Review: Batman: Detective Comics Vol. 5: Gothtopia hardcover/paperback (DC Comics)

I've had some hesitation about reading Batman: Detective Comics Vol. 5: Gothtopia for a while, sensing correctly that the villain of the piece is fairly obvious to guess. I am not the biggest fan of "alternate reality" stories anyway, since they have a tendency to "run in place" while the character explores their new surroundings instead of moving the larger story forward -- and three issues for "Gothtopia" is a long time to spend navel-gazing. At the same time, the work John Layman and Jason Fabok have done recently on Detective Comics is the best we've seen on the title of late, and that gave me confidence to check out Gothtopia despite my misgivings.

The result is somewhere in the middle. What work Layman and Fabok do together, including a Batman: Zero Year tie-in story and the first part of "Gothopia," is exemplary. Aaron Lopresti, however, replaces Fabok in a couple other stories. Lopresti is a fine artist in his own right who has offered great work on Futures End, Justice League International, and Sword of Sorcery, but his brighter, more animated style isn't a fit for me in a Batman story. Where Layman's stories need some dramatic weight here, Lopresti can't provide it, and that hurts Gothtopia in exactly the ways I'd feared.

[Review contains spoilers]

John Layman's Detective Comics stories have been at their best lately in some strong, surprising storytelling and in the intersection between Layman's main and backup stories. In the Gotham vein, Layman and Jason Fabok's Zero Year story of Detective Jim Gordon taking on the corrupt Gotham City PD is perfectly entertaining, and again Fabok's sharp work makes every panel look cool and important, a style akin to Jim Lee or David Finch.

Layman provides a wonderful Bat-twist to the story's finish, and then also another fine backup story that ties the Zero Year tale both back to Detective Comics Vol. 4: The Wrath and also forward to the next issue, which completes Layman's Man-Bat storyline. In this way, as has been the case throughout Layman's Detective run, Layman creates a tapestry in which his stories seamlessly bleed into and connect with one another, sometimes directly and sometimes after the fact, revealing new details about previous events as the story moves forward.

Unfortunately, the art choices hurt what might otherwise be the most important issue of Layman's Detective run. Since partway through the "Emperor Penguin" storyline, Layman has been building a confrontation between "good" Man-Bat Kirk Langstrom and evil corporate spy Man-Bat Francine Langstrom. In what might correctly be seen as Layman's last independent Batman story, Kirk recruits Batman to help reign in "Bat-Queen" Francine, whose army of vampiric bats are stripping victims to the bone. But artist Lopresti here draws Man-Bats that are cartoony, not realistic, grotesque, or frightening, and even Jared Fletcher's lettering tends toward the melodramatic (whereas they don't in the Fabok-drawn Zero Year story). The result is that a climactic story that's basically just a fight scene comes off like just a fight scene, without any horror to give it weight, and so it feels flat rather than like a satisfying end to a few volumes' worth of work.

"Gothtopia" has similar difficulties. The "utopian Gotham" story starts out strongly under Fabok, with a rampaging Poison Ivy, a convincingly heroic-looking white knight Batman, equally interesting alternate versions of the Bat-family, and even a frightening Scarecrow (the story's "big bad") in David Finch's style. But Lopresti takes over for the last two parts, and what were workable alt-costumes (like "Catbird") now seem goofy, and Scarecrow is a silly buck-toothed figure. Once Layman reveals Scarecrow as the (obvious) villain at the end of the first part, the story is basically over, and the entire second chapter where Batman breaks out of Arkham is wholly unnecessary before the third part where he puts a stop to the Scarecrow's scheme. Without, again, Fabok to lend the story dramatic weight, the flaws in Layman's story show (the padding perhaps necessary for scheduling purposes), and in this way "Gothtopia" proves to be exactly what I thought it would.

DC's collections department put this book together well in that the backup stories from the celebratory Detective Comics #27 are moved to the back of the book instead of breaking up "Gothtopia"'s momentum. These are "just" one-off stories, but each has a nice meta-textual resonance. Brad Meltzer and Bryan Hitch re-tell the Batman story from the original Detective #27; Gregg Hurwitz teams with legendary Batman artist Neal Adams for a story that looks at Batman through the ages; and Mike Barr returns to both Batman and the Phantom Stranger with an appropriately Bronze Age-ish story, with Guillem March. Peter Tomasi, writer of Batman and Robin, tells a future Bat-family tale that includes Damian Wayne, drawn by Ian Bertram, who drew Tomasi's recent Damian Wayne Secret Origins story. Francesco Francavilla returns to his most noted Batman work with a story related to Black Mirror, while Scott Snyder and Sean Murphy tell a Batman story that could as easily be set within their book The Wake.

Batman: Detective Comics Vol. 5: Gothtopia is not the strongest of John Layman's Detective Comics books, but it does cap off a strong and admirable run on the series. It's nice that Layman gets to wrap up his main outstanding storyline here, a privilege not bestowed on every writer, and we're reminded about the best aspects of this run with the Zero Year tie-in. Add to that the good anniversary stories, and for a book that doesn't fully succeed this is still one worth recommending.

[Includes original and variant covers (quite a few), pin-ups]


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