Review: Batman: Detective Comics Vol. 6: Icarus hardcover/paperback (DC Comics)

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Thursday, June 11, 2015

Constant readers know I've been working my way through the troubled Batwing series these days, so to pick up Batman: Detective Comics Vol. 6: Icarus is a relief to the eyes. This is a comic book that looks like more than "just" a comic book, in keeping with Francis Manapul's high standard, and that can stand proudly amidst all the popular independent work now on the market. Surely DC Comics knows it, as evidenced by Detective leading the charge, even as a pre-Convergence book, for DC's new post-New 52 collections designs.

After writer/artist Manapul and writer Brian Buccellato's notable run on Flash, I frankly expected something a little more superhero-y from their Detective run. That's not my preference from a Batman story, so I shouldn't be disappointed that Icarus is actually much more grounded (with a few flourishes). It's so grounded, however, as to almost seem mundane -- though I have a high enough estimation of Buccellato and Manapul's work to take their "mundane" over most everyone else's "exceptional" any day.

What will define Icarus, most likely, is where the creative team goes from here. If this is just a one-off visit with Gotham City's biker gangs, then I'm not sure the scope necessarily says "Batman" to me. But if this lowbrow, "street justice" setting will be their play-place for a while, with Batman even at times a tertiary figure, I could get behind that at least as something different than the normal Batman fare.

[Review contains spoilers]

Plain and simple, I like my Batman books realistic. Batman versus an Arkham villain is about as fanciful as I like to go; recent Bat-titles have the Gotham Underground, with battles between the Bat-family, demons, and weird forgotten civilizations, and that's not for me. Save that for Superman or Wonder Woman, or at least Batman in the Justice League titles.

But again, Detective Comics: Icarus involves rival drug-pushing biker gangs. Sure, Batman's fought the war on drugs before, but it was always against a profit-crazed Penguin or the Scarecrow trying out one of his fear toxins. Icarus still has plenty of superhero sci-fi elements -- that the titular drug causes people to explode from within, or the point where Batman fights a giant squid, or the radioactive purple man -- but a distinct lack of real supervillains. At times the story even leaves Batman behind entirely for a complex web of criminal family dynamics. It's a very small Batman story all told, even with its explosive finish, and that's not bad so much as it's so unexpected from this creative team that I struggle with how to regard it.

In the same way, with Manapul seemingly "graduating" to the Bat-family after his stellar work on Flash (including that astounding nine-page spread in Flash Vol. 3: Gorilla Warfare), I was surprised the extent to which he toned things down in Icarus. Batman can certainly withstand some creative panelwork -- see JH Williams in Black Glove or Batwoman -- but Manapul works largely with straight lines and grids here (if with a bevy of well-drawn two-page spreads). It probably says more about the artist that he could draw these wildly complicated layouts and instead makes a choice to keep it straightforward, but again it's unexpected. At least one nod to Flash's art style, however, is Icarus's occasional bright colors (with Buccellato presumably as colorist), including uncommon images of Batman in the sunrise.

Though I imagine Icarus's genesis wasn't in other Bat-events, it fits neatly after the events of Batman Eternal Vol. 1 and before Batman and Robin Vol. 6: The Hunt for Robin -- so, in a space where Batman lacks two of his allies in Commissioner Gordon and Robin Damian Wayne. This allows Buccellato and Manapul to bring Harvey Bullock to the forefront, as I expect they might have anyway (and Bullock's popularity on Gotham likely sparked DC's interest in a Bullock-centric series as well).

It's problematic that the writers re-imagine Bullock almost whole cloth -- ignoring, specifically, some of the Bullock character work John Layman did in this same title just two volumes back in The Wrath -- but I do like this Bullock/Batman dynamic. Commissioner Gordon, at this point, has too much personal stake in Batman; when he disagrees with Batman, it hurts Gordon as a person, not as a police officer. Gordon's struggles are usually whether or not to trust Batman; Bullock knows that Batman's essentially a good guy, but Bullock wants to best Batman in solving the crimes largely out of ego. That Bullock eventually gets Batman to trade blows with him perhaps drags Batman down to too low a level, but it's a grittiness that befits the tone of this story; using Gordon here would not work the same.

The Detective Comics Annual #3 collected at the end is an interesting experiment, teaming Buccellato with artists Werther Dell'edera, Jorge Fornes, and Scott Hepburn, the two former of which have done little-to-no DC work before. In keeping with Detective's post-publication "DC You" identity, I don't mind a bit of experimentation, and it's successful; the artists draw different genres, essentially -- gritty crime, true romance, and superheroics -- but they're connected by Buccellato's story such that the art shifts never feel awkward or off-putting.

At the same time, Buccellato's "Icarus: Chaos Theory" story itself at times approaches the bizarre, ranging from a bloody new origin for one of Batman's most innocuous foes, the Calendar Man; to the death of one of Icarus's main characters' boyfriend, which is totally unacknowledged in the story itself; to the return of the hulking Bat-robot suit last seen in Night of the Owls. Buccellato's annual is in some ways just as experimental as the issue's art -- uncertain timing, incongruous events, dark comedy. Taken in view of Icarus as a whole, the annual again suggests a creative team with the potential to do a lot -- a fact that I think will surprise no one -- but who've made a conscious effort to dim the lights this time, even as elements of the story acknowledge that they've done so.

Unexpected isn't a bad thing, and Brian Buccellato and Francis Manapul have demonstrated enough skill in their pre-Detective work that I'd read their take on the phone book; if they want to pare it down, they can pare it down. Batman: Detective Comics Vol. 6: Icarus is a wee little Batman story that could clearly have larger implications (namely the explosive purple man who went flying off the page). When those big implications come around, maybe we'll see Icarus as an unassuming appetizer to a startling larger story. Either way, Icarus is a well-done but curious first volley in Manapul and Buccellato's Detective run, and I'm interested to see what comes next.

[Includes original and (a whole lot of) variant covers]
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