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.