REVIEW: Detective Comics #879

I almost never picked up the first issue of Scott Snyder’s run on Detective  Comics.  It arrived at a period when I was trying to trim down my monthly comic buying habits, and I had made myself a strict statement of intent that the only Batman comics I needed to be reading where whatever ones Grant Morrison happened to be writing.  His jawdropping, landmark run with the character is going to be looked back on one day as one of the all-time greats, and I felt that it gave me all I could possibly need as a Batman comic fan.  But after reading all the great reviews for Snyder and artist Jock’s debut on the title, I grudgingly decided to give it a go, just for one issue.

I’m glad I did: it’s become one of my most anticipated titles each month ever since, and on weeks when their respective scheduling means I can pick up both Snyder’s Detective Comics and Morrison’s Batman Inc, as big of a Morrison fan as I am, I must admit Detective gets read first.

Even more than Morrison did on his Batman & Robin run, Snyder truly gets into the psyche of Dick Grayson, and lays out what makes him unique, and different from Bruce Wayne, as Batman.  And more than that, over the course of his run he has made a potent statement about Gotham itself, with his first arc, “Black Mirror”, and its follow-up, “Hungry City”, both showing the city as almost a living entity, shifting  and changing to reflect the worst nightmares of its current protector.  I truly believe that, years from now, even once Bruce Wayne is long re-established as the sole Batman and the idea of Dick Grayson wearing the cowl has become an obscure, almost-forgotten historical curio, the strength of this story will be enough for it to operate outside of current continuity and have a healthy life in the graphic novel market.

But as much as I’ve enjoyed Snyder and Jock’s main storyline of Dick Grayson’s trials as the new Batman, I think the subplot involving Commissioner Gordon’s difficult reunion with his (literal) psychopath son James, Jr has been even better.  It began as the back-up story for the series, and when DC canned those, Snyder shifted things around  so that every fourth issue of the title would become a full-length Gordon story.  Issue #875, “Lost Boys”, was the first of these Gordon spotlight issues, and it still stands as the single best issue of this entire run, and quite possibly Snyder’s finest hour in any of his comics thus far.  Issue #879, “Skeleton Key” (after 4 paragraphs, he finally gets to reviewing the issue!), doesn’t quite top that masterpiece of comics storytelling, but is at least the best issue of Detective Comics SINCE #875.

A big part of what makes “Skeleton Key” – and the rest of this Gordon subplot – so brilliant is the artwork of Francesco Francavilla.  Jock’s interiors in the “A-story” have been great too, and rightly celebrated, but in my personal opinion Francavilla’s work might be even better.  Of course, it’s two different styles for two different stories: the kinetic, exciting layouts of Jock’s artwork reflects the high-octane acrobatics of Dick Grayson as Batman.  This Gordon story, however, owes more to the psychological crime thriller, even horror, and that is reflected in Francavilla’s heavy shadows and claustrophobic panel construction.

But perhaps more than his crisp, noir-tinged artwork, it’s Francavilla’s colors that really set the tone of his work here.  The use of bright neon pink, purple, orange, yellow and red (especially red, lots and lots of red) might initially be a bit overwhelming for some.  It reminds me of the original coloring for Alan Moore and Brian Bolland’s The Killing Joke.  I know Bolland wasn’t a fan of that look, and had it recolored in more muted tones for the recent hardcover re-release, but I was always a fan of those original colors and the nightmarish funhouse vibe it gave the story, making it feel like a bad acid trip.  The word “nightmarish” also springs to mind for the effect it has on the story here, with Francavilla plunging us into a world that feels sinister and off-kilter.

Of course, much credit must also go to the writing  of Scott Snyder.  Here is a Batman comic where Batman doesn’t once appear, and thanks to the stellar characterisation of Gordon, we don’t miss him.  Jim Gordon is a character I’ve long been fond of.  As much as Batman: Year One is hailed as one of the definitive Batman stories, I think at it’s core it’s really a Gordon story.  Even in the films, as talented as Christian Bale is, I think Gary Oldman’s better.  Here, Snyder engages in something he has shown a skill for: opening up unexplored pockets of history and exploring how they impact on the present.  In Gordon’s case, he has brought back the long-absent James, Jr – seen as an infant in Year One, and rarely since then – as a malevolent figure.  For a while, the menace of the character came from us not knowing his true motives, and whether his words could be taken at face value.  After last month confirmed our suspicions about James, Jr’s true nature, here we see Gordon come to that same realisation.

The actual main narrative development of the issue is probably the weakest aspect of the comic.  When we discover what James, Jr’s plans are, it feels to much like a supervillain’s evil scheme.  A really clever evil scheme, it must be said, but part of what made James, Jr such an unnerving presence is that he didn’t feel like just another larger-than-life  supervillain.  He was a monster that was a lot more uncomfortably close-to-home than that, and as such Gordon – and by extension, us – didn’t know quite how to react to him.  By going from something not quite tangible to being “the villain”, the obvious solution becoms “flip on the Bat-Signal and call in Batman.”

No, the real strength and power in Snyder’s writing here comes in the smaller moments.  Perhaps most potently of all, near the end – once he learns the full extent of his son’s darkness and is rushing to stop him – Gordon is haunted by fragmented images of his son as a smiling, innocent child, a child that is now long gone.  If the overarching story of Snyder’s run is about Gotham acting as a “black mirror”, the corruption of his son is the ghoulish reflection Gordon sees staring back at him.  This is a story about parents and their children, and as such a large chunk of the issue depicts the relationship between Gordon and Barbara.  Snyder doesn’t hammer us over the head with it, a lot is left unspoken, but the absolute trust, faith and love the two have for one another is clear.  As the ever-worsening grimness of the James, Jr story plays out, this more positive relationship for Gordon serves as a beacon of light, however dim.

Oh, and The Joker shows up too.  The Joker is probably my favorite character in comics, if not all fiction, so I always love seeing how new writers and artists will handle him.  Here, hidden behind a Hannibal Lecter style mask for the entirety of his appearance, inhuman eyes bulging out of the narrow slits, he fits in effortlessly with Francavilla’s neon-noir horror vibe.  His words (lettered by Jared K Fletcher in their own distinct, ragged font, heightening the aforementioned “inhuman” effect) are an elaborate mind-game for his captors in Arkham, but take on a whole new significance when juxtaposed against the Gordon family drama: “It’s a story about LOVE!  LOVE!  LOVE!”  I’m of the opinion that every story becomes that little bit better if you put The Joker in it (The King’s Speech would surely have won even more Oscars if the Clown Prince of Crime went on a killing spree in the third act), and so I can’t wait to see how he works into the narrative in the remaining issues.

If you’ve not been reading Detective Comics these past few months, you’ve been missing out.  It’s a shame that we’re now entering the endgame of this  particular saga, with the DC Relaunch in September drawing ever closer.  The good news is that Snyder will be jumping over to Batman #1 with the arrival of the New 52, and so I’m pretty sure that title is in good hands.

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