Let me say this without a hint of irony or exaggeration, and with the utmost sincerity: full-stop, this is the best issue of Batman I’ve read in a long, long time.

Perhaps years.

While it isn’t perfect, it’s a great time on its own, and sets up a pretty interesting direction for this arc going forward.

The main reason, I think, is that it doesn’t feel like it’s trying to reinvent the wheel when it comes to Batman.  Instead, it presents us with a pretty interesting mystery, brings in some surprising supporting characters, and puts a twist on the new villain that’s promised on the cover.

Above all that, though, it’s a great Batman issue about Batman.  Right now, that’s all I ask, and it delivers.

Gotham City is in a state of celebration, following the end of “Fear State.”  While troubles and calamity will surely arise again– and soon, if the city’s history tells us anything– right now, there is peace.

Sort of.

And Batman, being Batman, doesn’t quite know how to cope with that.  Not that he wants trouble and tragedy, of course, but because he expects it.  After devoting decades of his life to stopping crime, what’s he to do when he isn’t needed, even for just a night?

It’s an interesting conundrum for Batman to be put in, and Josh Williamson handles it with a welcome amount of subtlety and grace.  The opening scene is particularly hilarious, as about the only crime occurring in the city is petty burglary, and the would-be criminals willingly turn themselves over to the police so they don’t have to run afoul of the Dark Knight.  The weakest part of the issue follows this encounter, as Williamson “cleans house” by referencing the events in the title from the past year, as well as the goings-on over in Detective Comics.  It feels almost obligatory, like he had to include this just to say that it’s happened and now we’re moving on.  The dialogue between Batman and Oracle tries really hard to be conversational, but it falls short with lines like “why don’t you train with Ghost-Maker?”

Which is more Ghost-Maker than I wanted to read, but thankfully this is the only time he and Clownhunter are mentioned, so hopefully they go the way of Poochie and we never hear about them ever again.

Please.

Anyway, once the story really gets going, it’s a blast up to the very end.  It’s almost as if Williamson thought “you know what Batman comics need right now?  Adventure”, and just went for it.  I mean, why is there a Billionaires Ball with a theme of “Gotham’s Villains”?  Because it’s awesome, that’s why.

And awesome it is, Batman has to stake out said masquerade to figure out which attendees dressed like his worst enemies are innocent bystanders, and which are actual hired killers.  If I cared to think about it or even criticize it, I’m sure I could poke a bunch of holes in this scene (the rich are tasteless idiots, after all), but it’s fun, and that’s all I really want right now.  Aided by Mikel Janín and Jorge Molina (who have some alarmingly similar styles, thanks to Tomeu Morey’s colors that make the switch in artists seamless), along with the prolific Clayton Cowles on letters, there are some exhilarating pages and stunning spreads in this scene alone.  That first look at the banquet hall, with the image stretching across a double-page splash, is positively breathtaking, and packed with a ton of fun costumes.  Who knew that so many of Gotham’s elite would take inspiration from the Batman & Robin trio of Poison Ivy, Mr. Freeze, and Bane?  And big props to the one guy who showed up dressed as Man-Bat.  You’re a real champ.

The best shot comes later, after Batman has taken care of the hired guns, when a young girl asks the Caped Crusader for his autograph.  The kicker?  She’s dressed like Punchline (and let this also be the last we ever hear of her too, but I digress.)  It has to be weird for Batman, saving people from these killers and madmen, yet seeing them dressed like the very people he’s saving them from.  And a little girl, dressed up like a deranged maniac who idolizes a deranged maniac?  Surely it’s disheartening… but not so much so that he doesn’t give her an autograph anyway.

This is all good and fun, and well worth recommending this book on its own, but it’s the final third that really kicks things into gear.  I will not spoil it for you, because there’s a surprise appearance by a certain organization that made me grin from ear to ear, though there are hints as to who they are in the costume Bruce wears on the main cover.  Even the Abyss– the “new villain” that made me a little apprehensive, because the name and look were just so generic and we’ve had enough new villains in this book over the past two years, thank you very much– has an interesting spin regarding his involvement.

It’s an issue full of surprises, mainly because at it’s core it’s refreshingly straightforward.  Gotham City isn’t threatened.  There isn’t an attempt to deconstruct Batman or make some grand, sweeping observations about his mission.  Better still, any elements that left me apprehensive were addressed so we could move on, or given a role that puts a clever twist on expected tropes.  It’s a great comic about Batman, focused on Batman, with a mystery that only Batman can solve, which is precisely what we need from Batman right now.

BONUS: Loving this awesome Todd McFarlane homage variant cover from Viktor Bogdanovic.

Recommended if:

  • “Back to basics” may be a trite term, but yeah.  This is a return to straightforward, fun storytelling.
  • You like Batman.
  • Blimps!

Overall: This is the first new issue of Batman I’ve read in almost a year, and I am not kidding when I say it’s the best time I’ve had with this title in a long, long time.  Williamson doesn’t try to reinvent the wheel, or even try to force changes that are meant to leave his creative mark on the character, but only end up diminishing Batman as a result.  No, this is a grand adventure, meant to entertain and respect Batman’s role as Gotham’s protector, and have a good time doing it.  Any hiccups and speed-bumps in the narrative feel more like obligatory housekeeping than anything, so they’re easy to get past.  For the first time in a long time, Batman has the whole package: (mostly) snappy writing, beautiful artwork, and a sense of joy that lacks any sort of pretension.

SCORE: 9/10