by John Layman, Scott Snyder, Paul Dini, Brad Meltzer, Gregg Hurwitz, Peter J. Tomasi, Jason Fabok, Neal Adams, Dustin Nguyen, Guillem March, Bryan Hitch, and Sean Murphy
The Bat-Man, a mysterious and adventurous figure, fighting for righteousness and apprehending the wrong doer, in his lone battle against the evil forces of society…
Giant anniversary issues like this are always interesting to dissect. What’s the best use of all those pages? Will it connect to current storylines, or should it serve as a celebration of the character’s history? This behemoth issue tries to have its cake and eat it too, but that’s only a problem if it fails. So the question is: did it?
Let’s start at the very beginning, as I hear that that’s a very good place to start. The issue opens with a story from Brad Meltzer and Brian Hitch that goes by the highly appropriate title, “The Case of the Chemical Syndicate.” This iteration of “Chemical Syndicate” is a clever retelling of the 1939 original. Though it has been updated, it is a remarkably faithful adaptation. The major difference is the addition of Batman’s later character traits and a running commentary from the Dark Knight, himself, which would not have been possible in the original story without spoiling the surprise ending.
Though Meltzer displays an impressively economic writing style, cramming a lot into a short fifteen pages without overcluttering his story, the real meat of this story is in the narration. Basic Batman caption boxes do a fine job of showing up a mysterious and yet inexperienced version of the Caped Crusader. Meanwhile, a series of journal entries posit a number of answers to the question “why does Batman do it?” The answers are a master class in Batman, neither overglorifying the vigilante, nor digging too deep into his neuroses to appear heroic. Particularly over the last few days, I’ve been growing tired of a Batman too damaged to inspire us to anything healthy. Perhaps I’m biased by my recent musings, but I think this story navigated these dangerous waters very well.
Though I appreciate the care in the “translation” and the complexity in the narration, I can’t deny that this is an exceedingly simple story on its own merits. I suppose that’s fairly forgivable in an anthology issue like this, but Meltzer is actually only five pages short of a full issue. He also has a couple of clunky lines, with a call of “I CAN’T FEEL MY NECK!” feeling particularly odd, especially as it appears to be exaggerated, even in story.
Bryan Hitch delivers some truly lovely sketchy panels, but most pages have at least one panel that feels kind of…flat. I will certainly give him credit for infusing Batman’s motions with a decidedly “Golden Age mystery-man” feel, despite drawing him in a costume that strongly resembles his New 52 ensemble. Hitch’s art is lovely and will appeal to fans of its increasingly popular style especially, however it’s a little uneven in places and that weighs it down.
Next up is another legacy tale from Gregg Hurwitz and Neal Adams that goes by the name of “Old School.” Your opinion of this story will depend strongly on how clever you think it is. It has a certain “My First Grant Morrison” feel about it, playing with a lot of similar themes, but doing so in a highly simplified and linear fashion. Hurwitz provides some solid writing, but it’s really all in service of the story mechanism he’s worked out. I won’t spoil too much of the story, but I will say that Hurwitz raises a couple of interesting points. The greatest problems with the tale are its gimmickry and its unclear intention. Though the story is actually a somewhat disturbing meta-textual take on the Batman franchise, it seems to end happily. Perhaps it’s just written ‘for your information’, but that doesn’t sit right.
Neal Adams provides an impressively varied look back on Batman’s artistic history and, for many – possibly even for Hurwitz, I expect that this will be the main draw of the story. He does a fine job of representing Batman’s history. There are occasional deviations that make it clear that this is a modern story, but you might not notice if you weren’t looking, particularly early on. There also aren’t a lot of backgrounds and that can detract from the experience somewhat. As time goes by, Adam’s own style seeps in more and more, but there’s no denying that it’s great fun. It’s also kind of cool to see a legendary name like Adams playing around with so many styles.
I expect that there’s a similar story that handles this material better out there somewhere, but this is a cool little story that feels right at home in this celebratory issue.
The third story is “Better Days” by Peter J. Tomasi and Ian Bertram. This is, by far, the happiest tale that the writers gift Bruce, though not one without its particular brand of melancholy. It’s a very simple story, but its heart and Bertram’s distinctive artwork make it one of the most memorable.
Tomasi seems satisfied to speak softly and as necessary, focusing on the warmth in his words rather than the number. The look is something you’d associate with nearly any indie comic before Batman, but Bertram proves that he can draw the Batcave as well as anyone, not to mention of couple of inventive panels of Batman’s exploits. It’s a visually stunning addition to the issue and a welcome homage ties together this quiet celebration of Bruce’s 75th anniversary.
Francesco Francavilla handles the art and writing for his brief contribution, which is credited as “Hero” on the title page but seems to be called “Rain.” Those who are familiar with Fracavilla’s work will recognize his dramatic, moody style instantly. Fracavilla’s constructed a story that brings out much of the best in his work. It’s a very simple plot and the dialogue is nothing special, but the visual storytelling is quite strong and the glow of the fire and water makes a definite impression. He even delivers, what appears to be, a clever play on one of Batman’s most iconic poses; namely the one that appeared on the ending title card for Batman: TAS and as the logo for the early 200s Batman title.
This story is probably the least thematically appropriate for the issue, clashing against continuity and lacking significance in the excellent storyline that it namedrops, but Francavilla’s art really does make up for a lot. It’s a short addition to the book, but a welcome one.
Mike Barr and Guillem March’s “The Sacrifice” comes next. This one is a classic “It’s a Wonderful Life” scenario as the Phantom Stranger allows Bruce to see how things would be different if he had his deepest desire.
The story doesn’t strive for great complexity, choosing to spend its brief time with us playing to our emotions and weighing the scales of justice. It’s actually quite sad. The Phantom Stranger seems to want to motivate Bruce, but I can’t help but think that his actions are unnecessarily cruel. We’ve heard this sort of thing before, but it seems that Barr is counting on the ways that he twists familiar threads together into a strange and foreign tangle to set “The Sacrifice” apart.
Guillem March was a fine choice for this assignment. The rapid-fire pace of the story helps to avoid March’s occasional problems with motion, allowing his talent for drawing gorgeous individual moments to come through full force. His skills with dramatic lighting and expressions also come into play and it doesn’t hurt that March wreaks joyous, if sometimes unnecessary havoc on the panel boarders, gutters, and backgrounds.
The story has a singular purpose and a defining grimness that gives it a distinct character, but it’s probably for the best that its only five pages long. At the level of anvil-dropping clarity that the story operates, it likely wouldn’t be able to hold on much past that. That said, perhaps it’s only that straightforward because it’s five pages. A chicken or the egg argument that changes little about the completed story.
The odd bird – or should I say catbird – out in this issue is “The Perfect Crime” the first part of John Layman and Jason Fabok’s Gothtopia crossover. Unlike the other stories, this one takes place entirely in the here and now, as I suppose it should, given that it’s the only one that will survive this issue into the standard issues of Tec.
Layman’s considerable skills as a writer are still apparent on this story. As ever, he writes generally strong dialogue. Batman and Poison Ivy are particular standouts in this regard, as Layman gives each a recognizable cadence. Ivy’s blindness and Batman’s introspection couldn’t be more opposite but they’re both well executed. Unfortunately Catbird, Selina Kyle playing Batman’s sidekick, doesn’t fare as well. Though Layman explains her behavior to an extent, it doesn’t pardon the cliché and uninteresting way that she’s handled. It sounds like a harsher insult than I mean it to be, but Selina lacks any sense of agency in this story and that seems distinctly un-Selina to me.
It’s also worth mentioning that Layman seems to be trying to have it both ways in his opening scene. He cleverly hides references to the true predicament that Batman finds himself in within Ivy’s protest, which could easily be read as just another call for us to consider the plight of her “babies.” Despite this, Batman frequently and crucially refers to her as not being in her right mind. It’s a small oversight, but I think details like this were what made Layman’s early run so memorable.
The story is interesting enough, but it doesn’t do nearly enough to combat my early fears that the story would end up feeling inconsequential. Layman never manages to make the reader feel at home in Gothtopia and, as such, it’s no great loss to us when it becomes clear that all is not as it seems.
Overall “The Perfect Crime” is not drastically worse than Layman’s standard efforts, but responsibilities to a burgeoning crossover and a lack of depth separate it from the best stories that he’s contributed, much less that Batman has.
In regards to the art, Jason Fabok’s work is looking especially lovely this month, thanks in no small part to Tomeu Moray. The detailed colors are particularly noticeable in scenes with plants and, between the colors and the detail, the opening scene almost feels reminiscent of Adam Hughes’ work.
As for Fabok, himself, he clearly put a lot of effort into the issue and the result is some very strong panels. Fabok’s panels don’t really flow into eachother, but he manages to convey his meaning with a similar efficacy as if they did. This is compounded by Layman’s need to highlight elements of Gothtopia. Fabok brings a crisp realism to his drawings and yet there are hints of a more angular style woven throughout, especially when the situation calls for a shadowy setting or a little more grit. The beginning of a rain-drenched confrontation demonstrates this wonderfully and its one of the nicer segments of the story.
But even though Fabok delivers some gorgeous work for this anniversary issue, the pressure seems to be getting to him a bit. There appear to be instances of repeated images and somewhat generic poses. The most egregious example seems to be a minorly reworked version of the Detective Comics 23.1 cover early in the issue. As you might expect, it doesn’t quite mesh with the background and just looks awkward. A couple of other panels on that page share this problem though they aren’t copies to my knowledge. If there’s one good thing to be said of this, it’s that such problems with depth seem confined to this one scene, for the most part.
The final story, “Twenty-Seven,” comes from the reigning king of Batman, Scott Snyder, and his The Wake collaborator, Sean Murphy. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Snyder’s contribution is one of the best and most original pieces in the anthology issue.
Two-Hundred years in the future, the Bruce Wayne of Year: One awakens to discover that all is not as it appears. This sci-fi take on Batman’s legacy treads familiar ground, but it manages to breathe some fresh life into it. It admittedly shares some similarities with the “Time and the Batman” issue from Batman #700 and its ilk, but Snyder’s understated guidance and Murphy’s beautiful art provide a sense of mystery and wonder that rescues the tale.
Honestly, this story probably wouldn’t sound that great on paper, so I won’t go on too long here, but there’s a mysterious quality about this final chapter that will have you reading and rereading to glean out all the wonderful details that Snyder and Murphy have seeded. Perhaps the most interesting element is the way that Snyder creates an entirely new story, nested within his examination of Batman’s longevity. This particular version of Bruce faces an interesting choice, and the multiple levels of storytelling really do separate Bruce from Batman in interesting ways.
For all the great work that Snyder puts in, this one really does belong to Sean Murphy. From the first page Murphy’s art screams out its power, expressiveness, and intrigue. The story allows him to draw a wide range of settings, but the style remains fairly constant and I doubt that upset many readers. It’s gorgeous – simple as that.
Murphy makes each sequence come alive, but there’s something about his old samurai-esque Bruce that speaks volumes. There is something of Frank Miller at his best in this story. And it’s not just the aesthetics; Murphy’s art combines beautifully with Snyder’s carefully paced dialogue to create a comic with a real sense of timing. Murphy hits all the emotional beats and his storytelling is quietly masterful.
This story probably couldn’t have served as the main attraction for this comic, but it’s a truly impressive epilogue.
It’s also worth mentioning that between stories we’re treated to a number of pieces of original art from comic greats and classic Batman artists. I think that Jock and Gram Nolan’s submissions are probably the strongest, but they all say something interesting about Batman. Somewhat tellingly there are a number that pay homage to the Silver Age.
The Conclusion: It’s simultaneously humbling and distressing to be picking up Detective Comics #27. It’s a book that really shouldn’t exist, but, as it does, it’s a very impressive piece of work. The issue is undoubtedly weakened by the sheer number of anniversary issues Batman has received and how many attempt this same formula, but I’m not sure there’s been one as successful in many, many years.
It would have been nice to see some more classic writers and artists but, as the dedication at the end of “The Sacrifice” reminds us, this issue is “For the memory of Bill Finger — And the promise of the next 75.” That promise seems pretty good right now and this issue reminds us how many talented people are working on DC’s most popular hero right now.
If you’ve always dreaded these sorts of issues, I’m not sure that the beginning of Gothtopia will be enough to justify the price of admission, but I can say that Meltzer, Tomasi, and Snyder turn in particularly impressive efforts that set this comic apart from its fellows. The art is varied and beautiful and the writers each have something to say about Batman’s seventy-five years. If we have to have another Detective #27, this is a pretty fun one.
- As happy as I am to see my beloved Jean-Paul Valley in a DC publication again, I am very much confused why Kelley Jones chose the characters he did for his pin-up. I suppose they’ve all been allies to Batman at one point or another, but most have also been enemies and we’re missing a number of major players.
- Is anyone else endlessly amused that in a perfect world, Dick Grayson is minor member of the Birds of Prey?