Batman: Detective Comics Vol. 3: Emperor Penguin heralds a group of relevant, surprising Batman stories that evoke a tone of Batman: The Animated Series or Paul Dini's previous run on Detective. No offense to Brian Buccelato and Francis Manapul to come on this title, but based on Emperor Penguin I'd have been glad to see Layman writing Detective for the long haul.
But good as the writing is, the real star of Emperor Penguin is artist Jason Fabok. I wasn't familiar with Fabok's work when he was announced as the new Justice League penciller and I did wonder whether his work would stand up to Jim Lee and Ivan Reis before him, and the answer is a resounding "yes." Not unlike David Finch on Batman: The Dark Knight, Emperor Penguin is a book you might buy solely for the art alone, though it's fortunate to have a good story along with it.
[Review contains spoilers]
By about the third issue, readers will begin to see the neat trick of John Layman's Detective Comics. Even as all six issues collected here are related to the ongoing "Emperor Penguin" storyline, each one is obviously focused on a different of Batman's (somewhat less popular) villains: Penguin, Poison Ivy, Clayface, and again Penguin/Zsasz (with two other issues given over to a Death of the Family crossover). But as opposed to Gregg Hurwitz's recent Dark Knight stories, which dig into the psyches of the Bat-villains sometimes to a purposefully-nauseating degree, Layman's issues are not so much about the origins of the villains as telling a good "Batman versus" story. It's in this way that the Emperor Penguin issues remind of Batman: The Animated Series; there's Batman, a villain, a caper and maybe a little bit of a mystery, and that's really all you need.
This is a pretty good middle ground for Detective Comics. With Batman telling the epic, ground-shaking Batman stories, and Batman and Robin to some extent doing the same, it would seem like a bit of overkill to have Batman also in the fight of his life in the same month in Detective. But telling a satisfying Batman versus Poison Ivy story or Batman versus Clayface story that's not mythos-changing, just enjoyable, suits the third Batman title just right, and as an added bonus Layman connects it all and builds toward something that does change the landscape slightly, though not in too big of a way.
DC also includes in this book Layman's Detective back-up stories. For the most part, these are related to the main story, filling in gaps or providing a few extra details. To say that Detective doesn't detail the villains' origins like Dark Knight is not entirely true, but rather with these back-ups Layman offers an "epilogue" origin that doesn't detract from the main story. Especially good, I thought, was Layman's Zsasz origin; telling the origins of a character like Zsasz threatens to remove some of the character's scary mystique, but I thought it was a nice twist that Layman's Zsasz now holds some parallels to Batman Bruce Wayne even as a psychotic serial killer.
(I did notice a man with a thin mustache reappearing in every back-up story, though he's supposed to be different characters [and especially since some of the iterations die in the back-up stories]. I'm curious if this will turn out to be a quirk of the back-up guest artists or if Layman is suggesting a larger conspiracy behind the scenes.)
Though Layman's Emperor Penguin story pre-dated the new Gotham TV show by a while, the show's emphasis on Penguin makes this book all the more notable. I expect that Penguin Oswald Cobblepot will triumph over his assistant currently usurping his power at the end of this volume, but I did wonder at times of Emperor Penguin might see Cobblepot actually replaced with the younger, thinner Ignatius Ogilvy. The new character is hardly a ringer for Gotham's Robin Lord Taylor, but it wouldn't surprise me if DC moved in that direction by virtue of the TV show, as they've done before (though "our" Cobblepot might still be too iconic to get rid of).
The Death of the Family two-parter, though appropriately gruesome at times, is the weakest section of this strong book. It starts out well enough, with a group of Joker wannabes causing significant mayhem across the city, and though their leader is called "The Merrymaker," Fabok gives him a fearsome, engaging design. However, in the second part, Layman's mystery misses its mark, telegraphing the Merrymaker's identity from the opening pages, and that steals a bit of the story's thunder as it reaches its conclusion.
Fabok's work really distinguishes itself in Emperor Penguin's third chapter, with Clayface. He presents a modified Batman costume that's part Bat, part Hazmat suit, and it's a neat design. Fabok's art emerges in the upper echelons of DC's house style, comparable to Jim Lee and David Finch, though Fabok even gains a leg up on Finch in that his female characters don't have Finch's sameness of figure. Fabok inks his own work here, and the earlier issues have the bulk of Lee and Finch's lines whereas in later chapters, Fabok's lines get a little thinner, especially in unmasked faces, a la Gary Frank. That's not my preference, but irrespective, based on his Detective work, it's clear Fabok deserves Justice League or another high-profile title.
Though the end of John Layman and Jason Fabok's run is already in sight, two collections hence, on Batman: Detective Comics Vol. 3: Emperor Penguin they make a powerhouse team, and I'd be happy to see more DC work from each of them (and indeed it looks like Layman is working on Batman Eternal now). But moreover, Detective Comics is a title I'd almost given up on, and Layman and Fabok have breathed new life into it. Nice work all around.
[Includes original and unused covers, sketches and designs by Jason Fabok]
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