Week 11: Batman #5 vs Chew #23

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Batman #5

Batman #5

Eric’s Book

Eric:  I have to say that this week there was no shortage of great, great stories.  I almost chose Daredevil #8 for my entry this week because I thought Waid did such a great job on the writing.  There were neat twists, great dialogs, and an overall fun plot that ties into the story Dan selected in Week 5.

Dan: Plus it would have been a neat twist to see a book that I read and champion being selected by you instead.

Eric:  Alas, I went with Batman #5.  I think Snyder really brought his “mess with the reader” A-Game to this issue.

Dan: While it’s true that I generally love seeing the little guy get a chance in these things, I can’t really argue with you there. Scott Snyder raised the bar on a book and character that I generally find yawn-inducing.

Eric:  That he has!  One day when you’re over the house I’ll get you to read his run on Detective Comics.  So, since I last chose Batman for a POW!, Batman described to Alfred why he was so certain that the Court of Owls didn’t exist.  When his parents died he couldn’t accept that it was random happenstance.  For one thing, why would the killers leave him alive?  So he looked into it and came up empty-handed.  I can’t remember exactly, but I think it’s also implied that he’s looked into it here and there in the meanwhile.  After all, how awesome could kid-Bruce’s detective work be?

Dan: If he was able to match Encyclopedia Brown, I’d be surprised.

Eric:  Joking aside, while that issue does portray him as being very thorough and perhaps even getting close to discovering them, I think it would lose plausibility if Batman left it at that rather than check up on it again.  Somewhere in that issue he also gets a clue that sends him back to the sewers where his ancestor died.  There he gets knocked into a false wall and winds up in a maze.

When this issue picks up, we learn he’s been missing for eight days.  And that was the first clue that something interesting was up Snyder’s sleeve.  Batman’s never been stumped by a labyrinth before – whether it was Joker or The Riddler who set it up – he always found a way out.

Dan: My thoughts exactly. Learning that he’s in so much trouble amped up the tension immediately.

Eric:  So we come to learn this because Gordon’s had the Bat-Signal on for the entire time Batman’s been missing.  Gordon mentions it being on partly to deter the criminals.  This is actually more serious than a heroic-sounding throwaway line.  I recently read through Batman RIP and when Batman was dead (technically, thought to be dead) – Gotham essentially turned into Arkham City – without being roped off from the “good people”.

Dan: It also sets up a lot of the book’s symbolism. I mean, some of it is stock Batman stuff, but the book trades very heavily on dark and light. Batman’s an interesting character since he is light in the darkness, but he requires darkness to operate. The Bat-Signal, as we will learn at the end of the book, is a symbolic representation of Batman’s life force. Even Gordon’s detective buddy comments on how operating it non-stop for eight days will cause it to die soon.

Eric:  As always, a great catch.  You caught some symbolism for me in issue #3 and you do it again here.  I hadn’t quite picked up on that.

Dan: The central conflict between the Owl people (I have no idea what their real name is) and Batman is also a neat contrast. Both are predominantly nocturnal predators, both are known for their ability to see in/navigate the darkness, and both think that they run/know everything there is in Gotham.

Eric:  Yeah, the Court of Owls. Although, remember that it’s not simply that equal (that they’re both nocturnal) – in issue #3 Alfred mentions that owls eat bats.

Dan: That’s absolutely apparent from the get-go. Despite his usual ability to stay completely in control, Batman is being toyed with and hunted.

Batman #5 - Eyes

Batman #5 - Eyes

Eric:  Getting back to the first page that shows Batman, and throughout this issue, Greg Capullo really brings his all to the panel work.  It’s not as innovative as what they’re going over in Batwoman, but it really serves to provide a better sense of timing than the usual panel layout.

Dan: Everything Snyder and Capullo team up to do is with the explicit goal of fostering discomfort in the reader. Batman’s cowl is torn up, his eye is bloodshot and asymmetrical, and his dialogue is lettered bizarrely and desperately. Bruce is not in control.

Eric:  Yeah, one thing I didn’t notice about the lettering until you pointed it out (and credit for that goes to the veteran Richard Starkings), is that Batman’s internal monologue has lower-case letters.  That’s “not done” in comics.  And I think that’s part of a scheme to unconsciously unsettle you.

Dan: A lot of things in this book are “not done” in comics. It builds gradually, but it’s pretty neat, so keep on with the synopsis so we can get to it.

Eric:  So…I’m not sure if you can recollect this after a few hours, but when it begins and Batman is in the dark – at first blush it almost seems like his sanity is still OK.  Granted, part of that has to do with the fact that you don’t know he’s being driven insane just yet, but even on my second read, I read him as still being OK up to this point.  It’s on my third read that I feel he’s probably already starting to have issues.

Dan: Without having the book in front of me I couldn’t comment definitively, but I got a sense of desperation (set up by Gordon and the Bat Family) that I was possibly applying too early, but it felt like a man trying to hold on.

Eric:  It’s definitely unnerving throughout the book that, as you mentioned, he has one eye showing instead of the usual whites that are canonically lenses built into his cowl.  And on the page where he comes across the lit room with the Owl and the fountain, it really drives things home.  Of course, he’s still a bit sane here – knows he shouldn’t drink water provided by his enemy.

Batman #5 - Drinking when he probably shouldn't

Batman #5 - Drinking when he probably shouldn't

Dan: The notable things happening on this early sequence includes the repetition of “Find the dark” (not sure if that’s exactly right), the way that the Owls continually take control (by flushing rooms with light), and, my favorite little touch, the deranged reflection of Batman’s appearance after he takes a swig of the owl water.

Eric:  Yeah, that image got me too.  It’d normally be innocuous, but in this situation it seems dangerous.  When we get to the next room, there’s so much brilliant stuff going on here.  First of all, we find out that it’s not just that he’s lost in the maze and keeps ending up at the Fountain – he’s so lost he keeps coming across a bunch of rooms.  I also love the flash bulb on the large frame camera.

Dan: It’s one of their more powerful weapons against Bruce. Disorientation. Light to dark, dark to light, rooms repeating and flushing out his precious darkness.

Eric:  Yes, in a regular room look at how much flash hurts.  Imagine when you’re in complete darkness on purpose.

Dan: The book starts to get a little weird around here.

Eric:  Well, another thing that’s hard to point out to you since you’re not here with me and the book is that another thing I didn’t notice (and you most likely wouldn’t or couldn’t notice) on a first read is that the images he looks at are repeating images of the same person for about six frames or so.  At first I thought it was a bunch of old men, but now I see it’s the same guy getting more and more dazed.

Dan: I assumed it was his ancestor Wayne when I first read it.

Batman #5 - Photos

Batman #5 - Photos

Eric:  Yeah, across the second row, hard to notice without looking for it, is a woman who’s getting older and older as she’s going crazy.  And on the bottom-right panel of this page, the Owl’s reflection in one of the images.  He’s following Bruce around and Batman, who is ALMOST NEVER caught by surprise doesn’t even realize it.

Dan: Guess what, you guys, Batman is not in control.

Eric:  The following page, as he destroys the camera is his first utterance of “I’m not listening!” since he’d proclaimed they were telling him a story.  And then the Court of Owls turns off the light and Batman leaves.

Dan: The sequence of events – darkness, room flushed with light, darkness – is what makes the rest of this book so brilliant. Think about the fact that Batman has been doing this for eight straight days and that his body has not had any real connection to the way time is passing. There’s a reason why this book starts to feel like you’re reading the same thing over and over again and things stop making complete sense.

Eric:  Yeah, it’s like being in solitary confinement, except you might be attacked at any moment.  So then Batman either hallucinates a group of Court of Owl members or they use a hologram.  As it becomes apparent as we progress through the book, you can’t even know.  They take an approach that’s sometimes been used in horror video games where the medium itself becomes an unreliable narrator.

Dan: You should play Eternal Darnkess for Gamecube. It’s not the first game to mess with your mind about what is actually happening, but it’s among the best.

Eric: This time we explicitly see that he’s being followed by the Owl Assassin which contrasts with Batman’s “sooner or later I will find you.”  Yo, he’s right behind you, dude.

Dan: Do you think he’s Dan Dreiberg or Hollis Mason?

Batman #5 - another identical chamber in the botom right

Batman #5 - another identical chamber in the botom right

Eric:  Either would be terrifying.  He then enters a new room.  It’s a replica of Gotham City.  He has some interesting inner monologue but there are two key points in this vertical two-page spread: 1) The names Cobblepot (Penguin’s family) and Gordon are on there and 2) if you look very carefully between panels, you can see a very important feature of the maze.  This room connects to another of the exact same room.  This revelation changed the entire issue for me.  Because Batman isn’t wandering some maze lost because he’s sensory/food/sleep deprived.  This is a maze meant to drive people mad because the same room exists throughout the maze!

Dan: I didn’t notice that this precise room repeated, but I saw that was true later on with another, remixed camera room. It’s worth pointing out, by the way, that the way this book shifts from normal layouts to centerfolds is vitally important. As a reader I found myself annoyed and frustrated with having to turn the book end-to-end to read one layout, I turned the book back to its normal orientation afterwards, and was confronted with another centerfold. I was confused and frustrated yet again. This was absolutely done on purpose and this is the kind of elevation I’ve praised Swamp Thing or Batwoman for. When you have a purely visual medium, you should be utilizing it to its artistic boundaries. It’s like Hideo Kojima forcing you to plug your controller into second player to prevent Psycho Mantis from psychically reading Snake’s movements.

Eric:  Yeah, it’s three centerfolds in a row.  And it’s almost a celebration of the comic medium because people have mentioned how annoying this is to read on an iPad.

Dan: I don’t think that was Snyder’s intention (annoying iPad users), but this is the kind of thing that comic book writers need to do if they want to keep the paper medium alive. It contrasts nicely with a blog post by Terry Moore where he talks about the metatextual things that comic writers will have to do if they want the medium to succeed on tablets or other digital devices. Utilize your canvas!

Eric:  Yeah, I’ve said it before – certain things work best in certain mediums.  Action, for example works wonderfully for comic adaptations to cartoons.  I find it a lot easier to follow than action in comics.  Conversely, something like this issue would have to be retooled for a cartoon.  And, the same goes for books.  There’s an entire Asimov book whose plot centers on you not knowing that two people mentioned are the same person, despite that person interacting with all the characters.  It would be much harder to replicate that in a video medium without drawing attention to the fact that the person was special.

Dan: Would it? Have you ever read Fight Club? It trades on the same twist as the movie and both handle it brilliantly, but differently

Eric:  Yeah, that’s my larger point – that you can’t adapt things perfectly because certain things are medium dependent.  At any rate, Batman ends up in a room with coffins.  I couldn’t quite get the relevance of the empty coffin other than that it was perhaps supposed to be his?

Dan: I think Bruce mentions that the pictures of the other children in the room are of people who grew up to oppose the Owls. That would pretty much indicate that the empty coffin was for Batman.

Eric:  He’s actually unsure (and I don’t fault you for not having the book in front of you) and mentions they might be children who were trained to be Owls.  He then ends up in a strange room with the front of a boat where the masthead is an owl woman.  And he spends the entire page repeating “I’m not listening!”

Dan: I like how he’s all, “I hate wooden owl reproductions!” and decapitates the masthead.

Eric:  Next page – POP!  He’s photographed again!  And this time there’s a photo of him on the wall.  So they’re saying he’s also going to be driven crazy like the others on the wall.

Dan: They’re blatantly reminding him that he’s far from having the upper hand and that he’s playing into their schemes.

Eric:  And at this point he truly starts to crack.  And I think Capullo makes that metaphor ever so clear as Batman literally cracks a bunch of what I can only assume to be owl eggs as he runs towards an image of his parents.

Dan: But, oh no, his parents are actually owls! Or something like that. There are owls inside their mouths that crawl out. It’s freaky.

Eric:  Not only that, but this page is rotated 180 degrees.

Dan: Ah, that’s right. We’re coming full circle (halfway there!) on the insane, frustrating, and disorienting feeling behind reading this book. This was where I was convinced this book was brilliant because it made the centerfolds make even more sense.

Eric:  Yeah, because even if for just a second, I was lost on which way to turn the pages when I was done reading.  They’d broken my head like Batman’s even if just for a second.  This page also left me very confused on just what was real and what wasn’t.  Because Bruce believes he’s hugging his parents and he also appears to actually get scratched by the owls.  But the next page shows why you can’t trust the implicit narrator that is the book.  (After all, we’re already smart enough not to trust explicit narrators as we’re reminded in the movie adaptation of Kick Ass)

Dan: I suppose it’s a question of perspective. Are we meant to read the middle section of this book as if it is perceived through Batman’s eyes? He is narrating in the first person in the text boxes. His crumbling sanity and the book’s odd structure suggest that, yeah, it’s pretty unreliable.

Eric:  An in the next page he’s back at the Fountain from the beginning – or, as I mentioned before, one of many structured to look the same.  But this time he has talons for feet and wings for hands.  And he finally thinks he’s won!  He finds a loose tile and jumps through.  POP!  He’s back in the photo room.  This time there are at least three photos of him.

Dan: It’s masterful. So confusing and disorienting and rapidly paced. The panel sizes change from big to small and really emphasize the craziness inherent to this entire situation.

Batman #5 - Embrace Kill

Batman #5 - Embrace Kill

Eric:  Then, in the background, the Owl Assassin as Batman screams “I”M NOT LISTENING TO YOU!”  Next page….Batman stabbed in the gut from behind.  And, an oddly intimate almost-embrace from his assassin that contrasts wildly with the stabbing.

Dan: I’d read that book over Catwoman #1 any day…Seriously though, guess what? The Bat-Signal dies right about now too.

Eric:  Yup!  And, more than any other of the horrible cliffhangers we’ve had in the other Batman books, this one has me both worried for Batman and wondering how he recovers.  Snyder’s not one for cheapness – so how does he keep this book from falling flat?

Dan: Batman dies. We get new books written, plotted, and drawn by Rob Liefeld.

Eric:  He handled his previous cliffhanger very well.  At the end of issue three Batman had set off a tripwire blowing up the building he was in.  Snyder has him navigate the building as it destructs all around him.  It was believable.  Anyway, to end the issue’s discussion, Damian comes in all impetuous but ends up actually being a kid – great writing.  Also, it’s like Snyder read my review of the last issue on CV because I complained about the lack of other Bat Family members in this Bat Book.  Here they are both at the beginning and end of this issue.

Dan: I’m sure he tossed them in for you to finish off this great issue.

Eric:  Wow, that went longer than I thought it would given that the whole thing is easily described in one sentence – Batman goes mad in a labyrinth.  Let’s get on to your selection.

Chew #23

Chew #23

Dan’s Book

Eric:  I’ve read a lot of your Chew collection, but what about a quick synopsis for our readers.

Dan: I’m gonna keep it pretty quick because, well, because I want to. Chew takes place in an alternate universe where the Avian Flu turned into a full blown pandemic and killed millions. The government’s response was to outlaw chicken and give supreme law enforcing powers to the FDA. Our main character, Tony Chu, is a cibopath, a made up term for someone who knows everything about the life of food he eats, gets recruited by the FDA because of his powers and is investigating the mystery of the Avian Flu conspiracy. In recent issues he and his partner were fired from the FDA. He went on to work as a meter maid while his old partner, we find out in this issue, landed with the USDA. Oh, and last issue (or maybe the one before) had Tony and his daughter get kidnapped separately by two different groups. We all caught up?

Eric:  I want to tell the readers that they really, really should pick up the trades because this series is great.  It’s very quirky in its plotlines.  Also, unlike the mainstream comics – this one has a firm ending so you’re not going to be collecting it forever.

Dan: Like Y: The Last Man, Chew has been plotted to be 60 issues. It’s a really funny, clever book and you should be reading it.

Chew #23 - At least two easter eggs in this image

Chew #23 - At least two easter eggs in this image

Eric:  Rob Guillory, the artist has a very interesting art style.  It took me a while to get used to it, but it really grew on me.  I’m not sure how best to describe it – the oxymoron realistic cartoony comes to mind.  Ren and Stimpy or some of the other cartoons nowadays that have a strange mix of hyperrealism and cartoony.  Actually, I don’t know why I’m laboring to describe it, you’ll see it in the images I choose for this article.  As I mentioned last week, and possibly before that, I LOVE artists who pay attention to detail and put lots of little easter eggs for you to get on your second or third read.  The ones in Chew are so hilarious, that once I knew they were all over the place, I started trying to spot them on my first read.  Still, there are times where the plot is so good, you don’t want to pause to look for easter eggs.

Let me give you a quick example of a few of them on page one, someone’s playing Tetris in the background, page two has a funny memo, page four has a message from his colleagues that they hate him, there are a bunch more, then a page with a closeup of money has “Bling!” written on it.  Basically you should always be looking in the background.  Apparently at the USDA everyone works with an animal and in the background of one panel someone has a green duck billed platypus with a fedora that looks like some kid’s cartoon I’ve seen my young siblings watching.

A big theme of Chew is crappy work situations and we find that in full effect when we start reading this issue.

Dan: Colby has landed at the USDA, which, if you’ve read Chew before, you may remember is a female-only organization of super spies in the vein of Charlie’s Angels…but with animal partners. Right from the start of the book the visual gag of Colby wearing one of his colleague’s jumpsuits, complete with a zipped down, cleavage-baring zipper. It’s the start of what’s a very funny book and, possibly, a sly comment on the oversexualization of women in comics that is not often reflected back at men.

Eric:  It does indeed look ridiculous on him.  There must be something in the air in comics because a similar point was made in last week’s X-Factor.  One female character who, if I remember correctly, is quite religious and wears a costume like this.  And this pervert character told her “zip up!  Even I’m tired of looking at your rack!”

Dan: I also love the comedy behind the USDA’s irrational hatred of Colby. Maybe it’s because he’s a man, but maybe it’s just because.

Chew #23 - Unique Art Style and Large Breasts

Chew #23 - Unique Art Style and Large Breasts

Eric:  One extra hilarious point on that commentary about the sexualization of women being the reason behind Colby’s shirt – in Rob Guillory’s world – all the women are double Ds or larger, even his old, white-haired boss.

Anyway, Colby first tries to get a hold of Chu.  Then he complains to his boss about his lion partner.  That hilariously goes nowhere.  And we end up at a scene of Chu getting fed a decomposing foot.  Which then leads to one of my favorite parts of Chew – the intro panels.

Dan: This book is more like a serialized comedy like Arrested Development than a lot of its contemporaries. The intro panels, for example, are a recurring gag that Laymann and Guillory use on an almost per issue basis. Even the last page of this book is a callback to an old joke (used twice).

Eric:  It’s in the same vein as Scott Pilgrim where it had each person’s name and a brief description.  Also seen in movies like Dude, Where’s My Car.  What I like about its use in Chew is that Laymann is always using puns and other ways to be as non-helpful as possible in his introduction.  For example, see this panel where he introduces Dan Franks.

Chew #23 - Kidnapped for Sex

Chew #23 - Kidnapped for Sex

As we very quickly find out, he doesn’t want to have sex with Chu.  He wants Chu’s abilities to know the memories of whatever he eats (except beets) to find out about the sex lives of dead baseball players..

Dan: Three issues in and we finally understand why this arc is called Major League Chew (a play on the famous gum brand, Big League Chew).

Eric:  And, as may have been explained in previous issues, but is reiterated here on the back of the front cover, as well as within this section of the issue, he’s especially tough on Chu because his girlfriend left him for Chu.

Dan: I’m sure you don’t remember this at all, but that dude has always been around hating on Chu or spying on Chu in the backgrounds of scenes that take place at the newspaper office where Amelia works.

Eric:  I remember that, but I didn’t remember it was him.   After this scene we have Colby go on a USDA case.  And here’s an example of Laymann’s quirky story.  Some guys were creating counterfeit bills but didn’t want to get caught, so they made the bills out of yams so they’d decompose after being passed around a bit.  This is the kind of world we’re dealing with in Chew.

Dan: It always revolves around food. I love it.

Eric:  The only semi-lame joke in this book is that the lion gets all the credit.  That’s cliche from way back to the Bugs Bunny cartoons if not earlier.

Dan: How can you hate that when it results in Buttercup getting a hero toss? That panel was absolutely hilarious.

Eric:  I don’t hate it, but in a book full of so many great jokes and lame puns (which are like great jokes to me), it just stands out.

Dan: As for the events that happen to Tony, I like that Dan’s obsession with secrets, namely the secret lives of baseball players, is almost his undoing. Trying to discover these secrets led to Tony learning a few secrets of his own about how to escape. Just too bad that he can’t manage to get out and suffers another brutal beating.

Eric:  In that scene, it’s funny that all the baseball players have food first names: Benedict, Gravy, Hamish.  Also, when he gets upstairs, his captors are watching A League of Their Own.  And the true ending of Colby sleeping with his boss (as he used to do in the FDA) to try and curry favor.

Dan: It’s Colby’s go-to move. Home run!

Battle!

Eric:  Alright, we’ve done it before, but boy did we pick some VERY different books this week.  Going to be tough to compare them.

Dan: Chew is a book that constantly holds an unparalleled level of quality both in cleverness and humor, but, in terms of the kind of artistic trickery that I love seeing expressed in the medium, it’s almost no contest this week. Batman is as well-made as anything I’ve ever loved in the medium.

Eric:  I’m impressed that I could win so easily this week.  Especially when last time Batman lost to Wonder Woman.  But I would definitely accept the easy victory while stating that Chew is consistently awesome and probably could have won last week and maybe even the week before.  It’s just the luck of the draw that Snyder was so on fire with this issue that he even pulled you in – you who are generally against mainstream comics, moreso against super heroes, and even moreso against DC Comics.  I think, just as the Giant Bomb guys have to disclaim on their game of the year coverage – Chew losing doesn’t mean it’s a bad book, it just had a bad week in which to come out.  If I’d gone with Daredevil, I definitely would have given the win to Chew.

Dan: Haha, Chew kind of is the Saints Row: The Third of comics. The things it’s doing comedically are close to or on par with the things that Batman is doing narratively and the book is outstanding, but, like I said before, it’s just not as impressive as Batman was this week.

Eric:  Excellent!  I look forward to next week’s POW! and seeing whether you go with one of your usual books or do as you did with Rachel Rising and select one of your out-of-the-blue comics.

Dan: We’ll see, next time on Comic POW!

Eric:  Same POW!-Time! Same POW!-URL!

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