Two new caped heroes have joined Gotham City's ever darkened skies, old villains are hatching dark plans in shadowy corners, Commissioner Gordon receives a startling confession, Batman broods about his own mortality, and somehow it all feels a little off. Batman #2 is a rock solid issue that I enjoyed immensely, and yet, as with the first issue, it felt a little unnatural and forced. The writing's sharp, and the art's good, making it hard to pinpoint what wasn't working, and then it hit me all at once--Batman feels wrong. I've heard it pointed out by a number of authors that there's very little difference between writing fan fiction and writing a franchise title. And author Tom King seems to have fallen into the trap of bringing too much reverence and fandom to his own writing, making for a good comic but a stiff, formulaic Batman. It remains a good comic, but thanks to the lack of life in its titular character, it's a little hard to connect with. The issue opens with Solomon Grundy (a personal favorite villain of mine) tangling with Gotham and Gotham Girl in a park. They have the situation under control, to an extent, but Batman intervenes to knock Grundy cold and deliver a quick, biting lesson in collateral damage. The line Batman delivers to Grundy is "Feel it Grundy. Feel how much it hurts. And remember if you get up, it will hurt a whole lot more." The line he delivers to the new superheroes is "From when I interrupted, you would have caught Grundy in one point three seconds. He would have trampled that man in point seven seconds." There's no denying these lines sound like Batman (albeit a very Robocop-like Batman), but they sound like Tom King aping the style of Frank Miller and Scott Snyder with stiff, inorganic results. The issue contains some greatest hits from Batman including his classic rooftop disappearance trick, but they don't feel like fun moments, they feel like obligatory, fanservice-y ones. King has, as of yet, no clear voice of his own for the character, and it's hard to empathize or care about a Batman that feels oddly generic and predictable.
I would, however, suggest that King will likely relax and warm up to writing the Bat as time goes on, since this issue gives ample evidence through the other characters that he's as sharp and creative as ever. King's Alfred is in his own way classic, delivering bitingly dry remarks mixed with sardonic wisdom, but there's a subtle sense of warmth and fatherhood to him. When he tells Duke a story of mistakenly choosing to buy a young Bruce a Wakizashi instead of a Katana, it's not only a great joke, but a nice reminder that Alfred is, in a very real way, Bruce's father. Similarly, I love King's crusty, pipe-smoking take on Gordon. This is a Jim Gordon who is old enough and experienced enough to take even Gotham's strangest occurrences in stride (he has a killer line questioning why all heroes wear masks). King displays the well-developed sense of character work that he has displayed in other books here, it just somehow doesn't yet extend to Batman.
I haven't yet, in either review, really talked about David Finch's art, which is mostly because I am having trouble deciding how I like it. His action scenes and poses are very sharp; with a chunky dynamic quality I always like in superhero books. But his characters are stylized and exaggerated in ways I don't think entirely fits them. Gordon for example is drawn as a mustachioed supermodel while the ostensibly silver-age throwback Gotham Girl looks disturbingly like a purposefully semi-pornographic character from Adam Warren's Empowered. As should surprise absolutely no one, Jordie Bellaire's colors tip the scales in the art's favor, lending the book some twilight hues of red and purple to break up the typical blues and blacks of Batman stories.
I know from reading other online reviews and comments (I am a glutton for pain) that the reactions to this book have been a little mixed, especially from King fans who expect another Vision or Omega Men. But that's frankly not quite fair as those characters had no expectations or limitations in the way Batman does. On a property as iconic as Batman, trying to sift through decades of history and iconic stories to find your own voice is a huge challenge even for a writer as good as Tom King. I like this Batman series a lot. It's self-contained in a way literally no other DC rebirth book I have tried is, sharp where it needs to be, and generally pretty to look at. The ongoing plot, involving a few classic villains, which I managed to mention hardly at all, is intriguing. I hope that King's Batman comes to life a bit as things go on since he is, of course, the book's key character, but I'm cheerfully along for the ride at the moment.
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