It’s been quite a while since I haven’t liked a collection on “the shelf”. I may like them in varying degrees, but for the most part everything I’ve read recently has been enjoyable.
Perhaps my expectations are just too high based on the recent comics I’ve been reading. Perhaps I enjoy the full-world comics, tying everything together, to enjoy one-off stories with no clear place in the continuity.
Whatever it is, I found this particular trade lacking. It collects four “Annuals”, each pertaining to one of four Batman villains: Poison Ivy, The Riddler, Scarecrow, and Man-Bat. I understand the point of these issues: they serve to fill in the gaps and introduce each of these characters into the new continuity. As stories themselves though, I just wasn’t drawn in. Each issue felt incomplete, and the characters didn’t feel fully developed, for the following reasons:
- Poison Ivy
This was the first time I came across Poison Ivy on “the shelf”, and I had high hopes for the character. I’ve read about her in one or two contemporary issues and I liked how she was portrayed. She’s always seemed strong, driven, and just twisted enough to make for a great villain.
Her story here felt pedestrian at best, and didn’t make enough use of her trademark “plant” abilities. There were a few minor references to them, and one scene in which the plants play an ancillary role, but it almost felt as though the story could have occurred with another villain in her place with hardly any changes.
Also, as an introduction to the character, I found this severely lackluster. Her entire “backstory” is shown in two panels, with virtually no detail (I will concede, the brief reference to her gaining her powers after Swamp Thing’s Dr. Woodrue experiments on her had me geeking out quite a bit). This felt more akin to early Batman comics in which the backstory is treated as unimportant. I had hoped we would learn more about her character and origin before diving into her criminal activity.
I could have forgiven the lack of backstory if her character was more developed. Sometimes a story works better if the backstory is revealed slowly, after we’ve seen the character a number of times. I don’t think that’s the case here. Her character felt so one-dimensional that I almost felt bored reading her tale.
This panel is essentially all Poison Ivy is: a man-hating “typical” woman. There’s no strength, no passion behind her actions: she wants pretty jewels and hates all men for apparently no reason. These stereotypical tropes hardly make for a compelling villain, and certainly don’t do justice to someone as intriguing as Ivy.
2) The Riddler
If Poison Ivy was one-sided, Riddler is hardly any better. Here we’re given a very detailed backstory with no contemporary action, seeing his origin as he narrates it from an undisclosed location.
I can see where the writers were trying to go with his backstory: they attempted to show how he was essentially bullied into his current role, how unfair treatment and an already-unhinged personality could lead to this life of crime. I suppose in a way they succeeded.
The effect left something to be desired though. I found Riddler to be a whiny, self-centered character. Now I understand this could very well be the writer’s intent, but it was to such a degree that I didn’t want to keep reading about him. He was hardly interesting and really didn’t seem like much of a challenge for Batman.
See what I mean? Whiny little brat.
I’ll admit maybe I’m a bit biased because my biggest exposure to Riddler came from the Jim Carrey portrayal. There just seemed to be a bit more development to that version. I’m hoping as he makes future appearances in the comics that he’ll be less frustrating and more engaging.
Scarecrow falls into much the same boat as Riddler when it comes to characterization. We learn a lot of his backstory, but it just feels overdone. How many times can the “he was picked on as a kid so that’s why he became a villain’ shtick be used? I’m not saying it’s not realistic, but for such unique characters it just starts to feel repetitive.
Scarecrow’s story shares many similarities with Riddler’s, with the exception that we see him committing crimes in between flashbacks to his earlier years, while Batman’s hot on his trail.
The story itself was more engaging that the others in this trade, I’ll admit that. There was potential here for a really good Scarecrow issue, but it just fell flat. Jonathan Crane’s overt analyses throughout the entire trade felt less like psychological diagnosis and more like the stilted dialogue used in earlier issues to help propel the story.
I wanted to like the Scarecrow story, I really did. It just wasn’t developed enough to keep me interested.
By this point in the trade I had little hope for the final issue, but I held out, figuring Man-Bat’s story must at least be halfway decent. I loved the original Man-Bat issues and found his character to be extremely complex, so I figured these couldn’t be too bad.
I wish I could say I was right.
This particular Man-Bat story had a number of inherent problems. First, Kirk Langstrom, originally a decent, hardworking individual is portrayed here as a preoccupied, neglectful person, often snapping at his fiance and treating her poorly. I didn’t sympathize with his character the way I did in the original story.
Secondly, his transformation was swift and ended up feeling less organic to the story, with Langstrom injecting himself with the Man-Bat serum in a fit of desperation, rather than as a calculated test.
The actual artwork for Man-Bat was well done, but I still vastly prefer Neal Adams’s rendering of the character. There was just more emotion in his face which made him seem human even as his transformation progresses.
Lastly, the Man-Bat’s characterization felt much less compelling. Langstrom loses all thinking capacity as the transformation progresses, and culminates in a battle between him and Batman that felt like any other fight for the caped crusader. Whereas earlier stories slowly progress Kirk’s spiral into a life of crime, showing his uncertainty in his actions, this is more of a cut and dry case. By the end of the comic Man-Bat is cured, with Langstrom having no recollection of what he did in his bat form. This is a far cry from the multi-issue arc we saw previously, in which the character is fleshed out and allowed time to develop before he is ultimately cured.
Overall I just wasn’t impressed with this particular collection. Again, I concede that this may just be due to the fact that I’ve recently been reading such richly detailed stories that all tie into one another. These stories lack that cohesiveness that I’ve come to enjoy and expect from such comics. Perhaps as I continue reading these characters will be further developed, and I’ll come to appreciate these initial appearances. As it stands though, I’m glad to be moving on from this trade and look forward to more compelling stories to come.