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Batman: Offworld #1-3 (review)

Writer: Jason Aaron

Artist: Doug Mahnke

DC Comics, November 2023-January 2024

We have admired comic book writer Jason Aaron’s work for a long time. Some of the very first reviews on this website were to do with Mr Aaron’s work on The Mighty Thor, in what we naively hoped would be a permanent change of direction to that title – the vesting of the power of Thor to Jane Foster, Thor Odinson’s one-time love interest and cancer patient. Foster was worthy of the power of Thor because she set back the benefits of her cancer treatment every time she picked up the magic hammer to do good in the world (and beyond). On the face of it, Foster was much more worthy than Thor Odinson, who got the gig of being wielder of the hammer by merely being the son of an all-powerful king. Foster was an inspirational character. (One of our reviews of this title from 2018 is here, for those interested: ).

Mr Aaron’s method seems to be to find or create a motivation for heroism other than bland altruism. Mr Aaron no doubt spent some time trying to find some untapped emotional driver for Batman, in the lead-up to his first effort at writing the character’s adventures.

With DC Comics’ most popular character, however, there is not much soil left to till. This year is Batman’s 85th anniversary of creation, with no pause in publication during any of those decades. We have since 1937 seen evil Batmans, militarised Batmans, a Batman imbued with the omniscient power of a god, Bat-detectives, Bat-dads, Bat-cult leaders, uber-prepared Batmans, kitsch Batmans, Lego Batmans, mecha Batmans, an endless set of mirrors. Does Mr Aaron in this title give us Judge Dredd Batman? Well, yes, but more than that, too.

The story purports to take place a mere year into Batman’s long career. Here is the promotional copy from DC Comics:

A routine night in Gotham City for a young Batman proves to be anything but routine when the crime-fighter is confronted with a sort of foe he’s never faced before-one from beyond the stars! A universe of possible alien threats leads Batman to make a daring decision-to venture alone into the far reaches of the cosmos for the very first time, where the Dark Knight will face the fight of his life!
Superstar writer Jason Aaron delivers his first Batman story ever, partnered with blockbuster artist Doug Mahnke for a unique, brutal tale!

A reader could be forgiven for forming the view that they had inadvertently stumbled across some 2000AD parody of Batman. There is a masochistic set of robots called “punch-bots”, which are used to train warriors. “Please…” begs a ruined punch-bot. “Please won’t you… punch me some more?” And by issue three, the majestically absurd line, “Tell the stormers that all mutilation bonuses have just been tripled!”

And Batman is repeatedly belittled on the first issue of the title by aliens. “Appears to be rather piddling in size, sir” reports a navigator called a Weatherman to the captain of an enormous starship called the War Storm. “Even a worm can serve…” replies Captain Syyn, a hulking red alien with ram horns and a tentacled right hand. (Syyn is an Akkarian, which becomes significant later.) And when two terrifying alien soldiers come to retrieve Batman from his derelict starship, they call out, “Hey there little fella! You can come out now!” Batman being Batman, he causes pain and havoc, but is ultimately bested by Captain Syyn and thrown in with the general population of captives on board the vessel.

There is an internal monologue analysing Batman’s fight with Syyn, which includes a self-diagnosis of his nasty but not completely debilitating injuries (broken ribs and a dislocation), which is very typical of superhero stories. This cliche chat with the reader demonstrates how tough, detached, and fearsomely analytical the vigilante is, nursing broken bones and head injuries. But Syyn sticks Batman on menial duties because he is too “puny”. This diminishment of Batman is a humorous reversal of the way that the physically imposing character is regarded back on Earth. Mr Aaron seems to have borrowed casual underestimation of a combatant from the dystopian motion picture Mad Max: Fury Road (“Witness me, blood bag!”). It is funny to see a character so notorious in his physically capabilities talked down to as a wimp.

Other comedic elements include the aliens’ ignorance of what a bat is. The common assumption amongst the aliens is that Batman is dressed up as a bird. There are jokes made all the way through the first three issues about “the little birdie”, “bird boy”, and “love bird”. For long term readers of the character, whose principal sidekicks are called “Robin”, there are many moments of wry amusement in this incessant mockery of Batman’s garb. “Wonder if all the flightless birds back home are as screwy as this one?” Ione smirks to herself.

Ione is Batman’s principal off-world ally. She is a Tamaranian. Within DC Comics, Tamaranians are usually depicted as sexy and available. Ione is far removed from Koriand’r, the Tamaranian princess who is a member of the superhero group, the Titans. She has a scar across her nose, tattoos along her arms and throat, and either a cyborg eye or an Eclipso-style face marking. But she is, inevitably, attractive.

Ione shifts from being dismissive of Batman as laughable (in respect of Batman’s cape after he is captured, “But they left you your pretend wings. Probably their idea of a joke.”) to being romantically attached to him and following his leadership. It is an unnaturally fast-paced element to the plot, to have Ione decide to give up a career as a space-faring brawler and instead offer Batman an ongoing life of love. While we could shrug our shoulders and say, “Well, that’s Tamaranians for you,” the point of the stillborn romance with the attractive hell-raiser is to underscore the identity of Batman’s true love. This is something new, delivered by Mr Aaron: Batman shuns Ione for Gotham. “Boy, she must be really something, that old flame of yours that you can’t seem to quit. Gotham must be the most beautiful place that’s ever existed,” snarls a bitter Ione when Batman rejects her. Perhaps Mr Aaron is implying this is why Batman can never have a successful relationship. The character is hopelessly devoted to a place, and can never settle down with a woman. Even out in very deep space (we have not checked but we assume eight megaparsecs is far away) Batman is bound to Gotham.

The most startling aspect of character development that Mr Aaron brings to this title, however, is Batman’s lust for war. Batman’s war on crime is a well-established concept within the Bat-mythos (Mark Waid and Alex Ross’ Eisner and Harvey winning story from 1999 was entitled War on Crime). Batman: Off-World takes this concept of Batman as a warlord to a new level. There is an internal monologue which is electrifying:

“I was born in a mansion, with a butler bringing me tea. They take one look at me and think I don’t belong here. I must make them see the power of my devotion. I was not raised in combat. I chose it. I wake every day still bleeding from the night’s battles… And I chose war. All over again.”

This zealotry is something very new in the Batman mythos. Batman has never previously been portrayed as addicted to war. Mr Aaron spent a lot of time exploring war in The Mighty Thor, with the grinding War of the Realms storyline. We learn in the third issue of Batman: Off-World that Batman chose to go into space so as to learn how to defeat an Akkarian who has taken on a role as mob enforcer in Gotham City. Having been educated on how to do this from the Punch-Bot, and having demonstrated it on Syyn, Batman can return home to deal with the Akkarian. But Batman pauses, wanting to do something about the evil corporation, the Blakksun Mining Corporation, one step up from Syyn. Perhaps Mr Aaron has in mind Batman taking time out to liberate the Slag Galaxy, as a cosmic warlord leading an army with Bat banners flapping in the breeze of strange worlds. Gotham City Police Department would never know that Batman was temporarily Dune’s Paul Atriedes, intergalactic jihadist.

There are points at which the suspension of belief are more than strained. Most strikingly, Batman has many great and powerful friends who could take care of the Akkarian with ease (a glowing green power ring bubble would have quickly done the trick), rather than spending $542 million dollars on a deep space shuttle to take Batman to a place to learn some new fighting moves. But, the story is very entertaining nonetheless.

Artist Doug Mahnke is an old hand at drawing Batman, but his illustrations of a wide variety of aliens makes the story dazzle. The wild variety of aliens we see in the title’s artwork is reminiscent of motion picture The Fifth Element. Batman: Off-World is not the typical Batman comic set in dark and brooding rooftops illuminated by lightning (although we do get one page of that, too). The art instead sizzles with fluorescent and lurid skin tones, lights, lasers, holograms, and space effects courtesy of colourist David Baron.

Where to beyond Batman: Off-World, we wonder? How does bearing up garish aliens fit in with bearing up the thugs and murderers in Gotham? Ione would make a good permanent addition to Batman’s cast. There is a wonderful sequence with black humour which made us laugh. Ione presents herself as a liberator, giving hope to the enslaved. “All right, war stormers! Listen up! Those of you who would like the chance to return to being whatever sort of non-warring muckhead you were before you were brought to this place, my ship here is your ticket home!…. Not so fast, Nyrus. You think I’d forget about you?” and Ione shoots a hapless escapee in the head, apparently settling a grudge. Perhaps DC Comics’ violent interplanetary biker Lobo would be a better match for Ione. Batman along the way more or less tames a fearsome beast called a barbed wolf on a side trip on issue 2, and we are curious as to when the wolf will start being known as Ace. The Batcave would be a great home for an enormous alien predator.

In 2007, Grant Morrison wrote a storyline collected as JLA: Ultramarine Corps where Batman uses a spaceship to head out to a secret lab on Pluto. “I’m opening up the sci-fi closet, Alfred. Don’t tell my friends in the G.C.P.D. about this,” Batman says, literally opening a cupboard full of advanced technology. Morrison was making a joke about the incongruity of the Batman who helps the police fight horrible criminals with his fists, rope and smoke grenades, compared to the Batman who spends time in an orbiting satellite along with two super powered aliens, a sentient robot which can create tornados with his fists, and a man who can run forwards or backwards in time. In Batman: Off-World, Mr Aaron jams the sci-fi closet wide open, and it is hard to see how he can close it again. In the meantime, we should just enjoy the fun.