By: Peter J. Tomasi (story), Szymon Kudranski (art), John Kalisz (colors)

The Story: There’s a war out there, and you’ve got a pick a side—evil or other evil.

The Review: To be frank, I’ve mostly been unimpressed with Villains Month, both in concept and on execution.  I tend to dislike these company-wide gimmicks in general, mostly because they reek of editorial mandates thrust upon unprepared or, worse, unwilling creators.  That lack of preparation and enthusiasm has often come through in the various issues I’ve read.  Plagued by stilted writing and sloppy art, it’s no wonder this has been my lightest DC month yet.

But the law of averages dictates that there shall be gems among the rubbish.  Finding one is a bit like winning a small sum from the lottery, in the sense that you can’t tell if your excitement is from the prize itself or from the fact that your losing streak is finally over.  As a writer who emphasizes character over plot, Tomasi can generate good material from the thinnest stories.  In this case, he manages to do more than simply make lemonade out of lemons; he makes you look at lemons in a whole new light.

By far his greatest skill is his ability to plumb the hearts and minds of his characters, to find the sense, intellect, emotion, and humanity in these otherwise outlandish figures.  That skill is superbly applied on an issue featuring Batman’s rogues, some of the most psychologically compelling villains in the DCU.  Tomasi cheats the system a little bit; besides Scarecrow, we get important appearances from Mr. Freeze, the Riddler, Poison Ivy, and even Killer Croc as well.  But Scarecrow remains the focus, and in brilliant fashion, Tomasi uses the other rogues to better reveal the fear doctor’s many dimensions.

The biggest thing you take away from Tomasi’s portrayals of these characters is how smart they are.  A big deal is made over Scarecrow and Freeze’s medical credentials, but much appreciation is warranted for Riddler’s deductive agility, Ivy’s wiliness, and even Croc’s street smarts.  It’s a revelation that shouldn’t be a revelation: as longtime foes of the World’s Greatest Detective, it’s natural that each is brilliant in his or her own fashion.

It’s difficult enough for most writers to work with a number of characters all at once, and harder still when they’re all villains.  It’s too easy to make them all slightly different shades of the same crazed and criminal archetype and lose their individuality in the process.  Tomasi is somehow able to maintain a grounded approach towards all the rogues, yet clearly delineate the tics and hang-ups that make each of them unique.  Their interaction consequently provides the most intriguing scenes of Villains Month, revealing that darkness comes in many colors.

The rogues’ dealings with each other are fascinating in themselves, but also important in the way they advance the agenda of Forever Evil.  We’ve seen remarkably little of the world since the villains won, and the sight of Gotham divvied up among the various Arkham inmates, each territory specially terrorized by its master, brings home just how hopeless a life without heroes can be.  Tomasi also gives us an effective summation of the new world order with the Crime Syndicate in charge.  When Ivy asks whose side the Syndicate will take in the impending war between Blackgate and Arkham, Scarecrow replies, “Same side any of us would be on, young lad…the winners.”

Tomasi delivers a praiseworthy script, but he’s helped enormously by Kudranski’s art, which is the perfect fit for this issue, not only in terms of the subject-matter but for Tomasi’s intense, psychological style as well.  Kudranski’s shadowy work ideally suits a world that’s literally bathed in darkness, populated with sinister evils.  Kalisz’s colors come through as eerie glows, fragile, barely keeping the dark at bay.  At best, they allow the victims of this new Gotham to glimpse the horror in front of them just before it’s too late.

Conclusion: Absolutely the best product to come out of Villains Month thus far, offering revelatory portraits of Scarecrow and several of his compatriots, with appropriately striking art to boot.

Grade: A

-Minhquan Nguyen

Some Musings: – Mr. Freeze’s strategy of dealing with the families of runaways is pretty legitimately twisted: “[T]ell them their father…escaped.  Let them wonder why he never comes back for them.  Let this wife and mother hope senselessly…until it withers and dies.”  To use a cheap pun—chills.