Comics? On a Tuesday? It’s more likely than you think – and, apparently, the new norm for comic distribution at the moment. I’m going to have to check how my LCS in Australia is handling this, but this seems to be when reviews will be uploaded for the foreseeable future! It’s nice to get back in the habit of writing proper articles for this website again.

Unfortunately, I might find getting back in the swing of things to be a little tricky… because Criminal Sanity is definitely one of the harder books I have to review.

Make no mistake, “hard” is a good thing in a lot of ways. This book is competent and carefully crafted, with clear effort put into it from both the writer, Kami Garcia, and the artists, Jason Badower and Mico Suayan. As a result, pinning down what I dislike about the story, where I feel it falters, and what I think it does right, takes effort to explain; it’s not as simple as pointing at a stupid panel and calling it stupid. This book, whether in the way it wants to be or not, certainly is challenging. The question is if that challenge is rewarding or not.

Take this opening, for example. Yet again, I’m reminded of how strangely the issues are structured, where beginnings and endings feel arbitrary, rather than like real chapter breaks. Here is the final panel of issue three: 

This is followed by Quinn’s profile of “Unidentified Suspect”, who we assume through context clues to be the Joker (yet may be a second killer, according to the description of the next issue?). This isn’t much of a chapter conclusion, but sure, it sets up where we need to be in the next issue. At the start of said issue, though, we open with this single page from Mico Suayan:

To me, this is not the start of a new issue. Harley is referencing dictation tapes that she received about halfway through issue 3, and for a person reading the entire story in one sitting, the transition would not be so egregious; it’s just Harley giving the police her psychological profile, then walking home to listen to the tapes. However, as someone who hasn’t read the last issue in three months? This took some time to realign myself to. Not only that, but after just one page of Suayan’s work, we cut to a silent two page spread from Jason Badower (before immediately returning to Suayan). 

Make no mistake, these are not bad scenes: I like the intrigue, and I like the eerie atmosphere Garcia and the artists marinate the pages in. I like how they frame the characters as if they’re always being observed, and I like seeing Wayne Tower glimmering in the misty distance, as Joker approaches a sinister building. In terms of atmosphere, I seriously enjoy these pages – but I don’t think they’re how you’d begin a story if you’re writing this to be read issue to issue. There’s no stinger, no strong impact to the beginning or end of each chapter; just a single thread cut off before we can follow it to its conclusion. There aren’t even chapter titles for each issue! While the ending to this issue does provide something of a good cliffhanger, this isn’t a common feature of this story. Criminal Sanity is played as if you should read it all at once, which is fine, but it begs the question: why pick up the issues at all, and why not wait for a trade? Why SHOULDN’T I read it all at once?

Hooh. Okay, that’s out of my system.

What’s funny is I didn’t even dislike this issue. I had my usual issues with the writing, but there’s some fun to be found here if you separate yourself from the realism that it seems to be aiming for. Here’s a scene that exemplifies what I’m talking about, where Harley interrogates Firefly – getting information from him that the police couldn’t get, simply by playing with a lighter in front of him.

This is a fun scene with some good visual material, the fire creating an alluring image that almost draws you in as much as Firefly is (props to Badower* for the wonderful panel composition on his face around the fire). Even the dialogue is pretty good – it’s a genuinely compelling scene on the surface. It’s only once you start asking questions that it gets frustrating: like, why did Harley ask for a cigarette and place it on the desk, only for it never to be seen again? This is where my fault with the story lies: I’m not sure if I should be viewing this as a completely realistic and accurate crime drama, or a police thriller that’s happy to embrace its tropes and unrealistic quirks.

But, again, I liked a lot of this issue. More than ever, I think the tone is starting to shine through, and that’s thanks to some seriously good artwork. Suayan does some excellent work here, with a level of detail in the scenery that’s to be admired. While my criticisms about his fight choreography remain, his use of filling in shadows and darker spaces with a deep black creates a wonderful sense of dread throughout the book. I’m also very glad that Badower now has such a major place in the artwork for this story! A scene between a young John and his father might normally be clunky and stilted, but the acting Badower manages to paint on the characters’ faces elevates the page, especially when coupled with the sinister image of John overlooking a Gotham bridge.

On top of this, issue #4 contains my favourite scene in Criminal Sanity so far: it’s a great mix of wonderful art, impressive setpieces, and that sense of dread the creators are trying to layer into the story, without even having to say a word. I actually don’t want to spoil the scene, so I’ll post a panel from it out of context, so that you know it when you see it:

To me, none of the criticisms I’ve levied at the comic have really been improved yet – but Garcia, Suayan and Badower are slowly introducing elements to the book that are growing on me. If they lean into that, and really nail down the eerie tone of the story, I think this book could seriously pick up in its second half.

Recommended If:

  • You’d like to see your faith in this book rewarded with a level of improvement.
  • You’re the type of person that likes really messed up serial killer art. 
  • Naturalism is an art style you’d like to see more of in comics.

Overall

I understand that people have disagreed with me on my assessment of this series, but I hope I’ve been able to articulate how I feel about it; at least, well enough for people to understand where I’m coming from. While I’m still not a big fan, this issue gives me hope that I’ll have a good time with the rest of the series – if it embraces the fact that the “realism” of the story isn’t where I’m having fun. 

Score: 6.5/10

*A Correction: The initial version of this review mistook some of Jason Badower’s art for Mico Suayan’s, and I apologize for the mixup. I was initially under the impression that Suayan was tackling all of the black and white scenes, with Badower handling the colored pages – but I understand now that the distinction isn’t so clear cut. Comics are a collaborative medium, and while it speaks to the consistency in realism that the book is accomplishing, it’s my job to know these distinctions, and to be honest when I make mistakes. I’ll be sure to keep a keener eye out in the coming issues!

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Disclaimer: DC Comics provided Batman News with a copy of this comic for the purpose of this review.

Author’s Twitter: @ObnoxiousFinch