When Gotham City is a crime-free utopia… you know something’s wrong.  Batman, wearing white and operating in the daylight?  That just isn’t right.  What’s going on?  And why on earth is Catwoman going by the name “Cat Bird”?

The fifth volume of the New 52 Detective Comics run, Gothtopia, answers those very questions, while also wrapping up a nearly year-long Man-Bat story and celebrating 75 years of the Dark Knight.  There are a few highs, a few more lows, and an awful lot of silly names contained in the collected issues:

If there’s one thing I’ll say about Gothtopia, it’s that it’s a pretty quick read.  The Wrath was written better and dealt with its thematic material with a more confident hand, but man did it take me forever to get through.  This collection, on the other hand?  I knocked it out in a day or two.

Even so, it isn’t great.  The main story isn’t, at least.  There’s quite a bit that’s pretty enjoyable, most of which comes from the inclusion of Detective Comics #27, but the actual “Gothtopia” story arc is pretty rough.

Things start off promisingly enough with “Whistleblower’s Blues,” a great one-and-done story that ties into Zero Year.  Focusing on Jim Gordon, it rewrites the Year One narrative a bit while still hitting the main points: namely, Gordon’s possibly the only honest cop in the city, and the rest of the force is working against him.  The GCPD are treated with a little more even hand than Miller did in Year One, to the point that they’re aren’t quite caricatures, and this “street level drama” further reinforced my desire to see Layman on a Gotham Central-type book.

Fabok’s art is just fantastic too.  That title page of Gordon emerging out of the river, or the splash page later on where Batman catches him before he hits the water?  Class.  It’s no wonder that Fabok has become one of the top talents in DC’s stable.

After that solid opening, things quickly dip in quality with the conclusion to the Man-Bat story.  I said before that those backups were one of my favorite things about the previous trade, and that’s still true.  The payoff, though… well…

That should pretty much tell you everything you need to know.  It’s just overwhelmingly silly, but not in a good way.  It’s treated with the utmost serious, to the point that it borders on parody.  If you guys know me at all you’ll know I’d be all for a story about a bat-lady who also controls actual bats, but this isn’t it.

For one, its very inclusion is nothing but confusing.  Like the conclusion to the Emperor Penguin arc being included in the previous collection, the fact that it’s the final part of a story that mostly played out in another book is just weird.  I wouldn’t advise a new reader to jump on board with Volume 5 of anything, but if they do this will seem random and out of place.  Plus, you know, it’s just relentlessly goofy.

It does look really good, though, Bat Queen silliness aside.  Aaron Lopresti handles pencils on this story, and as much as I like Jason Fabok’s detailed realism, the slightly more exaggerated, cartoony look here is more my bag.

That leads directly into the titular story, and if you can’t tell already, I’m not a big fan of it.  The basic premise is that Gotham is now a nearly crime-free utopia, patrolled (during the day) by Batman and his trusted companion Catbird.

Yes, Catbird.  Believe me, that’s only like the fifth silliest name in this story.

Even looking at it after the fact, it’s hard to believe that there was ever any tension or mystery when this was originally published.  It’s obvious from the beginning that this is just a hallucination or dream, so the fact that the Scarecrow is behind it isn’t the least bit shocking.  And even if that’s not supposed to be a shocker of a twist, then I’m really not sure what Layman was trying to do here.  There aren’t any stakes, given that it’s clear Batman just needs to snap out of it, and there isn’t much of an internal struggle with Bruce.  That kind of trope is overused in this type of story, but at least it lends itself as an emotional anchor.  But, no, Bruce figures out what’s wrong pretty early on and sets about correcting it.

There are some interesting aspects to the story.  The fact that we’re effectively dropped into the story after the Scarecrow pretty much won is a neat twist.  It isn’t just Batman imagining this utopia, after all, but the entire city of Gotham.  Everybody is in on it, and until Poison Ivy snaps Batman to he doesn’t suspect a thing.  Ignoring the pretty sizeable plot hole that nobody on the outside noticed anything was wrong, the fact that Scarecrow was momentarily victorious could have led to some interesting stories.

Alas, this “safer Gotham” doesn’t leave much of an impression.  Besides throwing around some truly ridiculous “reimagined” names for Batman’s allies (Bluebelle?  The Gothamite?  BrightbatYeesh), there’s very little to note about the hallucination.  It isn’t like “Perchance to Dream,” with its sinister undercurrent that slowly makes you realize that Batman is lost and needs to regain his sanity.  No, Gothtopia never once feels real.  There’s no investment in the world because it’s clear it’s artificial, and there isn’t enough time spent in it to warrant any sort of investment in the first place.  The whole story feels like a waste of time, if not a wasted opportunity.

Even the solid work of Fabok and Lopresti can’t elevate it, though they certainly try.  Most of the redesigns are too goofy to be taken seriously, and at points the shifting between hallucination and reality gets rather confusing.

It does have one of my new favorite unintentionally hilarious panels, though.

His cape is on under his prison clothes.  That’s amazing.

Like I said earlier, though, it is a pretty quick read, so there’s that.

Finally, the collection contains the entirety of Detective Comics #27.  Generally speaking, these stories are pretty great.  It’s a nice selection of homages, standalones, and speculative stories with scarcely a stinker in the bunch.

I think the biggest missed opportunity is Brad Meltzer’s update of “The Case of the Chemical Syndicate.”  Retelling the very first Batman story is no easy task, and Meltzer doesn’t quite pull it off.  The repetitive, flowery “journal” narration is rather grating, and the inclusion of internal monologue right alongside it is just confusing.  I wish Meltzer had taken a different approach to the script, because he has some good ideas, they just aren’t executed well.

It’s still better than Identity Crisis, though, so that’s a plus.

Bryan Hitch’s pencils, on the other hand?

OH YEAH

Say what you will about his current run on Justice League (and oh, we have…), but when this guy wants to, he can draw.  Even if it’s just for the return of the blue trunks, I’m a fan.

Pretty much every one of the #27 stories is good, but my personal favorites are Gregg Hurwitz, Neal Adams and John Kalisz’s gleefully silly “Old School,” paying spot-on homage to different eras of Batman storytelling (with a Bill FInger cameo to boot), and Peter J. Tomasi and Ian Bertram’s “Better Days,” aka “What if The Dark Knight Returns had a genuinely happy ending?”  They’re solid stories and great tributes to the Dark Knight, worthy of a seventy-five year celebration.

This collection may have its share of ups and downs, but it’s actually paced pretty well.  Instead of the stop-and-go nature of some of the stories in the previous collection, Gothtopia has a pretty distinct narrative flow.  Even if it isn’t always good reading, that at least makes it an easier read, which is always a plus.  Backhanded compliment?  Maybe, but it’s true.

Bonus material: A variant cover gallery, per usual.  Here are my favorites:

Spoiler

The Graham Nolan one may not look too special until you realize he included Gunhawk and Gunbunny.  Then it becomes incredible.

Value: Only about half the collection is really worth reading, though they are definitely worth it.  Amazon has the collection new at $11.51, which isn’t too bad for a few good comics.  Even so, I’m going to say you should try to get it on sale.

Overall: A strange conundrum of a collection: the narrative is uneven, with as many highs as there are lows.  Still, even with the silliness of a good portion of the material here, I don’t regret reading it.  Skip the main story and there are some true gems contained within, which is something I couldn’t say about the preceding volume.  Gothtopia the story may not be worth much, but with the inclusion of a great Jim Gordon tale and the near perfection of Detective #27, Gothtopia the collection is worthy of a read.

SCORE: 6/10