Friday, May 21, 2010

Review: Batman: Cacophony

Review Batman Cacophony Kevin Smith Walt Flanagan Sandra Hope DC Comics Cover hardcover hc trade paperback tpb comic bookWriter: Kevin Smith
Artist: Walt Flanagan
Collects: Batman: Cacophony #1-3 (2009)
Published: DC, 2009; $19.99 (HC), $14.99 (TPB)

Kevin Smith would probably be the first to tell you that his comics are just as controversial and divisive as his movies. Well, maybe not the comics themselves – more like the pace at which he writes them (if, indeed, he bothers to finish writing them at all; his first issue of Daredevil: The Target, published in late 2002, remains the only issue of that miniseries published to date). Before Batman: Cacophony, Smith hadn’t written a comic book for either Marvel or DC in three or four years, having been effectively booed out of the industry by impatient and hyper-critical fanboys. He asked for that kind of reaction, though, and he owns up to it in the introduction to Cacophony. I respect him for that, personally, although I can’t help but wonder if his words will fall on deaf ears. The naysayers seem to have already made up their minds on Smith’s comics work, and I doubt many of them are exactly clamoring to read anything new by him.

Walt Flanagan, on the other hand, is a virtual unknown in the comics industry (although fans of Kevin Smith’s movies may be more familiar with him, by way of his incredibly fast dog). The two are longtime friends; Smith credits Flanagan with introducing him to comics in the first place, and the two actually run a New Jersey comic book store together. Smith makes no secret of the fact that Flanagan got the job because of their friendship, and that he wouldn’t have even entertained the thought of working with anyone else. I doubt statements like that are going to get him back into comic fandom’s good graces anytime soon, but again, I appreciate the honesty.

I start by writing about the personalities behind Cacophony, rather than diving straight into the actual meat of the comic, because it’s obvious that Smith expects the reader to go into the book with all of these things in mind. In fact, I’d argue it’s the mentality he wants you to have as you read the book. Why else would he ruminate on his shortcomings in the book’s introduction? Why else would he preface his story by explaining that it’s not the best Batman story he can write, nor the best one that Flanagan can draw – that the series they’re currently working on together, Batman: The Widening Gyre, will be their definitive work on the character?

To my mind, there can be only one answer: by going out of his way to dampen the reader’s expectations before the story has even begun, Smith is challenging the reader to proceed with an extremely close and discriminating eye. In doing so, however, he seems confident that his story will hold up to that discrimination and surpass the reader’s expectations. Maybe I’m simply giving him too much credit, but intentionally or not, Smith’s belittling of himself and the story is a rhetorical device that clearly works: I enjoyed Cacophony quite a bit, despite going into it fairly confident that I would hate it.

So, with all of that said…I imagine it’s well past time to talk about the comic itself. Cacophony is a Joker story in the same sense that The Killing Joke and The Man Who Laughs are Joker stories – it explores the relationship between Batman and the Joker from an angle that’s just different enough from previous stories to make it something unique and interesting. Of course, Kevin Smith “unique” is different than, say, Alan Moore “unique,” and as anyone who’s seen one of Smith’s movies might expect, a lot of emphasis in Cacophony is placed on humorous dialogue and frequent references to pop culture. There are times when Smith takes his signature potty humor a bit too far, especially in the first issue, but for the most part he reigns in his nastier side and does a pretty amusing job.

Review Batman Cacophony Kevin Smith Walt Flanagan Sandra Hope Onomatopoeia versus Deadshot Splash Page DC Comics hardcover hc trade paperback tpb comic bookThe overall arc of the story is fairly by-the-numbers, at least until the end. The Joker wants revenge on Maxie Zeus, a fellow criminal who has synthesized Joker Venom into a drug called “chuckles” – revenge, of course, being a euphemism for causing widespread death and destruction throughout Gotham City. Amidst the chaos appears Onomatopoeia, a villain who first appeared in Smith’s early-2000s run on Green Arrow and whose shtick is that he verbally imitates the sounds that occur around him (“Boom,” “Kapow,” etc.). The premise behind the character is probably less interesting than it initially sounds, but it’s fairly effective at its purpose: establishing him as a complete lunatic. Also working in the book’s favor are several integral appearances by Deadshot, a character I’ve had a soft spot for ever since I first read him in Steve Englehart’s Batman: Strange Apparitions. Less effective is an early encounter between Batman and Zsasz, a villain I’ve never much cared for and whose presence here doesn’t add anything worthwhile to the story other than a few good-looking action pages.

To briefly segue into the art, then, I have to say that I found it to be a pleasant surprise. For someone who’s drawn only a handful of comic books before, none of them involving major superheroes, Flanagan is quite good. He’s not perfect by any means – he has occasional problems drawing Batman’s mouth, and I’m not sure he ever quite settles on the size of the Joker’s chin – but he really does improve as the book goes on, and by the end his faces tell the story perhaps even better than Smith’s words do.

By far the most interesting part of Cacophony is the ending, when Batman and the Joker manage to have an actual, rational conversation with each other. This is made possible by the fact that the Joker has just awoken in the hospital from a five-month coma; accordingly, he’s been restrained and pumped full of anti-psychotics. While I can take or leave certain elements of Cacophony (like the aforementioned fight with Zsasz), this scene pushes the comic into “must-read” territory for me. Without spoiling too much, the crux of their conversation is essentially that the Joker doesn’t hate Batman because he’s crazy – he’s crazy because he hates Batman. This of course takes us back to an argument I’ve gotten rather sick of hearing over the last few years: that Batman’s very existence is what causes such a prolific number of freaks to terrorize Gotham, as opposed to Batman simply being the intercessor between them and the realization of their villainous plots. But Smith addresses the issue in a truly engaging way, one that I’ve never seen before, and in doing so I think he’s finally brought it to something of a peaceful rest.

I’ve read reviews of Cacophony on a variety of other sites which criticize Smith for being “out of touch,” primarily because his (admittedly old-school) portrayal of the Joker contradicts with how Grant Morrison was writing the character in other Batman comics at the time. This is a positively ludicrous argument, in my opinion, and represents exactly the kind of slavish devotion to plot minutiae (as opposed to good story-telling) that I think drove Smith away from mainstream comics in the first place. Cacophony makes no effort to tie itself down to a specific time in DC continuity, and as such it seems unfair to judge it not on its own merits, but on whether it adheres to the arbitrary expectations imposed on it by nitpickers and continuity junkies. This story is timeless, to use a rather clichéd term, in the sense that it’s accessible to just about anyone – fans of Batman, fans of the Joker, even fans of Kevin Smith. It breaks free of the most commonly held expectations of comic book fanboys, and I think that’s a big part of why I like it so much.

The collected edition of Cacophony is padded out with a cover gallery and the original script for the final issue. The script doesn’t really add any new insight to the story or even the creative process itself, so I don’t see much reason for its inclusion (other than DC wanting to boost the page count and, therefore, the price of the book). Furthermore, the script isn’t even actually complete; Smith writes that there was originally a page in which the Joker’s dialogue was so off-color, it wasn’t fit for print. Personally, I would have liked to see just that one page as opposed to what basically amounts to a text-only reprint of the last third of the book. I don’t like it when publishers attempt to artificially lengthen collections – it strikes me as a tacky money-grab, and if not for that, I probably would have rated Cacophony half a point higher. But even so I think it’s well worth reading, especially for people interested in a slightly different take on the Batman/Joker relationship.

Rating: 4 out of 5


  1. hmm, seeing as it's not tied down (I'm assuming the same with the next one by this team) where would you place it for reading? Is it strange to read near the ongoings of the time?

  2. I couldn't say exactly, since I haven't read all of Grant Morrison's run on Batman, but I would assume it takes place around the start of Batman & Son. At the very least, it has to come at some point after Smith's Green Arrow, and it also has to take place while Tim Drake is Robin. Other than that, I'd say it's pretty much open for interpretation.

  3. Agreed, agreed, agreed. I really enjoyed this trade for all of the reasons you mentioned Marc. It def wasn't perfect, but it WAS a damn good Batman story. I'd also say you hit the nail on the head time-wise, it definitely takes place before Grant's Batman run, but after Kevin's GA run. I also enjoyed the reveal on Onomatopoeia towards the end too. That was really unexpected.

    The Zsasz stuff really didn't add anything to the story, and some of the dialogue between Joker and Ono made me cringe(especially outside of Arkham... UGH!), but all in all, this was a decent little Batman story. Really good review Marc, looking forward to your mysterious next one!

  4. Dude, excellent review, I loved this story, myself I'd probably have given it an 8/10 which equals your 4/5 so I agree. All the points you touched upon were so well done I couldn't even add anything else man, so kudos again on a fine review.

    Btw, I'm also a big fan of Ono and Deadshot.

  5. Thanks Marc - right now I had it where the last issue came out, next to teh other books that ended in March 2009 (like superman new krypton vol. 2) but I think it probably makes more sense much earlier - right now it ends up after Batman RIP (and though I haven't read it yet, that always seemed like a wrong placement to me.)

    I'm gonna try reading it around Batman and Son and seeing if it feels out of place - do you think it's possible that there was a two year delay in the writing, since Batman and Son came out around 2006/2007?

  6. A lot can probably be explained by Smith's comment in the introduction that he hadn't been following new comics for about five years prior to writing Cacophony. I don't think there was any delay in the writing, I think he simply didn't know (or care) what was going on with the rest of the Batman universe when he wrote it. I don't think his editors were that concerned either; they were just interested in having Kevin Smith do a Batman comic for them.

    Smith's take on the Joker places it before Batman RIP, certainly, and probably before the start of Grant Morrison's run entirely (although there may be a way to shoehorn it in there, I don't know). As I mentioned in the review, it's relatively free of the trappings of continuity - which is good for anyone casually picking up the book, but not so great for someone like yourself who's trying to compile a reading order of some sort. In the end I'd say you have a good deal of leeway on where you place it in the list.

    Also, thanks to all three of you for stopping by and leaving comments. X-Man, I completely agree about the dialogue outside of Arkham...Smith just took it too far there.

  7. No problem, Marc! I've been enjoying your reviews, though I hadn't really had anything of value to say on the others, haha

    I think it was probably a good decision of the editors and Smith to not worry too much about continuity and just make a good book. I don't really mind that, because I love having books that I can hand to anyone (like my fiance) and they'll just read and enjoy em.

    However, for those obsessive fans like me, it's nice to also be able to place it somewhere in the life of the character, haha.

    Letsee... five years from 2009 would put it before Infinite Crisis. Do you think it works around there?

  8. Thanks for the kind words, Ian! I've been enjoying your work as well, especially for the Silver Age DC material. It's hard to figure out where those Showcases go since each one covers so much material, but you have it organized really well.

    I totally get the "obsessive" mentality toward continuity, although like you said, it's nice when the publishers show they know that's not what it's ALL about and they release good standalone titles like Cacophony. I've actually been working on an annotated timeline for Marvel's TPBs - initially just for myself, but as time goes on I think I may post it as its own subpage on this blog. I have yet to find a really good Marvel timeline that's in the vein of your site or the Collected Editions blog, so I think it could be fun.

    I don't see why Cacophony shouldn't work before Infinite Crisis - that fits the criteria of being after Smith's Green Arrow and before Morrison's Batman, as well as Tim Drake being Robin, which is about all we have to go on. It should also go near other books that portray a more "classic," Englehart-esque version of the Joker, if that makes sense.

  9. It does make sense. I've made a forum post over at CBR and I'll see what they say - but I'm leaning towards a placement around the end of 2004 right now. I'll have to figure out Widening Gyre as well.

    Also, thanks! I'm glad the silver age stuff is useful to you - it was a major breakthrough in my thinking when I realized that the year one batman is still kind of silver age batman (and the DC Legacies release going on right now seems to confirm this.)

    I started working on my project just for myself, as well - just so I could figure out what order to read DC trades in, since I wanted the "big" picture. After two years of slowly building an excel document, I realized I should just get off my butt and put the thing online. All the other info that's in my database came after that, as I was trying to figure out how the site could be most useful. I didn't want to have to go back through and add something to them all later, so I tried to include as much info as I'd want as a collector - isbn, links, cover, etc.

    Marvel is something I'm excited about getting to eventually - I have no idea what a timeline might look like and would love to see yours when you get it up. I know there are a lot of reading lists out there, but I've been so concentrated on DC that I haven't really started researching it.

    Initially I'll probably just make a chronological by content release date list for marvel, then see if it's really feasible to do a reading order list in the same vein as the dc one. I don't really know if the year one era style distinctions exist in marvel, or if it's best to just read them around when they came out (like wolverine's origin stories are probably more fun if you understand that he's been mysterious for a long while.)

    Anyway, that's not going to be really in the running for at least a few months, haha.

  10. I'd be really interested to see what the folks at CBR have to say...feel free to post a link.

    I've been going about the Marvel timeline mostly by publication date. One thing I don't like about some lists I've seen is exactly what you mentioned: people tend to put the trades related to Wolverine's origin up front, and I don't think that's right. On the other hand, I think some of Marvel's "Year One"-type series like Avengers: Earth's Mightiest Heroes would probably be fine to read alongside the original material...I just think they were designed that way in some cases, to basically be stories that take place between the Lee/Kirby pages.

    Anyhow, I'll probably have a partial list up at some point in the next few weeks, and then see what the feedback is like before moving ahead. What I should really do is set up an Excel document like you have, but I'm low-tech and not too great with those things...right now it's all sitting in a big Word document, haha. Oh well, it's a work in progress.

  11. Sure thing! Here's the link:

    Some of the posters aren't super helpful, haha, just telling me "no" and thinking they're funny - like this is the first book with some continuity errors ;)

    But there are some interesting points about bludhaven and TWG. I'm hoping I haven't spoiled too much of these for myself by reading all this stuff, but I think I'll be fine by the time I finally get around to reading it. There is an aquaman spoiler in that thread though, that frankly I'm amazed I've avoided this long.

    I was putting marvel books in mainly by when they were released as well - marvel seems to work like that for the most part. DC is the one that has so many "year one" style books - ones that really are designed to be introductions to the characters, not ones that spoil mysterious back-stories. Marvel does have a few, though, as you mention.

    Working on that excel doc has given me some serious data entry skills. I've learned a LOT - even know how to do macros now and freeze frames, etc.

    I've also been using the site to teach myself a LOT about wordpress (and php, I've become a champion code scavenger) - it's all run on that open source blogging software and each book is actually a blog post!

    On a side note, I made sure to give you a nod in my last blog post:

    I don't get an extreme amount of traffic to the blog, as opposed to the database entries and lists, but hopefully it will send you some readers :)

  12. The guys at CBR definitely raise some interesting points. I'm not a huge DC buff, so I didn't know all of those things about Bludhaven and OYL costumes. Just fyi, Robin doesn't actually appear in Cacophony, it's just mentioned that Tim is Robin. I think his costume is also displayed floating in the Batcave at one point, and to the best of my knowledge it's his traditional costume.

    It just struck me that people reading these comments might think I'm contradicting the semi-anti-continuity comments I made in the actual review. I should probably clarify that my issue is with people who judge a story based on its adherence or "importance" to pre-established continuity, not toward the idea of continuity itself. I actually think trying to put together the continuity puzzle can be a fun mental exercise.

    Also, thanks for the mention on your blog, Ian...any traffic is welcome here, no matter how small (and it's probably not as small as you think)! As I've mentioned in other posts and comments here, I'm very grateful to have as many readers as I do already considering the relative new-ness of this blog, and I can only hope those numbers will continue to grow as time goes on.

  13. That might be Jason Todd's costume, I think that's the one shown most often, though I'm not sure. I'll have to chime in on that after I've read it.

    It's the quality of your posts that will draw people, and from that I think you've been doing a great job. You're not just reviewing new releases, so it's easy to find something one has read and your reviews are pretty accessible, I think. I'll be around :)

  14. I swear I'm always late when it comes to getting a chance and sit and read your reviews and comment with the fellow followers. Bumt I'm here and with that sad, fantastic review sir, I'm sure I'm just repeating what most of the other comments have said, but nice work.

    I remember seeing this in Borders one day when I was a newb getting into comics. I passed it up for Wonder Woman: Amazons attack, :P After reading this review you definitely have my curious mind wanting to read this title.

    I can't say for sure if I've read anything else Kevin Smith wrote outside of Widening Gyre, but he's a pretty good writer. I'll definitely check this out. ^_^

  15. hey good review i agree it is 4/5 That is Jason Todds (Jason Tood was the second Robin that the Joker killed ) costume Batman wont get rid of it.