Is Kevin Smith's Batman tale better the second time around?
by Joey Esposito
The floppies are where my love of comic books lie. Hardcover collections, Absolute Editions, and deluxe hardcovers are all well and good, but there’s nothing like the going to the shop and picking up on a story where you left off the month previous. Sometimes though, a story is simply better suited to be read in one sitting – and Kevin Smith and Walter Flanagan’s three issue mini-series, Batman: Cacophony, is testament to that. In its initial release last year, I found myself enjoying the first issue – if not a bit taken aback by some curious character treatments from Smith – but as the series went forward, I began to loathe reading it. I felt that the pacing was all wrong, characters were uneven, and the tone changed midway through the story.
However, when I revisited the tale in the form of this nifty little hardcover, my opinion changed. Admittedly, I’m the type of comic reader that has so much on his plate, often times my "to read" stack gets piled high with months worth of titles to catch up on. And while I’m of the mindset that a good story will stay fresh in my mind regardless of the time I spend away from it, perhaps Cacophony would have benefited from a re-read before I read the subsequent issues. Reading it straight through, I found that the story is not thematically fractured as I had remembered, but instead entirely cohesive.
Cacophony finds Batman caught in the middle of a vile gang war between an escaped Joker and C-list rogue Maxie Zeus, who has turned Joker’s signature poison into Gotham’s new designer drug. Along with dealing with his age old enemies, a third party enters the fray in the form of Kevin Smith’s own creation from his run on Green Arrow, Onomatopoeia, and Batman is left dealing with figuring out what role the newcomer plays in the events unfolding before him.
Originally, I chastised Smith for starting out with what I thought was an exploration of his Onomatopoeia villain, and being unable to resist the urge of exploring the oft-explored Joker/Batman dichotomy. Instead, I found that relationship to be the point of the entire mini-series all along. From the Joker’s initial appearance in the book to his last, the story comes full circle, paying off in a cleverly written dialog between Batman and Joker. Though the lasting effect has nowhere near the potency of something like The Killing Joke (referenced by Smith himself as a direct influence to write a Batman tale), the end result is still a thought-provoking look at what these two characters mean to each other; perhaps Smith sums it up best with Joker’s best line when talking to Batman: "I don’t hate you because I’m crazy. I’m crazy because I hate you."
Though this final scene is certainly well written and will surely be a classic moment, it’s hard to ignore that most of the characters are the DCU inhabitants you’ve come to know, refracted through the Kevin Smith prism. You’ll be delivered talky henchmen, a pop culture reference on every page, a not-so-ambiguously gay Joker, and a rather mouthy Batman. This isn’t a deal breaker, but just know that the world you are walking into isn’t quite the one you’re familiar with. Not surprisingly, Smith’s best moments come when he is dealing with his own creation, Onomatopoeia, particularly in the ending. In fact, I’d go so far as to say the revelation of just where this character stems from is one of the most intriguing as of late, and I certainly hope we’ll get more of his story in the near future.
Of all the issues that were rectified by this hardcover edition, the one big one that remained intact was the inconsistency of Flanagan’s artwork. Kevin Smith admits in his introduction that he essentially got Flanagan, his buddy, the job, and that he’s not going to apologize for it. In fact, he points out how Flanagan’s work improves from issue to issue, and that’s true. But, it’s quite clear that a different artist may have been better suited to serve the story. There are some great moments, art-wise, but there are also cringe-inducing ones. Flanagan’s Batman works best when he is draped in shadow, because any other time, the character resembles something along the lines of Gumby. His composition and layouts are perfectly fine, as are most of his character designs and body language. It’s simply a matter of consistency when it comes to facial expression and style that bring the book down.
Being a mere three issues, DC was kind enough to include some bonus content in the way of Smith’s introduction, in which he is very forthcoming in the book’s faults and successes – perhaps another aspect that raised my original opinion of Cacophony – as well as the complete script for the third issue, and a gallery of covers. The script is most interesting, if only to show the vast changes that Smith made before the issue went to print. He cites reading a blogger’s review of the first issue in which the writer complained of Batman’s un-Batman like dialog. Smith recognized the issue, and did his best to rectify it. Whether he did so or not is up for debate, but it’s clear that Smith has a passion for the character that can’t be ignored.
Though it has its faults, Cacophony winds up being an enjoyable, if somewhat out-of-touch with the main DCU, Batman tale. It remains to be seen if Smith will follow up on the threads he left dangling in regards to Onomatopoeia, but his view on Batman and Joker’s strange relationship adds another new dimension to that eternal debate.
The Batman: Cacophony hardcover comes out September 16.