Friday, May 19, 2017

Batman/The Flash 'The Button' - Storytelling by Reference Point

‘The Button’, a crossover between Batman and The Flash #21-22, is the first real continuation of the ‘Rebirth’ storyline after hint and recognition that something is strange in the pages of Titans and Superman and Action Comics. Overall, it isn’t the most spectacular or immediately satisfying arc, and that is by design. ‘The Button’ is if not a middle chapter a middle step in the overall arc. It raises more questions and doesn’t really find answers or conclusions. If it didn’t land the moments of emotional impact or have an interesting way of telling them, it would feel thinner than it already is.

Batman #21 – We’re Bing Watched
The start of ‘Button’ takes the sense of surveillance and voyeurism embedded in a title like Watchmen literally, as writer Tom King and artist Jason Fabok build this issue around voyeurism within and without the comic.

Starting things off, we have Saturn Girl watching a hockey game with the rest of the Arkham inmates. The game serves as a unifying element as Batman is watching it as well in his cave, playing with the eponymous Button. In the cave things switch, as the next several pages are all done in a 9-panel grid, immediately evoking Watchmen. In ‘Rebirth’ Wally said, “We’re being watched,” and with that grid you, the reader, become one of the Watchmen. This reference, however, doesn’t exist merely for itself. It also serves a storytelling function: show the passage of time.

Batman #21 - Tom King, Jason Fabok, Brad Anderson

For all the Watchmen formalism, Batman #21 channels it into a pretty great execution of Hitchcockian suspense thriller. Suspense is about showing the bomb under the desk and cutting back and forth between the ticking clock and the innocent unawares around it. In the case of Batman we have the suspense of the hockey fight (is that guy going to die) and later on will the Flash show up in time. In each case the grid layout marks the slow, methodical passage of time, either by tracing the journey of the button across Batman’s knuckles or by the countdown too Flashs arrival.  Both taking dozens of panels and pages to build to a boiling point.

 As Hassan Otsmane-Elhaou notes on StripPanelNaked

It wouldn't work as strongly not in that many panels. If you did to in three panels each, for example, you'd lose the sense of time passing. That's one of the toughest things in comics, because sometimes to create the real effect of actually feeling time, you need to keep an action going for a really long time.

There is also a narrative echo to Watchmen with the overall frame of this story going forward and what happens. Watchmen for all of its high class plaudits is a pulpy murder mystery, and that’s what the ‘Rebirth’ storyline has become (ostensibly): Who Killed the Reverse Flash? Of course, in the original comic we don’t see the scuffle that led to Comedian’s death just flashes. But we do see that fight in the Watchmen film

Batman 22 – Flashpoint 2: Electric Boogaloo
I don’t really care for Flashpoint, it was a bloated event saved by an excellent final series of pages that showed the emotional truth of it all. Barry did it all to save his Mom and those final pages were an emotional gut punch, partially because it wasn’t setup that well. It was a melodramatic catharsis that relied upon assumed empathy related to the Mother.  

Batman #22 follows the Flashpoint’s emotional and plot climax, but placed on to Batman this time around as he gets to meet his father. This meeting twists its reference point, Flashpoint’s parent-son meeting was a life affirming moment here Thomas wants his son to give up the cowl and be a normal rich Dad to his son (he doesn’t know Damian’s unique origins).

Batman #22 - Joshua Williamson, Tom King, Jason Fabok, Brad Anderson

This isn’t as out of nowhere compared to Flashpoint, but at this point in the crossover it was also the kind of moments that needed to occur just because of how many pages we had left. It’s blunt emotional trauma, which isn’t to say these moments aren’t affecting, but later on when Bruce thinks this trip was meant to be a punishment it makes ‘sense’ but doesn’t land as hard. Theoretically, the story of two of DC’s greatest orphans going on an adventure getting a chance to reconnect with perished parents should be more emotionally gripping.

The Flash  22 – Rebirth All Over Again and an Epilogue
The Flash #22 concludes ‘The Button’ and contains three reference points DC Universe: Rebirth, Watchmen, and The Dark Knight Returns.

This redux of Rebirth replaces Wally for forgotten Golden Age speedster Jay Garrick and shows us what would’ve happened to Wally had Barry not remembered. Much like The Flash #21, the art is fine, but the chase after Reverse Flash through the speedforce wasn’t as impactful. Getting to see Jay Garrick in glorious action again was nice, but some oddness in the scripting where Jay’s name is repeated panels before Barry can’t get it out of his mouth, undercuts the sudden appearance and disappearance. This sort of sequence feels illustrative of 'The Button' overall dramatic failings: moments happen but they aren't scenes. 

A real moment and scene of impact comes when the layout reverts to a 9-panel grid and Bruce stares at the lit Bat Signal. Like in Batman #21, it’s a moment of comic storytelling synthesis where everything reinforces one another. The layout reintroduces the idea of spectatorship on multiple levels, while making you feel the moments passing as Bruce stares thinking about his father’s final wish from Wayne Manor before glumly bowing his head. It sells the idea that this adventure has been a punishment in the end.

Dr. Manhattan finally makes an appearance, recovering the button and sending it somewhere. With the continued discussion around the appropriateness of DC using Watchmen characters, it’s interesting to see them just directly lift from the comic. In Rebirth, they quoted from Manhattan’s final conversation with Ozymandias, here they quote from his time on Mars with Laurie and adds a wrinkle to our ideas of his motives. Mainly, that he has motives and manipulated time to create the New52 out of some sort of malevolence. He’s only a “puppet” that can see the strings, which is to say he is a tool. If he’s just a puppet, who is his master? The suggestion by Kieran Shiach that it’s Superboy Prime is a compelling theory and one that would add another meta layer to the overall story.

So far, these reference points have been derived from either Watchmen or work by Geoff Johns. The epilogue provides the most interesting reference point: The Dark Knight Returns. As the button falls through space the 9-panel grid goes in and out of magnification before pulling out to reveal a battered Superman crest and a teaser for the next chapter of the story Doomsday Clock. The transitions mirrors the introduction of Superman in Frank Miller’s seminal work. It’s an evocative if not entirely clear reference point. Overall these moments have served to communicate the emotional sense, or reinforce, the storytelling going. The pages of the epilogue right now seem to be reference for the sake of reference. Unless they somehow rope in TDKR/DK III into things.

The Dark Knight Returns - Frank Miller, Klaus Johnson, Lynn Varley

Considering the ‘how’ and ways in which these points of reference articulate emotional moments for the arc overall has been the most interesting thing to consider. The most successful issue overal would be Batman #21 and the use of the grid layout, it makes reference and uses it to tell its own story. Similarly, the epilogue uses a visual reference to give the reader ill portents of the future. The use of visual reference over narrative ones, worked best because it was channeling a easily understood point of reference, that still allowed them to tell a story. The remixing of previous narrative moments either carried with it excess baggage or didn’t match the execution of the original. The scene plays out again, and we know how it goes.  

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