Batman: Urban Legends is a strange and strangely important book for DC Comics. Sporting a lead story written by longtime Marvel stalwart Chip Zdarsky, the 90-page anthology series is the first step into something new for the publisher. Not quite a total shift into the Japanese manga format of weekly/monthly anthologies, but a substantial package (both in terms of content and cost, with its $7.99 price tag) that is a rarity in monthly superhero comics due to a history of modern anthologies failing to attract readers. Thankfully, if Urban Legends #1 is any indication, the risk had paid off in a big way, as the debut is mainly fantastic.
Batman: Urban Legends #1
Red Hood and Batman
Eddy Barrows (artist), Becca Carey (letterer), Eber Ferreira (artist), Adriano Lucas (colorist), Marcus To (artist), Chip Zdarsky (writer)
Deron Bennett (letterer), Laura Braga (artist), Stephanie Phillips (writer), Ivan Plascencia (colorist)
Max Dunbar (artist), Luis Guerrero (colorist), Brandon Thomas (writer), Steve Wands (letterer)
Ryan Benjamin (artist), Antonio Fabela (colorist), Matthew Rosenberg (writer), Saida Temofonte (letterer)
March 16th, 2021
Urban Legends tells four stories from four creative teams. Two of them, Red Hood and Batman and Grifter, are the length of full single issues, while Harley Quinn and The Outsiders are shorter affairs. For ease of reading and to preserve my precious sanity, I’m going to tackle each one in the order they appear.
Red Hood and Batman, from Zdarsky, Barrows, To, Ferriera, Lucas, and Carey, is the best Red Hood story ever told. Full stop. As a long-time fan of the character (despite roughly 90% of stories featuring Jason Todd being terrible, written by a serial harasser, or both), it is just delightful to see a writer as talented as Zdarsky finally put the pieces together and pay off on the potential Red Hood has had all along. While it is titled as a co-starring story with Batman, it is undeniably a Jason Todd tale first and foremost, and Zdarsky makes a meal of it. Gone are the hollow quips and edgy vigilante violence that defined Red Hood for a decade, replaced with genuine pathos and a real dive into the character’s traumatic past.
The story, split between a present-day drug hunt and flashbacks to Jason’s childhood and resurrection, is devastatingly effective. Tying into Todd’s history of his mother’s death via drug overdose, Zdarsky manages to inject Jason with a vulnerability and charm that he has lacked for years, particularly when he decides to take on the protection of a possibly orphaned young boy instead of leaving him to the police. Barrows is a perfect fit for Gotham, especially paired with Lucas’ washed-out cool color palette, and makes every emotional beat hit like a sledgehammer. In comparison, To’s much cleaner, more refined linework in the flashbacks is a bit jarring but makes sense in the context of being a younger, more innocent Jason and Bruce.
Really, as a long-suffering fan of the sad gun boy known as Jason Todd, I was already won over by Urban Legends from the first story alone. Then Harley Quinn arrived and gave me something I’ve been asking for from DC for years.
Harley Quinn, by Phillips, Braga, Placencia, and Andworld Design, isn’t the flashiest or most action-packed story in the anthology, but it might be the most important. Building off of Harley’s new redemption-seeking status quo from Batman, the story swaps between a present-day return to one of Poison Ivy’s long-abandoned greenhouses and flashbacks to Harley and Ivy’s adventures together. The story itself is cute and leads into the Phillips-written Harley Quinn solo title well enough, but transcends its role as a short anthology story for what it makes officially, finally, canon in the DC Universe proper: Harley and Ivy’s romance.
DC had long-since tip-toed around the pair as a bit more than just gals being pals, ranging from innuendos and flirting in the Palmiotti/Conner Harley Quinn ongoing to professions of vague, not specifically romantic, love in the likes of Heroes in Crisis. Meanwhile, in alternate universe tales and media adaptations, the pair’s love was explicit and firmly defined. Thankfully, that has come to an end as Urban Legends lets Harley and Ivy share the first time they admitted their love for each other and their first on-panel romantic kiss in a mainline DCU series. The moments are just as beautiful and tender as anyone could hope, thanks to Lauren Braga’s outstanding grasp of body language and emotion, and elevate what could have been a forgettable anthology back-up into a landmark moment for one of DC’s most popular characters.
The Outsiders tale in Urban Legends is, well, the weak link of the anthology. Not for lack of effort, though, as Brandon Thomas’ work here and with the team in Future State makes it clear the writer has a fondness for the characters. Unfortunately, that fondness doesn’t translate to a particularly compelling story. A loose, somewhat confusing script paired with equally stiff and clunky art from Max Dunbar and downright obnoxious lettering from Steve Wands prevents the story from ever truly coming together. It isn’t an awful story; I’ve read much worse from DC this month, but with an entire length seemingly building to a lukewarm last page reveal, I can’t help but think Outsiders could have used its space in Urban Legends more effectively.
Finally, we have Grifter. Continuing his run with the character from Future State, Matthew Rosenberg’s story continues to solidify Cole Cash as the DCU’s go-to schlubby vigilante with a heart of gold under all the grime and whiskey. Not the most inventive direction for a scruffy white boy mercenary, but it’s hard to argue Rosenberg isn’t playing to his strengths as a writer. Unfortunately, Ryan Benjamin and Antonio Fabela aren’t as resoundingly solid choices for the masked gunman and drag the story a bit below the heights of Rosenberg’s Future State entries.
Following up on Grifter’s new role as Lucius Fox’s bodyguard in Batman, Cole is…not doing a particularly great job. Managing to start a fight with a VIP’s bodyguards, wear worn out Chucks to a black tie affair and spit-take on a guest’s fancy dress in the span of a few pages, it looks like high-class bodyguard may not be in the cards for the con-man-merc much longer. Rosenberg is a proven talent at writing trash fire protagonists who still manage to charm, Hawkeye Freefall alone would solidify that, but this issue feels a little more rote than past efforts. Grifter’s unnamed, unseen radio companion is the biggest culprit here, having the most groan worthy lines of the story and crossing the line into overly-snarky. While the Nick Miller-with-a-gun antics are a delight, the most interesting part of the story comes in the mystery it introduces to the DC Universe.
Opening on a flashback to Cole’s pre-Grifter days with Team 6, the story seems to retcon several Wildstorm mainstays back into the DCU for the first time since the early days of the New 52. Wildstorm’s fate has been up in the air for a few years following The Wild Storm from Warren Ellis and Jon Davis-Hunt, seemingly (rightfully), memory hole’d in the wake of the many accusations of harassment and abuse towards Ellis. With Grifter and the HALO Corporation suddenly taking a prominent role in Tynion’s Batman and Team 6 being tied into the DCU’s past, the pieces are beginning to come together as far as what Wildstorm might look like going forward.
And that’s Batman: Urban Legends #1. It’s not quite DC’s answer to Shonen Jump, but it’s not quite a traditional modern monthly anthology either. It’s something genuinely new for the publisher, and that alone would be exciting. Thankfully, three of the four stories featured range from good to outstanding and Outsiders isn’t outright terrible. It’s a big ask to have readers cough up $7.99 a month in a healthy economy, let alone the capitalist hellscape most readers call home, but Urban Legends makes the price feel earned. It’s a meaty, substantial debut featuring stories from an exciting collection of creators and characters that helps give a spotlight to characters that may not have found it elsewhere. I don’t know if other Urban Legends-esque series are in the works at DC, but if they manage to maintain this level of quality and quantity, I sure hope there are.