I’ve been meaning to write this up for a while, but I’ve just been so busy that I’m only now getting around to it! A couple weeks back, I finished the original run of Outsiders. That includes Batman and the Outsiders Vol. 1, Adventures of the Outsiders (a continuation of BatO vol 1 sans Batman), and Outsiders Vol. 1 (a deluxe format monthly that ran concurrently with the conclusion of BatO post-Crisis, taking place one year after).
Outsiders was a title with peaks and valleys in its relatively brief run. By the time it was cancelled, it’s hard to not look at it as a mercy killing. I won’t say that Looker’s arrival ruined the Outsiders, but many of its best stories predate her addition to the team. After Jim Aparo left the original title, Mike Barr’s writing was still on enough to deliver some great stories, but by the time Jim had left the deluxe format title to other artists, like Erik Larsen (who drew Geo-Force’s chin longer than the rest of his head from the lip up), Mike had started writing for a main-line Batbook and was phoning it in a bit.
The Outsiders were never a great superhero team, and a lot of their team fights were run-of-the-mill Silver Age schlock (to which it was sort of an homage, if not the last gasp). The real charm of the Outsiders was in the deeply personal moments that these characters would sometimes share with each other and the reader.
For instance, Katana begins as a very complex character; she’s lost her husband and her child and sworn bloody vengeance. Batman helps temper some of that vengeance, and taking care of Halo stirs her maternal instincts, though there’s the tension of being an adoptive mother of a teenage daughter that she has to work through. One of the great touches that I wish more had been done with was Bruce setting Tatsu up with her own oriental bookstore in Gotham as a front; she gets the ball rolling to open a store of her own on the West Coast in the deluxe series, but nothing ever comes of it. You can’t imagine how much I would love a series of Katana solving cozy oriental occult mysteries out of her bookstore. Unfortunately, Katana spends much of Outsiders Vol 1 just being the close-combat character with no powers who speaks in stilted English. While much of Katana’s personal drama actually does get resolved to satisfactory degrees (something I gather that gets rolled back in later books), the series misses out on opportunities to develop her further.
Halo goes through a pretty powerful arc, and has a rough ride, learning she was never human to begin with, finding her human host body was a terrible person, and nearly being absconded with by Kobra cultists while trying to find herself. She unfortunately spends much of Outsiders Vol 1 filling in the twee teenager role, but without near as many of the touching moments, such as when she and Brion were teased at as a couple but mutually backed away—the great “you’re like a sister/I’ve never had a brother before” moment was powerful, especially given Terra’s death over in Titans, but it was a bond that never really developed deeply.
Fans were often split as to whether Katana or Black Lightning were Batman’s #2 on the team while he was leading it. Many folks in the letters especially wished to see Black Lightning step up into the leadership role. And I’ll give Outsiders Vol 1 this: the arc where BL is wanting to try to get back on better terms with his ex-wife, but the African politician behind the food aid charity she’s working with turns out to be an evil dictator who’s stealing the money and turning his country into a Soviet satellite really was the best the deluxe run had to offer. And it was good. But Geo-Force was, for story reasons, the nominal team lead.
Except once Batman left, Brion kinda lost his chill, and Looker showing up to cheat on her husband (and lead Brion to cheat with Denise) didn’t help things. Looker, who was something of a knock-off of Dazzler, is portrayed as a chronic narcissist, is drawn like a drag queen, and never gets any character development beyond “Thot who cheats on her husband who misses her deeply”. Which is a real shame, because her origin arc in the final issues of BatO was really good and set her up to be a potentially better character than she ultimately ended up being.
Metamorpho was pretty great throughout. I really have no complaints where Rex was concerned other than the fact that he gets killed off for the garbage Millennium Crossover. He doesn’t get Ben Grimmed too hard, but his condition does give him some motivation. Stuff with he and Sapphire Stagg was solid, and just before he’s killed off, the two of them adopt a child together.
I get that it was a way they could end the comic and it had to tie into Millennium somehow, but making Dr. Jace a Manhunter sleeper agent was a terrible choice. After Batman left, she became the de facto team coordinator (if not leader), since Brion was usually having mantrums. She helped keep the team together, and really even played a role in starting it, since it was she who gave Brion his powers. Making Looker, who had sewn discord among them members of the team pretty much from the moment she showed up to the last battle with the Manhunters, the mole would’ve been a much better twist than making Dr. Jace suddenly evil for no reason.
Barr wrote a brutal, violent, and often petulant Batman, yet somehow his other characters from Outsiders tended to shine the brightest when he was around. His return at the end of Outsiders Vol 1. and the appearance in the Annual (a story that made me reconsider whether Kobra was trash-tier) were bright spots not for him, but for the other team members, but it wasn’t quite enough. Halo’s haircut, Looker being foisted front-and-center on so many occasions, and the character development that made first run what it was getting kind of tossed in some cases, flatlined in others, left an ensemble title with the ensemble spread thin even when the stories themselves were solid.
It sounds like I’m dumping really hard on a series that I do love, but I guess I kind of am. I’ll admit that a lot of the love I have for the Outsiders is for the potential that the characters and the title had that ultimately go unrealized. But I don’t want anyone to think that there weren’t high points. There were. Lots of them. And that’s why it was hard to watch a title that had so many great moments and great character development begin to grow stale and flanderize some of its best characters.