Review: Batman - Detective Comics Vol. 1: Faces of Death hardcover/paperback (DC Comics)

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Monday, July 23, 2012

Tony Daniel is the kind of writer/artist that the reader wants to root for. Having made a name for himself at DC Comics drawing Teen Titans and Batman RIP, Daniel went on to become the writer/artist of Batman: Battle for the Cowl -- attractive, without a doubt, but melodramatic and with poor characterization. Daniel followed this, however, with the absolutely stellar Batman: Life After Death; here, Daniel would seem to be growing as a writer, and he also make good use of continuity as to suggest true Batman fandom.

Daniel's follow-up to Life After Death, however, Eye of the Beholder, wasn't quite on the same level. It was clear Daniel could offer exemplary work, but the results were hit and miss. Daniel's next project would be relaunching Detective Comics, veritable DC Comics's flagship title, for the New 52 -- which Tony Daniel would show up?

The answer, in a twist Two-Face would love, is "both of them." Readers are advised to read the first four chapters of Batman -- Detective Comics: Faces of Death and then wait a day before reading the final three chapters, such to effectively split this book in two. Daniel's first half of Faces of Death is brilliant, shoulder-to-shoulder with the work Scott Snyder is doing on Batman; the latter half of the book is weird and convoluted, and hopefully not a sign of things to come.

[Review contains spoilers]

Daniel succeeds, especially in Faces's first chapter, in relaunching Detective Comics for DC's new era. In contrast to Snyder's Batman: The Court of Owls, which included Batman's cadre of Robins and their various continuity eccentricies, Daniel's Detective might be considered "Batman classic," the book you could give to any reader (or, perhaps, fans of The Dark Knight Rises) and they could understand it easily -- Batman, Commissioner Gordon, Alfred, and the Joker are the main actors here.

Daniel's first issue is New 52 by way of Batman: Year One: Batman, in his New 52 suit of armor, fights toe-to-toe with the Joker over the Gotham rooftops while the Gotham police take shots -- at Batman. Daniel's Batman is a more public and ostentatious Batman than we're used to, and also one far more criminalized by the Gotham police than he has been in years under the "old" DC Universe. This is a little off-putting because it's harder to jibe with the "old" DCU (sure, the police hated Batman when he first emerged, but still, five years later?), but at the same time it keeps Daniel's Detective generally in line with Geoff Johns's portrayal of things in Justice League: Origins, which will be comforting to new readers.

Where Daniel takes a step farther is in that not only the police, but also the citizens of Gotham (as influenced by corrupt Mayor Hardy) also dislike the Batman. A crowd, which must be meant to be reminiscent of the "Occupy" movements, gathers in a Gotham park to protest Batman having seemingly killed the Joker; in Joker masks, they decry Batman as a vigilante and the Joker as a symbol of the "common man." This is a different challenge for Batman -- not just protecting the citizens of Gotham, but protecting the citizens who actively reject his help -- and it will be interesting to see it play out. With Daniel leaving Detective after the next book, however and no similar such plotline in Snyder's work, it's hard to know if Gotham's attitude toward Batman will remain consistent or change with the next writer.

Gore is no substitute for a good storytelling, but Daniel manages to combine both -- Faces of Death is gory, earning it some derision at the start of the DC New 52, but Daniel's gore builds suspense, it is not gore for gore's sake. The Dollmaker cutting off the Joker's face not only underlines the danger of the Dollmaker character, but casts a pall over the story in general -- among a couple of masked characters, the reader is never sure if the Joker might be hiding underneath. Daniel's comparison between the Joker's torn-off face and the Shroud of Turin also opens possibilities that overshadow the gore of the image -- concepts such as that the Joker's face itself might contain evil, or that it becomes a totem for his followers, are so engaging as to justify the gore needed to get to that point.

After four issues, however, the main Faces storyline gives way first to an unrelated short story, and then to a lackluster Penguin story. A series of gangsters are ripped off, leading up to an attack on the Penguin, though it turns out to have been a plan by the Penguin to bump off his competition. Penguin's assassins are Snakeskin (so close in powers to Clayface that this ought have been Clayface) and a woman named "Jill" (given with differing last names in the story, which might be a mistake).

Jill, Daniel first reveals, is the sister of Charlotte Rivers, a nosy reporter and Bruce Wayne's current main squeeze (Catwoman, the story acknowledges, notwithstanding); then, in an overwrought scene with Batman, that Jill is also the illegitimate daughter of Mayor Hardy. Given that Bruce has dated Charlotte for nearly seven issues now with no foreshadowing of Charlotte's relationship to Hardy, the revelation of Charlotte's parentage, by proxy, is too sudden to be shocking. Hardy himself is a character much discussed but never seen, such that it's hard for the reader to react on any emotional level to this news about him.

At this point Daniel's story is far afield from anything having to do with Batman and his allies; Batman's pitched battle with the Dollmaker's goons while Commissioner Gordon lies bleeding is considerably more riveting than Batman shouting "Don't move!" and "Too late!" at the Penguin and Jill.

Further it seems a new inker comes on for the last half of the book, making Daniel's art less crisp and more distorted than the earlier pages. In the early pages, Daniel's art looks how many wish Guillem March's would -- thin, artful lines benefited by coloring that resembles watercolors, but without the gratuitous sexuality inherent in March's work. Daniel's may be perhaps the definitive artist of Batman's new costume, depicting the lines and seams of the armor more distinctly than Greg Capullo on Batman (though Capullo is no slouch either).

Batman -- Detective Comics: Faces of Death begins better than it ends. The beginning -- the DC New 52's new Detective Comics #1 -- may be what matters most, and if that's the case, Tony Daniel has done his job. The end slips, but with such a good beginning, one has to keep their fingers crossed that in the second volume, the Daniel from the first part of this book comes around again.

[Includes original cover, Tony Daniel's sketches and penciled pages]

Later this week, more from the DC New 52 Batman universe with the Collected Editions review of Batwoman: Hydrology. See you then!
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5 comments:

  1. Just curious: You meant Tony Daniel made a name for himself "at DC" drawing Teen Titans and RIP, right? Because he's been in the industry for around twenty years. (I've been in a nit-picking mood today, nothing personal)

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  2. Yes, I was aware of that and that's what I meant. Good correction though and I've edited the review accordingly.

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  3. Inherent, not inherit.

    Based on this review, and that Detective moves farther away from lapsed Batman continuity, I'll have to pass on this one. I was hoping to keep much of Batman and Green Lantern in the rotation, but Detective looks like it's out!

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  4. Gracias.

    Detective moves farther from ongoing Batman continuity? That may begin to trouble me, too. Though this is often the case -- there's one book in charge, like Morrison's Batman and Robin or now Snyder's Batman, and the rest just tell loosely-connected "stories." We'll see; I'm wondering already if I'll be able to justify keeping up with the Dark Knight comic, either.

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  5. Looks like a nice follow-up to his pre-New 52 Batman. Then, it just goes downhill for some reason..

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