As much as I’ve tried to stray away from the stalwart books I continue to review… I couldn’t pass up a chance to return to Scott Snyder’s Batman. Here, just a final beat away from the conclusion to the ‘Death of the Family’ crossover event, we get the anti-climax to Snyder’s tet-a-tet between Batman and the returning Joker. This issue stands as a testament to what Snyder really is; an amazing horror writer disguised (or perhaps wearing the skin suit) as a cape jockey. Issue 16 of the New52 Batman sets a tone, holds it square for 24 or so pages, and reminds me why I love DC Comics so much.
To recap for those not paying attention: The Joker cut his face off, and has returned to Gotham to bring Batman back up to par. You see, according to the clown prince of crime, Batman has grown soft. Barely making it past the Court of Owls, and for growing his ranks. Joker, through meticulous planning, and few well placed potential red herrings, has laid waste to the extended Bat Family. As I haven’t chosen to read any of the tie-in books, save for Batgirl, I assume in his spare time, each member of said bat-family was captured or otherwise indisposed. This includes one Alfred Pennyworth… making the stakes truly the highest they’ve ever been for Bruce Wayne.
At the onset of the issue, Batman enters Arkham Asylum to attend the ‘crowing of the king’. Joker, you see, has conjured up a lengthy Grant Morrison-esque MO that has him turning Arkham into Bat’s castle, complete with knights, a royal court, a living tableau, and of course… a chainsaw plugged into a battery as a makeshift excalibur. The over-the-top nature of this extended carnival has been well earned. After a ominous start, a Hitchcockian meeting early on, followed by the dissension of the rank-and-file… Snyder proves that he knows when to hold them, fold them, or in this case, play a mean game of solitaire. As Batman moves from macabre scene to scene, he’s merely a spectator to Joker’s game. While his inner monologue drives him to “get to the Joker quickly”, it’s no surprise that his ‘quick’ isn’t near quick enough. But that, in essence, is the point.
The Court of the Owls showed that with insurmountable odds, Batman and company would persevere through sheer willpower. The Death of the Family laughs at that very notion. Joker, through methodical planning, has had the upper hand from the moment he oozed from the shadows; creepily laughing, with his face hooked to his skull… rotting by the second. Akin to Nolan and Ledger’s Joker, this is a mastermind showing off his skill. And with each passing display of Francis Bacon level gore and majesty, the ending itself is everything I wanted, and nothing like what I expected. We’ve seen the typical death-trap in Batman comic books. It’s a trope that helped define the character. But here, we’re given it at a level not seen since Morrison’s Arkham Asylum OGN.
Snyder also deftly defined the rest of Batman’s rogues by issue’s end. Through the lens of Joker’s twisted brain, we get the Penguin, Two-Face, and The Riddler as Batman’s royal court. Penguin, the bishop of Gotham’s religion, vice. The Riddler, royal strategist. And Two-Face, Gotham’s Judge. It’s a coy trick for Snyder to tip his hand not only to the reader, but DC Editorial. Here’s a guy who knows how to keep the bat-shaped ball in his court for issues to come. Presented here though, the rogue gallery lets Joker be the jester he’s always wanted. Snyder lends his villains a level of intellect rarely seen in the mainstream. They know when their bread is buttered. And when one of them snaps, rightfully so, Joker’s verbal lashing is one of the best I’ve read. By the last page, with Batman willingly stepping into the electric chair, we’re left as dumbfounded as Batman himself. Even we must ask ourselves if he’s been less than the-God-Damned-Batman Joker wants so badly to bring back.
I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: Art chores by Greg Capullo are magnificent. As I’ve previously reviewed Batman 13 and 5 before this one… I’m continually blown away by Capullo’s layouts and pacing. While much of the credit may be due to the script itself, it’s obvious when a panel, an angle, or an action shot shows off an artist in his prime. Redefining the ‘Image house style’ here to deliver a creepy sideshow and a beleaguered Batman, marries tone with movie-quality movement. We’re shoved into tight spots, or soar into large action sequences. Pages are left airy to increase the tension, or jammed with shot after shot to ramp things up. While I was skeptical of Capullo at the onset of his tenure, I’ve warmed up to his melange of sketchy-gestural-guttural composition. The best compliment though, can be saved for his depiction of the Joker. Where every other artist in the Bat books try their take… it’s Capullo that pulls it off the best. His Joker (now accompanied by flies around the rotting flesh mask) is every bit the shark Batman describes in #15. He’s chaos personified; wearing coveralls from a garage.
Snyder has made it clear through numerous interviews that he treats each jaunt in the DCU as his last. This go-for-broke attitude makes for stories that don’t pause for a moment. It’s gripping. And it’s the best example of DC Entertainment, presented on the page. Versus any of the Marvel Now! titles I’ve recently waxed poetic over, it stands cape and cowls over them in both depth and execution. My only gripe of course is the continued cash-grab by the suits to make this a more profitable run. Twice now, based on the power of Snyder’s script, DC has shoved the story into the “family” of titles. It’s unnecessary. With one issue left to the story, I’m left hopeful for the future. And while I’m reeling to find any other footholds left in the DCU, for now… this one is enough to keep me hanging on for dear life.