Often anthologies turn out to be a mixed bag. Some stories hit. Some miss. In the case of Batman Secret Files #1, I don’t think any of the stories here are bad, but it’s definitely clear to me which stories stand out as gems, and which are slightly weaker. Now, I have a lot to say, so let’s not waste any time and have a look.
In DC’s solicitations I read that the story by Tom King, Mikel Janin and Jordie Bellaire would serve as the issue’s framing sequence. Before I get into my opinion on the story itself, I just want to point out that this doesn’t really look like framing sequence to me. I was taught that framing sequences always bookend stories, but King, Janin and Bellaire just created the first of five short tales, and so I can’t really consider this a framing sequence. Additionally, I also don’t feel like any of the subsequent stories connect to “True Strength.” While I do see that King’s script introduces a certain theme (the question of whether or not Batman is good enough), I don’t think that all the other stories touch on that theme specifically. Most stories feel separate from it, doing their own things. As such, it really looks like “True Strength” is supposed to set something up, but it simply ends with Bruce asking Alfred if he is enough, and without any sort of resolution I’m afraid this story just doesn’t go anywhere. Had there been another sequence to bookend the issue that actually answers this question (preferably in the positive), then none of this, as far as I’m concerned, would’ve been a problem.
Yet despite those complaints there are also a few really beautiful things to be found in “True Strength.” The artwork, courtesy of Janin and Bellaire, is amazing! While some panels look rather static (because it’s mostly just Bruce sitting on a chair), there is one sequential string of panels in particular that is put together really well. It illustrates how Bruce imagines saving someone’s life—someone he wasn’t able to save in reality—if he had superpowers like Superman. The sequence is tense, exciting and crackles with energy. This is in part because of Janin’s closeups, which put us right there in the moment. Additionally, Bellaire’s red and yellow hues emphasize the heat of the moment, adding to the tension. Since “True Strength” is mostly rendered in muted blues and greens, this 6 panel sequence really jumps out, allowing us a glimpse at a super-charged Batman.
However, as much as I love Janin and Bellaire’s incredible work, I’m really disappointed with King’s characterization of Superman. Before I get into that, I just want to say that I do find the theme that King is working with interesting. It shows us how Batman isn’t invulnerable and has to cope with the limits of his human body, while Superman enjoys powers derived from Earth’s yellow sun. Because Batman gets hurt, breaks his back every once in a while and sometimes isn’t fast enough to save someone, Superman has brought Batman a gift that grants him superpowers that will last a lifetime. Superman had to go deep into dangerous territory in order to acquire this gift for Bruce, which is testament to their friendship. So far so good, except that now everything falls apart…
Here’s the thing. Batman has a superpower (and no, I’m not talking about his infinite wealth right now). He has mastered more martial arts styles than a person should be capable of in one lifetime. He has studied at many universities. He has traveled the world to train with the best masters to learn stealth, criminology, detecting and he speaks a ton of foreign languages. On top of all this, Batman has cheated death. Twice, as far as I remember—once during Morrison’s run and once during Snyder’s run. Batman’s true strength, his superpower, is his mind. It is because of his mind and his iron that he is able to train, fight on, stay true to his core beliefs, and to go out there each and every night to make sure that what happened to him won’t happen to anyone else. All because Batman has a good heart. So I find it rather distasteful that Superman just swoops in and starts patronizing Batman. You’d think that he would respect Batman for achieving all these great feats on his own. Instead he starts to tell Batman that his methods are wrong. That he should use the gift to gain superpowers like Superman, so he can fight like Superman, because, Superman says, that is how “you should fight.” To add insult to injury, he even emphasizes that his sun-charged powers are “true strength,” which implies that Batman’s strength—compared to Superman’s—is not true strength. I really dislike that Superman is taking this high stance, looking down on his close friend like this. Now, I really don’t think that it was King’s intention to make Superman look like a jerk, but this is how I read the story and I don’t appreciate it one bit. But fear not, my fellow Bat-fans, this is not the only story in the book—it’s merely the first! And, like I said, the art is amazing so it’s not all bad.
The second story, “The Nature of Fear,” pushes just the right buttons for me. It’s psychedelic horror, just the way I like it. The artwork, by Jorge Fornes (pencils) and Matt Wilson (colors), is consistently great. They give us wild shootouts and big explosions that look awesome. But they really shine when they delve into the intimate horror. In this story we don’t follow Batman himself, but officer Fielding, who inhaled Scarecrow’s fear gas while on a case. The sheer horror on Fielding’s face conveys perfectly how the character feels in this situation. A nice detail that the artists didn’t neglect to show is how Fielding is clinging to his gun as if that’s the only thing that’s real anymore in this hellish tripscape, the only thing that can offer him protection from all the nightmarish entities that he’s seeing, but at the same time he’s too scared to actually fire it. Furthermore, he sees Batman as a horrific, giant bat who tells Fielding that the only way to deal with fear is to embrace it. Lastly, the artists draw a beautiful but hellish tunnel of fear that Fielding has to walk through, and it’s my favorite panel in the entire issue.
As for the script, written by Ram V, perhaps you’ll notice that Batman doesn’t completely sound like himself, but then it would be good to remember that first of all, this is a second-hand account told by Fielding. Additionally, Fielding only realized in hindsight that he had encountered Batman. During his trip he actually believed that he was dragged through this tunnel of fear by a horrifying monster, whereas in reality, Batman saved Fielding like he would save anyone. The best thing about the writing is, however, the twist at the end. Without spoiling what happens exactly, I can say that the question of what is real and what is hallucination is raised, and the story continues to haunt me long after I finished reading it. Lastly, I want to add that I think it’s amazing how the creative team is able to tell a solid story with such fascinating themes and one helluva plot twist in just 8 pages.
The third story, “One,” is another success. Where “The Nature of Fear” illustrates how a cop sees Batman while under the influence of fear gas, “One” casts Batman in the lead role and brings out the detective in him. Right from the get-go we find Batman and Gordon investigating a crime scene. They discuss the bodies, the evidence and potential witnesses. Then Batman goes off to track down a witness, and asks the right questions, after which he promises he will come back to help the witness. Eaton, the writer of this piece, kills two birds in one stone here: she shows Batman’s methodical, factual approach to solving the murder mystery and at the same time we see Batman’s compassionate, caring side—a side of the character that, in my opinion, is too often neglected. This story gives us a Batman who is determined to do the right thing no matter what.
One thing that I dislike about the story, however, is the way Lucius Fox is written. When Batman confronts him—because he has discovered that some Wayne technology is involved in the crime—he orders Lucius to shut down said technology. Lucius’s first response is to complain how that would financially cripple Wayne Industries. I have always seen Lucius as someone with a good moral compass, someone who understands that when lives are at stake, money plays no role and those lives have to be saved. So I thought his reaction here was rather strange and inappropriate.
The artwork, brought to us by Casagrande (pencils) and Bellaire (colors) is of high quality throughout. I’ve already raved about how great Bellaire’s colors are in “True Strength,” and, as is to be expected, her work is equally great in “One.” Her colors blend so well with the inks that a sense of depth is created, and even though she works with some brighter colors—she uses a lot of yellow here—she establishes a moody atmosphere throughout the story. While I’ll admit that Casagrande’s art, on first sight, didn’t seem like my cup of tea, it grew on me rapidly because of how consistent she renders the characters and Gotham City. This is an artist who has her style down, and especially the facial expressions of each character are very well drawn. They match the characters’ emotions in the moment, which makes interaction between the characters believable and therefore makes them come to life.
The fourth story, “Enough,” is a very personal one. What I mean by that is that we closely follow Bruce, who is staying all by himself in a cabin in the snowy mountains near Gotham to track down a creature (who he expects to be Man-Bat). Over the course of the story, we see how the loneliness and the weather affect him psychologically. Bruce admits how he’s not a big fan of himself. How he’s flawed. And it weighs on him how he isn’t able to make a lot of progress with his mission because of all the snow. Ultimately, I don’t even think that the monster he is after is in fact Man-Bat, but that the idea of Man-Bat is more like a manifestation of Bruce’s own inner conflict, a literal reverse of the Bat-Man persona. Moreover, it’s quite clever how Bruce, while outdoors, is just concentrating on his mission, but when he goes inside, we—as readers—go inside his mind and observe him trying to deal with his inner struggle. Yet, to be completely honest, this is not my favorite story in the book. It is by no means a bad story, and I genuinely appreciate that it offers some variety alongside the detective work, horror and action. But what seems to be missing, in my opinion, is some kind of resolution at the end, because this is a story that focuses heavily on Bruce’s struggle. In my opinion, without any kind of resolution the story doesn’t really go anywhere. With its title being “Enough,” I had expected that it would answer the question asked at the end of “True Strength,” but it doesn’t do that either. I consider that a bit of a missed opportunity.
Artwork, by Jill Thompson (pencils) and Trish Mulvihill (colors), is solid and consistent, and I appreciate how the artists pay attention to details in Bruce’s cabin. There’s furniture, blankets, rugs, a kitchen, kitchenware, chairs, a fireplace—it just really looks like one could live here and find shelter from the snow and ice. The contrast between the outdoor scenes and the indoor scenes is also well done. Outside, the pale colors create a sense of cold, whereas the reddish colors inside create a sense of warmth. For example, the snow storm looks like a storm that one could truly get lost in, and when this is followed by a scene inside the cabin it really feels like succor from the fierce elements. In other words, the environments have immersive qualities that draw us into the story.
The fifth and final story, “The World’s Greatest Detective and Batman,” is about Detective Chimp seeking out Batman to help him track down someone in particular. While the story is fairly straight-forward—Batman and Chimp successfully find the person they’re trying to find; Batman beats the crap out of the villains; Chimp helps the person on his way—I have to say that it’s specifically the interaction between Batman and Chimp that makes this story work for me. At first, Batman seems a little distant and he comes across as a bit of a jerk. Chimp asks him if he’s embarrassed to be seen with him. But at the end Batman tells him that that isn’t the case and that he truly respects Chimp. He even takes Chimp by the hand to help him get to a hospital because Chimp got injured. What’s more, Taylor writes both lead characters so well that neither ever one-ups the other, but they are each other’s equals instead. Batman is awesome because he’s competent, compassionate and driven. Chimp is awesome because he’s kind and incredibly smart. Both are great detectives. Batman isn’t made less competent so Chimp can be in the spotlight and vice versa. They complement each other like a team.
The art, by Walker (pencils), Hennessy (inks) and Jordie Bellaire (colors) is also really good. Gotham looks appropriately dark; Batman looks like a powerful warrior, both agile and strong; Chimp looks like a friendly guy that you could approach for help even if you had no idea who he is; the fight scene is bombastic and of course it begins with Batman crashing through a window; and once again Bellaire provides amazing colors that blends well with Hennessy’s inks, creating contrast, depth and making the scenes more dynamic.
This final story is fun because there’s humor; it’s emotional because Chimp’s motivation to help this person is directly tied to a pivotal moment from his origin story; and it’s entertaining because the action is swift and well-paced. In the end, both Batman and Chimp are victorious because of their individual contributions to resolving the conflict. It’s a great short story to end this anthology, because it makes Batman Secret Files #1 go out with a bang!
- You love anthologies!
- You like it when different aspects of Batman are shown in the same issue
- You need more Dark Knight Detective (and Chimp!) in your life
Overall: Batman Secret Files #1 is a highly entertaining comic that features five fun stories. There are some real gems in this anthology, and while it’s true that some of these gems overshadow somewhat weaker stories, I think that every one is worth reading, even if it’s just for the artwork, which is of high quality throughout the book. If you’re a Batman fan, and particularly enjoy detective stories, then you’ll likely love this anthology. Enthusiastically recommended!
Total score: 8/10