When DC began its New 52 re-launch last year, one by one I watched as big changes swept through the pages of my favorite characters. Wonder Woman lost what she (and we) thought to be her true origin. Superman, having already lost Jonathan Kent before the reboot, was also now minus his mother, Martha, and his wife, Lois Lane.
And yet Batman still retained a small army of Robins, an international "Incorporated" team of knockoffs, and Damian Wayne -- his petulant little punk of a son with Talia Al Ghul. As much as I continue to hate the glum chump in a cape who's passing for The Man of Steel these days, I always wished Batman had gotten a similar fresh start. I missed the days when it was just Bruce Wayne against Gotham City's worst, and I longed for a time when such tales might return, when Bruce wasn't surrounded by a large family that made The Batman a little less potent and a little less pure.
You know who else feels the same way?
And just wait until you see his plan to make it happen.
The slicing off of the Joker's face in the first issue of the New 52's DETECTIVE COMICS was intended as "shock and awe" but only ever struck me as "shrug and awful." Not really a fan. But writer Scott Snyder and his art team lead by Greg Capullo have twisted that cosmetic change into something awesome on a level that's cosmic, giving the villain a dangerous plan while still servicing my core belief that he's Batman's number one fan.
(And given a certain door he's knocked upon by issue's end, there's no doubt he knows what we've all known he's known all along.)
Ponderous words drifting on the ominous black waters of Gotham Harbor set the scary tone immediately, with Jim Gordon reciting his version of what the newspapers will undoubtedly say about a recent spate of portentous events. And parked on a dock is a van shrouded in shadow, its nose pointed right at the glowing heart of Gotham across the bay. Try to keep from squirming out of your seat when the brake lights appear in panel three, tapped by a driver who knows where he's going and what he's going to do when he gets there.
FCO's browns and grays dominate the rainy night conversation between Gordon and Harvey Bullock over the next few pages before kicking us with a splash of purple spilling out of the driver's side door of the van we met on page one. What follows is spook-house drama of the bloodiest, most bone-crushing manner imaginable, narrated by a nattering madman whose revelation of how he knows where Gordon hides his smokes will make all your blood want to hide in your gut.
Gordo gets a lot of the best material in this issue, while Bruce takes The Joker's reemergence seriously but does so with a bit of bravado that doesn't feel exactly earned. In fact, Batman is downright sloppy when he goes bursting into The Joker's lair, charges at something we already know he knows is not what it seems, and ends up on the receiving end of a trap that couldn't have been accomplished without the kind of elaborate rigging the World's Greatest Detective should have noticed the second he walked in the door.
BATMAN #13 Cover by Greg Capullo
If this issue has one drawback, it's that Batman doesn't act as cautious of The Joker as his words suggest. He even admits that The Joker's been spending his quiet time doing anything but licking his wounds, and we all know The Joker is most dangerous when you don't know what he's planning. But I don't think Snyder's trying to dumb down Batman. Not at all. Rather, I think he's trying to prove The Joker's point, and I have a sneaking suspicion it's a view the writer shares.
Is Snyder trying to bring things back to basics? If so, he's going to do it the hard way, and his fans have come to expect nothing less. The issue accomplishes something fresh while still building on classic Joker mythology, calling out everything from The Red Hood to the first victim of Joker toxin. It also provides a wicked reverse twist to The Joker's classic M.O. of managing to kill exactly whom he says he'll kill.
We also get to see what I believe is the New 52's first interaction of a classic character pair that spills into the backup story co-written by Snyder and James Tynion IV with the absolutely triumphant return of Jock's artwork in a Batman story. If you've never read Snyder's THE BLACK MIRROR epic, give it a shot to see what happens when he and Jock work together in the service of The Caped Crusader. Jock does his own inks and colors, too, splashing his jagged lines with everything from vulnerability to menace. I can't stop looking at it.
Back to the pages of the main story, we see Capullo continuing to discover his ceiling as an artist. He then punches a hole in that ceiling, cauterizes the hole's sharp edges with his fires of inspiration, and leaps out of that hole to take his gifts to ever higher places of page-busting genius. Repeat. His subtly sad depiction of what's "scritching" on the door on the second to last page will break your heart, and the way he hides The Joker's face in the shadow of a doorway earlier in the issue should send you running. As always, his faces and postures say everything we need to know about what characters are thinking, and he effortlessly makes everything as creepy or as cool as the moment dictates. Jonathan Glapion's inks accent the lines with just the right amount of detail or darkness they need, with FCO's colors rounding out the mix with utter perfection of palette.
It's hard to see how Snyder can accomplish this tale in a satisfying way without delivering the staggering body count of beloved characters its premise demands. And while the Court of Owls made Bruce Wayne take a second look at his city, The Joker wants him to have a long, hard talk with his soul. That's going to be the key to this story's success, and Snyder's full of surprises that have yet to disappoint. - John Bierly