Every two weeks, Big Issues focuses on newly released comic books of significance.
This week, they are Batman Annual #3 and X-Men Red #11. Written by Tom Taylor (All-New Wolverine, Injustice 2) with art by Rogê Antônio (Batgirl And The Birds Of Prey, Grayson), Otto Schmidt (Green Arrow, Nightwing), and colorist Rain Beredo (X-Men Blue, Aquaman), these two issues showcase how Taylor’s stories are driven by character striving to understand and resolve the problems of others. Note: This review reveals major plot points.
At the end of 2018, it’s easy to feel like the people in power just don’t care. Refugees are turned away from sanctuary with tear gas; rights of marginalized communities are systematically stripped away; political corruption runs rampant; mass shootings are an everyday occurrence; and little is being done to stop the rapid collapse of the environment. Empathy is in short supply from those who should have the most, but in the fantasy worlds of Tom Taylor’s superhero comics, those with extraordinary power hold themselves to a higher standard.
This has been a monumental year for Taylor, who wrapped up long runs on All-New Wolverine and Injustice 2 while launching X-Men Red, a series that refreshed the floundering X-line by tackling hot-button issues like government-propagated xenophobia and fear-mongering media manipulation. This week sees the conclusion of X-Men Red along with Taylor’s heartwarming exploration of Bruce Wayne and Alfred Pennyworth’s relationship in Batman Annual #3, two very different stories united by a shared central theme: empathy. X-Men Red explores empathy on a global scale while Batman Annual takes a more personal, intimate approach. In both instances, Taylor preaches the importance of understanding and compassion for your fellow man, regardless if they are your closest confidant or a complete stranger.
This empathetic philosophy is embodied by Jean Grey, one of the toughest nuts to crack in the superhero canon. Jean’s history is a total mess involving cosmic possession, death and resurrection, clones, and time travel, but in Taylor’s hands, all of that baggage is sorted to make Jean a radical leader committed to protecting mutantkind. Freed from the Phoenix Force after her most recent resurrection, Jean is able to tap into the full potential of her psychic ability without fear of turning into a tool of intergalactic genocide. She uses that power to combat bigotry and hatred, assembling a team of characters from different X-Men eras to take down one of their deadliest enemies: Cassandra Nova, the twin sister of Charles Xavier who wants to wipe mutants off the face of the Earth.
Taylor established himself as king of the superhero annual this year with three outstanding one-shots for X-Men Red, Injustice 2 (read more on that here), and Batman, and the X-Men Red Annual is one of the best Jean Grey stories ever written. It begins with a succinct definition of who Jean is after her most recent resurrection: “I’m alive again. But I need you to understand, I’m not content to return to the same life. I refuse to accept this world for how it is. I’m going to change it.” The issue goes on to address the years of stories Jean missed out on while she was dead, with Taylor firmly shutting the door on the misguided X-Men vs. Inhumans conflict by having Jean reach out to Black Bolt, the Inhuman king, to accept his apology for actions that led to her husband’s death. Most importantly, the annual shows Jean coming face-to-face with the prejudice that has intensified in her absence, making the decision to put an end to it by teaching others to reevaluate the roots of their intolerance and see their perceived enemies through a sympathetic lens.
The X-Men Red Annual spotlights how well Taylor works through the complicated histories of these characters to push them forward. X-Men Red has Jean carrying on the legacy of her late husband, Scott Summers, by taking a proactive role in protecting mutants around the world without having to worry about putting a school full of students in danger. This isn’t the first group of mutants with this type of goal, but Taylor makes this concept feel fresh thanks to the team lineup, the political angle of the narrative, and a sense of humor that balances out the high-stakes drama. Gabby “Honey Badger” Kinney is armed with a full stock of one-liners, and the team travels around on a giant, formerly mutant-hunting robot that has been reprogrammed by a new technopath mutant, Trinary, and painted over with rainbows and flowers. Taylor never forgets that superhero comics should be fun, and maintaining that excitement and joy throughout makes the reader root for the team’s success all the more.
X-Men Red #11 is a classic superhero free-for-all that has Jean’s team working with the Avengers and Namor’s Atlantean army to take down Cassandra Nova once and for all. Artist Rogê Antônio and colorist Rain Beredo get the opportunity to go wild with bombastic action, but the most impressive aspect of this conclusion is how Taylor resolves the conflict. Not by destroying the enemy, but by changing her. While Nova is distracted, Nightcrawler teleports Gabby’s hand directly into the villain’s skull, where she leaves a nanite Sentinel reprogrammed by Trinary to give Nova the empathy she lacks.
I’m not going to get into the complicated backstory of Cassandra Nova and the alien Mummudrai here, but the short version is that Nova reformed herself after being wiped out by her twin brother in the womb. During that process, she was put together wrong, used as a pawn by a destructive force that made her a being of pure hate. Jean Grey understands Cassandra Nova’s situation all too well. They’ve both been manipulated in order to cause catastrophic harm, and Jean finds a way to heal Cassandra and give her the opportunity to make amends. It’s a phenomenal resolution that has the hero recognizing the external forces that have influenced her enemy and working to eliminate those rather than placing all the blame on another victim. In the end, the thing that will stop Cassandra Nova is fostering empathy within her, and Jean Grey’s mission is to help the entire world celebrate the things that unite us rather than decrying the things that make us different.
Batman Annual is a much smaller story than X-Men Red, looking at empathy through the bond between two family members and the sacrifices they make for each other. Taylor broke into superhero comics at DC, where he gained popularity as the writer of the comic-book tie-in to the Injustice: Gods Among Us video game. That series and its sequel heavily featured Batman and Alfred’s relationship, and this week’s Batman story gives Taylor the opportunity to delve deeper into that dynamic in the main DC continuity. Titled “Father’s Day,” this standalone issue spotlights Alfred’s unwavering dedication to his employer, emphasizing the paternal role he’s taken in Bruce’s life since the death of his parents.
Alfred’s life changed with the phone call telling him that the Waynes had been murdered. He abandoned all of his personal goals to care for a broken little boy who desperately needed someone to love him, and Batman Annual #3 begins with a flashback to that tragic night. Taylor and artist Otto Schmidt pack a lot of emotion in these opening pages, and the image of a traumatized Bruce standing in the rain wearing an oversized coat fully captures his shock, sadness, and helplessness in that moment. Alfred’s top priority is caring for Bruce, and it remains his top priority until the present, when he’s a key partner in Batman’s war against crime. The rest of the issue focuses on one particularly trying night for the two of them, with Batman racing through Gotham City to prevent a series of drone strikes while fighting the flu. Like X-Men Red, this story captivates with a mix of humor, drama, and thrilling action, ending with a tender moment of appreciation that reinforces Alfred’s integral role in the Bat-mythos.
Schmidt’s artwork in this issue shows why he’s quickly become a top-tier superhero artist. His animated character expressions and body language heighten the emotional beats of the script while his action storytelling energizes the plot, and both of these aspects are enriched by his dazzling colors. The first shot of Batman in action makes incredible use of perspective and a slanted horizon line to thrust the reader into the scene. When Alfred takes to the street to save Bruce, Schmidt eliminates panel borders to accentuate the initial wave of disorientation before Alfred gains his bearings and kicks ass, bringing back individual panels as Alfred regains clarity.
Just because characters have empathy doesn’t mean they are free of anger. With both Jean Grey and Alfred, Taylor writes characters who rage against those who show no appreciation for the work others have done to make the world a better place. Jean has no patience for the bigots who attack the X-Men after they’ve saved the planet countless times, and Alfred berates two thieves for targeting an unconscious, bloodied, flu-ridden Batman before he beats them with their own weapons. Alfred acknowledges how much good Bruce does for the city, which is why he lets him continue his crusade when he’s in an obviously compromised state.
I haven’t seen Taylor’s script for this issue, but the specificity of the art suggests that he gives comprehensive detail about what information needs to be conveyed in each panel. This allows Schmidt to carry more of the narrative weight rather than overloading the page with narration and dialogue. It’s a common quality of Taylor’s comics, making them very easy to binge-read. One of the best examples of this is two complementary sequences that show the progression of Bruce’s character over the years as Alfred makes his way through Wayne Manor in the past and present.
The first sequence has Alfred rushing through the home on his way to the Wayne murder crime scene. He’s in a panic, throwing on his clothes as he runs past three chairs—one for each member of the Wayne family—and a portrait of Bruce with his parents. The second sequence has a much more relaxed tone. As Alfred listens to Batman fly a drone into a bridge, he calmly stands in front of the mirror to tie his bowtie. He strolls past two chairs and a couch before passing a photo of Bruce with his new family of superhero accomplices, then heads into the underground tunnel leading into the Batcave. Alfred’s silhouette is in the background of both of these pages, an important visual touch that situates Alfred as the force that helped Bruce get to a point where he could build a new family for himself after his devastating loss.
Alfred was the support system that helped that broken little boy grow into a hero that has not only saved his city, but the entire multiverse. Bruce can get so caught up in his personal duty that he forgets how much stress his never-ending battle against evil puts on the people who care about him the most, but the final pages of Batman Annual give Bruce an empathy boost as he realizes how much Alfred has done for him and what he can do to return that devotion. With Alfred recovering from his wounds, Bruce hangs up his cowl and lets his allies patrol the city so he can take care of his dad on Father’s Day. Taylor saves the reveal of the holiday for the very last panel, an image that shows Alfred biting into the crumpet left for him by Bruce, foregrounded by a photo of the two of them in the past with huge grins on their faces. It’s an immensely powerful final moment, highlighting how one man’s love rebuilt a shattered soul to give the world a savior.