SYNOPSIS: ZERO YEAR is over, and the events of BATMAN: ETERNAL have put Gotham City in a tailspin, but Batman is focused on finding a killer who has haunted his hometown in secret for years. This special issue features art by Matteo Scalera and sets the stage for the next major Batman story in the fall.
Hot on the heels of the dynamite “ZERO YEAR” finale and biding the BATMAN title a lot of time before #35 finally arrives in October, issue #34 bears the unenviable weight of being a fill-in issue trying to rise above being filler. It makes a worthy effort that ultimately succeeds despite a specific detail that nearly derailed me.
(BATMAN: FUTURES END #1 takes the missing spot in the September schedule.)
Though you'll immediately notice that the first page is obviously not drawn by regular artist Greg Capullo (who's given a breather here by Matteo Scalera), I was convinced its accessibly scientific description of a "new black" so dark that "your eye can't even process what it's seeing" was written by Scott Snyder. It sounds just like him. But when Batman is talking on the phone with Dr. Leslie Thompkins on page 2, the dialogue feels a bit off. Not bad. Just different. A quick scan of the credits (if you can tear your eyes away from the details in Scalera's Batcave) reveals that Snyder simply shares a "Story by" credit with the issue's actual writer, Gerry Duggan.
A serial killer is murdering Leslie's patients and has apparently been doing so for quite a while, so I understand why Bruce would want to ask Leslie if she's noticed anything suspicious. In fact, I love the idea that he'd reach out to her for help. But it feels more like something he'd do in person during the thick of his investigation rather than on the phone while Leslie or more of her patients might be in danger, doesn't it? And then he asks her to start warning her patients and sending him their addresses so he can check up on them, which also seemed a bit odd. Wouldn't he already have easy access to that information? And wouldn't he also wonder if the killer might be another of Leslie's patients, thereby putting her in danger by potentially tipping off the killer that she knows what's going on and thus becoming a target herself?
In all fairness, Leslie does remind him that many of her patients are homeless and can't easily be contacted. And the more I think about it, the more I appreciate that Duggan actually has Bruce talk to Leslie about it and respectfully ask for her cooperation rather than simply hacking into her patient files and doing it all on his own. It makes even more sense that he can use a friend now more than ever, as the issue briefly touches on the shambles BATMAN ETERNAL's events are making of Gotham City. I think I just talked myself out of all my complaints. Well done, Mr. Duggan. I love it when the subtleties of good writing prove my initial reactions wrong.
BATMAN #34 Cover
The mystery itself isn't very mysterious, as we meet the killer practically immediately. (A bigger mystery is why does Dr. Thompkins look like a young, raven-haired Catherine Zeta-Jones? Did she ask Bruce if he'd heard of the "blacker than black" carbon nano-tubes she describes on page 1 because she actually found one and spilled it on her hair?) But I do love that Duggan admirably (and often) expresses Bruce's view that homeless doesn't mean faceless. He asserts it to Leslie as he heads out after the killer and reaffirms it in the issue's closing conversation with Harvey Bullock. I also really enjoyed Batman's reasoning behind his punishment of the perpetrator and how it leads into a classic verbal exchange with a baffled Dr. Border at Arkham Asylum.
The big thing that really bothered me can only be discussed by spoiling the entire issue, so please stop reading now if you haven't read it yet.
The killer is a tall, thin man. Very lanky. But he's still larger than Dr. Leslie Thompkins, and he's easily able to wrap his narrow shoulders all the way around her when he sneaks up behind her at her desk. He manhandles her and rests his chin on her shoulder and shoves his face into her hair as he snarls threats into her ear.
But then "she" slams him into the wall and reveals "herself" to be Batman wearing a digital mask.
I realize the mask makes Batman look like Leslie. But how does it make him change size and shape from a massive man into a small woman? How does it make his hard cowl feel like soft hair? Batman is much taller and significantly wider than the killer, so how is the killer able to wrap his whole body around Batman when he thinks it's Leslie? And how does the killer not feel that he's got his arms around a massive mountain of armored muscle rather than the soft, small woman he sees with his eyes?
As students of The Batman, we know that deception and theatricality are powerful agents. But a fancy hologram can't change Batman's bulk or mass.
I'm sure you're saying, "Hey, John, lighten up and just enjoy it." And you're probably right. But, as I said earlier, we start to think like detectives after reading so many adventures of The World's Greatest. And that discrepancy just yanked me right out of the story. It's something an editor should have noticed and addressed, but alas.
I enjoyed Scalera's unique pencils here. His slightly exaggerated lines allow his characters to be expressive, especially in their faces, and his Batcave and Batmobile are awesome. He also does his own inks, which are deep and detailed. Lee Loughridge's colors fit the tone and mood of the story really well, from the blues of cold rooftops at night to the cool greens of sterile cell doors along Arkham's halls to the striking red skies of the final two pages.
Quibbles about some of the little things aside, I maintain that Duggan's heart is in the right place, especially in his depiction of the value Batman places on all life. And, in the end, that matters way more than little details that don't quite gel. I applaud the sincere simplicity of its back-to-basics change of pace, especially after reading it a second time with less cranky eyes. - John Bierly
John Bierly still can't believe he gets to write for BOF.
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