Detective Comics 17

Though last month’s issue left me ambivalent, John Layman has turned Detective Comics back into the flagship title it always should have been. We’ll be looking at both stories in this issue before we delve into spoilers. If you’re thinking of peeking, just ask yourself: What would Joker do? Actually that’s a terrible question, let’s move on.

Pursuit of Happiness
Written by John Layman
Art by Jason Fabok

It seems to me that the strength of Layman’s run comes from his back to basics approach. For the first time since I started reading comics, Detective is not only telling multiple complete stories per issue (as it did at its inception), but also laying a clear focus on the later half of the Dark Knight Detective sobriquet. I admit that Scott Snyder made a similar push to repurpose old elements of the Batman mythos (elements that have survived the transition to his excellent Batman run), but he really laid a greater emphasis on Batman’s history of gadgeteering, bringing in a kind of CSI vibe. Layman, on the other hand gives us a Batman who neither seems superfluous in a world of supermen and ever-increasing squadrons of Green Lanterns, nor falls into Bat-God territory. This issue shows both the pros and cons of this approach.

Separate but undeniably tied to last month’s Death of the Family themed installment, this issue sees Bruce on the trail of the League of Smiles, devoted to the cause of containing them before they become a serious threat (as one can’t help but notice he’s failed to do with their fiendish muse over in Batman).

Layman packs a good deal into this short script. Batman deals with the League of Smiles; their mysterious benefactor, the Merrymaker; and an unfortunate weightlifter who can’t get his meds in the chaos of the Joker’s return. We also check in with the looming threat of the Emperor Penguin (which I grow more and more convinced is a brilliant idea based entirely on an obvious pun), and see Batman working with the GCPD.

They say that every comic is somebody’s first. If you want to take that position, Layman can show you how it’s done. Despite being the first undeniable second issue in a run dominated by done-in-one stories and tied together by an overarching plot, issue 17 presents all of the facts one might need to pick up and go. What’s more, it’s a comic full of new ideas that can excite a long time reader but also makes perfect sense to those who haven’t seen Batman since Adam West was playing him (though those readers might be disturbed by some of the gruesome concepts at work here). It doesn’t matter if you didn’t know that Dick Grayson is only the first of four Robins or you’re already composing a comment to point out that Stephanie Brown makes five (how do you know that I wasn’t ignoring Damian?), this book is completely readable.

Many people have complained that Batman and his compatriots make up nearly a fourth of DC’s offerings, but one can only go so far in criticizing the individual books. Detective Comics was probably the most disappointing of the Batman titles for an entire year, but DC made sure to get that under control. Now I’d happily recommend Detective Comics to anyone looking to start reading superhero comics. It offers everything we love about intelligent serialized comics in easy to swallow single issue doses that still deliver the experience of watching a story arc grow and blossom. Even in the middle of a cross-over event, this title stays easy to follow, a rare feat, indeed.

The writing is strong, as ever. Characters sound unique, if not necessary inspired. Batman displays pretty much every element of what makes him effective in this issue and the way the story plays out allows him to prove his worth as a hero without having to degrade him by implying that the League of Smiles is a serious threat to him.

In fact, by far the biggest issue with this book is that for a title that includes the word Detective right there in the name, the mystery is not very complex. Sure, some will argue that it doesn’t have to be genius or that many classic mysteries rely on ridiculous twists and shock value more than brilliance of plot without losing esteem, but, as someone who doesn’t guess the endings of movies (embarrassingly so on some rare occasions), it was too easy. I’ll not say more until we’re ready to talk spoilers.

The art is much the same as last month. Jason Farbok turns in some very attractive pages this month. His issue with faces is greatly diminished, though one character still ends up on the wrong side of it. Backgrounds are rich without being distracting and a greater focus on Batman and the Merrymaker helps give Farbok subjects worthy of his talents.

Overall a fine issue, but one that’s better on paper than…well, on paper. Attractive art and standard writing on Layman’s part (but seriously that’s standard for Layman. Have you read Chew yet? Well, why not? This man exists in it!) make for a solid read that has either a strong plot or solid execution, because one or the other is missing. All the same, it’s a fine issue to just pick up, I just hope that Layman will be back to his old standards next month.

 

Doctor’s Orders
Written by John Layman
Art by Andy Clark

This is a great example of what a backup can do. A short little story that fills in the gaps of our lead, Doctor’s Orders is hardly essential reading but it is clever and gripping and it will probably leave a little Joker’s grin on your face once you reach the end. It’s hard to discuss the plot without spoiling both stories, so I’ll save that for later, but I will say that the short length of the piece clearly made this an example of form following function. Without the space to start a whole new story, Layman decides to elaborate on what’s come before. Honestly you’re not even there for additional insight (as I said the lead story doesn’t need much of it), you’re just there to let Layman tell a fun little Twilight Zone of a tale and stretch his writing chops.

The art bares little resemblance to Clark’s work last month. Despite the continued collaboration between Clark and Blonde, the look of this story is rather different. The colors are less muted and the style more modern. With much more color and action on the panels, Clark’ still gorgeous shading doesn’t have to handle so much.  Perhaps this too can be attributed to the change of topic as the resemblance to the previous issue skyrockets in many of the drab clinical panels of talking heads (oh come on, that’s a stretch. That’s better).

Like many comics I’ve much enjoyed, there are a few moments that feel more brilliant than they are, but Doctor’s Orders is well worth the one dollar DC’s taking from you.

 

 

 

From here on out we’re in spoiler territory, if you don’t have the stomach for it you should turn back now.

 

 

Alright?

 

 

Alright.

 

 

Now we can talk? Seriously!? Merideth’s the Merrymaker!? How obvious could you be, you started the issue with a full-page of him electrocuting a mentally ill person (I said to John Layman as if he were reading this). While the way this comes to light is moderately clever, it required Batman to draw attention to an already jarring story element, Merideth’s supposed disfigurement.

There’s a rule in comics, if you don’t see a body, they’re not dead. Even then, they’re probably not dead, so a body without a face hardly counts. Even worse Farbok seems to draw Merideth’s corpse as a skull sitting atop a pristine body, despite Batman’s repeated claims that the body is charred beyond recognition. The GCPD gets a bad rap, but if you can only identify a body from dental records, it better not have fingerprints, and I don’t think it’s excessive to say that I don’t see any reason that body wouldn’t. The point is that this strange artistic quirk draws attention to the idea that someone wants Merideth to be unidentifiable and in such cases the person in question is often at the top of the list of answers to that old detective query: Cui Bono, who benefits.

All that venom spat, I have to applaud Layman and Fabok for their design of the Merrymaker character. In a world saturated by supervillains, the Merrymaker was able to stand out from the crowd of D-listers with his intelligent costume and its attractive coloring. What’s more, it contained some rather clever hints as to who was behind the mask. From the flowing black coat that works as a dark version of Merideth’s own lab coat, to the goggles he wears to replace his similarly shaped spectacles, to the mask that recalls the look of a renaissance plague doctor and the Italian carnival mask based on them, everything about the Merrymaker’s costume screams out its owner’s identity. If only some of those clues had been used instead of the clunkers we got.

There’s another matter I’d like to quickly discuss. As an avid fan of comics and an aspiring writer, myself, I take comics with a level of seriousness. After all, in a wonderful world they could be my livelihood. In recent years there has been increasing scrutiny on the comics industry to present better portrayals of disenfranchised groups. Though each instance leads me to my own personal level of commitment or outrage, as a rule, I stand with these calls for change. However one of the groups most frequently portrayed by comics often has a hard time being taken seriously when they or those working with them in mind try to change the way they are portrayed in comics: people with mental illnesses.

I have a friend who is involved with mental health advocacy who I frequently discuss movies with. He isn’t a comics fan, but I greatly enjoy his perspectives on comic book movies. We have both agreed generally on The Dark Knight and the Dark Knight Rises, but I’ll always remember that he doesn’t like Batman Begins. Now I’ll say here that I don’t actually love Batman Begins all that much myself, but I wouldn’t say that I dislike it or that it in any way was a movie I would try to avoid seeing if that was the way an evening was going (at least no more than any movie I’ve seen a few times). When I asked him what about it he didn’t like, he admitted that most (though not all) of his issues had to do with the movie’s portrayal of those in the mental health system. Now, how the Dark Knight got a thumbs up on that count is beyond me, but he made a good point and ever since I’ve tried to look at the depictions of mental illness in comics less in terms of ‘is this possible’ and more in terms of ‘does this imply something about those with mental disorders, in general’. Comics frequently fail me on both fronts.

I’m talking about this now because this book has a number of moments that I feel reflect a complicated and not entirely comfortable relationship with mental illness. I will say that there is more subtly in this issue than in many, more than some that are far more agreeable to me, in fact.

The fact that Batman recognizes that Dane Butler is suffering from withdrawal from some very serious drugs shows that Layman is thinking about the issues that those struggling with mental health issues might face in this situation and while Batman seems fairly indifferent to his long-term needs I definitely read his matter-of-fact manner of thought and action regarding him as implying an, at least modest, concern for someone who is operating outside of their full control, on drugs at the behest of someone with the authority but not the right to prescribe them to him.

However there are several troubling elements to this scene alone. Most notably is the bow in his hair and the fact that he may or may not be wearing a dress. I’m not even touching the gender issues there, but, while I could accept an excuse that this is part of his circus obsession, I’m not familiar enough with circus costumes to say it’s familiar and, if not, it serves more to imply a strangeness and, possibly, childlike quality of thought. Fabok’s art doesn’t help matters.

Similarly, Dr. Merideth’s serious abuse of power is glossed over by Batman’s investigation. One could say that the nature of his crimes is self-evident, but I’m sad to say that I’m not sure we live in that world. I think an equivalent argument could be made for this to be a story about an intelligent white man using the mentally ill as his puppets because they don’t know better. I’m honestly not sure which was intended, but surely there was a way to write this that would do an equally commendable job without that ambiguity.

Most interesting in this regard is the backup feature. Layman, rather brilliantly ties Merrymaker’s origin to Harley Quinn’s and recounts how he set about manipulating his patients. Though he’s the villain, there were moments when I was vaguely uncomfortable with Dr. Merideth’s disdain for the mentally ill. Even more intriguing is the horror he faces when it’s implied that he might be sent to Arkham. While I take no offense at the suggestion that Arkham is a truly abominable mental health facility, there’s a certain horrific quality that doesn’t give one the impression of progressive thought. When Merideth exclaims “Please! Those people are crazy in there! Legitimately crazy, sick!” I’m not sure he understands what he’s saying, especially as he adds “They’re monsters, and in Arkham they get treated like monsters!”

It’s not the first time a villain has been defined by their hatred for a group of people, not by a long shot. But when Tommy Elliot talks about Bruce Wayne’s “gutter sluts”, I think (read: hope) we all know that he’s not only wrong but incredibly misogynist (I mean come on, Zatanna is a classy lady). Here, I’m not so sure.

While Merideth is eventually punished for his wrongdoings, we’re never made to know that his cruel and manipulative use of people who depended on their doctor to help them is being counted as one of them and the story swerves away from the obvious need to comment on his issues to an, admittedly clever, twist ending.

Despite my love for this dramatic finale to the Merrymaker’s story I can’t help but think that any good psychologist would at least consider sending Merideth to Arkham. Though he’s right to remind the interviewing psychologist that sociopathy is “notoriously difficult to accurately diagnose,” he implies that it’s being left entirely at the therapist’s discretion. It’s not.

What he means to say is that the diagnostic criteria for anti-social personality disorder are vague and that many people we might classify as sociopaths are able to avoid diagnoses, precisely because they are sociopaths. Acknowledging that there are flaws in the system, it still applies to Merideth rather well. Merideth displays a callous unconcern for the feelings of others; gross and persistent disregard for social norms’ as evidenced by his criminal activities and misuse of power; the lack of a capacity to maintain enduring relationships, as implied by his apparently violent divorce; a possible low tolerance to frustration and a low threshold for violence, inadequately but, nonetheless, evidenced by his attempt to murder his wife with a knife; an incapacity to experience guilt or to profit from experience, clearly demonstrated in his therapy session; and a proclivity to offer plausible rationalizations for his behavior, as seen in his claim that the mentally ill cannot be rehabilitated. These are all six of the diagnostic criteria that the World Health Organization use to diagnose dissocial personality disorder. The DSM IV has its own criteria. I (a random guy on the internet with no formal training of any kind) would diagnose Merideth as potentially exhibiting at least four of the seven symptoms described in the DSM. It takes three to diagnose someone with anti-social personality disorder.

This being the case, it’s clear that Arkham should be a possibility for Merideth. In fact, Merideth’s attempt to bargain for better accommodations in Blackgate on the basis of professional courtesy is a strong indicator of disordered behavior in itself. I’m not saying that Merideth is a sociopath, but I’m saying that anyone as well acquainted with the mental health system as Merideth should have known better than to gleefully confess his crimes when his greatest risk was being diagnosed with a disorder characterized by egotism and lack of empathy. He should also understand that while “Gotham is probably the only city on the planet that criminals don’t want to be found not guilty by reason of insanity,” it’s not necessarily a better option for them elsewhere, particularly if they’re in a situation where they might be trading a short prison term for an indefinite stay in a psychiatric facility. I suppose I’ll just treat that information as an example of karmic punishment.

The point is that, much as I love this series, it, and Batman in general, need to consider that until language exists to differentiate “comic book mental illness” from “regular mental illness”, people will conflate the two.

Thanks for forgiving me my moment on the soapbox and I hope you enjoyed the review.

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