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Not every book needs to include Batman.  If you are going to include Batman, make sure you use him well.  And if you aren’t going to use him well, at least make the story memorable.  Preferably with ninjas or something.

-Ancient proverb

Up to this point, Deathstroke has been a lot of things: a psychological examination of an assassin; a family drama; a road trip team-up book.  What it has consistently been is well-written, engaging, and beautiful to look at.  For someone who never really warmed to Slade, seeing this near the top of my pull list was a genuine, welcome surprise.

Now that Deathstroke and Rose have arrived in Gotham, one would think that we would finally get to see two geniuses at work, attempting to best each other through both brains and brawn.  Batman is the World’s Greatest Detective and one of the top hand-to-hand combatants on Earth, and Slade is one of the few mortal men who just may be his better.  How could this confrontation possibly go wrong?

I don’t know, but it did.

Let me reiterate: I genuinely enjoy this series.  What started as a reluctant read-through just to say I’d read as many Rebirth one-shots as I could has slowly turned into one of the more compelling books on my pull list.  Even if it’s not my favorite title, it is one of the more interesting ones.

It’s a book about family, grief, and, in a weird way, redemption.  It’s about fathers and daughters, friends and allies, mistakes and growth.  As much as I love Batman, it’s a book that didn’t need Batman, but still hinted at an interesting and compelling use of the character just the same.

Instead of some grand battle between two giants or a psychological chess game between two brilliant tacticians, we get… a lot of dialogue.  And only about half of it is good.

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Pictured: “only about half of it”

I’m fine with dialogue.  More than fine, even; it makes up half of the presentation that the comics medium utilizes, so words are more often than not necessary to tell a compelling story.

Christopher Priest is good with dialogue, based on previous issues of this book alone.  He has a dry wit and a penchant for making unlikable characters enjoyable to read about, imbuing them with enough flaws and personality to make them compelling.  His Slade is stoic and gruff, with enough cracks showing to indicate he’s not infallible or incapable of emotion.  His Rose is charming and droll, walking the fine line between witty and snotty.  Heck, even his Damian Wayne is appropriately mouthy, perhaps going a tad overboard with his insults but remaining oddly endearing just the same.

Sad to say, if Priest can write a good Batman (and I believe he can), he doesn’t show it here.

Something just seems… off with the way he writes Bruce, having him say things like “my name is not ‘Batman.’  That’s what people call me, for obvious reasons” without any further context.  It’s a strange thing for Bruce to say for sure, and it’s confusing on several levels: is he supposed to be saying “I have a real name, even though I’m not going to tell you what it is”?  That just seems redundant, and out of character to boot.  What if he means “they only call me that because I dress like a bat, but that’s not what I call myself”?  Just as bizarre, and kind of silly.  I mean, even if Bruce didn’t come up with the name “Batman” he sure has embraced it.

At other points Bruce does a lot of posturing, dropping empty threats and trying to seem cold-hearted only to relent a few moments later.  Oddly enough, it reminded me of the way Batman was portrayed by Garth Ennis in books like Hitman and, to a greater and simultaneously worse extent, All Star Section 8We’re better off forgetting the latter, believe me, but the former had its merits.  Seeing Batman show up in a book that was so broad and almost farcical was funny.  You have the grim, grounded avenger of the night interacting with a bunch of otherwise normal people, a bunch of criminals who realized the concept of superheroes was as silly as it was inspiring.  I don’t care how many times it’s been reprinted over the years: Tommy Monaghan drunkenly vomiting on Batman’s boots, only to be uppercutted* out of the panel, is funny stuff.

There are shades of that Batman here though, and it just doesn’t work.  It’s almost like Bruce is trying so hard to prove that he’s as intelligent and dangerous as Slade is, only to look a little like a buffoon instead.  There are just as many genuinely good moments with Batman as there are those that were lacking, yet the latter sadly drags the former down.

It’s eventually revealed that Batman knows why Deathstroke brought Rose to Gotham and who put out the hit on her.  What should have been a pretty heartbreaking scene unfortunately falls flat, and the rushed resolution doesn’t help matters either.

Slade himself is barely in the issue either, which could work if his presence was felt in other ways.  There isn’t any menace are foreboding, though, and the third act revelation of his (lack of) involvement hurts an already lackluster installment.  I’ll forego treading into spoiler territory here, but rest assured that Slade’s gambit is pretty weak.  In fact, I’ll go so far as saying it’s a cop-out, making the one interesting thing he does the entire issue suffer in turn.

Granted, this could be a long game and Priest may very well be drawing out his intentions with these characters over time, but the ending makes it pretty clear that the work in Gotham is done.  Even if the resolution is interesting, this was still a rocky bump on that road.

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That’s not to say there wasn’t plenty to enjoy.  Damian’s back-and-forth with Slade could get pretty funny at times, especially with how weak Deathstroke’s smack-talking game was compared to that little snow.  Joe Bennett, Mark Morales, and Jeromy Cox are the real comedic geniuses, though, getting some genuinely earned laughs out of their visuals.  Just as Bennett’s facial expressions evoke a wide array of emotions and tell stories of their own, his use of body movement is used to great effect as physical comedy.  Changing the angle of Rose’s head just slightly in the image above, with a relaxed pose that is otherwise unchanged, makes the dropping of the bag a surprisingly funny moment.

Even better than that, and really just about anything else you’ll read in a comic this week?  Batman lecturing Rose on killing while blindly punching a guy.  Batman’s fists always know where to strike.

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Always.

The title of the issue, “Mirrors”, could mean a lot of things.  It could mean that Batman and Deathstroke are mirrored images of each other, or Rose and Deathstroke, or even Batman and Rose.  It’s never quite clear what Priest is trying to say about these characters, which is strange given his deft hand up to this point.  Let’s just hope this is a brief misstep and not indicative of things to come.

Recommended if:

  • You’ve been enjoying this book.
  • You like to see Damian get mouthy even when facing certain doom.
  • You can forgive sizeable flaws in favor of some moments of true greatness.

Overall: If this series has been a freeway, this is the first pothole.  There’s enough to like to make it worth a read, especially on the visual front, and several scenes are great when stripped of context, but the near-absence of the title character and odd characterization of Batman drag the whole thing down.  Some genuinely funny moments and a hilariously insouciant Damian do a lot to make it enjoyable, but it’s not enough.

SCORE: 5.5/10

*Just for fun: go to Yahoo and type in “uppercutted”.  Join me in laughing at the first suggested search.