Review: Batman: Shadows of the Bat: House of Gotham hardcover/paperback (DC Comics)

At least one reason for the Batman franchise’s success in comics and beyond is surely the villains; no other DC franchise has such a spate of antagonists that routinely step out of the shadow of their hero — see, at the moment, series running or upcoming for the Joker, Penguin, Catwoman, Harley Quinn, and Poison Ivy.

Matthew Rosenberg’s Batman: Shadows of the Bat: House of Gotham is an ode to this very thing, the staying power and rich characterization of Batman’s villains. Indeed, House of Gotham has both length and width, if you will — it is a travelogue through modern Batman history, on one hand, and also a showcase of Gotham’s villains' lives outside of Batman on the other. Artist Fernando Blanco is brilliant, even at times breathtaking, throughout.

What difficulties House of Gotham have are largely external, inherited problems, not intrinsic to the book itself. In all, it’s another book like Task Force Z where I’m highly impressed with Rosenberg’s work. If, on its own, House climbs maybe a little too high, I certainly can’t fault Rosenberg for ambition.

[Review contains spoilers]

House of Gotham shares the “Shadows of the Bat” branding with Batman: Shadows of the Bat: The Tower, with “House” having been the backup stories to Mariko Tamaki’s 12-issue weekly event. Each story, “Tower” and “House,” have their own titles; the “branding title” therefore suggested to me some relation between the two. Throughout House, I kept waiting for that tie to manifest, even as I began to suspect it would not. It did not help that Rosenberg keeps House’s “the boy”’s identity secret up to (and ultimately through) House’s end; that is, even to the very last page, I kept wondering if we might find the boy to have been one of Arkham Tower’s many newly introduced inmates.

[See the latest DC trade solicitations.]

The thing about House of Gotham is that it’s beautiful, exceptionally written, and Rosenberg in my opinion flubs the ending. And the tension as to whether House would tie into Tower, and then doesn’t, only makes that poor ending worse. It’s a gaffe outside Rosenberg’s control on top of the ones that are. Had House of Gotham simply been billed as a journey through Batman’s history through the eyes of his villains, standalone and self-contained (even Black Label!), I frankly think one could have been hearing so much more about this book. Seeming to be the other half of the “Shadows of the Bat” event doesn’t do it any favors.

House of Gotham follows an unnamed boy whose parents are killed a la Bruce Wayne himself, but through a series of unfortunate events he ends up in Arkham Asylum and is essentially raised by a cadre of Batman’s villains. Rather like a kind of Forrest Gump gone wrong, the boy ends up witness to a variety of salient moments in Bat-history, mainly meeting the three Robins and most of what took place in the 1990s. He is meant to an extent to represent the space between the two “houses” of Gotham — angry with both the Joker and the Batman, the boy is neither “of” Arkham Asylum nor Wayne Manor — though his strong connection to Batman’s other villains muddies this a bit.

There is an aspect of the boy that seems to appeal to Gotham’s villains, and not even in the malevolent way of Joker recognizing similar evil in Punchline. Scarecrow is impressed by the boy, as is Bane, and each because the boy seemed largely unfazed by the villains (not because the boy is unafraid, but as Bane notes, because “you control your fear well”). Also because the boy professes hatred of both the Joker and Batman, and even doesn’t seem to see much difference between them — like Jason Todd or Olive Silverlock, he is something of a Gotham agnostic, and that’s appealing to some rogues who are more outcasts than villains, like Clayface and Killer Croc.

Of particular note here is the Penguin, whom Rosenberg plays as Fagin to the boy’s Oliver Twist. But despite expectations, we actually see Penguin treat the boy well and never quite employ him for illegal deeds (even if Penguin is eventually the cause of the boy’s downfall).

Rosenberg perhaps doesn’t make explicit enough Penguin’s motivations here — it seems, what we know about Penguin to the contrary, that Oswald Cobblepot might simply be acting out of the goodness of his heart here, maybe to make up for his own rotten childhood (Highfather only knows what Penguin’s origin is anymore). We might do with knowing why, but instead it seems — as the boy characterizes it — “kindness … from unexpected places,” which is certainly a different perspective than we usually get on Gotham’s villains.

As mentioned, the boy’s growing to adulthood also spans Batman’s modern history, though this sounds better than it works out in the final tally. He meets Dick Grayson, Jason Todd, and Tim Drake, and participates in aspects of “Knightfall” and “Cataclysm,” through to “No Man’s Land.” Don’t get me wrong, I’m more than happy to see the bat-armored Azrael and Huntress protecting Leslie Thompkins' clinic, but Rosenberg’s focus on the '90s gives short shrift to “Year Two” or “Destroyer,” for instance, to say nothing of the implied commentary on the worthiness of Bat-events since. Still it’s pleasant (and the story gripping overall) for what I expect is meant to be a look back on the occasion of Detective Comics #1050.

Backup stories are tough, I’ve said again and again, because insofar as even 22 pages isn’t much, 10 is positively minuscule, especially when comics is used to a fight scene and a cliffhanger in every story. But Rosenberg seems to thrive here, packing each chapter with dialogue and nuance and never seeming to run short or long … until the end. I can’t fault Rosenberg for killing off the boy, capping the idea of him as the “forgotten,” but it’s an outro 12 issues in the making that finishes in two pages, denying the gravitas the scene needs.

Further, I think Rosenberg miscalculates in his handling of the boy’s name. Holding his name back is absolutely right — again, going to the idea of the boy as the any-person of Gotham — but Rosenberg treats the name as if it has specific significance when it does not. It’s one thing simply to never mention the boy’s name, such that the reader realizes along the way that they don’t know it; it’s another thing to have the name almost spoken a number of times and then held back, as if the name will unlock some greater meaning. Again, it goes to expectations the story creates — that it doesn’t even need to — that lessen the effect of its ending.



But still, Batman: Shadows of the Bat: House of Gotham is a thoughtful deconstruction of the Batman story. It can’t be pigeonholed as simply a “Bizarro Batman,” so nuanced is what Matthew Rosenberg does in this common field. The boy is certainly a “there but goes” Bruce Wayne, but the fact that he’s largely not malevolent, and finds himself bringing out the loving care of Gotham’s villains, makes him different than a Thomas Elliot-type character. And Fernando Blanco extends the book even higher, with a cinematic shot of the yellow-oval Batman crashing through a wall and scenes of Gotham wreckage that take us right back to No Man’s Land.

Pick up House of Gotham, forget any associations you might think it has with other books, and enjoy.

[Includes covers]


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