REVIEW: Detective Comics #881

You might not have thought about it, but Detective Comics #881 might actually be one of the biggest comics the publisher has ever released.  Not only is this the double-length conclusion of Scott Snyder’s brilliant run on the book, wrapping up his 11-part saga and bringing his various plot threads back full circle, but it is the final issue of Detective Comics, Volume 1, a title that has been in publication since 1937, the longest-running comic in America.  Detective Comics literally made DC’s name.  So, Detective Comics #881 can really be seen as the end of an era.  So, under all the weight of expectation, does the comic deliver?

In recent weeks, we’ve seen a few of DC’s finale books struggle by trying to encompass the entire history of a character or series, bring everything to a definitive close as DC prepares to relaunch in September.  Perhaps what makes this concluding issue so much more successful is that it isn’t self-conscious about being the finale to Detective Comics.  It is the finale to “Black Mirror”.  In the opening page, Dick Grayson’s voiceover about Gotham City from the first issue of the run is repeated, only now the words hold much more weight, as over the course of the arc we’ve seen the dark, malevolent power Gotham holds.  And as James Gordon Jr, the sinister son of Commissioner Gordon who has lurked on the periphery of the main narrative, takes centre stage as the climactic threat, it becomes clear how all the disparate threads running through this saga have always been leading to this one finale.

Much of the issue is dedicated to James Jr giving a big monologue explaining his motivations and his evil schemes, and while at certain points this does come across like Snyder having characters parrot out the observations he’s made himself in interviews within the context of the narrative (as if to preserve his ideas in fiction for posterity), for the most part this dialogue helps craft James Jr as a memorably creepy, skin-crawling villain.  I have a beef with Mr. Snyder, as he has now forever ruined the ending of The Dark Knight for me.  Now, when I watch it, I can’t help wishing Batman would have let Two-Face kill the evil little bastard.

But although he gets the lion’s share of the dialogue, James Jr isn’t the only guy to get a chance to shine in this issue.  Dick Grayson’s Batman, Commissioner Gordon, and even Barbara Gordon get their moment in the sun.  We get some final commentary on just what makes Dick Grayson so different from Bruce Wayne, what drives him to keep on fighting crime as opposed to his predecessor.  Gordon shows his cast-iron principles once more, and while Snyder has really emphasized what a haunted, weary soul he is, seemingly at breaking point, in the end he gets his strong, heroic moment.  I truly think Jim Gordon is one of the greatest, and perhaps most underrated, heroes of the DC Universe.  And Barbara is presented as the ultimate survivor, as well as the one person with the insight to have always seen James Jr for what he really was.  She also gets the single most badass moment in the issue, if not the entire run.

So, this is very much a culmination of Snyder’s story, and the major character arcs featured within it.  But the nods to wider Batman history are there, subtle but undoubtedly present.  In particular, there are recalls to Batman: Year One, with the bridge infant James Jr fell from popping up as a pivotal location, and best of all, with us finally getting a definitive answer to the question, always left ambiguous, of whether or not Gordon has always known Batman’s true identity.  To me, this was a huge moment, and the kinda thing a little post-relaunch continuity shuffle could quietly tug back under the rug, but I’d hope not, as it was one of my favorite beats in the comic.

In terms of the art, I was pleasantly surprised to see that this was a collaboration between Jock and Francesco Francavilla.  In my review of issue #879, I praised Francavilla’s work in the Gordon subplot fill-in issues, and I’d been lamenting my belief that Francavilla was now gone from the book because, while Jock is of course great, I felt Francavilla’s contribution to the series also merited recognition in this final victory lap.  But both get plenty to do in the issue, and though their art styles are quite starkly different, the transition works well.

Through the aforementioned lengthy James Jr monologue, Francavilla provides the art, along with his trademark heavy reds.  This is utterly appropriate, as he really put his stamp on James Jr, and the stillness and creeping dread of this extended sequence is perfectly complimented by Francavilla’s moody visuals.  But once we get to the action, when James Jr has his physical confrontations with Barbara, then Batman, then Gordon, it’s Jock that takes over, bringing his dynamism and adrenaline-pumping layouts to effective use.  Both artists deliver the goods, as they have throughout this run, and I was very happy to see Snyder, Jock and Francavilla all named on the cover of this final issue of Detective Comics.

From here, Snyder jumps over to Batman #1 in September, with Greg Capullo onboard for  art.  I’ll miss Jock and Francavilla, but what I’ve seen of Capullo’s art for the series looks jaw-dropping.  His layouts are inventive, his depiction of Batman is powerful and imposing, and there’s great use of blacks and shadow.  Of course, Snyder has yet to put a foot wrong in my book, and if the brief allusions to Bruce Wayne in this issue are anything to go by, Snyder is going to bring some realy meaty characterisation for the original Batman to the table.  This has all the makings of a classic run.

I think it’s an exciting time to be a Batman fan.  For the past several years, Grant Morrison has been telling some of the best Batman stories ever, stories that seem to divide readers now, but that in the future are going to be analysed and discussed and compared to the all-time greats to have written the Caped Crusader.  Now, as the Morrison era winds down to its conclusion with Batman: Leviathan in 2012, it seems the Snyder era is set to begin, as between Detective Comics, Gates of Gotham and now Batman, Snyder appears ready to take over from Morrison as the primary architect of the Batman franchise.  When you combine that with Christopher Nolan’s two incredible Batman films (and the final part of the trilogy set for next year), and Batman: Arkham Asylum being not just the best superhero game ever, but one of the best video games of any kind of the past few years, it has to be said that this era we’re in now is going to take its place in the history books as perhaps the most important period of Batman’s existence since at least the late 1980s.  It may be the end for Detective Comics, Volume 1, but Batman still has great days ahead of him.

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