Sunday, May 16, 2010

Outsiders Lost

Long ago, but not so far away, I bought and enojoyed the original Batman and the Outsiders. After a few years it passed out of my sphere of interest, its characters largely out of sight and out of mind but for an occasional appearance in something else I might be reading (most surpringly when Geo-Force showed up as a prisoner/power source in an arc of Birds of Prey). When the title was most recently re-launched a few years ago I took note but did not purchase. Comments by Jim and others didn't whet my interest in a series that seemed adrift from the start.

Then, Final Crisis killed Bruce Wayne (for the moment), and the title was re-directed. Peter Tomasi came on as writer. While not a huge fan of Tomasi, I'd been enjoying what I'd seen and the teasers sounded like it had potential. Starting with the Batman and the Outsiders Special I gave it a whirl.

Unfortunately, Tomasi only got two arcs before it all came crashing down. The Special was a self contained story of the gathering of the team. Katana, Geo-Force, Metamorpho, Halo and Black Lightning returned to the team. Creeper and Owlman were new additions, the latter being an entirely new character. Alfred became the man behind the scenes, a la Oracle. The Special nicely touched on key character elements of the various players, most touchingly with a recorded message to Alfred from Bruce Wayne that provided the impetus for the reformation of the team, post Bruce's death.

The first arc allowed the team a fresh direction all its own, separate and apart from the other DCU books, and even the other Batman titles. Tomasi created a group called The Insiders as opponents. These turned out to be memebers of the same primitive tribe that produced Vandal Savage. The Insiders aer not immortal in the same way as Vandal Savage. They need pieces of the metoer that imbured Savage with his immortality to keep their own immortality going. I had the feeling that Tomasi would have explained more about this down the road, if given the chance. Alas, this is not to be, it seems.
The Insiders also had devoted acolytes who did their bidding unto death. Unlike Ras al Ghul's devotees who do so in religious fervor, these people had all been granted a life span exceeding a century, and still in youthful condition, in exchange for later devotion. A significant number of acolytes are within very steam punk metal armor, reminiscent of Atomic Robo, that also serves as drilling equipment. Their primary function is to find the pieces of meteor that are scattered around (and mostly within) the Earth.

There are elements of this arc that are a puzzle to me. Why are the Insiders naked? They seem to live underground in a high tech facility. From the demise of one of their number at the hands of Deathstroke they don't have the resistance to death that Savage has, so I'd guess they get cold more readily, too. That they're slowly losing their immortality seems to indicate that would be the case, too. It's imminently impractical, then, for them to be trooping around naked. Sure, it shows how youthful they still appears after thousands of years, but the heating bill must be astronomical. Then, about three or so issues in, they're suddenly wearing skintight uniforms that are clearly added on for modesty's sake. There's nothing to these uniforms. They're just neck to feet grey with no insignia or anything. It's clear DC just had the colorist make this section of the naked bodies grey instead of pale (which should have been downright gothic pale, what with the underground living). For the life of me, I can't say why. When they were shown naked they were always strategically shadowed and obscured.

Regardless, the story had a good plot, kept the characters fully enganged, and made good use of some of the more immortal villains of the DCU. The art during this arc was largely Lee Garbett's pencils and Trevor Scott's inks. I enjoyed the style they brought to the book. There was a certain edginess while using a clean line. Tomasi's interplay between the characters was fun, too. With Metamorpho's quips and Creeper's non sequiturs and babbling, even the most threatening of confrontations could only be but so serious. As combat leader Geo-Force took the entirely logical course of not committing the entire team to any one situation so that backup would always be available. In other words, the book, in a comic book world, made sense.

The second arc, which was actually better, brought the team more in touch with goings-on in the other Bat titles as the team split up in smaller groups to track down escapees from Arkham, which had been burned to the ground by Black Mask (not to be confused with Black Hand, which I sometimes am). Mr Freeze, Killer Croc and Clayface have all run far from Gotham to be out of range of Black Mask's control of explosive devices that he had implanted in them while they were in Arkham. The first issue is Owlman and Black Lightning pursuing Mr Freeze in Alaska. The second is Geo-Force and Metamorpho pursuing Clayface in Wyoming, and the third is Creeper, Halo and Katana after Killer Croc in Louisiana, with Man-Bat thrown in for good measure.

Each issue has appearances by all of the team members but focuses on a different pursuit. Tomasi has each small group work complementary skills to succeed in the goal. I particularly enjoyed the third issue because the team had to adapt to the unexpected presence of Man-Bat, who mistakenly believes his wife has sent them to get him.

The art for this arc was by Fernando Pasarin on pencils and Jay Leister on inks. It was a smooth transition, as it was similar to the work of Garbett and Scott.

Pasarin contined on pencils for the two issue Blackest Night story that followed, with Derec Donovan also doing pencils on the second issue. I don't really consider this a Tomasi arc because of its obvious mandated link to BlackestNight. Inks in the first issue were by Pasarin, Scott Hanna and Prentis Rollins while the second issue inks were by Pasarin, Donovan and Keith Champagne. During all of Tomasi's brief run on the series, it was only during these two issues that I had a problem with the art. The first issue, like Pasarin's work on the preceding three issues was well done. The problem came in the second issue. It was clear that 14 pages in we had switched to Donovan. It was a jarring shift. I can't say that I don't like Donovan's style because it's reminiscent of the style employed in Invincible, but in a more moody Bat book it wasn't working for me. The line work was heavier but less edgy.

Aside from that, I like the story until the end. The story is in two parts. Katana, Halo and Creeper are still in Louisiana after capturing Killer Croc when they're attacked by the Black Lantern versions of Katana's husband and sons, who died in a fire a long time ago (at least in my reckoning of time). Croc is freed to help in the fight. Katana confronts her long held desire to see her family again, but faces up to the false presentation of her family resolutely and with the necessarily fatal results.

At the same time, Tara is attacking Geo-Force, Metamorpho, Black Lightning and Owlman back at HQ, except throughout the first issue it's not an attack. Tara comes to them ostensibly seeking help in dying. She plays on their feelings to ramp up the team's emotions so that when she does actually attack in the second issue she can "feed" on more emotion. It's excellently in keeping with how Tara, when she was alive, infiltrated the Teen Titans and then repeatedly played on her brother's sympathetic feelings to manipulate him. Black Lantern Terra used not just the power of earth manipulation but the wiles for which she was infamous.

Unfortunatly, the denoument on the last page loses Tomasi's voice altogether. It's a hint of the disaster to come. Each team member's post Blackest Night status is briefly viewed in a single panel, though the narrative voice is solely Geo-Force, who has apparntly taken Owlman with him to Markovia, while each of the others is in his or her home (with the exception of Halo, who disappeared during the fight with Terra).

Dan Didio took over the writing with issue 26. I've found Didio to be an engaging personality when I've seen him at the Baltimore ComiCon, but based on this effort, writing doesn't seem to be his forte. Suddenly, Geo-Force is megalomaniacally insane. He's purging all but Katana from the team. Katana is bizarrely devoted to Geo-Force as though she had sworn some samurai allegiance to him instead of being a co-equal in a team (which is not something we ever saw in the book). Markovia, with an evident editorial directive, has alienated the rest of the world and allied itself with New Krypton. I suppose this is the explanation for Geo-Force being made insane because it's the only reason a ruler would take a peaceful and prosperous principality and turn it into a rogue state.

At the same time, Didio has Creeper becoming dominated by Richard Rider, rather than the othert way around, and having a petty squabble with Metamorpho before leaving Markovia on his own. Which reminds me of the oddness of the entire team suddenly being in Markovia and acting as some sort of state militia. There was no explanation of why any of them but Geo-Force and Owlman were even in Markovia. Why are they suddenly not so much the Outsiders as state security for Markovia? Who knows. I'm not going to stick around to find out, either.

Didio creates conflicts between the team members that ring so false there's no hope of continuing with this book. And that doesn't even get me to the mondo bizzaro issue with vampire Looker that I mentioned in last month's The List. Maybe at some point this book will get back on the right tracks, but for right now it's one to be avoided. A damn shame, too, because it looked like Tomasi was taking it somewhere that could have been lasting.

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