“What Happened Was…” is written by Paul Jenkins and illustrated by Omar Francia with colors by Rex Lokus. Jenkins is the former co-author of the New 52 Batman: The Dark Knight which he wrote alongside artist David Finch, but just as he was about to go solo with the book’s writing duties Finch was reduced to being artist and Gregg Hurwitz was brought in to write. I bashed the Finch/Jenkins run quite a bit for being dumb and basically an excuse to just let Finch draw whatever he wanted. “What Happened Was…” however seems to be Paul Jenkins’ way of putting his foot down and proving that he could indeed write a smart Gotham City tale.
It’s evident from the get-go. When a comic opens up with a quote from Roshomon, you know that the writer involved has a lot of ambition. But does this done-in-one comic that utilizes the vantage-point style narrative work anywhere near as effectively as Akira Kurosawa’s classic film? Well, no, not quite. The element of the unreliable narrator wasn’t used to its fullest and the truth was all too evident from the start. This led to the book gradually losing its appeal in the 3rd act when the obvious is spelled out to the reader, but the Roshomon-like plot isn’t what I found the most compelling about this comic.
“What Happened Was…” centers around Detective Brian Kelly’s investigation into a massive explosion at Gotham Knights field on the 4th of July. The calamitous event has already occurred and we’re learning what happened from three different perspectives: the Gotham City everyman, The Calendar Man, and The Batman. But again, it’s not so much that storytelling device that I found impressive! This what I found impressive: how many times has there been a final confrontation between Batman and a villain smack-dab in the middle of some major disaster and when the villain is defeated the story wraps? Countless, right? Well this story shows us all the hard work that the cops of Gotham have to do after the hero rides off into the sunset (or in our case, goes back to the cave to brood and do it all again the next night). Whereas Batman: TDK was all about cramming as many big name villains into every shot as possible and even doing some Justice League cameos, this story is almost entirely about the detectives, firefighters, EMTs, and civilians whose lives have been turned upside down by none-too flashy or marketable Calendar Man and I think that’s a beautiful thing. I think that’s what makes this issue one of the best examples of a living, breathing Gotham that you’ll find and absolutely worth picking up. By devoting time to the average Gothamite and giving every character a voice Paul Jenkins instilled this short story with real gravity.
The artwork by Omar Francia is also quite good with plenty of detail particularly with the crowds of people and the backgrounds used in Calendar Man’s workshop. One very subtle detail that might be overlooked is Calendar Man’s tattoo (or I probably shouldn’t call it a tattoo since it looks like it was warn away and smudged after the fight with Batman). Look at how the tattoo appears in the true, current timeline and then look at how it’s shown in the three different narratives! Although I wish there would’ve been more differences in artistic approach between each account of the explosion, this oh-so-subtle detail was fantastic. However, while I did enjoy the art overall there were a few problems with some panels in which the Batwing and Batman are outlined in white and it looks off, almost as if they were copied and pasted into the page or someone slapped a Batwing sticker in my book. And a common problem throughout the book is that some of the body language on display is rather stiff. It gave the characters an artificial, almost “uncanny valley” sort of feel.
Does the Roshomon approach to this Calendar Man story satisfy? Not really, there’s nothing all that revalatory about the plot. But what is pleasing about this book is that its creators took the risk of featuring very little Batman and instead opting to focus on the citizens of Gotham and a lesser known villain while exploring the complicated aftermath of a hero/villain final confrontation. It’s a unique Batman comic that shows a side of Gotham we seldom ever get to see.