Comics Then: “Batman: Odyssey”
Let’s talk about “bad” entertainment for a moment.
From comics to films, there’s a lot of media out there that we have strong feelings about. Maybe we love to hate them, or wish they were never made. Maybe we can’t bring ourselves to hate them. To define what’s truly “bad” is difficult; I find Harry Potter and the Cursed Child and Heroes in Crisis problematic messes that I hated reading, but I can’t pretend that they aren’t rather well-crafted, or that they don’t have some gems hidden within the pages. On the flipside, no one will act like a movie such as The Room is a golden example of cinema at its peak – but people don’t watch The Room for that purpose. Seeing as Batman: Odyssey (published from 2010-2011 in two volumes) has often been compared to that movie, it leaves me with a hard question… how do I review one of the best “worst” comic books out there?
It’s an interesting thought, because really, who am I to even judge? Neal Adams is an absolute legend; a titan of the comic industry. His artwork has stood the test of time, and he’s created iconic imagery across the world of DC Comics. Responsible for creating Ra’s al Ghul, Merlyn and John Stewart, Adams could release nothing but renditions of the above picture for the rest of his life, and still be considered one of the greatest comic book artists of all time. Can I really expect a legend like Adams to take criticism from me, a man who spent an entire evening dwelling on what I did wrong when a car honked its horn at me on the drive home?
Maybe not – but for the rest of us, it’s a useful exercise to understand when his work does succeed, and when it doesn’t. Batman: Odyssey seems to largely fall into the “doesn’t” category.
Then again, the comic is beloved for its faults. There is nothing quite like Batman: Odyssey, and to dismiss it as trash without acknowledging some of the most golden snippets of dialogue I have ever read, or to hail it as a “masterpiece” without considering the parts that are genuinely hard to sit through, seems like a missed opportunity. So instead, I’d like to talk about how effective it is at being a “so bad it’s good” story. How easy is it to actually read?
Well… not very.
There are 13 issues of Batman: Odyssey, and the plot covers a lot of ground through several time jumps: Bruce’s past during his first days as Batman, his adventures with Robin, and his recounting of the story after these events have passed. In essence, that seems simple enough, provided you don’t sporadically switch between these points without warning, have flashbacks within flashbacks, leave out pieces of the story for later flashbacks- look, you see where this is going.
In one issue, the story can jump from past to present, to slightly-further-along-in-the-present, to future, to present, to past… even recounting my thought process while reading the comic is somewhat traumatizing. The only thing that acts as a safety net are Bruce’s narrations at the beginning of each issue, but they can only do so much to rationalize the insanity of every page preceding them.
On the flip side, the writing is also this book’s greatest strength: I won’t deny this book had me cackling at points. Batman is constantly saying something that will make you do a double-take, and frequently acts like a murderer for the sole purpose of messing with the audience. The book will never cease to surprise you, that much is true – from the sudden appearance of Deadman to Bruce Wayne falling asleep in front of Ra’s Al Ghul, there will always be something around the corner to keep you entertained, if you do choose to commit. The real question is, how hard are you willing to work to understand this book long enough to reach the next twist?
Adams’ art is another matter. I won’t pretend it’s his best work, but it is always distinct and interesting to look at. You are absolutely never bored with his depictions of characters, even if you find their expressions or movements questionable. It’s a very pulpy style, and if it the composition of the pages were easier to swallow, I’d have hardly an issue with it. But…
Let’s talk about how dialogue and panels are presented. While I’m not a fan of Sean Murphy’s Batman: White Knight, he has an excellent understanding of how to keep the reader’s attention by leading their eye across the page. Here is a diagram he made from one of his pages, taken from his Twitter account in 2017:
Now, following this general concept, I decided to grab a page from Batman: Odyssey, to see how Adams draws a reader’s eye. In my diagram, the red lines indicate the direction you should read the dialogue, while the purple lines represent movements and glances the characters are making; ideally, both should be working in tandem to lead you through the page.
Here’s what I got:
Obviously, my attempt is a little patchwork, but I think it gets the point across just fine. The composition of the pages is often incoherent: functional in the best cases, incomprehensible in the worst. In the next example, we see Adams attempting a transition…
The idea behind this transition is simple: Robin and Deadman get on to giant bats and begin a journey, cutting to Batman, “Bat-Man” and “Robin” (who are underground Neanderthal/Dinosaur versions of… you know what, don’t think about it too hard), continuing their own travels. The problem is, we can’t get a solid glimpse of Batman and co. until the final panel of the page! Then, to figure out what the book is trying to say, you have to go back and read the panel again, understanding that it’s a completely different scene to what you were thinking it was.
Errors don’t help this book either. This panel is from a little earlier in the issue; “Robin” is in red, Batman is in blue, and “Bat-Man” is in purple, but…
Contextually, Batman is the one talking here, yet the dialogue boxes are coming from “Bat-Man”. It’s- no. I have to stop myself here, because if I wanted to simply point out errors and poor visual cues in Batman: Odyssey, this would be less of a review and more of a suicide note. In a way, this makes it very similar to The Room – charming, until you try to pay attention. You ever tried sitting down, depressingly sober, and attempted to watch the endless generic sex scenes that make up half of The Room’s runtime? The major difference between The Room and Batman: Odyssey, however, is that I don’t think it’s healthy for me to get drunk while reading the latter.
Then again… would I really enjoy Batman: Odyssey if it was more coherent? If the layout of the pages were understandable, while still leaving the mess of a story and inconsistent art? It’s hard to say. I want to be constructive, and I think discussing its layout is the best insight I can give to the story… but I’m afraid to suggest anything that would change this book from what it is. Despite having compared it to the sleek functionality of Batman: White Knight, I would probably read this over Murphy’s story. I’m happy this book exists, too – why on God’s earth would I not be? Would you not want to live in a world where gems such as these were published in an actual, physical book?
I’d hate to see a world without diamonds in the rough such as these. If DC didn’t publish books such as All-Star Batman and Robin, we would never have iconic quotes such as “I’m the g*****n Batman” on our hands. If we didn’t have Batman: Odyssey, we’d never get to see Batman riding prehistoric creatures, or calling his trusted butler a “freak” and a “jerk”, or giving a thug a page-long explanation of the benefits of hydrogen cars.
I’m not kidding.
Batman: Odyssey is a rare treat of a comic: it reads like a fever dream, to be sure, for better or for worse. If I were to make a compilation of all the wacky moments in this book, you’d be reading one of the funniest comic books of all time.
That’s just it, though – like The Room, this book is better enjoyed in hilarious, random snippets. To get through the whole thing can be a slog, so… is it worth it? Well, yes, but only if you’re really committed to be in on the joke.
To me, though, the jokes others have made about this comic can threaten to surpass the source material. Is it a “so-bad-it’s-good” book? Absolutely. Is it a readable “so-bad-it’s-good” book? Not as much. Batman: Odyssey is a siren among comic books: endlessly enchanting, but mostly from a distance. Despite this, and despite my struggles in reading this book, I am endlessly grateful for it – along with all the new stupid jokes I can make from having read it.