BatWatch Review: Detective Comics #19
Preparing to read Detective Comics #19, (Detective Comics #900 for those fans counting at home) I find myself with mixed emotions. On the positive side, this is an extra long issue commemorating Detective Comics 900th uninterrupted issue which I believe is a record second only to Action Comics. Also, John Layman (former writer of Image's Chew and current writer of Detective Comics) has been doing an excellent job writing the series, and Jason Fabok's (former penciler for Aspen MLT's Michael Turner's Soulfire, Superman/Batman, and The Dark Knight cover artist for Batwing and current penciler of Detective Comics) pencils are consistently excellent. That being said, I also have some reasons to be nervous. This month's WTF certified covers are supposed to be particularly thrilling with their big reveals, yet the second half of this cover reveals nothing more than man-bats and the less than gripping question, “What is the 900?” In addition, some tidbits I've seen from the issue make it clear that the Bat Clan is bickering like teenagers, and it's hard to get to excited over a group of creatures who were originally created just to be a pun on the protagonist's name. I'm torn and unsure of what to expect.
Does Detective Comics #900 prove to be a worthy tribute to seventy-five years of detective stories, or is this a case in which the trail has gone cold?
These five stories are mostly separate, so I'm going to review them separately.
In The 900, Batman fights off an infection that threatens to turn Gotham into a city of man-bats.
One Up for Fabok and One Down for Layman
After reading this story, I have to say that my positive view of Layman's writing was damaged a little with this for several reasons, but let's get the positives out of the way first. Layman's Batman is still my favorite current version of the character. He is brutal but not vindictive, intelligent without acting flawless, and reserved without being hostile. Another plus is that Layman continues to weave the Emperor Penguin story into this without letting it interfere with the main story.
As nice as these features are, things lurk in these pages which are considerably less flattering to Layman's legacy as a Bat writer.
First up, the intro feels wrong. Early in the story, we see a woman approaching a pharmacy carrying a young child. When she gets inside, she tells the shop owner she needs medicine for her baby, and then she suddenly collapses. When she turns back around, both she and her child have turned into man-bats. (or woman- and child-bats to be politically correct) This is a brilliant scene, but it is undermined by the prologue preceding it which already made it clear that there are a bunch of man-bats running around, and for that reason, it is no big shock to see them pop up unexpectedly.
Second, Batman bungee jumped out of the Batplane, but his deceleration line never went taught. In fact, he used his fast descension to crush a man-bat, so was he just jumping with the hope that a man-bat would break his fall or what?
Third, Batman's protégées act like a bunch of Bat Babies refusing to answer Bruce's call for help because they are mad over the events of Death of the Family. Now, this is partially Snyder's (former writer for Detective Comics and current writer of Batman, Talon, American Vampire, and Swamp Thing) fault, but seriously, why should they be mad? Joker created all the havoc, and it would not have mattered one iota if Batman had told them earlier about the possibility that Joker could have broken into the Bat cave. Batgirl's refusal to answer Bruce's call is just one more example of her being unlikable in the DCNU, but Nightwing's refusal to even try to help Gotham and his decision to leave Batgirl in mortal danger borders on the reprehensible. Way to make the Bat Clan despicable, Layman.
Fourth, another Bat character shows up in this issue but is criminally underutilized and may as well be a lamppost for the amount of impact she has on the issue.
(Spoilers) Fifth, why did Langstrom need the serum from Batman when he was already shown to have it at the beginning of the issue?
(Spoilers) Sixth, can one virus really overwrite another one? Perphas this is a segment of biology with which I am unfamiliar; I'm certainly no expert, but it seems to me that if I had the flu and contracted rabies, I would not lose the flu. I would just have the flu and rabies.
(Spoilers) Seventh, Emperor Penguin is shown to be holding Poison Ivy in a very dominative way at the end of the issue, and I cannot see Poison Ivy putting up with that in any way for any reason. To be fair to Layman, that could have been a Jason Fabok call rather than something Layman scripted.
(Spoilers) This is actually more a loose end than a fault because I presume Layman will explain it, but why did Emperor Penguin want to infect people with man-bat formula, and why did Emperor Penguin give Zsasz a Court of Owls dagger?
Despite all these many significant flaws, I enjoyed the issue which is why I say Jason Fabok goes up in my already high respect for him. The story was sub par not only for Layman but for the Batman brand in general, but Fabok's art really does a lot to sell the story. Despite the wonky story resolution, Fabok really makes you feel the threat and panic of the man-bats in the midst of things. I would stop short of saying Fabok gives the book a sci-fi horror feel, but the art work definitely makes things feel tense anytime a man-bat is on panel. Bruce's actions are also illustrated beautifully, and the scene where Bruce takes out a certain Batman rogue is so direct and efficient that it really gives you that smug, satisfied feeling just to witness it. Fabok also captures facial expressions well.
Though nobody ever gives the colorists any love, I've got to give Jeromy Cox (former colorist of Catwoman and Vertigo's DMZ and current colorist of Detective Comics and Justice League Dark) some props on this issue. In addition to just doing a good job in general, I've noticed that he has a tendency to create some overarching color scheme for entire issues. I'm not very knowledgeable when it comes to artwork, so maybe I'm off base here, but it seems to me that every issue he has done for this series has a dominant color that works its way through the entire issue, and it is usually something that stands in sharp contrast with the regular shades of Gotham. This issue's theme appeared to be a bright blue which showed up everywhere from the glowing eyes of the man-bats, to the visual effect of Batman's sonic scrambler, to the backgrounds of many panels, and most obviously to the serum collected by Batman. I do not know if Cox does this intentionally or if this is just his style bubbling forth naturally, but I like it.
Rewriting History for the Worse (Spoilers until Conclusion for the 900)
I groaned inwardly when I realized that this issue had yet another continuity change. Man-Bat is no longer Man-Bat, or at least he was not until this issue. I have no idea why writers feel the need to fix what is not broken, and why, if they feel they must change it, they do not replace it with something better rather than worse.
I did some very quick research into Man-Bat's past continuity and found that he injected himself with an experimental formula which turned him into the creature known as Man-Bat. Is this a unique concept? Not in the slightest. It fits right into the classical sci-fi moral of, “Beware of powers man was not meant to harness,” and into the classic comic book motif of, “an experiment that went wrong,” yet I do not find this new story to be more compelling than the old mostly because I find Langstrom's attitude to be incredibly annoying. He does nothing until the very end of this issue but whine about how it is all his fault these horrible things are happening because someone stole his experimental man-bat formula, but it's not his fault. You are not responsible with what other people do with your property especially if they stole it from you. If someone steals your car and runs over a dozen school kids, you are in no way responsible for those children's deaths, yet Langstrom continues to hold himself responsible for the actions of, presumably, the League of Assassins, and I just find that namby pamby kind of thinking to be extremely distasteful. He does, at the end, do something noble and self-sacrificial, and if he had done that without all the whiny buildup or saying, “Atone,” as he injected himself, I would actually say this was a superior, if still unnecessary, origin reboot for Man-Bat, but no, he has to act like he is making up for a crime despite having done nothing wrong, so this story annoys me.
Conclusion for The 900
Severe deficiencies in plot are actually somewhat redeemed by great artwork. Despite the many problems, its still worth reading. 7/10
Birth of a Family
In this story, Dr. Francine Langstrom reflects on the life of her husband.
Ambiguity, Thy Name Is Man-Bat
The main word that comes to my mind after reading this story is ambiguity. Whereas the previous story gave me one view of Kirk Langstrom, this one turns it on its head and makes me wonder, “Was that all a lie?” Before, Langstrom appeared a victim of circumstances beyond his control, (albeit a willing victim at the end) but in this story, Kirk could be just that, a noble man who was caught in a bad situation, or he could be an active menace rolling the dice with other people's lives.
(Spoilers) The sticking point is whether or not he was covering up the side effects of his research. Clearly, he was not advertising it, but as long as the parents of these kids knew, “Hey, we turned your kids into man-bats. We're working on it. Sorry,” then I guess you can see this as an honest, if huge, whoopsie. If he found out the serum's negative effects, cured it, and then continued to try to get funding for further research, then that's cool, but if he was keeping those kids locked up while advertising to others that the research only had minor side affects, then he...has severe problems, and that makes Francine Langstrom a psychotic accomplice in Kirk's delusions of grandeur.
That being said, I liked the ambiguity the story brings in terms of Langstrom's morality. The open ending was a bit less appreciated, but still, I enjoyed it, and it is a pretty good set up for future stories.
The artwork by Andy Clarke (former cover artist for Batgirl, artist for Batman Confidential and 2000 AD and current artist of Detective Comics) was topnotch though I did notice that Francine Langstrom in this story looked nothing like Francine Langstrom in the previous story beyond her red hair. Also, the inclusion of The Last Supper was a bit odd because it appeared to be an actual picture of the painting which looks very odd inserted into the comic art. Also, who hangs The Lord's Supper at the front of their chapel? No church I've ever visited.
Conclusion for Birth of a Family 8/10
My biggest complaint about the issue is that it was so short. It gave a little background, but it barely moved the story forward, and I found that a bit annoying. Still, it was a fun way to see our expectation from the previous issue turned on its head.
In this story, Bane prepares his army for a threat they never knew they would face, The Court of Owls.
James Tynion IV Is the Man!
Now that Layman has fallen in my eyes with his disappointing The 900, maybe I should claim James Tynion IV (current writer of Detective Comics, Talon and Batman) as my favorite Batman writer. After all, he is still writing backup features on Batman books on a regular basis, and I have not seen him write a bad one yet.
James Tynion IV announced last weekend at Wonder Con that Bane would be coming back in a big way in Talon, and if this story is any indication, he wasn't kidding. Bane has an army of malicious looking freaks that were actually so cool looking that I literally said, “Whoa,” when first glimpsing Bane's lineup. I don't know what Bane's relation to Santa Prisca is when last we glimpsed it pre-Flashpoint, but now it appears as if Bane has claimed the prison as his own and is using it as a staging ground for his own personal war on Gotham.
The story is light on plot but big on action and intrigue, yet it promises things to come more than it delivers a satisfying story in and of itself, so I've got to think that it will be less satisfying for people not following Talon, yet getting interest in Talon is no doubt exactly the plan of placing this story in 'Tec. The only possible flaw I saw with the story was that it referenced Bane's appearance in the nauseatingly horrible “Knight Terrors” plotline, and though I usually give props to writers for including past character appearances in ongoing events, any reminder of that travesty is...painful.
The art by Mikel Janin (former artist for Deadman and the Flying Graysons and current artist for Detective Comics and Justice League Dark and cover artist for Batgirl) is quite nice.
(Spoiler) There is a shadowy figure who informs Bane of the Court of Owls existence, and this raises some questions for Talon. Since the main Court is opposed to Bane, it would make little sense for this to be an official of the Court, so the obvious identity of this character would be Sebastian Clark who was revealed in the last issue of Talon as having ambitions to reclaim the Court for his own nefarious purposes, but since this was supposedly revealed in the last issue of Talon, I cannot see why they would not confirm Sebastian's betrayal in this issue. It almost makes me think this is a red herring, but who else could it be? Perhaps Tynion IV is just trying to keep us guessing. Forced to make a guess, I would say the figure probably is Clark, and he allied himself with Bane to eliminate Talon when Talon had outlived his usefulness.
Conclusion for War Council 9/10
If you are not keeping up with Talon and you hate teases for other stories, then you will probably not appreciate this story, but for me, it was very exciting. I look forward to Bane being restored to his former glory.
In this story, Mr. Combustible explains his role in Emperor Penguin's latest caper.
Filling in the Plot Holes
I said I had confidence that Layman would explain the mysteries presented in the first story, and my faith in him was not misplaced as this story did just that explaining the motivation for the outbreak of The 900.
The strong parts of this particular story was that it highlights the genius of Ogilvy. If future solicits are any indication, Penguin will soon wreak his vengeance on Ogilvy by dousing him in something that makes him blue with an ugly haircut, so before Emperor Penguin gets relegated to the status of just another goofy looking supervillain, it's nice to see him use devious and cutthroat moves to take over Gotham. Ogilvy is much like Cobblepot except whereas Cobblepot seems to be, compared to many super villains, discrete and modest in his criminal enterprises, Ogilvy seems to have an unyielding need to double down on each of his ventures, and his long tenure among the criminal elite seems to have given him a knack for the business. Perhaps it will be that desire to always take the greatest risk for the greatest reward which will be his undoing.
On the less positive front, the overall narrative of this story seems to be done in a bit of a pro forma fashion simply to move the Emperor Penguin plot along. It's fairly interesting on its own, but other than the creative scheme and the smooth execution of the crimes, it's doesn't really offer anything noteworthy. It just turns the page for the next chapter.
Also, the art by Henrik Jonsson (a comic artist newbie who previously worked on Detective Comics and currently works on Detective Comics and Joe Kubert Presents) does not thrill me. Compared to the other stellar art in this issue, it just is not on the same level. The Penguin is overly ugly in my view, and the judge at the end looks painfully terrified to the point people in the courtroom should really notice. Also, the gang working with Mr. Combustible at the beginning are not wearing gloves while in the midst of their heist.
(Spoilers) Finally, the idea that Emperor Penguin released the man-bat toxin to commit heists only makes sense if Ogilvy had some way to keep the virus from spreading over the entire world and ending the human race, so there is still a puzzle piece missing in this story, but again, I'll have faith in Layman to explain this down the road.
Layman answers one of my big questions from the earlier issue and tells a moderately entertaining short story that moves the plot forward. For a brief tale, it's pretty good.
Through a Blue Lens
In this story, a group of cops discuss the role of Batman in Gotham.
Yeah, I know I've made almost all parts of this review about Layman, but I was very disappointed in his main story this week, and it delighted me that he finally delivered a truly great one here.
There are several things I love about this story. First, it uses some at least one minor character who has appeared earlier in the series, and I love it when writers remember the small supporting cast and develop them. Second, it focuses on the aftermath of one of these huge disaster situations. Crazy crap is always happening in the DC universe, yet we almost never see any of the cleanup. This is an especially large oversight when insane things happen to ordinary individuals. Honestly, there could be a whole series dedicated to this types of narrative cleanup. Third, we get to see cops reflecting on the Bat, and though this is hardly the first time this angle of Gotham politics is explored, it is something that only occasionally crops up when it would most likely be a big factor in Batman's day to day life. Fourth, the story has a heart and leaves this whole “80-Page Spectacular!” on an uplifting note. Fifth, it has artwork by Jason Masters (newbie comic artist who currently works on Batman, Incorporated, Legends of the Dark Knight, and Detective Comics) who has a nice fluid style when he's not smoking crack. (inside joke)
There are some negatives. I get tired of people who make bad points in stories being cast as someone easy to hate. They are usually ugly, belligerent, and out of shape, and all three of those apply to the bad guy in this issue. Granted, many people who have dumb ideas are belligerent, but wouldn't it be more interesting to see things mixed up a little where someone can be a nice guy with a bad idea, or at least someone who is not so openly hostile? Also, the story makes reference to Batman first appearing five years ago, yet we know he has already been around for seven years at the beginning of the DCNU. Even if you work off the assumption that Batman worked in secret for the first two years, it still should be a year after the DCNU started according to all recent stories that have made reference to a time scale including the Bane story earlier in this issue, so a little editorial consistency would be nice.
Conclusion for Through a Blue Lens 9/10
Minor flaws still holding true, this story is almost exactly what a short Batman story should be.
Out of the eighty or so pages that make up this issue, nine of them consist of different Batman pieces from great comic artists. With the whole internet at your disposal, you can no doubt get all of these on your computer without purchase, but it would be a shame to let this go by without giving props to the (mostly) great work. I will not point out the two piece I thought were meh, but here are the names of the headlined artists who contributed: Alex Maleev, (former artist for Daredevil and current artist of Batman, Detective Comics, and Daredevil: End of Days) Brett Booth, (former artist of the Wildstorm comic Backlash and current penciler of Detective Comics and cover artist for Teen Titans, Earth 2, Superboy and G.I. Combat) Chris Burnham, (former artist of Batman, Incorporated and Batman and Robin and current artist for Batman, Incorporated, Detective Comics) Jason Fabok, Andy Clarke, Francesco Francavilla, (former artist for Dynamite's Zorro and current artist for Detective Comics and cover artist for Red She-Hulk) Cameron Stewart, (former artist for Catwoman and Batman and Robin and current and Dustin Nguyen. (former cover artist of Batman Beyond and Batgirl, artist on Detective Comics, penciler of Streets of Gotham and artist of Wildcats Version 3.0 and current writer and artist of Li'l Gotham, Justice League Beyond and Detective Comics)
Overall Conclusion 8/10
It's a nice collection of work, but it is not the best series of Batman stories ever bound into a single comic book. If you have a big interest in getting this issue for sentimental reasons or you have been enjoying the series, then go ahead and buy it. You will not regret it.