Batman Vol. 1: I Am Gotham delights and disappoints. The flair for smart action King showed on Grayson is in full force here, and this is a pulse-pounding Batman story well-drawn by David Finch. But the story unfolds along predictable lines, and for a story published twice-monthly and told in fairly decompressed manner, it stops short of delving into its material as deeply as it could. Further, the seams of this latest DC relaunch are already showing, with confusion abounding as to who's who and who knows who and how.
[Review contains spoilers]
Heading off Batman's Rebirth relaunch -- DC Comics's most successful title coming out of the New 52 -- Tom King's foremost job is keep up the momentum right away. This, King accomplishes, with his Rebirth special co-written with Scott Snyder and then his Batman #1. The former, buoyed significantly by artist Mikel Janin, sees a dizzying scene of Bruce Wayne hanging off a building by one hand and later nearly dying in Gotham's frozen watery depths. Batman #1's issue-long caper, with volume artist David Finch, has Batman launching himself atop a plane crash-landing into the middle of Gotham, where against all odds he manages to right the plane, but at almost certain cost of his own life. That's where I Am Gotham begins, with Batman cheating death by luck alone, and King's tongue-in-cheek use of a "fasten seatbelts" sign in the beginning is pretty accurate. In gripping, expertly choreographed action, King is bar none. King also uses the extra space of shipping twice monthly for some wry, amusing sequences, especially with Batman and Commissioner Gordon.
But I Am Gotham introduces the super-powered heroes Gotham and Gotham Girl in its second issue, with their genuine intention to train with and learn from Batman, and by the fourth issue Gotham has already gone bad. King barely even gives the audience time to care about Gotham before the Psycho Pirate changes him, and given that the book is twice monthly, Gotham became villain less than a month after he was introduced. That Gotham City's new heroes should be the villains of the piece is predictable in the extreme, a plot we've seen hundreds of times even as recently as Superman/Wonder Woman Vol. 3: Casualties of War. As a story to launch a brand-new era of Batman, I expected something much more complex.
The difficulties with the story abound. There's a suggestion that Batman agrees to train Gotham and Gotham Girl because he sees himself and his allies outmatched in Gotham City and believes super-powered heroes might be the answer, a gigantic admission on Batman's part (upheld later on when he calls in the Justice League). We never, however, get the flip side of that, what Batman thinks about super-powered heroes in his city after Gotham is mind-controlled; Batman's arc in this volume doesn't feel finished. Nor is the hero Gotham being named "Gotham" used to its full potential; metaphorically, the city Gotham rejects Batman and Batman bids it farewell, but there's no real tie to Gotham City and its people to give this full relevance. Also, Batman appears to blame Gotham for the mayhem and death he causes, but it's clear to all parties that Gotham isn't in control; if Batman held against Superman the number of times he's been mind-controlled, and even killed during those times as in Trinity War, the World's Finest wouldn't be speaking today.
As well, the book's conclusion puts a lot of weight on Gotham's sister, Gotham Girl Claire Clover. In some respects, as Batman reveals his identity to Claire and seems to take her under his wing, it seems King wants the audience to see Claire as akin to Batman, even as Claire wasn't even present at her parents and brother's Crime Alley-esque mugging and that she only fights crime because it was her brother's idea. As well, Batman's new partner Duke Thomas appears to fall in love with Claire on sight, ludicrously while she's half out of her mind, and the audience is supposed to believe this even so far as, in future-peering dialogue, that Duke and Claire will be married some day. As with the hero Gotham, King hasn't done enough to make the readers feel the emotion that the characters do, and so both Batman and Duke come off hopelessly overwrought.
I will acknowledge that perhaps my expectations are too high, but again for a book meant to launch DC Comics's bold new era, and following Snyder's Batman run no less, I expect I Am Gotham to be pretty close to flawless. But a lot of details feel off; King has a scene where Alfred chides Thomas Wayne aloud for being "absurd" enough to walk through Crime Alley, for instance. Though King's Batman directly references Snyder's before him, Batman has stopped calling Alfred "Penny-One" for some reason, and equally problematic is Batman's insistence on calling Duke "Mr. Thomas" when he's called all his other sidekicks by their first names previously. One of Amanda Waller's well-trained soldiers is apparently so poorly trained that in answer to Gotham having killed the other members of his unit that he tracks down and kills Gotham's parents in revenge, even despite that the unit knows about the Psycho Pirate's machinations. Around the edges, the fact that David Finch draws this Batman story that also utilizes the Justice League and has Bane at its center is slightly too evocative of Finch's previous Batman: The Dark Knight Vol. 1: Knight Terrors.
In the present volume, Finch depicts Batman stopping the Clover mugging supposedly 5-10 years ago in a costume almost exactly like his current one, which seems not only an error but also an indication of continuity issues afoot. The same as with the New 52 relaunch (and really every post-event relaunch up to this point), it takes a while for the characters' histories to solidify (and especially in Rebirth where the characters' histories are purposefully up in the air). Solomon Grundy appears here, a villain supposedly endemic to Earth 2; also a super-powered Calendar Man, who'd been a non-powered gangster as recently as Detective Comics Vol. 7: Anarky; Psycho Pirate Roger Hayden, the pre-Flashpoint version, even though post-Flashpoint he's appeared as a Brainiac-possessed individual in the Superman titles; and an evil Hugo Strange, whom Red Hood and the Outlaws had established as being perceived as a good, normal man. The New 52 titles could change things as they pleased given the apparent establishment of a new continuity, but when Rebirth is supposed to continue from before, these mis-fits are hard to figure.
Tom King populates Batman Vol. 1: I Am Gotham with enough cool moments to bring me back for another, admittedly some of the same things that gave me pause here -- Batman versus Bane, Batman working with Amanda Waller, what mild hints we get of ties to the larger DC Rebirth story, even the enthusiasm for the material that King professes in his interviews. The story is multi-layered, despite that some of those layers are troubled, and I don't want to understate that King gets the action right and the dialogue as well, for the most part. Hopefully the difficulties here are growing pains and the next volume demonstrates an upward trend.
[Includes original and twenty-seven variant covers, character sketches and David Finch pencils]