Review: Batman Vol. 3: Ghost Stories hardcover/paperback (DC Comics)

June 27, 2021


Dubious as this may sound, I think there’s a need every once in a while for a mundane Batman story. We’ve been through a couple of decades of writers — and the past five or so years in particular — where the sole point seemed to be to take Batman apart, stare at his insides, and put him back together differently.

Not that James Tynion isn’t also trying to do that — Batman Vol. 3: Ghost Stories is quite specifically the first volume of another all-new, all-changed Batman era. At the same time, Ghost Stories follows a fairly familiar Bat-trope — one of Bruce’s childhood rivals returns to haunt him — which is as classic a premise for a Bat-story as “Bruce falls in love but the woman/her father/her maiden aunt is a vigilante/super-villain.” It doesn’t feel as though Tynion tries to reinvent the wheel, plot-wise, and that’s an unexpected relief, all the better for some of the character drama to shine through.

I didn’t leave Ghost Stories with a good idea where Tynion is going with all of this. For one, I think this title is still “telling” its conflicts far more than it’s “showing” them; for two, the resolution to Ghost Stories' conflict is surprisingly amicable and bloodless, sans cliffhanger, such that I’m not sure what if anything forms this title’s pervading concerns. And yet I’m not particularly unhappy about that. Tynion is world-building, casually and without fanfare, and it’s not like nothing is happening here; that it’s not all fireworks and bloody noses, when so often it is, might mark a nice change of pace.

[Review contains spoilers]

In the wake of Batman Vol. 2: Joker War, one of young Bruce Wayne’s rivals, aka Ghost-Maker, comes to Gotham for the typical “show a merciful Batman how it’s really done” reasons. We’ll give Tynion some grace in introducing a supposedly influential frenemy from Bruce’s past that everyone’s heard of but us, though it was more credible when Peter Tomasi did it with Henri and Morgan Ducard in Batman and Robin. The idea, however, that Batman and Ghost-Maker have a deal where Batman operates only mainly in Gotham City and never in a city where Ghost-Maker himself operates really stretches believability (can you imagine Batman telling the Justice League, “Sorry, I had to let Deathstroke go, Ghost-Maker was in Buredunia”?).

[See the latest DC trade solicitations.]

Plot implausibilities and familiarity aside, the premise creates a clever philosophical minefield for Tynion to play in — Batman has on one side Ghost-Maker, who wants Batman to take sentiment out of his vigilantism toward a stronger sense of justice, and on the other side he’s got Bao “Clownhunter” Pham, a kid who hunts and murders the Joker’s goons and whom Batman is trying to reach through kindness. The story’s crisis point is wonderfully quiet, as these things go — in a locked room, Batman and Harley Quinn (mostly Harley) try to appeal to Clownhunter’s humanity before Harley is his next victim.

There’s a lot of push and pull here — we’re supposed to understand that Gotham is more dangerous now, mostly through Tynion having the characters talk about it in vague ways but also through the presence of more “out there” Gothamites like Clownhunter. At the same time, the more chaotic Gotham gets around him, the more it seems like Batman’s methods are leaning (at least in this volume) toward negotiation rather than fisticuffs. That extends even into Ghost Stories' conclusion, where Batman just suddenly ceases to fight and Ghost-Maker does too, and after all the Sturm und Drang Ghost-Maker agrees to join Batman’s team. Whether this pacifist bent is mission statement or incidental, I’m not sure, but I’ll be curious to see if it continues into Tynion’s next volumes.

As with Joker War (and Batman Vol. 1: Dark Designs before it), Harley Quinn plays an outsized role, taking advantage of the lack of her own title or major appearances in the DCU for the moment. As such, Tynion gets the rare opportunity to write a Harley Quinn series-style Harley in the Batman book, with Harley renting an apartment, talking to her plant and pining for Poison Ivy, etc. (no Bernie cameos, unfortunately). There’s barely any supporting cast with their own agency in this book except for Harley, making it veritably a Batman and Harley Quinn book done right. Some will rightfully quibble with the fact that really Harley, not Batman, saves the day again, but I found this a sensible enough portrayal of Harley that I didn’t really mind.

There’s no less than nine pencillers and eight inkers in this book, often a recipe for disaster (and somewhat surprising, at it goes, for a Batman book), though I was often pleased by the in-issue juxtapositions. Take for instance Carlo Pagulayan’s attractive DC house style for a main Batman vs. Ghost-Maker sequence, set next to Carlos D’Anda with a rounder scene of Harley apartment-hunting. Later on, Ryan Benjamin and Danny Miki offer a sharpness that evokes Jim Lee for the Batman sequences while Bengal is perfect for “Batgirls” Spoiler and Orphan, plus some crazy Neal Adams-esque paneling from what I think is Alvaro Martinez and Christian Duce. (Not to mention James Stokoe on a decidedly different-looking annual and Riley Rossmo drawing Tynion’s Detective Comics #1027 story.)



When considering Batman works by James Tynion, I’m reminded of his Detective Comics villain The First Victim, one of the more striking new foes for Batman in a while (and whom I hope Tynion can bring back in his current run). That is, I recognize Tynion as a good character creator, and (despite a sameness of monikers) we see that in Clownhunter and Ghost-Maker, the Designer, the Underbroker, and even (loath as I am to admit it) in the popular Punchline. Add to that the presence of Grifter, Barbara Gordon back as Oracle, Stephanie Brown and Cassandra Cain as “Batgirls,” and so on, and clearly Tynion’s got the setting down in Batman Vol. 3: Ghost Stories to do something great.

That other shoe is yet to drop, however, and what I’m hopeful for next time is more specifics — how losing his fortune and losing his resources really affects Batman in a tangible way, not just in the abstract.

[Includes original and variant covers]

Comments ( 9 )

  1. Great review as always. I have to say that I still feel like the first volume was Tynion's best so far, or at least the one that I enjoyed the most out of the three. The Joker War I feel has a disappointing ending. This latest volume has a lot of small moments and things play out well, but seems to be a "let's get the chess board ready" for the next major storyline...vibe to it. Which is perfectly fine. I like that Tynion is introducing new characters, enjoy the brief interplay between Batman and his supporting characters, even liked the way the writer handled both Harley and the ClownHunter......but I can't say that this is a volume that I would want to ready over and over again.

    Perhaps in the grand scheme of will resonate more once Tynion's complete run is written....time will tell.

    For the next volume, I hope we get a regular artist, see that new batmobile that Batman was talking about, and get some movement in the storyline that goes beyond "let's strip Batman to his basic concept, turn his life inside and out, and then rebuild a better Batman" concept. Ah well, I guess it's not the ending, but the journey....!

    1. Reading Batman: Earth One Vol. 3 and your comment about the car came to mind ... guess we're always waiting to see Batman's new car ...

    2. true! Reminds me of the line from Tim Burton's Batman...."Where does he get those wonderful toys....."

  2. AnonymousJune 29, 2021

    "Perhaps in the grand scheme of will resonate more once Tynion's complete run is written....time will tell."

    Yeah. Tynion confirmed in his newsletter last December that he has the main Batman book plotted out through 2023. Should things align and keep developing through Batman and the Joker spinoff, that'll be his exit.

    So, yeah, it'll be interesting to come back and see how things play out in their entierty (especially with how Their Dark Designs and Joker War were only intended to be a fill-in arc before the 5G initiative got cancelled).

    1. Great point....I didn't know that those were fill in arcs.....

      I'm in it for the long it will be good to see how his entire story plays out.

    2. Oh, and forgot to mention it was great seeing James Stokoe doing the artwork on the Clownhunter origin story. I am a big fan of his Godzilla and Aliens work that he has done for Dark Horse.

    3. AnonymousJune 29, 2021

      "Great point....I didn't know that those were fill in arcs....."

      Yeah, Tynion's Newsletter a while back confirmed it was essentially a temp gig and that Batman #100 was going to be his exit (before he was offered permanent custodianship of the book).

      Tynion didn't officially say why it was only going to be a temp gig. But if you read between the lines, it's not hard to guess it was due to the plans for DiDio’s 5G publishing initiative and how everything changed between his February 2020 ouster and the COVID-19 pandemic.

      It actually reminds me a lot of Geoff Johns' original Flash run. The “Wonderland” arc was only supposed to be a 6-month filler story until they found a permanent successor for Mark Waid. But then Johns got offered the book and so it became the strange, unintended prologue (which, to his credit, Johns retroactively made work by getting plenty of narrative mileage out of Plunder, Chyre, Brother Grimm, etc.).

    4. I'm reminded it took them _so long_ to collect Wonderland. Glad that didn't happen here!

    5. AnonymousJuly 01, 2021

      Yeah, I'm glad they eventually collected it, too.

      So many elements of Johns' original run made no sense without that missing context when I did my first read-through of the TPBs back in the day.


To post a comment, you may need to temporarily allow "cross-site tracking" in your browser of choice.