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

The Story: Penguin is driven to the lowest point a modern man can get—using a pay phone.

The Review: The use of a shared universe and “family” of titles definitely has its benefits, with each writer able to work off of the ideas of their peers to create a more substantial storyline with more impact than a single writer can achieve on his own.  But there are downsides, too; if something major happens to a character in one title—particularly if that character appears in all the others—suddenly every title has to deal with the ramifications of that development.

You don’t get anything more major than the death of a son, and since the son in question is Robin and the father is Batman, it would be churlish, to say the least, if the rest of the Bat-family titles didn’t address it in some way.  Sometimes, however, the timing can be a real drag.  Layman hasn’t had much time to be left to his own devices on his run so far, what with the effects of Death of the Family taking over #16 and #17.  Now he has to give attention to the death of Robin when it’s clear he’d rather get back to the Penguin story he’s had to put on hold for a while.

Not that he doesn’t do so gamely.  Layman may be the most respectful of all the Bat-family writers.  Not only does he place his poignant (if awkward) Robin tribute squarely in the middle of the issue, he also ties in a number of details from other titles as well (see the multiple editor’s notes throughout).  Even Talon gets a prominent cameo in with the appearance of Ms. Volkova, the Russian assassin on Casey Washington’s special-ops team.

That said, you do get a sense of relief once Layman can return to the story he really wants to tell: the fall of Penguin and the rise of his usurper.  This may be just the ticket Penguin needs to rebuild himself as a proper Batman rogue again.  Till now, the one challenge he posed was his masterful cover-up ability, one on par with Batman’s prep-time; both of these qualities share one serious flaw: we never actually see how each man pulls it off.  It just sort of happens and we have to accept it.  But with one simple, new tack, Batman manages to defeat this one great talent of Penguin’s, leaving him with a lot of room for improvement.

Oglivy, meanwhile, rides high on perfectly circumventing his former boss at every turn, coolly twisting the screw every chance he gets (when his secretary tells him that Penguin is on the phone, he replies, “Make him wait five minutes and then put him through.”).  This would-be emperor definitely has guts.  Once he gets Oswald out of the way, he sets his sights on the Bat himself, and plans to use some interesting mechanics to get himself there.

Fabok once again proves himself as the evolved David Finch.  You can still see very slight traces of Finch in the art, particularly in the general narrowness of the faces and somewhat pronounced lips, but otherwise, Fabok has long come into his own.  There’s a lot more emotional volatility in his characters than the constantly gloomy and grim expressions you get from Finch, and unburdened with excessive hatching and shading, Fabok’s art is cleaner and easier to process, allowing for Cox’s colors to shine through, resulting in better storytelling overall.

The back-up this month gives us a little more insight as to Victor Zsasz’s role in this Penguin-centric arc, mainly as a way for Oglivy to deal with his ex-boss more permanently and distract his other major foe at the same time.  The bit of back-history we get about Zsasz attempts to give the serial murderer some complexity, if not much sympathy.  Gambling away your fortune and turning into a killer as a consequence hardly cries out for pity on our part.  Penciller Henrik Jonsson (with Sandu Florea on inks and Blond on colors) draws the feature competently, but it’s a clear step-down from the main event.

Conclusion: An interesting start to a story that Layman’s obviously wanted to tell for a while, but bogged down by an awkward tie-in scene and an unremarkable back-up.

Grade: B-

– Minhquan Nguyen

Some Musings: – The fact that Batman can have Penguin sent to prison for a few less-than-scintillating charges rather than the biggies (murder, conspiracy, etc.) does smartly point out how prosaic Penguin as a villain can be.

– Calling from a pay phone?  Seriously?  How many of those are still around anymore?  You can’t find one even if you need one nowadays.