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Batman: Odyssey #1

Posted: Monday, July 12, 2010
By: Dave Wallace

Neal Adams
Neal Adams, Michael Golden, Continuity Studios (c)
DC Comics
Batman Odyssey is what I'd call an interesting mess. It's interesting because:
  • It marks the return of Neal Adams to a character that he illustrated decades ago in a fan-favourite run of comics,

  • It tells a story in which we get a glimpse of the grittier, more violent character that Batman was in his earliest published adventures,

  • It sets in motion several plot strands that currently seem unconnected but will (presumably) come together in an unexpected way, and

  • It's new Neal Adams artwork, which will always find an audience among his large and devoted fan base.
However, it's a mess because it seems to demonstrate a basic misunderstanding of how many of the different narrative devices employed by comics interact, the characterisation of its lead is erratic and inconsistent, and it's so clumsily and clunkily overwritten.

Admittedly, it's a nice-looking book. I've never been a particular follower of Adams's art, but I can appreciate why his fans like his work so much. There's an obvious mastery of basic elements of comic book drawing--like anatomy, architecture, perspective, and texture--and there's a high level of detail without things become so photorealistic that they feel static. If I have one criticism of the book on a visual level, it's that Adams's work could have perhaps benefited from a separate inker, as the two page spread that's inked by Michael Golden (as opposed to Adams himself) is noticeably slicker and better defined than the rest of the book.

Adams also shows a solid command of visual storytelling--conveying much of the book's plot and action through his artwork alone. However, this visual mastery only makes it even more frustrating that the book is so difficult and exasperating to read due to the weaknesses in the execution of his dialogue, captions, and thought balloons.

It's not just that Adams's dialogue and narrative captions are rather clichéd (although they are), overly wordy (although they are), and lack any real flair or individuality (although they do). A bigger problem is the way the dialogue, captions, and thought balloons are deployed together--and the way they interact with Adams's images.

Panels are often cluttered with a combination of narrative captions, thought bubbles, and speech balloons that seem to be concentrating on completely separate subjects. Additionally, what the narrative elements state is frequently redundant. At one point, a thought bubble is followed by a narrative caption that says "I thought," as though Adams isn't quite confident that we'll understand what a thought bubble is.

In another panel, Batman's thought bubble simply describes exactly what we can already see is in front of him (thanks to the strong artwork): "A gasoline truck . . . in a train car."

I'm not unhappy to see the unfashionable device of thought balloons employed in a contemporary comic book (in fact, I think it's an underused technique these days), but there has to be a reason for these specific thoughts to be being conveyed; otherwise, we might as well have Bruce Wayne's stream of consciousness narrative running throughout the book.

Perhaps Adams isn't confident enough that his ideas are coming across from the existing text or from his illustrations. However, if that's the case, his editor should have reassured him and prevented him from ruining what might have been otherwise serviceable panels.

What's more, Adams frequently seems a little confused about exactly what he's aiming to achieve with a given sequence. The book opens with a neat transition that actually uses its cover as the first panel of the story, before giving way to a lengthy fourth-wall-breaking moment in which Bruce Wayne seems to be addressing the reader directly to tell us about a past adventure, which we then see in the form of a flashback.

However, after we arrive back in the present day, we find that he's actually relating this story to Dick Grayson (whom he had mentioned in the third person during the opening monologue so we know he wasn't talking to him at that point), though subsequent captions that narrate the flashback still seem to be addressing the reader.

There are also examples of simple mismatches between writing and artwork. The first page sees Bruce apparently indicating the presence of a scar on his arm, but it's one that isn't visible in Adams's illustration.

Another panel, showing Batman climbing on to the top of a train car with a gun drawn, features a flat contradiction between narration and thought bubbles. The narrative caption tells us that Batman is imagining that he's moving like a bat, whilst the thought bubble tells us that he's actually thinking about what a stupid idea it was to draw the gun before he's climbed all the way to the top. Perhaps the contradiction is present because Adams only realised how illogical the action seemed after he'd drawn it, and then didn't revise the narrative.

On their own, each of these problems would be fairly minor, but there are so many of these storytelling errors that they severely harm the book to the point where some scenes are virtually incomprehensible if you read the captions and dialogue in the way that they're presented. Some of the problem is also due to the poor placement of the word balloons and thought bubbles, which encourages us to read them in the wrong order on more than one occasion.

I know Batman is traditionally well-suited to detective stories, but I think it's pushing things to force the reader to become a detective just to be able to work out what's going on in the story.

Elsewhere, characterization is inconsistent and jarring, as Adams presents us with a Batman who swings between being a swashbuckling, cheery superhero and a sharply admonishing father figure to Robin in a manner that's not dissimilar to Frank Miller's warped take in All-Star Batman and Robin (just without pushing things to the extremes that make that book so bizarrely entertaining).

Moreover, there are odd unexplained occurrences--such as Man-Bat and another similar creature happily wandering in and out of the Batcave unchallenged, both apparently aware of Batman's secret identity. Perhaps there's some in-continuity reason why these inexplicable occurences might be happening, but as somebody who doesn't have an encyclopaedic knowledge of old Batman stories, I can't work it out.

To top it all, the book ends halfway through a scene that seemed to be just beginning to go somewhere interesting--cutting off a promising action sequence mid-flow rather than leaving us hanging at a tense moment that might encourage us to come back for more next issue. Unfortunately, unless it's a very quiet week when Batman: Odyssey #2 appears, I can't see myself picking it up.



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