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

The Story: Despite the merrymaking and clowns, this is truly a downer of a party.

The Review: Between the movies and writers like Frank Miller who spend a lot of time showing what an unbeatable badass Batman is, you’d think the Dark Knight was little more than a fantastically equipped master martial artist.  But among other things, Batman is also known as the “world’s greatest detective,” one of DC’s biggest geniuses.*  Unfortunately, Batman stories have grown less inclined to show off the more cerebral aspects of his character.

So I really appreciate Layman’s more technical, investigative approach to Batman.  Instead of spending all his time whipping out implausible kung-fu moves, Batman spends a large chunk of the issue actually thinking things through.  We all know that his prep-time skills are second to none, but now you can see him going through that prep, putting the clues together to figure out exactly what he needs to do at any given moment.

Even though Layman crafts a fairly credible crime procedural plot out of the issue, the ultimate focus of Batman’s detective work seems kind of a waste of his brainpower.  The way Layman sets up the opening, you can use your own predictive powers of fiction to immediately figure out the Merrymaker’s true identity and most of his motives within a few pages.  Batman simply finds the hard evidence to seal your conclusion, and it doesn’t take that much effort for him either.

Still, even if these are just baby steps, they still move the series towards greater realism, which is a rare and valuable thing in the superhero genre.  In the Scott Snyder era of Batman comics, we’ve started to view Gotham as a kind of living entity all its own (figuratively in Snyder’s view, literally in the eyes of Stormwatch’s Jack Hawksmoor, who sees Gotham as an emaciated, goblin-type creature).  The theory goes that Gotham’s very nature poisons its citizens, making it almost a matter of fate that things spiral out of control so often in the city.  Layman has a more sensible, equally disturbing view: these folks suffer from common mental illnesses, but they have too many dangerous role models to channel their psychoses.

Layman also shines by his own careful attention to detail.  He puts several bits of continuity established by other writers to good use, like the photogrammetric scanner installed in the city morgue in Batman #2.  He also has some fun playing with classic Batman characters, capturing Commissioner Gordon’s no-nonsense, zero-tolerance principles perfectly and using Harvey Bullock’s cynical view of things for comic relief and some extra liveliness.

Fabok is an all-rounder artist who can draw pretty much anything and make it look good, even if he’s not the most ambitious storyteller in the biz.  But you don’t have to be an artistic dynamo like J.H. Williams III or Yanick Paquette to deliver a beautiful, functional superhero series.  Action sequences have tons of energy and impact, highlighting Batman’s remarkable physical prowess, but Fabok doesn’t shirk on the emotional side of things either.  You can see subtle changes in the characters’ emotions from their expression and body language, even within a couple panels, like the League of Smiles’ reactions to the Merrymaker’s true face.  See the small, but noticeable widening and narrowing of Annie McCloud and David “Happy” Hill’s eyes, giving them a poignant air that makes you feel they may be some very sad clowns after all.  Cox’s colors were made for Fabok’s sleek, attractive lines, giving the title a very high-class look.

I don’t know how much we really needed the back-up showing the fate of Merrymaker.  His villainy wrapped so quickly that we never got that attached to him, so it’s hard to care where he ends up.  Besides, he is incredibly forthright in his lack of scruples: “Rehabilitation?  What’s the point? You can’t rehabilitate these people.  But you can certainly manipulate them.”  There’s not much to respect, there.  Layman does throw in a pretty cool twist at the very end of the back-up, though it has nothing to do with Merrymaker himself.  Andy Clarke and Blond contribute fine art for a feature involving mostly talking-heads, but nothing to write home about.

Conclusion: Layman delivers a good, old-fashioned, thoughtful Batman story.  The ambition isn’t amazing, but the execution is very well done.

Grade: B+

– Minhquan Nguyen

Some Musings: * I’ve always assumed that where Mr. Terrific is the world’s third smartest man, Batman would be the second and Lex Luthor the first, but I don’t have any actual evidence on that point.