Scott Snyder and Jock wrung a decent story about the Batman Who Laughs in the miniseries that bore his name. This was in spite of the fact that, his distinctive look aside, I don’t think he’s really that interesting of a character. He’s meant to be the personification of the idea that Batman always wins, shorn of any agenda or higher purpose. So far, he’s come off like the kind of smug villain who’s always a step ahead of the heroes. Not because he’s been shown to be smarter than them, but because the plot demands it. My opinion of him may be in the minority, as the character has proven to be quite popular. To the point that he’s the focus of “Batman/Superman vol. 1: Who Are the Secret Six” and “Year of the Villain: Hell Arisen” two stories that set the stage for the current “Death Metal” event.
“Who Are the Secret Six” picks up from where “The Batman Who Laughs” left off. If you’ll recall, while I thought the ending to that miniseries was intriguing I was also put off by the fact that it was designed to get you to buy this. Why did I buy it? Because it was part of the same “Buy 2 Get 1 Free” sale at Amazon that provided a lot of the recent comics I’ve read and reviewed/will review here. I should’ve had better impulse control and gone with my initial feeling about reading this series because this one was mostly a dud.
Written by Joshua Williamson and illustrated by David Marquez, this volume has the World’s Finest duo investigating what’s left of the Batman Who Laughs’ lair. What they find is nothing but bad news. It turns out that this Batman was planning on infecting six other heroes from the DCU as part of his plan to ruin this Earth like he did his own. Though the two think they might have found a lead when they come across one of his “Robins,” this little boy has a secret. His name’s Billy, and he’s actually the World’s Mightiest Mortal.
It’s a “Who do you trust?” story with Batman and Superman at its center as they try to out-strategize the Batman Who Laughs. Which is something that I would’ve loved to have seen here. For a series predicated around the idea of seeing Batman and Superman team up to fight major threats together, “Who Are the Secret Six” is mainly about seeing them lose. Repeatedly. This would be less of a problem if it felt like their antagonist was really outsmarting them, or if the ways in which he were doing so weren’t so obvious. Regrettably, neither of these things are true. The only real joy to be had from this story is in seeing the title characters take on the increasingly gonzo stakes as the identities of the Secret Six become known.
In fairness, that’s a not-inconsiderable joy. Even if Williamson fails to make the core story engaging, he does show a decent amount of imagination in regards to the nature of the threats they face and has the two leads play off each other pretty well. Better still is the art from Marquez who never misses a moment to make the action look incredibly dynamic. He was given a story that called for some really epic and over-the-top fight scenes and the man delivers. “Who Are the Secret Six” succeeds as a showcase for Marquez’s skills and I look forward to seeing what he does next in the DCU. Yeah, he’s not coming back for the next arc. Which will involve a team-up between General Zod and Ra’s Al Ghul. It certainly sounds promising, but after Williamson failed to deliver on the promise of this arc, I think I’ll be fine with skipping it.
It is worth noting that “Who Are the Secret Six” directly sets up the events of “Year of the Villain: Hell Arisen” in that it explains how the Batman Who Laughs got loose and where his superhero-turned-villain entourage came from. Once you get past the “Year of the Villain” one-shot that’s full of teasers for this storyline and “Event Leviathan,” it offers up a better reason for its existence: Showing us who would win in a fight between Lex Luthor and the Batman Who Laughs. Which should, in theory, make this a “Whoever loses, we win!” kind of story.
That’s true, up to a point. Except it’s not the Batman Who Laughs that spoils the fun this time around. He’s his usual annoying self here as he manages to outsmart Lex Luthor, now in his “Apex Lex” form after being granted the favor of Perpetua. More than being the evil goddess of all creation in the DCU, she recognizes the threat that the Batman Who Laughs presents and wants her favorite soldier to go and take him out. Even for someone of Luthor’s intelligence and power, this is still a task that’s easier said than done.
James Tynion IV wrote this miniseries and it’s further proof that he does better work when writing villains as the main characters rather than heroes. In addition to having Luthor’s arrogant, self-superior voice down cold, the writer also manages a good back-and-forth struggle between the two sides in this conflict. Which is something that was really missing from “Batman/Superman.” The writer also makes good use of a certain Clown Prince of Crime when he shows up. The Joker isn’t just good for bailing Lex’s ass out of the fire, he’s also the one character who can really call our protagonist out on the choices he’s made in getting to this point.
Which is cool and all, but it also flags up my biggest issue with this story. Actually, with how Tynion, Snyder, and co. have been steering Luthor’s arc through the current “Justice League” run. Their idea is that the man has finally found something bigger than himself to believe in: Doom as represented by Perpetua. This belief is what has led him to forsake his humanity and, for what I believe is the first time ever, join up to further someone else’s cause.
It’s that last bit that bothers me. While Tynion tries to frame Luthor’s fate as that of someone who gave up everything he believed in, I kept waiting for him to reveal his true colors. The Luthor I’ve read about for years wouldn’t have settled for being Perpetua’s General. When it’s revealed that he had been lied to all this time, he wouldn’t have stood there in disbelief. No, that would’ve been the time for Luthor to have sprung the trap he’s been setting for his master all so that he can seize her power for herself and choose Doom on his own terms… Only to find out that Perpetua is far too strong to be trapped by the efforts of a mere mortal.
So you see where this has taken us: Into the realm where I think I can write a better ending than professional comic book writers. That’s never a good place for a story to take me, but it’s not a complete dealbreaker for “Hell Arisen.” I can at least see what Tynion was getting at here, and it’s still fun to see him indulge his villainous side.
Then there’s the art from Steve Epting and Javier Fernandez. While Epting was clearly working on a shorter timetable than some of his recent work, he still delivers some appropriately dark and moody art for his issues/sections. As this is a darker-themed superhero story, his style meshes well with the material and still looks good when he’s called on to go big for certain scenes -- like the big hero/villain dust-up at the end. Fernandez’s work is scratchier and sketchier, but it feels a lot more evocative than his rushed work in “Justice League” vol. 4 did. His Joker, in particular, is a well-rounded portrait of the madman in all of his charming, psychotic, murderous glory.
As both of these stories are designed to set up “Death Metal,” do they make me more interested in reading DC’s next big event? Only to see if the Batman Who Laughs finally gets what’s coming to him. Both stories have their merits, “Hell Arisen” more than “Batman/Superman,” but they showcase a villain who tries to get by on style more than substance. After reading these two stories I’m more convinced than ever that the Batman Who Laughs is a hugely overrated character. He may have that distinctive look in his favor, but he’s just another villain whose success feels like it comes from the dictates of the plot than his own intelligence. “Hell Arisen” may be the better of the two stories, except that’s in spite of and not because of the character.