Tom King is set to give up the cowl and cease writing Batman by #85. And if Brian Michael Bendis picked up where King left off…I’d be immensely glad after reading Batman: Universe.
Batman has teamed up with Green Arrow to stop the Riddler, who’s taken ahold of a mysterious McGuffin. However, that’s just a plot springboard for the Caped Crusader to visit vast and varied locations and people.
What a breath of fresh air to have a Batman who doesn’t wring his hands every other second and speak in overwritten monologues filled with ellipses. Bendis’s take is more lighthearted and less burdened, akin to Grant Morrison’s run. Batman here is like James Bond — he’s got everything figured out and never loses his slinky, debonair cool.
I don’t want to say this should be the only way Batman should be written. There are plenty of great Batman stories that have an uber-grim Caped Crusader. But it’s a relief to have different takes, especially after years of esoterica with Tom King.
In regards to plot, Universe almost comes across as a more successful Batman: Odyssey, a truly nonsensical miniseries by Neal Adams that threw Batman into one campy situation after another across the DC world. Likewise, Universe goes from Europe to Gorilla City, and it makes sense because Batman is chasing down the McGuffin like a detective. But when I phrase it like that, it sounds a lot like Zootopia. Now there’s a crossover the Deviantart crowd would make creepy…
Nick Derington’s art could be described as cartoony or minimalist. However, his art has wonderful textures that elevate every panel. Batman’s cape moves and flows closer to a real piece of fabric than a sharp cutout under most artists’ pens. Facial hair looks bristly and believable. Heck, even Batman’s dinosaur in his Batcave has scales that you could imagine reaching out and touching.
On top of that, his compositions and sleek character work is fantastic. Batman isn’t a muscle-bound brawler; instead here he’s a slim and trim detective swinging across buildings. This is a Batman I can enjoy reading about. Again, I’m not advocating that every take on Batman should be comforting and not gritty, but this interpretation is darn enjoyable, which is what Bendis intends.
Unfortunately, there is one panel that rubs me the wrong way. Batman and Green Arrow look out across Amsterdam as the sun sets and say how beautiful it is…despite Derington representing the city with blotchy shadows and detail absent boxes.
Bendis’s dialogue is a treat. While Event Leviathan is burdened with exposition by characters that refuse to move, Batman: Universe is unstoppable. If there’s talking, it’s during a chase or in the heat of the moment. Exposition comes across as necessary and unburdening. The banter is exquisite, especially as Green Arrow and Batman trade barbs on how goofy Gotham’s rogues gallery is.
Speaking of which—this comic has some meta touches, like, as mentioned above, Green Arrow making jokes like: “[this]…is why everybody hates your rogues gallery.” To which Batman replies, “They can be an acquired taste.” So why am I OK with that, yet criticize Scott Snyder and Tom King for all their meta jokes?
Well, some of that has to do with tone. Snyder and King’s work, especially with Batman, strains to be taken seriously. Snyder piles on wordy exposition about lore and factoids cut and pasted from Wikipedia. King stretches pacing out to unbearable lengths and repeats motifs until he’s blue in the face. So it’s hard to take them seriously when they force comedy via inside jokes.
Yet, Batman: Universe and Bendis himself are more lighthearted and whimsical, so when we get self-aware jokes, we roll with them. Also, Bendis actually makes genuine observations in his jokes while Snyder and King just keep referencing the “I’m Batman” meme.