Just looking at the creators involved, you’d think that Batman Secret Files #2 would be one of the best books of the year: you’ve got Mairghread Scott, Tim Seeley, Patrick Gleason, Andy Kubert, Carlos D’Anda, Steve Wands, John Workman, Eduardo Risso, Steve Orlando, Tom Napolitano, Dave Stewart, and on and on and on.  That’s quite the pedigree, and those are just off the top of my head.

So, sadly, this is not one of the best books of the year, but that doesn’t mean it’s bad.  There are some good stories here, no bad ones, and yet no great ones either.  Even the best falls short of greatness, and yet with most installments I found myself wanting more.  How it all ties in with “City of Bane,” I’m not sure, but then, I’m not quite sure what’s going on with that story yet either.  So what we have here is a collection of pretty good stories featuring some of Batman’s most notorious villains, all presented by some stellar creative teams.  All in all it’s a pretty good time, even if its own limitations prevent it from reaching its full potential.

But enough giving a broad overview.  Let’s dive in.

What better way to kick off a Batman one-shot than with a story featuring his greatest adversary, right?  It’s a good thing that this story is… fine, I guess.

At the risk of sounding pithy and dismissive, this is kind of a weird tale to start things off.  It’s fairly light-hearted, which I’m all for, but it sets a mood that kind of carries throughout the rest of the issue.  In effect, each of these stories is pretty okay on its own, but none really rise to greatness.

Still, the concept of this one is enjoyable.  The Joker has Batman bound in an abandoned warehouse, with the Dark Knight seemingly at his mercy.  Befitting the fairly plain setting, Joker has decided to forego any grand schemes or plans.  Instead, he is simply going to remove Batman’s costume, piece by piece, and then beat him to death.

It… goes about as well as you’d expect.

This Joker is– somewhat refreshingly– more of a silly loon than a bloodthirsty maniac (I mean, by comparison.  He does still want to brutally murder Batman, after all), and I thought his attitude of “well, I’ve never beaten you by trying before, so I might as well give not trying a go” was pretty funny.  Batman gets a few good lines in as he mocks Joker’s failure, and their repartee is entirely believable, but it all felt kind of low stakes.  Had this been part of something like Detective Comics #1000 it might have landed better, as just one enjoyable vignette among other short stories.  As part of some wider “City of Bane” tie-in, though, it doesn’t carry as much weight.

I will say I was quite impressed with Amancay Nahuelpan’s art.  I’ve seen his name pop up in a few issues here and there over the past few years, and based on this, he needs to get more work.  He has a great eye for slapstick when it’s needed, like on the page where Joker gets shocked by one of the Batsuit’s booby traps.  His figures are strong, be it the lean-bodied and long-faced Joker or his fit but not impossibly muscular Batman, and he uses some really dynamic panel layouts.  I really liked how he and colorist Trish Mulvihill used spare backgrounds to emphasize certain actions and emotions, and how letterer Steve Wands would follow the emanating pulse of a sonar beacon or the opening of a cape with his sound effects.  If the writing was above average, if not pretty good, then the visual storytelling was top notch.

Oh, and also Joker loses like five more teeth.

For those keeping track at home.

I mean this in the nicest way possible, but considering Lanzing and Kelly wrote this, I’m surprised at how much I enjoyed it.  The writing duo are fine, don’t get me wrong, and I’ve read a few things of theirs that I genuinely enjoyed.  Star Trek: Year Five has been pretty great so far, for one, and given the thankless task of wrapping up Grayson after King and Seeley left, they did about as well as anyone could have under the circumstances.  Still, they’ve done some fill-in work here and there that’s never grabbed me, so I’m never sure what to expect with them.

Then again, give me some Batman punching Psycho-Pirate and I’m good.

The main idea here is that people have been seeing a mysterious guru who has helped them overcome their problems, and of course there’s something sinister just below the surface.  Lanzing and Kelly nail the cultish feeling of these meetings, with various people repeating the phrase “but now he helps me.”  It’s weird and unsettling, and it’s perfectly in line with Psycho-Pirate’s M.O.  Of course he would use his powers of persuasion to become some sort of sleazy cult leader.

Until Batman infiltrates it and ruins all of his fun, of course.

There’s not a lot of depth to the story, but it’s still plenty enjoyable with a pretty decent message.  Flipping the “he helps us” mantra on its head at the end to apply to Batman is a little on the nose, but eh, I don’t care.  He does help those in need, and I like that it’s being recognized.

Carlos D’Anda has turned in some really great, ultra-detailed work in the past, so seeing that it was him on pencils really took me by surprise.  It’s not bad by any stretch, it’s just a much simpler aesthetic than I’m used to with him.  I’m not sure if he’s easing up on the inks or if it’s Luis Guerrero’s colors that’s making a difference, but I quite liked it.  He uses shadow and silhouette really well, and is clear in his movement and panel progression.

I mean, Bruce makes his entrance as Batman while he’s standing, disguised, in the middle of a crowd until a missile falls on him and he emerges in his costume.  That is amazing.  Four stars.

This is an example of a pretty strong thesis that never gets fully realized.  Mairghread Scott has some great ideas about Riddler’s motivations and why he’s so obsessed with besting Batman, she just needed more time to explore it.

At face value, this is a pretty straightforward (inasmuch as it can be) showdown between Batman and the Riddler.  Nygma has set out riddles, and Batman must solve them to apprehend the fiend.  All the while this is occurring, there’s a running conversation between Nygma and a therapist, the latter of whom is trying to get to the bottom of the Riddler’s compulsions.

Again, good ideas, they just needed more than eight pages to explore them.  Giuseppe Camuncoli’s work is strong, as always, and the way he, Cam Smith, and Tomeu Morey stage the action is quite cinematic.  You really get the feeling that you’re watching a psychological thriller unfold, with the relatively “calm” conversation between Nygma and the therapist playing out over the perilous situations Batman finds himself in.  It’s never a bad thing that a story left you wanting more, especially if you want to see some themes and ideas explored further, but that’s also what keeps this from greatness.  This story is under-served by brevity, when it needed a higher page count to really make an impact.

This is another story that could have benefited from a few more pages, but it stands on its own a little bit better than the preceding story.  A lot of that has to do with it being focused on a smaller scale, and while it does provide some insight into its headlining villain, it’s not quite as lofty or ambitious as Scott’s.

But don’t take that as a slight.  Just because it’s not quite as deep doesn’t mean it’s by any means shallow either.  In fact, on a visceral level, this is one of the most morbidly entertaining stories I’ve read in some time, and I felt a little icky for liking it so much.

Given that it’s effectively “Saw but with Hugo Strange instead of Jigsaw,” I think that was Steve Orlando’s intent.

A small group of men are gathered in an(other) abandoned warehouse, each shackled to a strange machine.  The men are all dressed as Batman, and the means by which they’re attached to the machine vary: one man has explosives tied about his waist, while another has a bladed collar around his neck.  It is clear that the men are meant to find a way out of their respective deathtraps, but can they?

It’s disturbing and unsettling in equal measure, and you can tell that Eduardo Risso and Dave Stewart had a blast coming up with some gruesome endings for each of these faux-Batmen.  The great John Workman’s lettering only enhances the Grindhouse feel, making the proceedings feel like a pulpy yarn from back before the Comics Code was enforced.

If Scott’s exploration of the Riddler was too short because its ideas needed more room to breathe, this story is too short simply because I wanted more time in this slimy, lurid experiment.  Despite his pretensions, Hugo Strange is psychotic and possibly even more deranged than the people he studies.  Forcing some poor, hapless men to work their way out of a deathtrap so he can “learn more about the Batman” is absolutely something Strange would do, and on a baser level I kind of loved everything about this story.

First of all, look at how great that Bane is.  Man oh man is that impressive.

Oh, it’s Patrick Gleason?  That explains it.

In what is likely to be his last (interior) work for DC Comics before he becomes completely exclusive to Marvel, Gleason sure didn’t phone in his pencils.

That John Kalisz sure can color, too.  Dang.

I liked what Tim Seeley was going for here, but like Scott’s Riddler story, it didn’t quite land.  True to the title, this is about Bane’s hesitation to embrace the truth, as he’d rather live in a lie than face facts about his fears.  Strong thematic material, to be sure, but it’s over pretty quickly and never quite delivers on what it’s wanting to say.  Seeley’s dialogue is sharp, with Bane in particular having a commanding menace that still has shades of civility.  Again, I wanted more, which isn’t a bad thing.

Recommended if:

  • You want more Batman for your buck.
  • You would like to see Batman punch the Joker and Psycho-Pirate in the same issue.
  • You want to see great work from five very different but very good letterers.

Overall: A collection of good stories from some great creators, plain and simple.  There was lots of potential for greatness here, and while it wasn’t ever really achieved, everything contained within these pages is at the very least solid with pretty stellar artwork throughout.  I was sufficiently entertained, and genuinely wanted to read more from some of these creators.  I mean, Mairghread Scott exploring the Riddler’s compulsions, and Hugo Strange acting like a slasher movie villain?  Yes, please.  Batman Secret Files #2 is never as great as it could be, but it’s more than good as it is.

SCORE: 7/10