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.
First, Dini created Harley Quinn back in Batman: The Animated Series. Then, he paired her up with Poison Ivy later in the show's run, with fantastic results. Now, he's adding Catwoman to the mix, who provides the perfect voice of sanity for this unlikely trio. (At this rate, by 2040 Paul Dini will be writing a movie that teams up every female character in the DC universe. I can't wait.) Dini is on very firm ground here with characters he knows very well, and it shows. (Another Dini favorite, Zatanna, also puts in an appearance, and I can only hope we'll see more of her as the series progresses.)
Catwoman is still recovering from having her heart removed by Hush (long story, but a good one), and she recognizes the need for teamwork in this harsher, more deadly Gotham City. Although the new would-be supervillain Boneblaster provides the trio with some rather irritating distractions, this first issue is mainly about setting up the dynamics of the three potential partners. The article ends with Poison Ivy drugging Catwoman and forcing her to answer one simple question: "Who is Batman?" Actually, that's not such a simple question these days, and I'm not completely sure Catwoman knows the answer herself. Either way, it's a pretty fantastic hook for the next issue, and I'm having trouble imagining what scenario Dini could come up with in which the team of Poison Ivy, Harley Quinn, and Catwoman wouldn't be massively entertaining. Plus, Guillem March's artwork is a joy to look at.
The big question for Batman: Streets of Gotham is how it's going to distinguish itself as something more than just the other, other Batman book after Batman and Batman and Robin. Reteaming Paul Dini and Dustin Nguyen, who last worked together on what was easily the best part of Batman: RIP, the Detective Comics storyline "Heart of Hush", is a good start. The series is also taking its "Streets of Gotham" subtitle seriously, as this story is as much about Commissioner Gordon and a mysterious (but seemingly benevolent) new vigilante as it is about Batman.
Indeed, Dick Grayson is only seen "in character" as Batman, and Alfred is nowhere to be seen; I wonder whether this series will tend to downplay the behind-the-scenes aspects of Batman in favor of, well, the streets of Gotham. Still, Damian Wayne is given some time in the spotlight, and he's paired with a most worrying new chess partner: the recently incarcerated Thomas Elliott, alias Hush, who has surgically altered his appearance so that now he looks exactly like Bruce Wayne. I'm interested to see where that particular dynamic takes the series, although I'm guessing it's nowhere good.
The main thrust of this first issue is that even second-rate villains have become far more creative and disturbing in their schemes, as the formerly low-level bad guy Firefly starts remotely lighting people on fire using explosive nanites. The sight of people spontaneously bursting into flames is a horrific image, and the sight of Batman shooting the victims with a gun (even if it is just loaded with foam capsules) is off-putting in an entirely different way. Dini and Nguyen clearly aren't afraid of disturbing content and imagery, something confirmed by a scene where this brutal new vigilante rescues a child prostitute.
Still, none of it seems gratuitous or exploitative, and considering Paul Dini's work on Batman: The Animated Series is a huge reason why I love superheroes in the first place, I'm definitely optimistic that he knows what he's doing. Batman: Streets of Gotham also features a second feature starring Manhunter, which picks up on some threads from Battle for the Cowl. Right now, I'm treating it strictly as a nice bonus to the main story, but I was impressed with what I saw and am interested to see how successfully a complete story can be told in this shorter format.
Red Robin is something of an oddball compared to the other five major new or renewed Batman books. It's very decidedly not set in Gotham City, as Tim Drake sets out to travel the world in search of Bruce Wayne, who he is convinced is still alive (looks like somebody read to the very end of Final Crisis). He's also struggling to make sense of Dick Grayson choosing Damian Wayne over him as Robin, forcing him to don his new Red Robin identity. Even his name is providing him with existential angst - is he Tim Drake or Tim Wayne, and what does either say about him?
Tim Drake was probably always destined to be the character who lost the most in the wake of Bruce Wayne's death. There was no way he was ever going to become Batman instead of Dick Grayson, and I'm not sure the two really could have worked as a Batman and Robin pairing. Clearly, the powers-that-be at DC agreed, as a flashback shows Dick rather unceremoniously sending Tim on his merry way, primarily on the grounds that Dick needs to keep a close eye on the probably psychotic Damian Wayne. Dick has a point, but it doesn't make it seem any less unfair.
Not to belittle Chris Yost's writing or the artwork of Ramon Bachs, but I suspect Red Robin will become more interesting down the road. This is clearly being set up as the key book in Bruce Wayne's ultimate return, but that isn't going to happen for at least a year or two. Much as I like Tim Drake, I'm not sure his angst-ridden solo adventures can really maintain consistent quality before the series reaches its natural conclusion, in which Tim finds his adoptive father.
Tim states explicitly in this issue that he became Red Robin in part because it is not closely associated with Batman, meaning he can cross lines without reflecting poorly on Dick and Alfred. He is clearly headed for a darker place, and DC's recent track record in taking characters to darker places gives me serious concern. (I'm still not over what they did to poor Mary Marvel.) That said, this first issue pulls off the new, darker Tim fairly well, and placing at the end of the issue a reveal of Ra's al Ghul (who is fast becoming Tim Drake's archenemy) is a pretty good way to keep my interest.
Finally, Outsiders seems barely related to the rest of these Batman books, and it's almost surprising that this month's issue actually carries the "Batman Reborn" banner. As though to remind casual readers of the connection, issue 19 features Alfred and the Batman-influenced Owlman on the cover, but this is the only book of the seven in which Batman isn't even really referenced.
That said, writer Peter Tomasi is crafting a worthy followup to his work on final Nightwing and Robin books, and if the somewhat tenuous Batman connection was highlighted to drive up sales, at least readers are being pointed in the direction of a good book. It's refreshing to see a superhero team that can actually work together effectively (although the angst gets ratcheted up in this issue as Geo-Force looks for some even more final vengeance against Deathstroke).
The ongoing story pits the Outsiders against the very appropriately named Insiders, a mysterious quintet with greatly extended lifespans who are looking to achieve true immortality. To do this, they need to recover fragments of the meteorite that gave supervillain Vandal Savage his immortality 52,000 years ago. The story becomes significantly more interesting in this issue, as Savage himself turns up, followed by DC's other immortal supervillain, Ra's al Ghul, whose appearance will hopefully push this into more solidly Batman-related territory. (Also, if you're scoring at home, that means two different books in this month's "Batman Reborn" showcase end with last page Ra's al Ghul reveals. That guy sure gets around.)
So with all these various launches, relaunches, and continuations, which books are actually worth buying on a regular basis? Honestly, I'm excited for all seven of them (I'm also excited about my impending bankruptcy). But for those looking to be a little more selective, I'd have to say Batman and Robin, Batman, and Gotham City Sirens are the most promising series thus far and the ones most deserving of your immediate attention. It's been a long road back, but it looks like Batman is finally in safe hands once again, even if Bruce Wayne is still nowhere to be seen.