Bruce Wayne is dead (or is he?), but the Batman franchise is back in full swing after three months of the meandering Battle for the Cowl. But with seven different Bat-related titles released in June alone, which are the must-reads?
It's a bold new Batman status quo, with a whole new lineup of crimefighters behind the various masks. In case you've been taking a break from the goings on in Gotham City (and, considering a lot of what's been coming out lately, I couldn't exactly blame you), Dick Grayson is Batman, Damian Wayne (the supposed son of Bruce Wayne and Talia al Ghul) is Robin, Tim Drake is Red Robin, and somebody still to be revealed is Batgirl.
There's plenty more happening beyond just the immediate Batman family. Socialite Kate Kane is still Batwoman and is taking over the starring role in Detective Comics, the rogues Catwoman, Poison Ivy, and Harley Quinn are reluctantly teaming up, and Kate Spencer (alias the lethal vigilante Manhunter) is Gotham's new District Attorney. And both the Question and the Outsiders are still doing their things.
There's a lot there to set up and establish, but with so many books (two of which even have second features), things don't get too rushed. Admittedly, it can be a little hard to remember exactly who is doing what and where. So let's break this down one book at a time.
The flagship for the relaunch really has to be Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely's Batman and Robin. Considering their last collaboration was the pretty much universally beloved All-Star Superman, expectations were understandably high for this new book, which is already guaranteed to run at least twelve issues with Morrison at the helm (although Quitely will depart after just three issues).
As I mentioned in my Trinity review, I have mixed feelings about Quitely's distinctive drawing style, which despite its unmistakable energy can make some of the characters look a bit, well...ugly. Still, I'd say his work has improved with each new project he undertakes, and it's hard to imagine a better partner for his images than Grant Morrison's ideas.
Compared to Final Crisis or Batman: RIP, Morrison is downright straightforward here, eschewing a lot of his usual mystical material for a more grounded tale that's a better fit for the world of Batman. In particular, Dick Grayson and Commissioner Gordon are far too sensible to readily fit into the usual insanity of Morrison's work, and it's nice to see Grant Morrison can write normal just as well as he can the crazy.
That said, there's still a giant talking toad who is introduced as one of the main new villains and goes completely unexplained, so I'm clearly grading on a curve here. And I'd be remiss if I ignored just how creepy and horrific the final few pages are, as they introduce the utterly deranged main villain for the book's first arc. Even for those who swore off reading Morrison in the wake of his last two big events, Batman and Robin is not to be missed.
Judd Winick's first issue of Batman (and the only one to feature the art of Ed Benes) largely concerns itself with retelling the events of the last few months, starting with Bruce Wayne's death at the end of Final Crisis. This might well seem redundant, but Winick manages to do in one issue what the entire Battle for the Cowl event could not - explain what Bruce's death means to the two people closest to him, namely Alfred Pennyworth and Dick Grayson (with apologies to Tim Drake).
This first issue is long on character and emotion and short on plot, and it works beautifully. It alternates between filling in the gaps of what happened during Battle for the Cowl and simply rewriting it, and it's hard to find fault with any of the alterations. In Battle for the Cowl, Dick's character arc was that he didn't really have any big problem with becoming Batman, but Bruce didn't want him to. It's valid enough, I suppose, but distinctly less satisfying than what Winick does here, as Dick tries to figure out how he can truly be Batman, not just an impostor wearing Bruce's suit.
Great as this first issue is, it doesn't necessarily give the best sense of Winick's ongoing run on Batman. This is very much a prologue to everything that will follow, and how he handles Batman in a character piece might not the same thing as how he will use him in an action story, but there's every reason here in this first issue to be optimistic for what lies ahead. If nothing else, the art will likely be enough to justify picking Batman up on a regular basis. Ed Benes is wonderful here, and I'm expecting similar brilliance from his successor, Trinity's Mark Bagley.
I suppose the big story with Detective Comics is that DC is making a lesbian character the protagonist of their longest continuously published book. That really should be some kind of milestone, right?* But, much like Batman's death, DC really hasn't done much to publicize this development. Whatever one makes of the company's public relations, Detective Comics is at least a pretty good consolation prize for Batwoman, who was meant to get her own book shortly after she was first introduced way back in 52.
Greg Rucka played a huge role in originating this new incarnation of Batwoman in 52, and it's hard to imagine a better writer to handle the character's starring debut. Kate Kane's close relationship with her military-minded father is a real highlight of the first issue, although it's fairly clear that's about the only thing going well in her life. Still scarred emotionally and physically by being stabbed in the heart at the end of 52, Kate's life is mostly in turmoil, with only the thought of vengeance against those who stabbed her to give her purpose.
Which brings me to the villains of this and pretty much every other Batwoman story, the religious fanatics of Intergang. Their role shouldn't really come as a surprise, considering how important the Crime Bible was to her story in both 52 and Final Crisis: Revelations (both written by Rucka, and both costarring Renee Montoya as the Question, who now occupies the second feature in Detective Comics). But I must admit some disappointment that they look set to dominate her story for the foreseeable future, partially because I've never really found the Crime Bible stuff all that interesting. Mostly, however, I'd like to see her establish herself as a character independent of Intergang, particularly when there is such an iconic cast of Gotham City villains for her to interact with.
I'm also not crazy about J.H. Williams's artwork. It veers wildly between gorgeous and pedestrian, with the former style for the Batwoman sequences and the latter for those following her alter ego. It's an interesting conceit, but I didn't really enjoying looking at the Kate Kane sequences, which seems like a drawback to a medium dependent on visual storytelling. Unlike, say, Ed Benes, whose style is consistently aesthetically pleasing and well-suited to action sequences, Williams seems more interested in establishing mood and atmosphere, which at times works beautifully.
There's no denying the Batwoman parts of Detective Comics are visually stunning, and it's entirely possible Williams's style will grow on me. Although - and this may sound like a very minor gripe - I doubt I'll ever like how pale Williams has made Kate Kane. There's one panel where she looks more like V from V from Vendetta than anything else, and that was a guy wearing a mask.
*In case you doubt the special place of Detective Comics, I would remind you what the "DC" in DC Comics stands for. And, yes, that does technically mean the company's full name is Detective Comics Comics. But I digress.
When I heard all the new titles announced back at New York Comic Con, I'd have to say Gotham City Sirens sounded the most intriguing. It also sounded like it had the potential to be DC's answer to Marvel Divas, which isn't what I'd call a good thing. The presence of writer Paul Dini confirmed my initial optimism, and I'm happy to say that he doesn't disappoint.