By: John Layman (story), Jason Fabok (art), Jeremy Cox (colors)

The Story: On the plus side, clown-nose sellers are making a killing—so to speak.

The Review: I don’t often feel too competitive with my fellow reviewers across the web, but every now and then I’ll stumble upon a piece that dismays me because it happens to make nearly all the same points I want to make, but better.  David Pepose of Newsarama did just that in his review of this issue, which very properly calls it a “hidden gem…a tie-in comic done right.  It may actually be the best tie-in comic I’ve ever read.”  Damn you, Pepose—I totally agree.

Tie-ins usually have an entirely incidental quality to them.  They pop up unexpectedly during a series’ run, make some obligatory references to the main event, then wheedle their way out as unobtrusively as possible. Catwoman threw Selina right into Joker’s way and somehow she came out of the experience completely unscathed and unaffected, if the totally unconnected following issue shows anything. Batman and Robin did a much better job using Joker’s presence in the series, but this was a more direct tie-in which still seemed to interrupt the title’s flow.

In contrast, this issue of Detective Comics manages to take advantage of the current Joker situation while also remaining true to the course and tone that Layman’s established.  It opens with Emperor Penguin, who finds a way to take advantage of the killer clown’s return to solidify his own power-grab.  In the process, he not only adds something to his street cred as a new Batman villain, but he also creates a smooth uniformity between the ongoing story and the tie-in.

Where Layman really gets the purpose of a tie-in right is in telling a story that at once expands the scope of Death of the Family yet can also stand on its own. Batman has really focused on the Joker as a threat to the Bat-folk, but Layman reminds us that the entire city of Gotham is scared crapless of its most notorious criminal, and the tide of evil he brings with him.  Layman most likely drew his idea for this story from the Joker-inspired shootings in Aurora, Colorado, but even if he didn’t, that tragedy lends a lot of credibility to the gangs of clownish copycats that suddenly pop up in Joker’s wake.

Layman also takes a shot in exploring the various psychological bases for these imitators.  He starts off with the typical snap-judgment (“The ones who finally have an excuse to give into their darkest urges…  Who need nothing more than a bit of inspiration.  To give that one final push.”), but later provides a more subtle explanation through the storyline of Rodney Spurman, A.K.A. Rodney the Torch.  Rodney best represents a simplified version of nearly every gang member who ever was: a kid whose inner pain and self-loathing pushes him to find company with the worst people, the only kind he believes can accept him.

Fabok’s art has far too much inherent grace and attractiveness to really strike that urban, street-driven look that usually makes a Batman title, but his superb eye for detail and cinematic sense of action delivers a great punch of its own.  Cox already gets good marks in my book for refreshing Mikel Janin’s work over on Justice League Dark, and he’s even more impressive fleshing out Fabok’s more conventional figures.

Every Batman writer wants to be the one to write the next big rogue, the new villain who’ll join the pantheon of Jokers, Banes, and Scarecrows.  I don’t know how far Layman will get in pushing such obviously derivative characters like Merrymaker or Emperor Penguin, but at least he does a solid job giving the latter his own agenda and style, separate from his former boss and namesake.  The E.P. back-up doesn’t quite render him a breakthrough character, but with Layman’s convincing criminal dialogue, Andy Clarke’s rugged art, and Blond’s gloomy colors, it does set him up for at least a brief flash of greatness.

Conclusion: A thoroughly respectable tie-in issue that just scrapes the underside of being original.

Grade: B+

– Minhquan Nguyen

Some Musings: – Would you say the lunchlady member of the League of Smiles is more influenced by the Joker or Mrs. Lovett from Sweeney Todd?