My Top Ten Comics of 2011

It’s been another great year for comics, and if there’s been a dominant theme of the year, it would be change.  Most notably, we had the big change of DC relaunching its universe in September.  In terms of my comic reading, there are some changes as well.  Marvel has been all but entirely cut from my pull list, while the aforementioned relaunch has seen me now juggling more DC titles monthly than ever.  A lot of titles that featured in my top ten last year, such as American Vampire, Sweet Tooth, Chew, Morning Glories and even The Walking Dead, failed to make the cut this year, though with the exception of Morning Glories, I still read and enjoy all of them.  Other honourable mentions include high-octane Western The Sixth Gun, stylish fantasy romp Demon Knights, and The Strange Talent of Luther Strode, which might very well have made the top ten if more issues had been released this year.   And that’s not to mention the comics of this year that I’m still meaning on getting round to: I finally read Daytipper this April, and if I’d read it in 2010 it would have had a good chance at topping the list.  But enough about what’s not on the list, scroll down and take a look at what did make the cut!

10. AXE COP: BAD GUY EARTH

In terms of boundless creativity, there was no comic this year to match Axe Cop: Bad Guy Earth, a feat made all the more impressive when you consider it was written by a 6 year old.  Many comics have tried to match that sense of spontaneous, zany joy so effortlessly created by Malachai Nicolle and his artist brother Ethan, but none quite managed to pull it off.  Axe-wielding, psychotic cops, flying, fire-breathing dinosaurs, using the power of prayer to make everyone in the world simultaneously poop their pants, the ideas and high concepts are fired out at a dizzying rate.  It’s also absolutely hilarious, with a new laugh-out-loud moment on almost every page.  This might not pack the depth and nuance of the other entries on this list, but you’ll be hard pressed to find any other comic that has as much pure fun.

9. SECRET SIX

Overall, DC’s New 52 initiative this year has most definitely been a huge success.  Sales are through the roof, and I’m buying more quality DC comics each month than I have in a long time.  But there have been bad points about it too, and there is perhaps no greater casualty of this relaunch than the loss of Secret Six: not just in terms of the title being cancelled, but in terms of the events contained within it apparently being erased from continuity to make room for the unfortunate Suicide Squad relaunch.  I had said repeatedly that Gail Simone’s offbeat supervillain team book was perhaps the most consistently great title on DC’s publishing schedule.  But while the plots were solid, more than anything it was the characterisation of this oddball roster of psychos and outcasts that made this series soar, with them becoming less like a team than a family.  In this final year of this 36-issue run (not including the two mini-series’ that came before), the knowledge of the impending end gave Secret Six added poignancy, and the emotional weight of saying goodbye to old friends.  And it is goodbye.  I’m sure these characters will all show up elsewhere in the DCU (many already have), but they won’t be like they were here.

8. JOURNEY INTO MYSTERY

 

How embarrassing for Marvel that, with all the hype that went into The Mighty Thor – the relaunched series from the powerhouse pairing of Matt Fraction and Olivier Coipel that began just in time to tie in with this year’s Thor movie – it ended up getting totally upstaged in the quality department by Journey into Mystery.  Sure, Journey into Mystery might not have the sales to match, but discerning readers quickly figured out where to get their best monthly dose of Asgard.  Indeed, this series from writer Kieron Gillen and a variety of artists (most prolifically Doug Braithwaite) could very well be the best comic in the Marvel Universe.  The surprising thing about this series as it has developed is that it’s truly an ensemble piece, with characters quietly building up complex, interconnected histories.  But the star of the show is undoubtedly Loki, here reborn as a child.  He still has the witty, manipulative nature of his older self, but has not yet been corrupted by a lifetime of disdain, so to a degree his innocence is intact.  It’s a compelling look at nature VS nurture, and makes Loki one of the most intriguing protagonists in comics right now.  Journey into Mystery spent much of 2011 making lemons out of lemonade with a Fear Itself tie-in that was better than the actual event.  In 2012, Kieron Gillen gets to tell his own story, and I’m fascinated to see where that story goes.

7. SEVERED

It was a good year for horror, with Severed being the first of several entries in the genre to make it into my top ten.  This Depression-era period piece by co-writers Scott Snyder and Scott Tuft and artist Atilla Futaki stands distinct from much of the rest of the horror output of the comics world by actually being scary.  While too many creators mistake making a reader recoil from the page in disgust and say, “Eeeew,” for frightening them, Snyder and Tuft know how to turn the screws and leave us as readers with a knotted feeling of dread in our stomach, waiting for something terrible to happen.  The whole bear-trap sequence in issue #3 in particular was a masterclass in simmering dread.  The pace is slow, and over 5 issues Severed has taken its time on having the paths of our youthful hero Jack and the monstrous, cannibalistic child-killer known only as The Salesman cross and intertwine.  But this has worked wonders, as the meandering plot has allowed us time to grow truly attached to the characters, making the horrific things that happen to them genuinely upsetting.  There are 2 issues left, and though I know it’s unlikely to end well for poor Jack, I can’t look away.

6.  ECHOES

 

While we’re on the subject of horror, this miniseries by Joshua Hale Fialkov and Rahsan Ekedal operated with a deep understanding of what makes the genre work so well.  Like some of the best horror movies – The Shining and Rosemary’s Baby spring to mind – Echoes retains for as long as possible a sense of ambiguity over whether our protagonist is plagued by external horrors or simply their own hysteria.  I won’t spoil whether it turns out to be the former or the latter, as you really need to read it for yourself, but I will say that the nightmare loving husband and diagnosed schizophrenic Brian Cohn finds himself in is utterly compelling, not least because Cohn himself is so well developed by Fialkov that we grow to care about him and, in spite of the genre, invest in his well-being.  But a big part of Echoes’ success is the artwork of Ekedal, perfectly measured to maximise tension and make the horror feel tangible and real.  I can see this being a very successful, very scary movie in the future, but this is more than just source material ripe for the picking: Echoes is a quintessential horror comic, as its creators skilfully use the tools of the medium to draw its frights.

5.  CRIMINAL: THE LAST OF THE INNOCENT

Before I read this latest volume of the acclaimed crime series by Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips, the only exposure I’d had to Criminal was through the first volume, Coward.  I read that, and thought it was a good heist story, cleverly plotted and slickly drawn, but never felt desperate to try other volumes.  Perhaps because I read it around the same time I picked up the first volume of Scalped, which got a lot more of my attention.  But I don’t know what it was – perhaps my interest in the upcoming Fatale by Brubaker/Phillips, or perhaps the eye-catching cover of the graphic novel that drew me in when I was browsing for a graphic novel to try – but I decided to give The Last of the Innocent a go, picking it up as a last-minute Christmas present to myself.  I’m glad I did.  The Last of the Innocent is much better than Coward (which was good in its own right), not just in terms of the depth of the storytelling, but in the ambition of the visuals.  The two combine to give us a powerful tale of the cruelty of nostalgia, and the hell a man can create for himself while in search of something better.  At last, I’ve bought into the Criminal hype.

4. ANIMAL MAN

When reading about the various titles in DC’s New 52 relaunch, I expected Animal Man to be good.  I liked the work Grant Morrison did with the character, and reading books like Sweet Tooth and Essex County had already ensured that seeing the name Jeff Lemire on anything was like a watermark of quality.  But still, I was taken aback by just how good Animal Man was, standing out as one of the very best titles of the relaunch.  Perhaps it’s because, while Jeff Lemire’s storytelling is just as great as I’ve come to expect, with the family dynamic of everyman hero Buddy Baker and his wife and children acting as the heart of the book, the art of Travel Foreman took me completely by surprise.  It’s not been to everyone’s tastes, but I love it, his ethereal style adding an undertone of weirdness to even the more conventional scenes, but truly coming to life with the sequences of Lovecraftian monster horror.  When combined, the end result is one of the most distinctive titles of the Big Two.  I may have been taken by surprise after the first issue, but now Animal Man is a title I thoroughly expect to blow me away each month.  It hasn’t let me down yet.

3.  SWAMP THING

The other crown jewel of DC’s New 52, this one from the powerhouse pairing of Scott Snyder and Yanick Paquette.  While Animal Man was an unexpected pleasure, I had high hopes for Swamp Thing from the moment it was announced.  I hold the classic Alan Moore run in very high regard, ranking it as one of my all-time favourite comics.  So it is no small praise to say that Snyder not only lives up to the legacy of that landmark run, but expands on and enriches the mythology it established, finding new wrinkles and dark avenues that fit in so organically to the tapestry that it’s almost as if Alan Moore put them there.  But it’s not just Moore Snyder pays homage to, revisiting in new ways some of the original themes explored by Len Wein in the first ever Swamp Thing stories, restoring Alec Holland to the mix and examining who he is and what drives him when you take the big green plant monster out of the mix.  Paquette, meanwhile, continues the grand tradition of visual innovation explored by artists such as Bernie Wrightson and Stephen Bissette, giving us rich montages that, in spite of the gruesome subject matter they are often depicting, must still be referred to as “beautiful.”  Along with Animal Man, Swamp Thing is crafting an immersive mythology that stands as one of the most interesting corners of the whole DCU.

2. DETECTIVE COMICS

2011 was a vintage year for Batman comics.  Though delays hurt its momentum slightly, Grant Morrison’s Batman Incorporated has continued to impress, with a couple of great one-shot issues proving particularly memorable.  Pete Tomasi and Patrick Gleason’s Batman & Robin has been one of my surprise highlights of the relaunch.  Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo’s Batman, meanwhile, could very well be my favourite of all the New 52, and if it keeps on going the way it is, I’d say it’s already a strong contender to rank highly in 2012’s year-end list.  But if I had to just pick one Batman comic to place in the list for 2011, it would have to be Snyder’s previous work on Detective Comics.  Bruce Wayne was completely absent, with Dick Grayson and Jim Gordon instead taking centre stage in a dark, twisted powerfully drawn by Jock and Francesco Francavilla.  The idea that Gotham City itself is a kind of antagonist for our heroes is not a new one, but the execution of the idea was as compelling here as I’ve ever seen it.  The Black Mirror, the graphic novel collecting this 11-issue run, is already poised to enter the canon of all-time great Batman stories.

1. SCALPED

Yes, I know, I’m very dull and predictable.  It topped the list in 2010, and Scalped breezes to the top spot once again in 2011.  But the crime saga from Jason Aaron and (among others) R.M. Guera has earned its placing by being the most consistently excellent comic on the shelves, month after month.  The year got off to a powerful start with You Gotta Sin to Get Saved, a character-driven 5-part tale exploring how various members of our cast would respond when faced with life-altering decisions.  Some of those choices were surprising, others were crushingly inevitable, but all made for fascinating reading.  Then, Scalped got to celebrate a landmark 50th issue in memorable fashion, taking a break from the ongoing narrative to give us a standalone tale that nevertheless managed to concisely encapsulate the themes of the entire series.  And now we’re in the midst of Knuckle Up, where the agonising tension and the deaths of long-standing characters puts me in mind of The Gnawing, the gut-wrenching arc that helped seal Scalped’s spot at the top last year.  But perhaps the drama has even more potency this time round, tempered with the knowledge that the end is nigh, that after issue #60 the story of the Prairie Rose Indian Reservation and its residents will be over.  Savour it while you can, comic fans: one of the all-time great overlooked classics of the comic medium is reaching is coming to a close.  We’ll see if its final chapter can top next year’s list and make it a hat trick.

REVIEW: Batwoman #1

When it comes to comics, I’m a writing guy.  Though I have dropped titles because of a steep decline in the quality of art, as a writer myself, for the most part, it’s a writer’s involvement with  a book that will spark my interest.  There are, however, a few exceptions, most notably Batwoman #1.  As soon as I read that J.H. Williams III would be returning to draw the character he rendered so beautifully in his run with writer Greg Rucka on Detective Comics, this instantly became a comic I wanted to get my hands on, even with the departure of Rucka and W. Haden Blackman and Williams himself replacing him on writing duties.  I was immediately confident that this would be one of the most visually stunning comics of the entire New 52.  As it turns out, I was right.

The trademark flourish Williams’ employed to such masterful effect through his Detective Comics run was the stunning two-page tableau, characterised by uniquely inventive layouts – the very panel borders becoming exquisitely structured works of art – and an immersive level of detail.  That motif is back in force with Batwoman #1, with no less than 7 of these frame-it-and-put-it-on-your-wall triumphs of craftmanship in this single issue.  It’s hard to choose a favorite, but if I had to pick one, it would be a particularly haunting vista where an ethereal, ghostly figure floats through the centre of the frame, the tangles of her hair spreading out as if she was underwater, forming into curves that make the shape of the surrounding panels.  Like I said, a level of invention in panel creation that remains unmatched.

But it’s not just Williams’ layouts that are worth shouting about.  Also acting as inker for the comic, he makes texture and shading into powerful narrative devices in their own right, every aspect of the image serving the story, further enhancing the symbiosis between story and art that suggests a mastery of the medium.  Of particular note is his design of Batwoman herself.  As Kate Kane, she fits in with all the other characters in the cast, well-drawn but still ultimately flat and two-dimensional (in appearance, not character).  But with the detail with which Williams renders the leathery texture of her Batwoman costume, the character is instantly striking, appearing three-dimensional, like she’s about to jump over the page.  She is instantly the most striking image on every panel she appears in.  This is best illustrated in a sequence where we see Kate dressing in her Batwoman costume: the top half of her body is rendered like a regular comic character, but the bottom half (clothed in the costume) is drawn in this hyper-real style, elevating her from her non-costumed peers.  It’s a visual shorthand for demonstrating the symbolic power of the Bat in Gotham and superheroes in general.

I’ve not said much yet about the writing of Williams and Blackman, and to be honest I probably don’t need to.  We could have got 20 pages of Kate Kane taking a dump in the toilet while doing a crossword from the newpaper, and it would be the most beautifully-portrayed dump in the history of the medium, and still enough to warrant at least a 6 or 7 out of 10 overall score for the comic.  As it stands, what we get is a mystery of dead and abducted children tied into a local urban myth that seems like it could be intriguing, offering more of a supernatural twist on the gritty crime stories that may be unfolding in other areas of Gotham, but we don’t really go into it that much in this issue.

The more central focus here, and the most compelling aspect of the plot, is the character development for Kate Kane and her supporting cast.  We see her emerging romantic relationship with Detective Maggie Sawyer, though she still harbors feelings for Renee Montoya (while it’s good to see more sexual diversity, is every woman in the GCPD a lesbian?), and we get to  see her training her cousin Bette, though it feels less like a superhero training a sidekick than a military boot camp, which makes sense given Kate’s military background.  And in the exploration of Kate’s rift with her father, we get a catch-up on what went on during Rucka’s Detective run (helpful for those who never read it or those who, like me, had forgotten what happened because we’ve been waiting so long for this new Batwoman series to arrive) without it feeling like a cumbersome info-dump.  It helps that much of the exposition is delivered as a montage of images rather than being spoken by characters – another example of that symbiosis between story and image.

The downside for Batwoman #1, one which hurts its overall standing in my eyes, is that it’s over too quickly.  It’s a very quick read, and just as the plot was beginning to get interesting, it was suddenly over.  I didn’t notice the “To Be Continued” at first, and literally turned the page, saw I was at the end, and said, “Huh?  That’s it?”  I guess that’s the downside of that abundance of beautiful double page spreads: you don’t feel like you’ve read 20 pages of story.

I said in my review of Batgirl that it would be hard for Batwoman to top it, and in the end, I probably still liked Batgirl a little more.  I’m more of a writing guy than an art guy, after all.  But this is still a great comic: the art is amazing, and the story is engaging enough that this never just feels like a nothing book with pretty pictures.  If you enjoyed the Rucka/Williams run on Detective Comics, J.H. Batwoman #1 should not disappoint you.

REVIEW: Detective Comics #1

Comic Book Resources ran a couple of polls on their site, one just after the announcement of all 52 of the DC relaunch titles, and another at the end of August, just before their release.  In it, you had to choose between 5 options for each comic, as regards to your likelihood of buying it: definitely, very likely, likely, unlikely, definitely not.  In both polls, I ranked Detective Comics #1 in that “definitely not” category.  Tony Daniel’s run as writer/artist on Batman never appealed to me before.  Besides, I would be buying Scott Snyder’s Batman, so any other Bat-book just seemed to be surplus to requirements.

But a few days before the comic’s release date, I read a feature in USA Today that cast my decision into doubt.  It spoke of a Batman arc that would return to the character’s earlier days, which sparked my interest.  The art in the preview looked great, further intriguing me.  And I’m always a sucker for a Batman VS Joker story, given that they’re my two favorite characters in comic, and that’s what this issue seemed to revolve around.  So all of a sudden, Detective Comics had a lot going for it, but I still had my reasons for not buying it.  I went back and forth, and literally didn’t make up my mind until I was in the comic shop picking up my other books.  But I eventually decided to throw it into the pile and try it, just for one issue.

As it turns out, Tony S. Daniel brought his A-game.  The artwork is stunning, the best Daniel’s work has looked since at least Batman RIP.  Recently, I’ve noticed a trend towards his artwork getting a bit sloppy, losing that slick, precise beauty of when he was collaborating with Morrison.  Even the cover of this issue is rather off-putting, and one of the weakest-rendered images of the whole comic.  But inside, it’s a joy to behold.  Daniel draws his characters big, the camera drawn in so close they seem to fill the page and blot out their surroundings, giving the endless conflict between Batman and Joker a towering, epic, iconic feel.  With the way he designs his characters, it almost feels like he’s doing Jim Lee better than Jim Lee.  Indeed, Daniel seems to be becoming more ambitious in his visual storytelling, and that is reflected in paying homage to some of the great artists to have drawn Batman in the past.  There are points where the panel layouts and scene compositions are reminiscent of Frank Miller’s work in The Dark Knight Returns.

The visual flair of Detective Comics #1 is also enabled by the contributions of the rest of the art team.  The textured lines and heavy blacks of inker Ryan Winn and the washed-out colors of Tomeu Morey give this Gotham a gloomy noir vibe, recalling the aesthetic of the Nolan films.  Artistically, the comic is a triumph.

The writing isn’t quite up to the same level.  One problem that Daniel has always had through his work on Batman is that he’s a competent enough writer, but he’s in the shadow of master storytellers such as Morrison and Snyder, and can’t hope to keep up.  And here, there is still the odd bit of dodgy plotting or the occasional clunker of a line that suggests this isn’t going to be up there with the best written titles.  But to his credit, Daniel does up his game, crafting a story that is simple but compelling, giving us dark, Miller-tinged characterisations of Batman and The Joker, and an unrelenting pace that manages to keep up with the one set over in Action Comics #1.

So, will I be getting more than one issue of Detective Comics?  I was happily reading this issue, loving the art, but thinking to myself that the story probably won’t be enough to hook me, that with Joker apparently out of the mix, I’d likely now just jump off and stick with Batman #1 in a couple of weeks.  Good effort, Mr. Daniel, but not quite enough…

Then I got to the last page.

I don’t want to spoil it, but it’s a total game-changer, one that puts everything you’ve read up until that point in a whole new context.  It is without a doubt the best last-page cliffhanger of any of the New 52 comics I’ve read thus far.  Damn you, Tony Daniel.  Now I HAVE to read issue #2!

REVIEW: Detective Comics #881

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.