A Fresh Start or the Same Old Garbage?
A bit of context before we begin; Batman/Superman (Superman/Batman) is a series that really hasn't had any right to exist since its inception. Jeph Loeb's initial run was awful, and this was while he still had some credibility to his name; so the series really started off badly and never picked up steam. The best issue was actually a Halloween special with Damian Wayne and Supergirl. That's right, the best issue of Superman/Batman featured neither titular character. Essentially this was one of the few titles that could (and has) benefited from being rebooted after an absence. While most New 52 restarts were pretty unnecessary, this one was needed, asthe Superman/Batman (rebranded Batman/Superman, in a move that makes alphabetical sense but that will no doubt infuriate Superman fans everywhere) series has obvious staying power (lasting well over 75 issues) and it makes money, but despite that, it's never been very good. And so we now have a reboot/revamp which will hopefully make a major readership draw actually worth the money people will inevitably pay for it.
To begin, Jae Lee is one of the unsung masters of interior art in modern comic books. He has drawn two of the best (and largely ignored) miniseries of all time in Inhumans and The Sentry. He's done work for the often excellent, always overlooked Ultimate Fantastic Four (if you want to read UFF, stop at Ultimatum. I could not be more serious; stop there.) and now he's brought his talents to a flagship title for DC Comics. So how does he stack up? Excellently, of course. The colourist changes 2/3rds of the way through the issue to illustrate a certain important change, and this works very well. It's clear that the change has taken place and that something different is occurring.
Something that Jae Lee uses to a tremendous degree is negative space. Basically, he draws very simple, or even sometimes non-existent backgrounds, and instead focuses on the characters and the action occurring at that time. This will frustrate people who like lavish and detailed backgrounds, which is understandable, but the strength of this technique is that Lee is able to focus on what matters. What is important in a panel is obvious, because it's often the only thing there. It allows for a much smoother reading experience. The other advantage is that when a background is drawn in, and detailed, it really stands out. A good example is the almost nightmarish statue and tentacled plant life that sets up the first contact between our two heroes. If one examines the statue closely, you can see that there are two gargoyle-like things facing opposite directions. They're identical sculptures, only one is bathed in light and the other is hidden by darkness. It's a nice touch for a comic starring these two. And for the very few Sentry fans on this site, that cover is clearly a homage to The Sentry vs Void. In fact, the way the art is structured in this series, it wouldn't surprise me if Jae Lee got the job based on that run, which also examined two sides of the same coin, one in darkness, the other in light.
As for the story, it is (unlike the art) not faultless. Greg Pak sets up the stage very nicely with an intimate character moment between Bruce and Clark, yes, Bruce and Clark, not Batman and Superman, and this is really quite enjoyable to read. The Superman here is much more like his pre-52 version, in that he's not trying to be cutting edge or cool, he's just trying to do the right thing. He walks one path and Bruce walks another, they're both right in what they do, but they're right in different ways, and this is terrific to read, and something that is often misunderstood by writers when these two are together. So often one is correct and the other is being belligerent, and the reader is kind of forced to chastise one character and support the other, which isn't how the two greatest comic book characters should be written. And then there's the other method which is to write both as a pair of sanctimonious, stubborn imbeciles who need to be shot, but we're not talking about Johns' Justice League. In a nutshell, despite my rambling, what I am saying is that the first third of this comic is very, very good and reads exactly how one would want the first chapter of this new saga to read.
The second act, however, is when things fall a bit flat. A random and totally unnecessary appearance by a Batman rogue would have been better served as just a generic goon, since the cameo was awkward and just there for the sake of it. We then have a fight between the two heroes as is required for all New 52 comics. We go through the standard motions of a first Batman/Superman battle with Batman analysing Superman's abilities and trying to find a weakness, then looking for an escape route when he realises that Supes doesn't have any (apparent ones at least). It's the same thing you've read a hundred times before and really doesn't do anything for the issue at all. Thankfully it only lasts three pages, but when you're opening a new series you don't want to waste three pages on the same old stuff. It's boring and doesn't add to the story in any way. The same thing could have been accomplished in one page, giving us an additional two pages for some new ideas and to really grab the reader's attention.
There's also a silly part where Batman clearly associates himself with Wayne Enterprises and then uses a security system to go after "the Cat". One is then left wondering how a prototype security system would discern that "Catwoman" was "the Cat" considering it most likely does not have random criminals inside its database and that Catwoman is humanoid in shape, not feline. This was done in order to isolate Batman and Superman and give a moment for the Big Bad, but it's just not well executed and comes off as kind of stupid.
The other problem I had here was that Superman had become far more like his New 52 approach in that he punches people really hard and then hopes that they're bad guys. If they're not, oh well, that's only a few dozen broken bones. It was in-character for the New 52, out of character for the likeable Clark from earlier in the issue.
Finally we reach the third act and crux of the issue. Some would argue that the third act justifies the previous three page fight, and I would disagree since the next issue will not be a continuation of said fight. Essentially this would have all worked the same had Superman and Batman just engaged in a one-page scuffle that ended the same way. Nevertheless, the third act, though short, is enticing in the respect that it establishes something new for the reader. It's not just Batman and Superman vs new bad guy, and it's not some painfully dull event where every hero fights each other and then battles the the new alpha-god of the week. While the execution is a little hard to swallow (Superman just starts beating someone up who is clearly showing concern for him), the idea itself is good and, more importantly, interesting. The cliffhanger does what a cliffhanger should, and we're curious to see what happens next week.
All in all Batman/Superman is not the greatest story ever told. It's not going to change the way you think about comics, but that's what's good about it; it's not trying to. It's just an interesting story about two great characters with spectacular art. What made me the happiest however, was this was the first time that Superman and Batman have appeared in a comic book together and not made me wish that both were in limbo. This felt like Batman. This felt like Superman. And this felt like an issue of a series starring the two. It wasn't some gimmick title written by a guy that's writing only for himself, it was just a story about Batman and Superman. It wasn't perfect, anyone who tells you it was is being a little overzealous, but it was good and in the current climate of pointless events, character desecration and idiotic gimmicks, a high-profile comic book being good is something to be excited about.