Hello, all; I’ll be taking over Batman reviews from now on. Unfortunately, Casper suffered severe psychic damage from reviewing Gotham War, and can only review good comics like Batman/Superman: World’s Finest until further notice.
Batman #139 steps out of Gotham War seemingly looking to start fresh and get back to the type of Batman stories one would expect from the title. For much of the issue, it does just that. I came into this with an admittedly negative preconception based on how Zdarsky’s run had gone so far. Despite that, slowly but surely, the story gave me more and more of exactly what a Batman story should be. It felt like a grounded, atmospheric detective story. However, it wasn’t long before cracks began to show. Throughout the issue, there is a shocking number of references and callbacks. Nothing that would ruin it, but let’s call it a red flag. All of this leads into a twist ending that undermines almost everything exciting up until that point.
The story opens with a short vignette that can only be described as “cinematic”. I know that’s almost a review cliché to the point of being meaningless, but the opening captures that feeling of a cold open cut to dramatic title card perfectly. A big part of this is thanks to Jorge Jiménez’ gorgeous art. The flared lights and deep shadows of a rainy city night immediately establish the story’s noir aesthetic. Everything’s told from the perspective of witnesses after the fact, portraying Batman as almost ethereal. He’s something you hear about more than a man.
All of this leads into the full page spread of Batman. Like the colossus of Rhodes, he looms imposingly over the reader and the city of Gotham. The separation of man from myth is only further accentuated by having a miniscule figure of Batman himself dwarfed by this behemoth. In just two pages Zdarsky and Jiménez manage to capture the feeling of Gotham City and Batman that completely engrosses the reader in their world.
Contrasted with the larger than life image of Batman in the beginning, our first look at Bruce’s living situation positions him as someone barely getting by. It’s been three (real life) years since he lost his money in Joker War, and this is the first time it’s really felt like its had an impact beyond the superficial. His workstation is comprised of scraps, and he doesn’t even use his real identity as cover. It almost feels like an entirely new person, but the core of the character is still there.
The “back to basics” tone extends to the story as well. Instead of the overwhelming bombast from Gotham War and the dozen other wars over the past few years, this is structured like a true detective story. It’s moody, contemplative, and it keeps you eager to find out what will happen next. Joker’s creepy doll house hideout is filled with thematic traps that are the type of perils you’d expect from the Joker of yesteryear we all know and love. The interaction between the two really utilizes Joker’s knowledge of Batman’s identity in a way that surprisingly works despite my apprehensions about the idea. There’s a psychological back and forth reminiscent of the infamous gauntlet scene from The Killing Joke (including a very on-the-nose visual homage).
Despite this overall approach of a return to the meat and potatoes Batman stories that the character has desperately needed for years, from the beginning there are elements that prevent a clean start. The comic makes no illusions about acting as a follow up to Gotham War, and its intro has plenty of editor’s blurbs letting you know to check it out to understand the new status quo. It would be nice to be able to move on from that as soon as possible, but I understand that’s not how these runs work anymore.
What surprised me was just how chock full of ties to other titles this has. There are callbacks referencing titles like Zdarsky’s The Knight (the first comic I reviewed for this site), the recently concluded The Joker: The Man Who Stopped Laughing, and even the “three Jokers” reveal from Justice League #50. It repeatedly prevents you from getting fully immersed in the story being told right now when every other page it feels as though you’re being told you need to make sure you’ve read some other story. It’s a tolerable intrusion, but only a sign of what would truly sour the title for me.
What really ruins an excellent opening is the story’s final reveal.
All of Joker’s psychological warfare was not for the sake of simply messing with Batman, but rather a means to bring the various Batmen of Zur-En-Arrh to the surface. All of the joy of returning to the types of stories that Batman is known for went down the drain when it became apparent that this was all in service of the army of references to other Batman media taking over. It felt like overt fanservice in the Batman #900 issue, but to take that concept and drag it out into an ongoing narrative is just too much. It’s not interesting; it’s just a worse version of the concepts introduced by Grant Morrison 15 years ago coupled with a multiverse angle that could not be more played out at this point.
Backup: Savage Garden of Gotham part one
Vandal Savage is back via equally ill-defined means as Catwoman. At this point with anything Lazarus-related I’ve pretty much given up trying to make any sense of what the rules are or how it’s supposed to work. Gotham War implied that something about Lazarus fragments prevents the citizens of Gotham from leaving and now that’s made explicit with his strength literally draining if he leaves too far. It feels like a frustratingly contrived way to keep him in the city and a threat to Batman.
If there’s one thing this chapter does (and it’s really just one thing), it’s tease the idea of Savage as a possible future threat. The entire time is spent having him wander the streets narrating about how powerful he is and how he’ll soon run the city. There’s even the standard antihero “stop a mugging by killing the muggers” scene that feels so common that it’s almost obligatory. It lets you know that he’s good enough to be the protagonist of a comic, but don’t get it twisted that he’s some sort of goody two shoes. It’s all so standard that it’s hard to have a reaction at all.
Part one of “Savage Garden of Gotham” introduces the premise that Vandal Savage is in Gotham and little else. Jorge Corona’s stylized art creates an almost cartoonish atmosphere which is a questionable fit for the tone of the writing. Nothing in it is so discordant to feel bad, but nothing here is particularly good either.
- You want a return to simpler Batman stories after the craziness of Gotham War
- Moody Detective stories are what you expect from Batman
- You were wondering what happened to Vandal Savage after he got swallowed by a meteor
Batman #139 starts out incredibly strong with a back-to-basics approach to Batman that feels both compelling and fresh. The art and writing set the mood perfectly for its psychological noir thriller tone. However, the cracks begin to show with an overreliance on call backs to far too many other titles. This would be fine if not for the fact that it all culminates in a reveal that sinks any hope of what seemed to be a straight forward Batman story, instead turning yet again into an overly convoluted premise.
Overall score: 6/10
DISCLAIMER: DC Comics provided Batman News with a copy of this comic for the purpose of this review.