Review: Batman: Private Casebook hardcover/paperback (DC Comics)

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Thursday, December 17, 2009

Paul Dini completes his trilogy of "smart" Batman stories with Batman: Private Casebook, and the stories here are remarkable, if largely overshadowed by the events of Batman RIP. These done-in-one tales evoke the more self-contained Batman stories of the mid-1990s, but yet read all together, we find a continuing tale through which Dini carves himself his own distinct corner of the Bat-universe.

[Contains spoilers for Batman: Private Casebook]

A handful of new and old characters reoccur throughout the three volumes, and Dini ties them all together in the final book. Dini reveals the identity of the new Ventriloquist, and suddenly nearly every story in this book interrelates, most notably that of Bruce Wayne's playboy friend Matthew Atkins -- a drunken doppleganger of Bruce himself -- whose murder Batman solved last time around. Atkins and the Ventriloquist touched nearly everyone else in Dini's books -- Zatanna, the Riddler, the Penguin, Harley Quinn, and more -- and this final volume reveals a grand tapestry the reader only glimpsed before.

I've also appreciated throughout these books that Dini gives the reader a chance to solve the mystery, hearkening back (or so I recall) to Silver Age comics that did much the same thing. In most of the chapters, including the Mad Hatter story here, we're shown a galley of suspects before the murderer is revealed; when Batman and the reformed Riddler match wits, the reader gets a chance to intuit the unspoken clues. My favorite was when Bruce Wayne uses sign language to communicate with Zatanna just before he's kidnapped; if the reader catches the signal, they get a clue to Bruce's later rescue. It goes without saying that these elements play to the "detective" aspect of Dini's Detective run, and I've found it a nice change from the everyday story.

Moreover, it's been interesting how, in a way, there really aren't villains in these stories by Dini. Harley Quinn and the Riddler each reform here, including a classic scene between the Riddler and the Penguin where Penguin, too, talks about "going straight"; and Batman must save the Mad Hatter and Poison Ivy each from prosecution themselves. The real villains in these stories are walk-on characters like Vox and Gotham Jack, whom Dini defines only long enough to make them interesting, but not so much as to steal the real focus of the stories. There a sense, perhaps in thematic relation to Batman RIP, that this is the end of Batman's rogues gallery -- not only will Batman be replaced, but that his rogues are retiring along with him.

The real draw for me to this book was the promise of a conclusion to the Resurrection of Ra's al Ghul crossover -- and a better conclusion, at that, since the crossover itself was widely panned. Unfortunately, I didn't think this chapter added much -- Batman uses his detective skills in that he psychoanalyzes how Ra's resurrection might affect his current motives, but the final battle between the two contained none of the majesty of, say, Chuck Dixon and Graham Nolan's sword-fight in Batman: Legacy. The real surprise is what happens to Ra's here, but I'm not sure that alone is worth the price of admission.

[Contains full covers]

Ultimately, even as I enjoy the ambition behind Dini's stories, I know they don't hold my interest as much as Grant Morrison's Batman stories -- as with Kurt Busiek's Superman stories versus Geoff Johns, I know that Dini's run isn't "where it's at" for Batman. I'll pick up the next collection, Heart of Hush, because I like Hush and because of the tenuous Batman RIP ties, but it'll be in paperback, at least, before I turn to Dini's next series, Streets of Gotham.

Certainly, however, this book cements my respect for Dini for what he's tried to accomplish.
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6 comments:

  1. I like the first story in this collection a lot. It may not be the most climactic way to end Batman's confrontation with Ra's Al Ghul, but I thought it was tremendously clever and unexpected. It's also nice to see this run finally get a reliable artist who never misses an issue, even when it's a fill-in.

    But I remain disappointed that none of DC's collections of Dini's Detective Comics run includes issue #837 (a pre-Countdown Harley Quinn/Riddler tale). It may not be an essential story, but it always peeves me when collections skip stand-alone stories done by the series' regular writer. Which reminds me that Action Comics #864-865, both written by Johns, have yet to be collected anywhere.

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  2. Forgive my ignorance,but what are the first two titles in this trilogy,and can they be enjoyed stand alone,or do you really want to buy all three?

    And count me in as another reader who,when he buys TPBs of a certain title,expects ALL the issues to be reprinted. I'm not buying floppies anymore,but I still would like the option to read everything.

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  3. That's Batman: Detective and Batman: Death and the City, and the stories are all done-in-one (or two) such that you can enjoy the volumes separately, but there's a nice big picture when you read them together.

    shag -- Indeed there's been some criminal gaps in the Batman collections lately, including the issues right after Batman RIP.

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  4. My feelings weren't too hurt that the Harley/Riddler issue wasn't collected. From what I understand it was tied heavily to events in Countdown. Which means it would have felt out of place in the context of the collections of Dini's run proper, which can be read on their own. Plus, if we're being honest, that issue would have caused problems in the collection; if you had a trade reader who was just reading collections of the Dini 'Tec run, the status quo for Harley Quinn in this volume would not jibe at all with how we saw her in previous volumes.

    See stuff like the Countdown tie-in for Teen Titans which did make the collection but read poorly if you weren't even remotely aware of what happened in Countdown. After all, we had just seen Duela Dent in the previous story and then suddenly, bam, she's dead and we have an issue spent following a plot point that goes absolutely nowhere.

    I suspected the 'Tec issue in particular would have been in some kind of Countdown companion volume, once upon a time. Maybe DC even planned on one at some point. But Countdown was a total bomb and DC seems to want to simply forget about it.

    Anyways, I just read this volume. It was fantastic. Even better after having read the other two volumes. I was kind of sad the Batman/Zatanna flirtation didn't go anywhere, however, because I was interested in reading that. I was also sad to realize that there was only going to be one more volume of Dini's 'Tec run and that was going to be one story. If nothing else, it made me a bit apprehensive about the Grayson era coming up in trade; I'm sure I'll enjoy it, but it put the brakes on Dini's run.

    I sincerly hope DC has Dini back on 'Tec the second The Man returns to his rightful mantle.

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  5. I just read this from the library and was really impressed. That coda to the resurrection of Ra's was superior to any other chapter of that story.

    I'll definitely pick up a copy for myself soon.

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  6. Agreed the Ra's coda issue is better than the rest of the crossover itself.

    I rather liked Superman: Ending Battle, but I remember that there was an Action Comics issue (maybe) right after, involving Pa Kent, that really shored up that entire storyline -- and the Action issue wasn't even actually advertised as an Ending Battle epilogue. I don't think that issue made it in to the collection; more's the shame.

    Discussing conclusions that make the crossover, as it were.

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