REVIEW: Nightwing #1

This review will likely be short, as I don’t really have much to say about Nightwing #1, bad or good.  Based on how much I’ve liked Dick Grayson’s portrayal throughout his run as Batman, and factoring in my enjoyment of Kyle Higgins’ work with the character in Gates of Gotham, I figured I might as well give Dick a try (enough with the dirty laughs, you pervs!) as he returns to the role of Nightwing in this new series for the DC Relaunch.

Kyle Higgins gives us some pretty good writing here.  It ticks the boxes of appropriate character development for Dick, and the story offers an adequate balance of characterisation and action, but the story doesn’t do anything to stand out.  The writing of Dick’s voiceover throughout the issue reads like someone giving a second-hand account of some of the masterful stuff Scott Snyder was doing over the course of his Detective Comics run, but not quite capturing the essence of it in the details.  But the idea is inherently interesting enough for it to still prove engaging even when not executed to full effect.

The artwork of Eddy Barrows faces a similar problem of performing competently enough but not really offering anything that stands out.  There are some stylish layouts on display, but they are overshadowed by some of the more ambitious stuff other artists such as Yanick Paquette, Travel Foreman and of course J.H. Williams III have done over the past couple of weeks.  And I’m not in love with small-headed character designs, either.  The flat colors of Rod Reis further dull the visual impact of the comic.  I will say the double-page spread during the opening sequence looks fantastic, though.

And, to be honest, that’s really all I have to say about Nightwing.  It didn’t really leave much of an impression on me either way, and so I didn’t find enough right or wrong with this to elaborate further.  Hardcore fans of Dick Grayson might enjoy it, but there are too many other books doing more to grab my attention for this to really stand out from the crowd.

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.