Detective Comics, Vol. 3: Emperor Penguin review

Emperor Penguin is the first Detective Comics volume out of the New 52 that’s actually worth picking up. John Layman, Jason Fabok, and Andy Clarke taking the reins from the series’ previous creator made for a vast improvement. The name “Detective Comics” was more famous for its nonsensical plots and unintentionally funny moments than it was for engrossing mysteries and smart detective work. What Layman and his team brought to the table was a greater complexity, a sense of humor that was actually intentional, and an unpredictability that made it an entertaining read from month to month. So why is the graphic novel only getting a 6.5?


Detective Comics, Vol. 3: Emperor Penguin collects issues #13-18 of the New 52 series and unlike many of the other Bat-titles getting a 3rd volume, this one doesn’t feature Batman #17‘s Death of the Family finale. The stories you find here are rich but they are also best enjoyed by those who are well versed in what’s going on in other Bat books. It’s a comic that’s loaded with references to other storylines occurring in Snyder’s Batman, Hurwitz’s Batman: The Dark Knight, Morrison’s Batman Incorporated, James Tynion’s Talon, and more (including plot threads and characters from Tony Daniel’s run on the series). It’s a fun read, but it doesn’t stand well on its own. If the name “Natalya” doesn’t ring a bell or you don’t know what the Joker did with Alfred or where Damian vanished to, you’re going to be quite confused by key scenes throughout Layman’s Detective Comics. However, if you have read those other titles then Emperor Penguin makes for a very rewarding experience that shows you what Batman’s been doing in-between all those other adventures.

Weirdly there’s no synopsis on the back cover of this graphic novel, just a list of 4 quotes of critical acclaim. Instead the synopsis is on the inside cover and that would be fine, but all of DC’s graphic novels are shrink-wrapped now so fans who have never heard of the Emperor Penguin storyline won’t know what the books is about just by examining it off the shelf. Here’s my own brief blurb regarding the book’s contents: Emperor Penguin is the story of an ambitious henchman who seeks to rise from the ranks of goon to full-blown supervillain. During his rise to power many other bizarre events occur in Gotham both organically and from outside sources like Death of the Family or Leviathan/Gotham’s Most Wanted which detract the Dark Knight Detective and lead to various side stories. While some might see the name “Penguin” and immediately switch off at the idea of reading a whole book about one of Batman’s least exciting bad-guys, I assure you that the numerous subplots utilize some of the most colorful members of Batman’s rogues gallery.

It’s a somewhat unfocused narrative, yet it worked because the tangents are always entertaining and Layman never forgets to bring us back from the detour and onto the main path. That makes for an unpredictable and fun read for a monthly comic, especially when each issue was structured in a way that it essentially had its own beginning, middle, and end with the Emperor Penguin plot operating quietly in the background. Unfortunately, a key factor in making such a formula work is having a big payoff at the end, with such a bloated narrative we have to actually reach our destination after taking the scenic route but we don’t get that with this collection. By stretching the Emperor Penguin plot out for so long and filling it with all of these other side stories we get an arc that can’t be fit into one book apparently. There’s no natural break in the narrative to leave you feeling satisfied with this graphic novel like Volume 1 of The Court of Owls, it just cuts things short with only 2 chapters left in the Emperor Penguin saga. That’s why I’m deducting points. Otherwise, you can look at all my past reviews of these issues and see that it’s an  otherwise impressive work.

These issues have a great energy about them and the artwork by Jason Fabok and Andy Clarke is truly top-notch with some of the best pages of any Batman comic from 2013. The meandering approach to storytelling manages to pack in a lot of exciting and unique ideas in one volume, but those subplots take up so much time that we fail to finish the one storyline that matters. There’s still no great mystery to be found in Detective Comics Volume 3, but there is a greater amount of detective work than we’ve seen previously even if it remains overly reliant on gadgets rather than Bruce Wayne’s own genius and deductive reasoning. Some fans will enjoy the more lighthearted approach to the material, which trades in Tony Daniel’s emphasis on gore for the occasional witty line of dialogue or narrative caption, but I think most would agree that Batman’s voice never sounds quite right throughout Layman’s run.

Bonus Material

There’s some decent bonus material here. Readers will enjoy several pages of designs, sketches and layouts by Jason Fabok including the character design for Ogilvy, a Joker playing card, and the original cover for issue #13, which would’ve made a WAY better cover for this collection except for one thing– who is the mystery woman? There’s a black and white and colored version of the issue #13 cover and the black and white incarnation omits her entirely whereas she’s clearly visible in the colored edition. She looks sort of like Huntress, but I can’t really tell. Either way, she’s a character that wasn’t actually in the Emperor Penguin storyline. It’s a situation reminisent of how Carry Kelly was dropped from all the covers of the current Two-Face arc in Batman & ___.

Value: Sale Price

Six $4 issues for $24.99 isn’t exactly a steal, in fact you’re hardly coming out ahead at all. And with this book only featuring 3/4 of the story you can afford to wait for the price to go down before making your purchase.


This is a fun story (or group of interweaving stories) that’s really well drawn, but the publisher really neutered this volume by not including the final two chapters. Not only does it give this book an underwhelming and downright unsatisfying finish, but by forcefully re-attaching the Emperor Penguin conclusion onto the front of the upcoming Volume 4 you make that release a poorly constructed book as well. If you average out the scores I gave these chapters when they were originally published you get a run that earns a 7.8, but I have to dock some points for this edition because it’s such a shoddy approach to publishing. Is this literature or isn’t it? When the tale only needs 2 more issues to wrap up, let’s include it all in one book! Postpone the release a month or two if you have to, just try to showcase the story the way the writer and artist intended. Complete.

SCORE: 6.5/10