There's no question that the story in Batman: War Crimes will appear controversial to most, in the main part due to the major change it brings to a Bat-verse stalwart. What separates those who enjoyed War Crimes from those who didn't likely bears a lot on how one enjoys their comic books as a whole. When a long-established character acts radically different from a way they always have, is that drama, or bad writing? Can a comics character convincingly break and go "over the edge," or are comics characters so much a product of their own archetypes that no one in comics can ever truly change? The Bat-verse tries these lines in War Crimes.
In the wake of the War Games crossover, Black Mask consolidates his hold over the Gotham underworld, while talk-show host Arturo Rodriguez reveals Stephanie Brown's role as Spoiler and Robin, aided by the mysterious Aaron Black. Batman tries to consult Dr. Leslie Thompkins for clues, but finds her missing. He confronts Aaron Black, and ends up interrupting a fight between Black Mask and the Joker, who wants to kill Black Mask for ruining his chances to kill another Robin. Aaron Black is revealed as the Cluemaster, while it turns out Rodriguez worked with Black Mask to raise his ratings. Batman captures both the Joker and Black Mask (though Black Mask later escapes), and ultimately confronts Spoiler's real killer, Leslie Thompkins, who let Spoiler die in order to try to caution other vigilantes from joining Batman's quest.
One obvious problem here is the gross similarity between Leslie Thompkins' motives and those of Jean Loring in Identity Crisis. Both killed in order to try to make the heroes think twice about their lives; when Loring did it, it was novel, but when Thompkins does it, it's just repetitive. And additionally, we know that Loring has a history of mental illness, whereas Thompkins has been a devout pacifict for most of her recent portrayal. We get the sense that Leslie Thompkins reached the end of her rope, and allowed Spoiler to die out of desperation, but it's an argument that doesn't make a lot of sense; even Jean Loring claimed she only meant to wound Sue Dibny, not kill her. And that's where War Crimes begins to have problems.
Leslie Thompkins, again, is a known pacifict, but yet, at the end of War Games, she has killed. The writers, of course, would say that people change, and here, Thompkins changed as well; the argument against this would be that Thompkins' actions go "against her character." Well, can't her character change? It's a question that rises more and more lately, especially as DC tries to take bigger risks with its characters--can't Hal Jordan go mad and destroy the Corps? Can't Wonder Woman kill? It goes against character, and yet characters in other mediums can change--but in comics, as with Hal Jordan, ultimately the change isn't for the better. And most would probably say that this change in Leslie Thompkins isn't for the better, either. Where War Crimes fails, perhaps, is in that Thompkins' desperation isn't tangibly shown--she couldn't have been more tired during the gang war than during No Man's Land, and after War Games, Thompkins wasn't even seen until War Crimes, so it's all very sudden.
Some on the Internet reacted to the writers' decision quite vehemently; personally, it seemed so incongruent (and I otherwise enjoyed War Crimes) that at most, I think I shrugged--I can't associate this Leslie Thompkins with the Leslie Thompkins of Devin Grayson's excellent Batman Chronicles #18--and ultimately, I wonder if a Batman writer would ever return to this plot anyway--there hardly seems a way to redeem Thompkins for use in the Bat-verse (and to turn her into a costumed villain ... *shudder*). And the story's proximity to Infinite Crisis didn't help, either--with the "One Year Later" push to start storylines fresh, it's all the more likely that War Crimes will just be swept under the rug.
What redeems War Crimes, however, is that it's just a darn good Batman mystery. We've got a handful of crazy villains (including a back-to-loony Joker), a good moral dilemma for Batman, quite a few hidden identities, and clues--lots of clues--that lead Batman to the real culprit. When most Batman stories these days favor the superhero side overall, War Crimes is a whodunit--and a convincing one, in that all the clues do lead to the killer, even if the killer's motive is something of a stretch. I even applaud the Bat-writers' planning; the clues to Thompkins' crime are apparent at the end of War Games, making War Crimes fit nicely alongside.
[Contains complete covers, What Came Before pages.]
So Batman: War Crimes is a good story, if not perhaps so good for the Batman mythos overall. And I'd be remiss if I didn't mention that this trade contains both four monthly comic stories, as well as a smattering of Secret Files stories--a nice and welcome addition. And now I'm off to read Batgirl: Year One, on the way to reading Nightwing: Year One and Nightwing: Mobbed Up. From there, it's on to Villains United--come join, won't you?