This may be Michael Moreci’s first venture into writing Batman, but he’s no stranger to DC, having contributed previously to both the Wonder Woman and Nightwing titles. “The Cursing of Gotham City” shows he knows how to fit right in, as it combines some of the longest-standing themes for this character: mystery, terror, and the complex internal clockwork of the World’s Greatest Detective. If you had any hesitation, go out and pick up this book. It’s gorgeous, first of all, and secondly, it’s a nicely solid tale that for me hearkens back to the early Steve Engelhart era.
Some housekeeping before I launch into the review: going forward, I’m taking over this title from our long-time reviewer Brandon Mulholland. Brandon and I share many elements of our history with Batman: we’ve both read every single issue of every single Bat-book since the dawn of time, along with many of the extraneous Bat-related series. We grew up with Batman, we lived with these titles through every iteration over the last forty years (buckets and bows, we’re old!).
That said, we approach our reading and critiquing from very different perspectives. Brandon has a keener interest in the detective side of things, I like to keep the “goth” in Gotham and like the spooky stuff. Brandon probably has a higher tolerance for big team-up cross-over mega-plots than I do. I like the one-shots, the short arcs, and the man-on-the-street action. I think we both agree that we like a Batman who solves crimes more than one who just punches bloated baddies in the face.
Most importantly Brandon especially enjoyed and gifted us all with his meticulous love of Batman’s history. He was a walking wiki of Batfacts for all the Easter eggs and call-backs and “remember ten issues ago” throughlines. I read comics as a disposable piece of entertainment. That means I am probably much more forgiving toward the medium in general. I like the connections as much as anyone, and if something stands out glaringly contradictory, I’ll call it. But I don’t get as chuffed about continuity or playing connect-the-dots as others readers might. When Batman has had a history this long, a legion of writers and artists over the decades, and has so many times been retconned, overwritten, sidelined, and regrouped, things are going to lapse or get goofy once in a while. It’s the nature of the BatBeast.
But let’s talk about this book!
Maybe the most amazing thing about Moreci’s tale is the simplicity of it. Batman finds himself buried under the avalanche of his own psychological baggage, but, quick-thinker that he is, he uses it like a ladder to climb back into the light.
There’s some redundancy in Batman’s mantra of “this isn’t real” as he staggers around amidst ghouls, all the while berated by Deacon Blackfire’s sermon on the necessary and inevitable fall of Gotham, but visually the journey is so interesting it’s hard to be disappointed about the thinness of the plot too much. Batman eludes and battles an army of scythe and sickle-wielding wraiths, some monstrous, most just frighteningly faceless, and all of them calling to mind a death that seems to be dogging our hero at every step.
The supernatural element is woven in, dare I say: naturally?
Moreci does a great job of starting the story late; we’re thrown right into the heat of the action and gradually catch up to Batman’s agenda: rescue a boy who has been kidnapped for the purpose of providing a living vessel to ensure the resurrection of Deacon Blackfire, who is apparently trapped between the real world and a purgatorial afterlife, drawing strength from his near-zombified acolytes, and poisoning Gothamites (including Batman himself) with hallucinogenic visions that pervert reality and cause despair.
Again, nothing new for our Caped Crusader, but effectively presented and within Batman’s salvation is a nice moment that delineates the ways in which Batman’s humanity lies in direct contradiction to Deacon Blackfire’s degraded state of existence.
The juxtaposition of Bruce’s humility and the impact he has made on so many children, most of whom are not even his own, compared to Blackfire’s greedy desire to live on through the body of an innocent boy merely unfortunate enough to be connected by blood, starkly illustrates the legacy of good vs. the loneliness and corruption of evil: Batman’s truly loyal family vs. Deacon Blackfire’s brainwashed acolytes and a boy forced to serve him. One is nourished by those he has cared for and other just feeds off mindless thralls.
Among Batman’s “children” at the height of his vision of Blackfire’s overrun Gotham, we see Duke Thomas (though I pretend we don’t), but some of Batman’s other notable proteges are curiously absent: Cassandra Cain, Stephanie Brown, and Harper Rowe. I won’t read too much into that, but I thought the choice was an interesting one.
Batman is weirdly like a black flower, the way he falls
Sebastián Fiumara is the perfect artist for this dark psychological thrill ride. Throughout the book he strikes the perfect balance between man and shade. Sometimes all we see is two bright eyes squinting from an inky cowl (as above), and sometimes we see the man underneath in all of his mortal vulnerabilities. Batman may be a superhero, but this is one of those books that reminds us that he’s not impervious to pain, nor exempt from death.
There’s almost too much about the art to even discuss: from Fiumara’s cover (with Brad Anderson), you can already tell this is going to be something special–what’s inside doesn’t disappoint! Dave Stewart’s colors add to a putrid and malevolent atmosphere, while Fiumara’s more painterly strokes blur the lines between dream and reality. And everywhere it feels like something sinister is lurking, which is exactly what you want from a comic that is heavily invested on the horror side of all applicable genres.
My one quibble on the art side is that while the final half-page vista is emotionally satisfying, it feels a little bald of details. Especially after such a gritty rampage. It’s possible that’s deliberate: a clean clear city as a symbol of hope, but I’m not entirely sure it works.
Final curious little note: “James” Starlin and “Bernard” Wrightson are credited with creating Deacon Blackfire, though neither of them ever published under those formal names (as opposed to Jim and Bernie). I’m sure there must be a reason for it: any guesses?
- A Batman one-shot away from all the wedding planning sounds like just the respite you need!
- You are always up for revisiting slightly obscure and mysterious villains from the Gotham underground.
- You revel in the glorious Gothic arts that only Gotham’s Dark Knight can conjure. For the art alone, this book is worth reading again and again.
While the rest of the Batverse seems preoccupied with long-anticipated wedding plan for the Cat and the Bat, Detective Comics takes a little detour down underground and into the dark heart of a life and legacy-obsessed phantom. Like all things dark, though, Batman has more in common with the lingering malevolent spirit of Deacon Blackfire than he might like to admit.