Batman 15

After looking at Damian’s contribution to the Bat-Family event, we go to the king himself: Batman as interpreted by Snyder, Tynion, Capullo, and Jock.

But Here’s the Kicker

Written by Scott Snyder
Art by Greg Capullo

So here’s the joke: The entire Bat-Family walks into the cave. Nightwing says, “Hey, it really seems like the Joker knows who we are.”  Bruce tells him, “There’s no way he could know.” So Batgirl says, “we have effectively conclusive evidence and his statement that he does, how are you so sure?” And Bruce replies, “I’m Batman.”

No good? Sheesh, tough crowd, you try summarizing an issue in cheesy joke form (seriously though, if you’ve got any good ones I’d love to hear it). Alright, alright, stop me if you heard this one before. 

So Nightwing confronts Batman about a case that overwhelmingly points in one direction that he refuses to accept. Batman tells him a story from his past and says that they can’t afford to let emotion cloud their judgement. Nightwing says “Who’s we, kemosabe?” And then – this is the best part – Batman acts like a – what? You have heard it? It was also written by Scott Snyder and featured Batman breaking free for no discernible reason at a critical moment? What’s it called? The Aristocrats!? What? No? Oh, right, The Court of Owls, Snyder’s last Batman story!

Well fair enough, this issue also features some trippy imagery and most of the themes that Batman should have already learned from in The Court of Owls, but apparently that’s Scott Snyder’s thing. Honestly I wouldn’t mind it as much if they weren’t separated from each other by one issue. While Snyder is definitely a good writer, one of the best Batman has seen in a number of years, as I call it, he is more than a little repetitive and his skills, great as they are, could get on your nerves, even if you enjoyed it the first time.

But for all the double dipping and slight contrivances that get characters from one impossible situation to the next this is still an excellent issue of Batman.

First off, it must be said that Snyder writes a mean Joker (pun intended). From the first page of The Black Mirror (which you should really read if you like Snyder or Batman), Scott Snyder reminded me of Paul Dini and the excellent grasp of Gotham he had during Batman: the Animated Series but, when it comes to the Joker, Snyder summons up Grant Morrison’s work on Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on a Serious Earth. While I’m not a huge fan of Morison’s and I think Arkham has aged some, it’s hard to deny the influence that version of the Joker has had. Honestly if you mix in a healthy serving of Paul Dini’s Joker (my Joker, by the way), a bit of the Christopher Nolan gang lord/anti-gang Joker, and just a pinch of Joker’s Five Way Revenge (Available at all Laughing Fish restaurants and in at the end of the Toxin aisle in your local grocery store) you’ll get something not dissimilar from what Snyder has cooked up for us, and that’s a fine pedigree.

The central conceits of this issue, classic Joker stuff as they are, are that the Joker has a strange, nearly romantic relationship with Batman and that the Joker lives on the border between a man in lipstick and force of anarchic psychopathy made flesh.  Snyder’s done well here in my eyes, as I think these are, at least elements of, the most important Joker attributes of the modern age. The nearly Shakespearean court metaphor only helps highlight the way that the Joker serves to elevate Batman from mystery man to superhero, something I’m fairly sure I’ll write about again as it’s a favorite element of Batman’s mythos and part of why I think the Joker is so successful.

Snyder’s Joker has a delightfully creepy sing-song cadence that he emphasizes with carefully chosen bolding and drawn out syllables. What’s also great is the restraint he shows in his writing, lingering just long enough on a thought to express it but quickly moving on as the Joker’s fractured psyche slips toward a new wonderful awful idea. Slipping tiny fragments of bedroom whispers in alongside Peter Pan, Snyder crafts a Joker who’s smart and lyrical. My favorite line comes in a flashback and perfectly expresses Joker’s tenuous grip on reality.

Snyder also does an admirable job balancing the distinct personalities of the Bat-Clan as they assemble in the cave. Nightwing is a fine balance of childlike hurt and wonder, youthful outrage, and that strange uneasy quality that comes from becoming an equal adult to your parent. Likewise, Barbara reads as someone who could be equally comfortable as a librarian or a congresswoman, listening attentively one minute but entirely unafraid to tell Bruce that he’s full of shit. Scott Lobdell’s characters seem to be trickier for Snyder but, in Tim’s case, I suppose someone has to be that inquisitive child balancing respect for Bruce with clear worries about his logic and, as for Jason…why is Jason there!? I know they try to lampshade it and it’s all in the spirit of the crossover and bringing the family together but Jason seems to have a wildly fluctuating relationship with the rest of the clan. I wish Snyder or Lobdell would lock that down a little. While a couple of personalities are different than in their own books, you’ve got to give Snyder credit for writing a cohesive scene with unique characterizations for the entire Bat-Family (some, I imagine, would be much happier with this dynamic than what we’ve seen over the past year and a bit).

By the way, one last digression on this matter. Does it still feel weird to anyone else that the Bat-Family now has more than three Robins and now has less than two Batgirls? And there’s not even a Huntress or an Azrael to break it up either. Just feels wrong somehow. Anyway…

Now that we’ve thoroughly discussed Scott Snyder’s work, we have to at least mention how much Greg Capullo brings to the table. If not for the belt-face that will likely date it, that first page would probably go down as one of the classic Joker panels. The rain, the explosions, the glow of the bat-computer, they’re all beautiful, both in themselves and the way they play off the rest of the scenes they’re in. I also love the layouts, though I don’t know enough the process of designing them to discuss them as well as I’d like. I suppose what’s so nice about them is that they feel like they control the story, not the other way around. Clearly Capullo knows his craft and knows how to express through layouts rather than picking whatever it seems the script demands. It’s one of those things that makes you feel like this is a very special series, like you’re reading one of those runs that may well be considered comic art before long.

He also makes great use of cinematic techniques and light and darkness in both his panels and his frames and motion is rendered expertly. To be honest there really is a movie-like quality to his work that doesn’t sacrifice the unique and powerful conventions of the comics medium. It’s not only pretty art but it’s good art, at least from the standpoint of someone who dropped out of art history.

I will mention that the range of eye colors in Capullo’s world seems to run from storm grey to dazzling blue to kryptonite green. And they’re all gorgeous! To live in a world of such eyes would be a lovely thing but it does seriously remind how weird it is that Gotham only allows blue-eyed superheroes, most of them with statistically improbable black hair, too.

While this story does a number of really great things it doesn’t fully break free from problems present in Death of the Family or Snyder’s other work, for that matter. And even the most fervent supporters of the tale have to admit that it’s the middle point of the classic superhero formula: the escape of the villain and regrouping of the heroes. It’s our moment to breathe and look over the ever-increasing but baffling clues before the Joker pulls it all together in his fiendish masterpiece and in that respect it’s quite good, but it’s likely not the most interesting issue of Death of the Family. All the same, if you’re not excited about this story yet, you probably never will be.

Red Light, Green Light

Written by Scott Snyder and James Tynion IV
Art by Jock

So my jokes are no good, how bout a riddle? What’s sharp rather than slimy, cute when we meet it but lethal when we leave, and ancient but thoroughly modern? The answer of course is frog DNA in InGen bred velociraptors on scenic Isla Nublar, Costa Rica…or Edward Nygma under Snyder and Tynion’s pen (see this is why I’m not going to get to write Batman comics).

Let’s get the obvious out of the way. The art is great. If you’ve seen any of Jock’s Batman work lately you already knew the art would be great. I actually prefer Capullo’s art in this issue but it’s not a zero-sum game. Jock’s harsh lines and deep shadows set the tone of a quiet empty night at Arkham and the colors are superb. I don’t know what it is that I like so much but that blue that pervades much of the story just puts me in Arkham. Jock also makes great use of the Joker’s appearance, both the classic and the belt-faced attributes. There’s one amazing panel of his eyes that I keep going back to.

As for his Riddler, well obviously this isn’t quite the Riddler but it’s surely Edward Nygma. More than with many characters, I really feel the personality of this Riddler in face, not only in his expressions but just the shape of his face screams out his personality. I think it’s something about his hair. And speaking of the hair, thank god they backed off from the Mohawk. You can debate all you want about who got the silliest, 90’s’est costume in the reboot but the fact is that Edward Nygma just dodged a bullet in a big way.

As for the script, well to be honest it’s not playing entirely fair. You see, this is a build up story. It’s one of those issues that fans love because they’re basically a writer’s game to see how pure a reserve of a character’s awesome they can tap. Actually fans either love OR hate those issues because that’s how their minds often work but if you dare make fan fic like this you’ll probably end up flamed. Nonetheless, if there’s a character in Batman’s rogue’s gallery who needed a story like that it’s probably the Riddler (or Killer Croc but that doesn’t suit my review).

It’s hard to know how much of this issue is Snyder and how much is Tynion but if this issue is any indication of what the promised Riddler story arriving next year will be like, you can count me excited. While Frank Gorshin was much beloved he never felt like THE Riddler, at least not for this era. I remember seeing a quote from a writer on Batman: the Animated Series along the lines of ‘we didn’t use the Riddler often because it was too hard to come up with his riddles and things got too weird too quickly. He just wasn’t easy to write.’ I wonder if this is part of why you don’t see a lot of great Riddler stories these days. They say a character is only as smart as their writer, maybe that’s why lot of writers stay away from Eddie these days or tend to wind up with substandard interpretations. Riddler just doesn’t feel threatening the way he used to, after all, look how often I call him ‘Eddie’ in this review.

To be a little more objective about it, consider this: I’ve heard all about a famous Neil Gaiman Riddler story (which, in fairness I haven’t read) where Nygma declares “The Joker’s killing people, for God’s sake…was I away when they changed the rules?” Cute an idea as this is, Snyder and Tynion’s Riddler is hardly that old throw-back and thankfully he’s not some murder-obsessed attempt to reinvent the character. He’s a rediscovery, digging up much of what fans love about old Eddie and acting as if he was never gone. Though we only get a taste, he’s infinitely more tolerable than his recent appearance in Batman: Arkham City. He’s arrogant, but he’s not annoying. And in a rather subtle moment (that’s still noticeable, silly as that sounds), Snyder and Tynion make it clear that this Edward Nygma is not one to trifle with as he casually watches the Joker’s mad demands from his cell. The Riddler here doesn’t have an ounce of empathy in his body.

I also can let this review go by without mentioning how delightful a moment it was when I realized that they DID take Eddie’s Riddler suit from him. The first page of the story really convinces you of a life for him beyond the frames and that’s always solid writing.

Their Joker cuts right to the point, making a strong case for why the Riddler’s still relevant. His unique view of Gotham as a stage for grand morality plays puts him closer to our vantage than we might realize or even like to admit and his praise has a meta-textual quality that thankfully never strays from Joker’s perspective into Snyder or Tynion’s. They use the overarching motifs of Death of the Family well, probably better than any other save the original court jester line. Tynion and Snyder also do a lot to aid their story by focusing on the relationship between the two villains. Besides putting the assumption many lapsed or non-fans seem to hold that the Riddler and the Joker must be connected somehow to good use, it also aids the story’s argument and brings back that lovely sense of community that pops up between villains less and less these days.

As I said, they’re not exactly playing fair and the issue could be viewed as a bizarre crash course of Worfing, selling it’s praise of the Riddler with the Joker’s high opinion of him and then turning around to show how the Joker’s still the king of Gotham’s underworld.

In the end it’s a deeply satisfying but intellectually shallow reintroduction to one of Batman’s greatest enemies. It may be comics candy but I feel very interested to see what Snyder has in store for the Riddler next year. Besides, when’s the last time your comic had a good death trap?