You have to ask yourself: Am I the kind of comic reader who is willing to buy a book for the artwork alone? If so, then Batman: The Dark Knight #21 is absolutely a  must-buy.

Ethan Van Sciver has been away for the past two issues and he also missed the annual but he came back in a big way. A very big way. I would even go so far as to say that issue #21 is the best looking installment of Batman: The Dark Knight yet. It’s gorgeous and a fine example of sequential storytelling done right. You can look at the images alone and achieve a full understanding of what is happening in the story and, honestly, that’s the best way to read this one because some of the lines in those speech bubbles gave me a headache.

Batman looks awesome in this comic. There’s a 2-page spread right from the get-go that shows Batman running across the GCPD rooftop and into the storm. The creases of the Dark Knight’s cape spell out the title of the story, a concerned Gordon looks on from the background, and lightning strikes the skyscrapers above. That’s just one of the many iconic images of Batman in this comic that will stick with you.

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My personal favorite is the single panel in which Batman utterly destroys Tweedle-Dee’s (or Dum, who knows which it was) jaw with a devastating punch. You can practically feel the impact. Hell, every violent moment hits you in the gut. Van Sciver renders the action almost too perfectly! Not only could I get that kinetic feel that these baddies were actually sent flying from a single punch, but the variety in the angles used for some of the attacks ensured that none of the violence felt boring even though Batman was simply hammering his foe’s face again and again and again. The pounding Mad Hatter took is the best example of this.

Besides excelling with Batman and drawing some perfectly paced pages that moved the action along brilliantly, Ethan Van Sciver also got to draw the psychedelic stuff the covers have been hinting at from the very start. Now, I don’t like that the Mad Hatter is given a very Scarecrow-like ability in this comic. In fact, I hate it. But it gave the artist a chance to draw some panels that are far more horrifying than any hallucination we saw from Scarecrow’s fear toxin in the previous arc and that’s saying something. Of course, none of these phenomenal pages would’ve been quite as rich without the vibrant colors by Hi-Fi. The fill-in artist relied so heavily on shadows that we never got to see these colors at their best and that’s a shame with a character as colorful as Mad Hatter. Hi-Fi makes up for lost time by using a diverse palette of some of the brightest colors you’re going to see in a Batman comic. The contrast of the Dark Knight stomping his way through and tearing down this rainbow world was a lot of fun to see.

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However, during the hallucination, it looked as though Hi-Fi did a good job of showing the rot of Joker’s detached face but gave the rest of Joker’s flesh a more natural peachy tone instead of a permanent white like it should have.

And while every page is fun to see it’s not fun to read. The story has been going on since January and with so much build-up I had hoped for a better payoff than this. An arc this long should have a more complex ending and what we have here is something that anyone in the comic shop looking at the cover could surmise.

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Mad Hatter appeared to have an entire army of thugs under his control but somehow when Batman tied up one of the Tweedles it deactivated all of the devices. How does that work? Why would Tweedle have the control? Shouldn’t it be in Tetch’s hat?
Heck, Mad Hatter barely even says a word after months of origin story and a new motivation of recreating the past much like Baby Doll from Batman: The Animated Series only with a much, much higher body count. Even the death of Batman’s girlfriend isn’t given any attention beyond Batman’s rage and we get enough of angry-overly-violent-Batman in Tomasi’s title only there Batman is upset about Damian’s death instead of…what’shername.

But the worst thing was on the very first page. Actually it was the very first line and it was repeated not once, not twice, but three times. No, I’m not talking about that horrible “Penny-One” thing, but it’s close to that: Alfred refers to Batman as “Bat-One”– Are you seriously ****ing telling me that Alfred doesn’t even call Batman “Batman” anymore? He calls him “Bat One”? I sincerely hope that that’s the stupidist thing I have to see in a Batman comic this year. Why would they need a codename for Batman when “Batman” is already an alias and it’s an alias that also has several other titles that go along with it such like our comic’s namesake “The Dark Knight.” It’s not even like they are calling him Bat-One for brevity’s sake– it takes just as long to say “Bat-One” as it does “Batman”… it might even take longer. And even later in the book when Batman and Alfred are at their most emotional due to the girlfriend just being killed they still call each other by these stupid code names. At this point they should be saying Alfred and Bruce. It’s that intense of a moment.

Other problems will go in spoiler tags.

Spoiler

  • Basically zero interaction between Mad Hatter and Batman. We spent the better part of a year trying to establish Mad Hatter as a formidable opponent but when it came time for him to go head to head with Batman he got the ever-loving shit kicked out him. No menacing speech. Nothing. The best attack he made on Batman in the entire issue was actually stolen from Scarecrow’s playbook.
  • Mad Hatter’s #1 gimmick is that he has a mind control device in his hat that lets him manipulate other people who wear hats that are lined with a similar device. Here tossed in the trash early on when Batman shuts the whole operation down by just tying up one of the Tweedles. Instead, there’s more of an emphasis on these assorted teas. Rather than drink the same brew that made him hulk-out in a previous issue, Mad Hatter simply blows some “psycho tea” in Batman’s face and it’s basically a rip-off of Scarecrow’s fear toxin only rather than find an antidote he simply uses his willpower to overcome it all. Essentially this attack was all just an excuse to get Van Sciver to draw a very scary-looking girlfriend and more of the rogues gallery.
  • It’s implied that Batman hasn’t been around in a month. At least that’s what I gathered. Gordon and the other cop acted like Batman never shows up anymore.
  • The GCPD appear to have mended the broken bat signal with scotchtape. A broken bat signal lights up the sky and that’s got some nice, unsubtle symbolism to it but wouldn’t Batman Inc. have furnished them with a brand new light?

Overall

It’s an unsatisfying and predictable conclusion to a story arc that author Gregg Hurwitz should’ve ended about three months ago but returning artist Ethan Van Sciver blew me away with one of the best looking issues of Batman: The Dark Knight yet so I’m conflicted with my recommendation on this one. It’s a book that I like to have because I appreciate the artwork so much, but I won’t be reading the speech bubbles ever again. This series could be great but it needs to drop the Penny-One/Bat-One nonsense, pick up the pace so it can tell a story in under 6 issues, and find a way to set itself apart from the other bat-titles beyond the gore.

SCORE: 6.5/10