REVIEW: Batman #23

Hey, I’m nothing if I’m not topical!  This hot-off-the-presses review comes over a month late.  I’ve started to write it a couple of times, only to change my mind and disregard it, wary that it would be a long rant, and one not many would likely be inclined to read.  Now, several weeks have passed since the release of Batman #23, third chapter of the “Zero Year” saga currently dominating the title, and I’ve now read the comic three times, mulling over what I want to say and how I want to say it.  Well, if you’re reading this, it means this attempt at formulating an opinion is the one I actually finished.  A warning, at the start it’s going to feel like a bit of a downer, but hopefully it’ll end on a positive note!

But first, the downer bit: I hated “Zero Year” from the moment I first heard about it.  Seriously, it was a sea-change moment.  From very early on, Batman was easily my favourite comic in DC’s New 52.  I wrote many a gushing, in-depth review of “The Court of Owls”, a comic which has already earned its place in the canon of all-time great Batman stories.  And “Death of the Family” was fantastic, a horror-tinged approach to my favourite villain, The Joker, as he embarked on a suitably chilling masterplan.  After those two epics, I was waiting with baited breath for the announcement of the next big story coming from the Snyder/Capullo dream team.  But when that announcement turned out to be “Zero Year”… my heart sank.  And for the first time I found myself seriously questioning the creative direction of a title I’d loved so vocally since its inception.

My hatred for the very idea of “Zero Year” is twofold.  First, I hate it on a practical level, where I feel like Batman has set up so many intriguing issues in the present I’m keen for them to develop – the breakdown of the Bat-family in the wake of The Joker’s mindgames, where things are going with Harper Row – that to suddenly go, “Hey guys, we’re just going to take a break from our A-story for a FULL YEAR and go on a jaunt through the past,” it felt like a crippling halt in forward momentum.  And given how thoroughly Batman’s early years have already been covered in ironclad classics such as Year One and The Long Halloween, retreading Batman’s early days felt painfully redundant and unnecessary, especially when 11 issues of the primary Bat-title were being used to do it: Year One did a perfectly respectable job of telling Batman’s origin with 4 issues.

The second reason for my hatred was a lot more nebulous and irrational, but no less pressing: the emotional fanboy kneejerk aversion.  The continuity-hound in me has found more and more frustrations with the tinkering of the New 52, but I could comfort myself in the knowledge that Batman was largely untouched.  “No one is going to touch Year One,” I could whisper reassuringly to myself in the night, “Scott Snyder said so himself in all those interviews!”  And I’m sure Snyder meant it when he said it, but circumstances change, and as plot holes open up they need to be closed in some manner or other, so I don’t blame the guy for rolling with the punches.  But as a passionate fan of stories that were now being rendered out-of-canon, I was gutted.  Just after Grant Morrison has spent years crafting a wonderful vision of Batman where everything that ever happened to him in the comics happened, and it was all important in informing his character, I hated the idea of the New 52 making giving us a new version where nothing that ever happened to him in the comics happened, and none of it is important in informing his character.

So here I was, in danger of becoming the very kind of “hater” I can’t stand.  If there was one reason I didn’t immediately drop the title, it’s the creative team.  The superstar pairing of Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo have, for my money, positioned themselves right up there alongside the likes of Denny O’Neil/Neal Adams, Doug Moench/Jim Aparo and Jeph Loeb/Tim Sale as one of the all-time great Batman creative teams, and so had more than earned the benefit of the doubt to at least give “Zero Year” a try.  And it was that rich bedrock of accumulated goodwill that got me through the first two chapters.  I was torn: Snyder and Capullo continued to excel themselves, with Capullo in particular doing some of his most jawdropping, ambitious work ever.  I’d marvel at the meticulous, beautiful construction of pages, or find myself smiling at the deft skill with which Snyder weaved in a character grace note or an unexpected turn in the narrative.  But still, for me it felt like one of the best creative teams working today magnificently executing a story I had no interest in reading.  And so, Batman #23 was the last chance I was giving the story to win me over.  Dropping Batman was unthinkable.  But I was at the very least considering taking a break for the “Zero Year” storyline and coming back once it was over.

Okay, so after near 1000 words of doom-and-gloom preamble, let’s get into the actual review of the comic itself, and this is where the negative turns positive.  As it was with this third chapter that everything clicked for me.  After being unable to see past the redundancy of retelling this origin story, it’s with this issue that I realise “Zero Year” has, in one way at least, managed to trump the mighty Batman Year One.  For, while that is an incredible Jim Gordon story, “Zero Year” has spent the first three issues carefully setting the stage for this to be a definitive Bruce Wayne story in a way that even Year One – which kept Wayne himself relatively elusive – couldn’t do.  James Tynion IV and Rafael Albuquerque’s backups hav be served their role here too, giving us glimpses at the ways Bruce has moulded himself physically.  But it falls to Snyder and Capullo to complete the metamorphosis, and show how a Bruce Wayne with all the individual component parts puts it all together to become the Batman we know and love.

The first two issues were careful place-setting, establishing Bruce Wayne himself and finding new wrinkles in his history – the thorny relationship with Alfred, the return of his Uncle, Philip Wayne – to establish him as a vital presence in the comic even before he dons the cowl, the way Nolan did with Christian Bale in Batman Begins.  But it’s with Batman #23 that it all pays off, the whole issue serving as an ode to Bruce, and a showcase for the final intangible qualities that will make him Batman: determination, resilience, and a touch of madness.  Escaping from a burning building and trekking across a city to Wayne Manor, after getting the hell beaten out of you, with two bullets in your gut, is an incredible feat, and Capullo really sells the struggle with his visuals: lots of tight, bonecrunching impact shots during the confrontation with the Red Hood, and lots of ominous long shots and aerial shots to really hammer home the sense of distance and isolation to make sure you feel every pained step Bruce takes.  And then there’s that crazy finale, an inspired new interpretation of the iconic, “Yes father, I shall become a bat” moment.  We’re all waiting for that line, we all know it’s coming.  But the build-up to it is bold and transformative, presented as the wild, psychadelic fever dream of a man suffering from a concussion.  Batman becomes something nightmarish, borne out of a place no level-headed man would go to.

Really, it’s G: reg Capullo who’s the dominant presence here.  With more of those immersive layouts and stunning splashes, you really get the feeling of Capullo pushing the envelope further and further, cementing his status as an auteur of comic art.  It’s not just the grand flourishes: it’s the little touches, like the way we can see the iconography of Batman gradually forming around Bruce.  There’s the fact that Wayne Towers looks like the silhouette of Batman, as has already been noted elsewhere.  And there’s also the closing silent image from when Alfred’s done patching Bruce up and Bruce is walking away, with his sweeping dressing gown looking eerily like Batman’s cape.  That page also gives us what could be the first glimpse of Batman’s naked butt, if you’re into that sort of thing.

Of course, I’ve always loved Capullo’s work on the book, but as I reread Batman #23, I found myself wondering what it was that was making his work have more impact on me than ever, to the point where I was thinking this could be his finest work on the title yet.  And then it hit me: the famed Batman first-person narration captions were nowhere to be found.  We’ve become so used to seeing those in Batman comics, that even when their absence isn’t immediately noted, it creates a very different vibe.  Especially when the missing narration would have been provided by a wordsmith as eloquent as Snyder.  With no such captions, a wealth of the captions here are silent, and it is Capullo who really shoulders the bulk of the storytelling.  And he more than rises to the challenge, giving us a visual narrative masterclass where every page is both a work of remarkable aesthetic beauty in itself and dense in narrative in a way that rewards multiple readings.

How do the rest of the art team perform in assisting Capullo here?  Very well, I’d say.  I’ve had a hard time warming to inker Danny Miki.  This is through no shortcomings of his, as his light touch has given the characters renewed spark and kinetic energy that makes them pop from the page.  But I can’t deny that I’ve missed Jonathan Glapion, who inked Greg Capullo’s pencils from Batman #1 right up to the “Death of the Family” conclusion.  So much of the ominous, horror-infused tone of the series came from Glapion’s rich, heavy linework and heavy blacks, giving everything this sense of weight and dread, picking up on and enhancing the odder, more uneasy aspects of Capullo’s stylised figure work.  But here, Danny Miki shifts from his more polished approach to apply some oddness of his own, with Capullo giving him more of an opportunity to relish in the gloomy and astmospheric than he’s had since joining the team.

And colorist FCO Plascencia continues to be one  of the most underappreciated geniuses working in comics.  I’ve been pleased to see colorists getting more acknowledgement of late, but Plascencia’s name has rarely been brought up in the conversations about what colorists bring to a book.  It should be, as from the very beginning, Plascencia’s skillfully-applied pallette has given the book an aesthetic all its own.  He’s not a flat colorist.  Everything he colors feels textured, like it has mass and depth.  I think he handles skin particularly well, in a way that has really helped Capullo’s distinctive faces leap from the page.  Here, Plascencia gets a big-time showcase, as he establishes a color scheme for each of the two narrative strands running through the book.  In the attack on Bruce’s penthouse apartment, it all feels very hot: lots of oranges, yellows, and red (The Red Hood, the recurring imagery of pooling blood), and as the fire blazes Plascencia bathes the characters in a swelteringly convincing depiction of the heat.  In the aftermath, both as Bruce struggles his way back to Wayne Manor and dwells in the mansion afterwards, Plascencia goes cold: lots of blues and grays.  As the book jumps back and forth from one strand to the other, often on the same page, the colors become a shorthand for not only the change in scene, but for Bruce himself.  Gotham and its criminal element are red: panic, terror, chaos and Bruce is in danger of being consumed by it.  Bruce Wayne is blue: calm, cool. a force of order to rise against the chaos.  And the first image of the book is a young, blue-tinged Bruce set against a blood-red circle.

Of course, I feel obligated to point out that Scott Snyder has hardly taken a vacation and left the artists to do all the heavy lifting.  He too has a place to shine, and for him it’s in the showcases given to our two villains.  First, The Red Hood, who at this point we are to assume is a prototypical Joker.  He is granted a great monologue about how the murder of Thomas and Martha Wayne shaped him as much as it did Bruce: “Because at the end of day (I think that should be end of the day, but it would appear letterer Nick Napolitano made a typo), what people are afraid of is the nothing of it, Bruce.  The randomness. The empty center.  Stare into it and try to find meaning.  You’ll go mad.  All you can do is fear, and survive.”  Even now that his run is done, it would appear that Grant Morrison’s “hole in things” continues to haunt the Batman mythos.

Later on we get another delightful scene with Edward Nygma, who has been a standout character throughout this storyline thus far.  Between this, and the fantastic Riddler Villains’ Month oneshot from last week, The Riddler is emerging as one of my favourite characters in the New 52 Batverse.  Here, we get our first glimpse at vulnerability from the ice-cool master planner, as Philip Wayne taunts him with his one weakness: that because of his shady, undisclosed past, he must always operate under his alias, and so he can never truly take the credit for his works of genius.  With both The Red Hood and Edward Nygma, we get this great sense of them being primal ideas waiting to be born: the ingredients for The Joker and The Riddler are in there, but they need that spark of Batman coming into existence for the touch-paper to light and for them to emerge from the dark in response.

So, where does all that leave us?  I had my misgivings about “Zero Year”, and to a degree I still do.  But this underlines the power of a fantastic creative team firing on all cylinders.  It’s almost easy to make a great comic out of a surefire, can’t-miss high concept.  But to take something as contentious and divisive as this, and make something incredible out of it?  That’s an achievement.  Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo are absolute MVPs that DC should be doing everything in their power to keep on Batman forever, with the freedom to tell whatever stories with Batman they want.  Will the next chapter build on this momentum, and will “Zero Year” as a whole emerge as a resounding success that can stand proudly alongside Year One without appearing sorely lacking in comparison?  Or in the end will Batman #23 prove to be a stunning single artefact in an unremarkable larger narrative?  I’m not sure, but Batman #23 sealed the deal for me, and made sure I’m onboard to the end to see for myself.  I’m glad I gave these guys the benefit of the doubt.

Batman23Batman #23 is out in comic shops now.

The Dark Knight: An In-Depth Review

The Dark Knight: An In-Depth Review

Expectations can be a dangerous thing. They can build up a film so much in your mind that the actual product can’t possibly hope to compete, and lead to the crushing disappointment of a film that crumbles under the weight of its own hype.  There was a fear this could end up being the case with The Dark Knight.  To demonstrate with a personal anecdote, Batman Begins took me largely by surprise.  Yes, I was already familiar with Nolan through his work on Memento, and I had been a massive Batman fan for as long as I could remember.  But in 2005, I was at a point where my love for Batman was at one of its lowest ebbs, after the lame Batman & Robin and with me drifting away from comics in general (and even then with me being mostly a Marvel fan in the years before that), I wasn’t particularly anticipating Batman Begins.  In fact, I was much more excited about Sin City, scheduled for cinematic release a few weeks after Batman’s revival.  However, while it was a good enough film that I caught a few times at the cinema, I don’t think I’ve watched Sin City since 2005, while Batman Begins is the film I’ve revisited time and time again, a film which reignited my passion not just for Batman, but for comics in general, with me becoming an avid collector of both graphic novels and the latest monthly comics.  So, while Batman Begins pretty much sneaked up on me, there was no way The Dark Knight was going to do that.  It became the most anticipated film on my horizon from the second that Joker card flashed at the end of Begins, and the hype only built steadily from there.  Between it following on from the excellent Batman Begins, to the inclusion of not just The Joker but Two-Face too, and the absolutely masterful viral campaign that unfolded for over a year before the film’s release, my expectations were blasted so sky-high that when I went into the IMAX cinema at the Glasgow Science Centre in the summer of 2008 to see an advance screening of The Dark Knight, I was expecting no less than my new favourite film.  Four years later, it still is.

Perhaps it is backlash for the film’s near universal acclaim – not just amidst geeky circles, but amidst the cinematic community as a whole – but amidst some fanboy circles, the word “overrated” is liberally thrown about, as it often is to deflate that which gets too popular or “mainstream”.  Many nitpicks are dissected and agonised over, and when a quality superhero film like The Avengers comes along, some folks are tripping over themselves to proclaim how much better than The Dark Knight it is, or how much more faithful to the source material new Batman adaptations like the Arkham games are.  One movement I’ve noticed emerging that particularly makes my blood boil are the folk who are already talking about the next Batman reboot, how Warner Bros should launch immediately into it in order to have a new Batman film out in cinemas within the next couple of years, and how hopefully this one can make things right again after Christopher Nolan “ruined” Batman.  Much of the negativity is easy to dismiss, but sometimes I begin questioning myself: “Is the film really as great as I remembered?”  But every time I actually sit down to watch the film, I’m reminded afresh that yes, it absolutely is, and that even now I’m finding new aspects to enjoy.

One common complaint I’ve noted is people saying The Dark Knight is too long, and particularly that there’s too much third act.  I’m inclined to disagree with this assertion, and in fact think one of the film’s greatest strengths is how ingeniously plotted and paced the whole thing is.  I think the problem is that some people are trying to apply a classic 3-act Hollywood structure to the narrative, which is understandably problematic.  But, and I could just be reading too much into this (I think that could be the summary of this review as a whole!), I believe The Dark Knight actually employs a 5-act tragic structure, famously employed by William Shakespeare in his great tragedies.  Perhaps an appropriate comparison for this most Shakespearian of Batman tales!  In his 1957 series of essays, The Anatomy of Criticism, Northrop Frye broke tragedy down into five stages: encroachment, complication, reversal, catastrophe and recognition, which fits in quite neatly with a 5-act structure, and which I think can be applied to the unfolding narrative of The Dark Knight.  Indeed, when defining the core essence of high tragedy, Frye says, “the fiction of the fall of a leader (he has to fall because that is the only way in which a leader can be isolated from his society),” which seems like a pretty bang-on summation of Batman’s plight come the end of the film, where Batman falls not just figuratively (taking the fall for Harvey Dent) but literally.

The first act of tragedy is encroachment.  In this opening stage, the protagonist is riding high, at the pinnacle of their success.  But as they enjoy their advantageous status, they overreach in some way, driven by their tragic flaw, and in doing so make what at the time appears to be a small, innocuous decision which in fact sows the seeds for much of the heartbreak that is to come.  In The Dark Knight, this segment covers the opening skirmishes of the film between Batman (and his allies) and the mob, culminating in the sequence in Hong Kong.  Before Batman himself is first seen in the film, we see a group of impersonators who are so inspired by Batman’s actions they have made bumbling attempts to dress up like him and become crime-fighting vigilantes.  It’s a bit of a play on the trope of Shakespeare’s tragedies to have other characters talk about the heroism of the protagonist before he himself is seen.  When Batman does show up, he defeats Scarecrow (a welcome cameo return for Cillian Murphy) with relative ease, in stark contrast to the formidable challenge Crane seemed to pose in the first film.  Things are going very well in Batman’s war on crime, it would seem, as the plan he and Jim Gordon have concocted to bring down Gotham’s organised crime network nears its endgame.  Batman’s audacious snatching of Lau from his Hong Kong sanctuary to drag him back to America to face justice is a demonstration of the hero at the height of his power – he has no jurisdiction – and is a nice nod to plays like Othello and Macbeth, where the heroes begin the play returning home victorious from great battles.  We really do get the sense that we begin The Dark Knight at the end of one large story, with another set to intrude and take over.  And that’s where the devastating misstep comes into play: as Batman, Lt. Gordon and Harvey Dent hatch their plan to bring down Gotham’s mobs through seizing their ill-gotten cash and bringing them all down via the old “rico” trick, The Joker lurks in the periphery of the film, hatching schemes of his own and carefully setting the pieces of his monstrous masterplan into place.  But when confronted by Gordon about how he is going to deal with this new threat, Batman utters a line that is a perfect definition of that aforementioned seemingly minor misjudgement that will have dire consequences: “One man or the entire mob?  He can wait.”  This is reflective of Batman’s “tragic flaw”, but we’ll get into that later.

The second act, complication, is where the antagonist or antagonising forces come to the fore, and the threat against our protagonist is laid out before him, with events aligning in a manner that begins to point us with an ominous air of inevitability towards a tragic conclusion.  With The Dark Knight, we are quite clearly blasted into this second phase of the narrative by The Joker’s homemade video – watched by Bruce Wayne as it is screened on a news broadcast – where one of the Batman impersonators is brutally murdered, and The Joker demands that Batman unmask.  It’s not The Joker’s first appearance in the film, but it is the first moment where Bruce Wayne truly takes note of him and recognises him as a serious threat.  And just like that, the ostensive primary plot of Gotham’s mob and the chase to bring them down is jettisoned, and The Joker’s reign of terror takes centre stage.  If the first act was about showing Batman at the height of his power, the second act is the reverse of that, showing the emergence of an opposing power that takes Batman’s “no limits, no jurisdiction, use fear as a weapon” ethos and applies it for dark purposes.  The montage chronicling the assassination of the judge and Commissioner Loeb, building up with the swell of the score to The Joker appearing at Bruce Wayne’s fundraiser for Harvey Dent, is just thrilling cinema, and it showcases The Joker’s power to seemingly be everywhere at once.  And in the set pieces that follow, it is demonstrated repeatedly that Batman is always one step behind, that he just can’t keep up or get his head around what makes The Joker tick.  But still, at this stage The Joker’s apparent goal still seems somewhat straightforward and relatable: he is being paid by the mob to force Batman to unmask and kill him.  This being ours and Batman’s understanding of him takes us on a narrative strand that climaxes with the breathtaking car chase centrepiece, which will be discussed in more detail later on.  That ends with The Joker’s arrest, with the good guys catching the bad guy, and the second act coming to a close.  At this point, a conventional Hollywood actioner may be likely to segue into an endgame, with a third act that from here sets up one final explosive confrontation that would cement the hero’s victory, and at this point an unsuspecting filmgoer might still have expected that from The Dark Knight at this point, watching the film for the first time.  But it’s from this point on that the film’s true depth and darkness truly become apparent.

The third act of tragedy is called reversal.  It is the point of no return for the protagonist, where his hopes of escaping unscathed or salvaging his desire for a happy ending in the face of the adversity he faces are dashed once and for all, and he is left with no choice but to go forward into the grim fate that awaits him.   In the context of The Dark Knight, this surely comes with the death of Rachel Dawes.  It is a horrific reversal not just for Batman, but for us as viewers.  Up until now we might have known where this film was going under the criteria of a 3-act superhero action film, and even when Rachel is revealed to be in danger, it plays on our expectation that the climactic obstacle the superhero must face will involve rescuing the damsel in distress.  Only here, he doesn’t rescue her, does he?  More on the implications of that later.  This genuine shock casts our expectations adrift, and leaves us with a chilling sense that this is indeed, as the poster taglines declared, “a world without rules,” one where anything could happen and we genuinely didn’t know how this was all going to end.  I would suggest that this third phase of the film also includes the tense build-up to this pivotal moment in the narrative, where the satisfaction felt by Batman, Harvey Dent and most visibly (newly appointed) Commissioner Gordon over their hard-fought victory over The Joker begins to falter, as it becomes ever more clear it’s not a victory at all.  The turning point where The Joker establishes just how much in control he still is comes in the film’s Batman/Joker interrogation centrepiece.  Interestingly, in Nolan’s Batman films it often feels like the most climactic and crucial battles are verbal, as demonstrated in this battle of wills.  At first, Batman seems to be in control, putting on a show of anger in an attempt to intimidate The Joker into revealing where Harvey Dent is.  But over the course of their conversation, The Joker makes it clearer than ever that his goals are much darker and more ambitious than what Batman assumed, and that Batman does not have what it takes to break him.  One of the most powerful, unnerving moments in the film comes when The Joker, howling with laughter after Batman has beaten him senseless, screams, “You have nothing!  Nothing to threaten me with!  Nothing to do with all your strength!”  And he’s right.  To our horror, Batman has been rendered impotent.  Also of note for inclusion in this third act is the immediate aftermath of Rachel’s death: Gordon’s anguished realisation of his folly, cutting into The Joker driving through the city, head tilted out of a police car: a moment so instantly iconic it was mentioned in the “and the nominees are…” Best Supporting Actor speech at the Oscars that year.  Following on from this is an ethereal montage, Hans Zimmer’s score perhaps at its most poignant, as Rachel’s letter to Bruce (her last will and testament, as it would turn out) is read over as we see the agony inflicted upon both Bruce Wayne and Harvey Dent in the wake of their bereavement.  Here, things are at their bleakest, but it comes with an ominous promise that things are going to get worse.

The fourth act is called catastrophe, which as you might be able to guess, is when things get really terrible.  This is the point in the tragedies where the bodies start to pile up, and the chain of events that was set in motion from the early stages of the play comes to devastating fruition.  It is essentially the answer to the “third act” of today’s conventional cinematic structure, where the climactic action occurs.  In the case of The Dark Knight, this could be seen as the point where the narrative starts to veer away from the tragic structure that up until now it had so fascinatingly adhered to, though it does seem to toy with following the thread to the bitter end.  I’d categorise Act 4 of the film as The Joker’s reign of terror over the city, the film spiralling into a dizzying series of wicked set-pieces staged by The Joker, from riling the citizens up to kill Coleman Reese, to blowing up a hospital, to the diabolical “social experiment” he conducts with the two barges attempting to leave the city, each stage of his masterplan piling up on top of the last like a car wreck.  It would certainly be apt to classify this segment of the narrative as “catastrophe”, not just because this is when The Joker’s anarchic goals are revealed in their full horrific majesty, but because this is the point where Bruce’s dream of a better Gotham that no longer needs Batman seems closest to slipping away forever.  Harvey Dent, the great white hope for Gotham’s future, completes his downfall here, his disfigurement and transformation into Two-Face making him a bitter, vengeful murderer.  But the destruction of Harvey Dent is just Joker’s “plan B”: his main goal is to show that the city – and, by extension, society – as a whole is full of self-serving animals who, when the chips are down, are just as rotten as him, that there is no such thing as true goodness.  If he were to be proven right, this would have completed the tragic arc of the story: after all Batman has sacrificed to lead Gotham’s people by example, they instead are lead by a symbol representing the opposite of everything Batman stands for.  When we see how one man and his threats can have the city running to evacuate, moving where The Joker wants them to like puppets on a string, it seems this could very well be the case.  But at the last moment, Nolan pulls back, giving both the prisoners and the ordinary people on their respective barges moments where they choose to sacrifice themselves to save the other barge, suggesting a conclusion that goodness still does exist, even though it might be worn and beaten down by the badness all around.  This is the moment where The Joker is defeated, even before Batman physically topples him, when after assuming the worst of everyone and being proven right time and time again, he is finally shown to be wrong.  Tragedy averted, and once The Joker exits the film stage left, the fourth act ends and we enter the final stage of the film.

The fifth and final act of tragedy, recognition, was often the shortest act in Shakespeare’s plays.  Typically, the narrative continues on past what would be considered the climactic action of the previous act, as ultimately these are stories less about incident than about character, and how they respond to what has happened to them.  As a result, the true climax of this kind of narrative tends to revolve around the protagonist coming to full realisation of their downfall, often just before dying or killing themselves.  Then, things come to a close with the survivors mourning all that has been lost over the course of the story, speaking of what hard lessons they have learned, and looking ahead to what must be done going forward.  So, in the context of The Dark Knight, what might have initially to some seemed like a strange choice for a “final battle” (much smaller in scale than the “Batman must stop Ra’s al Ghul from wiping out Gotham City!” drama of the previous film) actually makes perfect sense in the context of the 5-act tragic structure, and proves to be one of the most dramatic scenes in the whole film, as Batman, Commissioner Gordon and Two-Face gather together for the first time since the film’s first act, each having suffered and lost something in the intervening time, with them recognising their own culpability in the tragedy that has befallen them.  “What happened to Rachel wasn’t chance,” Batman says, “We decided to act, we three.”  Of course, Batman doesn’t die, and the previous act stopping short of total catastrophe allows a small note of optimism amidst the recognition of what their decisions will cost them.  In the end, Batman and Gordon come up with a way for good to prevail over evil, but though it might not be entirely tragic, it’s certainly no happy ending either.

So, why go into such detail about this 5-act structure?  First, it serves as an introduction (Crikey!  3000+ words in and we’re still saying introduction!) to the scope Nolan brings to this story.  This film made it clearer than ever to mainstream filmgoers what us comic fans have long known: that the Batman lore can be much richer, darker and more complex than throwaway children’s fare.  These stories can be modern Shakespeare, only where those tragedies of old used gods and kings to play out human drama on the rankest of scales, today superheroes work well as their cultural successors.  Furthermore, discussing the structure is important as I feel that, perhaps more than anything else, it is the truly masterful structure of this narrative that holds the key to the film’s greatness.   While in fact a tried-and-true method of wringing out the maximum amount of emotion from audiences of centuries pat (with knowledge of comics canon even serving as a substitute for dramatic irony, in the case of Dent’s arc), such a structure is so unusual in today’s cinematic market (particularly the blockbuster market) that it caught audiences by surprise.  But it makes The Dark Knight an experience unlike any other film of its kind, engineered for excellence from the very building blocks of the script.

But as strong as the core foundations of the film might be, it would all have been for nought without a quality cast of actors to bring it to life.  Thankfully, The Dark Knight, like Batman Begins before it, is blessed with an all-star ensemble that any Oscar prestige picture would envy.  But unlike Batman Begins, The Dark Knight comes armed with a Joker in the pack, in the shape of Heath Ledger’s indelible, instantly iconic depiction of the Clown Prince of Crime.  With Heath Ledger’s tragic death, it’s a performance that will never be revisited, making this film the sole document of his astounding work with the character.  As a result, even as the middle instalment of a trilogy, The Dark Knight was always going to stand as a cinematic one-off.

It’s funny to think it now, with how universally acclaimed his Joker is even amongst many who dislike the film as a whole, but at the time of his casting Heath Ledger was actually a deeply unpopular choice for the role amongst a large and vocal portion of the fanbase.  He was dismissed as a young pretty boy actor, or as “that guy from the gay cowboy film” (cue groan worthy “Brokebat Mountain” puns), much of the denigration of his acting prowess evidently coming from those who hadn’t seen him act, or at least only see him act in the undeniable stinkers on his CV.  Even amongst those who were more optimistic and supportive of the Ledger casting, there was still a feeling that it would be a hard task to top Jack Nicholson’s take on The Joker from the 1989 Batman film, a scene-stealing dynamo of a performance that until that point was widely regarded as the high watermark of comic book movie villainy.  But as enjoyable as I still find Nicholson’s performance, I’d argue that Ledger topped it, giving us not just undeniably the great comic book movie villain ever, but one of the greatest movie villains, full stop.

A big part of what makes The Joker such a mesmerising presence in the film is the layers to his character, the way each layer gets peeled back, revealing something worse and worse each time.  The Joker has no real character arc to speak of: the narrative doesn’t change him, he doesn’t have any development or make any personal journey.  He remains utterly the same throughout, and the journey comes from us, the viewer, gradually learning more and more of is true nature over the course of the film.

The first layer of The Joker we are exposed to presents him as a master criminal for hire, driven by money.  This is The Joker who gatecrashes the mob council meeting with an offer to kill Batman for them in exchange for half of their pooled resources.  “If you’re good at something, never do it for free,” he says.  Thus, while certainly presented as a formidable threat – if the spectacular bank robbery prologue didn’t convince you of this, his “magic trick” with the pencil here certainly does – he’s still an understandable one, apparently motivated by a common goal.  With the story he tells Gambol about how he got his scars – a sob story of childhood abuse – we even get a tragic past, increasingly obligatory for iconic villains, it would seem, at a time when the likes of Darth Vader and Hannibal Lecter had been recently deballed in prequels exploring their tortured younger days.

But then The Joker tells a totally different story about how he got his scars to Rachel Dawes, and we realise – in a neat callback to The Killing Joke – his past is multiple choice.  After this initial confrontation with Batman, Bruce Wayne has a conversation with Alfred that begins to reveal the second layer of the villain.  This is not a regular criminal, someone with relatable wants and needs.  This is someone who “just wants to watch the world burn,” a psychopath driven by his obsession with Batman.  He’s a character with no weaknesses, and no limits to how far he’ll go to get what he wants.

When The Joker gains access to the mob’s mountain of cash and opts to burn it all, his cause more important than any personal gain, we get a peek at the third layer.  In his next appearance, dressed as a nurse to have a conversation with Harvey Dent in hospital and nudge him completely into the dark side, The Joker “candidly” explains who he really is to Dent, saying that he has no plans or grand goals, that he is merely an “agent of chaos.”  Here, he sets himself up as an almost primal force of nature, beyond good and evil or any such antiquated notions of morality.   He’s not evil.  He’s not crazy.  He’s just out to prove how evil and crazy “normal” people can become under the right circumstances.

Some viewers come out of The Dark Knight thinking this is the core layer of The Joker’s character, and it is a reasonable stance to take.  But I’m inclined to think they are wrong.  It may be how The Joker views himself, but I believe there’s one more layer underneath this one, which we get a glimpse of when his plan for the barge goes awry, and that Batman recognises.  “What were you trying to prove?” Batman asks, in a rare moment when he has one up on The Joker, “That deep down, everyone’s as ugly as you?  You’re alone.”  And I think this is The Joker, at his core.  He’s a petty, hateful little man that needs to prove that everyone is as miserable and rotten as he is.  Everyone wants something, even the worst people, even The Joker.  He’s put through the emotional wringer, but when he weathers the storm, Batman is eventually proven right: criminals aren’t complicated.

Much of this talk about The Joker regards the depiction of the character in the script, and so credit must go to Jonathan Nolan for having The Joker steamroll through the narrative the way he does.  But Heath Ledger in particular must get the lion’s share of the kudos for breathing life into The Joker in such a unique way.  From the constant licking of his lips, to the slight limp, Ledger imbues the character with ticks and quirks that lace this ball of big, frightening ideas with humanity.  This is a performance of such intense physical control that Ledger even gives The Joker a barely noticeable lazy eye that must have been agonising to maintain take after take.  He found a voice completely unlike his own, totally immersing himself in this character.  And though much has been said about how dark this vision of The Joker is, it should not be forgotten that Ledger nonetheless made him very funny.  It’s in the little moments – the facial expressions, the body language, the bits of business in between lines – that The Joker draws many of the film’s biggest laughs, giving us brief respite from the tension when it’s at its most unbearable.  Some have cynically pointed out that Heath Ledger only won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his work in this role because of his untimely death.  Sadly, there’s a chance that might be true.  But that says more about Academy politics than the quality of the performance, as there is no doubt whatsoever that this is an Oscar-worthy performance.

All this gushing praise for Heath Ledger’s Joker brings to light another criticism some have levelled against The Dark Knight: that The Joker overwhelms the film, and much like the earlier Burton and Schumacher films, Batman himself becomes an afterthought.  Not true.  As I said above, The Joker has no arc.  He’s a fixed point in the narrative, one who facilitates the development of other characters.  In its own way, The Dark Knight is as much Bruce Wayne’s story as Batman Begins.  Though Heath Ledger’s is the performance that makes the big impression on first viewing, on repeat viewing it becomes increasingly clear that it’s Christian Bale’s performance is the backbone of the film.

In my review of Batman Begins, I talked about the defining moment for Bruce Wayne in that film.  It’s hard picking one out in The Dark Knight, as Christian Bale gets so many great little beats: dropping the playboy lush persona and chucking his booze over the edge of the balcony as soon as he’s away from the crowds at his fundraiser party, sitting slumped in his chair in the wake of Rachel’s death (the dialogue between Bruce and Alfred here is a great recall to the scene between Alfred and young Bruce after his parents’ funeral in Begins), his simple “It wasn’t,” in response to Two-Face’s claims that he was the only one who lost everything.  But if I had to narrow it right down, I think I could pick out two defining moments for the character’s arc in this film.  The first of these comes during Batman’s unsuccessful interrogation of Sal Maroni.  As an injured Maroni taunts Batman with the revelation that The Joker has no weak points, no limits, and as such no one is going to cross him for Batman, the camera slowly zooms in on Batman’s face.  We see a look of growing horror in his eyes, realisation not just that The Joker is a threat he could be unequipped to face, but that Gotham’s criminals are “wise to his act”, aware that he is unwilling to kill, and that this could be less a heroic ideal than an indulgent chink in the armour he can’t afford.  With the optimistic note Batman Begins ended on, what followed could easily have progressed into standard superhero fare.  But The Dark Knight combats this by challenging the resolutions Bruce Wayne came to in the previous film.

The second defining moment is a little beat immediately following the Batman/Joker interrogation scene discussed above.  Batman is rushing out of the room, knowing he only has time to save one of the two hostages, and Gordon asks him what person he’s going to rescue.  Without hesitation, Batman immediately replies with, “Rachel.”  Of course, when he discovers that The Joker has pulled a cruel switcheroo on the locations of the two victims and that he has actually arrived at the location where Harvey Dent is being held, Batman doesn’t hesitate to save his life.  But that doesn’t change the fact that he chose to save Rachel over Harvey.  We’re used to our superheroes being selfless, but this is a selfish act, choosing his own childhood sweetheart over the person he’d talked about Gotham as a whole needing as their symbol of hope.  In the context of the film as a whole, it’s ironic to consider that, if Batman had chosen to do the right thing for the city rather than himself and opted to save Harvey, then he’d have arrived in time to save Rachel instead.  That way, Harvey would have died a martyr and a hero, his reputation preserved, without Batman and Gordon having to lie to make it that way, without Batman being made a pariah in the process, and without Rachel having to die.

The more you think about it, the clearer it becomes that there’s actually quite a lot Bruce Wayne does in this film that’s selfish.  He wants to steal away Rachel for himself when she’s in a relationship with Harvey, and knows he loves her.  He resolves to give himself up and unmask to The Joker, when he knows this won’t stop his reign of terror, because he doesn’t want the deaths of innocent people on his conscience.  And the big one, the very fact that he’s grooming Harvey Dent to take over his war on crime for him so he can stop being Batman: he’s so intently focused on his exit strategy that he doesn’t recognise the threat of The Joker until it’s too late.  This could be Batman’s “tragic flaw” over the course of the film: an inability to see things through, to stay the course.  He latches onto the first half-decent replacement to give him an out that will let him stop being Batman, refusing to recognise that Batman may be needed more than ever, that this might not be a finite mission.  In this sense, perhaps Rachel needed to die, to take that exit plan away once and for all and show him that this symbol he has created is bigger than him and his own wants and needs.

Bruce Wayne as presented here is certainly a flawed figure.  But by the end of the film, Batman comes to a new, less optimistic resolution.  He can still play his part to save Gotham, give it hope and make it better, but he may have to choose between this and being recognised as a hero.  There is a certain selfish quality inherent in Batman, someone with the wealth and resources to enact real change in Gotham, but who decides the only way to make the city better is to dress up as a bat and beat up criminals himself, one by one.  He’s feeding a need.  And perhaps he’s become attached to what people think of him, that people see him personally as a hero and an icon of good.  But he realises the truly heroic thing to do is to sacrifice that heroic status for the good of the city, cheat The Joker out of his victory and prevent Gotham’s spirit being broken by letting himself be viewed as a murderer, taking the blame for Two-Face’s crimes to salvage Harvey’s reputation.  In this grounded take of the comic mythos, this is what Christopher Nolan envisions as being truly “super-heroic”, casting aside all thought of yourself in favour of the greater good.

I love that Bruce Wayne didn’t just have a complete arc in Batman Begins then stop, breezing through The Dark Knight as a fully-formed, stationary character.  He’s still growing and evolving throughout The Dark Knight and beyond the end.  Where does this arc take us?  Where does it ultimately end?  We’ll find out in The Dark Knight Rises, and something tells me that when we look at the overall arc of Christian Bale’s Bruce Wayne over the whole trilogy, it will be truly remarkable.

At its core The Dark Knight may be Bruce’s story, but beyond that it’s the story of three men.  Bruce Wayne, Jim Gordon and Harvey Dent: this is the central trio whose journey shapes the film.  The very first line in the movie, uttered by one of the faceless bank robbers, is, “Three of a kind, let’s do this!”  This could be viewed as foreshadowing of this central relationship in the film, of three men who have much in common, who are driven by some similar demons.  And of course, by the end of the film everything is boiled down to just these three, and the consequences of their actions.

Aaron Eckhart proves to be a very impressive addition to the cast in his performance as Harvey Dent, whose downfall many argue is the true tragedy of the narrative.  At the end of the film, when Two-Face demands to know why The Joker chose to single him out for ruination, Batman replies with, “Because you were the best of us.  He wanted to prove that someone as good as you could fall.”  Perhaps the greatest tragedy of all, as regards Dent in this film, is that he’s never quite as pure and good as everyone thinks he is.  Nolan cast the role quite cannily in choosing Eckhart, an actor who certainly embodies old school American square-jawed heroism, but who in roles such as his In the Company of Men career-best turn has shown an affinity for perverting that charm and imbuing it with a sinister quality.  Harvey might be a good man, but even from the beginning there’s something not quite right about him.  He’s aloof in his initial dealings with Gordon, and there are allusions to a shady past working in Internal Affairs.  He’s quick to anger, almost unravelling as he holds The Joker’s henchman at gunpoint a good while before Rachel dies or he’s disfigured.  Ironically enough, as much as Bruce Wayne yearns to relinquish the Batman persona and let Harvey Dent take over as a legitimate inspiration for Gotham, you get the sense that Harvey Dent secretly wants to cast aside the rule of law and be Batman.  There’s the glowing admiration for Batman during the roundtable dinner with Rachel and Bruce.  There’s his brash takedown of the would-be assassin in the courtroom.  There’s the gun-in-the-alley incident.  And there’s the point where he falsely confesses to being Batman and makes himself bait in a high-risk ploy to lure The Joker into a trap.  But, of course, he can’t be Batman.  When Rachel dies, Bruce buckles, but Harvey breaks, and he is utterly lost in a scramble to make himself feel better and make others suffer for his pain.  The idea of characters being unable to stay the course in the face of adversity seems to be a recurring theme, as The Joker successfully breaks Harvey’s will.

Gary Oldman gives an understated but brilliant performance as Jim Gordon.  Relegated to comic relief status in the third act of Batman Begins, here he is required to do some real dramatic heavy lifting as the film enters its endgame.  One of my favourite moments in the film comes when a desperate Gordon draws his gun on Batman, screaming, “We have to save Dent!  I have to save Dent!”  Why does he have to save Dent?  Because he feels responsible for all that has happened to him.  Not just because he’s not Batman, and so he wasn’t fast enough to save Rachel when Batman was off rescuing Harvey Dent, but because he failed to heed Harvey’s warnings about the corrupt officers in his Major Crimes Unit task-force.  It’s bubbling away in the background, and so it might not jump out at you as a major point in the film right away, but in amidst all this talk of tragic flaws, this is Gordon’s fateful act of hubris.  Another example of inability to stay the course and follow through on your convictions, at the end of Batman Begins Gordon had seemingly learned from Batman that true change for the better was possible, that there were genuinely good people willing to help him enact that change, and that he didn’t have to settle and compromise on his morality anymore.  But come The Dark Knight, he’s still compromising, still making do with officers who may or may not be corrupt and in Maroni’s pocket because he feels he can’t afford to expect better from the police in Gotham City.  It’s an oversight that costs him dear, as it’s corrupt cops in Gordon’s unit that deliver Rachel and Harvey into the hands of The Joker’s men.  Similarly, his inability to trust Dent continually causes problems: first in letting Lau slip from their grasp and return to Hong Kong, and later in leaving Lau in the MCU (he doesn’t trust Dent to keep him save at county), where The Joker can snatch him.  Gordon is not a larger-than-life hero like Batman, or someone who wants to be a larger-than-life hero like Harvey Dent.  He’s just a good man who is caught out of his depth dealing with good and evil on this grand, operatic scale.  And so he is perhaps the most relatable of the central trio.

The other actors carry themselves well.  Maggie Gyllenhaal does more with less in the role of Rachel Dawes, giving her more spark and life than Katie Holmes even when the character herself seems to serve little purpose here other than to die.  Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman perform as admirably as ever as Bruce’s respective mentors.  Alfred doesn’t have quite so big a role as he did in Batman Begins, but does get a couple of great monologues about his time working with mercenaries in Burma, which bear eerie resonances with the present day plight Bruce faces with The Joker.  Morgan Freeman brings an enjoyably wry quality to Lucius Fox, deadpanning some of the film’s better one-liners.  But he also gets more dramatic material to work with here than in the first film, questioning if Batman has lost his moral compass in his obsession to bring down The Joker.  Fox’s smile as we discover he hasn’t, as Batman’s narration says, “Sometimes, people deserve to have their faith rewarded,” is one of the most triumphant flourishes of the film’s final moments.  Eric Roberts brings a surprising amount of roguish charm and even likeability to what could have been the rent-a-thug role of Maroni.  Really, no matter how big or small the part, the whole cast is pretty much flawless here.

But again, perhaps the biggest star of all is director Christopher Nolan.  I recently watched Batman Begins and The Dark Knight back-to-back, and watched this way, it’s clearer than ever what a quantum leap Nolan made as an auteur in between films.  The Prestige fell in between these first two Batman films, and I feel that surprisingly personal film about the nature of performance and how much of yourself you give to your audience taught Nolan a lot about cinematic storytelling.  He brought from The Prestige into The Dark Knight a coolness of tone that has evolved into something of a signature style.  We open with a slow zoom through the city, honing in on the key location of a window that’s about to shatter.  Seeing this for the first time on a massive IMAX screen, it really does feel like you’re soaring through Gotham.  Nolan employs such shots a few times to potent effect, such as slowly honing in on the Wayne penthouse immediately after The Joker’s homemade video, the nasty intimacy of that scene in stark contrast to the sweeping beauty of the cityscape.  Nolan’s passion for IMAX is understandable: he loves to craft images that feel big on the screen, even in smaller films.  And in bigger films such as this, he contrives to create an experience that feels like an event.

In this goal, he is ably assisted by regular cinematographer Wally Pfister, who would go on to deservedly win an Oscar for his work on Inception.  Also worth mentioning is the musical duo of Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard, the composers of The Dark Knight’s pulse-pounding score.  They did quality work on Batman Begins too, but at the time people were more preoccupied with it not being Danny Elfman’s iconic theme.  In The Dark Knight, though, the score comes into its full power, building on musical motifs established in the previous film’s score, and establishing themes set to become iconic to a new generation of Batman fans.  In particular, the hundred-hornets screech of string and the shattering two-note sequence that mark the presence of The Joker never fail to send chills up my spine, serving as the heartbeat of the movie.

Going back to Nolan, I mentioned in my review for Batman Begins that it was at least comfortable when trying to be a regular superhero film, following the beats expected of it.  But in The Dark Knight, any such attempt to follow convention is almost entirely abandoned, in favour of Nolan doing his own thing.  Some have said The Dark Knight isn’t a superhero film at all, but rather it is a crime movie that happens to have Batman and The Joker in it.  I wouldn’t say that.  This is still very much a superhero movie, but one that largely dismisses the narrative shorthand and cinematic language we’ve come to expect from a superhero movie.  This is a director coming into his full power, with the faith in his ability to do his own thing with the material rather than be beholden to what is expected.

That’s not to say Nolan abandons the trappings of the genre altogether in favour of character drama.  One particular area where he shows more confidence is in his handling of action scenes.  Batman Begins featured an entertaining but flawed car chase sequence, suffering from an over abundance of cuts and a jumping back and forth between dire peril and constant cheesy one-liners that resulted in an unevenness of tone.  The car chase here is much better crafted, not devoid of the odd funny beat, but mostly focused on the ramping up of tension, both more ambitious in how it draws in several key players, but also simpler, and crucially, more clearly shot.

But quite possibly my favourite action sequence, one not really discussed much, comes near the end: the impressively elaborate sequence where Batman has to simultaneously fight The Joker’s henchmen and the police, settling henchmen disguised as hostages while trying to prevent police from erroneously killing hostages dressed up as henchmen.  It’s stylishly done, giving Batman numerous badass moments, but it isn’t mindless.  It isn’t, “Let’s stop the narrative for a bit while these guys fight”.  It’s character driven, and foreshadows Batman’s renewed opposition with the police as established at the end of the film.

As much as people talk about how The Dark Knight was robbed of a Best Picture nomination at the Oscars, I think the bigger crime is that, to this day, Christopher Nolan has never been nominated for Best Director.  It’s an amazing achievement to see that, with The Dark Knight, he made a sequel bigger and better than the original, one that is so utterly rooted in the key themes of the best comics, but at the same time is utterly its own beast.  This is very much Nolan’s Gotham, and fits as well in Nolan’s canon of psychological crowd-pleasers as it does as a faithful interpretation of the Batman comics.

Which brings us back, at long last, to expectations.  As a lifelong Batman fan, I came out of The Dark Knight feeling like I had just been given the ultimate cinematic experience for a Batman fan: a truly excellent film featuring my two all-time favourite Batman villains, telling a gripping story up there with the best comics, one of the greatest Batman tales of any medium.  I remember saying that night that even if we never got another Batman movie, I’d be happy.  But now we have The Dark Knight Rises on the way, and I’m not going to say no to that!  What, then, are my expectations for the third and final film of Nolan’s trilogy?  I think that what made The Dark Knight such a resounding success is that it took the tantalising questions raised at the end of Batman Begins and answered them in the best possible way.  At the end of Batman Begins, we were left asking how Gotham would respond to the presence of Batman, and more directly, what The Joker would be like in this vision of Gotham.  The Dark Knight gave us that answer.  The question The Dark Knight left us with might not be so immediately clear, but it would seem the question we were meant to take away from it is, if Batman isn’t “the hero Gotham needs right now”, then what kind of situation would arise where Gotham would need Batman?  Is Gotham better off with or without Batman?  These are questions I’m excited to see The Dark Knight Rises.  Do I think it will top The Dark Knight?  I doubt it: The Dark Knight is my favourite film.  But still, I’m keen to see it try!

REVIEW: Batman #5

It goes without saying that Batman #5 is the best issue yet of Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo’s run on the comic.  I must look like a total pushover with a reviewer, as I started with gushing praise for Batman #1, and have had to stretch to new heights of hyperbole for each subsequent instalment.  But more than that, Batman #5 is in my opinion the best comic from any title to be released by DC since the relaunch, and could very well be one of the best single issues of a Batman story I’ve ever read as a new-release floppy.  This is the comic I’d hand to people, not just to win them over on trying the relaunched Batman series, but to comic fans who think stories with major superheroes like Batman can’t match creator-owned or indie titles for creativity and ambition, or even to comic cynics who think Batman is just for kids.  In short, Batman #5 blew me away.

To offer a catch-up on the plot, last issue ended with Batman’s investigation into the Court of Owls – a shady organisation that could be tied into the very fabric of Gotham since the earliest days of its history – leading him to the sewers of Gotham, where he was ambushed by the Talon (the Court’s mysterious assassin) and dropped into an underground labyrinth.  As we begin this issue, Batman has been trapped in said labyrinth for over a week, with no food and only water that is probably drugged for him to drink, with no escape in sight.  And he’s starting to lose his mind.

In my review for issue #4, I talked a little about how Capullo’s art was showing touches of horror amidst the classic superhero action.  Well, here, we’re taken right over the edge of that cliff, as Snyder gives us a story that is pure horror, arguably scarier than anything he’s written for Swamp Thing or American Vampire.  Snyder has talked about horrors such as Jacob’s Ladder and The Shining acting as inspirations for this issue’s script (in particular, there is a truly horrific sequence that owes a lot to the latter’s notorious “Room 217” scene), but what Batman’s twisted journey through the labyrinth most reminded me of was the terrifying conclusion to Twin Peaks, the extended sequence with Dale Cooper in the Black Lodge.  “The owls are not what they seem,” indeed.  Both tap into that primal fear, that common nightmare of being lost in a strange place, getting increasingly panicked as every attempt to get out takes you back to where you were before…. and you realise you’re not alone, that’s something’s in there with you, chasing you.

This setup alone would be chilling enough, but I think it’s all the more unsettling in that the victim is as beloved a pop culture icon as Batman.  This is Batman, who can get out of anything with prep time, the ultimate escape artist, who Grant Morrison triumphantly showed us is capable of outwitting the greatest of masterminds and even coming back from apparent death and a journey through time unscathed!  We’ve seen him lured into so many death-traps that it’s old hat, that we see it as little more than a mild inconvenience for him.  Snyder gleefully erodes that notion, letting us see Batman struggle to apply that famous logic to his situation, only for it to slip through his fingers and for him to descend into hysteria.  As the chapter progresses, it becomes increasingly clear that Batman is acting like a crazy person.  And it’s upsetting!  Seeing Batman ranting and raving, screaming and sobbing, tearing at his flesh and digging his fingers into the floor… it almost feels like it shouldn’t be allowed.  But by dancing on the fringes of what you can get away with in a mainstream superhero property – capped off with a truly shocking cliffhanger – Snyder has injected a sense of genuine “how’s he gonna get out of this!?” peril into a genre that is too often accused of predictability.

Though the bulk of the issue takes place within the labyrinth, acting as an enthralling character dissection of Batman, we do get brief bookends showing how his absence his affecting the supporting cast.  I enjoyed this glimpse of the wider Batman universe, particularly the use of Robin, capturing Damian’s pomposity, but also showing the vulnerability of a child whose lost his father.

Snyder has claimed that he feels this could be the best comic script he’s ever written, and I might be inclined to agree with him.  For some time now, I’ve come to take Snyder’s name on a book as a guarantee of quality, but here he takes his storytelling to a whole new level, and years from now I imagine people will still be ranking this amongst his best work.  This is Snyder’s “Anatomy Lesson”.

Capullo also ups his game, giving us some of the most innovative, experimental visuals I’ve seen in a comic in quite some time.  As Batman’s mind fractures, and he’s plagued by ever more nightmarish visions, that sense of the very fabric of reality coming apart is enhanced by the artwork.  The pages twist and turn from portrait layout to landscape, and eventually spinning upside down, forcing us to abruptly start reading from right-to-left.  We’re left as dizzy and disoriented as Batman.  And look at how the page layouts steadily dissolve from neat, regimented grids to haywire, crooked little windows crammed into the page.  This is a visual representation of going mad.

I love the way Capullo draws Batman here too.  One small touch – the visor on one side of his mask being broken, exposing his eye – speaks volumes throughout the issue.  Firstly, it’s a humanising factor, showing us the man, the Bruce Wayne behind the Batman mask, the vulnerable human in this situation.  But as the story progresses, that eye gets more dilated, more bloodshot.  When Snyder’s script has Batman’s voiceover announcing that he is in control, that he can defeat this enemy, that wild, frantic eye makes a liar out of him. Capullo also makes creepy physical alterations to Batman.  Subtle at first, with his cape shifting and changing size and shape from panel to panel.  But by the end sequence, we descend from Lynchian horror of the mind to wince-inducing Cronenbergian body horror.  Capullo’s been doing superstar work since issue #1, but issue #5 could be his best showcase yet.

The team of inker Jonathan Glapion and colorist FCO have lots to do as well.  There is a reversed dynamic at work here, where its the darkness that offers safety and shelter, and harsh, blinding light where the horrors await.  And it’s through the efforts of these two that this works so well.  The light really does feel harsh, the colors saturated under it.  Moments like the scene with the minature city really make you appreciate what an atmospheric, textured comic this is.

Batman #5 is a triumph on every level, with the whole creative team delivering astounding work.  If you haven’t been reading Batman, this is where you should jump on, and even if you have no plans of reading Batman monthly, I’d recommend buying this issue in particular, as I imagine it’s going to become a hot commodity before long.  If you have been reading Batman, you should feel vindicated.  I’ve been enjoying this title immensely, and I already said with last issue that it has become my favourite DC book.  And yes, I’m aware it’s been widely critically acclaimed.  But I’ve also seen quite a bit of, “Not quite as good as The Black Mirror, but…” type comments.  This was in positive reviews, and it’s fair enough, as The Black Mirror has already entered the canon of all-time classic Batman stories.

With Batman #5, this story has now topped The Black Mirror.  If Snyder can keep up the quality, we’re looking at another all-time classic.  I’m expecting Batman #6 to finally break this streak of this title constantly outdoing itself, because I genuinely think you can’t top a comic as good as Batman #5.  But all the same, I expect it to be great, and the third week of February can’t come fast enough.

 

REVIEW: Batman #4

Many apologies: this review is about a month late, and so not exactly topical.  Perhaps the reason for the delay is that I’m running out of things to say about Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo’s enthralling relaunch of Batman.  I can only say what I feel I’ve said over the past 3 months: this tops the last instalment, and is the best issue yet.

Batman #3 began to pull back the curtain a little on the sheer scope of the threat Batman faced, elevating what was already a gripping story to a whole new level.  From there, it would have been very tempting to just barrel on ahead with the white-knuckle ride, and I’m sure that would have resulted in a very good comic.  But instead, Snyder dials back, and instead goes introspective with an issue that focuses on the character of Bruce Wayne, and his motivations in this particular battle.  I’ve talked before about how Batman’s utter refusal to believe in the existence of the Court of Owls was in danger of becoming a kind of hubris, one in danger of leading to his downfall.  But here, we discover Bruce’s very personal reasons for not believing in them, reasons which go deeper than mere hard-headedness.

We really don’t see enough of young Bruce Wayne.  In the character’s comic history, it seems like his parents died, then he disappeared into a vacuum for several years – popping up here and there as a young man going on globe-trotting adventures to hone his body and mind – before emerging as an adult just in time for Batman: Year One.  So, I found it fascinating getting a glimpse here of Bruce Wayne as a child, in the more immediate aftermath of his parent’s death.  We see anger, in danger of becoming destructive – it’s glossed over, but see how he kills the owl and destroys its eggs: the kind of spiteful animal cruelty more associate with future serial killers than superheroes – but he’s not totally lost in grief.  We see how, even as a young boy, Bruce Wayne had a keen, analytical mind, and a desire to seek justice and hunt down the corrupt.  I enjoy it when Morrison touches on this idea, and it’s nice seeing Snyder assert it too: contrary to what some commentators have said, no, not anybody can be Batman.  It wasn’t the years of training, the vast resources, or even the tragedy that made Bruce Wayne Batman.  It was something about him, something that was always there, even when he was young.

As a brief aside, who here would love to see an all-ages series from DC called Bruce Wayne: Boy Detective?  GET ON IT, DC!

Talking about this flashback sequence is as good a time as any to bring up my ever-growing love for Greg Capullo.  I’ve been full of praise for the bombastic, blockbuster imagery Capullo has brought to this title since day one, and this issue’s opening sequence – with Batman escaping from an exploding building – really lets Capullo flex those action muscles.  But Capullo shows real diversity when chronicling Bruce Wayne’s childhood encounter with the Court of Owls – aided by the immersive blacks of Jonathan Glapion and the muted, almost monochrome palette of FCO – shifting to a stark, eerie style more reminiscent of horror than A-list superhero fare.

Looking beyond the flashback and into the issue as a whole, Batman #4 boasts one of my favourite Capullo pages yet: Batman standing in shadow, looking on, as Gordon waits for him to show up at the Bat Signal.  Iconic.  Capullo impresses me more and more with each passing month, doing real superstar work that – even before you get into Snyder’s excellent story – is going to ensure that the eventual graphic novel collection of this storyline is as visually definitive as a Long Halloween or a Hush.

Given how I’m running out of nice things to say about this title, I may very well have said this already.  But in the first few months of the New 52, in my praise of the accessible, action-packed Batman, I said that it was one of the very best of the DC relaunch, second only to Animal Man and Snyder’s own Swamp Thing.  But I don’t think I can even make that concession anymore.  Batman is the best book DC is putting on shelves, and perhaps that’s the way it should be.  Batman #5 is due out tomorrow.  All reports suggest that it is the best issue yet.  Of course it is.

REVIEW: Batman #3

As hard as it may be to believe, not everyone is in love with Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo’s Batman.  Those who have been reading my reviews will know I’ve been highly vocal in my praise for the first two issues of the relaunched series, and that I’d rank it as the best of the current Bat-titles, a field that’s actually proven to be pretty competitive.  But I’ve talked to a couple of people who have expressed disappointment, saying that after the dark, psychological tone of Snyder’s Detective Comics run, Batman has felt more like standard blockbuster superhero fare.  Those critics might be more satisfied with the sinister turn the narrative takes in this third chapter.  With the steady build in dread over the course of the issue, Batman #3 is paced a lot like a horror story.

Scott Snyder has been very methodical with his pacing and his plotting, but now the pieces are falling into place and the scope of the threat Batman faces is starting to become apparent.  In my review of the last issue, I talked about how Batman’s utter confidence in his deductive skills and his knowledge of Gotham City was being reframed by Snyder as a kind of hubris, an inability to accept that there could be anything at work in Gotham beyond his understanding.  That very much comes to the fore here, and though we do get an excellent action scene set in an underground railway tunnel, for the most part the challenge to Batman here is a cerebral one, and this is a case that will push his deductive abilities as “the world’s greatest detective” to the limit.

The threat of the Court of Owls is almost entirely off-panel in this issue.  They are built up through insinuation and recollection of old folklore and superstition, rather than a physical presence.  But in spite of this – no, because of it – they are built up to be a terrifying threat.  For now at least, they are intangible, unknowable, and, as a result, unfightable.  Snyder draws once more from his Big Book of Trivia to Make You S**t Yourself to come up with some unsettling facts about owls – they are natural predators of bats, they take the nests of rival birds rather than building their own – that when applied to the context of the story make them seem even more formidable as a foil for Batman.  The closing sequence of the issue really hammers home how omnipresent the Court of Owls are, and how deeply ingrained they are not just to the history of Gotham, but to the Waynes.  And the ranting of Alan Wayne in the flashback to 1922 that opens the issue – “Their nests are all around!  They’re in my home!  My home!” – foreshadows that their influence could soon prove to be even more uncomfortably intimate, and the old nursery rhyme’s warning that, “They watch you at your hearth, they watch you in your bed” could turn out to be eerily accurate.

Indeed, if there’s any small complaint I have with the narrative of Batman #3, it comes with the final page.  At first, I thought the second last page was the end, and that was satisfying.  The revelation of how far-reaching this menace was, and the challenge Batman faced in getting to the bottom of it, ended things on a note of quiet dread that really left me wanting more.  But then I turned the page, and was met with a rushed, cheap cliffhanger that I really don’t think the issue needed.  I can appreciate the reasoning behind it, though, and it wasn’t enough to hurt my overall enjoyment of what was otherwise a perfectly structured instalment of this saga.

Once again, the art of Greg Capullo is stunning.  In fact, this could very well be his finest work on the series thus far.  His work has always been slick and stylish, but here Capullo really starts experimenting with his layouts and angles in a way that makes this a visually dense, rich reading experience.  The inventive layout of having the various Wayne buildings in the Gotham skyline framed inside a guilded owl’s eye was striking, and the transition from what could be a pair of glowing owl eyes in the darkness in 1922 to a pair of train headlights approaching in the present day is one of the best match cuts I’ve seen in a comic in a while.  Perhaps my favorite angle used in a panel comes on page 9, where we get a POV shot of Bruce and Alfred talking in the Batcave from behind Batman’s mask, which has been left sitting on Bruce’s worktable.  We see the pair through the narrow slits of the eye-holes, adding an off-kilter, sinister dimension to the talking heads scene.

These were the standout artistic flourishes on first reading.  But upon repeat reading, it became apparent that there is a real visual motif of watching and observation going on here, and once you become aware of it, it’s everywhere.  There are a couple of instances when people are talking about the Court of Owls, where the angle shifts to an overhead shot that feels eerily like a POV shot from an unseen observer.  And there is a big focus on eyes.  Not just the aformentioned owl eyes, but lots of close-ups on human eyes, and things and people reflected in those eyes.  And once you’ve got eyes in your head, eye-like circles start popping up everywhere!  The shot from the blackness below, looking up through the open manhole cover, the railway tunnel at the bottom of page 4 with the far end looking like a little pupil, the circle honed in on Luka Volk when Batman is using lie detector technology on him, the insignia on the Talon’s blade, Batman silhouetted against the full moon on page 13,  the device Batman uses to cut a hole in the floor on page 14, the giant owl insignia we see looming behind Batman or over his head in the scenes that follow.  It all reminds us of the Talon and his circular, owl-like goggles.  And it enhances this pervasive sense that the Court of Owls are everywhere, always watching.  This is a perfect example of art and writing going hand-in-hand and creating an immersive experience for the reader.

It would be negligent of me to not also continue praising the work being done by inker Jonathan Glapion and colorist FCO.  As I’ve mentioned before, Glapion’s heavy blacks are a major part of this title’s overall aesthetic, and that applies in this issue more than ever.  His sharp lines also serve as the perfect compliment to Capullo’s distinctive style.  Similarly, FCO’s muted color palette – making precise use of earthy browns/oranges and cool blues – gives Batman its own unique feel that sets it apart even from the other Bat-titles.  The whole creative team come together to ensure this is just a great-looking book.

It’s getting hard to review this title on a monthly basis, without just repeating the “it’s great!” hyperbole.  My conclusion for this issue is the same as it was for the last one, and I imagine next month I’ll be saying the same thing: Batman #3 is the best issue yet, building on what came before and steadily ratcheting up the tension.  It’s so rewarding when a comic doesn’t just coast on the power of the title character’s brand name.  The writing is striving to provide fresh insight into Batman’s character, while the art is innovative and charged with a desire to explore new and exciting possibilities the comic medium makes available.  This is comics done right.

REVIEW: Batman #2

Sometimes, success is well deserved.  Such was the case for Batman #1, the relaunch of the iconic DC series by writer Scott Snyder and artist Greg Capullo.  When the sales figures for September came in, Batman stood proudly as the highest selling of all DC’s New 52 #1s, and as I said, it was well deserved.  In terms of quality, Batman #1 was one of the very best titles I read, meeting the high expectations I had for the comic.  And the comic did its job as a jumping-on point for new readers perhaps better than any other title in the relaunch: with its accessible story and succinct recap of the Batman mythology, this was a comic that could appeal to someone perhaps only familiar with the character through the Christopher Nolan movies, deciding to pick up a comic for the first time.  With such a successful first issue, the question on many’s lips may be, “Does Batman #2 maintain the quality of the first issue?”  Having read the comic, I have to report that no, it doesn’t.  Batman #2 surpasses the first issue!

I think it’s clear that, and I mean this in the most complimentary way possible, Scott Snyder is someone who is very good at talking.  From his eloquent interviews and Twitter sprees where he is able to masterfully get right to the thematic core of his upcoming projects in a way that builds the maximum level of excitement from readers, to the poetic, world-building, character-defining voiceovers and monologues he has become well known for unfolding over the course of his issues, Snyder has proven himself to be a master wordsmith.  But with Batman #2, Snyder displays another highly important skill for a comic writer: knowing when not to talk, when to shut up and let your artist do the talking for you.

Batman #2 is very much a comic based around action, with Snyder setting up not one, but two breathtaking action set-pieces: one a high-speed pursuit involving a helicopter, a train, and the Batcycle, and the other a nerve-wracking fight sequence that takes place during a midair death plummet.  What gives each the frenzied sense of motion that makes it “breathtaking” is the stage direction of one Greg Capullo, who delivered some quality work last issue, but really hits his stride with pinache here.  Capullo is a master of shaping and laying out panels in a way that makes it feel like you’re not reading a series of still images, but are instead immersed in something that’s vibrant, in motion.

But it’s not just in his crafting of action that Capullo excels.  There are all kinds of small moments where I found myself impressed by Capullo’s technique.  One great panel, looking up at Commissioner Gordon through the gaping hole in a murder victim’s chest, is one of the most gruesomely inventive shot angles I’ve seen in a comic in some time.  Really, the whole creative team gets to shine here.  Once again, Jonathan Glapion gets to have fun with some heavy blacks, from Gotham’s skyline cast into ominous silhouette, to a pair of sinister owl’s eyes glowing from the shadow behind an ambulance window.  Colorist FCO Plascenia also gets to flex his muscles, creating an unusual vibe for a Batman comic where the majority of the comic takes place in bright, harsh sunlight.  This is just a stylish comic.

But don’t worry, Snyder still gets some of those nice words in there too.  Right from the opening pages, Snyder continues his sterling work in shaping Gotham City as a pivotal character in its own right, using the city’s history to shape its identity, while also setting up a suspenseful scenario that keeps the tension up throughout the issue.  This really is a relentlessly paced comic, and like I mentioned above, action packed.  But it’s still very much about character.

Batman is so iconic, that it can often be easy for writers – even in good stories – to overlook him as a character.  They’ll give personality to the supporting figures surrounding him, while Bruce Wayne himself simply remains an unwavering constant.  “I’m Batman,” as almost become an all-purposes adjective for the character, a shorthand for actually presenting him as a human being.  Not so, here.  Snyder is not intimidated by the back catalogue, or the iconic status, and cuts right through it all to give us a story that is very much about Batman as a character.  That “I’m always one step ahead and have planned and prepared for everything” quality that much of Morrison’s classic work with the character has been a celebration of is here warped into a kind of hubris, an inability to admit there is a threat in Gotham beyond his understanding that may prove to be his undoing.  We’re in the early stages of that development here, but you get a sense it’ll come further into play later, and I’m fascinated to see where Snyder is going with this.

There are a couple of minor quibbles.  Prospective mayor Lincoln March is an interesting character, and gets a nice monologue laying out the parallels between himself and Bruce Wayne, but as far as “I’m totally a good guy – honest!” characters go, he’s about as trustworthy as Tommy Elliott, and unless Snyder plans to subvert those expectations about him inevitably turning out to be a bad apple, this is a character whose role feels a bit heavily telegraphed.  But that’s a small niggle, and there’s plenty more in the comic that’s executed to perfection.

One small beat I was particularly fond of comes during the autopsy scene, with a seemingly throwaway line from Gordon to Batman, regarding how Bruce Wayne will be protected from the death threat made against him: “I take it you’re keeping an eye on him.”  This is a line that works on three levels.  At its most basic level, it works as simply Gordon acknowledging that Batman is a guy who’s always well prepared.  On a deeper level, for those familiar with recent events in the Batman franchise, it’s an acknowledgement of Bruce Wayne going public as the spearheading figure behind Batman Inc.  And, of course, on the deepest level, it’s giving a nod to the idea (revisited near the end of Snyder’s run on Detective) that Gordon is fully aware that Batman is Bruce Wayne, and pretends not to know simply to humor him and give himself plausible deniability.  It’s a textbook example of how Snyder has achieved the ideal balance between making Batman accessible to new readers and rewarding to longtime readers.

Two issues in, and I’m already imagining the complete, 11-chapter graphic novel collecting this saga joining the canon of classic Batman stories – alongside Snyder’s Black Mirror, might I add.  The pacing is careful and deliberate, with some cards still being held close to the chest, but you get a sense that Snyder knows exactly where he is going, and that the pace and the stakes will continue to escalate with each passing installment.  Furthermore, this is a comic that looks simply stunning, with Greg Capullo and his artistic collaborators giving us one of the slickest looking titles of the New 52.  It’s a good thing that this is the most read comic of all the New 52, as few titles out there showcase all that’s great about DC – and comics in general – better than this one.

REVIEW: Batman #1

Of all the 52 titles being released this month as part of DC’s linewide relaunch, Batman #1 was the comic at the very top of my hype list.  My favorite character, being written by one of the best writers around right now, with art from Greg Capullo that looked more stunning with every preview released.  This comic had a truly irresistable pedigree, and my anticipation for it was nigh-unbearable.  Thankfully, upon finally getting to read the comic, I can say Batman #1 doesn’t falter under the weight of its lofty expectations.

I’ve already gushed plenty in the past about Scott Snyder as a writer in general, and particularly about how well he handles the world of Gotham City.  His portrayal of Gotham as a dark, hostile, ever-shifting force carries over from his astounding run on Detective Comics to this relaunch of Batman, only now instead of writing Dick Grayson under the cowl, Snyder gets to write the big guy himself, Bruce Wayne.  Snyder gives us a solid introduction to his take on Batman, with an internal monologue carrying through the issue that gives us a sense of his thoughtful, analytical personality.  It’s also an interpretation that’s less grim and tortured than the character can often be depicted.  We still get a sense of Batman’s pathological nature, making moves to ensure he is connected to the Batcave and its surveillence systems at all times.  But there’s a lot of humor and deadpan wit laced through his activities as well, and it’s telling that the first time we see Batman, he’s smirking.  At last, he seems willing to admit that he’s having a bit of fun.

But one element where I feel Snyder gets points over Daniel and his competent work on Detective Comics #1 is that he doesn’t skimp on the Bruce Wayne side of the equation.  As well as characterising Batman, we see that our hero does more as Bruce Wayne than just sit around brooding, waiting until he can put his costume on again.  Bruce is depicted as an eternal idealist, someone who has (perhaps misguided) visions for a Gotham that can be fixed and made better one day.  Snyder gives him a well-written speech about Gotham and its people that says a lot about who he is.  Interestingly enough, it seems like it’s his actions as Bruce in this issue, rather than as Batman, that will serve as the catalyst for the overarching mystery introduced in the book’s closing pages.

That mystery seems like it could be a fascinating one.  Tying into this idea of Gotham as the enemy that has fuelled so much of Snyder’s work within the Batman mythos, much of the narration around the whole first issue is based around various ways to finish the sentence, “Gotham is…”  And it seems this arc could be an execise in answering that question.  We don’t really get into the story much in this issue, in fact we barely skim the surface.  But I get a sense that there is a lot of groundwork being laid here, and this is the foundation of what could be an epic drama.

I also want to note how friendly Snyder has made this comic for new readers.  Imagine, for a second, that someone has been living under a rock their whole life, and doesn’t know a thing about Batman.  As well as the aforementioned introduction to both Batman and Bruce Wayne (and an unobstrusive reference to Batman’s origin story too), the comic opens with an Arkham-based action sequence that introduces us to several of Batman’s iconic foes.  We then go into a scene which introduces us to Commissioner Gordon and his friendship with Batman, set – where else? – on the roof of the GCPD building.  In a single double page spread, we’re shown the Batcave and several of Batman’s famous vehicles.  We’re then introduced to three of Batman’s proteges, and in a single panel, we are given the concise backstories and current statuses of Dick Grayson, Tim Drake and Damian Wayne.  The idea of multiple Robins, which might have been confusing for a new reader, is made quite palpable.  In the party sequence, we’re introduced to butler Alfred and shown that he is Batman’s closest confidante, and we also get a sense of Bruce’s wealth and influence within the city.  All the tropes are crammed in.  In terms of selling the concept of Batman to a newcomer, this certainly gets an A grade.

And speaking of selling Batman to a newcomer, anyone picking up this comic and flicking through the pages is going to be quite simply blown away by Greg Capullo’s pencils here.  I’ve seen some complain that Capullo’s pencils are too clean and cartoony for Batman, from people who expected dark and moody visuals.  I disagree.  Dark and scratchy art can offer an interesting psychological perspective for a more experienced reader, but if the goal is to get new fans, then the perfect hook is clean images, plenty of wide, panoramic views in large panels, an open, visually dynamic, exciting design.  Already, Capullo’s work here reminds me of what Tim Sale was doing in The Long Halloween, or what Jim Lee was doing with Hush: giving us instantly iconic art that has a very wide appeal.

Capullo’s pencils are highly impressive, and he offers some clever layouts too: one of my favorites has The Joker and Batman back-to-back in silhouette, with lots of jagged, window-like panels of them in combat peppered in front of them.  But we can’t ignore the contributions of his artistic collaborators.  Jonathan Glapion does some atmospheric inking here.  Any Batman comic worth its salt is going to be making good use of blacks and shadows, and that is very much the case here.  We very rarely get a view of Batman that isn’t cast into some kind of shade, and Glapion’s heavy blacks really enhance this feeling of him being a creature of the night.  The washed-out coloring of FCO Plascenia, meanwhile, really enhances the grim aesthetic of the city, with the colors in the Arkham opening proving particularly impressive.  I also noted the faded color palette in Detective Comics, so perhaps the colorists are trying to maintain a consistent aesthetic between the flagship Batbooks.

In the end, Batman #1 didn’t turn out to be my favorite of all the DC #1s as I expected it would be coming into September: thus far, that honor is still held by Swamp Thing #1, also by Scott Snyder.  But I would say Batman #1 is the best New 52 title I’ve read so far that doesn’t fall under the “DC Dark” banner.  It’s classic Batman, and should feel simultaneously rewarding for old readers and welcoming for new ones.  And in the background, we get the sense that a narrative is brewing that could make the issues that follow even better.

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.