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.

REVIEW: Batman #14

REVIEW: Batman #14

You may have noticed that I haven’t reviewed Batman in a while.  To be honest, there’s only so much hyperbole you can heap on a title that is so consistently excellent, and it’s pretty difficult to find new ways of saying how incredible the work Scott Snyder, Greg Capullo and the rest of the creative team are doing has been.  But just when we may have felt that this title may have hit a plateau of dependable quality each passing month, this “Death of the Family” arc started with Batman #13 and blasted the roof off our already high expectations.  With that issue, Snyder brought The Joker back in style and restored him as a genuinely terrifying presence.  That chapter caused something of a sensation, selling out everywhere very quickly and perhaps leaving some wondering if subsequent installments could possibly maintain that dizzying level of tension and mastery of storytelling.

Now we have Batman #14, and not onlydoes it live up to the horrific promise of Batman #13, it’s actually better, challenging even the mighty Batman #5 as perhaps the best chapter of this already-classic run.

Here’s the thing about The Joker.  Yes, undoubtedly, he’s a beloved, revered villain, and it’s not like he hasn’t been treated with respect in recent years: Grant Morrison and Paul Dini have given us some cracking Joker tales in the past decade.  But it seems that, more often than not, for quite a while now when The Joker has shown up in a major storyline, it’s been to act as a spoiler, a spanner in the works that complicates things between Batman and the primary antagonist of the story.  It seems like it’s been ages since The Joker has taken centre-stage in an epic arc of his own.  Well, The Joker’s time is now, and one of the best things Snyder does this issue is hammer home just how serious a threat The Joker is, what sets him apart from your typical street-level psycho supervillain, and the frightening scale on which he can operate.  Some might have been dubious about all the Bat-family “Death of the Family” tie-ins, but based on the strength of his portrayal here, you can totally understand how The Joker could be a threat big enough for all these characters to have their hands full with him, and indeed it would feel like something was deeply wrong if the ripples of the shocking revelations in Batman weren’t felt in the rest of the Bat-line.

As far as the actual characterisation of The Joker goes, Scott Snyder clearly has a ball writing the master villain.  While he doesn’t by any means show his whole hand at this early stage of what is sure to be a labyrinthine plot, Snyder does give us a substantial taste of The Joker’s modus operandi, how he views his place in the universe and why he’s doing what he’s doing.  It’s stuff we’ve heard before, as Snyder has enthralled us with his insights into The Joker in various interviews and panel appearances, but seeing those fascinatingly acute observations worked into the script and spoken back out to us in The Joker’s voice makes it still feel fresh and exciting.  The Joker has been given a rythmn of speaking unlike anyone else in the cast: with all his talk of being the court jester to Batman’s “god-king”, his manner of speaking almost feels like that of a Shakespearean fool, all tantalising double meanings, coy foreshadowings and escalating repetitions.  In the silent medium of comics, Snyder has crafted a cadence for his villain’s voice, which is no mean feat.  Letterers Richard Starkings and Jimmy Betancourt also deserve credit here, with The Joker even getting his own lettering font to heighten this sense of him having his own unique voice.

The unconventional, unsettling nature of The Joker’s presence is compounded by Greg Capullo’s art.  His body language is all uncomfortable backwards arches and unnatural contortions, Capullo’s Joker cutting a shifting, fidgity figure.  Even in how he stands, The Joker is set apart from everyone else on the page.  Though Capullo’s most obvious contribution is surely The Joker’s new face.  I’ll admit, I wasn’t a fan of the idea of The Joker wearing his severed face like a mask.  It seemed a bit too torture-porn gorefest, a bit too grubby and heavy-handed for a villain as classy as The Clown Prince of Crime.  But Capullo makes it work, with The Joker’s loose, flaccid face-skin wrinkling and folding into slightly different positions in each passing panel.  Much like the nature of The Joker’s masterplan, it allows The Joker to be simultaneously familiar, and yet inherently, chillingly different.  And while I’m talking about Capullo’s art, how can I not mention that stunning splash page with The Joker and Batman facing each other on the bridge.  If there was a comic page I immediately wanted to have on my wall…

But as great as all this juicy material with my favourite comic book villain was, it wasn’t what made Batman #14 possibly the best of the series thus far.  When he shows up, he’s utterly compelling, but The Joker doesn’t show up until 15 pages into the story.  I was expecting great characterisation of The Joker here.  What took me by surprise is how great a character study of Batman this is.  Seeing Batman starting to come apart at the seams with the abduction of Alfred is quite harrowing to watch.  And, as has become something of a recurring trend in Snyder’s run, Batman is able to reveal most of his inner turmoil while in conversation with Nightwing.  Batman struggling to compartmentalise, referring to Bruce Wayne in the first person and Alfred as “Pennyworth” – as if he was someone else’s butler, and didn’t know him personally – and Nightwing’s exasperation with Batman’s enforced detachment, was just some great character dynamics.

And when Batman finally lets the mask slip, I found it really powerful when he talked about Alfred being a father to him.  I’m glad Snyder went there, and hope he makes more of that in future.  To me, that’s been one of the great, unspoken tragedies of the Batman mythos.  Bruce Wayne has been driven his whole life by this need to avenge the death of his parents, and goes through such prolonged anguish over how he’s an orphan, over how he has no father.  And all this time, while living in this almost self-indulgent misery, he’s been quietly cared for by a man who is arguably more of a father to Bruce than his actual biological father ever was, who certainly at the very least has been caring for Bruce longer than his real father did.  Poor Alfred.

The back-up, with art by Jock, is also a treat.  We see The Joker interacting with The Penguin, two very different villains who, according to The Joker, at least, each have their own crucial role in the Gotham tapestry.  With the ominous note this short interlude ends on, combined with the bombshells dropped at the conclusion of the main story, that brings us to one of the most exciting aspects of this bar-raising issue: that it’s still mostly set up for things to get even crazier in future chapters!

Scott Snyder, Greg Capullo, inker Jonathan Glapion, colorist FCO Plascencia and letterers Richard Starkings and Jimmy Betancourt are arguably the best creative team working in comics today (off the top of my head, only the Brian K Vaughan/Fiona Staples/Fonografiks dream team on Saga jumps to mind as a possible challenger for that crown), and so you’d think it could be easy to just take their combined excellence for granted.  But just like Batman has had the rug pulled out from under him just when he thinks he knows what to expect from The Joker, with “Death of the Family”, these guys just refuse to let us get comfortable with our expectations.  Sometimes, with big stories like this, it’s like going from point A to point B, with point B already solicited well in advance, and so it’s just a case of sitting back and watching how it happens.  Not the case here.  This story has driven off a cliff.  We have a monthly Big Two superhero comic that feels genuinely dangerous, a Batman story with a sense of bona fide “anything could happen and I don’t know how things can ever be normal again!” drama not felt since Batman RIP.

Batman #14 is out now in comic stores everywhere.

REVIEW: Batman #9

The cover of Batman #9 says a lot.  It’s a reverse of the cover for Batman #4, where the Talon’s head loomed menacingly over the Gotham City skyline, Batman reflected in his goggles.  That image aptly reflected the power dynamic within the issue, with Batman vulnerable, the object of a predator’s gaze.  Here, that dynamic is reversed, both on the cover and in the issue.  We see Batman’s armour now hovering over Wayne Manor, with the cluster of Talons reflected in its visor.  Now, Batman is the predator, and the Court of Owls is his prey.

Snyder delivers a fun, action-packed issue, but as we approach the climax of this storyline, I can’t help but feel that it’s not quite so gripping as the buildup, and that this shifting dynamic could be the reason.  This is soething of a recurring problem in the comics world, and Batman in particular it would seem, given the high volume of quality work surrounding the character.  In the early stages of the story, we are introduced to a seemingly unbeatable threat, and there’s a real air of menace, a sense of legitimate threat to Batman, that this is an enemy he cannot defeat.  We’re drawn in, and think we’re in a bleak noir/crime epic, or even a horror story.  And we almost forget that it’s a superhero story.  But of course, at the end of the day Batman still is a superhero, and that’s a big part of why we love him.  So of course, once we get to the end, that unstoppable, chilling foe ends up as just another villain to be battled and defeated, as the superhero mechanics start to kick in on the narrative.  This largely unavoidable plot beat has proved troublesome for other Batman stories in the past: the mostly excellent City of Crime springs to mind.  Grant Morrison escaped the pitfall by emphasizing it at the climax of Batman RIP and giving us a comeback/”I was just letting you think you’d beat me” switcheroo of epic proportions, and celebrating just how badass and unstoppable Batman is.  And perhaps that was a problem built into the very concept of the Court of Owls: that they followed the Black Glove, and ultimately Batman saw those guys off with little bother.

As I’ve said before, though, something that gave the Court of Owls that added layer of dread beyond the Black Glove was that they weren’t dastardly outsiders come to attack Gotham, they are Gotham.  But though they still make for compelling villains, Snyder does not seem to have been able to subvert that recurring dynamic, not yet at least.  The Talon was creepy when he was a silent mystery figure, stalking from the shadows and bafflingly unkillable.  And the Court of Owls thesmelves were even more unsettling, in that they were intangible, simultaneously everywhere and nowhere.  So, when the Talon gives way to an army of Talons, fought and dispatched with relative ease, their nature scientifically explained and exploited as a weakness?  Or when the Court of Owls is reduced to a piece of paper with a list of names, presumably of corrupt officials at a secret lair waiting to be uncovered by Batman?  It makes them knowable, and therefore less frightening.  It’s a problem that often crops up in horror sequels.  Now they’re just villains to be fought and defeated.

However, having said all that, do we really want it any other way?  The appeal of “Batman in grave danger with no hope of escape” followed by “Batman finds a way to overcome adversity and beat the bad guys” has been built into the character as far back as the old Adam West TV series and its “same Bat-time, same Bat-channel” cliffhangers.  Batman’s been put through the wringer in this arc, and now that he gets to turn the tables on the Court of Owls, that’s quite cathartic.  And seeing how even the most seemingly formidable foes are no match for Batman in the end, well, that’s part of the fun, isn’t it?  After all, as Bruce Wayne said long ago, and has been proven right time and time again, “criminals are a superstitious and cowardly lot.”

I’ve done my critique of genre narrative conventions largely outwith Snyder’s control, but in the actual execution of the issue itself, Snyder’s storytelling was as pristine as ever.  I loved the thematically appropriate narration about the incredible durability of bats when their habitat is invaded by owls, and there are a couple of nice beats, including the shock twist that Lincoln March is actually the nice guy he appears to be rather than a shock twist baddie.  But ultimately, this issue is a showcase for the artists.

Greg Capullo has garnered a lot of praise for his dark, atmospheric, character-driven work on Batman thus far, but here he gets to cut loose with some of the most high-octane action I’ve seen portrayed in a comic in a good while.  From the epic splash of the Batcave’s dinosaur finally revealing its purpose, to smaller moments like the Talon’s blade piercing the visor of Batman’s armour and almost poking out his eye, this is an issue crammed with incident, and Capullo frames everything in a way that it feels frantic and intense, but at the same time every little moment is clearly portrayed, nothing is muddy or inprecise.  And mention should also be made of the inker/colorist pairing of Jonathan Glapion and FCO Plascencia, who do an impressive job of having night gradually give way to morning over the course of the issue’s latter half.  Though we never see the actual sunrise itself, the light it casts on Batman – normally shrouded in shadow and night – makes for quite the potent closing image.

But perhaps what excited me the most this issue was that Rafael Albuquerque – Snyder’s artistic collaborator on American Vampire – was coming onboard to work on the backup feature, “The Fall of the House of Wayne.”  I don’t know what to make of the story itself – co-written by James Tynion IV – as while it was well-scripted, it raised a couple of ropey continuity questions that the geek in me has to ponder further.  The art, however, is stunning, as we have come to expect from Albuquerque, who in my mind is reaching that “comic art rock star” status.  Even American Vampire colorist Dave McCaig is along for the ride, and together they give us some moody, atmospheric work recalling the visual splendour that first made me fall in love with American Vampire.

Any complaints I have about Batman #9 are slight, and probably stm more from me reading too many comics than any substantial forthcomings of the actual creative talent involved.  But still, I didn’t enjoy this quite so much as the best issues of this run thus far.  But I’m still hoping that Snyder, Capullo and co blow us away with the finale.