Writing a single character for over fifty issues is no small achievement. In a time where a comic is lucky if it even makes it to fifty issues, seeing a mostly consistent creative time over that time is an even rarer occurrence. From its inception in 2011 up until the recent Rebirth one-shot, Scott Snyder wrote the Batman title, beginning with the introduction to the Court of Owls and ending with the passing of the torch to Tom King. With the somewhat surprising announcement of the All-Star Batman title back in March, it was all the more surprising that Scott Snyder’s break from Batman would not be long at all.
After five years, does Snyder still have something to say? How does his new approach, with a focus on individual villains as opposed to major events, measure up to the strong storytelling in other Bat–titles these days? Does Batman actually use that ridiculously over-sized Batarang from the cover?
Well, I can answer one of those right now: it does make an appearance, but no he does not. You can figure out what that’s in reference to.
The basic idea behind this book is a solid one: arcs focused on different villains from Batman’s history, and stories focusing on the characters in lieu of citywide disasters. The first arc involves Two-Face, one of the Batman’s greatest and most tragic villains, and Batman’s mission to deliver Harvey to a secret location in hopes of restoring him to sanity. It’s a great idea, and the Midnight Run/The Defiant Ones concept is a really fun storytelling device, but an idea is just an idea. The execution is what’s important.
To that end, this is pretty disappointing.
The premise is simple enough: Batman and Two-Face are headed upstate to hopefully heal Harvey, only to be pursued by literally anyone who wants to rescue Harvey to collect on his promised reward. Like I said before, it has the trappings of a caper, a road trip, and even a twisted buddy comedy, all very simple premises that have an almost unlimited amount of potential. The problem is in the presentation, as Snyder elects to use flashbacks and non-sequential storytelling in an attempt to make the admittedly spare narrative feel like it has more weight and depth. Instead, it just comes across as confusing, with flashbacks to 22 minutes ago, then two hours ago, then two weeks ago, then back to twenty minutes ago (at least time is moving), ultimately ending up right. Now.
It’s an old trope, and one that I’m honestly not a fan of due to its overuse, but when used well it can be effective. Here, with a mixture of unclear and awkward layouts from Romita and Snyder’s apparent desire to reach his “using the number 2” quota, it just takes away from the flow of the story.
The opening scene is lively and energetic, with a bizarrely redesigned Firefly and Killer Moth crashing a peaceful small town diner in pursuit of Batman. Bruce is confident without being distant or arrogant, which is a refreshing break from a problem the character has had for the past two and a half decades, and he even throws in a patented Obscure Wikipedia Literary Snyderism*. For those of you playing Bingo, there’s your square.
It’s kind of out of character for Bruce, but it’s pretty fun so far so I’ll give it a pass.
As Bruce becomes ensnared in the mechanical arms of a mysterious assailant, the action abruptly cuts to the first of several flashbacks, this one a scant 22 minutes ago. Bruce and Harvey are in the Batplane, though if you mistook Harvey for a low-rent Deadshot you wouldn’t be the first one to make that mistake.
It then jumps back “two hours ago,” and this scene contains some of the biggest problems I have with the issue. I do like the idea of Harvey having access to any and all criminal networks in the city, using each of them to his advantage so he can become the de facto crime boss of Gotham. It’s an interesting inversion of his past as district attorney, this time using his knowledge to control the cities criminals rather than taking them down.
Even his plan to rain down acid on the city is a little gruesome, but still something that isn’t too far removed from Harvey’s M.O.
No, my main issue with this scene is Duke, and that just makes me sad.
I like Duke Thomas, I really do. He’s a likable kid, for the most part, and I like the idea of seeing Gotham’s streets from the perspective of one of its citizens. A character who is a part of Batman’s world without being a part of his crusade adds a different perspective to Bat lore, as seen in someone like Leslie Thompkins. Instead of being an interesting everyman, though, Duke has been almost forced into a role that he hasn’t believably grown into or rightfully earned.
His story has been nothing but rushed, with writers saying he’s as capable a hero as any of Bruce’s allies without actually showing it, and, even more egregious, the link that brought Bruce back from his memory loss back in Superheavy. Not his oldest ally, not his son, but a kid he doesn’t know all that well.
Even with a starring role in We Are Robin, I never got the feeling that we got to see how capable he could be. He was just another kid trying to do the right thing, and that’s really all I wanted to see from him. Give us two or three years of stories where he grows and becomes the true leader of that group? I’m down with that. It’s a shame that didn’t get to happen.
I get that Duke is Snyder’s creation and he wants to see him develop into a memorable character, but that’s just it: he needs to develop. Instead of a believable arc where we see him grow into the hero Bruce sees in him, we’re constantly told that he’s a great addition to the family and better than Robin.
Ignoring the fact that I’m a big fan of pretty much every Robin out there, that’s just disrespectful to the idea of the Boy Wonder. Robin isn’t just supposed to be “Batman’s partner,” which he is; Robin represents family, and with it the idea that Bruce can have one even after losing his own. Duke can be a part of the family, there’s no question there, but Duke should not be better than family.
Anyway, off my soapbox.
Most of these flashbacks just happen, without any real link in dialogue or action, and they come across as jarring and sloppy. I went back and read everything in chronological order and it makes for a much more satisfying read, and one that actually makes sense to boot. The flashbacks add nothing to the narrative, either as scenes told out of sequences or as companions to their respective preceding and proceeding events. Even the one scene that actually makes sense given the circumstances around it, which shows how Batman got the idea to take Harvey upstate, is plagued by some really awkward panels and unclear context. A lot of the problem lies at the feet of Romita, whose work here is really sporadic. After the genuinely fantastic pencils in Dark Knight Returns: The Last Crusade I was really looking forward to what he would bring to the table, but it’s definitely a mixed bag. Despite a few good panels and some decent action scenes, the issue is littered with sloppy finishes, strange design choices, and inconsistent use of space. Romita’s usually an acquired taste for me for sure, and this just wasn’t to my liking.
After the sequence of flashbacks, the story jumps forward in time twice, picking the action back up at the opening sequence’s diner. I’m actually surprised at how funny this sequence is, as Batman outsmarts Black Spider, intimidates Killer Moth, and poses for your new phone wallpaper.
Once Batman finds a big-rig and chains Two-Face up in the back, I am fully on board for what this arc has in store. In fact, I’m changing my comparison from Midnight Run to Smokey and the Bandit, because who wouldn’t want to see Burt Reynolds as the Caped Crusader?
Unfortunately, the road trip kicks off on the last few pages after an issue full of clunky setup and an eleventh hour twist that didn’t quite land, so we’ll have to wait until next month to really see the concept in action. The final page stinger had a cameo that made me absolutely giddy, though, so hopefully it’s a sign of pure fun to come.
For all its flaws, at least the main narrative has some potential. This back-up story, on the other hand? It’s pretty bad.
On a positive note, the always great Jordie Bellaire’s colors are an absolute delight here, and given that the story is so focused on color that shouldn’t be a surprise. Declan Shelvy’s pencils are really solid, too, to the point that I kind of wish he was drawing the main story instead of Romita.
The story itself involves the murders of some high-end fabric importers, with Batman and Duke’s investigation paralleling a conversation they’d had two days prior. Bruce introduces Duke to what he calls the “Cursed Wheel,” a collection of colored shapes that represent all of the different aspects of Bruce’s knowledge and training. He tells Duke to examine it closely, and note that his different allies favor different points on the wheel.
It’s that kind of over-explanation that really turns me off. Having someone like Dick take inspiration from a bird or a Kryptonian legend is one thing, but this recent push to have every one of Bruce’s partners be predestined to heroism and, by extension, drawn to specific patterns really isn’t interesting. It takes away from the tragedy and personal motivations that drive these characters, turning them instead into just another plot device. Giving them a choice in how they channel their grief and rage is interesting; making them just another soldier in one man’s tireless crusade is almost depressing.
One thing the Bat-books have been missing in recent years has been good old fashioned detective work. Had this just been a murder mystery that Bruce and Duke investigate, that would have been fantastic. Have Bruce go back to being the World’s Greatest Detective, and let Duke show his chops while learning on the job. With all of that pseudo-psychological babble with the Cursed Wheel, what could have been an intriguing mystery becomes just another tired exercise in unnecessary elucidation.
To be fair, the mystery of the villain could develop into some good storytelling, and Bruce’s line about “someone… else” caught my attention. And again, it looks really, really good too. Like the main story, though, even with all of its narrative potential, this backup series is off to a pretty rocky start.
Oh, wait, it does have an animated style Batmobile.
That’s worth an extra point right there.
- You want more of Scott Snyder’s run on Batman.
- You like a good road trip.
- You’re willing to forgive some missteps and weak exposition in favor of a promising premise.
- You want to know if Two-Face can see out of his left eye.
Overall: A missed opportunity that’s still enjoyable in spite of its glaring flaws. The main story has some genuinely good moments and potential to be a bombastic, incredibly fun ride, and any opportunity to explore Bruce and Harvey’s relationship is welcome. For all its promise, it’s still plagued with some weak pencils and more-of-the-same writing, so hopefully it can recover. Conversely, the backup looks great but just doesn’t carry any weight, falling back on tired ideas and over-explanation. I’m still intrigued, but apprehensively.
*Because owls have to be involved in everything