Monday, August 22, 2011


Detective Comics #881:  Scott Snyder has crafted one of the greatest -- if not the greatest -- runs on a Batman comic ever.  He has not only delivered consistently amazing quality with each issue, but each issue also has built off the previous one to create, in the end, a specific and nuanced tale.  He has written the definitive Dick Grayson, not just in terms of his stint as Batman but also of the essence of his character.  He has done more than possibly any author to portray Gotham City as a living, breathing villain, the most dangerous member of Batman's rogues' gallery.  He's also created his own Joker, his own villain, his own evil.  He has done all of it in only 11 issues.

One of the amazing things about Snyder's run is that the things that normally would bother me about this issue didn't, because they built on previous stories.  Normally, I'd be annoyed by the fact that James left Barbara's wheelchair for the Commissioner to find, because I'd wonder why he would announce his crime to give the authorities a chance to stop him.  But, we know why, because we know he's a sociopath, because we've seen him toy with the Commissioner by overflowing the taps at the diner where they met for lunch, because we've seen him mutilate the body of someone who taunted him at least a decade earlier, because we were shown through flashbacks how he likely murdered one of Barbara's childhood friends simply because she (accurately) called him weird.  Most authors would've just presented the wheelchair as a disjoint act necessary to bring about a plot resolution, but Snyder uses it as yet one more example of James' inability not to toy with his victims, both primary and secondary.

Similarly, I'd inevitably get annoyed when James waxed poetic on the phone with Dick, since most authors would've made that the eventual key to the story's resolution, him talking too long on a phone that he thought was untraceable but really wasn't.  But, him talking on the phone too long has nothing to do with how Dick finds him; Dick finds him because he's an excellent detective and he placed a sub-dermal tracer on him the last time they met.  As opposed to the other Bat-authors, Snyder portrays Dick as different than Bruce (softer, according to James), but no less brilliant.  James waxed poetic not because it was needed to wrap up the story, but because he, as a sociopath, needed someone to hear him extol the virtues of his evil.  The best Joker stories show a similar side of him, show him bringing that sort of need for understanding to his crazy, and using that need as his strength.  His need to present his crimes means he usually gets caught, but he usually breaks the person doing the catching in some way.  (The worst Joker stories portray that need to share as his weakness, with it simply leading to him getting caught and nothing more.)  Here, Snyder uses that approach with James and, because it's not a plot device, but an accurate characterization, he makes the story feel all the creepier.

Moreover, James doesn't actually wax poetic.  He describes, somewhat logically (to him), how he came to the conclusion that empathy -- when he finally got a brief taste of it during the medical trials -- was a weakness that everyone other than he and the other men in the trial shared and that he could exploit that weakness.  Seeing it in Dick and seeing Dick become Batman just gave him an irresistible target, similar to how the Joker remains attracted (as we saw last issue) only to Bruce.

Moreover (yes, I can keep going on this one), Snyder gives us a realistic Gordon family.  Commission Gordon of course knows that Dick is Batman, and we dispense with even the wink-wink/nudge-nudge that authors usually use in displaying that relationship.  Moreover, we get Barbara Gordon being brilliant as always, knowing that James was going to come for her in a totally straightforward way, not in a campy 1960s "Batman" TV show way.

Speaking of Barbara, the implication that James suggested to the Joker that he should paralyze her is the best of several examples of the ambiguity that Snyder leaves us pondering at the end of this arc.  Did he really encourage the Joker to paralyze his sister?  Did he poison the baby food?  We're just not going to know.  James flew under the radar for so long, managed to keep his crimes hidden for so long, because he was too smart to show his hand.  Even when his sociopathic impulses finally force him to do so, to a certain extent, here, he only shows one or two cards; the rest of his deck of crazy remains hidden.

Snyder goes further in giving us some quiet moments as well.  When Dick says, "Come on, you little piece of...Damian," I realized that we've never really seen Damian in "Detective Comics" during Snyder's run.  It's because, although it's somewhat counter-intuitive, Damian is actually comic relief.  His brashness and crankiness is meant to be a foil to the Bruce/Dick/Tim school of control and order.  Snyder's run, though, was too adult for that, too quiet for that.  Snyder gives us a laugh here, but does so in a way that reveals a truth about the story he's been trying to tell.  Sheer genius.

I'd be remiss not to again congratulate Jock and Francesco Francavilla.  Their art individually, and collectively, is so spectacularly spot-on.  I could point to several instances but the most chilling -- and effective -- is the switch between Francavilla as James hunts Barbara and Jock as she stabs him.   It plays with perspective and point of view so well that it takes the amazing work Snyder did in plotting it to a level that I don't know if I've ever seen in comics.

Again, this issue -- and the entire Snyder/Jock/Francavilla run -- is the best comics have to offer.  It's been a sheer pleasure to read them.  In fact, I actually feel sort of privileged to have done so.  I can't wait to see what Snyder does next in "Batman."

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