas Raya teases Dick about fairly mundane topics (his never having seen The Godfather, for example), Barbara is more interested in Dick’s feelings and emotional well-being. Although Dick seems to think he’s happy with Raya, there’s an obvious distance behind her beauty – even before the story’s reveal that she is reluctantly helping Saiko, a mysterious assassin who serves as the book’s primary antagonist. The story’s focus on Dick, rather than his superhero alter ego, is underlined by the fact that Saiko is trying to kill the former; at first, he fails to even realize that Dick and Nightwing are the same person. In this sense Saiko is fairly analogous to the antagonist of Court of Owls, who initially hunts Bruce Wayne, not Batman.

The similarity of the threats Batman and Nightwing face in these two books is revealing in regard to both characters. The most compelling element of Court of Owls is its protagonist’s stubborn hubris – despite mounting evidence, Batman refuses to believe that there could possibly be a secret society at work in “his” city – and that element is largely absent from Traps and Trapezes. Dick whiles away weeks of story time without investigating either Saiko’s attempts on his life or the secret history of Haly’s Circus, despite its being hinted at by several other characters – a very un-Batman-like mode of operations. This is perhaps most surprising because Dick actually took up the role of Batman for a number of recent issues, some of which are collected in Batman: The Black Mirror (which, this book explicitly reminds us, remains within post-New 52 continuity).

In fact, the very point of this story seems to be to differentiate Dick’s crime-fighting methods from Batman’s, and in that respect the characters’ vastly different approaches to problem-solving accomplish the task. Traps and Trapezes ends with Dick’s repudiation of the nostalgia that fuels the very ethos of Batman’s mission: “We’re not defined by our tragedies or our turning points,” he thinks as he speeds away from the Batcave on his motorcycle, “we’re defined by the choices we make in the face of them.” If Batman’s war on crime is motivated by revenge, then, it would seem that Dick’s isn’t so much “motivated” at all as it is simply reactionary.

Although writer Kyle Higgins establishes Batman’s fixation on the past as problematic, he resists portraying Dick’s approach as faultless by comparison. It’s the character’s inattention to the past, in fact, which brings about so many problems in the present and keeps him relatively in the dark until Saiko conveniently explains himself in an expository info-dump near the story’s end. And then there’s the final scene, in which Dick angrily confronts Bruce Wayne in the Batcave only for Bruce to lay him out with a single punch. (The same scene also appears, from Bruce’s perspective, at the end of Court of Owls.) There’s more to Bruce’s actions than a lack of anger management – by punching Dick, he knocks out a tooth embedded with an alloy which would have transformed Dick into a mindless killer – but his methodology is disturbing, and Dick’s unquestioning acceptance of it is enough to indicate that he has yet to separate himself fully from the ways in which Batman traditionally operates.

The fact that this is the only scene in the book in which Bruce Wayne actually appears doesn’t help; more interaction between Dick and Bruce throughout could have given the scene more impact for both characters and made for a more thematically coherent climax. It’s not the plot’s only misstep, either – about halfway through the book, the story comes to a grinding halt with a ridiculously out-of-place issue about a rhyming demon who comes for the soul of a circus clown. It’s unclear at this early point in the series whether plot developments like this one are actually laying the seeds for future stories, just as it’s hard to tell whether the shakiness of Dick’s outlook toward his crime-fighting career is a character flaw Higgins plans for him to work through in future volumes, or just the result of lazy writing. Traps and Trapezes has enough strengths, though, that I look forward to searching out the answers to those questions in the next volume.