We’re back for another issue of Batman: Black & White. I always find myself eager to read these issues because I feel as though the stories focus on the core of what the character is and represents, without feeling the need to change the status quo or be the next big thing! Plus, you can always count on some phenomenal art, so it’s a win/win!
“The Unjust Judge”
Written by Tom King
Art by Mitch Gerads
Letters by Clayton Cowles
The first story in this collection is “The Unjust Judge.” It’s very “Tom King” in structure and presentation, and he leans heavily on many of the writing techniques that became overused in his Batman run. So, depending on your opinion of his work there, that could decide how much you like or dislike this story. As for me, personally, I enjoyed this quite a bit.
Yes, we get King’s predictable poem/song narrating the scene. We also get a page of Batman lingering in a defeatist attitude… But they’re brief, play well into the theme, and are ultimately a minor complaint in the grand scheme of things.
A church in Gotham has caught fire, and the priest is working tirelessly to save the children residing in the church. He’s elderly, and it’s unclear at first how successful he is in getting the children to safety. As he runs back in, the church collapses on top of him, turning this incident into a rescue mission for Batman. As it turns out, rescue may not be what the priest needs, and, more importantly, rescuing him may not be what Batman needs either.
To be frank, this is a beautiful issue, and Mitch Gerads does a lot of heavy lifting here. That’s not a knock on Tom King. I’ve always felt that these black and white issues are intended to let the artist shine, and King graciously lets Gerads take the spotlight.
The duo utilizes the nine-panel grid, and that provides Gerads the opportunity to really dive into the visual storytelling. The decision to execute this layout gives the art room to breathe, and allows us, the readers, the chance to sit in the moment and let what’s taking place resonate. Gerads manages to add an emotional punch to many of his panels here, and I absolutely love it!
There was recently a debate on Twitter concerning “floating heads” and whether they’re effective, and how much is too much. Ironically, I think this story lends to both ends of that argument. There are pages where Gerads will feature a character multiple times, but approaches each panel from a different angle or perspective, and highlights something unique. And then there are panels where you see the same face, and the only difference is a micro-expression. I find the former highly effective, and the latter less effective.
One page that I felt missed the mark is the page where Batman breaks through the floor of the church to get to the priest. We get two perspectives here. The perspective of the “4th wall” where we can see the priest, and then the priest’s perspective as he watches Batman break through the upper-level floor. Most of these panels barely look different from one another, and at a quick glance can look as though it were a copy and paste. I actually found the subtlety of Batman breaking through the floor effective because you experience the slow, tiring fight of it. The panels of the priest, however, were less effective, and I can’t help but feel that it would’ve been more effective to showcase other features.
In total, there are four panels of the priest’s face on this page. I think the first and fourth are perfect. The second and third, however, fall into that argument of “too much” for me. Were I the editor, I would have recommended that these panels show the priest reaching into his pocket, and then pulling out his rosary – a literal sign of him reaching for faith. This also would have played into the panels of the rosary later in the story.
But seriously, this is knit picking. This is my complaint. And despite bringing up this one “opportunity,” there are three or four other pages that are absolutely perfect. And I mean that sincerely. There are a few pages here that I would absolutely love to hang on my wall, and none of them more so than the final page which is equally moving and breathtaking.
“The Unjust Judge” score: 9/10
“All Cats Are Grey”
By Sophie Campbell
Where “The Unjust Judge” featured heavy themes and highly detailed art, Sophie Campbell changes things up to deliver a more-simplified, fun story. Heck, you might even say it’s kind of cute. “All Cats Are Grey” is your standard cat-and-mouse chase between Batman and Catwoman. As far as the story itself is concerned, there’s nothing new from a plot perspective, but Campbell does have some fun towards the end of the story by playing with her colors… or… well… the lack thereof.
I’m not familiar with Campbell’s work and was happy to find her work quite refreshing. It literally put a smile on my face. There’s something about this art style that I’ve come to find respect and enjoy more and more over time. The characters aren’t overly detailed, so that hyper-realism isn’t at play when it comes to the “acting,” and there are times that I find it to be more effective as a result. And instead of putting detail into the characters themselves, detail can be added to the scenery to help build and define the world.
There was a moment when reading this where I did feel that Campbell started using too much “white space.” If I’m being honest, I initially thought this was laziness or a symptom of meeting the deadline, but a soon realized the increased use of white space was actually part of the narrative. In fact, I’d say it was quite clever, and a bold move for an artist to make. Kudos Mrs. Campbell! Very fitting for a Catwoman story: clever and bold.
“All Cats Are Grey” score: 7.5/10
Written by Gabriel Hardin and Corinna Bechko
Art by Gabriel Hardman
Letters by Troy Peteri
“The Spill” is a bit of a conundrum for me. Overall, it’s fine. Actually, it’s a little better than fine. But it is an example of where the script completely falls short while the art is quite good. Now, full disclosure, this is a Joker story, and I think part of my story is just that… This is a Joker story. We’ve had way too much of the Joker lately, so the moment he’s mentioned, I rolled my eyes. Look, I get it. I get it! The Joker is considered to be Batman’s greatest villain. I understand the draw to write him if you get to write a Batman story – especially if you don’t write Batman or don’t foresee yourself ever writing Batman… But the Joker is a hard character to write, and in addition to him being oversaturated at the moment, most interpretations haven’t been great… Including this one.
This story features Batman chasing the Joker before getting caught in an explosion. The explosion leaves Batman trapped under the Batmobile, in a race against time to free himself before a damn gives way drowning him. Is it a bit of a trope? Sure. Did it feel predictable? Yes. Was I suddenly intrigued when the Joker popped back up to revel in the fact that Batman is trapped, the bomb wasn’t his (Joker’s) doing, and now Batman is left incapable to protect the city from a completely different threat? Yes!
But wait… Didn’t I just say I was sick of the Joker? I did… And I’ll get there. But from a plotting standpoint, I liked the idea of this. I thoroughly enjoy that the Joker is amused that chaos is unraveling all over the city. And I enjoy the fact that he’s even more gleeful at the opportunity to taunt Batman about it since Batman is trapped. But… That’s where my excitement ends.
See, as much as I like the idea of this, the execution is just mediocre. The delicious dialogue one should expect from Joker is void, and all that’s left is your standard dribble. If you’re going to write the Joker, give him some dialogue that he can chew on. Everything here is paint-by-numbers, and one might argue that a boring Joker is worse than a bad Joker. And then, you know, the story unfolds pretty much as you would expect, so there’s nothing exciting from a plot standpoint either.
Gabriel Hardman’s art, however, is damn good. His work is another dip into the hyper-detailed approach to visual storytelling, and his framing of panels has a cinematic nature to them. No surprise, really, considering his tenure as a storyboard artist. But it’s his use of shadows and the overall texture of his art that really let his work shine. I’d definitely be ok with DC utilizing him more!
“The Spill” score: 6.5/10
By Dustin Weaver
Letters by Todd Klein
“Dual” is probably my least favorite story of the bunch, but it’s also the most ambitious. I feel like that needs to be stated because… well… credit for swinging big. Dustin Weaver tries to do a deep-dive, theme-driven, character study, and the execution just falls short for me. The thing is, I’m not certain it’s a situation of him being incapable of delivering what he was going for – or at least well – but that he merely bit off more than he can chew for such a short story.
Batman has been plagued with an imposter. For six nights, Gotham has benefited from the presence of another vigilante, but with each passing night, that vigilante’s tactics become more and more extreme, before becoming downright evil. Who is this vigilante? The White Bat.
Conceptually, I’m on-board up until this point. I like the juxtaposition and boldness of what Weaver is doing. As much as the White Bat is a representation of Batman, he’s equally a shadow-self or mockery of Batman. Batman is a symbol of darkness fighting for good. White Bat is a symbol of good that is bringing darkness. None of this is new, but this presentation feels different enough that it’s intriguing.
Then, unfortunately, it is revealed that White Bat looks and sounds exactly like Bruce. Aware that this was attempting to be a bit of a deep dive, I found myself audibly saying, “Oh… I see where this is going,” in a rather defeated tone. See, the idea isn’t bad, but the brevity of the story doesn’t allow for nuance, and the results in Weaver inadvertently showing his hand way too early. When I reached the end of the story, I almost wanted to look around the room at other people reading the same story just to see their reaction. It’s the curiosity in me. Will people read it and have an “Ohhhh….” moment, only for me to be like, “Yeah, I don’t need to say ‘Oh.’ I put two-and-two together before the end.” Or would I look up to a room of people silently verifying, “You saw that coming too?”
This all probably sounds harsher than I intend it to, but the exploration of Batman, his actions, and the indirect result or outcome of those actions is nothing new. We’ve seen it plenty of times, presented through various vehicles, and there’s just something missing here. I couldn’t fully place my finger on what that was after my first read, and I still can’t quite pin it down after my fourth read. It is what it is.
Now, on the art front, I really appreciate the “throwback” nature of Weaver’s art. His choices are definitely reminiscent of the time that reared his career, and there are times that I miss that. Also, this man creates some beautifully detailed backgrounds. Gotham looks and feels like a real city with an actual identity. We don’t always get that in modern comics. Also, he draws one hell of a Batman! And brownie points for choosing the yellow oval!
“Batman: Dual” score: 6/10
“The Devil is in the Detail”
By David Aja
Saving the best for last, we end this issue with “The Devil is in the Detail” by David Aja. Head and shoulders, this is the best story in the collection. The execution, the story, the nuance, the art… Even the presentation. This story is perfect! The one thing you’ll notice immediately is the newspaper format and aesthetic. From a historical aspect, I respect and appreciate this so much, but it also works from an artistic standpoint as well considering the noir nature of this story.
The moment I read the dialogue from the opening panel, I knew I was hooked. “Gotham City. Where the smell of garbage and putrid waste in its streets is as deep as the smell of fear. Some say this place is hell. But hell is fire and brimstone. This city is frigid and rot.” I mean, take my breath away. Between this and the art that I could already see… It was clear this would be class work!
I often talk about the craft of writing. Writing is more than just telling a story or plotting. Words and sentence structure are important. Dialogue is key. It can be the very thing that elevates a story from “decent” to “excellent.” It’s apparent Aja was hyper-aware of his language here, and how he structured not only his sentences, but the actual narrative is well. This isn’t just work for hire, it’s an actual craft. An art.
The story sees Batman investigating a string of murders, and despite the short page-count, still manages to pack a wallop of detective work into it. What so many writers struggle to do within an arc, Aja accomplishes effortlessly in mere pages. In fact, there’s more story and detail crammed into these eight pages, than I can remember being in any recent arc from the main Batman title.
What’s crazy, is there really isn’t anything “special” about the story itself. It’s not overcome with a need to be different or subvert expectations. It’s you’re standard murder mystery with plots that are very reminiscent of Batman. The only difference here is that there’s an entire subplot involving the occult that comes into play, and that provides a uniqueness to the story without having to completely change everything we know about the character.
This is how you write comics!
The art is impeccable as well! When I first saw the artwork, I thought it was actually Jorge Fornes, and then I realized that the proportions for Batman were a little different than what Fornes typically draws. And the sequential storytelling is a masterclass. We get so much plot and narrative without a single word being spoken. So not only do you have a script that is expertly written, but the art is equally as strong. There isn’t a single panel that I dislike, and that’s saying something.
Aja isn’t new to comics by any means, but this is his debut with DC Comics, and as far as debuts are concerned, he knocked it out of the park!
“The Devil is in the Detail” score: 10/10
- If you’re a fan of Batman, then this is a must-buy for you!
- Are you looking for incredible art? Then look no further!
- David Aja’s debut at DC Comics is something worth owning.
There is something special about Batman: Black & White. The pressures of an on-going aren’t in the way. Editorial isn’t issuing mandates. The stories are brief, yet impactful. The art is always top-notch. What more could you honestly ask for in a comic book? And with DC acting a little more fast and loose with taking risks, who knows what we could see develop from these stories? If you’re not picking this title up monthly, then you’re missing out.