Review: Batman - Detective Comics Vol. 2: Scare Tactics hardcover/paperback (DC Comics)

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Monday, June 10, 2013

Batman - Detective Comics Vol. 2: Scare TacticsTony Daniel's Batman -- Detective Comics Vol. 2: Scare Tactics offers some exceptional moments, but unfortunately not enough for me to recommend this book to anyone except a very certain kind of Batman reader. For me, this volume of Detective Comics failed to impress enough that I might be inclined to drop the series entirely, except for my curiosity about what new writer John Layman (Chew) might bring to the series.

[Review contains spoilers]

Through a couple of exceptional collections in the Dick-Grayson-as-Batman era, Tony Daniel has made his Batman run synonymous with the villain Black Mask, and the best part of Scare Tactics is getting to see Daniel recreate Black Mask for the New 52. As I mentioned in my Night of the Owls review, Daniel takes advantage of the tie-in issue collected here to smooth over some of the unexplained jumps between the old continuity and the New 52 -- how Jeremiah Arkham can be back running the asylum, how Roman Sionis is alive and remembers his time as Black Mask, etc. Daniel handles all of this well and establishes the new mind-controlling Black Mask as a credible threat for Batman in the New 52.

Daniel takes the unusual step of continuing that story into the included Detective Comics annual. Too often what happens in a crossover tie-in stays in a crossover tie-in, such that the tie-in is more about the crossover than the characters affected. The annual struggles from too much comics pseudo-science -- whether science or magic gives Black Mask his mind-control powers isn't quite clear -- but pairing Black Mast with the also mind-controlling Mad Hatter is interesting, and the story reads like a "classic" Batman story with the hero crashing down on the villains from the ceiling.

Indeed what might most attract some readers to the first and second volumes of Detective Comics is that Daniel's stories are very much "iconic" and continuity-light. Aside from in the "Night of the Owls" crossover, the main characters here are just Batman, Alfred, and Commissioner Gordon; this is a collection any "Dark Knight" movie fan could pick up and understand. If one wanted "just a Batman story" to read on a plane ride, Scare Tactics might be the thing, but for most readers, the book will lack the significant heft of Scott Snyder's Batman work, for instance.

This is not necessarily a pro-continuity argument that all "good" Batman stories have to "matter." Rather, what irked me about Scare Tactics was the extent to which I could tell that these stories didn't matter at all.

The book starts positively with a one-issue follow-up to Dark Knight: Knight Terrors that also forwards the Hugo Strange storyline from Detective: Faces of Evil. But after the "Owls" crossover, the meat of Scare Tactics is a three-part story where Batman fights the villain Mr. Toxin, whose appearance is just as ridiculous as his name. This story, too, follows from Faces, but the end is terribly sudden (as if maybe Daniel had his issue count shortened, thought the annual peters out like this, too) and the reader is pretty much guaranteed they'll never see Mr. Toxin again.

Again, a story need not tie to ten years of continuity nor change Batman's life irrevocably, but the Mr. Toxin story changes Batman not at all; there's no emotional resonance to the story really, more than simply Batman stopping a bad guy. There are certain similarities between Daniel's Mr. Toxin story and Scott Snyder's Batman: City of Owls too, that only underscore how City really got to the core of who Batman is and the Mr. Toxin story only flits along the surface.

The book finishes with the Detective Comics back-up stories. I'm glad DC included these, and the two by James Tynion -- about Alfred and about the Joker's severed face respectively -- acquit themselves well enough, though Daniel's Two-Face story is a mess. This is Two-Face's first major New 52 appearance and the story fails to explain his status quo; apparently Two-Face is some sort of semi-legitimate businessman, in that the Gotham DA is suing him in open court and then later even offers Two-Face his old job as DA back, though how exactly that would work is never quite explained.

Daniel stretches even comic book credibility by introducing a group of monks with a monastery in downtown Gotham; they are the worst hitmen ever given that they judge their victims before execution and then don't kill them if the vicim is deemed "good." Artist Szymon Kudranski provides some nicely dark, shadowy art at times, but late in the story it gets crowded and it's hard to tell how many actors there are in the scenes.

Gregg Hurwitz contributes the Detective Comics Zero Month issue; again, I'm glad DC has collected these with the various series, though the issue and its predictable ending didn't move me, and I was left to wonder whether Snyder will pick up or ignore the events of these issues in the upcoming "Zero Year" storyline.

What issues Daniel draws are consistently good throughout, with echoes of David Mazzucchelli and also Jim Lee; inker Sandu Florea must certainly share some credit here. Ed Benes also contributes a perhaps unusually strong issue, with inks by Rob Hunter, whose images to me resembled Bernie Wrightson's in Batman: The Cult. Colorist Tomeu Morey contributes a muted color palette that I found distracting at first, but felt ultimately worked with Daniel's iconic approach to the Batman character.

Detective Comics Vol. 2: Scare Tactics is an uneven book, caught as it is between two Bat-crossovers and, for that reason, containing seemingly more filler than it does actual story. There is purpose for filler or one-off tales (certainly plenty of good has come out of Legends of the Dark Knight over the years), but I just don't think it's for me. If you've been enjoying John Layman's Detective work, let me know; otherwise it might be time for Detective Comics and I to part ways.

[Includes original and variant covers]

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  1. Spot on, as ever. The series definitely felt like it was running out of steam during Daniel's run, but I recommend sticking around for Layman's work. He writes a really interesting Penguin arc (which I think is hard to do), but he does so through single-issue stories that tell a longer tale; you have a Clayface issue and a Poison Ivy issue, and he does a fantastic Joker issue that deals with how a city reacts to having a nut like that on the loose. I'd give it a shot - I'm glad I did!

  2. Keep with it, the following volume is a marked improvement. I especially like the Death of the Family tie ins.

    Just don't bother with Batman: The Dark Knight.

  3. I'll second Zach's and Peter's recommendations. Layman has been doing a great job on Detective Comics, and I'm especially impressed with how well he integrates each villain-centric back-up story with the main feature. He even incorporated issue #0's events into the latest issue.

  4. OK, I guess I'm convinced to give Layman's book a try. Also the next one has the Detective "Death of the Family" and "Requiem" issues in it, so I'd probably be giving it a look anyway.