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A Colony of Bruce: BATMAN in the New 52

Speaking simply in terms of narrative possibility, Batman is the writer’s best friend. A skillful wordsmith armed with this brooding pulp titan could spin an infinite number of genre-spliced yarns and never would the plot-well run dry.

Although predominantly a crime-fighter, let’s forget the long history of Batman in comics and instead keep our examples of his versatility limited to that and only that of his film and television appearances.  From the campy goodness of the ’60s TV show through to the noirish, yet generally child-friendly cartoon of the ’90s, from the highly-stylised Tim Burton gothics to the gritty, ‘realistic’ Nolan films, the extent of this character’s flexibility is obvious.

If you’re my kind of nerd, you’re well aware that DC Comics relaunched their entire superhero line last month. If you’re not: the publisher, in a pretty ballsy move to reclaim lost market share and hopefully bring back lapsed readers (I’m sorry, from what’s been presented, I’m not buying the whole ‘new reader’ angle), launched 52 new superhero comic books. Batman is the star of four of these (not including the two Justice League team books he will apparently be a regular part of).

Batman works hard—crime never sleeps after all—and yes, he spreads himself thin, but under the watchful eye of his many creative teams and editors, all of whom surely realise the importance of this relaunch, there’s room for some creative flexibility, no?

Well, seemingly, there’s very little.

First Gotham cab of the rank of the New 52 was Detective Comics #1, the Batman book that should be of the most immediate interest to the crime fan.  Tony Daniel handles both script and art duties here and proves himself to be a puzzling choice for such a high-profile book (DC = Detective Comics).  Leaving aside Daniel’s art for now, his Batman has a pretty terrible inner monologue (narrative captions fill with trite hardboiledisms), and his dialogue isn’t much better. Witness this exchange between Batman and Commissioner Gordon:

B: Getting rid of me would only make it WORSE for him.

G: He thinks things have gotten worse SINCE you showed up.

B: I’ve ALWAYS been in Gotham. I AM Gotham.

G: And Gotham is a HELL HOLE. Always has been. Always will.

B: Like HELL it will.

(…Groan….)

There’s also a pretty unintentionally hilarious section featuring Batman wondering what the Joker was doing naked, but to go any further than this would be too easy a cheapshot.

The plot of Detective #1 centres around…well…there’s a new villain called Dollmaker and he’s in cahoots with perhaps the nastiest version of The Joker we’ve ever seen and they’re killing people and there’s some sort of conspiracy and the whole thing ends with Dollmaker cutting off Joker’s face and nailing it to the wall of his cell. Hey, it’s all part of their plan, apparently…

This is pretty vile stuff, but even though it’s not my thing, Daniel’s art has never looked better, thanks, at least in part, to his new inker Ryan Winn. Winn adds some smooth body and texture to Daniel’s pencils where previous inker Sandu Florea, pre-relaunch, flattened everything out and buried his line work in an ugly mess of ’90s-style scratches.

So, Detective, which has historically been the ‘crime’ book, is now the gross horror book, Saw with capes. Okay, let’s move on.

Batman & Robin #1 came next. In essence a team-up book with Batman and Damien (Bruce’s son and the new Robin) B&R #1 is a fairly strong debut, anchored by the complicated, seemingly adversarial relationship between Bruce and Damian (raised by his mother Talia Al Ghul and The League of Assassins). The book also distinguishes itself by how modern it is—stripped of bullshit brooding Batman captions, Peter Tomasi’s script moves quickly. Patrick Gleason’s clean lines and excellent facial expressions (particularly with Damian) help pull the book away from the somewhat generic look of the other Bat-books launched. Hope for the franchise, indeed….

Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo’s Batman #1 followed. Easily the most anticipated of the new Bat-books (Snyder had been on a tear over at Detective prior to the relaunch), it has also been one of the best-reviewed books of the entire line. I’m on the fence. Capullo (ex-Spawn) does a remarkable job with the action sequences, but his Bruce Wayne is kind of ageless and creepy. Snyder’s story shoehorns an Arkham Asylum riot into what essentially is otherwise a whole lot of set-up. We get a Bruce Wayne “I’m going to revitalise Gotham” speech, another grisly corpse and the reveal of a conspiracy. Its last page hook doesn’t bite quite deep enough, but Snyder’s a talented writer with a very solid grasp of the character and I’ll stick with this for a while yet. However, Batman is the…what? The violent horror-crime book? Did Tony Daniel get the memo?

Batman: The Dark Knight #1 is the final of the new Batman books. It features both a speech by Bruce Wayne about how he’s going to help Gotham and an Arkham Asylum riot. Yep. This one week after Batman #1. Dark Knight is a terrible book. Plotted and drawn by David Finch, scripted by Paul Jenkins, its laughable dialogue and narrative captions make Tony Daniel look like Megan Abbott (don’t get me started on the idiocy of ‘One-Face’). It’s simply the same thing again, just way less well-crafted—but, hey, at least we’re spared a butchered body this time around.

Showing either a lack of editorial focus, or perhaps a clear look at how hastily the relaunch was put together, the lack of variety in the new Bat-books is a concern. I’m not saying we needBatman In Space, but it wasn’t that long ago we had Legends of the Dark Knight (a book set predominantly in Batman’s early years with each story arc created by a rotating team), Batman(the clear superhero series), Detective (superhero crime) and even Shadow of The Bat (a series set ‘currently’ but mostly free from the baggage of continuity and featuring self-contained arcs).  Immediately prior to the relaunch, writer Grant Morrison spent years stitching Batman continuity together in gleefully creative ways that encompassed the camp to the hardboiled to the psychedelic to the ultraviolent.

Yes, I realise these are all first issues of ongoing series’ but there seems to be no mission statement to make these books not only accessible but truly varied. Batman’s greatest strength is the potential he has to move from story to story, genre to genre. With The New 52, DC has given us three out of four Batman books that are virtually identical in tone, visual aesthetic, ultra-violence and story mechanics. Reading Detective Comics #2 earlier this month, it’s clear that Tony Daniel will continue with his grisly shock tactics, 24-style cliffhangers gone gruesome and gratuitous. This is fine in and of itself. I love ultra-violent (but well-written) Batman books probably more than the next Bat-fan, just also give me some smarts and some fun, and mostly some variety please.

By Cameron Ashley

+Cameron Ashley lives and works in Brunswick, Australia. Aside from the local bar staff who know him too well, he toils away in obscurity on numerous pulpy projects, including Crime Factory. He lived in Japan from 2003-2006 and still works through his bizarre bi-polar love/hate (mainly love these days) for the place through his column at this site. Join him as he works it all out.