If a hero is only as good as his villains, then Batman is a pretty good hero. He’s one of the few characters in pop culture whose antagonists are just as popular with the general audience as he is, to the point that you could ask practically anyone to name five Batman villains and they’d have no problem doing so. Catwoman, Riddler, and Penguin have always been popular and will continue to be in the spotlight when Matt Reeves’ The Batman hits cinemas in 2022, Joker is practically synonymous with Batman and even inspired a movie of his own, and characters like Two-Face, Scarecrow, Poison Ivy, and even Bane are practically household names. What a world.
So it only makes sense that DC would publish a one-shot comic celebrating the various ne’er-do-wells of Gotham City. And with talent like Dan Mora, Mairghread Scott, Phillip Kennedy Johnson, G. Willow Wilson, and Danny “yes, that one” DeVito attached, it should at the very least be worth checking out. You’ll have to read on to find out if that’s the case, though, because there’s a lot of material here.
The Penguin in “Bird Cat Love”
Here’s a story where the “what” is easy to define, but not so much the “why”.
“What” is it? It’s a Penguin story, written by Danny DeVito, illustrated by Dan Mora, colored by Tamra Bonvillain, lettered by Troy Peteri, where the Penguin and Catwoman fall in love and save the world from a pandemic.
See? Not so hard.
Some of the “whys” are easy, particular when it comes to the creative team. DeVito is well known for having played the Penguin in Batman Returns, and is a celebrated actor, writer, director, and producer besides. “Why wouldn’t he be tapped to write a Penguin story?” would be a better question. And with Mora, Bonvillain, and Peteri, the rest of the creative team speaks for itself. Individually, those artists are geniuses at their respective crafts, but together? That’s something truly special.
So the “why” applies more to the story than anything, but it’s a pretty big “why” just the same. Or rather, a string of multiple “whys” in a row, until you reach the very end of the story and are just left dumbstruck.
That it isn’t an inherently bad story actually makes it all the more disappointing, because quite a bit of the dialogue has a self-aware campiness that makes it read almost like an issue of Batman ’66. The frequent rhyming and alliteration evoke the melodramatic musings of Desmond Doomsday, and left me laughing when I wasn’t otherwise confused.
But that brings us back to… why? Why are Penguin and Catwoman in love? Why are they the only two who are brave/smart/altruistic enough to save the world? If this is supposed to be a fantastical daydream of the Penguin’s, the proof is nowhere to be found in the text, so we’re left to assume that this is played straight. It’s as wonderful to look at as you’d hoped, to be sure, and it veers so close to campy brilliance that it almost works.
Alas, it does not, because “Bird Cat Love” doesn’t know what it’s supposed to be, and why.
Scarecrow in “The Fearless Man”
The idea of the Scarecrow as the head of a cult is kind of silly, and not the type of silly I appreciate. Rather, the idea of the Scarecrow as the active head of a cult is silly, as it’s just a bit too far removed from “jerk professor who likes to prey on people’s fears” for my liking. I see how a writer would get to that point, because cult leaders prey on the weaknesses of others, but Jonathan Crane just doesn’t strike me as the kind of guy who would pay close attention to followers, if he were to have them.
Maybe that’s just me, but that’s one aspect that kept me at arms-length with “The Fearless Man” here.
An idea that’s present that I loved, though, is that there is one person that Crane has never been able to corrupt with his toxins and experiments: Dick Grayson. Sure, that, the athleticism, and use of cool sticks as weapons further promote the idea that Nightwing and Daredevil are surface level analogs of each other, but they’re right at the top of my list of favorite characters so I’ll let it slide.
Wes Craig pulls double-duty here, illustrating his own script, and he does a better job at the former than the latter. I really dug his layouts and visual storytelling, which were bolstered by Jason Wordie’s purposefully limited palette and some really creative caption box designs from Deron Bennett, but the writing is full of purple prose and comes across as a bit too flowery. Some of the ideas work, some don’t, and the overall execution just misses the mark, until we’re left with a pretty ambiguous ending that almost seems unrelated to the preceding story.
Poison Ivy in “Ophiocordyceps Lamia”
If “The Fearless Man” was full of concepts I’m not a fan of with an end result that didn’t work for me, “Ophiocordyceps Lamia” is also full of concepts I don’t particularly dig… but I still kind of enjoyed it.
I’ve never been a fan of a superpowered Poison Ivy. The absolute most I feel she should veer into “metahuman” status should be an immunity or resistance toward toxins, but even then that’s not a defining characteristic for her. Making her an agent of the Green or being able to commune and converse with plants is just kind of boring, as I feel her limitations as an otherwise ordinary human are far more interesting than bestowing her with powers. She’s an ecoterrorist who would just as soon wipe out humanity to have innocent plant life take over, so I really don’t like it when she’s a hero either, anti- or otherwise. Even if you can understand her point in the broad strokes, the means through which she wants to reach her ends are not at all altruistic.
G. Willow Wilson keeps Ivy firmly in the former, as she’s able to manipulate plants and spores and the like, but also does not shy away from showing her as a particularly heartless villain, which is pretty refreshing. She targets a chemical plant that’s been dumping toxins into the surrounding landscape– again, not faulting her for wanting to put a stop to this– and seeks to bring it down by poisoning everyone inside with a particularly nasty fungus.
In the best way, she’s cruel and focused, barely taking notice of any of the lives she’s prematurely ending through her actions. That is, until she encounters a blonde who reminds her of… but no, not her.
Wilson relays a lot of information about the titular fungus without bogging down the story in dry terminology. Rios and Bellaire work together wonderfully, combining simple and clean lines with a deliberate use of color, and as with Bennett’s lettering on the previous story, Otsmane-Elhaou makes great use of oddly-shaped word balloons and different background colors to make each character distinct. Even if it’s not all around an Ivy story that I thought I’d want to read, this is crafted well and held my attention from beginning to end, so it gets a fairly strong recommendation.
Red Hood in “For the Sky is Red”
Speaking of interesting ideas, “For the Sky is Red” here seeks to make the Red Hood an underworld icon, an idea, a symbol that can never be killed.
That it isn’t completely successful is due more to the execution than anything, as is the case with most of the stories in this collection, but I at least applaud the creators for trying. It’s not that much of a stretch to take the Red Hood guise and turn it into a bogeyman character that any gangster or villain could use to their own desire, making the name a perversion of a common belief about Batman’s modus operandi. After all, is he really a single man, or a number of men with the same goal, seeking to eradicate crime?
In a way, this might make a decent companion piece to The Long Halloween and other Loeb/Sale stories, because Max Fiumara’s pencils reminded me a lot of Sale’s style, particularly in the flashbacks. The muted colors used were evocative of certain scenes in TLH and Dark Victory, and Fiumara’s design for the main character looked like Sale’s take on the Maronis.
Where it falls short is in the overarching story, which is bookended by the narrator being grilled by some other criminal thugs as he tries to make his case. Again, the idea isn’t bad, but the story is too long-winded for its own good, and there really aren’t any stakes. I guess we’re supposed to root for the narrator, because the story is being told from his perspective? But even still, just because the thematic ideas are intriguing doesn’t mean I have an actual reason to care.
Mad Hatter in “The Perfect Fit”
This one’s short and sweet, and I almost loved it until the very end, when it’s made clear this is just a set up for another book. That’s been my problem with Urban Legends and… well, far too many books right now, as nothing really stands on its own anymore. And it’s not even a case of everything feeling interconnected and like they’re pieces to a larger puzzle. No, too many stories and even entire issues feel like teasers for something else, so there’s a constant sense of escalation with no actual payoff.
Still, I enjoyed “The Perfect Fit” while it lasted, even if it doesn’t really end. Spanning a scant six pages, “The Perfect Fit” finds Robin on the trail of the Mad Hatter, after a body is found twisted up inside a doll house. It’s pretty gruesome, which can be taken too far sometimes, but what makes it work is we don’t actually see the violence and gore. Despite some excellent work from Skylar Partridge and Marissa Louise, the true horror of the scene comes from Dan Watters’ descriptions rather than through violent images, which makes it all the more disturbing.
It all leads to Robin discovering some tech that could allow the Mad Hatter to broadcast mind control waves around the world, which is fine. Basic bad guy plotting, so it works just fine. The main problem is that it just stops without actually ending, with a caption telling you to read this other book to see the rest of the story. I’d be remiss to not mention the legendary Rob Leigh’s excellent captions for Damian, the first one of which has a little R symbol along with those nifty little laces that run down the tunic, so that knocks up the score a point or so.
Killer Moth in “The Happiest Man in Gotham”
Now this is what I came to see. A nice, short, isolated story about one of Batman’s less-respected villains? One that doesn’t take itself too seriously, doesn’t tie into anything else, and has a welcome sense of earnestness? Sign. Me. Up.
While dear old Drury Walker may be loaded, he doesn’t quite have what it takes to be top dog among Gotham’s criminal elite.
And frankly, he’s come to love that. Not everyone can be “one of the greats,” and not everyone needs to be either. Let the Joker and Penguin and Poison Ivy and Two-Face get all of the press; once they’re taken in, someone else needs to come in and clean up the mess. He may be seen as a parasite, but Moth can make off with the scraps that the big guns passed over, and still get a decent cut.
It’s an interesting perspective, and honestly incredibly refreshing to read, thanks to Mairghread Scott’s delightful script and the combined contributions of Ariela Kristantina, Trish Mulvihill, and Ariana Maher. In a day and age where every single villain has their sights set on taking down the Bat and taking over Gotham or whatever, it’s nice to see a criminal who has some perspective. Like he says, someone has to pick up all the loose bills that were lost in a bank robbery. Why not him? It’s kind of admirable, if you think about it.
Except for all the crime, that is.
Ra’s Al Ghul in “Demon’s Game”
Ready for a spicy take? Ra’s Al Ghul is one of Batman’s greatest villains on paper, but hardly anyone writes interesting stories about him. Practically every Al Ghul plot revolves around Ra’s trying to win Batman to his cause, succumbing to the effects of his advanced age, or a combination of the two. There’s only so much you can do with Lazarus Pits and the Al Ghul legacy before everything becomes old hat.
To put it bluntly: Ra’s has gotten kind of boring.
I know, I know. The hottest of takes.
If anyone can bucks that trend, though, it’s Philip Kennedy Johnson. Whether it’s the incredible worldbuilding he accomplished with The Last God, or the great character work (and also incredible worldbuilding) he’s been doing in Action Comics, Johnson is a great fit for a character as storied and complex as Ra’s.
And he almost succeeds. Almost.
Joined by his The Last God co-creator Riccardo Federici, Federici’s collaborator Sunny Gho, and the brilliant Saida Temofonte, the team craft a pretty compelling game of chess between Batman and Ra’s. The dialogue is sharp and pointed, with enough substance that it doesn’t just come off like “yet another Ra’s and Batman showdown,” and the stellar artwork is haunting in its realism.
The story’s major flaw is its ties to a recent Batman/Superman special, where a world from the Dark Multiverse was explored. In it, Batman and Talia Al Ghul have become tyrants, and their children are their own personal guard of Dark Knights. The quality of the writing and storytelling isn’t the issue, but the mere fact that I have no desire to read about evil versions of heroes. Definitely not now, and maybe not ever again.
So being closely connected to this story doesn’t fill me with excitement, especially when this team could craft a story on the same level as Son of the Demon without the need to be shackled to any sort of canon. As weird as it is to say, this is a great short story that I just can’t recommend.
Talia Al Ghul in “The Second Eye”
Copy and paste a lot of what I just said about Ra’s, but replace his name with Talia. A great character, no doubt, but she’s too often used as a means to an end, particularly when a lot of ninjas are needed for some cool fight scenes and/or cannon fodder.
What makes “The Second Eye” work for me is that it adds a bit more depth to Talia’s drive and psyche. Namely, that she does not know her mother, and despite asking her father to be honest with her, he instead tells her that she need not rely on parental affection if she can take care of herself. Maybe not original or unique, but at least it’s interesting.
Like Ra’s’ “Demon’s Game” story, there are some good ideas from Nadia Shammas and Josh Williamson, and great work from Max Raynor, John Kalisz, and Troy Peteri. In particular, I quite enjoyed some of the silent passages in the story, with some great visual storytelling from Raynor. Also like “Demon’s Game,” though, this leads into not just one but two other titles, and sets up an event coming in 2022. For that reason, it cannot work on its own as a story, as it’s quality is contingent on so many other factors. Which stinks, because I quite liked it on its own merits.
BONUS: A gaggle of gorgeous variant covers.
- You have a favorite villain represented here.
- You have ten extra bucks to spare.
Overall: Had this been six or seven bucks I might almost give it a passing recommendation, but at ten dollars? I’m knocking a point off the overall score, because that’s way too much for one genuinely good story and then a lot of filler, even if some of the filler is pretty decent on its own. As it is, though, this is an anthology that falls victim to the worst aspect of too many books these days: it’s non-stop setup. Nothing can stand on its own except in the rarest of cases, with constant forward momentum that has become exhausting. Even the standalone stories here vary wildly in quality, too, with a great Killer Moth tale, an interesting Poison Ivy short, and a bizarre for all the wrong reasons Penguin story. If your shop gives you a deal on it, then maybe pick it up, but that ten dollars can be put to better use buying other comics.