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

Thank God for the Law of Averages, because it sure helps explain away all the outrageously improbable disasters of life, e.g., Andy Roddick’s first-round defeat at the 2005 U.S. Open,* the mid-season cancellation of Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, and my personal favorite (because of its total unexpectedness, not for any sentiment of schadenfreude), Michelle Kwan landing on her butt at the Olympics.  As Dilbert says, “Shift happens.”

I’m afraid that’s the only logical explanation I can come up with for the weird, chaotic, and uncertain mess that is Pak’s second arc on Batman/Superman.  I really don’t know what to make of this thing.  In so many instances, the quality and flow of the writing diverges so much from what you know and expect of Pak that you can’t help wondering if the script is the work of an imposter.  You may even check the credits page a couple times just to make sure you’re not laboring under some terrible mistake.  Alas, you are not.

WCBR regulars know that I do not throw the word “terrible” around, nor do I use it lightly.  Yet that’s the word that comes most often to mind throughout the issue, starting from the unbearably melodramatic opening of a young woman in a post office, listing an onslaught of increasingly dire consequences should she not get her loan application postmarked within the next few minutes: “If I don’t get my loan, I lose my apartment.  …If I lose my apartment, my ex gets full custody.”  Pak practically begs for sympathy with this little speech, but fails to do anything to earn it, least of all fleshing out the woman enough to make you care.  You’re more likely to question, quite sensibly, why she simply didn’t start such a crucial application earlier.

Somehow, this lady ends up becoming a central figure in the issue, despite being veritably thrown on us at the last second.  Even worse, Pak uses her to introduce yet another tension to the arc, an all-too-familiar one, at that: the resentment civilians harbor for the destruction wrought by battling superheroes.  It’s a distracting conflict in a story that already has too many, each competing for importance and failing to achieve it as a result.  By the end of the issue, you have no idea what the point of this arc is.  Was Pak exposing the violence of gamers or the darkness lurking in mankind as a whole?  Was the beef between our heroes the gulf in their respective power sets or their different attitudes towards the inherent goodness/evil in humanity?

Even on the most basic level, you can’t tell if this story was meant to be in any way serious or simply a throwaway tale as Pak regroups for a more creditable storyline.  You tend to lean towards the latter theory, especially given the incredibly limited use of Mongul as antagonist.  With lackey Agnes carrying out most of the dirty work, Mongul winds up doing nothing more than reveling in her success before getting unceremoniously dispatched then jailed in the Phantom Zone.  Hiro’s part is so minimal, you have to ask why Pak bothered to bring the character in at all.  Even our heroes carry themselves rather lifelessly.  Spotting a satellite he believes to be Mongul’s, Superman says mechanically, “…I guess I’ll smash it.”  Of course, when death is literally rendered meaningless in a story, you can hardly expect characters to act as if the situation’s a matter of life and death, can you?

The quality of the art is almost inconsequential when the script has this many problems, but certainly Booth doesn’t help matters with work that looks like he dashed it off without a second thought or, indeed, even much of a first.  While there’s nothing outright defective with his frenetic style, it is only a slightly sleeker version of DC’s bland house art, devoid of any expressive or emotional subtlety.  Perhaps a more inspired artist could have distilled what little meaning this arc had, but this is commercial work at its purest.

Conclusion: Ill-conceived as the first two chapters of this arc have been, it is quite a blow to receive such an unrewarding conclusion.

Grade: D+

– Minhquan Nguyen

Some Musings: * Which was both ill-timed and a little deserved, honestly, given how it followed a fairly cocky series of American Express commercials eerily titled, “Will Andy get his Mojo back?”