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Batman #21 is hampered by the fact that there are certain perfect and indelible works of art that should never be touched or embellished upon. The issue is the opening chapter of an arc entitled “The Button” and it seems to be some kind of attempt to integrate landmark self-contained comic series “Watchmen” into the DC Universe proper. And though writer Tom King and artist Jason Fabok have crafted a fairly entertaining, well-structured and finely executed opener, the simple truth remains; this is a bad idea.
“Watchmen” doesn’t need a sequel. It doesn’t need further examination. Nothing will be added to it by suddenly including Batman in the mix. It didn’t need the prequel series “Before Watchmen” but at least that had the virtue of letting top-notch creators simply play in the universe and produce gorgeous if completely irrelevant books. No one needs to see another stab at the Mona Lisa. No one wants to read the sequel to “Moby Dick.” I don’t want the prequel to “Citizen Kane,” and “Hamlet 2” is such a bad idea that there is actually a whole movie centred around the joke of how bad an idea that would be. It’s just nearly impossible to imagine lightning striking twice in such a powerful way as it did when “Watchmen” came to be regarded as one of the seminal works of an entire medium.
And so, despite the skill of the creative team on display, there is a pall hanging over Batman #21, focused as it is on beginning to solve the mystery of the blood stained button that played much an integral part in “Watchmen” being now in the possession of Batman. The reason for this is incredibly, unbelievably convoluted, drawing from “Watchmen”, a DC event called “Flashpoint”, and the “DC Rebirth” special penned by Geoff Johns a while back. My issue is that that “Rebirth” special was so successful in repositioning the DC Universe as a fun and engaging place that drew readers in and led to the renaissance in quality and tone DC has seen over the last little while. And while the mystery of the Button was part of that special, I was worried about its inclusion right off the bat. Because this kind of continuity-heavy, ponderous navel-gazing mystery is exactly the kind of mythology-laden grim nightmare that baffles casual readers and reeks of cash-grabbing concept stunts. And the disparate elements from all these different sources are just kind of dropped into the issue, so heaven help you if you’ve never read “Flashpoint”, or recent issues of “The Flash”, because you’ll likely be sort of baffled by certain elements.
I don’t have anything against cash-grabbing stunts per se. Comics need big events. That line-wide crossover and the sales it generates will fund that weird struggling but brilliant Black Orchid series that will win a bunch of Eisners and blow your mind. But high-concept events like “The Button” are, by necessity, kind of big dumb bombastic stories. And it just seems like a real shame to tie in one of the preeminent self-contained works of art in the super-hero medium to a big bombastic slugfest of nostalgia. I wish I could separate that opinion from the otherwise perfectly serviceable book King and Fabok have crafted, but I can’t.
The issue is simplistic in structure, even as it shows some innovation in execution. Batman is pondering the titular Button while watching a hockey game in which an unusually violent brawl breaks out (and points to King for specificity on the play by play, as a Canadian I appreciated it). Batman decides to ask the Flash to meet him at the Batcave to discuss the Button’s meaning, and Barry Allen responds by telling him he’ll speed over there in one minute. From there, over the course of that minute, things go drastically wrong in the cave, leading to an effective cliffhanger.
There’s a lot to like in the execution of Batman #21. King’s script, playing out largely over the course of a few minutes, is bold in its structure, even as the streamlined simplicity of the narrative means that the stakes and action of the issue are easy to follow and viscerally exciting. Fabok delivers some stunning artwork, with much of the issue taken up by a brutal and thrilling battle in the Batcave. The script and art combine to move at a breakneck pace, and the straightforward flow of the narrative means that very little of the action is bogged down by exposition or wheel-spinning. It’s a gorgeous-looking issue, for sure, and you can feel the assured and sharp hand of King, a gifted writer, executing an exciting opener.
But I never shook the feeling that this won’t end well, that the inclusion of “Watchmen”, barring some kind of massive twist, would only be a disappointment. I hope that I’m wrong, and certainly if I’m judging Batman #21 on its merits alone, there’s much to recommend, and it is a brisk, engaging, viscerally exciting read. It’s just too bad that, for me, I have such trouble getting behind its central concept. 7/10