Batman #16

Just like Batman, we too are invited to enter Arkham Asylum this month and explore the heart of Darkness. The Joker’s plan is nearing its finale and he’s challenging his Bat-king to embrace his destiny. With the clown prince of crime running circles around his protégés, how can Batman triumph on insanity’s home turf? Step inside and take a tour of the Joker’s Arkham.

Castle of Cards

Written by Scott Snyder

Art by Greg Capullo

 

As you enter you’ll notice that the tone is slightly dark, even for Snyder. And I do mean literally dark. It’s not necessarily what horrors the ace of knaves has prepared for us, but how he’s done it. Snyder, Capullo, and Mister J, himself, assault the sense of place from the first panel, guiding us through a dimly lit Arkham where the mad phantoms of the Joker’s mind fade in and out as you move through the halls.

The grim decor shows the Joker for the master of design that he is. After all, you might argue that it’s a tad sparse, but could you manage to set up a battle involving at least forty people and several horses in the “passageways” of an active mental hospital? Could physics? No. That’s why when you want the best you go to Mister J. (No horses were harmed in the making of this comic…I wish I could say that honestly.)

If you haven’t noticed by now, much as I appreciate the creepy tone of this comic, I think I might be finally succumbing to the epidemic of skepticism surrounding the Joker’s plans and competence in this story. At its heights, Castle of Cards is moody and horrific, but if we’re noticing holes in logic on a second read something’s gone wrong. One of the chief problems with this story is that it feels like one an editor should have caught and talked to Snyder about.

Comics are a serialized format and, as such, there’s rarely a rush to get through a story as long as it’s of a reasonable length. I can appreciate that, but this issue takes a gamble, prioritizing tone over story. Not too much happens in this issue. While I’m certainly happy that Snyder lets us see his madhouse, I feel like some light editing to the dream and cave sequences from last month could have allowed everything that needed to happen from this issue to be featured in that one and if that’s ever the case it probably means that the story deserves a second look at the least.

However, it is certainly worth noticing that Snyder’s talent for writing, not only the horrific, but also the tense and the severely unnerving are all apparent. The opening pages confront Batman with a kaleidoscopic arrangement of crazy that only grows more unsettling as time passes. In fact, at times, it seems that the Joker’s propensity for murder is included to help us feel comfortable, allowing us a snatch of cliché villainy to take our minds off of what he’s arranged for his beloved ‘sovereign’. And then there’s his choice in artwork…

One other thing Snyder’s done very well with is showing the careful limits of the Joker’s ability to interact with the inhabitants of Gotham. He’s still arrogant and self-serving, but his bizarre sense of generosity and ability to play well with others make him even more dangerous and less predictable. As the man says himself, “you have to play with their expectations”. Clearly Scott Snyder sees where comedy and tragedy overlap.

Snyder also continues his metaphor of the court and we even get to meet a number of them, but I feel that, at this late stage, he’s straining to make it work more than he should be; it was his idea, after all. This issue lets us see the ‘first tier’ and ‘second tier’ of Batman’s “inner circle”. Though I think it’s fair to say that Snyder showed the latter group respect by inviting them, he doesn’t do them any other favors. The “Groundskeeper” gets a single generic line before disappearing in a fashion that makes you wonder how he could possibly be a marque-level threat on his own.  We don’t even get to see the fight, though it seems that it didn’t take long (really Snyder, haven’t you done enough to the poor man?). The “Royal Player” (that’s what she said?), fares better, getting a ringing endorsement from Joker, and, by extension, Synder, but it feels like most of his scene was left on the cutting room floor. Finally, “the physician”, despite being a debatable first tier villain, is not only dispatched but embarrassed. Snyder offers a quick hand wave about how Bats is particularly “fired up”, but, even with Alfred’s life on the line, we’re clearly in bat-god territory.

The innermost court does much better for themselves (though, has it ever been clearer that Batman’s rogues gallery is a couple of white guys in suits? They even increase in level of menace by that standard, with the whitest and most ridiculously suited ruling the roost!) Still, Snyder displays a strong knowledge of each of the villains in the throne room and writes them clearly and recognizably (though not necessarily as I might like, as I’ll get to in a bit).

(One quick thing that caught my interest because I just listened to a  summary of the French Revolution, is that the throne room villains are assigned roles putting each one in charge of one of the three estates of pre-revolutionary France: the clergy, the nobles, and the people. Did Snyder think of it this way? Probably not, but given how much more believable their titles are than their contemporaries, I’m curious how much thought he gave to the functioning of his castle. Either way I kind of want to see an Elseworlds based on this.)

The Joker’s throne room has just the right kind of crazy to it (clearly, this is the same mind that brought you Joker Fish), but while Batman claims that this set-up makes him a “monster”, I can’t help but feel like it’s an uninspired finale. The whole issue sees the Joker throwing stranger and stranger puzzles at Batman, and our hero finding a way to defuse them with minimal effort. Though I praised such storytelling in my recent review of the Amazing Spider-Man #700, in a situation that lacks the life or death immediacy of that story and with the roles reversed, it drains the energy out of this issue. Any problem that Batman can solve while only moving his wrist, is one that falls short of the Joker’s level. And while it’s clear from the start that the Joker has another hand to play, neither Batman nor his enemies seem to notice that the Joker isn’t up to snuff.

Still, while the cliffhanger ending didn’t have the same effect on me that it seems to have had on others I spoke to and read about, it’s definitely a step in the right direction. And just assure me, Snyder throws in one of my favorite Joker moments of the entire arc in just before the end.

I do have one last complaint (I know, I’m such a downer this time). Earlier I mentioned that this issue’s major events could probably have fit into last month’s installment in a highly truncated form. Thinking about that, it occurred to me that would have felt awkward because there would be no way for the events of the tie-ins to take place within the span of that issue. But the gap between this issue and the last is a matter of seconds and the Joker is here all issue long! I know that I should just be impressed that this cross over has gone so smoothly, but that does bug me, especially because Snyder does briefly acknowledge the particular events of those issues. Oh well, it’s far better than most cross overs in that regard.

Now that I’ve been uncharacteristically hard on Scott Snyder, lets bring the mood back up. The art is this issue is phenomenal. Greg Capullo hasn’t had a bad issue on this series yet and I’ll have to remember to see if the feeling in my gut that this is one of his best is accurate next time I read through a chunk of this run.

Much as I complained about some of the unnecessary flourishes Snyder included, Capullo makes beautiful art of them. There’s a couple of amazing smokey pages toward the start of the issue that make me wonder why all comics can’t look this good. The answer is of course that the entire art team was clearly working together magnificently and not every comic can have so many talented people working together so well.

Capullo is the anchor of this book. Jonathan Glapion, his inker, and FCO Plascencia, his colorist, give him incredible back up and he gives them some truly spectacular lines to work with. What’s more, Capullo and Snyder just work well together. There’s something simple about the hard work that Capullo does. One could read this book looking at Snyder’s writing and conclude that it’s a book dominated by its dialogue, then turn around and read it again for Capullo’s art, only to find that it’s an overwhelmingly visual issue. It’s just solid craftsmanship. For any issues that I had with the writing it seems like this creative team was made for each other.

Capullo gives us strong renderings of seven of Batman’s biggest enemies, each one iconic but clearly his own. Especially after his recent appearances, I applaud the work on the “Royal Player”, but they’re all fantastic. Check out each of the faces on that double page spread: each one’s expressive and believable.

But there’s something special about Capullo’s Joker. The belt-face look is not my favorite interpretation for the clown prince, but where Patrick Gleason and Pete Tomasi, in my opinion, get distracted by this new design, Capullo gives us something that’s making the most of this development but no less the Joker than anything that Neal Adams gave us.

Last issue Batman entered Arkham reminding himself that the Joker is just a man. Particularly in this issue, as the crisp white of his mask starts to decay, Capullo’s Joker feels like more than just a man. He’s a force of nature. The horror of his coming is that of a college student with the world at his feet and midterms knocking at the door as he tries to deny the signs of Schizophrenia; unstoppable, uncaring, unable to be reasoned with. Capullo and Snyder both, in their own ways, seem to realize that the Joker’s power comes not from lies but from the truth and each do a fine job of setting him up as a monument that, at least until the climax of a story, cannot be denied, only ignored with tragic consequences. There’s even one panel where the Joker looks undeniably similar to the raptors from Jurassic Park, all cunning and hunger, and it doesn’t surprise for a minute. (How did I work raptors into both of my Batman reviews?) Capullo’s given us quite a treat this month.

Despite a number of disappointing elements of the writing side of things, Batman #16 is a strong issue. It may meander a bit, but it’s a strong comic and, though the writing tries and sometimes fails at achieving this very effect, the experience of reading the complete product is haunting and beautiful, all the things that draw us to the horror genre in a nice easy to swallow superhero capsule. If you’ve come this far and enjoyed Death of the Family, you should probably keep going, if only for the art. I’ve had issues with Snyder’s endings before but the man is talented and he keeps bringing me back. Death of the Family could end on a low note, but it will be a low note for Snyder and Capullo, and that tends to be none to shabby, objectively.

 

 

Judgment
By Scott Snyder and James Tynion IV
Artwork by JOCK

 

This month’s backup is a slight departure from what we’ve seen of late. While we do gain a bit more insight into the Joker and his relationship to another of Batman’s major foes, it differs in that it could easily have just been an extension of the lead story. That makes it hard to read and review this story in a vacuum, and, honestly, I think it’s not particularly helpful to try. So, with your indulgence, I’m going to blur the lines a bit. I want to look at how Snyder and Tynion handle Batman’s rogue’s gallery anyway, so I hope you won’t mind if I also talk about their small role in the main story as well.

Though James Tynion joins his mentor for the backup, Snyder’s voice is present throughout (though whether it’s due to his presence or his closeness with Tynion I can never quite tell), and he clearly has his own interpretations of these characters. Both stories show a slightly different but no less capable grasp of the Riddler as we saw last month and the Penguin walks away from this story with only a few lines but as well written as I’ve seen him in a long while.

Old Oswald has always been a tough one for writers to get a handle on. He’s fairly versatile but his lack of defining characteristics unique to his character often lead to forgettable roles or gross caricatures. Too frequently writers flounder, trying to figure out what his upper class airs and unpleasant appearance are to say about him. We often see him played as a metaphor for the monsterousness that can hide behind civility, as in his Joker’s Asylum story (which is a favorite Penguin tale of mine). Other times he’s a comment on how futile it is to hide that ugliness. And still others it’s about how we train people to stay in their proper place. The problem is that all too often these stories are neither here nor there, unable to take joy in a man who looks like a penguin or to say something moving or iconic about a Gotham City gangster. Recently I’ve been feeling that the more generic route might actually be better, that Penguin can identify himself better by simply being the best and the smartest mob boss in Gotham, but as it so often is, it seems Scott Snyder’s beaten me to it. Penguin’s role as the Pope of Gotham’s “true religion” is spot-on in my opinion. The Penguin is frequently a villain who works through other agents and keeps his hands clean; he promulgates a system of crime from which he benefits at least as much as he actually commits crime. Snyder writes him slightly obsessed with legitimacy (a statement that, by itself, activates my film major and calls The Godfather to mind), and sharp as a tack. That said, it is weird that Oswald is so desperate to escape; can’t he just claim that the Joker kidnapped him?

Finally there’s Two-Face. Much as I just rambled about the Penguin, Two-Face is a character I take great care in keeping an eye on. It’s particularly interesting to watch different writers put their own spin on Harvey’s brand of justice. Even more, it’s an interesting comment on society to watch how Harvey’s illness is portrayed. While I don’t come to Batman looking for a companion to the DSM, I think that Harvey and the Joker are important touch stones in the way we look at mental illness in comics (perhaps why they’re the two major villains in Batman’s most successful and meaningful screen outing).

In the lead feature, Snyder writes a Harvey Dent who feels colored by past stories. There’s something in his brusque, arrogant manner that immediately brings to mind Richard Moll’s take on the character from Batman: the Animated Series (which is strange, as he’s one of the few characters who I almost never read with his Animated incarnation’s voice). Additionally, the simple usage of the word “freak” in his opening line, cleverly conjures up connections to The Long Halloween, one of the classic Two-Face stories (even if I do think it’s a tad overrated). Snyder’s Two-Face is itching for a shot at Batman and his tension with the Joker hangs thick in the room. Both of these traits will become important soon and it’s a wise choice to start building them now.

Despite this good work, whether it’s Tynion’s influence or simply that he gets a greater chance to speak, Two-Face begins to fall apart for me pretty immediately in the backup. For me the cardinal sin of Two-Face writing is writing coin flips where there is no good option. Snyder and Tynion break that rule almost immediately. The Joker won’t stand for that, it’s his little morality play and he won’t have it interrupted by other members of the court. In a flash, Joker takes the Riddler and the Penguin’s power (consciousness and the value of money) away from them. But there’s still Two-Face. After last month’s excellent look at the Riddler I was excited to see such an excellent creative team give a look into one of Batman’s most dangerous and personal villains. But it was not to be.

Where the Riddler was built up all through last month’s installment, this one tears Two-Face down to the ground. Joker paints a picture of a pathetic broken man unable to commit to justice or to villainy. This Joker clearly sees something distinctly different between he and the Riddler and a punk like Two-Face. It even seems like he might put Cobblepot on the side of true villainy with him before Harvey. Especially in light of The Dark Knight the general view of the Joker that’s arisen since The Killing Joke (that of a man who found absurdity to be the only response to an indifferent universe), Joker’s disdain for Harvey’s “one bad day” and belief in a chaotic arbitrary sense of justice seems strange. And Snyder and Tynion even address that somewhat, having the Joker say that that kind of justice suits Gotham, but it’s still laced with derision that he hasn’t shown for Harvey or Gotham yet in this story. Perhaps it’s just that they’ve played their part and the Joker’s tired of stroking their egos, but the court metaphor and previous statements to Batman implies that he sees them as important members of the family.

The other thing I find interesting is the insistence that he be called Two-Face.  Joker seems to imply that Harvey is just blaming his desire to do as he pleases on psychosis and the story seems to support him. I like that the Joker calls him Harvey, but this feels like a cowardly way to characterize Two-Face. Like others in this issue, he’s given lip service but then dismissed as a legitimate threat for the Bat. When all’s said and done, this Two-Face doesn’t even have the nerve to leave it to the coin and he slumps like a defeated dog. I’m not offended or anything, but I can’t say I like how this encounter went. It diminishes the character and the central device of the story. I’m not a fan, but more than most things, that’s just personal preference, what did you think of Snyder and Tynion’s handling of the characters? Let me know in comments.

As for the writing in this story, it’s generally good, despite my issues with the content. Words flow together nicely and there’s a strong sense of pace. There are moments where things get rather wordy, too, but I have to say that I’m impressed with the entire creative team for so effectively controlling the level of tension. The size and placement of the word balloons feel just right, keeping the dialogue from droning on to avoid crowded panels while also giving the reader space to breathe. I do wonder about a couple of the bolding choices, I can’t seem to make them sound right however hard I try. But that’s bolding, a lot of people barely even notice it. I probably wouldn’t have if not for this review.

When it comes to the art, this issue is almost not fair. It’s not right to JOCK that he should have to compete with Capullo’s work this month and it’s not fair to other comics to have to compete with the two of them.

JOCK and his art team once again fill Arkham with a phenomenally haunting misty light. It feels like you could lose yourself and stumble into all kinds of madness you didn’t notice. In fact, that seems to be a conscious choice. JOCK seems to favor compositions with a high focal depth, for lack of better term. Backgrounds are sparse but solidly rendered and tend to feel far off, like the room is simply huge. He also has a couple of panels entirely without backgrounds. The effect is disorienting. I’m a big fan of it and it’s all the better for the rich colors used to bring it to life.

The Joker remains a sight to behold, one eye glowing in the dark while the other scans the room evocatively and Two-Face is a different but similarly capable rendition when compared to Capullo. It’s worth noting that Penguin and Two-Face aren’t half as attractive (in any sense) as in Capullo’s work, but I feel like many will prefer that. My favorite panel is at the bottom of the second page. It tells the whole story, even without its dialogue.

For all this excellent work, there are a couple of distracting inconsistencies. While JOCK is fine at keeping up with his own drawings, it’s weird that the Riddler is missing both his hat and his mysteriously huge sideburns. Likewise the much-loved discoloration of the Joker’s face isn’t present. And I don’t know if it’s JOCK’s fault or Snyder and Tynion’s, but where did the fake Justice League go!? Ultimately these things are small, though. Like it’s big brother, this story is extremely kind to the eyes, unlike whatever’s on that platter (am I right? No? Sorry.)

Judgement is an able supplement to the issue’s main story and a solid addition to Death of the Family overall. The writing is fine, and the art is impressive but in both areas it falls short of the lead. A quality extension of the issue marred by an underwhelming handling of a major player in Arkham’s family.

 

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