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BATMAN: OUTLAWS

An ambitious premise, but one that fails to resolve the fundamental questions it raises.

By Matthew F. Saunders     September 27, 2000

One of the irreconcilable problems with the current Batman mythos is the recurring desire to position the Dark Knight as an urban myth. Batman works most effectively--he and many of his creators believe--as an unrelenting 'creature of the night.' He's best able to terrorize superstitious criminals and instill fear in the hearts of wrong-doers if he's shrouded in shadows and mystery. When the integrity of that world is maintained, it's largely responsible for the mythos' more gothic underpinnings. It creates a powerful, moody atmosphere around which to spin the Dark Knight's tales.

But that premise is only effective provided Batman isn't running around as a member of the very public, world-saving Justice League of America at the same time. Playing the 'does he or doesn't he exist' game makes no sense if our media-bombarded citizenry has just seen the caped crusader's latest exploits celebrated on CNN or MSNBC. In today's society, a costumed vigilante would have to work extremely hard to remain outside the spotlight. This conflicting juxtaposition is what makes the premise of the Batman: Outlaws three-issue mini-series initially intriguing, and, ultimately, only modestly satisfying.

While never labeled an Elseworlds tale, Outlaws is nevertheless set in what can only be an alternate Gotham City. While still characterized by its gothic architecture, it has a much more high-tech, glossy feel, seemingly disregarding the fallout of the cataclysmic 'No Man's Land' crossover. And the Bat-family of vigilantes--Batman, Robin, Nightwing, Batgirl, Huntress, Oracle and, loosely, Catwoman--remain cloaked in real secrecy. While never explicitly stated, the series implicitly suggests a world unfamiliar with costumed characters, on either side of the law. The hows and whys of this world are never fully addressed, particularly how such a colorful collection of characters could remain anonymous for so long. But they do, operating outside both the system and the public eye. They receive their only legitimization--beyond their results and strict code of honor--from Commissioner Gordon's morally strong but ethically torn secret sanction.

As the series opens, that cloak of secrecy is finally torn away. Attempting to protect a police officer from a killer who's just assassinated a local senator, Batman is finally caught on videotape, his actions misconstrued as assault. The resulting media frenzy stirs an anti-vigilante backlash, forcing the Federal government to send a Federal Vigilante Task Force composed of elite commandos, code-named Bloodhawks, into Gotham to capture the Bat-family. The conflict is compounded by the questionable background and tactics of task forced leader, David Atlee Redmun, who's all-out, deadly assault seeks to kill, not incarcerate, the heroes.

It's on this last note that the series heads in a much different direction that one initially suspects. If readers can suspend disbelief enough to believe that Batman, et. al. have been capable of evading public scrutiny up to this point, then the idea of that veil finally lifting and unraveling sounds intriguing. What would the ramifications be in today's society were a Batman to truly exist? For instance, in this age of popularized anti-heroes, would Batman and his ilk really be hounded for taking the law into their own hands? Similarly, would a society that can't even win the 'War on Drugs' really commit the resources needed to stop this alleged scourge, or have the temerity to launch such a high-tech assault--which includes top-of-the-line military aircraft and assault weaponry--in a domestic, urban arena?

The series' answer seems to be yes--but for the wrong reasons. Rather than exploring the vigilante issue on its own merits, the series avoids it almost entirely by creating a Task Force more corrupt than the Bat-family and their perceived wrongs. Redmun, a stereotypically dirty covert agent, has his own agenda, which ultimately supercedes the questions of vigilante justice. By series end, we're still left wondering, 'What would be the true outcome of such a stand against vigilante activities?' Sadly, we never find out, because we're instead presented with a corrupt Redmun, whose illicit activities only serve to prop Batman and friends up as the good--if misunderstood--guys simply by opposition.

Largely disregarded are the deeper issues of the Bat-family's moral stance, that of taking the law into their own hands. Once they've taken down the really bad guy, the question of their moral ambiguity just fades away, becoming a non-issue in light of a greater evil. Beyond raising the question of Gordon's sanction, which is really only a matter of personal deference, the issue is never adequately addressed. The ends, the story seems to tell us as a result, ultimately justify the means, simply because Batman and crew take the higher road during the Task Force's assault against them. In other words, Batman's activities may be questionable, but at least they're not as bad--read criminal--as Redmun's. And even though the series presents resolution on one level, in the form of Redmun's inevitable defeat, the series still begs for the vigilante question to be resolved.

It's an unfortunate, missed opportunity that weakens the mini-series. The story, in most other regards though, is rather enjoyable. Forgiving the fact that Redmun is more of a blustering cliché than a real challenge for Batman, writer Doug Moench and artist Paul Gulacy are right on target with the task forces' full-barreled assault on the Bat-team. I've long been a fan of Gulacy's art, and he doesn't disappoint with his beautifully rendered pages and driving action sequences, the latter a must-have for the unrelenting attack to be believable. One actually feels Gotham City constrict under the assault, turning the Bat crew's once sprawling urban playground into a claustrophobic deathtrap.

Similarly, Batman's reaction, of wanting to take the moral high-ground until Redmun's corruption can be proven, of fighting back only in self-defense even at the risk of their own lives, is wholly within character. In fact, it's this very commitment to his own moral stance and mission that makes it all the more disappointing that the vigilante issue isn't explored more fully. Had it been, Redmun's black ops activities could have made an interesting counterpoint to the mercenary approach undertaken by Batman, flip sides of a passionate, but tunnel-visioned world view.

The only one who seems to step out of character briefly is Gordon, who takes almost maniacal pleasure in Batman's physical beating of Redmun at story's end. It's a disturbing character break for a man whose support of Batman's vigilante justice is reluctant and grudging at best. His emasculation throughout by Redmun as Gotham's top law enforcer aside, his overt enjoyment of the fight signals a more fully developed approval of Batman's methods than ever previously demonstrated or which the series itself belies, and it only exacerbates Outlaws' many unresolved issues.

So, is the series worth the hefty $4.95 cover price per issue? If you're a fan of great art and non-stop action, by all means pick it up. Gulacy's art is almost worth the price of admission alone. And Redmun and the Gordon issue aside, Moench has a strong handle on each of the Bat-characters. But if you're easily disappointed by stories that fail to live up to their potential, you might think twice. Batman: Outlaws raises some interesting questions, but you'll have to turn elsewhere to see them adequately resolved.

Three-issue mini-series from DC Comics. Written by Doug Moench. Pencils by Paul Gulacy. Inks by Charles Yoakum. Colors by Gloria Vasquez.

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