I'm beginning to see a trend now in Countdown spin-off mini-series. Like Countdown: Arena and Salvation Run, Batman: Gotham Underground is greatly entertaining while at the same time largely pointless, a fine combination only if you're content to go for a ride and leave your larger questions at the door.
Gotham Underground reads in part like a Bat-title crossover from the late 1990s; Batman is kidnapped and sent to Blackgate Prison, and Nightwing and Robin have to stop a gang war while he's gone. (This is, come to think of it, perhaps the plots of two Bat-crossovers combined.) I always enjoyed team-up parts of these crossovers, while resenting the disparate titles and art teams. Gotham Underground is perhaps a model for what the most recent Bat-crossover, The Resurrection of Ra's al Ghul, should have been -- Ra's lacked consistency, while Gotham Underground ultimately lacks relevance.
Writer Frank Tieri offers some great moments, however, which make the story worthwhile if you have the patience for it. Obviously Tieri did his homework; there's a single page where Bane thinks back to the Knightfall story that's as good as Bane has been in a while. The relationships he shows between classic Batman villains like the Joker, the Penguin, and the Riddler are also spot-on; when Penguin reflects on the Joker, it took me back to the days the two teamed-up in the Adam West Batman or Super Friends. One gets the sense that Tieri worked under the mandate of using every Bat-character he could squeeze in here, and while he misses some (Ra's al Ghul, Azrael), I thought the way he shoe-horned in others like Leslie Thompkins and Spoiler was creatively inspired.
Unfortunately, I struggle to understand the point of Gotham Underground. The story explores the Countdown Suicide Squad plotline from the perspective of Batman's villains, but nothing is revealed about that plotline of which we weren't already aware. It suggests large changes to the status quo of Batman and his villains, but in the end just peters out with a non-specific ending. The climax comes when Batman has a giant fight with Vigilante -- only Vigilante's hardly been a major player in the tale; it's as if Tieri went so far with the story and then couldn't necessarily tie things together in the way he originally imagined.
At its center, Gotham Underground is in part a sequel to Batman: Face the Face, a seemingly important Batman story post-Infinite Crisis which was itself largely ignored. In this partnership, Gotham Underground seems to set itself up for irrelevance as well. Fans of the Crime Bible elements of 52 will find some connection as well. But it's as if Gotham Underground exists in this nether-region of the DC Universe that acknowledges a number of changes post-Infinite Crisis (the Freedom of Power Treaty, for instance) that are largely ignored in the mainstream titles themselves. To this end, Gotham Central is really just Final Crisis crossover fluff, but good crossover fluff -- those looking for real impact need not apply.
[Contains full covers, nice uncolored art by J. Calafiore]
Still following the threads of Salvation Run next time with some Catwoman trades. Read along!