To be honest, I sometimes worry about things like Batman. I know that in a world plagued with real problems, it is mostly ridiculous to care about the portrayal of a comic book character, but if comic books are one of the ways I choose to escape the kung-fu grip of reality, I will likely find myself worrying about my unreality. The way things were in 2006, when I stopped reading comics regularly, my unreality was in a shambles. Batman, my barometer for all things mainstream comic book, had been brought low by the events of Identity Crisis and, in DC’s mad scramble to create another Hush, he’d been pushed through some pretty lame storylines across his own books. In Detective Comics, he stopped detecting. In Batman, he did more brooding over ancient history than punching the crap out of crime. Jason Todd was coming back. Bruce Wayne was going to die or be zapped to the past or something. His mind had been erased. There were chinks in the armor. It was too much to truly care about. But nothing will attract my attention quite like promising a line-wide relaunch, so here I am, reviewing all 52 of DC’s new number ones while the company presses on, this month releasing issue #3s and, for the first time in quite awhile, actually eating into Marvel’s previously unchallenged marketshare. Once again, I find Batman to be my barometer. If the Bat books are shaky, with this much on the line, why bother? I’m racing to catch up with the DC Universe, so today, and until I’ve written about all 52 new books, I’ll be cramming my reviews together. Here are my thoughts on Batman #1, Batman and Robin #1, Batman: Dark Knight #1, and Detective Comics #1. This, too, will serve as a preview of how weekly comic book reviews will be handled in the near and glorious future when I’m not trying to get my bearings in a strange new universe.
Writer: Scott Snyder / Artist: Greg Capullo
Were I the sort who judged a book by its cover, the sight of the Riddler with his hair buzzed to a green question mark would have turned me off of Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo’s take on Batman immediately. That’s not the Riddler I want, I would have bemoaned, little realizing that that the Riddler I want is, in all likelihood, the one of my imagination. It’s easy to project my expectations, my wants, my wishes onto a comic book, easier still to not pick one up because it seems like those things will not be satisfied in 22 pages, for three dollars, but the Riddler was hardly a factor in Batman #1, which, beyond featuring the most interesting detective narrative of the four big Bat books, also had the most compelling take on Bruce Wayne the philanthropist. I don’t know if it was editorial edict to have Bruce spend half the pages of his books standing behind a podium at a fundraiser or cocktail party, talking hopefully of one project or another, but the Bruce Wayne of Batman #1, issuing platitudes about what Gotham City is (“Gotham is hell,” “Gotham is damned,” “Gotham is Batman,” etc.) and the wisdom of his father, does more to show Batman’s sense of civic pride and obligation more than the Bruce Wayne who promises not to give birth to a cannibal, to not be afraid of the unknown. Batman here is much more capable of putting on a public face and, early, it leads to something more interesting than a confrontation with the thousandth cop to piece together the Wayne/Batman connection.
The mystery at the center of this book, involving the grisly murder of a man with the use of old throwing knives, is also compelling, though the twist and the end of the book comes off as a little expected, and will likely wind up being some kind of framejob. Scott Snyder’s script effectively flips the switch from Bruce Wayne: Philanthropist to Batman: World’s Greatest Detective, though it probably helps that the touches defining both are familiar: Batman is always encroaching on Bruce Wayne, making him look absent minded at times, and the way the threat on Bruce Wayne’s life is handled comes straight out of the past. Though these elements lack novelty, it is good to see the character getting back to basics.
Batman is worth returning to, perhaps the biggest reason being Greg Capullo’s art. Of the Batman family books, only J.H. Williams III’s Batwoman has a more captivating take on Gotham City, though Capullo’s is closer to what I’ve always identified as the “real” Gotham, the one of Batman: The Animated Series. He draws a dynamic Batman, at once human and cartoon, and while the Arkham Asylum slugfest that opened the book was a little bland, brief glimpses of his Two-Face, Clayface, and Mr. Freeze have me looking forward to possible future storylines involving those characters.
Batman and Robin #1
Writer: Peter J. Tomasi / Artist: Patrick Gleason
If Batman and Robin #1 (and likely the Grant Morrison Batman and Son arc that preceded it) is anything to go by, having a superhero as a father would not be a cool experience. Matter of fact, it’d be a life fraught with mistrust, disobeyed orders, and, perhaps worst of all, constant bickering. It’s not that Batman isn’t cool, because what isn’t cool about fighting crime and driving souped up machines of death? The problem is that Damien Wayne, the fifth person to take up the mantle of Robin, is a petulant, self-important brat, and, even if that’s the way he’s supposed to be, I’m not going to cop well to a 10-year-old pointing in Batman’s face while yelling about being “light years ahead” of the other Robins.
Maybe Damien (hopefully not named after the kid from The Omen) and his sour temperament are the result of being raised by the League of Assassins, but, as written by Peter J. Tomasi, the relationship between Batman and Robin is stock parent/teen disagreement, but over ridiculously high stakes like irradiated fuel rods. When they speak to each other, it feels a bit like Edward Furlong talking to the Terminator, if Furlong’s John Conner suddenly desired for his pet cyborg to start waxing random passers-by. I don’t know that the failings of Batman and Robin #1 are Tomasi’s–usually a solid hand–or those of the character at the heart of this book. At the center of the Batman/Robin partnership has always been Bruce’s obligation to whatever orphan was dropped on his doorstep. The thing was, those characters–even Tim Drake, by no means a victim of tragedy until Identity Crisis–had a way of humanizing Batman that socialite girlfriends and weekly dinner parties couldn’t. They needed him, and he needed them. I get the sense that Damien is relatively unchanged by the shifting circumstances of his life, that his conflict doesn’t involve learning to be a hero or learning to accept Bruce as his father, but that he’s going to constantly be whining about a perceived lack of respect. If the goal here was to create a completely unlikable Robin, mission accomplished. Eventually, I hope Batman hauls off and decks the kid for his endless backtalk. Or that I get to phone in a vote for him to be blown up in an abandoned shed.
That being said, Patrick Gleason’s art is stunning. Scrumptious. If it were in service to a character I enjoyed, I’d buy two copies so I could hand one to strangers and tell them to see how great a Batman comic can look. The Crime Alley sequence, in particular, is A+ stuff, an elevation of material long taken for granted. Were the issue printed without dialog, there’d be something touching about a father taking his son to the last place he saw his parents, the shower of pearls in the gutter, the floating of a paper boat into the great unknown. But that Damien’s got a mouth, man. “You can’t just build a boat and hope darkness sails away with it,” he says, but it’s like Look kid, he can do whatever he wants. He’s the goddamn Batman.
Batman: Dark Knight #1
Writer (Co-Plotter): Paul Jenkins / Artist (Co-Plotter): David Finch
The first image in Batman: Dark Knight #1 is the Gotham skyline, crowded with three blimps and a universe of spotlights. It’s likely that this is ultimately significant of nothing, but combined with the Arkham Asylum breakout (another one?), the giant reception Bruce Wayne speaks at (another one?), and that the first thing Batman does is fly his plane through Gotham, rappel down to the buildings, change into civvies and zipline across town to be on time for his speech on Fear: A Cannibal, Batman: Dark Knight feels a bit like Jenkins and Finch’s interpretation of The Greatest Batman Hits of the 90s, where everything was big, bold, and, above all else, toyetic.
All of that plays to Finch’s strength as an artist, in particular his ability to lavish a scene in detail, but so much of it is utterly unnecessary. The board room scene, the Arkham breakout. I don’t have a problem that this has happened across so many of the new Batman #1s, but that it’s happened so much period, and that there’s pretty much nothing new under that particular rock. I imagine it’ll be important somehow–how did that weird rabbit-woman get into Arkham? who enabled the issue’s pivotal change to Two-Face? how?–but my concern in reading Batman: Dark Knight isn’t Bruce or Batman or his detective work, and not even the unfortunate and fundamental change in direction Two-Face undergoes, but why every man is over-muscled, why the attractive foreigner wore a hooker’s dress to this particular Wayne Enterprises meeting, why anybody felt the need to toy with and alter a tried and true villain; just why everything feels so dated and insecure as it tries to be all of the most badass things about Batman that having a kid or being a detective don’t allow. The Batman of Paul Jenkins and David Finch appears to be the Batman of slugfests. I grew out of that Batman ages ago.
Detective Comics #1
Writer/Artist: Tony S. Daniel
For those of you who like your Joker grim ‘n gritty, in Detective Comics #1, he rips out the throat of a “big fan” while completely nude. In a post-Flashpoint world, it’s tough to know how familiar Batman is with the Joker (considering the turn at the end of the issue, my guess is “pretty familiar”), but he seems perplexed by the Joker’s choice to not wear clothes and, like Rorschach planning to delve further into Ozymandias’ sexuality, makes a note of it for later. When, at the end of the issue, the Joker blows up a building full of cops, he walks away from the scene declaring “Amatuers!” with a sneer, a comedian miffed that his audience isn’t in on the joke.
Then again, the Joker’s always played to an audience of one, so it makes a certain amount of sense that he’s the only one laughing, and it makes perfect sense that he’s able to play Batman and the Gotham City Police Department like a fiddle, murdering and fighting so that he can end up back in Arkham Asylum, where he has an appointment he’d like to keep. That, along with the “amateurs” moment and Batman’s tenuous working relationship with the GCPD, including the use of the Bat Signal (despite cops firing on him) and the appearance of Harvey Bullock, are reminiscent of Batman: The Animated Series, if the seminal cartoon took on the darker aspects of the work of Frank Miller. Detective Comics #1 is incredibly gory for a main title depicting the adventures of the world’s most popular superhero, but that’s not at all a reason to discount what writer and artist Tony Daniel is doing with the old Batman/Joker tropes. As a matter of fact, I’m not sure what I think about the end of issue #1, other than that it’s a compelling, deft hook–one that’s worth giving another couple issues to, for everything to pan out.