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Sunday, January 5, 2014

Batman: Venom

Title:
Batman: Venom







ISBN:
9781401233839


Price:
$14.99


Publisher/Year:
DC,
2012


Artist: Russell Braun


Writer:
Dennis O'Neil


Collects:
Batman: Legends of the Dark Knight #15-20





Rating:
2.5/5





Distraught
by his failure to save a little girl's life, Batman begins using super-steroids
designed by her scientist father -- which prove addictive and make Batman
overly aggressive and unstable. After shaking off the effects, Batman pursues
the scientist -- and his partner, a rogue general -- who are using the drugs as
part of an unsanctioned experiment to create super soldiers.





The
art for Venom is an unusual tag team, with two of the greats -- Trevor Von
Eeden and Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez providing layouts and finishes, respectively,
and the (to my mind) lesser known Braun the pencils. The result is striking,
realist art, though Von Eeden's layouts are maybe not as eclectic as you might
expect from him. It's the sort of art that in service of a great, down-to-earth
tale would really enhance it. This is a "human" Batman -- who looks
like a guy in a suit, more than a mysterious creature of the night.





Unfortunately,
the story doesn't live up to the art.





Denny
O'Neil is, to my mind, a problematic figure in comics. He's definitely
something of a giant, generally respected -- I believe -- both by peers and
fans. And I'll admit, I've read some memorable stuff by him (mainly Green
Lantern comics)...but my visceral reaction to seeing his by-line is a certain
un-enthusiasm. Too often his plots tend to be simplistic, his dialogue
unmemorable, and his characterization one-dimensional. And Venom falls squarely
into that category.





The
premise has potential: Batman developing and then overcoming an addiction. In
fact, I had some vague feeling I'd read that O'Neil himself had had a drinking
problem long ago, in his youth. If true, you might expect a penetrating insight
into the mind of the dependent. But I just didn't really feel we got that. In
fact, O'Neil might've been better to have spared a few pages to showing us
Batman as a genuinely more effective crime fighter using the drugs -- so that
we can understand why he might rationalize their use. Instead, he starts taking
the pills...and then we jump three months to when he's basically an
uncontrolled vigilante, hassling thugs for no reason.





As in
his inaugural LOTDK story arc, Shaman, O'Neil seems to like playing around with
time in a way that, in one of the regular Bat-titles, it would probably mess up
continuity. The downside is, the numbers don't always add up. At one point
there seems to be a five month gap where it's unclear what Batman was doing all
that time. Or, even more peculiar, when faced with an obligatory death trap,
the stated time frame goes from 24 hours to three days in the space of a few
panels!





But
the problem with Venom -- and, indeed, many of the longer LOTDK story arcs --
is it just doesn't justify the length. The Batman-addiction thing only takes up
the first half of the story, and the plot overall is pretty simple and straight
forward. And the villains are one-dimensional, so-evil-they-ooze, bad guys.
Maybe O'Neil's sense of morality means he can't bring himself to try and
humanize villains, but in a 126 page saga where the villains and their
conversations take up an awful lot of page time, we need something more than
just constantly cutting to them being evil and sleazy. It's not like mad
schemes to create super soldiers are exactly a radical concept in fiction (even
Alfred refers to it as "trite" at one point). Nor are the occasional
supporting characters any better fleshed out -- the few that arise existing
just enough to further a plot point.





In
fact, the whole thing seems just a touch...tired. Admittedly, maybe it was
fresher at the time (though I doubt it), but it seems you can scarcely pick up
a Batman story without it involving Bats being driven "out of
control", becoming a more brutal, undisciplined crime fighter. That's the
problem -- as I've alluded to before -- with the current vision of Batman as a
kind of limited personality type...there's only so many things you can do with
him. Perhaps more disturbing is that, even though it's meant as a
"criticism" of his actions, writers do it so often, one can't help
thinking they kind of enjoy a vicarious thrill writing Batman this way. As
well, the basic story is pretty humdrum. After Batman shakes off the drugs, and
we're moving into the final confrontation, there's little to really intrigue or
excite. There are no twists or turns we're anticipating as the whole thing
trundles along predictably.





And
there's a looseness and implausibility to the plotting. The very catalyst for
the story -- Batman's failure to save the girl -- itself isn't really
explained. Why did the scientist arrange the kidnapping and murder of his own
daughter? Simply to ensnare Batman in his plans? But how could he know Batman
would fail, or that Batman would come to him afterward, or be so emotionally
distraught he'd take the drugs -- and why, if you're trying to test super
soldier drugs, would you use a guy who's already the most fit guy in Gotham?
Part of the story is showing how Batman loses his judgment when he takes the
drugs...but in order to have him take the drugs, he has to act like a complete
dork to begin with, not apparently noticing how really odd the father is
behaving!





There's
a kind of emotional vacuum in Venom -- and, indeed, a lot of modern Batman
stories. So determined to write Batman as this one-note obsessive, writers like
O'Neil fail to give us a complex human being. And O'Neil's bled much of the
warmth out of the surrounding relationships -- Alfred now makes a lot of tart
wisecracks (that aren't that funny), rather than seeming like he has a real
relationship with Batman, and James Gordon insists that Batman keeps their
relationship purely business. And, as noted, for a story that (at least at
first) is very much intended as a character study -- I didn't feel we got any
real convincing insight into Batman or addictions.





Still,
I'll give O'Neil props for the climactic death trap -- ludicrously elaborate
deathtraps are a staple of comics, but here, O'Neil both justifies it (the
villains have a goal in mind) and comes up with a reasonably clever solution as
Batman has to think his way out of it (you could almost use it in school
textbook: Billy has to apply 800 pounds of pressure to point A, but...).





For
continuity buffs, this also introduces the drug Venom that would later fuel the
villain, Bane, though strangely, the name Venom is used nowhere but in the
title!

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