Batman: Detective Comics Vol. 4: The Wrath. Layman again tells interesting stories about Batman versus his various rogues, both established, esoteric, and ones Layman has created fresh for this volume. The storytelling twists and winds at times, though for the most part not unpleasantly, and again Layman's deep-character backups stories form the jewels that help this crown sparkle. Detective Comics is really engaging here, something it isn't always, and Layman and Fabok are to be commended for it.
[Review contains spoilers]
The breakout star of Wrath is actually the "Mat-Bat family," Kirk and Francine Langstrom. Layman engages in a bit of odd retroactive continuity here; Man-Bats (ninja Man-Bats, no less) have already appeared in the New 52 vis a vis Batman Incorporated, so I think many of us assumed Batman's past adventures with Kirk had been grandfathered in. What we come to find, however (in the first chapter, issue #19, which is also the Detective Comics #900 anniversary issue), is that Batman meets the Langstroms for the first time here, and that he fought Talia al Ghul's Man-Bats in Incorporated but didn't know from where she'd stolen the formula until now.
This makes the "900" story a little wobbly, because I was confused when Batman didn't recognize Kirk. Also the story starts out as presenting Emperor Penguin and Zsasz as the villains, then pivots to the Langstroms, then goes back to Zsasz in such a way that the audience isn't always sure what the story is about, necessarily. But none of this is a problem; the twists of the story give it nice definition and depth -- it feels as though Batman exists in a real world where stuff just suddenly happens. Fabok also offers some of the best work in an overall strong book in his depictions of the Man-Bats and also Bat-family members Batgirl, Nightwing, and (unexpectedly) Batwoman.
But from there Layman shifts the Langstroms to the backup stories, and that's really where they shine. Layman starts out with a couple stories that follow along the lines of classic Man-Bat lore -- Kirk becomes addicted to the Man-Bat serum, he begins to transform without taking the serum, he fears he's killed people, etc. But in a twist worthy of Matt Kindt's Mind MGMT, Layman later gives us the same events again from Francine's perspective -- only to reveal that Francine not only faked her marriage to steal her husband's formula, but also that she herself has become a scarier, more bloodthirsty Man-Bat. Here Layman uses the New 52 relaunch to its best effect, taking the stories we thought we knew and turning them on their head.
Not to mention, it turns out Francine is working for E.D. Caldwell, villain of the book's latter "Wrath" chapters. All of this is present behind the scenes in the book's early chapters, creating a wonderful bridge between the otherwise unconnected "Emperor Penguin" and "Wrath" storylines. Again, Detective Comics has at times been a book that floundered in the shadow of the other Bat-titles, so to see such sharp focus and internal continuity within the book is heartening -- and as well, on more than one occasion Layman offers an image or dialogue that helps line Detective up with other Bat-titles (specifically the also often-disconnected Dark Knight).
After the "Emperor Penguin" story (which ended a little too swiftly for my tastes, but Fabok renders it well), Layman has a one-shot that picks up on Gregg Hurwitz's Zero Month issue from Detective Comics Vol. 2: Scare Tactics, where young Bruce Wayne's love Mio died. For me this is one of the weaker chapters in this good book, mainly because I'm not as much a fan of Batman fighting fantastical out-there metahumans, but I did appreciate that Layman brings some relevance to the Zero Month issue that seemed otherwise like a story just to fill pages. As a bonus, this is a rare Harper Row story outside Scott Snyder's Batman title, and Row fans will probably want to read this one, too.
The most unexpectedly affecting part of this book is the Detective Comics annual, where, long story short, a mimic impersonates Harvey Bullock and becomes a Bullock people actually like, including the new GCPD psychologist. I give Layman credit for what seemed to be another obvious mystery villain, a la his Merrymaker story in Detective Comics Vol. 3, but then turning it in the end in a way I didn't expect. Moreover, in the two backup stories, Layman addresses Bullock considering his own flaws in view of people liking his impostor better, even so far as for someone to fall in love with "him." Layman has to play up Bullock's slovenliness to an extreme degree to make the story work (for instance, I think Commissioner Gordon has more faith in Bullock than is shown here), but what emerges are some really touching Harvey Bullock stories, a rare genre to begin with.
I would complain that the villain is also obvious in Layman's "Wrath" story, except I understood later that the Wrath is a somewhat classic Batman villain, and Layman presumably doesn't disguise his identity because anyone familiar with the Wrath would already know who he is. This is a fine, action-packed story, with some good bits for Alfred (seeming more and more like his Gotham iteration) and also the Gotham police force. From the beginning of this book Layman begins introducing his own new officers in the GCPD, such that they're able to interact with Batman fully realized later on. In the absence of Montoya, Allen, and the like, I appreciated Layman giving the GCPD officers some personality again.
In all, Batman: Detective Comics Vol. 4: The Wrath has a lot to enjoy, and John Layman continues to win a fan with this title. Pity the next volume is his last, though he's only moving as far as Batman Eternal. I didn't have much interest in the silly-seeming "Gothtopia" crossover before now, but Layman's impressed me enough with his first two volumes that I'm definitely in for the third.
[Includes original and variant covers as well as two-page "WTF" gatefold spread, Detective Comics #19 ("900") pinups.]
We'll pick up next week with a look at that aforementioned Batman Eternal Vol. 1.