By: Gregg Hurwitz (story), Szymon Kudranski (art), John Kalisz (colors)

The Story: Penguin, Scarecrow, and Mad Hatter do their best impression of pretty girls in a scary movie.

The Review: As excited as I was for Hurwitz to take over a Batman ongoing, I soon grew disappointed and bored of his work there.  It often felt like he wasn’t altogether that interested in writing the legendary hero, an obligation which distracted him from doing what he does and enjoys best: writing the villains.  Ultimately, Hurwitz will leave a permanent mark on the new DCU in the way he has redefined and fleshed out some of the major Batman rogues.

As if to celebrate that accomplishment, he brings together in this annual three of the villains he’s explored to date: Penguin, Scarecrow, and Mad Hatter.  It should be stated at the outset that your enjoyment of this issue thus depends largely on how much you’ve followed Hurwitz’s work in the last year or so.  Without knowing some of the essential background details on the trio of criminals, some of the dramatic beats of the annual will be lost on you.

I say this with some confidence because while I avidly followed Hurwitz’s Penguin mini and his Scarecrow arc on The Dark Knight, I Dropped the ongoing right before he began his Mad Hatter arc.  This leaves me understanding the significance of some of the villains’ nightmares better than others.  I get why Penguin feels such terror at being trapped in a snowglobe, his mother mocking him from the outside, or why Scarecrow experiences just as much fear being mummified by his father’s medical electrode wires.  I can’t say the same for Hatter’s visions of mentally disturbed individuals, including a bloody one he calls “Alice.”

Even without that kind of insight, you can tell these are well-constructed delusions.  Despite the cliché of these fear-hallucinations, Hurwitz capitalizes on the developments he’s made to the characters, again emphasizing that for all of them, their villainy comes from a place of grief, insecurity, and loneliness rather than power.  They may not be the most powerful or intimidating of Batman’s nemeses, but they are possibly his most sympathetic and accessible.

Part of that accessibility comes from the put-upon way with which they react to their most hated foe.  As powerful as their panic at the Arkham Detention Facility for Youth is, it’s their commiseration on being mutual Batman rogues which provides the issue’s entertainment.  Scarecrow observes, “No skylights here.  No stained glass windows.  You know how he does that crashing-through thing?”

Penguin: “I hate the crashing-through thing.”

Hatter: “There’s probably not an intact stained glass window in all of Gotham by now.”

Although they make light of this pattern of behavior, they soon admit to its effectiveness, finishing each other’s thoughts in such a direct way as to make it seem like a Shakespearean confession: “He does it—all of it—to scare us.”

“We know this…”

“…And yet it works anyway.”

I have no doubt that part of what made Hurwitz’s run on The Dark Knight far less stimulating than his Penguin mini was the loss of Kudranski as his artistic partner.  Kudranski simply knows how to draw Hurwitz’s scripts as no one else does.  Even though his shadowy, silhouetted style occasionally makes it hard to see exactly what’s going on in the odd panel, that same style emphasizes the bleak, dark world these villains live in, one from which they can never seem to escape.  Those shadows bring a hush to the issue’s suspense, the visual equivalent of holding your breath as you listen for danger and it takes you by surprise anyway.  Kalisz’s chill monochromes are no less effective; even the warmest lighting seems weak and watery at times, barely capable of holding back the darkness.

Conclusion: Despite the questionability of releasing a Halloween story in June, the annual is a solid product, filled with moments of true suspense and genuine character.  That said, without some familiarity with Hurwitz’s work on these villains, you won’t get as much out of the issue as you should.

Grade: B

– Minhquan Nguyen

Some Musings: – Letterer Dezi Sienty is not a first-time offender on this site (see “blungeoned” in Talon #6), and I’m afraid he strikes again, even more egregiously this time.  On page 16, Penguin’s dialogue is completely missing and it’s clear he’s supposed to be saying something.  That’s a pretty big mistake and it shocks me no one in the publishing chain caught it.