One of the things I was expecting to see from Scott Snyder’s run on “All-Star Batman” was more single-issue stories after the first arc. While the writer did a handful of shorter tales over the course of his run on “Batman,” the majority of his time on that title was spent on blockbuster stories that (successfully) kept getting bigger with each one. We don’t quite get that here. “Ends of the Earth” collects four issues that initially seem like they stand alone only to come together to form a proper arc. It’s pretty entertaining for what it is, so long as you’re already onboard with Snyder’s established style.
By that I mean you should prepare yourself for stories that feature lots of esoteric scientific knowledge as plot points and for Batman to always be one step ahead of his antagonists. Even when it looks like they have him dead to rights as in the first story featuring Mister Freeze. Now, Freeze isn’t a character I was looking forward to seeing Snyder revisit as the story he co-wrote with James Tynion IV that introduced the character to the “New 52” did a really good job of breaking his appeal more than anything else. Would a second go-round break the character further or help walk back this issue?
My concerns turned out to be a non-issue as Snyder doesn’t address Freeze’s new origin and just focuses on the villain as he is now, where he has taken over a research facility in the Arctic. His plan is to unleash an ancient bacteria from an ice core to cleanse the world so he can re-populate it with the cryogenically frozen people he woke up to do his bidding. Batman shows up to stop him with some brand new heat-based batarang tech, but… it doesn’t go so well for him at first.
The story is pretty over-the-top and that’s before we get to Batman’s real plan which involves a little-known fact about bats. Still, it’s the right kind of ridiculous that keeps getting bigger until the end of the story which has a gleefully demonic vision of the character grinning in triumph over Freeze thanks to artist Jock. The action kicks thanks to the artist’s inimitable style and he makes the form of the story -- no dialogue boxes, it’s all told in text strewn across the art -- work much better than it should. Overall, it’s great fun and sets you up well for what comes next.
Which would be a Poison Ivy story set in Death Valley. As it turns out, some of Freeze’s bacteria got loose and Batman is racing against time to find a cure for the first person infected by them. She’s a little girl by the name of Lilith Seguro and it’s Batman’s hope that by appealing to the former Dr. Pamela Eisley’s better nature she’ll be willing to help him out here. Even if he can’t convince her, maybe the well-equipped men with guns and stealth camo will be able to change her mind.
What’s novel about this story, aside from its shift to plant-based esoterica, are a couple of things. One is the thirteen panels counting down throughout the story which tell a parallel tale in reverse. Perceptive readers may figure out what story it’s telling once they reach the halfway point, where it reaches its closest intersection with the story, but the telling is both clever and ultimately bittersweet at the end. The other is seeing Batman’s approach to Poison Ivy as it’s really unusual for him to give a member of his rogues’ gallery the kind of indulgence you see here. Unusual, yet not unwarranted as the story makes clear. It’s a nice change compared to seeing him negotiate with fisticuffs or out-logic his antagonist.
Art for this issue comes from Tula Lotay, someone whose style appeals more to me in concept than actuality. There’s some nice detail and stylization to her art and she gives us a Poison Ivy who is as ominously seductive as you’d expect. Yet, while there’s some nice character interplay between Ivy and a loutish general store owner early on, her characters often feel stiff on the page. Especially when the action starts. Lotay’s work is generally nice to look at, but it’s not something I can really get excited over.
As opposed to Giuseppe Camuncoli’s work in the following issue which is a welcome return to the kind of psychedelic freak-outs he used to deliver with Stefano Landini on “Hellblazer.” While I’ve enjoyed the artist’s work on “Amazing Spider-Man” for the past few years, the artist gets a chance to show what he can really do in this Mad Hatter story set in the Louisiana Bayou. Batman has traced the tech from the military outfit who followed him to Freeze and Ivy’s haunts to this location while noticing that it also has similarities to Jervis Tetch’s work. Though the Hatter may not be the most physically imposing of Batman’s foes, he still has everything he needs to get right into the Dark Knight’s head.
And what a head trip it is. Snyder creates a backstory between Bruce Wayne and Tetch that feels plausible but also allows the Hatter to reach deep into the character’s fears and insecurities. Even if we know that Batman isn’t going to give into the Hatter’s tricks, we still get a very unsettling tale with lots of bizarre visuals. While the Hatter’s increasingly threatening appearance is cool, there are also some lively takes on the likes of Joker, Bane, and Catwoman as well. Camuncoli also makes the nightmare scenario of a broken, paralyzed Bruce Wayne appropriately depressing as well. While the story can be boiled down to “Hatter tries to make Batman crazy, until our hero fights back” the style it has on display still makes it a wild ride.
The final issue was originally to be illustrated by Afua Richardson before a sudden illness necessitated a return by Jock to finish this arc off. There are worse fates for an issue of comics to have and the story’s high-action approach is very well-suited for his sensibilities. It’s set in Washington D.C. as Batman has tracked the mastermind of this whole affair, and kidnapper of his partner Duke Thomas, to our nation’s capitol. Who could’ve orchestrated a plot that would’ve seen potentially billions dead and wildlife decimated due to a bacterial outbreak? Well, if you think about the members of Batman’s rogues gallery who have an interest in seeing that many dead…
I tend to expect bigger stories from the character involved here, but this one ultimately works well enough. The use of actual science to support one of his stories is novel, and I appreciated how Batman ultimately used the “world tour” he was sent on against his antagonist here. That said, Snyder does push his luck a bit too far in the climax as there’s a moment that breaks suspension of disbelief and you realize that what’s happening has to be some kind of fake-out. Which it is. The story still manages enough energy to carry it on to the end, so it’s not a complete loss.
We’re not quite done yet, however. “The Cursed Wheel,” the story of how Duke Thomas will transition from being Batman’s apprentice to his own hero, continues at the end of the volume where the backup strips from each individual issue are collected. Francesco Francavilla provides the art here and the results are as spooky and stylish as you’d expect. The story ostensibly revolves around Batman and Duke’s efforts to stop the latest explosive human crossword set up by the Riddler to mark the anniversary of Zero Year. While a compelling plot hook in itself, the real meat of the story has Duke investigating his friend-turned-supervillain Darryl Rodriguez and how his flesh-shaping ability ties into this plot.
The look Francavilla gives Darryl and the character’s detached nature make him a suitably frightening threat. I don’t think he’s at the level of a true nemesis for Duke, but he’s a solid villain in his own right. As for the story itself, it goes through the familiar beats of having its main character fail, struggle to figure out what he did wrong, figure it out, and then redeem himself only to flub the last part in a frustrating cliffhanger finale. “The Cursed Wheel” still does a decent enough job of building up Duke into a proper hero, but the finale makes me wonder where the hell Snyder is going with the character and not in a good way.
Even though the volume ends on that note, there’s still enough quality work in “Ends of the Earth” to make it an easy recommendation to “Batman” fans. As with the first volume it takes the character out of Gotham to challenge him in some new and interesting ways. Not all of the art works or the storytelling decisions succeed, but the end result is very much worthwhile.