By: Brian Azzarello (writer), Eduardo Risso (artist), Patricia Mulvihill (colorist)

The Story: And you said those mutants in the sewers were just an urban legend.

The Review: These Flashpoint tie-ins serve two purposes: one, they fill in some of the expository blanks that the central storyline neglects or hasn’t the opportunity to cover; and two, they offer us a tantalizing glimpse into a world whose existence will be all too brief and yet within its own continuity has a rich history all its own.

For that reason, you have to appreciate how Azzarello doesn’t play cute with this strange yet vaguely recognizable world he gets to work with.  There are no moments where he directly points out familiar characters and explains their changes with a wink and a nudge, as many writers would.  He simply incorporates them naturally into the story, as if Barbara Gordon has always been Thomas Wayne’s psychiatrist and the Penguin his casino crony.

Even if he wanted to, Azzarello couldn’t give these minor characters such treatment anyway without detracting from the really strong characterization he gives to our favorite anti-hero.  Clearly Thomas is less refined and sophisticated a vigilante than Bruce: he tolerates, even invites criminals to patronize his businesses; he allows Gordon to know his secret identity; he privatizes Gotham’s security; he makes little attempts to soften his public image.

Even in his crime-fighting, he doesn’t come across as superhumanly competent; instead it seems like he grits his way through challenges by drawing on an inhuman tolerance for pain.  We see the source of that tolerance when Azzarello reveals the details of his origins.  By now you know Bruce, not Thomas, died that night; this issue shows that fateful change came not from an alteration in circumstances, but one in Thomas’ character, a subtle one that nevertheless makes him react quite differently to the hold-up, and which leads inadvertently to his own tragedy.

Subtle describes most of the script, as it seems as disinclined to chatter as Thomas.  Only the most minimal, necessary sounds and words make themselves heard in this story, becoming even more chilling when they finally break the largely barren silence of the issue.  The whispered mantra of “Hell…” Batman hears during his sojourn in the sewers creeps into the corners of entirely wordless panels, only to complete itself when he finds their speakers: “Hellp uss…”

Our first look at this new Batman’s kind of caseload plays out simply, even a little predictably.  Nonetheless, it shows how low this world has sunken, where even the homeless are tortured beyond their poverty and then fed upon.  But to Batman, this situation is merely part of the daily horrors he faces down; no wonder his view of the world is so grim.

What is it about these street-level stories, especially where Batman is concerned, that makes minimal, semi-clumsy, even cartoony art like Risso’s work so well?  Perhaps because it’s a mocking reflection of reality, which serves to underscore just how unbelievably twisted Batman’s world can be.  Mulvihill’s monochrome colors add another layer of un-realness to the proceedings.

Conclusion: If the stories of this altered universe are going to be this solid, then I’ll be sad to see it go when it inevitably does.

Grade: A-

– Minhquan Nguyen

Some Musings: – “Mmmrrr…”  You’ve only existed in your own comic for one issue, and already you’ve got a great catchphrase.  Well played, Sir.

– And why not use Heath Ledger as a model for Joker if you’ve got a brand-new reality to do it in?