It’s beginning to feel a lot like Christmas! The weather—at least here on the East Coast—is finally getting nippy, and there are only a few weeks left before many of us will see our heads given over to visions of sugar plums. Or something.

While it’s still November (for another few hours, at least), this is the fifth Wednesday of the month, which means annuals for several books, including Batman. If we’re being honest, most annuals are a lot like a present that you’re certain is something cool—like a Proton Pack, or a Thunderclap He-Man action figure—but is actually tube socks. So what about Batman Annual #1? Filled with five stories from some fresh and seasoned creative teams, this extra-sized book brings the holidays to Gotham. The talent is impressive, the cover is super-sweet, but what will you find inside? Something cool? Or tube socks? Read on!

Good Boy

img_0465

It’s the Secret Origin of Ace the Bathound! Once a deranged member of Joker’s pack of masked pooches, Ace found himself the sole survivor after Mr. J. deserted he and his compatriots. Never ones to turn down a stray, Bruce and Alfred take him in.

There’s a lot to love in the small space allotted to this story. King scripts a tight, simple tale showing Ace going from a vicious clown-hound to a faithful companion. It is a sweet thing to behold Alfred’s care for the troubled dog, refusing to give up on him or accept Bruce’s maxim: “some wounds don’t heal.” This is, after all, the beauty of the Wayne family’s steadfast butler: to him, even the worst damage is reparable, the most wasted life redeemable.

Finch is in the same fine form that he brought to Batman’s first five issues. Ace looks sufficiently terrifying the first time we see him, but the tender moments that make up the rest of the story are rendered just as well. Colors this time are added by Gabe Eltaeb, a DC veteran, and his work here is impeccable, providing a finish very consistent with what Jordie Bellaire created for Finch on #1-5. And for a stocking stuffer, Eltaeb has sprinkled lots of green and red throughout, force-feeding a little holiday cheer into your subconscious.

Silent Night

img_0464

While this story’s concept is hardly original, it is nevertheless welcome and well-executed. On what we can only assume is Christmas Eve, Batman patrols his city, eager to test out a new crime detection program that he’s developed. But the night goes slowly, and when a call does come in, it isn’t quite what the Dark Knight was expecting.

“Silent Night” isn’t quite as hopeful as “Good Boy,” but it’s still a very enjoyable, nearly-as-sweet story as the last one. Seeing Gotham peaceful under the snow, with its citizens enjoying the streets at night instead of avoiding them, is a nice sight. While a real call eventually does come in, we get to see Bruce momentarily bask in the stillness of his city. I really appreciate Snyder and Fawkes avoiding a bunch of introspective narration, as well. There’s no extensive analysis—the storytelling, like the story itself, is about calm.

Shalvey and Bellaire match this tone perfectly, with simple detail and color. The aesthetic probably wouldn’t work as well for an epic Batman slugfest, but it’s right on the money here. We also get to see more of Shalvey’s vision of Gotham City than we’ve been getting in the back of All-Star, and I’m definitely left wanting more. Hopefully this art team will circle back to Gotham on a regular basis.

The >Not-So< Silent Night of the BatmanHarley Quinn

img_0463

For me, Harley’s at her best when she’s just being a goofball. She’s never going to be my favorite character, but when done right (my version of right, anyway), she’s a welcome interruption in whatever I’m reading.

This festive tale is the last of the uplifting stories in this annual, turning its redemptive eye on everyone’s favorite whack job from Coney Island. And who better to write it than one of Harl’s co-creators, Paul Dini? The script—which basically lets us in on Batman giving Harley a ride—is full of the type of laughs you’d expect (she sings “Jingle Bells.” Yes, that “Jingle Bells”), but it’s also a touching look at how even Harley can be an inspiration for positive change.

The legendary Neal Adams covers everything else but the letters, and while the whole thing is a little visually busy, it still looks good. It’s nice seeing his Batman (blue and gray, with trunks!), and I really like the texture of his color finishes. There are some strange faces, but they were a minor distraction. Overall, Adams and Dini have crafted one of those optimistic-to-a-fault Christmas stories that only seem digestible between Thanksgiving and New Years, and I offer that as the highest praise.

Stag

img_0462

“Stag” is a decent story, but it’s probably at the bottom of this particular barrel. Its major points of interest are a generous benefactor, the villainous Minister Blizzard, and a grisly turn at the end.

Orlando writes it well—the dialogue works, and it moves comfortably along. The end is just so much darker than the rest of the annual that it feels out of place. I would be much happier if things end after Blizzard gets taken down. Aside from the tonal dissonance, this is also the only tale in the lot that points outward toward some future significance, rather than wrapping its own business up by the end.

Rossmo draws some of the weirdest faces you’ll see (deranged happy children), but overall, I like what he’s doing here. The city looks good, Blizzard and his powers are visually interesting, and the last page is as terrifying as intended. Plascencia makes the snow-covered city look great, too, working in a little bit of warmth in the palette and keeping things from looking overwhelmingly bleak.

The Insecurity Diversion

img_0461

Our final tale features gorgeous lines from Bilquis Evely (who recently did a special issue on the Wonder Woman book), colored beautifully by Mat Lopes. Unfortunately, the script isn’t doing much for me.

Wilson introduces us to Haunter, a villain who, once having encountered a person’s DNA, can then kill said person without ever touching them directly. She takes advantage of the aforementioned holiday party to slip out and rendezvous with a friend on the outside. The dialogue is alright through the first part, but once Bats catches up with the bad guys, it starts to go downhill. Bruce is just way too chatty, and call me obtuse, but his point about insecurity feels more like empty poetry than a solid idea.

As with the prior stories, we get to see Gotham snow-covered and up close, and it looks good. Evely’s character work is detailed and expressive, and her use of the nine-panel grid on several pages affords her more space to establish two scenes in parallel. Lopes adds purples and pinks generously, sometimes to psychedelic effect, but always pleasant regardless. These are probably the best-looking pages in the book.

Recommended if…

  • You prefer annuals consisting of several small stories, rather than one large one.
  • You like seeing Gotham up close, covered in snow.
  • You like uplifting stories during the holidays, and you don’t think you’ll be dragged down by the two humbugs that close out the volume.

Overall

Batman Annual #1 is on the high end of the spectrum as far as annuals go. Even though I prefer the first three stories’ uplifting messages to the final two, the entire issue is an enjoyable read multiple times through. A talented group of creators live up to their reputations, and even when I don’t love what someone is doing, I can still find something to appreciate. Don’t fear the higher cover price—this one is a lot of bang for the buck.

SCORE: 8/10