By: John Layman (story), Scot Eaton (art), Jaime Mendoza (inks), Jeromy Cox (colors)
The Story: It shouldn’t surprise anyone that Batman kind of has a thing for assassins.
The Review: I admit that I’ve never read much of Chew, but from the reviews on our own site and elsewhere, my understanding is that it’s something of a breakthrough series for Layman, turning in a solid performance with every issue. And certainly he’s shown a lot of promise here on Detective Comics, delivering a credible first arc despite detours from other members of the Bat-family of titles.
So I’ve been looking forward to the point where Layman can just tell his story of choice without any further distractions. Unfortunately, this issue disappoints on nearly every level, not so much because it’s bad, but rather because it seems uncharacteristically pedestrian and unfocused by Layman’s usual standards.
I had guessed that the multi-armed woman seen at the end of last month’s issue was Lady Shiva, but as it turns out, she’s someone entirely of Layman’s creation. That’s not such a huge letdown for me (even though I’m a pretty big Shiva fan) though because if Emperor Penguin has shown us anything, it’s that Layman knows how to build up a new character. At least, in theory he does. With Penumbra, all that knowledge seems to have gone out the window. Layman falls sadly short both in establishing her as a formidable villain and as a character of importance.
It’s not enough that she’s a former lover of Bruce’s. Much like Bond girls, Bruce has had so many of these ladies drifting in and out of his life that your instinct is to take them for granted. Layman gives you no reason to do otherwise with Penumbra (formerly Mio). Her entire backstory is contained within two or three panels, and so many crucial details are missing that you don’t care nearly enough about her as Bruce does—and he doesn’t even offer us much of a reason why he would care for her in any special way, enough to once share his “secrets” and “dreams” with her.
If anything, her competence as a villain is even worse. Not only does she utterly fail to complete her mission to assassinate a visiting prime minister, she fails to give Batman much of a challenge either. Aside from wildly swinging weapons from her many arms to ward off his grappling lines and Batarangs, she does nothing to make him even break a sweat. He’s certainly never in such a crisis that Harper Row’s assistance (or even presence) is ever needed.*
Worst of all, Layman brings none of the interesting detective work that made his previous issues so intriguing and which gave this series a unique flavor among the other Batman-centric books. Instead, we get a hammy bit of melodrama, so over-the-top that you could easily believe he stole the lines from a comic written decades earlier. Batman, reaching out a hand toward the would-be assassin: “This isn’t you, Mio. Not in your heart. You don’t have to be a killer.”
Penumbra, aghast, backing away from him towards a window: “Y-you know me? But why…w-why do you still believe…in me?” And then—if you can believe this—she slips and falls over the side of the building: “Aaaaiiieee!”
To make matters worse, the art takes a step backward as well, though not nearly as much of one as the script. Eaton is hardly a poor artist; with Cox’s rich, earthy colors, all his figures look shapely and certainly more attractive than the usual DC house style of art. But his action sequences, particularly where the hand-to-hand combat is concerned, lack Fabok’s usually punchy effects. When Penumbra cuts down Batman’s Batarangs, it looks more like the they’re just floating listlessly around her, and there’s no sense of movement to her arms at all.
Layman doesn’t even use the back-up as well as he has before. Given how thin Penumbra’s story is in this issue, this would have been a perfect opportunity to use the back-up and fill in that those gaps. Instead, we get the continuing angst of Kirk Langstrom, a.k.a. Man-Bat. I find it bizarre that Layman would defeat the whole point of Kirk’s wife ingesting the Man-Bat serum herself back in #19 by skipping us to when the serum wore off for both.* Even though Andy Clarke (with colorist Blond) draws the feature with plenty of suspense and mutant impact, Kirk’s admitted addiction to his transformations is quite predictable, and difficult to sympathize with.
Conclusion: Unfortunately, most of the qualities that made Layman’s earlier offerings on this series so enjoyable are absent in this issue, which makes you once again ponder the value of having so many Bat-titles.
– Minhquan Nguyen
Some Musings: * In fact, Harper’s participation is so extraneous to this story that it makes me wonder if Layman was forced to include her by some decision from above.
– At any rate, Harper does not in any way convince you (the way she does Batman) that she deserves to operate as another Gotham vigilante. Who the hell talks out loud to herself while trying to hide six feet away from an assassin?