By: Greg Pak (story), Brett Booth (pencils), Norm Rapmund (inks), Andrew Dalhouse (colors)

The Story: Batman versus Superman.  Round one. Fight!

The Review: A little aside, if you will, before we get down to business.  So I just lived through one of the most hideous final exams in my life, and I’ve taken some real doozies in my time.  It was one of those exams where the week or so studying for it was quite nearly as awful as taking the damn thing itself.  I was positive all along that the experience was going to be horrible, and it was, but not quite as much as I’d imagined.

Sadly enough, I can’t say the same for this latest installment of what has been a most bizarre story arc.  Not that the plot itself is all that complicated.  It’s easy enough to understand that through some highly advanced technological means, our dual heroes and the world around them has been transformed into one highly realistic video game.  The real question is: why?  I ask that not only of the story itself, but also of Pak’s intentions in writing it in the first place.

Not that anyone expects any superhero plot to adhere to any normal conventions of realism, but even for purely mainstream material, the reasoning in this issue is threadbare, to say the least.  You can overlook Clark and Bruce’s uncharacteristically temperamental behavior; they have the excuse of being infected by some anger-inducing, alien pollen and controlled by a hive mind of gamers,* respectively.  You can even ignore the gratingly idiotic antics from Jimmy Olsen and his fellow players; they’re meant to be morons.  It’s the motives of Mongul and Agnes, his assistant, that really baffle you.  This whole plan of stimulating every gamer’s thirst for battle to a fever pitch and handing them control of the world’s heroes, all in an effort to gain ownership of the planet, just seems incredibly, ridiculously, pointlessly involved.

If anything, the entire premise of this arc seems to be spun for the sole purpose of allowing Pak to make some commentary on gamer psychology, which at times he does subtly and at other times with fairly broad, obvious strokes.  Batman’s transformation into an enhanced facsimile of himself, one that can fight on par with Superman, is definitely a response of some kind to the secret desire of certain people to see the two heroes truly go head to head.  It’s a mocking reflection of games like Injustice: Gods Among Us, which forcibly pits friends and heroes against each other to satiate the fantasies of those who consider themselves fans.  Notice that it’s only after Batman loses his heart and life that he becomes the tank of gamers’ dreams.

Even though Pak seems to be attacking the violent culture of gamers, he also offers some defenses on their behalf through, surprisingly enough, Jimmy, Alfonso, and Janice.  Despite gleefully urging Batman on at first to take on Superman, once they realize they’re no longer playing a game, they come together to help their player character do the right thing.  As Kate Bishop of Hawkeye fame likes to say, metaphor!

But extrapolated metaphor is not the best substitute for tight plotting or good character work, and we get little of either in this issue.  The revelation that Mongul is real and Agnes is his alien henchman creates more confusion than anything else, and aside from Clark’s upset at his friend’s apparent death (as Mongul blasts Clark with a space rifle, Clark ponders, “I think of you getting hit by this gun, Bruce.  And I’m furious at you all over again.”), we don’t get much depth out of either hero or their shared dynamic.

Booth’s art isn’t necessarily ugly nor poorly arranged, but it does have noticeable flaws which places him in a lower tier of artist than he might otherwise land.  Mostly, I take issue with his lack of attention to the script.  In one scene, Superman claims, “…I punch so hard the shock wave shatters windows up and down the bay.”  But looking at the page, there are no shattered windows, shock waves, or effects from the supposedly godlike punch at all.  And in another sparring scene, Superman doles out what’s meant to be a near-killing blow to Mongul, but Booth renders it as an ordinary punch.  This makes the next panel even more unconvincing, as it depicts a streak showing Mongul’s trajectory through the night sky, as if he suddenly flew away of his own accord rather than as a result of Superman’s knockout.

Conclusion: Pak clearly has a point he wants to make with this gamer spin, and he’s willing to trample over the integrity of the plot to do it.  Booth’s art does not make up for the shortcomings in the script, either; it’s far too full of flash for that.

Grade: C+

– Minhquan Nguyen

Some Musings: * Yes, you heard me right.  And no, I do not mean either of those figuratively or ironically.  Both are actual things in this issue.