After 11 months of the Tony Daniel show, DC has handed the reigns of their titular series to “Chew” writer John Layman and up and coming artist Jason Fabok. One of the more critically disappointing books of the New 52, “Detective Comics” had a shocking first issue and then limped along for a year under the weight of Daniel’s occasionally great (and occasionally on time) art and his clunky, stilted writing. So, with this new creative team in place, what sort of book would “Detective” be?
Written by John Layman
Illustrated by Jason Fabok
Backup Illustrated by Andy Clarke
– All kneel before Emperor Penguin!
– There’s a hit out on Bruce Wayne!
– This new story from writer John Layman (Chew) gueststars Nightwing!
With Batman being the focal point of three (!) solo books, as well as “Batman and Robin,” “Batman, Incorporated,” a member of the Justice League and at least one guest spot elsewhere each month, some designation as to what the goal of each Bat-book is supposed to be is sometimes needed. One issue into his run and Layman has made that clear – the emphasis is on the “Detective” of the title. Batman spends most of this issue stringing together clues and trying to stay one step ahead of an unknown enemy throughout. While I’m sure there are people out there who don’t feel this way, this is Batman at his best to me.
Layman does a nice job of showing a “typical” night in the life of Batman, from juggling Bruce Wayne’s social calendar, to stopping crime in progress, to anticipating crime before it happens. While Batman has always taken a more extreme approach than the Gotham City Police Department, we see how he sort of operates a shadow police department. He has his dispatcher (Alfred), his backup (Nightwing), even his own makeshift 911 (the Bat signal). Layman is wise to narrow the scope of his Batman to being Gotham’s greatest detective. “Chew,” Layman’s Image series, is also about solving crimes in an, ahem, unique way, so it is not a surprise that this is the angle that Layman has taken with “Detective.”
Layman seems surprisingly adept at finding Batman’s voice so early in his run, and he seems to be pretty consistent with the versions seen all over the New 52. His first page does a pretty remarkable piece of character development in showing Bruce Wayne’s philanthropy to be, in part, the penance Batman pays for what he does to the criminals he fights. He also shows Bruce as a dude who struggles with his appointment book, and has to juggle being both a socialite and vigilante. The character feels exceptionally real, which is something that was never really clear during Daniel’s run. The only real plot point here that doesn’t ring true is the conversation that Alfred and Batman have about Bruce Wayne stuff while there are thugs unconscious at his feet. While I don’t deny that Batman probably knocks a dude out when he kicks you in the teeth, it seems like the world’s greatest detective is pretty quick to talk about his secret identity in front of criminals.
Layman also wastes no time in jumping into Gotham’s history and politics, with references to the Founding Families of Gotham, and showing that while Batman is all about cleaning up Gotham, Wayne is all about preserving a Gotham that no longer exists. Bruce is focused on not only helping Gotham move forward, but refusing to stop it from looking backwards – specifically, to a time when the name Wayne meant something important to the people of Gotham. So, by attacking the Wayne heritage, the Penguin is set up here to be both a villain to Batman and to Bruce Wayne.
The Penguin seems to be the New 52’s favorite Bat villain who didn’t get his face cut off. First, Gregg Hurwitz and Syzmon Kudranski did their excellent “Penguin: Pain and Prejudice” mini, which gave the Penguin his first real classic story in a long time, and now here he is being set up in a way that has often been teased, but never really executed all that well: as a villain who wants to control both crime and public opinion. His motivation is much more clearly designed and well-constructed than so many villains in comics, and he seems like a villain set to stick around in the forefront for awhile, which is fine by me.Continued below
Jason Fabok’s art is an interesting blend of David Finch’s (his mentor) action with far more nuanced character work. His Penguin manages to look like a real guy with bad genes instead of the circus freak he is sometimes drawn as. Fabok has been an artist for the past few years whose name may not be all that familiar, but impresses when given an opportunity. In May’s “Batman” annual, he took the cold Victor Fries and made him sympathetic through small pieces of body language. His Batman, visually, seems like an amalgam of the various interpretations currently being published and, hopefully, in time, he will find his own distinct Dark Knight. This isn’t a knock on him; in fact, I think it is probably wise to not come in and just redesign the most iconic character in comics. In his restraint, he is showing wisdom. Fabok is a guy to look out for in the future, and the pairing of him with Layman is an inspired and inspiring one.
The backup feature, illustrated by Andy Clarke and penned by Layman, is akin to what Sholly Fisch does for Grant Morrison’s stories in “Action Comics,” which is take a small piece of the plot and expand on it in a way that shines a little light on an otherwise unimportant plotpoint. Here, the backup features two of the Penguins goons who stole the codes to the alarms to allow the robberies from the main feature. While I don’t think many readers, if any, were wondering why the alarms were malfunctioning, the backup also allowed the reader to get in the mindset of a low-level criminal in Gotham in the New 52.
In a way, the backup acts as a cautionary tale for Layman – one of the goons is killed by the other for “showing too much too soon,” revealing that he might not be as loyal as someone without the same ambition. And so, he’s eliminated before he’s a problem. Layman is clearly a talented creator, who came into this commercially successful, but critically lamented, book with the opportunity to make a name for himself at DC. And while this book does a lot of things really well, it doesn’t bit off more than it can, pardon the pun, chew. Batman still feels like Batman, and yet the tone and execution of this book couldn’t be more different than what Tony Daniel was doing.
If Layman came in and salted the Earth after Daniel’s run, no one would blame him, but it wouldn’t be the smartest way to start his DC career. Instead, Layman isn’t showing all of his cards, and the simple, yet effective, story told in this issue gives him time to work out his beats with Fabok, to get in the mind of the character, and to, essentially, start building his Bat-world. The Bat-books are pretty well stocked with writing talent right now, from the aforementioned Hurwitz to Scott Snyder and Grant Morrison, and Layman doesn’t seem to mind that he’s playing in the same sandbox as those guys. He appears content to leave Morrison to the grand epics and Synder to being the cornerstone of the Bat-world. Layman’s happy to be writing the world’s greatest detective, and why shouldn’t he be?
Final Verdict: 8.5 – Buy