The Comic Cave – Batman Universe

The Comic Cave is a bi-weekly feature where we spin the Wheel of Comics and see what graphic novel story it brings up for us to deep dive into! This week we take a look at Batman Universe, one of the most enjoyable Batman books in years.

Bendis is coming!” – three words that DC were pushing in 2018 that were either a promise of good things to come, or a warning. In the previous instalment of The Comic Cave we spoke about one of Bendis’ big events at Marvel, and I wasn’t too kind about said event. But I don’t want that to seem like I dislike Bendis as a writer. Having read all of his time on Ultimate Spider-Man I can say that I loved that series, but it’s the big universe-changing cross-over books that he tends to lose me on. So, with the news in 2018 that he was coming to DC to write Superman, I was quite intrigued. Bendis is great at the street level heroes, so having expected him to go onto Batman, the choice of Superman was an interesting one for sure.

I didn’t like some of what Bendis did to Superman, especially ageing up Jon Kent. And his run on Justice League of America felt like a poor man’s Joss Whedon at times, and felt especially egregious when he used it as a vehicle to further push his own character, Naomi. Having hoped for the best from Bendis at DC I ended up feeling like the books he ended up working on took big dips in quality. But when I read Batman Universe it made me think that perhaps it might just have been because he was working with the wrong characters, as this book is one of the most enjoyable and light-hearted Batman books DC has made in years.

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There’s a fantastic quote from Frank Miller (a writer a lot of people will argue is one of the best Batman writers there’s ever been) that Batman is one of the most adaptable heroes around. You can put him in any situation and people will still see Batman. Batman in the old west. Batman in space. Batman in a super serious horror story. Batman being ultra campy and telling jokes. It works every time because Batman can be anything and people will still say that it’s Batman, even if it’s not quite to their tastes. After all, no one tries to argue that Adam West wasn’t really Batman because he wasn’t dark and gritty. And it seems like Bendis took that statement to heart when he wrote Batman Universe, as this story takes Batman and puts him into as many different situations and settings as possible.

Batman Universe was originally published in Batman Giant, a 100 page magazine that would feature a new story each month, along with reprints of older stories such as Batman: Hush, and Harley Quinn: Hot in the City. Designed as a way of attracting new readers and giving them a taste of Batman and his supporting characters, the book became the first place that Bendis wrote a Batman centric story, and it quickly brought the book a lot of attention from existing comic fans. With the story seeming to be a hit, DC reprinted it and released it as regular comics, and eventually as both a hardcover and softcover collection. But what about this story made it such a success? It’s just so wildly unpredictably and fun not to be.

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Batman Universe begins with Batman in the Batmobile, on his way to a Riddler heist. Nothing that we’ve not seen before; but what makes these opening pages immediately stand out as something a bit different and special is that the reader IS Batman. Drawn from the point of view as the dark knight, the panels show him speeding through the streets of Gotham before ejecting from the vehicle, grappling up the side of a building, where he runs into a woman sitting on her fire escape reading her book; saying ‘hi’ as he passes by. Swinging from his rope we cut to a full page splash of Batman soaring through the air on his way to take down the bad guys in a page that showcases just how fantastic Nick Derrington’s art is (more on that later).

Bendis revealed in an interview that this scene was in part inspired by the Arkham VR game, in which players see the world through Batman’s eyes. And this scene really does do a wonderful job of putting you into this Batman’s shoes. This is helped by the dialogue in the scene, as Batman communicates with Alfred over the radio.  It’s a fun little conversation in which they discuss The Riddler’s latest clue ‘When is The Riddler not The Ridder’, at which Alfred bemoans the lack of effort put into this one, and how he usually likes The Riddler’s work ethic and how much thought he puts into his schemes. This is the first hint at the kind of tone that the book is going to be taking; how it’s set in a serious world but the characters don’t have to be dour and dull in that setting.

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Arriving at the crime scene, Batman finds dozens of men dressed as various incarnations of The Riddler, giving a wonderful opportunity to showcase the various costumes he’s worn over the years. As Batman fights his way through the crowd (revealed to be hired stunt men), he homes in on the actual Riddler, who’s making off with a Fabergé egg worth $15 million. Batman is able to catch up with The Riddler, but is knocked unconscious by an electrical blast from a third party. Once awake, Batman finds The Riddler gone, and starts investigating the trail. This gives us a fun page where a bunch of the stunt men are being interviewed by the police, having thought they’d just been hired to be part of a flash mob. Some of them even get a bit of a thrill out of the fact that the actual Batman punched them in the face.

Batman decides to look into the Egg itself, which takes him to a small town where he meets its owner, the descendant of legendary bounty hunter Jonah Hex. And thus begins a globe-hopping adventure that sees Batman going to Amsterdam after The Riddler, which leads to him and Green Arrow having to fight Deathstroke. He also travels to Gorilla City, before being transported across space to the planet Thanagar by an alien force, where he gets s snazzy Hawkman style bat-armour and wings. He gets to go to Dinosaur Island with Green Lantern (something he loves because he loves dinosaurs), which sees the two of them getting sent back to the old west. He teams up with Nightwing to infiltrate a submarine filled with ninja assassins. And we even get an alternate world where Batman doesn’t exist. Like I said, Bendis took the ‘Batman works anywhere’ quote and ran with it. And boy is it a glorious run.

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There are a lot of different locations in this book, ranging from dinosaur-filled islands to alien planets and other times, and whilst they all work within the story it also feels like Bendis was working his way through a list of things he thought it’d be cool to see Batman do; and he’s right, these are cool. And much like that first scene with him and Alfred, these scenes are made even better by the way he interacts with other characters.

Having seen versions of the characters where they’re presented as antagonistic to each other it’s a genuine delight to see Green Arrow and Batman working together and having some fun banter with each other. The two of them telling The Riddler how crap his riddle is, ending with Batman telling him ‘You’re embarrassing yourself in front of Green Arrow’ was genuinely funny as hell, and is the kind of writing that seems to have been missing since Bendis came to DC (and for a while before if we’re honest).

Speaking of the colour green, Batman gets to have some great interaction with Green Lantern in this book too (Hal Jordan), with the two of them discussing their love of dinosaurs, talking about why they always hang out at Bruce’s house instead of Hal’s, and having some fun together in the old west. Batman Universe seems to remember that these people aren’t folks who hate each other, nor are they just colleagues – they’re friends. They’re going to chat shit with each other, they’re going to have a bit of fun doing what they’re doing.

Perhaps the biggest example of how this book shows Batman as a real human being with actual friends is when he returns from the past, having been separated from Green Lantern. Hal leaves a message at the Batcave, a “hope you got back too, let me know how things are” kind of message. Most other writers would have Bruce listen to the message and just go back to the case, but Bendis has him reply. Bruce tells Hal he’s back safe, “Just wanted you to know I’m okay”. This one panel humanises him more than some writers do on multi issue runs that last for years. It makes Batman a regular person and I love it.

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Earlier I mentioned Nick Derington, who provides the art on the book (alongside Dave Stewart on colours). This is my first time reading a book that Derington has worked on, and he’s now an artist whose work I need to read more of. There’s something about this book that appeals to me in a way not many artists do, in the way that I’m going to pick up and read any book that has his name attached to it.

I love the tiny details that Derington adds to the book, the way his lines show where the seams are on Batman’s gloves, or how he makes the cowl expressive without it feeling comical and unrealistic. The covers and the splash pages are fantastic, with the opening shot of Batman gliding through the air being one of my new favourite Batman images, and the cover with Green Lantern, Batman, and Jonah Hex lined up ready to fight is something that I want to hang on my wall.

Whilst the art on the book is fantastic throughout, it’s the places where Derington gets to play around with expectations that are the parts of the book where you just want to pass it to someone else and go ‘look how amazing!’. The opening scenes where you are Batman, his infiltration of Gorilla City where he’s sneaking around and climbing over rooftops, and the way they represent the white void Batman gets trapped in at one point are all moments that make you stop reading and just soak up the art.

But my favourite is Batman and Dick Grayson infiltrating a sub together. The page presents it as a cross-section of the sub, showing the two heroes moving through the ship towards their target. You’ve got Batman moving through the halls fighting ninjas as Nightwing slips into vents to pop up behind the enemy to pull of cool moves with Batman. It’s a fantastic piece of storytelling that showcases how different both characters are, yet how wonderfully they work together. Plus, it’s great to have Dick there at a time when DC tried to wreck Dick Grayson by giving him amnesia and turned him into Rick Grayson because one of the top people at DC hated all of the Dick jokes; so seeing those two together when there was no Nightwing was a great moment for the fans.

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Batman Universe was published during the Tom King Batman run, a time that leads to some split opinions amongst fans (I’ll never forgive that run for killing Alfred Pennyworth). Bendis’ Batman came in like a breath of fresh air, giving readers something completely different to what the main title was doing. It wasn’t dark, it wasn’t moody, it wasn’t killing beloved characters for shock value. It felt like a celebration of Batman, a showcase of how you can tell a fun and engaging Batman story and still allow the character to have some fun. Because this Batman has banter, tells jokes, goes on some wild adventures, and teams up with a variety of different heroes this book feels a lot like the animated series Batman: The Brave and the Bold, and has that same sense of simple, enjoyable glee to it.

I’m still not completely on board with everything that Bendis has done; I think that his events can get messy and too bloated, and he pushes his own characters a lot and it can sometimes feel forced, and there are some characters that he just doesn’t seem to get. But Ultimate Spider-Man might be my favourite Spider-Man book, and Batman Universe is firmly in my top five Batman runs. When he’s on the right thing Bendis can produce books that are a genuine delight to read, and this is one of them. If you’re looking for a fun Batman book to read, if you’re trying to introduce someone to the character, or if you have a younger reader wanting to read Batman but don’t want them to read something too dark, then Batman Universe is the perfect book for you.

Batman Universe was first published from September 2018 – October 2019 in Batman Giant by DC Comics.

Next time on The Comic Cave – Marvels by Kurt Busiek and Alex Ross.

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