Friday, June 05, 2009

Battle for the Cowl: Last Man Standing (DC)
Batman: Battle for the Cowl #3
When: July 2009 Why: Tony S. Daniel
How: Tony S. Daniel

The Story So Far...
The Death of the New Gods was far from an end to their epic existence. Darkseid and his siniter forces were reborn on Earth, creating a crisis that threatened to end humanity under the oppressive weight of the New God of evil and his proliferation of the Anti-Life Equation. With hero and villain under the control of his mathetmatic malfeasance and the direction of his harbinger, Libra; Darkseid appeared to have the day won, but ultimately it was a powerless human who brought an end to his reign. Batman, wielding the weapon that killed Darkseid's son, Orion, breaks his one rule, saving the Earth from it's darkest day and would-be final crisis. The cost of his success, however, is his apparent death as he falls before Darkseid's Omega Sanction, leaving a smoking husk to be retrieved and mourned by his fellows.

In Batman's city of Gotham, those who had become his family struggle with not only the loss of a loved one, but of the symbollic heroism that prevented the city of madmen from breaking. As the Dark Knight's absence from this plane of reality becomes increasingly evident, his enemies once again run rampant in the streets, spreading a plague of chaos threatening to destroy them.

Recognising the necessity for a Batman, two of the Dark Knight's former wards attempt to fill the void. In Jason Todd, there rises a lethal avenger of the night, whose methods are as deadly and unruly as those he confronts. In opposition is Tim Drake, the most recent Robin whose undying faith in Batman survives him to spur the young hero to fight to maintain the integrity of his memory. Despite his willingness, Tim Drake is not ready to be a Batman, and although Dick Grayson may have the strongest reservations of Batman's children, this very fact may be what makes him the most worthy of the role. Forced to realise this, Nightwing descends on Gotham to find his fallen brother, Jason Todd -- "Batman."

Tale of the Tape...
Strength: Nightwing 3 (Athlete)
Intelligence: Draw 4 (Tactician)
Speed: Draw 3 (Athlete)
Stamina: Draw 4 (Athlete)
Agility: Draw 4 (Gymnast)
Fighting: Draw 5 (Martial Arts)
Energy: Draw 2 (Projectiles)

- As a streetwise orphan, a young Jason Todd was hardened by the hardships of life in the gutter of Gotham City. Todd's first encounter with the Batman came when he tried to steal the tyres off a parked Batmobile. This would be the first of many as the wayward youngster proved his potential to become a potent force for justice or crime, leading Batman to train him as a replacement for Dick Grayson, who had abandoned the role of Robin, to become Nightwing.
Though he lacked Dick Grayson's natural athleticism, Jason Todd's years on the street had made him tough. With training from Batman he was able to attain a level of skill to rival his predecessor, but his impulsive and vengeful nature had the potential to undo him.

After a string of indescretions as Batman's "boy wonder," the second Robin fled his mentor upon learning the true identity of his birth mother. He was led into a lethal encounter with the Joker, who eventually beat him to death. Unbeknownst to a mourning Dark Knight, however, cosmic forces were conspiring to resurrect Jason Todd in the grave. Todd narrowly escaped his burial site, returning to the streets with little memory of his past, before being discovered and restored by Talia al Ghul and her father's Lazarus Pit.

Maddened by perceived abandonment, Todd teamed with another of Batman's enemies, Hush, to seek revenge. He eventually adopts the identity of Red Hood -- originally worn by his would-be killer, the Joker. As Red Hood he continues to seek revenge against Batman and his wards, whilst launching his own war against the criminals of Gotham City. Upon Batman's apparent death, Todd adopted the vacant mantle to maintain the Batman brand with new lethality.

- A talented circus performer, Dick Grayson was witness to his parent's murder when their Flying Graysons trapeze act was sabotaged, leaving his mother and father to plummet to their doom. The crime involves Batman in Grayson's life as the Dark Knight pursues the killers and takes an interest in the young orphan's life. As Bruce Wayne, Batman ultimately takes the young Grayson as his ward.

With youthful vigor, Grayson accepts training from the Dark Knight that adapts his own flair for acrobatics into a formiddable fighting base. Inspired by his circus performances, Grayson becomes the contrasting light to the shadow of the bat as Robin, the boy wonder. Together they share many adventures, but eventually the boy outgrows his childhood, and becomes a force unto himself as Nightwing.

With years of experience, Grayson is as skilled a fighter and detective as his mentor. Upon Batman's apparent death, it is ultimately he who inherits the legacy of his adoptive father, and the confronting task of filling the void of a force in Gotham City that maintains the balance between chaos and order.

Math: Draw Ranking: Nightwing (#29)

What Went Down...
Having brutalized his successor as the Boy Wonder, Jason Todd drags a mortally wounded Tim Drake deeper into the makeshift Batcave formed in the decrepit subway tunnels beneath Gotham City. Garbed in an older incarnation of Batman's uniform, Drake is unwittingly traced by Oracle under the command of Nightwing.

When Nightwing descends into the bowels of the city, he finds a burning symbol of the bat -- a message from the new "Batman" that reads, "Too late." It is the first of the psychological blows to be delivered by the mad former-Robin, who hides behind the visage of Drake's disembodied cape and cowl and a microphone. Clutching his father's cape, Nightwing listens to Todd's rantings, playing right into his hands as he remotely triggers an electrical charge.

The false-Batman emerges from the shadows with gun drawn, lauding over his predecessor with the demand that he become his sidekick. Inspired, Nightwing rises and strikes the fake Batman, demanding the whereabouts of a Tim Drake he knows his opponent could not have killed, despite his claims. Firing back in the war of psyches, Grayson offers a holographic recording made by the real Batman before his death, who speaks soulfully to his former ward of his psychological state. It inspires only rage in the unhinged impostor.

Rage is something Nightwing can work with, however, as the two former-Robins come to blows. It's Nightwing who kicks the impostor as they descend deeper into the cave, striking him, enduring shards that dig into his face, and returning it in kind with a headbutt that rebreaks Jason's nose. He has a clear advantage as he thrusts his knee into Todd's mid-section, knocks him toward the ground with a right hook, and props him back up with a kick to an already bleeding face!

Despite the regular practise of innoculation shared by Batman's allies, Todd unleashes a blast of the Scarecrow's fear gas in an attempt to disorientate his rival. The inhalent fails to trigger an uncontrolled response of fear, but is enough to rattle Nightwing's concentration. The false-Batman delivers a stiff kick to the mid-section, capitalizing on his own opportunities.

Todd continues his violent guided tour through his twisted parody of the Batcave, luring a still fighting Nightwing through draped curtains as he receives a jumping kick. Far from beaten, Todd produces a remote trigger that unleashes a massive explosion as he leaps clear of the blast on the end of a bat-line cable.

Grayson escapes on his own chord, taking chase as Todd leads him toward an exit into the in-use subway tunnels. There, the false knight drops onto the top of a speeding train, with Nightwing in close pursuit.

Refusing to abandon his goals to succeed Bruce Wayne as Batman, Jason Todd attacks his counterpart's unwillingness to assume the role, even as Black Mask begins a new reign of terror in Gotham City (having already destroyed Arkham Asylum and liberated it's inmates as part of a new criminal syndicate).

Ironically, Todd removes his cape and cowl, using the mass of material as a weapon against his charging adversary. Nightwing clutches the cape and drives his boot into Todd's face, only to be swatted away with a stiff punch, forcing him to renew his grip with the cape. The clotch becomes a literal transliteration of their symbollic struggle over the mantle of the Bat.

Grayson becomes swathed in the cape, blind and seemingly ripe for a finishing blow. The lethally minded Jason Todd takes his chance, but fails to anticipate Nightwing's leap as he searches through the cape for a knock-out blow...

... As the speeding train emerges from the subway to traverse the Gotham brookes by bridge, Nightwing parts the folds of the cape and delivers a flying kick that topples his foe! Though Jason Todd successfully snags the edge of the bridge, he chooses to chance the depths below, plummeting into the shadows toward death or glory. If he survives, he will no doubt return again, as the Red Hood, or some other perverted shadow of the Batman persona.

The Hammer...
The winner of this bout, via the ol' bridge plunge, your new Batman, Nightwing!

With Dick Grayson's first major outing as Batman in this week's Batman & Robin #1, it seemed like a fitting time to go back and look at the moment when he really took on the mantle. The first time around the issue missed out to Punisher #5 and Super Young Team in Final Crisis Aftermath: Dance -- a potentially infamous decision, if anyone actually cared about our week-to-week reviews a couple of months after-the-fact. In the end, I think we got the best deal for variety's sake, and have adhered to any subversive philosophies the Infinite Wars might unwittingly subscribe to.

It's interesting to speculate what the importance of this issue might be to the future of the comic. As much as DC have been completely forthcoming about the continued existence of Bruce Wayne and the gimmicked trappings his "death" in Final Crisis, they've managed to achieve a certain respectability that previous stunts haven't retained. In particular, I'm thinking of the last time Batman was significantly removed from the role, when Bane broke his back, and Jean Paul Valley (Azrael) became a new Batman tailored to the style of the nineties [Batman: Knightfall].

Ironically, one can't help but get an uncomfortably nostalgic recollection of those days from Tony Daniel's work. It's difficult to criticize the fundamentals of Battle for the Cowl, but there's an intangible lack of consideration from page-to-page that suggests a penciler filling the role of writer. That might even be the case, given the focus put on the relaunch titles, and Daniel's better known career as a penciler who was indeed among those "iconic" nineties artists.

A deliberately "dark" colour palette does little to compliment Daniel's art style, which is probably the most significant provocation of a pavlovian recollection of the nineties. Nothing is subtle, as characters bumble their way through a series of action-highlights and soap opera. I have to admit, this art direction was enough to steer me clear of Grant Morrison's Batman RIP arc, which seems to have universally stumbled during the transliteration of script to comic.

Last time Morrison was involved in spearheading a major new direction, it was with the (apparently) esoteric summer blockbuster, Final Crisis. The gap between his work and preceeding issues resulted in a well covered struggle to reconcile storylines into positions required for the start of his story, something Morrison himself expressed some disatisfaction with. So, one has to wonder if Battle for the Cowl wasn't a similar insertion of connective tissue between the bold new direction of the Bat-family comics, and the illdefined details of RIP and Crisis.

Battle was promoted with images that inferred a wider cast of characters vying for the role. Instead, much like the series itself, those promotional posters seem to have been suggesting red herrings and the future landscape. It's odd that DC would spend three-plus months playing coy about the identity of the new Batman and his impostor, as both are fairly obvious choices, and suitably so. The angsty transition does little to add depth to the change, serving mostly to preview the cityscape of crime, ie; Black Mask's alleged return from the dead, liberation of Arkham, takeover of crime (again), and building feud with Two-Face and Penguin. I suppose we also got one last hurrah of the massively expanded supporting cast, which included brief cameos by the likes of The Knight, Squire, Black Canary, and Wildcat, even if they amounted to little more than gratuitous links.

Not surprisingly, the debut of Dick Grayson as Batman (and other) will wait until Batman & Robin #1. As the apparent lynchpin of the new direction, it's probably for the best that it be there that readers meet the new conditions. Certainly, it appears Batman & Robin, and other series, will continue relatively divorced from Battle for the Cowl, even if additional context might be gleaned from upcoming appearances by Red Hood, Black Mask, or Two-Face [in Batman].

As a far more natural promotional transgression than Knightfall, Dick Grayson's ascendence to the role of Batman seems assured of providing something fresh and exciting about the Batman universe. Though I'm quite content to dwell in the soggy shadows of a brooding Bruce Wayne, I'm inspired by the technicolour exuberance Morrison and [Frank] Quitely's work is already promising.
They are also surrounded by a quirky array of new opportunities, including the presumably street-bound perspective of Batman: Streets of Gotham and the Animated Series inspired, Gotham City Sirens, starring Catwoman, Poison Ivy, and Harley Quinn, both series under the watchful eye of fan-favourite, Paul Dini.

[Dini] looks to be the writer for traditionalists craving the option of a throughline from the Bruce Wayne era, as maintained via the continuation of previous plotlines, most notably Dini's acclaimed revamp of Hush. The unique visions of each series are part of what makes the near bat-future look so promising, a steady contrast to the inevitable comparisons of Captain America's death/return.

With Flash: Rebirth providing a prelude to the event-season, which will no doubt be dominated by Blackest Night fever; you could say the Batman relaunch is DC's big second-stage of a three-pronged assault on the comics readership.

Despite my reservations about the specific quality of Battle for the Cowl, it is the literary harbinger of greater things to come, a footnote in DC's continuing ability to thoroughly impress. I think longtime Infinite Wars readers will recognise the fair shake we give Marvel, but I simply cannot fathom how anyone could disagree with the dominating volume of quality DC have been able to produce over the past five-or-so years. With so much on the way, I sincerely doubt we'll be able to keep up these weekly reviews, for the financial strain.

The Fight: 4.5 The Issue: 3.5

If you're reading the Batman: Reborn titles but find yourself curious about what set them up, by all means, be sure to check out Batman: Battle for the Cowl. The series is available collected, along with a companion edition featuring the one-shot tie-ins starring Commissioner Gordon, Man-Bat, Two-Face, Black Canary, and other characters affected by the change. All are available through Amazon, and by using purchase links provided on the site, you help sponsor future entries. The Gift Shop will also provide you with a catalogue of other collections featuring most issues reviewed in the Secret Archives, including Final Crisis -- the series featuring Batman's apparent death!

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