Let me set the stage– It wasn’t that long ago that every bat-title was swept up in the Bruce Wayne frame-up, but those who are only familiar with a New 52 Batman will recognize very little about the Gotham of the early 00’s. Barbara Gordon is still wheelchair bound and serving as Oracle, Ted Kord is The Blue Beetle and closely tied with the Birds of Prey, Nightwing is operating in Bludhaven as a police officer and casually mentions he killed the Joker (he didn’t, it was lame, don’t worry about it), the city is still recovering from an earthquake, Lex Luthor is president, Jim Gordon is no longer police commissioner, Stephanie Brown and Cassandra Cain are incredibly active in the war on crime, Alfred was replaced by an attractive female bodyguard while he lives with Tim Drake at a boarding school, and Jason Todd is still totally dead. There. That is how the board looks before the game of “Who really done it?” begins. Now, let’s talk about Bruce Wayne– Murderer?
Batman: Bruce Wayne–Murderer? NEW EDITION collects issues Batgirl #24, 27, Batman #599-602, Batman: Gotham Knights #25-28, Batman: The 10-Cent Adventure #1, Birds of Prey #39, 40-41, 43, Detective Comics #766-767, Nightwing #65-66, 68-69 and Robin #98-99. These issues feature the work of Ed Brubaker, Greg Rucka, Chuck Dixon, Devin Grayson, Kelly Puckett, Rick Burchett, Rick Leonardi, Steve Lieber, Trevor McCarthy, Scott McDaniel, Roger Robinson, Damion Scott and Pete Woods.
Detective Comics #768 (Purity, Part 1 of 3, which is a stoyline that’s actually part of the Fugitive Saga and not the Murderer Saga) and Gotham Knights #29 (The Mortician, Part 2) are missing, but word is that DC has recalled this volume and will re-release it with those issues intact. Also, the table of contents will be corrected for that release as well– it’s quite off with this edition.
After a typical night on patrol with his new ally and current bodyguard Sasha, Bruce Wayne returns home to find the body of his ex-girlfriend lying on the floor of Wayne Manor. Before he can even have time to register what has happened, the police burst through the gates ready to arrest Bruce Wayne for murder. The evidence is overwhelming and both he and Sasha are thrown into Blackgate where they await trial. Meanwhile, on the outside, the Bat-family (which is quite large during this era) goes to work trying to prove Bruce’s innocence.
Like No Man’s Land, another giant cross-over event from this era, I’m afraid that I have to say it’s another case of the premise being better than the actual execution. No Man’s Land is probably the best idea for a Batman saga. Ever. But is it the best Batman saga ever? No. I don’t think so. It lacked focus and often times any sense of urgency when it should have been the most harrowing adventure of all-time. It was a matter of concept being stretched to thin among too many different creators. All of the ingredients were there, but there were too many cooks in the kitchen and it seemed like they were all more interested in throwing things into the pot than discussing what the menu should actually be. It became a sprawling mess with just a few great bits hidden within. It wasn’t a thoroughly good read, but one that you flip through and only pick out an issue here or an issue there. I hope DC/WB eventually gets around to turning it into an animated film because with some proper editing you could give that story a sense of purpose and make it one of the most thrilling tales they’ve ever put on film. That’s also the case with Bruce Wayne– Murderer? only Bruce Wayne– Murderer? has the added problem of terribly unfitting artwork.
Bruce Wayne– Murderer? Is one of the more mature storylines in recent memory, but by flipping through it and seeing the pencils of Scott McDaniel or Trevor McCarthy or whoever else you’d swear it were a lighthearted romp for children. 80% of the artwork of Bruce Wayne– Murderer? fails to establish the right tone to work in harmony with the writing. And… maybe that was the point? The subject matter features very little action, almost no Batman (the Batman chapters are actually some of the worst), no villains from the famous rogues gallery, and it emphasizes a lifelike portrayal of the criminal justice system. The more quirky, cartoonish looking art style might have been an attempt to keep younger readers interested. Who knows?
Even without the more colorful elements, the story can and sometimes does work. Bruce Wayne is framed for murder and it’s up to his allies to prove his innocence and pick up the slack of a missing Batman? That’s great! For once we have a mystery and not a clear-cut formula of stopping a psycho in a mask from blowing up the city. There are so many amazing elements to the Batman mythology and actually giving Batman and the rogues gallery a break so that the sidekicks, GCPD, and the city itself can flourish is a brilliant concept. Not only can it make the foundation all the more durable, but we’ll be twice as excited once Batman and Joker (or whoever else) come back. The problem is that it only works for the first few chapters following the 10-Cent Adventure issue. When the book stays focused on the central plot it is magnificent. Absolutely magnificent. Rucka and Brubaker give us a smart GCPD, Kelly Puckett’s Batgirl is especially good at tying itself into the investigation, witnessing Bruce and Sasha fight for survival within the walls of Blackgate is compelling, and when Nightwing actively pursues leads instead of checking in with what everyone else thinks it really becomes a fascinating detective story.
The allies finally have their chance to prove their worth in this tale, but more often than not they end up looking totally inept. For example, one of the biggest breaks in the case comes from checking the Batcave’s security systems– an obvious enough place to start, right? IT TAKES THE SIDEKICKS SEVERAL WEEKS AFTER THE MURDERER TO THINK TO CHECK THE SECURITY SYSTEM. Most of their time is spent bickering among one another or looking at evidence the police already found and going “That really is incriminating. Maybe he DID do it!” and then debating some more. Their doubt is a big part of what killed the momentum of the story. When the team was cooperating and following real leads it was a great deal of fun, but once characters who in no way should believe Bruce would shoot a woman start to question his innocence it gets ridiculously tedious. Tedious and repetitive as the story spins its tires at the halfway point with no suspects and an overabundance of doubt and argument. And as if that weren’t slowing things down enough we also have the numerous subplots that spring up from the over-arcing story taking place in so many different titles:
- Tim’s roommate Kip has an online gambling problem that’s attracted the attention of gangsters
- There’s a fire and massive breakout at the Lockhaven prison in Bludhaven
- Blue Beetle has heart problems and someone is trying to pull a hostile takeover of his company– Blue Beetle serves NO purpose in this story whatsoever
- Riddler and Cluemaster are rowdy roommates in Stephanie Brown’s house (don’t get excited about the recognizable villains, they do nothing)
Also, with so many titles contributing we experience a number of continuity errors that make for a jarring read from start to finish. One moment a character is in Gotham and the next they haven’t left for Gotham yet. One moment Spoiler is teamed up with Black Canary and the other she is partnered with Robin on the same night. Then again, Robin was maimed and left in the middle of the street just a second ago, but now he’s with Nightwing– wait, no, he’s injured on the street again. There are also some odd changes in allegiance from writer to writer as the likes of Alfred or Barbara Gordon waver between believing and disbelieving Bruce’s murder chargers, the idea of either one doubting Bruce is inherently absurd– Alfred especially.
As for Batman’s part in this, his best moments come in Blackgate. Bruce essentially gets his Watchmen Rorschach moment as he’s locked up with the criminals he put away. It’s awesome, but there isn’t enough of it. Not by a long shot. We’re talking, maybe a chapter and a half devoted to Bruce in prison and way too many chapters of Barbara going “I just don’t know anymore…” while sitting at her computer. And since I’m sure you’re aware that Bruce Wayne wasn’t put to death or locked away in jail forever I’ll go ahead and say that Batman does return later in the book but it happens in odd and disappointing fashion. Bruce Wayne’s escape from prison occurs off stage (off page?). That’s right, the super cool moment you’ll find yourself looking forward to the entire book isn’t included. Was it actually in a comic that DC forgot to add? I don’t know, I only ever read this saga in a select few issues way back when it was first published and couldn’t find any evidence through a few Google searches either. I just know that it wasn’t featured here and I was PISSED. There are a few lines of exposition and there he is, back and in costume. What was even more frustrating was actually meeting Batman who was arguably at his most dickish during this era of comics. Once again, you have to sit through the “I have to do this alone.” trope that happens in every. Single. Major. Batman. Crossover event. Only his characterization is taken so far into the paranoid loner direction that he’s frustratingly stubborn and totally unlikable.
Rather than spend the final 1/3 of the book with a Batman trying to prove his innocence we see a total A-hole Batman who would rather do away with the “mask” of Bruce Wayne and fight crime full-time. Fair enough, but what we see him fight isn’t exactly the sort of crime that “steak and potatoes” Batman fans like myself want to see. Instead we get…
- “Nicodemus” yet another anti-Batman themed villain. He also has fire powers that go unexplained and he’s so confident that he’s going to be a major supervillain that he leaves Batman a note at the end of the story proclaiming just that. It has now been 12 years since this comic was published and we haven’t seen Nicodemus since. Good. I hope it stays that way.
- “Ekin Tzu” former head of the Lucky Hands Triad who was mutated with raven-like attributes and now believes himself to be an angel.
- “The Mortician” a funeral technician who can raise people back from the dead and use the zombie horde as his own personal army.
These stories don’t contribute to the Bruce Wayne– Murderer? saga in any valuable way and I often found myself skimming through the pages until I got to a scene with Crispus Allen & Montoya or Alfred & Nightwing as they were the only ones doing anything of importance. I couldn’t care less about the magical foes popping up and to make matters worse, part 1 of the Ekin Tzu story and Part 2 of The Mortician story aren’t even featured in this book. It’s one thing to be bad, it’s another to be bad and incomplete. One of the few highlights from the Batman portion of the saga is likely a battle between Batman and Nightwing, but the artwork soured the moment for me since it was unclear what was going on for most of the battle. It was also curious that Alfred wasn’t present for the fight as his presence would’ve made the scene all the more dramatic.
Fortunately, the novel does end on a strong note after all of the magic and monsters nonsense. Writer Chuck Dixon steers the story back on track with Nightwing finally getting proactive about the murder investigation. Seeing Dick, Tim, and Alfred cooperate on the case was a joy and their method of finding out how someone could have entered the grounds was genius and put a smile on my face, once again proving that if the narrative could only stay concentrated on the mystery that readers are there to see Bruce Wayne– Murderer? could absolutely be a classic story! But my God, does it need to be reworked. It’s a diamond in the rough for sure and there is a lot of rough.
None. Nothing at all.
“Wait!” isn’t a typical rating I give for this category, but it felt appropriate. You’re getting a large amount of content for your money, but DC screwed this one up and will be sending replacement copies to stores on May 14th according to this Bleeding Cool article. That version will have the chapters in proper order and with a correct table of contents. However, even if it were immaculate I would still give this a “Value: Sale Price” score only. The number of chapters that are actually worth a re-read are few and far between.
Amazing concept, but poor execution. This was a great opportunity to really let the sidekicks shine and prove their worth as crimefighters and strong literary characters, but without The Dark Knight there to lead they paced about and fretted like lost puppies for the majority of this saga. The murder mystery itself is fascinating and fresh, as is seeing Bruce locked up in prison like Watchmen‘s Rorschach, but those elements received precious little attention. The artwork of this saga was also a poor fit for the material. This is a mature storyline yet the illustrations are often times lighthearted and cartoonish, making of an ugly contrast between the writing and art. Also, be sure to wait for the May re-release if you are still interested. DC released a disorganized edition with missing chapters.