Batman #38 is, simply put, wonderful.
I’ve literally been waiting to get a story like this for the last 6 years. Back in 2015, there was a flashback scene from Batman&Robin Eternal early on in the story that involved a murder at a penthouse apartment in the middle of a thunderstorm with the victims lying in a pool of their own blood. I was like, “YES YES YES!”, but then the story didn’t invest in that awesome intro and chose to focus on another route. Then in 2016, right before the beginning of Rebirth, there was a story in Detective Comics (#48-50) called The Bronze Age that featured grisly murders and all kinds of police procedural detective work. Once again, I was on the edge of my seat. And it would have gone down in my mind as one of the best Tec issues to come out of The New52 if it hadn’t been for a lackluster 3rd part. Icarus (Detective Comics #30-34, 2014) was another such story that started off with amazing street level detective work but ultimately culminated in a crazy super-powered-suit free-for-all of ridiculous proportions.
But where all those stories and several other stories got it wrong, didn’t even try, gave up on promising premises, or fell apart in the 11th hour…this story completely delivers the goods on multiple levels. It’s got multiple murders, misdirection, creepiness, detective work, puzzle solving, and character introspection. If it weren’t for two small gripes I had, this would have been the first 10 I’ve ever given a comic. As it stands, I went with a 9.5 because it isn’t perfect. But even a 9.5 from me is very high praise as I’ve only ever given out that score 26 times before out of 270 some reviews. But forget about the numbers, lets talk about the issue.
Based off what I’ve already compared this to, it’s probably clear to you that this is a murder mystery involving street level detective work. But it’s also so much more than that.
Before even opening the comic, it felt special. There was just something about the cover that felt very indicative of the kinds of covers one saw in the 1970s, complete with a misleading headline/imagery. Initially I thought, “Oh, are we getting a concrete origin story for Bruce from King’s perspective?” But no. The story is about a boy named Matthew that lost his parents to murder, and the cover headline refers to him because his father and he had an inside joke about how they used to joke about him being “Bruce Wayne”.
Initially my plan was to break down this entire story, because I find it truly fascinating. But I’ve instead decided to maintain a level of vagueness in this review because experiencing the story for yourself as it unfolds is nothing I want to take away from anyone. Much of the fun comes from trying to figure out what is going on and being left with a hollow uneasy feeling as the story wraps up. I know. Odd to say that I had fun being left unnerved. But I’d liken it to seeing something like Halloween (The 1978 film) and being left with a feeling of dread and uncertainty as you attempt to discern what happened to his body, only to realize that the film isn’t going to give you any answers (have fun trying to sleep tonight).
So, allow me to elaborate on what I liked without giving the story away.
This story isn’t about potential city wide destruction and stopping that from happening. It’s actually the opposite of both those things. The murder has already taken place, and it’s about finding the murderer before he can kill again. Along with the cover, this also reminded me a lot of the stories from the 1970s. There were a lot of murder mystery stories back then, and they usually involved a battle of wits between the Caped Crusader and the villain at hand to prevent the next batch of killings from occurring.
In any case, there’s nothing Batman can do to fix what has happened, merely attempt to not let it happen again. The story is also not about grand-scale slaughter. Only a handful of people die in this comic. But that’s something I’ve always liked about Batman. There is no crime that is too big or too small for him to take an interest in it. To him, every single life is precious, and nothing is beneath him. Every case is just as important as the next.
The story also has a wonderful atmosphere to it. The way the city itself looks. The grittiness, smog, and darkness. It both feels like a real place and the fantastical fictional realm of Gotham City all at the same time. There is this excellent GCPD rooftop scene where Gordon and Batman have a conversation together. But we never outright see Batman. We know it’s him that Gordon is speaking with, but the “camera” focuses on Gordon, pulling closer and closer to him. It’s just awesome.
The comic also has multiple interrogation scenes, but the thing that’s great about them is how different they all are from one another. It shows how Batman reads his target and responds differently based on how he believes he will best be able to manipulate them. Some through intimidation, some through reason, and others through appealing to vanity. It’s just great to see so many different facets to the same technique all within the same story.
On top of that, the story shows Batman being a master of several different disciplines. He knows how to analyze tech, how to read people, and he is shown to be well read and extremely sharp in his analytical approach. Along with that is obviously the use of detective work and following leads. It’s just all very satisfying to see the character behaving so competently in so many different fields of study.
There’s also a palpable level of suspense present in the story. In one section, Batman is visually shown tracking down a lead as his dialogue explains to us how he determined the destination he is headed towards. It all culminates in an absolutely brutal reveal that will leave even the hardiest soul slightly faint of heart. Assuming, of course, you allow yourself to be immersed in the moment and really try to feel what it would actually be like to be there.
Art for this issues is handled by Travis Moore, and he absolutely blew me away. Some of what I have already said and loved about this issue is a direct result of his inclusion in its creation. The city, the “camera” angles, the way Batman is depicted in every single panel he appears in. It’s all so perfect.
So, what are those two little gripes I was talking about earlier that kept this from being a perfect 10? The first one is this right here:
Gordon and Batman are talking about Victor Zsasz in this scene and how Batman doesn’t believe he did the killings because it doesn’t fit in with his pattern. When Gordon suggests that perhaps he broke his patter, Batman flippantly responds by pointing out all the Bat related things that he does all the time. The thing is, comparing Zsasz’s compulsion to killing in a certain way with Batman following an adopted motif/brand isn’t the same thing at all. With mentally unstable characters, they simply have to follow their modus operandi or they cease to be able to function properly: Zsasz has a psychological need to kill a certain way, Two-Face incorporates twos in his crimes, Riddler needs to leave riddles behind, and so on. But with Batman, he doesn’t break down on a mental level and cease to be able to function if he doesn’t wear a Batsuit. Bats aren’t integral to his mission. He isn’t obsessed with Bats. If anything, his obsession is fighting crime. The Bat stuff is tertiary to his core goals. Sure, he chose that to strike fear in the hearts of criminals and play up the notion of being some kind of otherworldly entity. But there are plenty of other fear inducing motifs he could have chosen. The inclusion of the bat was a serendipitous event. Yes, I know they occasionally try to play up the idea that it was destiny. But I prefer to think of it as a chance occurrence rather than the stars aligning or puppet masters pulling strings to make sure he became what he was.
The second thing that I didn’t quite like is a little more spoilery, so I’ll drop that behind a tag. But I’ll still try and remain somewhat vague since I really don’t want to spoil anything for you. SHOW SPOILER ▼
Odds and Ends:
- Is this an error? The famous line goes, “criminals are a superstitious cowardly lot”. On my first read through I actually read “superstitious” in my head. It wasn’t till my second read through that I noticed he actually says “suspicious”. I mean, it’s not a negative or anything like that. It’s just something I noticed and wanted to pass along.
- Need I really mention who this individual is? For those who don’t know, and interestingly enough, Dennis is one of the writers who worked on Batman in the 70s (yet another connection to that era of Batman stories this comic seems to have). He is commonly recognized as the creative talent that brought Batman back to his more serious roots and became the group editor for Batman later on in his career, being the guiding force behind many of the most well known Batman stories from the 80s and 90s. Dennis O’Neil has been quintessential in Batman’s development over the years, and I’m certain Batman wouldn’t be the character we all know if it weren’t for Dennis. I wrote an article about him back in 2016 if you want to check it out. If you need further motivation to click on the link, there’s a picture of me as a little kid standing next to Dennis included in the article. You know, if you want to laugh at my awkwardness and what not.
- You like one-and-dones.
- You enjoy stories that not only challenge the character on an intellectual level, but also on a spiritual/emotional level.
- You like detective work and puzzle solving.
- You prefer personal street level detective stories to city wide disaster events.
- You like a little bit of creepiness in your entertainment.
- You like stories that don’t require you to have invested massive amounts of time in understanding every nuance of the character’s continuity. Essentially, you don’t need to have read anything else to understand and enjoy this story.
This is officially the best Batman story King has ever written. Or, at least from my perspective. Summarizing everything that I loved about this issue in a few sentences is literally impossible. There’s just so much to like. It’s a serious murder mystery on a small scale showing a competent Batman utilizing mastery levels on multiple different skills to track down a killer. Aside from that, it’s absolutely gorgeous, cinematic, and completely engrossing in the visual department. If you’re the kind of person that doesn’t want to invest in a gagillion comics in order to get a complete and fulfilling narrative, well, this is the Batman comic for you.
SCORE: 9.5 / 10