DETECTIVE COMICS #21

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

The Story: Batman encounters a three-for-one deal of villains that he’d rather avoid.

The Review: I don’t always engage in fruitless speculation as to what goes on behind the scenes in a comic, but I imagine that Layman has got to be a little exasperated about how long it’s taken to get to this point in his Emperor Penguin story.  It’s been six months, just about, since Layman took over this series, and it still feels like he’s only in the middle of his first arc, having been sidetracked by the return of Joker, the death of Robin, and a thinly veiled anniversary issue.

Despite all that, Layman has striven valiantly to keep his agenda on course, and here, at the climax of his story and the peak of Oglivy’s powers, the timing seems fine for a confrontation between the new Penguin and the Dark Knight himself.  Fine, but not ideal; any battle with Batman inevitably ends with the villain’s defeat, and as quickly as Oglivy has asserted his presence in Gotham’s underworld, he could stand some more time at the top.

At any rate, even though the result of his duel with Batman is a foregone conclusion, he puts in enough work to build up his street cred as a new rogue.  With a combination of the Man-Bat serum, Venom, and barkish skin (courtesy of Poison Ivy) running through his body, Oglivy may be one of the strongest of Batman’s opponents in terms of purely raw, physical power.  As a pure brawl-fest, it’s not really a very tactically interesting fight sequence, and it only barely hits that sweet spot of allowing both hero and villain to hold his own without coming across too one-sided from either party.

It’s none too surprising that Penguin manages to skirt his way out of prison, having indirectly threatened his judge last issue.  Neither is it surprising that he returns to the seat of his former empire just in time to bail Batman out of a sticky situation for his own purposes.  Oswald Cobblepot may be one of the campier members of Batman’s rogues gallery, but he is still an icon among them for all that and you can’t really imagine anyone else as the Penguin.  Don’t expect his temporary dethroning to change his M.O., however.  If anything, the experience has taught him to stick to his subtler, more invasive form of crime.  Direct dealings and putting himself out there, he has learned, results in him becoming “a target.”

The Layman era of Detective Comics is turning out to be a lot of standard-fare Batman stories, straightforward plots with a balanced mixture of investigation and butt-kicking, and little in the way of deep emotional moments.  This suits Fabok’s action-oriented art just fine.  Despite the pedestrian imagination he puts into the fight between Oglivy and Batman, each panel packs plenty of punch, and it’s undeniable that he can draw very well indeed.  If only he can give a little more expression to the characters; their faces all tend to be unreadable at times, as if they’re only going through the motions of living out their stories.

Perhaps to make up for how little we actually know of Oglivy (other than his former loyalties to Penguin), Layman fills in some of that gap in his back-up feature.  Though his actions are of course rooted and guided by childhood traumas, they don’t really add much sympathy to his history.  The real value of the back-up is it allows him to break out of his ex-boss’ shadow completely, so the next time he faces off with Batman, it’ll be him as his own man, the emperor of Blackgate prison.*  Andy Clarke and Blond do a fine job illustrating the feature, but they can only do so much to enliven an as-told-to narrative.

Conclusion: Layman does his best, but you have the disappointed feeling that the issue could have gone a lot better, and he himself knows it.

Grade: B-

– Minhquan Nguyen

Some Musings: * If the criminal “boss” of Blackgate is accorded so much deference even from the prison guards, why wouldn’t he use that to just break out of the place entirely?

– Is that Lady Shiva I see?  Granted, she looks nothing like her previous incarnations, but the projected extra sword-bearing arms seems to identify her with the Hindu deity after whom she’s named.

Grade

Conclusion