Finally: The Complete And Utter Insanity Of ‘Batman: Odyssey,’ Part 6
This is a post three years in the making. Way back in 2011, David Wolkin and I attempted to deconstruct the madness of Batman: Odyssey, an incomprehensible masterwork by legendary Batman artist (and legendarily terrible Skateman writer) Neal Adams that quickly established itself as the most insane comic we have ever read. When the series was renewed for a glorious second volume, we completed four additional reviews -- but stopped just short of the last two issues.
Our recaps were gratifyingly well-received, inspiring fan art, live readings and even cantankerous comments from Neal Adams himself (or so we choose to believe). And for the last three years, people have been tweeting at us, e-mailing us and asking us at conventions when we would finally complete our coverage of Batman: Odyssey.
That day is today.
David: I'd like to start out by noting that since we started reviewing Batman: Odyssey, I've been through two major job transitions, met and started dating the woman I would go on to marry, and moved from Brooklyn to Maryland.
Laura: I stepped down as Editor-in-Chief of ComicsAlliance, moved to San Francisco, became a Senior Editor at WIRED for a year and a half, and moved back to Portland.
David: But one thread in our lives has remained consistent: In all that time, we've never stopped thinking about the final two issues of Batman: Odyssey. It is the giant whale to my Ahab or something. One of the issues we reviewed was so insane that, if memory serves, I had to adopt a kitten to get over it. That's not actually a joke. He's sitting next to me right now, and he's three years old.
Laura: What backstory do new readers need to know in order to begin this experience?
David: Batman and Robin are pursuing a martial arts expert named Sensei into a strange underground society deep inside the hollow Earth. So far, they have encountered GMO human-animal hybrids who were also the original Egyptian gods, jive-talking wizards, dinosaurs, half-human half-dinosaur lizard people, and little green aliens. When we left off at the end of issue #5, they were in the midst of a tribe of trolls who were holding Talia al Ghul hostage. I've left a lot out.
Laura: Sensei is notably the son of Batman villain R'as al Ghul, despite the fact that he looks like a stereotypical elderly martial arts master. And again, his actual name is Sensei. He's on a quest to kill his father because, if memory serves, he didn't get to use the Lazarus Pit as much as he wanted?
David: Something like that. And he escaped from prison by using bees.
Laura: The key structural note here is that reading this comic is a lot like climbing through a narrative Escher painting; in its top-most layer, Batman (or as we dubbed him in his shirtless days, Nude Bruce) is forever telling a mysterious Exposition Hostage a long series of a stories that jump forward and backward in time to other stories that seem to have little or no connection to each other, and often involve Adams' deeply held pseudo-scientific belief that the earth is actually hollow and expanding. For the purposes of the comic, the hollow center of the Earth is where Neanderthal Batman lives.
David: At the beginning of the penultimate issue, we start to get a little more insight into the Exposition Hostage whom Bruce has been talking to for the entire story. The mystery man is apparently a writer who wants to write up everything Bruce has been telling him.
Laura: Note how glowingly the Exposition Hostage speaks about the story--which also happens to be the story of the comic itself. Despite all evidence to the contrary, he insists that it has "been goin' great!" and will likely be worthy of a Pulitzer Prize. I admire your hubris, Neal Adams.
David: Have we ever, in the past, seen a creator insert his opinion of the story he's telling into the story itself? It's transcendent chutzpah.
David: Meanwhile in another story, Batman and his crew are flying on their giant bats inside the Earth after the troll Civil War, when a giant bird appears, dive-bombing them all from the sky. Because somehow there is a sky in the center of the Earth? Batman initially says "NO!" to killing the bird and spends two pages talking about how killing is bad, and then proceeds to facilitate its grotesque murder. It's worth noting a big theme in this comic is Batman saying something is bad, and then doing it.
Laura: We learn that the giant bird has been plaguing the Neanderthal people of the Hollow Earth for generations, and was the entire reason Neanderthal Batman became a hero. Naturally, we learn this after the bird is dead, because nothing makes a battle more suspenseful than discovering why it was important after it's over.
David: What happens next is my favorite part of this issue. The Exposition Hostage jumps in and says, "Hold on! You're leaving important details out of this compete mess of a story!" The story itself acknowledges that the story makes no sense, while at the same time saying that it's the best story ever.
Laura: "You don't want to tell me about the conversation?" asks the Exposition Hostage. Bruce does not. He wants to tell a completely different story about the time he kicked it with the actual Egyptian gods.
David: Yes, Batman responds to someone interrupting a story to asking about a story by launching into a WHOLE OTHER STORY ABOUT A WHOLE OTHER TIME SOMEWHERE IN THE STORY
Laura: To be clear, did this next story happen before or after the exploding bird and/or the battle with Sensei?
David: I want to go back to my tradition with this. There is a rabbinic axiom that there is no before and after in the Torah. And I think it has tremendous application in Batman: Odyssey. Meanwhile, in the new story, Bruce leaves the Egyptian gods to descend through a series of waterfalls, an experience that he narrates in the voice of the world's clumsiest comp lit major.
David: But nothing can prepare the reader for what comes next, Laura. The point at which Batman's odyssey literally becomes The Odyssey. The point at which... Batman fights a cyclops.
Laura: This cyclops also has the power of telepathy, and so Batman naturally decides to fight him using the deadliest psionic weapon of all: puns.
Laura: Then, after defeating the cyclops with the dread power of dad jokes, Batman immediately threatens to murder him with a gun. Here is a list of things that Batman done repeatedly throughout this series: 1) carry a gun 2) shoot that gun 3) threaten to kill someone (with or without a gun) 4) think to himself, maybe I would kill someone 5) deny that he would ever kill someone.
David: Oh man, you're gonna love the last issue.
David: The next page brings us the revelation of the Exposition Hostage. And it's... Clark Kent! My favorite thing about the next five panels of Bruce and Clark talking is that Adams makes a point of having Alfred slowly walk by in the background with a cup of coffee on a tray that is meant for... nobody? (Keurig coffee, by the way)
Laura: Robin and Alfred protectively circle around Bruce while he gesticulates wildly and mutters about whether or not he wants to murder people -- which follows numerous incidents of pointing and even firing guns towards civilians. Is it possible that this is an intervention? Like when Batman has a complete and total break with reality, isn't Superman probably the first guy you call?
David: Here are two things Batman says within one page: "I could kill Hitler." And then: "I WILL NEVER KILL!"
Laura:: One dialogue bubble later, Bruce immediately reiterates that he will, in fact kill. Obviously, this is what the intervention is about.
Laura: CUT TO A TOTALLY DIFFERENT PLACE AND TIME WHERE BATMAN AND TALIA ARE CONFRONTING R'AS AL GHUL. Talia punches her father and accuses him of "sipping Ouzo and watching sports" while she was kidnapped by gnomes, and then throws a vase at his head while Alfred serves them iced tea.
David: I would like to see a comic about Ra's Al Ghul sipping ouzo and watching sports. I want that to be a goddamn deleted scene in Batman Begins.
Laura: And with that we enter the final issue of Batman: Odyssey, which does not begin with Nude Bruce or Exposition Superman. Instead, its cover depicts the World's Greatest Detective desperately chasing rats through a sewer.
David: And his narration is wonderful: "I'm sorry...for the lameness of my words." The self-awareness here never ceases to amaze me. Adams was like, "This narration is sort of weak. I'll just have Batman apologize for me."
Laura: I don't think I've ever seen a comic actually apologize for its own writing.
David: Can you imagine if every comic book writer did this? "I'm sorry about the systemic sexism that caused me to wear this outfit."
Laura: It's time for the long-awaited final fight between Batman and Sensei, and since this entire comic functions according to dream logic, they're suddenly not in Wayne Manor anymore, but rather Arkham Asylum with Batman's entire rogue's gallery watching them and shouting bizarre commentary like "ACQUIT YOURSELF, YOU KUNG FU MOVIE GURU!"
David: They're watched by the gleeful audience that includes Clayface, and Bane, and Catwoman, and Poison Ivy, and Scarecrow, and... a gorilla in a baseball cap.
Laura: First, Neanderthal Batman is fighting Sensei, then Robin is fighting a bunch of gnomes, and suddenly the Egyptian gods have come up from inside the Hollow Earth. Then Batman comes in and says he's defeated all of Sensei's assassins, whom we never saw. He was able to wipe them out because, and I quote, "for some reason they cried out the computer links to your cells. Interpol is following up." What does it mean?
David: No ideas. What I do know is that this fight is awesome. The first thing we learn is that both Sensei and Batman have the ability to "change time" when fighting -- or "tailor time.” There are only five people in the world who can do this. They are... The Time Tailors. Which I think might just mean they can punch really fast.
Laura: Batman is a Time Lord of Punches. Got it.
David: There are some sick moves in this fight. Sensei tries to punch batman in the spine, and he CATCHES THE PUNCH WITH HIS SHOULDER BLADES.
Laura: Everybody else just stands around mouthing off. My favorite part is when Robin calls Ra's al Ghul a "bag of cow chips.” And Sensei proclaims, in a panel straight out of fanfiction, that Batman is the one he really wants. "It is you...and only you have what I want... What I need."
David: In the middle of this fight with Sensei, Batman flashes back to another fight with Sensei where we learn that Batman and Sensei planned this all along. Good god, did they go to way too much trouble. Like, I'm sure they could have engineered a fight without the traveling to the middle of the earth? This is followed by a beautiful two-page spread of Batman blowing out Sensei's insides with a handgun, because Batman doesn't kill and Batman doesn't use guns.
Laura: If we've learned two things in Batman: Odyssey, it's 1) that the Earth is hollow, expanding and full of dinosaurs and 2) Batman might kill you with a gun.
David: Then Batman tells all of his villains that he will straight up murder them if they ever hurt civilians or cops. RUN AND HIDE (EVEN THOUGH YOU'RE IN PRISON) AND GO BASICALLY DO WHATEVER THE HELL YOU WANT UNLESS YOU KILL TWO SPECIFIC CATEGORIES OF PEOPLE IN WHICH CASE I WILL FULLY KILL YOU MYSELF
Laura: Joker says he does not find any of this funny, when in fact I think the Joker would find Batman killing someone to be very amusing.
David: It's probably the funniest thing the Joker would ever see.
Laura: Hasn't he been trying to get Batman to do that for his entire criminal career?
David: 100% exactly yes.
Laura: Neal Adams is essentially saying, "but wouldn't Batman be a lot more effective if everyone thought he loved to shoot people with guns?"
David: Yes, the message Batman is sending is, "I WILL KILL YOU IF I HAVE TO BUT I WON'T EVER ACTUALLY KILL YOU"
Laura: "... OR WILL I? (I WON'T)"
David: Let's get to the end of this story and how it makes precisely zero sense whatsoever. It cuts to two weeks later, when Bruce and Dick present an orphaned baby to a random couple, which has nothing whatsoever to do with anything in this book that I can detect. They don't explain this (surprise), but the baby is Sensei? Turns out the thing that Batman could do, that no one else could do, was help Sensei go Benjamin Button.
Laura: It is as though after the death of Bruce Wayne's parents, a baby came flying through the window instead of a bat. “I SHALL BECOME... AN ADOPTION COUNSELOR”
David: I feel like a much greater threat to the villains would not be, "I WILL KILL YOU," but rather, "I WILL TURN YOU INTO A BABY AND ALLOW A LOVING COUPLE TO ADOPT YOU." Man, I really hope this is the plot for that Batman vs. Superman movie. It's just Bruce and Clark drinking Keurig coffee together and talking about the time Batman went on a ludicrous journey in the center of the earth so that he could turn his enemy's 2,000 year old son into a baby.
Laura: His word is his bond, David.
Laura: And that's... the end. Wow, we finally got here, David. How do you feel, now that it's all over? About our odyssey?
David: I wouldn't say I've learned anything about myself. But I am proud to have traveled this road with you.
Laura: If nothing else, Neal Adams has given us that. Isn't that what comics do for so many people? Bring them together to have experiences that are bigger and better than even the comics themselves?
David: That is... sure, yes. And it also gave us Alfred making sex hands. Never forget.