The first couple of chapters provide the kind of silliness you’ve come to expect from this series. Which means we get to see Nene and Clarion visit the doctor, play (what is almost certainly) “Monster Hunter” with some kids, and take part in an underground robot fight club where the owner has his own customized military mech on hand to stomp out anyone who gets out of line! This is all well and good, but the best part of these chapters is how Phobos’ character gets some much-needed rounding out. She presented with near-toxic levels of smugness in the previous volume as she forced her way into the blissfully unaware Nene’s life. While Clarion’s evil twin thought she had everything figured out, that turns out to not be the case here as she actually struggles with the concept of having fun while playing with others and openly grits her teeth upon seeing what the Pandora device can do. After seeing these things, I can even entertain the idea that she might not be the villain of this arc.
Then again, that’s also because someone makes a good case for being that villain -- even if they’re just an A-list henchman -- at the end of the volume. The extra-long third chapter in this volume starts off unassumingly enough as we catch up with Soviet spy Cruzkowa and the Chicken Brothers (of all people…) in jail. They don’t stay there for long, but before we can experience their titanic team-up, we find out that some of the spy’s feelings about cyborgs don’t sit well with the brothers. This triggers some surprisingly effective flashbacks that wind up rendering the Chicken Brothers (of all people…) as actual humans rather than living jokes and at odds with Cruzkowa. Before things can get deadly, steadfast C.P.D. officer Robert Altman shows up to round up the criminals, and then…
Look, I hate it when a volume ends with the death of a character only for it to be revealed in the next volume that they’re alive and well. It’s awful when it happens in a Marvel or DC book, and arguably worse when you see it done in an Image title. If it winds up being done here… then I honestly won’t mind. Really, that’s just how it is this time. If the creators are serious, however, then the end of this volume is either a game-changing raising of the stakes, or a tone-wrecking mistake that’ll sink this title. Whatever it is, the answers contained in vol. 13 can’t come fast enough.
There’s really only one question to ask regarding this miniseries. Is it any good once you take Batman’s penis out of it? The flagship title for DC’s Black Label imprint sparked immediate infamy when it launched and the Caped Crusader’s batawang was visible in one scene. In addition to spiking demand for this issue, it also sparked a widespread scrubbing of potentially objectionable content throughout DC Comics with rewrites and re-draws to this series being part of them. Now that all the furor has died down around “Damned” we can see what worth this comic actually has.
The short answer to that is, “It sure looks nice!”
I’ll say this right off the bat: The first volume was not a fluke. Vol. 2 of “Outer Darkness” cements its status as the best Image launch I’ve read this year. Writer John Layman and artist Afu Chan serve up some more inspired stories in the series’ vein of “Star Trek” by way of “Ghostbusters” action. We get to see things like the crew of the Charon encountering a VERY haunted house in the middle of space, one that happens to have a still-living nun inside of it too. There’s also the interesting backstory of Ensign Hyzdek who, in addition to still dealing with the trauma of being resurrected in the first volume, is dealing with the stress of not being who everyone thinks she is. More fun is had with stories involving weapons that turn people into killers and flowers that feed off the dreams their hate generates. These stories also ratchet up the animosity between Capt. Joshua Rigg and 1st Officer Satalis, setting the stage for the volume’s two-part climax.
That’s “climax” in both senses of the word as, once they’ve arrived at Sagittarius Base, Capt. Rigg treats his crew to 24 hours of alien debauchery. It’s to keep them occupied while he finds out from Admiral Prakash why he’ll be heading into the outer darkness. Not that it matters too much, because Rigg has plans of his own. Plans that come off so smoothly he doesn’t realize the trouble he’s picked up until it’s too late. Which means that the (hopefully forthcoming) vol. 3 is going to be a great time as he deals with this problematic new status quo he’s brought upon himself. Granted, a little more information about the history between himself and the woman he’s doing this for would’ve been appreciated. He’s napalming a lot of bridges for her, after all. Even so, Layman’s clever writing and Chan’s stylish art make vol. 2 just as good as the first.
Now go buy both of them so that Layman doesn’t have to resort to stunts like the (still sure to be good) upcoming “Outer Darkness/Chew” crossover.
Four-fifths of this volume can be described as “good.” You get the same quality writing and art from Al Ewing and Joe Bennet, with Ryan Bodenheim doing solid work on the opening issue, as they move the story forward. First by going backward with a look at the leader of Shadow Base, Gen. Reginald Fortean, and how he came to be obsessed with stopping the Hulk. It’s an obsession that ultimately damns him as we see him obtain the awful means to make his dream a reality. While he’s doing that Doc Samson and the rest of Gamma Flight have finally figured out where Shadow Base is, and they’ve got their own plans for taking care of them. Which are almost certainly less savage than what Betty Banner, Rick Jones, and Hulk (with Bruce Banner and Joe Fixit still knocking around in his head) have planned for when they finally get there.
Then you’ve got the fifth issue -- the 25th in the current run. As befitting an anniversary number like that, Ewing and artist German Garcia decided to give us something special. It’s a story that doesn’t take place in this incarnation of the Marvel Universe, or the Eighth Cosmos as the writer has figured it. No, this story takes place in the Ninth Cosmos as one of its inhabitants takes up a desperate task as it nears its end. Where there was once a vibrant cosmos teeming with light and color, these things have slowly been taken out of it. Taken by something big, green, and so full of hate.
“Breaker of Worlds” is essentially the “Bad Ending” for this series and the closest it has come to inspiring genuine horror in me. The title’s early, overt stabs didn’t do much for me, but the concepts introduced here -- and Garcia’s rendering of just what’s inside that thing’s mind -- are more than unsettling. This is helped along by the fact that the issue is largely experimental as it eschews any trace of superheroes or the Marvel Universe for a cosmos that’s far weirder and decidedly weirder. Yet not unrelatable as Ewing does a good job of making this issue’s protagonist relatable in spite of their alien nature. It’s incredible stuff which serves as a showcase for Ewing’s ambition regarding this series, especially in how he ties it back into the main story at the end when a familiar villain makes his return.
If “Dark Nights: Metal” had one breakout character, it would be The Batman Who Laughs. Not according to me, however. The idea of a Batman whose mind was infected, literally, by a toxin inside the Joker’s body which only emerged upon his death wasn’t the right kind of dumb for my tastes. Seeing Batman and the Joker team up to kick his ass at the end of the event was my favorite thing about the character. Still, he struck a chord with other comics readers and the character’s popularity is why he’s getting a self-titled miniseries. Make no mistake: This is really just another chance for Scott Snyder to write a “Batman” story, and one marvelously illustrated by his “Detective Comics” collaborator Jock. So while there’s inevitably going to be some good stuff here, there are also some real issues holding it back.
If there’s one thing the previous three parts of this series haven’t lacked for, it’s been direction. Even if the individual arcs within them went off in some pretty odd directions, each Jojo had his own particular goal to strive for. Until now, that is. The second storyline in this volume, “Chilli Pepper,” features the return of the Stand and user that killed Okuyasu’s brother and took the bow and arrow that were creating other Stand users back in the first volume. You’d think that this would be the encounter which sets the stage for future conflicts that will drive this part and culminate in a showdown in the final volume.
That… doesn’t happen here. What happens is that we do get the expectedly thrilling battle of wits as Josuke, Okuyasu, and Koichi have to figure out how to defeat a Stand that can call upon the power of electricity. There’s even some added drama as the story gets a ticking clock in the form of Josuke’s biological dad, Joseph Joestar, eventually making his first appearance in this part. Yet when Chilli Pepper is defeated, things start feeling kind of aimless.
I’m not saying things get boring or anything of the like. It’s impossible to say that about storylines where Josuke and Joseph have to deal with an invisible baby and Koichi encounters one of the series’ most famous characters: Egomaniacal manga artist Rohan Kishibe. (Why “most famous?” Call it a hunch.) Things get wild in this storyline by its end and I have a feeling the climax will be even moreso. The problem is that it doesn’t feel like there’s any greater purpose driving these stories like there has been up to this point. Seeing Hirohiko Araki cast around for direction is still pretty entertaining, even as I’m left hoping to see the next big bad arrive to drive the plot in vol. 4.
(There’s also a story preceding the “Chilli Pepper” arc in this volume. The reason I didn’t say anything about it is because it’s the kind where you’ll enjoy it more the less you know about it. Take it from someone who had it spoiled for him years ago…)
Donny Cates and Geoff Shaw, together again on “Guardians of the Galaxy!” It should’ve been a can’t-miss proposition after their work on “Thanos Wins.” Yet Shaw only wound up drawing the issues in this volume and Cates wrapped things up after twelve issues. I’m inclined to wonder “What went wrong?” under these circumstances, but another theory presents itself after reading this volume: This was all the creators had time for. Cates has a full dance card given his Marvel and Image projects while Shaw does his best work six issues at a time. So while Marvel may have wanted them to stick around longer, these creators only had time for a couple things. Namely, put the “Guardians” back together after the events of “Infinity Wars” and wrap up the legacy of Thanos’ Last Will and Testament.
(In case anyone is keeping track of the “Actually” bit, vol. 16 was “War of the Realms.”)
My biggest complaint with “War of the Realms” was that it was focused too much on spectacle. There were lots of epic showdowns and conflicts on display, but it was lacking in smaller character moments to help flesh out the war and its stakes. Given that the event spun out from the pages of Jason Aaron’s run on “Thor,” my expectation was that we’d get those kinds of stories with this volume. That doesn’t quite happen here, though the double-dose of epiloguing just about makes up for it.
This volume’s title is where the impossible happens, and it’s where the League has to go in order to stop Luthor from turning the multiverse towards Doom. What do they find there? Why a perfect utopia where their future selves are more than happy to show them around and talk about how they pulled it off. Naturally it’s a trap and it’s disappointing that writer Scott Snyder (working with artist Jorge Jimenez as a co-plotter on this arc) would reduce the idea of the Sixth Dimension to such a familiar trope. It doesn’t help matters either that the six-part title story also feeds into his worst impulse when writing events: Having the heroes work really hard to succeed and then having their hopes crushed in a single page.
With these things working against it, I was honestly surprised to find myself enjoying the story by it’s end. We get some quality insight into Superman’s character -- as a father and a son -- as he fights against overwhelming odds in darkness. His ultimate triumph is a sight to behold, mainly due to Jimenez’s incredible art as he truly sells the scale of the punch the Man of Steel lays on the antagonist. It’s also fair to say that Jimenez’s art is truly stellar from beginning to end as it vividly displays the angelic heights and hellish lows of this world. Not to be outdone, Francis Manapul also delivers some mythic sights in the James Tynion IV-written “League of Doom” interlude issue. An issue which advertises the origins of Perpetua, the Monitors, and the multiverse is certainly promising a lot, and it largely delivers.
The action drops off considerably for the volume’s final third as the majority of the League seeks out the other Monitors while J’onn J’onzz try to track down Luthor. While the League’s storyline is necessary for the overall plot, the real drama occurs when J’onn and Luthor -- now “Apex Lex” -- finally meet. I’m not expecting the consequences of their meeting to result in permanent changes to either, but a surprisingly harsh fate awaits the Martian Manhunter here. It’d probably be an even more impactful read if the scratchy art from Javier Fernandez (and the pitch-ins from Bruno Redondo and Daniel Sampere) were on the same level as Jimenez and Manapul. As things are, the final three issues wind up being just decent buildup for the “Justice/Doom War” in the next volume.