Detective Comics 900

Has it really been seventy-six years already?

Really? A full quarter of a century since this first graced newsstands? Actually, that’s a little bit sad. Has it only been that long since that was ok?

Well either way that’s how it is, and, in that time, there have been a mind-blowing nine-hundred issues of Detective Comics. Sadly the New 52 reboot and the eight-hundred-and-eighty-one issues of the first volume of Tec leave us with the rather unimpressive number nineteen, but it’s the nine-hundredth issue of the longest running comic in history!

Strangely enough, despite its sideline importance of late, this issue is less a reflection of Detective Comics’ storied past but a promise to followers of the Bat-line that there is more to come.

Indeed, the first story reads much like a Detective Comics #19 would if it were just another month, without an anniversary or a cover gimmick. Most of the backup stories are also nothing that wouldn’t fit in in a normal issue, though not all at once. So does that mean that the issue is a letdown? Yes and no.

The 900

Written by John Layman

Art by Jason Fabok

There really is something about John Layman’s Detective Comics. It never aspires to quite the same heights as its brother, Batman, but it never disappoints either. Clearly it’s the sturdy reliable title in this family. That said, what’s nicest about the book is the way that it continues to bring new ideas and style to the table. This isn’t a safe, middle-of-the-road book, it’s just a solid title, month after month. And while some readers may be growing tired of Emperor Penguin’s never-ending schemes, it does make for a lovely two tiered story each month.

This week we’re treated to a hoard of man-bat knockoffs, led by a mutated Victor Zsasz. While that might sound like a recipe for epic in your mind (or possibly cause for eye-rolling), let me just say that it never reaches the levels of intensity you might expect (for better or worse).

One thing that Layman has and continues to do excellently is give us a Batman of impressive but reasonable power. That is to say that you won’t find him gritting his teeth through multiple gunshots on one page only to prove a master of all martial arts on the next. This Batman relies on his mind and his allies, and while it isn’t the most exhilarating way to plot the story, it isn’t the Zsasz-Bat that gives him trouble so much as the threat of an encroaching plague.

I won’t spoil the solution yet, but I will say that it’s not what you’d expect from an anniversary issue. In the end, this is just another Batman tale. Whether Layman undersold it, or DC’s marketing oversold it, The 900 is not everything it could have been, in fact, it appears that it may have been just another clog in Layman’s grand design. On one hand, I can’t help but think that its dangerous to make the lead story in an eighty-page special little more than standard (mediocre reviews like this one will probably dissuade more than one person from plopping down the $8.00 it takes to own this little piece of history), however, I must admit that when a nearly triple-sized comic is merely part of your long game, I kind of want to see where this leads.

Layman is clearly comfortable depending on that thought, as he uses this story and the others to really explore the state of Gotham after the death of a Robin, an attack by the Joker, and an invasion of Man-Bats (are they still “Man”-Bats when they’re  statistically likely to be at least 51% female?). Little moments like Batman’s response to Zsasz’s escape do a lot to remind us of the truly superheroic Batman that we (at least, I) knew as children. Layman also manages to convey Batman’s solitary nature without making him seem like a dick (no offense to Nightwing). In other words, the writing is solid, even if the plot lacks the oomph that it needs.

Jason Fabok, as ever, turns in some lovely pages. Most importantly for this story, he can draw a cool Mat-Bat, not as easy a skill as one might think. He also knows just what image to draw. Reading this issue, I noticed that it was not unlike a well-crafted film trailer. Look at the page where Batman enters apartment 4D, for instance. Tell me those panels don’t flow together with some thumping music and mild camera movements. The whole issue is like that.

Both Layman and Fabok give us an unashamed, unapologetic Batman, retaining all that a modern fan knows and loves while giving us a very old-school, iconic version of Dark Knight.

There’s more to be said, but for those who don’t want spoilers, the point is this: The 900 is a solid Batman story, but that’s about it. There are some flashes of brilliance that I’ll get to in a moment, but whether it’s worth $7.99 is really a matter of how willing you are to pay that much for a story that won’t likely be looked back upon any more than Layman’s other work. It’s still the same high quality comics that you’ve come to expect from this team, but for this issue, for that price, it may not be enough.

 

 

 

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.

 

 

The truly interesting things about this story, to me, are the effects of the New 52. I admit that I had been hoping that the 900 was a reference to Zsasz’s nine-hundredth kill, and that the Man-Bats would just be a way to put Zsasz on a more equal playing field with Batman. Alas it was not to be.

Some of you may be asking why Man-Bat army isn’t enough for me? The answer is simple and two-fold. Firstly, it’s been done before. Grant Morrison decided that Man-Bat-Ninjas were Talia al Ghul’s thing way back in 2007. And second, it fell flat for me then too.

There are different kinds of heroes and villains. There are the ones like Spiderman or the Flash who have to live up to the impossible powers that fate has bestowed upon them, and then there are those like Batman and Guy Gardener who bend whatever is around them towards their own ends. Though, in the end, all heroes tend to be somewhere between those two, with accidental heroes discovering that they were perfect for it all along, the simple fact (well evidenced, especially of late) is that Peter Parker isn’t the only person who can be Spiderman. Certainly he’s the only one who could be the Spidey we know and love, but other, differently valid Spidermen could exist. On the other hand, Batman has had a noticeably more difficult time leaving a true successor. Azrael failed miserably, and though Dick Grayson made admirable strides, he was derided as a replacement Batman right up until his return to the Nightwing name. Only Terry McGuinness has managed to inherit the mantle of the bat peacefully, and even then, only under Bruce’s direct supervision. Guy Gardener is perhaps an even better example, there are already over seven-thousand other Green Lanterns, for that matter, there’s already another white male American Green Lantern, but there can only ever be one Guy Gardener, and there’s not a soul in the corps that will tell you differently. What defines Batman and Guy Gardener isn’t their powers, it’s who they are.

With that in mind, it’s my personal opinion that every character possessing powers needs a reason that they’re the best person for the job. Sometimes, however, there simply isn’t. Consider Killer Croc, for instance. Is there a reason that he’s the best reptile-man around? Not really, he’s just the one born that way. The same goes for Man-Bat. Kirk Langstrom was never a superior Man-Bat, he was just the original.

When Talia created her Mat-Bat Ninja, Kirk suddenly became obsolete.

But here, Layman gives us an excellent new origin story for Man-Bat (who coincidentally was introduced 500 issues ago in Detective Comics #400). Highlighting the inherent nobility of Langstrom’s character, Layman gives us a reason that he is the one true Man-Bat, and Fabok draws him to match. The switch from Talia’s army being a squad of knock-offs to Kirk being the final evolution of the concept is an excellent one and one that also shows us some interesting but dangerous ways that DC can play with this new world they’ve created.

Grant Morrison’s Batman, Batman and Robin, and Batman Inc. are now pretty solidly canonical, however, they are not 100% intact. Kirk Langstrom cannot have been involved in the opening story of Batman and Son. It’s been my belief that DC should really try to keep as much of their old continuity in place as they can, if not for their fans then for their trade division, however, I can’t deny that their new world benefits greatly from some small tweaks to their old material. The spirit, if not the word, of Batman and Son is intact and we have an excellent Man-Bat story (how long has it been since I’ve thought that? Probably since I was seven.).

Layman also cements his status as the only writer who seems willing and able to abide by editorials’ demands without his work suffering as we finally get a glimpse of the fallout from Death of the Family. Interestingly, but perhaps not surprisingly, Barbara seems to be taking it the hardest.

This story is littered with editorial boxes, linking you to other comics. Though they’ve been drifting out of style in a world of $2.99 comics and new-reader friendliness, I love the little buggers, and Layman’s Gotham feels alive for its awareness of other titles. While I certainly understand how they could be intimidating, they also help provide context. What do you think about those little yellow boxes, readers? Let me know in the comments.

 

 

Birth of a Family

Written by John Layman

Art by Andy Clarke

The Man-Bat mania continues into the first backup feature, giving us a clearer sense of who Kirk and Francine Langstrom are. There’s no real action to speak of in this story, but it’s brief so that doesn’t hurt its enjoyability.

I think the choice to frame the story through Francine’s perspective is not only an excellent one but one excellently implemented. While Kirk is certainly the star of this story, Francine’s narration tells us nearly as much about her as it does her husband.

Too often in comics we get stuck in-between a certain character’s perspective and a third person omniscient narrator – that is to say that narrators frequently insist on being one or the other when that’s not actually what the story needs them to be. Francine’s narration, however feels deeply human and incredibly biased. Her weaknesses and her strength come through excellently, sadly much clearer than many comic book leading ladies, at least given the relative brevity of the piece.

Speaking of Francine’s weaknesses, there is one aspect of this story that I I’m torn on. Francine’s actions and recollections in this story are all about her husband. As such, one would expect that she wouldn’t be much of a character, however I find that not to be the case. All the same, this story fails the Bechdel Test on pretty much every level.

So my question to you is this? Is this an example of a female character being sublimated to the narrative of her husband, or does Francine’s initiative and the story’s ultimate focus on her struggles make it about her? Let me know in comments.

As much as I enjoyed Francine, one can’t help but mention how well Kirk is portrayed in this story. Noble and self-sacrificing as he is, Kirk could have easily been a completely flat entity. However, Birth of a Family’s greatest success, in my opinion, is its quiet insistence on Kirk’s flaws.

Kirk talks endlessly about the potential benefits that chiropteran research could provide, however, you’ll notice that he brings the conversation back to himself in almost every instance. While we all fall victim to some benign narcissism from time to time, Kirk’s pattern of self-important behavior underlies every selfless act he takes, casting suspicion on his motives and his insistence on atoning.

If this was just a side effect of Layman’s attempts to exposit while moving his story forward, I wouldn’t be terribly surprised, but I would be disappointed. The tension between the selfish and selfless sides of Langstrom makes for a fascinating character portrait.

Those of you reading Detective Comics regularly, will recognize Andy Clarke’s distinctive artwork. It’s a bit strange that Clarke ended up working on this piece when he could have continued his series on Emperor Penguin, however, this is clearly the primary backup, so I suppose it makes sense.

Clarke has always seemed to specialize in static scenes (at least static by superhero standards), and this  is no exception. He suits the story and makes clever use of shading and expressions to say far more than a single image’s worth in many of his panels.

Kirk probably reaps the greatest rewards in this respect, his empathy, or at least his concern, highly evident. Unfortunately, Francine doesn’t quite meet the same standard. I feel like its something about the way he draws her lips, but, whatever it is, she frequently looks distant and empty. It’s a sad contrast with the strength of the writing, though luckily her role as narrator means that the drawings don’t affect her characterization as much.

Overall Clarke provides an excellent set of images to go along with Layman’s script. Flawed as some elements might be, I won’t deny that Clarke’s drawings are of an unusually high-caliber. Layman also gives him a couple of wonderful panels, usually those involving bats (Batmen, Mat-Bats, lab bats, whatever). The first two pages even give us an interesting take on the standard New 52 Batman costume and a far more realistic Man-Bat than Fabok. Clarke’s style is, as ever, one that I expect causes  joy and derision in equal and opposite measure, but he stands tall among the more photorealistic artists working in comics today.

Birth of a Family doesn’t add to the issue so much as deepen it. We don’t need to hear this story or to use these pages to tell it, but it’s a well written yarn that sets the stage for some new adventures in Gotham City.

An extra-sized issue was a foregone conclusion, I’m glad that if we couldn’t get a whole other story that we managed to see Clarke and Layman’s craft at this level.

 

 

Reviews of the backups coming soon.

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