Detective Comics 16

There are a lot of issues we could consider in looking at Detective Comics 16. We could discuss the nature of comic character franchises and how they’re run by the Big 2. We could discuss the effect that changes in creative teams can cause and their effect on a title’s identity or lack thereof. Or we could discuss how crazy it is that I can honestly say “I went to Jim Hanley’s today and picked up Detective Comics 16 and the first issue of Spiderman.” And perhaps we will, but, primarily, I think I want to consider how multi-title events affect comics.

Nothin’ but Smiles
Written by John Layman
Art by Jason Fabok

I’d like to start by saying that if you didn’t pick up issues 13-15 of Detective Comics, that I highly recommend giving them a shot. Layman has been doing great things with the title, and unfortunately for me, I waited until there was anĀ aberrant issue to review his work. That’s not to say that this is a bad issue – in fact, I think the question of how good or bad this issue is is a very interesting one – but I wouldn’t base your opinion of the series on it.

When we left off last month, Clayface was hunting Poison Ivy in the backup for manipulating him, mentally raping him (by some interpretations), and violating the sanctity of his marriage (and she’s written as sympathetic, goodness, I love this title!). At the same time, in the main story, the Penguin’s right hand man staged a coup, seizing control of his organization and proclaiming himself the new Penguin, Emperor Penguin! All the while the Joker lurks in the background as these events play put between breaths in the Death of the Family storyline.

So how will Batman deal with this prolific plethora of putrid pilferers? He won’t. Not here anyway. Though the Emperor Penguin’s plots advance, Batman is unable to deal with him, being detained by a clown-themed crime wave, inspired by the Joker’s disappearance and return.

Let’s start with the art. There’s no denying that Jason Fabok can draw an attractive comic, he makes that clear on the first page. His Batman is strong and iconic. He’s got a kind of Brian Bolland by way of David Finch thing going on, to be honest. His backgrounds are detailed. His compositions: dramatic. And the man can draw a clown, which is an important skill this month.

The one thing I will say is that his work is a little realistic for me. Much as I think he shows clear talent, his style falls relatively flat for me when he’s drawing human faces. And since there isn’t really a super villain to speak of in this issue, you’ll be seeing a lot of human faces. They’re not bad, but they’re not great in my opinion. I kind of feel that unless you’re Alex Ross, being realistic just puts you more and more in danger of entering the uncanny valley. I like my art to make some stylistic choice and stick with it rather than try to be as realistic as it can (see my review of Heart of Hush or even of this issues backup to see what I mean).

It’s a personal preference and it will likely be less noticeable next issue. Overall Fabok is a good choice for this book. Now onto the other half of the creative team.

I can’t claim any special understanding of writer John Layman’s mind – I haven’t read any interviews relevant to this issue and I’ve only just started reading Chew (another comic I strongly suggest) – but there are reasonable assumptions that can be deduced. It’s Detective Comics, after all. So looking at this issue and the last it seems reasonable to conclude that Layman either had a very careful plan for how to deal with the Death of the Family crossover or that it was something he had to find a way to include after drawing up his plans, perhaps one and then the other, even.

Those looking for more of Emperor Penguin will get it but it seems that he and the Joker have switched priority for Layman, even if the latter is doing his murder by proxy. This issue is kind of a casual night for Batman. It’s one of those stories that you know must occur but usually doesn’t get honored with a full issue. In that way, it’s actually a little like the first issue of Layman’s run, with Batman hunting down gang members as a Penguin watches (context is everything). Some people really like these stories, but for others it can feel like a sub-standard choice, a b-story that got too big for itself. I’m actually about halfway between.

I think the idea that the force of the Joker’s iconography causes a spike in crime is brilliant. It makes perfect sense to me, especially after seeing the reaction to The Dark Knight, particularly the fangirls’ (sorry fangirls, but some of you were romanticizing a sociopath with a proven record of abusive relationships in the comics largely with the justification that Heath Ledger is an attractive man). The problem for me is the execution. While I entirely believe that self-proclaimed nihilists and some teenagers fed up with society’s bullshit could fall in with a Joker gang, there’s simply too many of them. I had the same complaint a year and a half ago when Detective Comics #1 featured a pro-Joker rally. While it’s easy to idealize the Joker as a symbol for reforming destruction, it’s hard to believe how prevalent the worship of that world’s worst mass murderer was under Tony Daniel’s pen. One could make an argument that Layman was playing the hand he was dealt but I think he could have toned it down, every writer has the choice of what elements of continuity they emphasize.

Additionally, while it may be fun to watch Batman beat up wannabe Jokerz, you’ll be seeing a lot of it if you pick up this issue.

All the same, this book can claim one thing over any of the other Death of the Family tie-ins: it feels fresh! This isn’t another issue of the Joker running circles around Batman and his allies as we wait for Scott Snyder to let this story make meaningful progress, nor is it a footnote to Snyder’s primary tale as Detective was during the Night of Owls crossover, rather Layman has found a way to feel relevant to Death of the Family Gotham without the hollow insistence of necessity that has become the despised hallmark of the tie-in issue. This is the kind of thinking I’d like to see in all future crossovers. I mean, wouldn’t it be more fun to see the Joker call in the Riddler to take down Nightwing and see how Batman’s heir-apparent handles sparring with the royal strategist? Doesn’t that do more for the argument that Gotham is for Batman and his villains alone? Trying to replicate the success of the main book by just throwing the Joker at Batman’s allies doesn’t work, it just makes watered-down imitations, unable to live up to Snyder’s work or the other issues of the host series. The point is, despite its shortcomings, this issue feels like a real comic, and, though both DC and Marvel have been getting better about that, we still live in a world where that’s something to be commended a tie-in for.

Unfortunately, for all the hard work put into connecting this title to the current bat-event, this month’s installment sees Layman slipping a bit. He’s been a student of the Jeph Loeb school of Batman monologue since he started, but this time it grates on me a little more. It just doesn’t seem as necessary as in other issues and, as a result, becomes tedious (another clue that Layman might have been under pressure on this issue).

More distressing is the actual plot. Torch’s story is a bit much, and the book is clear enough about it to make you question its believability but just vague enough to leave you scratching your head. I won’t go into details, but his connection to the League of Smiles and his origin both seem to contain some leaps of logic. Not to mention that his last scene in the issue seems both contradictory and overwrought. Just assume that all face-paint in this issue is actually tattoos.

I will say that it’s lovely that Layman has insisted on keeping the focus on strong emotional beats and one issue character arcs. Both are welcome choices that I wish more writers would make. And the ‘moral’ of the story is perfect. Unfortunately it trips over its own melodrama and wordiness. It would have done this issue a world of good.

So what can we conclude? Was this issue a casualty of DC’s editorial staff and the Death of the Family event? It’s actually hard to say. I think you could make a compelling argument that it was preplanned, but then why was it so poorly and shallowly foreshadowed. Layman’s Detective Comics has benefitted greatly from its method of treating each issue as a single complete cog in a larger mechanism, but now that’s making it hard to tell if it’s the lack of a stronger connection to the other issues or simply a writer being told to change his plans that led to this stumble for the series.

What’s more, there’s the last page to consider. I won’t spoil anything but it piqued my interest in a big way. Consider me super interested to see more of this character. Is my costume design nerdom showing? (If it wasn’t then, it is now.)

It seems strange that the book would end this way if this was intended as event tie-in filler. Perhaps Layman just insists on making the best of an editorial demand. But DC has been so clear that the whole point of the ‘Snyder Method’ is to prevent sub-par event tie-ins. Then again, if that’s true how can we explain Red Hood and the Outlaws and Teen Titans’ contributions to the storyline (cue largely deserved Scott Lobdell hate). Those who have been following DC’s internal politics may find it unsurprising that Editorial isn’t living up to their lofty promises, but even that doesn’t totally explain the issue at hand.

I think we’ll need to return to the scene of the crime to draw any solid conclusions about what’s gone on. Perhaps I’ll get to fulfill my dream of being Batman next month. Layman’s doing great work on this title but the high quality of his work and his commendable handling of this crossover only serve to highlight this issue’s failings. In the end, Nothin’ but Smiles fails to live up to its name. You’ll get a couple, but it’s far from the best issue of this title.

Pecking Order
Written by John Layman
Art by Andy Clarke

When Layman took over Detective Comics, it was a guy at my Local Comic Shop that pushed me over the edge and convinced me it was worth a look. Since then I check in on the title every month when we’re talking and every month he says the same thing: “I liked the backup even better than the main story.”

I’m not sure I agree entirely, but there’s no denying that Layman has gotten good use out of those extra pages. So far he’s used them to look at some of his villains, always a welcome endeavor in my book, and this month returns us to where we started: Ignatius Ogilvy, the man who would be Penguin.

Layman uses a simple framing device that adds charm and class to this view of the new Penguin’s rise to power. Ogilvy is an odd bird, but a likable one. He conducts himself in the appropriate manner for a crime boss, and while the story lingers a bit, fans of the genre will likely enjoy watching him cement his power. That’s not to say that he’s a perfect fit for the job. Though I can’t quite read Layman’s intent, Ogilvy reads slightly delusional, at best. It’s fun to have a character in Gotham who’s crazy less as a superpower and more as a mental disorder.

Emperor Penguin dominates this backup, making a verbose play for the loyalty of Oswald Cobblepot’s lieutenants. These new faces are not given much space to grow but they are at least fun inventions for artist Andy Clarke to play around with. That said, much as I complained about the Batman fighting average people in the lead, I wish that “Gotham’s organized crime families”, if these are, in fact, them, weren’t “Freaks“. Though I’ve never much cared for the Maronis or the Falcones, they had their place in Gotham. It’s not like Penguin squarely falls into the supervillain category.

The art is nice, well suited to the story at hand. And the shading is exquisite. I can’t remember the last time I read a comic and thought “that’s nice shading!” It’s also really nice that Clarke is capable and willing to play around with different looking faces. Much as I don’t want to disparage Yilidray Cinar, I was just talking yesterday about how overly similar faces can hurt a comic book. While most artists do make distinctions in the faces of their characters, I don’t know when I last saw one do so with such clarity as Clarke. Even better, it doesn’t draw unnecessary attention to itself. A fine job, though I’m sorry to say that it’s a style better suited to the backups than superhero adventure.

Overall, this is a solid backup. Does it add much to Layman’s story? No, not really. But it’s Detective Comics, those extra pages are going to be there pretty much no matter what. What better time to give us a moody noir scene? Besides, it’s still only as expensive as a Marvel Book.