I’ve never really been a monthly reader of comics. Most of the time, I will eventually catch up on my favorite series once they became available in graphic novel form, and even then it has more to do with who is working on the series. I very rarely just read whatever is coming out. It mostly has to do with writers. “Hey, look! Grant Morrison is doing All-Star Superman. That could be really interesting. I think I’ll read that!”, that is an estimation of the kind of thoughts that go through my head. Not the actual thoughts, mind you. No, the actual thoughts would be way more cool, and even a little bad ass. What you just read was just an approximation. Not the real deal. Incidentally, All-Star Superman is pretty interesting. Lovers of brevity should check out the animated movie. It maintains the elements of the series that it needed to tell the story, in my opinion. Moving on… So, like I was saying(before your rude thoughts interrupted me), I’ve never been one to follow continuity on a regular basis. I just jump in every once in awhile if it seems like something interesting is going in a respective series.
I’ve tried to get into buying issues on a regular basis, but something always seemed to get in the way. It mostly had to do with the fact that only a few times in my life have I lived in a reasonable proximity to a reliable place to buy comics. Other than that, the industry standard for the average issue of one of their properties just isn’t that good, to be honest. It’s the kind of writing that spends more time pandering to fanboys( And gals! Didn’t think you’d get away that easy did you?) than actually writing stories that are interesting That doesn’t mean it’s always shit, though. The bigger names in comic book writing seem like they can do pretty much whatever they want, and that can sometimes be really awesome, well, most of the time( I’m looking at you Frank Miller and your All-Star Batman and Robin the Boy Wonder… Some serious garbage, Frank.),and this is because they aren’t interested in churning out yet another re-hash of the same stories that we’ve been reading for the past thirty years. They take chances, because they are in a position within the industry where they can. Most writers working in comics don’t have this kind of freedom. They are slaves, for lack of a better way to put it. Well, slaves to continuity anyways. They have my sympathy, that’s for damn sure. Imagine having to not only be mindful of past continuity of the series, but also the continuity of the other series set in the same universe as your series. Jesus… I know, I know it’s not quite that way. It’s not like these writers are just put in a room and told to, “FIGURE IT OUT!” (Just to be clear “Figure It Out” was not a reference to the Nickelodeon program, with host Summer Sanders. Again, just to be clear.) They are more are less assigned stories by a few folks that are running the continuity of the universe. They map out the stories and arcs, and then hand them down to writers. It’s a business at this point, and so it’s run like one. Stories of the mistreatment of writers in comics is pretty well known, and most big names have no problem coming out and talking about it.
Continuity is a daunting thing to think about when you want to get into reading a more storied series. It’s always been kind of a deterrent for me. I’m a completionist, for lack of a better term, and I have a hard time with coming into the middle of anything I read or watch. Whether it be movies, television, books, and of course comic the idea of not having the “whole story” is something that I cannot abide! Seriously, it will drive me crazy( Just to be clear, that is not a reference to the popular Britney Spears song from what seems like forever ago. Again, just to be clear.). Just nuckin’ futs. Especially, when mention is made of something that I don’t understand. It will just constantly nag at me for the rest of my experience with the material. It’ll annoy me to the point that I won’t be able to enjoy it anymore. That may be a slight over exaggeration, but you get my point. Anyways, climbing continuity mountain can be a bitch for folks like me. So, when DC( I’ve always been a DC/Vertigo kid.) announced their The New 52 I was honestly pretty excited. They were going to start over, and give new readers a chance to enter at the beginning. Well, the start of the new continuity came and went, and I had pretty much forgotten all about, but then they announced their big event for the Batman story-line, Death of the Family.
So, if you’ve been reading comics for awhile, or are just the type of nerd that is a know it all(*Gazes hatefully into a mirror.*), you know that the title, Death of the Family, refers to a short arc that happened in the late eighties called, A Death in the Family. Wherein, Jason Todd, the Robin of that era, is brutally murdered by the Joker. The cynics view on this title decision would be to think that this was some kind of cash in by DC to move more books. The title alone drudges up old feelings, and memories of an event that had real gravitas and consequences. Some real high drama, and that’s going to interest people that aren’t consistent with their comic book reading. Myself being a perfect example(Well played, DC. Well played.). They were playing on our nostalgia rather than coming up with something “original”. The more optimistic view would be to say that DC was paying homage to this important piece of Batman’s history. That maybe this would be something worthwhile, and maybe even bring on some sort of “full circle scenario.” Maybe, it would be another great Batman and Joker story, and would be worthy of the similar title. Who knows, right? Now, what if you were an optimist and a cynic at the same time?(Yeah, that’s right. I’m talking about myself again.) Listen, I’m a fairly nerdy dude, and I tend to like things that make references to other things, because it makes me feel smart when I can connect the dots. However blatantly obvious those dots may be. As long term fans, we like that kind of stuff, and it’s always a treat(Oh, aren’t I just precious. Using the word “treat!”)when it pays off. Simultaneously informing the both the new and older story. The trick with it is that knowledge of what you’re referencing shouldn’t be necessary to understand the new story you’re trying to tell. Unless, of course, you have a way of including it via flash back or exposition. But I digress… Let’s Talk about Death of the Family, shall we?
So, to start, I have to bring something up. Well, I brought part of this up before, you know, earlier in this article, I’m a completionist. The reason I bring this up again(Other than the fact that I just feel like it, dog.), is because you don’t have to read everything that I did to check this arch out. There is a bunch of tie-in stuff that you can read that is all in continuity and connects the story, but it’s not entirely necessary. Especially if you’re good at just accepting things for that age old reason of “Just Because,” or you’re just really awesome at suspending your disbelief. Okay, here’s a list of the entire continuity:
Boom. That’s a lot of comics. I’ve been so out of the loop for the past few years that I hadn’t even heard of half of these things. So, I’m going to break this up a bit. I’m going to just talk about the main arc, Batman issues 13-17, and then we’ll tackle on some of the tie-ins. Here’s a spoiler about the tie-in stuff. It’s mostly really terrible, and the fact that all of this stuff is in continuity is just so fucking stupid( Oh, and why is there four different Batman comics all in the same continuity?! It’s corporate business at its finest.), and it makes my head hurt. Okay, where to begin(Probably at the beginning, huh?) Minor Spoilers Ahead!
It’s been a year since the Joker has shown his face in Gotham. Well, actually his face has been in Gotham for the past year, just not the rest of him. For reasons unknown to us, he has had his face removed(Not unlike the avante garde action film Face Off, except with less doves, and less awesome. IE. Nicholas Cage.), and it is currently on display at Gotham P.D. for some strange reason, or maybe it’s in a safe. It’s hard to tell in the main series as to what’s going on in the beginning of the story if you aren’t reading the tie in stuff. All of the events concerning the Joker having his face removed are in tie ins. This is the first instance where I’m calling bull shit on the series. They claim that you only have to read Batman to understand the major arc of the story, but that’s not the case. Leaving this out is a pretty big deal, in my opinion. Just to add insult to injury, they include a little message block inside a panel to let you know where you can find that story in one of the spin off series. It happens quite a bit throughout this arc and it’s always distracting and annoying. Taking you out of the immediate story, and leaving you feeling like you missed out on something potentially important. It would be a lot less obvious, and make for some smoother story telling if these “just so ya know’s” be either omitted entirely, or at least put in a less obvious place(BUY MORE! BUY MORE! OR ELSE YOU WON’T UNDERSTAND A THING, CHICKEN WING!). This type of stuff is a constant reminder that this isn’t about good storytelling, or art; It’s about making a buck, and that’s fine, but at the very least don’t make it so god damn obvious. This may be just the way comics are, or have been for awhile, but that doesn’t mean that it’s a good practice, because it’s so transparently just trying to take money from you… Sorry I’m kind of ranting… It just bothers the shit out of me(If only the things that it was referring to was worth your money…). Basically, Batman #13 is just setting up how much of a threat the Joker is. It spends the duration of the issue exploring how cunning the Joker still is, and how he always seems to have the upper hand. There is some nice references to older Joker stories which was a nice touch. There’s some good set up going on in this first issue, even if some of it goes into the “ridiculous even for a comic” territory. I was definitely on board.
At the end of each of the Batman issues there is a mini side story, and they all have to deal with the other villains in Batman’s rouges gallery. The first, and the best of these is called Tease, and it involves how Harley Quinn comes back into the fold. It’s a nice unsettling little story, and may be the best written part of this entire arc. Actually, in general, I’d say the writing on Batman over all is pretty solid. There is some really great moments sprinkled through out the five issue run, and the quality is even more apparent when you read the tie in stuff. There is a few exceptions, but nothing that really even comes close to the quality of the “main story.” More on that later.
The next issue, Batman #14, does more to tell us how serious the Joker is, and how he’s kicking it up a notch or two. He takes Jim Gordon out of commission(See what I did there?), and kidnaps Alfred. Gordon gets it pretty bad, some how the Joker managed to get him into contact with a toxin that thinned his blood to the point that it just started leaking out of his pours(…and shit! The Joker means business, yo!), but the real “No he didn’t” moment is what he says to have done to Alfred via old school audio cassette tape recording(Actually, the most shocking thing may be that Batman has something to play the audio cassette readily available. He wasn’t all like “What the fuck? How am I… God damn it, Joker! You truly are the most dastardly of my rouges gallery…” Cut to the next panel with Batman in line at a thrift store, tapping his feet and checking his watch, with a walkman in his hand.). There is some nice character interaction between Batman and Nightwing. Batman hasn’t told the rest of the “Bat Team”(Fucking stupid, I know.) that the Joker has kidnapped old Alfie. He has some good reasons for it. Mainly, to keep the rest of the team from being over come by their emotions. Nightwing gets angry at Bruce for talking about it in code, and accuses Bruce of not being able to deal with it head on so he wanted to only talk about it in public an in costume. It’s a nice quiet moment between two old friends and partners. It’s the only time Batman shows any vulnerable human emotion up to this point. I think the best Batman stories always make an effort to show Batman’s more vulnerable side. It makes me care more if I can see an identifiable emotion beneath the cape and cowl. The real big event of the issue is Batman, meeting up with the Joker at the reservoir. It seems that the Joker is recreating all of his old crimes. Meeting at the reservoir is an event that is referred to at the end of Batman:Year One, just so you know. The Joker claims that he knows the identity of all of the “Bat Team”(Still stupid, I know.), and he’s going to use this information against them. There’s also a really great exchange between the two about how the Joker looks at Batman as a king, and he his Jester. Who’s always there to give the king the bad news in a more high spirited fashion so it will come off as less upsetting.It’s an obvious, but cool, correlation between their relationship and the historical significance of the relationship between a jester and his king. It also posits that the Joker has some type of weird loyalty to Batman, and see’s him as some what of his superior. This issue started making me a little more skeptical about the following issues. The Joker is just so conveniently capable. Is there nothing he can’t pull of? How the hell is able to put all these different pieces of his plan in motion? This seems even crazier if you read the tie in stuff. The Joker is a really busy guy, and has a 100% success rate, apparently. This issue was decent, but started me down a line of thinking that left me perplexed as to how the Joker could possibly be able to do all this stuff.
The mini story in the back of this issue deals with the Joker and The Penguin. It’s okay. It’s more shocking than interesting, but it brings up something that I was just talking about before. How the hell? Joker invites Penguin to a church of some sort filled with the bodies of every major mob lieutenant in Gotham. Listen, I get this is a comic book, and things are a little crazy and unbelievable all the time, but Batman stories, at least the ones considered to be classic, tend to be slightly more grounded, and at the very least, plausible. So, it does kind of story telling bothers me. I can suspend some of my disbelief, but when I’m asked to except things “Just Because” it annoys me a little. At least give me some type of explanation as to how the Joker can do all this stuff. I don’t care how crazy it is. Just give me something, you know?
The next issue picks up right where the last one left off. Joker and Batman are still chatting it up like a couple of old ladies until Det. Bullock shows up with his unit. Then out of nowhere the Joker reveals that he has a unit of his own, and they open fire on everybody. Eventually Batman gets his mits on the Joker and begins to question him. The Joker says some interesting stuff, and continues the conversation that they started in issue #14. He makes allusions to the fact that Batman needs him in some way. He gives his life greater purpose. That’s why Batman has never killed the Joker, or so the Joker says. Batman thinks he has the upper hand for a second, but no, of course not. The Joker gives him a kiss on the hand, and Batman is paralyzed by a toxin. This part is the first time in this issue where I shook my head and kind of laughed. Really, Batman? He bests you with toxin. Considering the amount of people that have poisoned in some way throughout this series, you’d imagine that Batman would be a little more ready for something like that. Although, to be fair to Batman, he was pretty messed up about the whole Alfred being kidnapped and tortured thing. He may have had other stuff on his mind( What a lamo, huh?). Before the Joker kicks Batman off the reservoir bridge he invites him to some type of celebration, and then he, well, like I said, kicks him off the reservoir bridge. Batman is saved by his “Bat Team”(Yup, I know…), and then he gives them the low-down( Which is the opposite of the high-up.) on Alfred, and his personal history with the Joker. What’s revealed, through implication, is that Batman is just as obsessed with the Joker, as the the Joker is with Batman. Batman even has blown up replica of one of the Joker’s joker cards hanging up in the cave. There’s a thread in here about how everyone is paranoid that the Joker knows their true identities. Batman basically tries to put them at ease by saying along the lines of “Nah, dog. Couldn’t happen, yo. It’s impossible, homie!” Everyone listens but doesn’t really believe him. Oh well. If only this fact mattered, like, at all. This instance of doubt from the team could have led to some interesting dynamics within the group, but it’s pretty much just dropped in the main series. They bring it up in the tie ins, but they just talk about the possibility of it being true, and it doesn’t really affect the story in any real way. Anyways, Batman finds out through some detective work that the Joker is holding up in Arkham Asylum, and has been forcing the staff to do some of his bidding by holding their families hostage. You know, I’ve got to say that for a bat guano(Oh yeah, that just happened!) insane person he has got just resources upon resources. I mean really, even if he is working with the other villains and has their henchman on loan, this seems like it would take more coordination than the Joker would really be capable of. Oh, but wait! It get’s better and even more unbelievable! We’ll save that though. As Batman approaches Arkham he reveals how afraid he actually is of the Joker, and what he might have done. The Joker has become legendary even in the mind of Batman, and he has to remind himself that he’s just a man, just another criminal, and is nothing to be afraid of. It’s a nice moment of honesty between Batman and the reader, and helps us empathize with him a little more.
The mini story for this issue has to do with the Riddler. The important thing to take from this story, is that the Joker seems to be getting the major villains together, but not as participants. Just as an audience. This could be potentially interesting, but like most things that have potential in this series, nothing ever comes of it other than a few remarks from the villains while the rest of the story unfolds. Up to this point, that has kind of been the running theme. Missed opportunity. Interesting things are brought up and never explored. It’s just presented to give off the impression of depth even though the story is more or less just propelled through events of shock value and hollow action. The more and more I read the more frustrated I became. With every subsequent issue it becomes all the more clear that if you want this to actually make any sense you really have to get into the tie in stuff. There’s just so many holes, and conveniences in this story. It’s maddening. At this point I was hoping that it would at least come together in a clever way, but we’ll see…
Batman #16 is a lot of filler, really. It has some decent moments, but really could have been summed up in about have the time. Batman has to fight his way through Arkham to get to the Joker who is waiting with some of the other baddies. There he has made a makeshift thrown out of an electric chair, and it’s here that Joker finally gets at what he’s doing. It’s like most of the Jokers’ plans. It’s all to prove some sort of point. The point he wants to make to Batman is that his “Bat Team” has made him soft and weak. That he’s become to reliant on them, and this has affected their relationship. The Joker loves Batman. This “game” that they play is what gives him purpose, and he feels that if Batman isn’t a worthy adversary then what’s the point. Once Joker gives his spiel, he gets Batman onto his electric chair throne, by showing him that he has captured the rest of his team mates. Batman sits, and the Joker electrocutes him until he passes out. Like I said before, a lot of filler. The entire issue is Joker just trying to get into Batman’s head, and that’s all well and good. The dialogue is decent, but what makes it frustrating is the fact that the Joker is just repeating basically the same things that he had said in the previous issue. They made this Joker have the superficial elements of a complex character, but nothing he actually does or says really supports it. Take him cutting off his face, for instance. The series, including the tie ins, never really explores this at all. It’s just there to make him seem extreme, and admittedly, it makes for some really great images. It never is really addressed in a meaningful way. There is the arc’s subtext of “unmasking”, but c’mon… They had the Joker cut off his face, and then wear it around like a mask without going any deeper with it. I can understand if they are holding some stuff back for later stories, but given the theme and subtext of this one it should have at least been addressed. In fact in the next issue, they had a great opportunity to, but spoiler alert, they don’t.
The mini story for this issue is about Two-Face. What’s revealed is that the Joker is kind of holding the villains captive, and then there a discussion over who has more of a “right” to kill Batman. Again, very interesting uideas brought up, and then completely dropped. Bleh! Ridiculous! How can you almost be interesting so many time Death of the Family! How?!
So, we’re finally here. The end of this god damn road. This long fucking road(I guess I could have done this in a more concise manner, but eh, I felt like writing.). Batman #17. I would have called it Batman #FUCKING COP OUT…. I’m getting ahead of myself. This one picks up with Batman awakening to find himself tied up in his electric chair throne at the head of a dinner table, and in a cave. All of the other members of the “Bat Team” (Still sounds stupid, by the way.) are also tied up, but there is something peculiar about them. All of their faces are wrapped in bandages, and what looks like blood is seeping through. Also, in front of each of them is a silver tray topper covering a dish(What? Never been to a fancy party before? Whatevs, you know?). Oh yeah, and Alfred is there. He’s been poisoned by the Jokers toxin and is acting all crazy(Or crizaee, for you hip folks out there). So, the implication here is that the Joker has cut all of their faces off, and they are sitting on dinner plates in front of them. At this point, I stopped reading for a couple ticks and said “No fucking way,” was this story actually going to do something this ballsy? I know I complained about the “shock value” stuff in this series earlier, but that doesn’t mean that shock value can’t be an effective thing. It just has to have a justification for it to be used effectively. Give it some meaning, and let it serve an actual purpose to the story. Weight and consequence is what I’m talking about. Yeah… So, they have an exchange, and the Joker repeats what he’s been saying for the whole series one more time, you know, just in case we had forgot, and then the Joker sets the room they’re in on fire. Batman escapes from his chair and blows a hole in the cave ceiling causing water to rush in, and then… We find out that the Joker had not actual cut off their faces. It was all just a ruse, because, you know, the Joker is “crazy,” and stuff. Really? Fucking cop out, dudes and dudettes. Fucking weak. I would have been fine if in the next few pages all of their face were reattached(Bruce Wayne has deep pockets, dog.), but to have it all just be for show weakens the Jokers’ “plot” from a narrative stand point. So, he thinks that all of these people are making Batman a lesser hero, and he was trying to burn them all alive, and he has whole sale murdered a lot of folks in this series, but this is where it was too much for even him. Really? Is it just me, or is that not only adversely effecting the narrative, but also his character, or at least the one they’ve been building up in The New 52? It feels like a betrayal, through and through. They have effectively made him nothing more than a crazy person, and have pretty much stripped him of his complexity. The Joker doesn’t stop, or compromise. Especially if he’s trying to prove a point to Batman. The punchline should have been that he took their faces to make them look more like him. A villain. Villains negatively effect Batman, and that’s what the Joker claims the “Bat Team” does. He would have made them like him superficially, and made his point. Anyways… Moving on. Batman chases the Joker to edge of a precipice, and they have a conversation about what the actual subtext of this series is about. It’s that family makes you stronger. Yeah, that’s where they went with that. The most obvious place possible. Then they banter about how the Joker doesn’t know who they really are, and even though he totally could have just found out, he doesn’t care. That’s not something that interests him. Not even Batman’s identity interests him. There is a slightly interesting thing that happens next. Batman says that he knows the Jokers true identity and that he’s going to tell it to him. The Joker recoils in terror and rather than hear his own name told to him he throws himself off the ledge(Stuff is just so much more dramatic when it happens on a precipice. That’s why it happens all the time. Duh. Der. Bler. Stir…. I’m done.). As the Joker is falling his face comes off and floats through the air behind him(Oh my…). What I find interesting about this is that the Joker doesn’t want to face who he really is. Just like Batman, in a way, and maybe the reason he cuts off his face is to further distance himself from who he used to be. He’s created a persona, again just like Batman, and he feels like that’s who he really is.
The mini story this time has to do with extended DC universe stuff, and I fully do not care about any of that after this.
So, the tie ins! I’ll keep it short. I think I alluded to the fact that most of it isn’t very good throughout this article. Beyond the fact that it actually detracts from the story if you don’t read most of these, the products themselves are pretty terrible. The art work is bad, the dialogue even worse, and the cynical “cash cow” nature of them is fully transparent. The fact they exist isn’t inherently problematic. It’s the fact that they feel like they are done with out passion or care. This goes back to what I was discussing at the beginning of this “dissertation.” This stuff is very clearly by assignment, and they are locked into these larger events to point that they can’t have any real identity of their own. They can never go and do their own stuff because of the continuity of the larger DC universe. What a nightmare it must be to work on one of these books. Having to keep all of this shit straight. There is four different Batman comics that all exist in the same continuity. Why? Well, money. Yeah, I get that. It just lessens the quality of the product as people struggle to come up with interesting story lines for all the different series. Doing this while keeping in mind what is going on with all the other series, because they are in the same continuity(Man, Batman has some serious time management skills, dog.). I don’t know…
The most egregious offender is probably The Suicide Squad. So, they take all of the DC third tier villains, and Harley Quinn(Hey, they need a reason to actually read the series, man.), and turn them into a squad of good guys. They work off prison time by doing stuff for some government agency. It’s just as dumb as it sounds. You know what’s great about third tier villain, especially the cool ones like Deadshot, they are special because they only show up once in awhile. It makes it special when they show up. What’s wrong with that? I know the series has been around in one form or another for awhile, but honestly this new iteration just reads like gross fan service. They’re all hooking up, and betraying each other, and then making up. Characters that hate each other end up really being in love with each other, and blah blah blah. Sounds like fan fiction to me. Giving people what they want when it comes to nerd properties is usually the worst thing possible, in my opinion. It’s always the worst pandering tosh, honestly. This series has some interesting potential, but the fan-service style they’ve adopted makes it being any good highly unlikely. I don’t know…
There was at least one decent series in the tie in stuff, and it was the one I least expected. Batgirl. Color me surprised(So, flush with a hint of red. I guess?) that this is the one that had the most consistent quality through out. That’s the real problem with a lot of the tie in stuff. Continuity of quality. It wasn’t there. Death of the Family in it’s entirety was all over the place. So, when I read the Batgirl stuff it was always a nice breath of fresh air. The dialogue was solid, the story telling pointed and tight. It made a good argument for it’s existence. I can’t say the same for most of the other Batman related The New 52 stuff. This is the only series in the tie in stuff that actually makes a good case for it being part of the larger arc. Barbara has a history with the Joker, and it just connects to the story better. It’s also the only one where the Joker doesn’t just repeat the same thing that he has been in all of the other series. Well, not entirely. He still says all that stuff, but there’s more. He’s trying to torture Barbara too. In The Killing Joke, the Joker paralyzes her, and now through her smarts, she’s found a way to walk again and start going back to work as Batgirl. It’s like spitting in his face, and just like everyone else, the Joker doesn’t like that. Anyways, Batgirl was a nice surprise. It’s too bad too. I was looking forward to getting back into comics, and making it a more regular thing, but this series has kind of scared me off from it. It more or less just made me want to go back and read some of my older favorite Batman yarns. So, I guess there’s my silver lining, if you will. Getting inspired, or driven, to read things that I enjoy and love is always a good thing in my opinion. It’s unfortunate that I had to read a bunch of crap to come to this place, but whatever.
In the end, reading Death of the Family reinforced my feelings about how I consume comics, and that’s based on the talent that’s working on the material. Batman is only cool when talented writers and artists make him cool. He’s only interesting when he’s made interesting. I mean, this experienced hasn’t turned me off to the notion of reading newer comics entirely, or anything. If someone were to recommend something I’d most likely be willing to give it a shot. I’m always up for being proven wrong when it comes to this type of stuff.