Whenever we get a copy of Batman Secret Files, it’s usually a gamble on whether or not we’ll get more than one good story. Unlike these epic, anniversary issues, DC doesn’t really pull in their top talent for this. They just use it as an opportunity to showcase some of the up-and-coming talent – especially as far as writers are concerned. That’s not an insult to the people contributing here, just the reality. Writing is a craft, and it takes time and experience to hone that craft. And who knows, today’s new talent could be tomorrow’s next big thing! The point is, I’ve found that it’s better to come into this with lower expectations, but hope for the best. Discover the talent that you like from these collections, then support that talent to the best of your ability.
Anyway, for this collection, each story depicts Batman’s first encounter with the assassins that Tynion used at the beginning of his Batman run. Unfortunately, only one story really added anything to the characters for me, so consider this foreshadowing.
“Don’t Hold Your Breath” ft. Cheshire
The first story in the collection is written by Vita Ayala, with art by Andie Tong. This story captures Batman’s first encounter with Cheshire when she targets a rich activist in Gotham City. For the most part, it’s your standard story that you would expect when Cheshire is involved. She has a target, Batman plans to stop her, she’s going to use her poisons… You get the idea.
For whatever reason, instead of simply stopping Cheshire, Batman uses this as an opportunity to try and convince her that she doesn’t need to be evil, and that she can be good… And I don’t understand why. I mean, I understand wanting to reason with people, but I do think Batman is much better at being aware of who is and isn’t open to the idea of this. People open to reform typically show signs of this. We don’t get any of that here. Batman meets Cheshire and automatically moves into a, “It doesn’t have to be this way…” speech… And nothing about it feels authentic.
I mean, at this point, Batman knows who Cheshire is, how she’s trained, and how many kills she has. Then, for no logical reason, he decides to try and reason with her before stopping her. Aside from feeling unauthentic, it also felt as though Ayala was trying too hard. I get what Ayala was going for, but it just didn’t land.
There is, however, a fun little twist at the end that I did appreciate as Cheshire gets an upper hand on Batman. I felt like that was handled quite well, and I enjoyed Bruce’s moment with Leslie Thompkins… But I practically love any chance I get to see Leslie!
As for the art, I’m a huge fan and Andie Tong’s work here! I wasn’t familiar with him coming into this, but damn… He’s so good! Between the character work and the storytelling, he definitely has a strong craft, and I have no doubt that it will only get better with time. There are elements of his work that remind me of David Marquez and Jorge Jimenez, so that should say something. Give this guy a regular schedule, stat!
“Hunters” ft. Merlyn
The next story on the slate teams Batman with Green Arrow, as the two try to track down Merlyn in Gotham City. Written by Phillip Kennedy Johnson, with art by Victor Ibanez and colors by Jordie Bellaire, this is definitely one of the stronger stories in the collection. Right off the bat, it’s fun to see Batman and Green Arrow together, and I really enjoy the banter created between the two – the cape and age gags are pretty damn funny. It’s clear Johnson has a solid grasp on who these characters are, and he tailors his story around that.
After discovering that Merlyn has come to Gotham, Batman calls on Green Arrow knowing the two have a history together. Ollie explains to Bruce how Merlyn operates and thinks, and differentiates Merlyn’s approach compared to another assassin. According to Ollie, Merlyn doesn’t just kill someone, he hunts them. He takes his time, watches his prey, learns their habits, and then he strikes… And that’s exactly what he does here.
Batman has to rescue a young girl from a burning building. It’s clear the entire set-up is a trap, but he goes in anyway. As you might expect, Merlyn launches his assault from there, and it’s a test of whether or not Batman will survive to save the girl… Yes, it’s a Batman book, we know he survives, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t anything to take away from this story.
Ultimately, this story has very little to do with Merlyn, and everything to do with Batman and his resilience. We always get stories about what Batman endures, and there are times where writes fail to edit themselves, and hence you get those pesky Bat-god conversations. Well, this is definitely not one of those moments! While Johnson definitely puts Batman through the ringer, it never feels as though it’s too much or unbelievable, and it’s all in how he has the encounter play out.
The story is beautifully illustrated by Victor Ibanez with colors by Jordie Bellaire. Ibanez clearly has a bright future in comics, and I love the texture and grittiness he brings to his art. In fact, I’d say the balance between cleanliness and the grit that he brings is perfect for a street-level hero – something Bellaire definitely honed in to and elevated.
The thing I was most impressed with though, is the range of emotions and expressions Ibanez delivered. Typically, I find that this is what artists struggle the most with. Too often characters look dead or emotionless in the face, but he adds so much storytelling through expression here! Even the impact of blows or arrows… It’s genuinely great work all around, and I can’t wait to see more of him!
“Muted” ft. Mr. Teeth
My least favorite entry for this collection comes from Mariko Tamaki and Riley Rossmo. This story features Mr. Teeth… and… There’s really not much to this story at all. Basically, Mr. Teeth has entered someone’s home and about to kill them, before Batman stops him. The story is less focused on Mr. Teeth, and instead his target.
The approach is intended to be similar to horror films or slasher flicks, and the idea is that the panels are building suspense, but it didn’t really work for me. I think it’s hard to build suspense in this way for this medium.
All of the heavy-lifting here is done by Rossmo. Generally speaking, I’m not the biggest fan of his aesthetic. I respect it, it’s just not my cup of tea. That being said, I don’t think he presents his best work here. Everything featuring the victim and her cat looks and feels rushed, but the “horror” elements are done incredibly well!
Ultimately, though, this story just fails to deliver anything worthwhile. We don’t learn anything new about Mr. Teeth, nor do we really get much of a plot… It was just a letdown, and I feel the creative team could’ve done so much more.
“Afraid of America” ft. Gunsmith
Wow. Wow! Wow! Dan Watters and John Paul Leon… This is some quality craftsmanship here! Before I get into anything, I often talk about a creator’s craft in my reviews. There’s more to writing than just delivering a story. There’s more to art than just pretty pictures… This story proves that point! From the script to the art, the work here is masterclass, and I want to see more of these two together! Give them a book, get out of their way, and just let them create, because I promise you, you’ll get classic stories that will be revered for decades.
Alright, let me hop off of my soapbox now. “Afraid of America” showcases Batman’s first encounter with Gunsmith after Gotham City holds a gun buy-back program to help get guns off the street. Seeing it as an opportunity, Gunsmith decides to infiltrate and takes these guns, but knowing it will catch the attention of Batman, he decides to take some hostages as leverage.
The story seems simple enough, but I’ll be damned if it doesn’t pack some heavy punches. What’s really interesting, is that when Tynion first launched his run, Gunsmith was the assassin that I was least interested in. He just seemed like your stereotypical jarhead/ redneck (I say that with love as I consider myself a redneck in many ways – East Texan here), and I didn’t find him interesting. After reading this book, I want more Gunsmith. And this is what separates a strong quality writer from a good storyteller. Watters delivers so much nuance and detail, giving us insight into how Gunsmith plans his missions, his mindset, and how he prepares for variables that might come into play. I absolutely love it.
The story flashes back and forth between the encounter and Gunsmith sharing the story with someone. I love the slight arrogance that Watters and JPL create with him, but more importantly, the slightest realization that his arrogance stems from the fact that he knows he’ll be successful because people will view him as nothing more than a jarhead/redneck. It’s the slightest little tinge, but it’s present.
There’s also a subplot concerning one of the hostages, how he responds to the situation, and his fear that he will become a target of Batman’s because of what he ultimately chooses to do out of desperation. I can’t stress how good this is! I don’t even want to get into details, I just want you to read the story, because you deserve to experience it!
More than anything, as a writer and as a fan, I appreciate how much thought went into crafting this story. Over the past year, I’m sure I’ve come off as an asshole, endlessly yelling, “work your story!” in my reviews… So, this… This restored my faith in the craft of writing. I’m not familiar with Dan Watters or his work, but you better believe I’m about to look up other books of his and buy them!
As for JPL… Well, I’ve been singing your praises ever since I discovered your work on the “Terminal” story you did during the New 52.
DC… Seriously… Just ask these two men what they would like to do, and let them do it!
“Fool’s Gold” ft. Deathstroke
And, from one extreme to the next… While I loved “Afraid of America,” I feel like we take a turn for the worst here, and it’s all because of execution. James Tynion teams with Sumit Kumar for this story, and, across the board, I feel as though the work is just mediocre.
“Fool’s Gold” showcases more of the fight between Batman and Deathstroke from Batman #86 that many readers felt they were cheated from experiencing… but after reading this, I wish we would have just left things as they were. The action, honestly, it just there to be there, and it shows.
The point of this story is to showcase how the Joker recruits Deathstroke for his mission. Surprise, surprise! I’m not really a fan. I don’t really find any of the character portrayals, and instead of focusing on making this interesting, Tynion just does it. I don’t believe the Joker’s approach, and I don’t believe Slade’s reason for joining. It all seems forced. And because there really isn’t a story worth telling here – I mean, there could’ve been, but it wasn’t thought out very well – we’re left with a writer trying to tell us something when he has nothing to say. It’s a shame, and ties back to many of the comments I made in my review for Batman #92.
As for the art, Kumar’s work is fine, but he needs a lot of finesse. While I think the storytelling aspect of his work is solid – which I will say is the most important job of an artist – his aesthetic is very inconsistent. Characters look different from panel to panel, and there are hardly any backgrounds. It’s hard to make a believable world that feels real and lived in when 90% of your panels are just splashes of color.
- You want to learn more about the assassins featured early in Tynion’s Batman run.
- Pick this up for the Gunsmith and Merlyn stories
Overall: When all is said and done, I don’t really know if there’s much substance or reason to justify buying this book. On one hand, stories like “Afraid of America” are well worth the cost of this book on its own – seriously, the work from Dan Watters and Jon Paul Leon is a masterpiece – but then there’s a whole lot of mediocre and subpar work here as well. The art, in general, stands head-and-shoulders above everything else, so maybe get it for that reason. If you haven’t learned to fully appreciate art in comics yet, then this book isn’t for you.