Thanks to DC Entertainment and NetGalley for an exclusive advance reader’s edition of this title for the purposes of review.
When it comes to experimentation in the DC Universe, especially with Japanese-related genre crossovers, there are multiple instances that can be pointed out or recognized in recent memory. For example, just this year, DC fans were able to enjoy the original animated film Batman Ninja, which was a gleefully flamboyant story that took all of its ludicrous edges and created a slick experience with it. Now for avid comic book readers, the seemingly equivalent to Batman Ninja has been released, the first volume in the manga series Batman & the Justice League. However, despite some clever illustrations and artistic designs and the sheer novelty of having iconic superheroes being portrayed in such a stellar fashion, the graphic novel is overall a shallow experience, hollowed by weak characterization, confusing formatting, and an abrupt ending that left me as a reader neither excited for what the book actually provides in its story and what it hints at in further volumes.
When it actually comes to the titular subject of the series, I was confused by how singular and non-inclusive it seemed. The title Batman & the Justice League sounded less like a crossover event for the comic book ages and more like a standard affair where the Caped Crusader would have to partner with the Justice League as a separate entity. And judging by the content available in this first volume, it is hard to argue why that title choice was made. Meaning that there is very little use of any member of the Justice League outside of Batman. The one character who receives the most amount of spotlight is none other than the Man of Steel, but his inclusion is only limited to a few pages at best. It’s certainly a bold move on writer Shiori Teshirogi’s part, as he attempts to highlight brand-new characters he brings into the story including the young Japanese boy Rui who is on a frantic search to find his missing parents. This plot thread is unfortunately a mixed affair. It may have some clever ideas and the artistic design may be excellent. But it is all overshadowed by the blatantly annoying writing that illustrates it as some of the worst dialogue in recent memory for comic books. The dialogue often feels clunky and is never natural, much less instinctive as in other iconic DC graphic novels like Frank Millar’s The Dark Knight Returns. It causes the issue of the lack of usage of the Justice League members to be even more apparent as this plot thread takes up most of the entire length of the 188-page read. I will repeat that this decision is a bold one on the writer’s part and could have led to a refreshing form of storytelling for comic books, but instead feels more like a failed attempt at a brilliant concept.
In addition to the actual storytelling, the overall conclusion is far from ideal for any form of artistic medium. It is simply inexcusable for how poorly designed and executed this conclusion is. Leaving the reader on a sour note that neither causes intrigue for further volumes or excites the reader with what occurred in this book. While most authors should strive for both qualities in their conclusions, but having at least one of these aspects is better than having none at all. At least with the abrupt ending of Batman Vol. 7 there was some intrigue on a more compelling further volume. With how the first volume of this ambitious manga series wraps up, I feel no motivation or excitement to continue the series at all, a detrimental flaw from the writing.
But where this graphic novel makes up for its blatant shortcomings is in its artistic design. Like 2018’s riveting Batman Ninja, most of the art style seen in this entry is both novel and nostalgic. As a longtime DC fan, it was refreshing to see how new, foreign eyes treated such a wide array of characters and worlds. Even though the Justice League isn’t utilized to their full potential, their individual character models is compelling to say the least. They will most likely be the incentive for returning to future volumes as the novelty of seeing Ocean Master in such a unique light was so empowering for a graphic novel this year. Each frame feels like an expertly crafted painting that features stunningly accurate manga art. On the other hand, it is also nostalgic to its core as it plays mostly on its aspect that it is so faithful to other manga works. If a reader were to be placed in a scenario where they would have to decipher between this novel and other manga, they would most likely be stumped.
But where the artwork slightly falls apart is in its formatting. The dialogue bubbles are often placed in some incredibly ludicrous areas where it caused multiple moments where I had to examine and unscramble what the writer was trying to express. It’s an unnecessary hassle and probably can be avoided by any longtime manga fan, but as a newcomer to the genre it was jarring to say the least.
As a whole, this first volume in Batman & the Justice League is fascinating in both its artwork and sheer novelty. It poses some of the most ambitious experimentation from DC in months, ever since the release of Batman Ninja. But it has some critical flaws that cannot be overlooked by any fan. The storytelling is jagged, misleading, and even painful at times with some truly terrible dialogue sequences. The formatting is confusing to say the least for newcomers to manga and the ending is so abrupt as to where it provokes no excitement but instead causes frustration within the entire experience. Avid DC fans won’t hesitate to pick up this volume just for the novelty alone, but they should be aware about the critical storytelling issues that are within every page.
Score: 4.5 out of 10