Detective Comics vol. 4: The Wrath review

A celebration of a landmark issue.

The rise of a dark doppelgänger.

A whole lot of Man-Bat.

All of these things and more are found in The Wrath, the fourth graphic novel collecting the entirety of Detective Comic‘s New 52 run.  Picking up where the Emperor Penguin trade left off, The Wrath collects the following issues:

Like a lot of these New-52 trades, the title “The Wrath” only applies to part of the story collected here.  There are threads that link all of these issues together, but it’s not just a trade about Batman’s confrontation with the Wrath.

In fact, the part of it is actually the ending to the previous trade, Emperor Penguin.  As in, it is literally the ending to that story.  Not the aftermath, not an epilogue that leads into the next arc: it is the actual confrontation with Ogilvy.  And, just to confuse you, that story wraps up after an opener focusing on Man-Bat that doesn’t fully resolve until the next trade, Gothtopia.

Confused yet?  Fantastic.

Truth be told, besides the confusing structure, the storytelling isn’t outright bad at all.  Layman’s a pretty good writer, as are James Tynion and Josh Williamson, and there’s some pretty interesting stuff in this trade.  The entire concept behind the 900th issue’s main story, appropriately titled “The 900,” is great: there’s a threat focused on one particular neighborhood in Gotham, also appropriately called the 900.

Because it’s the 900th issue, you see.  You follow me.

The threat is pretty silly, with people turning into Man-Bats thanks to a stolen formula that’s been released in the vicinity, but I like the idea of focusing on one section of the city.  Forcing Batman to contain a localized threat before it spreads to the rest of the city is a nice break from the usual “citywide disaster” stories.  I wasn’t completely sold on the resolution, but it does lead to a pretty interesting series of backups featuring Man-Bat.  There were thematic aspects that I liked more than Langstrom’s story, but by and large my favorite storytelling in the collection was contained in this backup plot.  It explores the marriage between Kirk and Francine, his addiction to his serum, and her eventual downfall.

The main detractor is that this story doesn’t conclude until the next trade, which is an unfortunate trend, but I really dig what’s contained here.  Kirk’s a man who realizes his mistakes, taking it upon himself to fix the problems that his carelessness wrought.  He’s a man who made his bed and lies in it too, and the twist of his increasingly torturous family life adds a level of tragedy that wasn’t expected, but gladly accepted.  Andy Clarke’s Quitely-esque pencils the tone perfectly, with a style that’s grounded in realism so as to make the “monster man” aspects feel even more horrific.

With such a variety of stories here, you certainly get a lot of bang for your buck with this collection.  There are a lot of mini-arcs, one-shot stories, and longer plots to pad out the length of the trade, so there’s plenty here to read.  The problem is that with such variety and so many different artists contributing, the trade often lacks focus.  Even worse, there are times when it’s outright boring, and most of the events aren’t particularly memorable.

Unlike Mr. Combustible, who I love for no reason whatsoever.

He’s pretty much a Gentleman Ghost/Mysterio hybrid knock-off, but man if that fishbowl-head doesn’t look dapper in a tuxedo.

I don’t think Layman’s comfortable with goofier comic book elements, though, which is a shame.  The previous arc had some really interesting “old crime” elements built in with Ogilvy taking over Penguin’s empire, and that could have easily led to some pretty devastating gang wars.  Instead, Ogilvy takes the Man-Bat serum and becomes a big blue monster and… yeah, it’s pretty stupid.  It isn’t an out of the blue plot twist, to its credit, but that’s what makes it so frustrating: Layman didn’t write himself into a corner here.  He could have easily gone a bunch of other places, but nope, giant blue monster.  And really, if you guys know me by now, you’d know I’m going to be the one who loves a story that culminates in a showdown with a guy who looks like he fell into a toilet bowl and is also made of wood or something.

Alas, that’s not the case.

Layman’s at his best when he keeps things small and relatively low-key.  There was a strong undercurrent of Batman’s shaky relationship with the GCPD running throughout Detective Comics around this time, and some of the best scenes involve officers discussing Batman’s effect on the city.

There are a number smaller scenes like this, and frankly I wish that had been what this book was about.  It is called Detective Comics, after all, so why not focus on cops just as much as Batman?  Take the concept of Gotham Central, weave in more appearances by Bats, and approach mysteries from each perspective.  I’d read that.  In fact, Layman’s so good at the “real crime” stuff that I’d like to see him take on the GCPD in another Gotham Central-type series.  Let’s make it happen, guys.

That’s why the idea of a cop-killer villain like the Wrath is interesting.  He targets police.  He has a vendetta.  His alter ego even supplies the department with new equipment, promising some tense drama once his plan is enacted.  Resurrecting the Wrath could have been a great idea.  Unfortunately, I thought he was pretty boring.

A few years ago (yes, we’ve been a review team for years now) I actually reviewed the Wrath’s first appearance in Batman Special #1.  It was a solid, efficient example of economical storytelling: the Wrath was introduced, his back story explored, and he was defeated in the span of a single issue.  If anything, the character could have afforded another few issues to really make an impact, but Mike W. Barr made the character make more of an impact in one issue than Layman does in a half dozen.

There really isn’t anything bad with this story.  Like I said, there are some good ideas, some great fight scenes from Jason Fabok, and a hilariously macho sparring match on the side of a skyscraper.  Instead of being compelling, though, this Wrath is utterly forgettable.

I mean, take a look at his design.

That’s as “generic armored bad guy” as you can get.  The first iteration of the Wrath looked pretty goofy, but at least he made an impression.  This guy just looks like any other heavily-armored antagonist you’d see in a thousand other stories.  That stretches to his characterization, too: everything that made the earlier Wrath interesting is stripped away.  Now he’s simply yet another rich jerk.  The one trait that carries over, that his father was gunned down by a police officer, lacks the impact of the original where he was shot by a young Jim Gordon.  I’m not one to simply dismiss anything new as inferior to the original, but if you’re going to update something, at least make it worth it.

I feel I’m coming off  more critical than I intend to.  Save for some distractingly goofy moments, there really isn’t anything here that’s outright terrible.  There’s plenty of good stuff contained in these pages, but it’s easy to forget because it’s all kind of a drag to read.  It took me over two weeks to work through this trade, and all because I really couldn’t get invested in it but for short bursts.  In fact, some of the best stuff in the trade I completely forgot about until I thumbed through it again (like Bullock confronting Jane Doe for impersonating him, which built on a terrible story and actually managed to be pretty affecting), all because the bulk of the storytelling is just so average.  It’s easy to forget what works, and the stuff that doesn’t won’t make any lasting impressions.

Bonus material: Nothing other than a variant cover gallery, though there are some gems in there.  Dustin Nguyen turned in a fine piece, and the MAD! cover is pretty fun, though Alex Maleev and Nathan Fairbairn’s takes the cake:


Batman’s expression is a tad weird, but I love the composition, the colors, and the striking simplicity of the scene.

Value: It’s a fairly hefty volume, weighing in at over 250 pages, so there’s quite a bit of bang for your buck.  It can be had for about fifteen bucks on Amazon, but chances are if you’re a collector or longtime reader you already own it.  This is not a good jumping on point for a new reader, but if you absolutely must have it as your introduction to Batman comics, I’d say get it on sale, fairly heavily discounted.

Overall: There’s not much here that’s truly terrible, but it’s so resoundingly average it’s easy to forget there’s some strong material in this trade.  Aided by a rock-solid art team that’s headed by superstar Jason Fabok, this is a pretty good looking volume, if not a visually interesting one.  It’s a shame, then, that any good ideas the writers have are squandered and left underdeveloped, falling victim to possibly the worst sin a piece of entertainment can commit: being boring.  The Wrath isn’t overwhelmingly good or bad, nor does it elicit any strong feelings one way or the other.  What it is, in the end, is forgettable.

SCORE: 5.5/10