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Sunday Slugfest: Detective Comics #855

Posted: Sunday, August 2, 2009
By: Thom Young

Greg Rucka (both stories)
J.H. Williams III (Batwoman) &Cully Hamner (The Question)
DC Comics
Batwoman captures her enemy, a madwoman known only as Alice--but when the tables are turned, Batwoman finds herself in an hallucination that slams the present into the past.

Plus, in the all-new back-up feature starring The Question, Montoya's quest to find a missing young girl turns deadly.

Alexandru Lupp:
Chris Murman:
Paul Brian McCoy:
Dave Wallace:

Alexandru Lupp:

Batman's death was the best thing that could have happened--at least for Detective Comics. Some might lament the absence of Batman from the pages of this series that the character has dominated for 70 years, but the creative freedom that it has allowed is worth it.

Two months have now passed since this new direction in the Bat-books has taken hold, and while some efforts have missed the mark, Detective Comics has exceeded all expectations. While I planned on avoiding this title at first --I mean, no Batman in Detective, are they crazy?--I ended up sticking around and couldn't be happier for it.

There is one reason, and one reason only, why this book works so well-- J.H. Williams III.

I must confess my ignorance here; before Batman #667 I had never seen Williams's work--and, truth be told, I was not blown away by that three-issue arc. It was certainly good artwork--and hardly standard fare--yet it somehow didn't leave a great impression. I have since reflected on why that may have been, and perhaps it had to do with Batman and the rigidity of that story.

I look now at those three issues, compare them with his recent work on Detective, and it's as if he has broken free. There was something claustrophobic in that story--which, looking back at it, was the point.

Here, though, the mood is flamboyant--which, of course, relates to the Alice in Wonderland-themed villain. It makes sense that Williams should adapt his style to the story being told; that is indeed the mark of a good artist. He understands the story, and he plays to that--which, in this case, showcases his skill to a greater extent.

Williams does not adhere to traditional paneling. The title, the credits, they all become a part of the story. Everything is dynamically incorporated into a greater whole; nothing is haphazard. The panel edges begin to twist and turn when Batwoman is poisoned, which subtly translates to the blurring of reality and memory. Two-page spreads brilliantly utilize all the elements.

And then there is the coloring by Dave Stewart. There is a clear and distinct shift in the color palette between the masked and unmasked life of the heroine. This was clearer in the first issue, but is equally present here. It is an interesting choice because it demonstrates so well the double life, split personality, or pure madness of masked vigilantes. One is cartoony, and the other is grittier and more realistic in its use of shadows. In a fitting twist, normal life is the cartoony existence.

There is also a dichotomy of dark and light between Batwoman and Alice. Each is a center of gravity. Batwoman is darker, with muted colors and powerful reds, while Alice is white and full of light with shades of blue. It shows precisely what the story is doing with the protagonist and antagonist.

Any good hero benefits from a strong villain, and the balance is good so far. Villain and hero are growing together in unison. What the Joker is to Batman is what Alice may be to Batwoman—opposites--and the artwork shows that while the words on the page can tell us other things. The joint effort by Williams, Stewart, and Greg Rucka is the epitome of comic-book storytelling, where both image and word conspire together.

So what about Greg Rucka? What about the plot?

The story here is one that he has been developing since 52. It flowed through Crime Bible: Five Lessons of Blood and into Final Crisis: Revelations. While those two series featured Renee Montoya, the star of the second feature in this book, Rucka's story has always been about the Religion of Crime--which has been a promising concept, but unfortunately disjointed in practice.

We have seen glimpses of the religion itself--with Vandal Savage possessed by Cain thrown in for good measure--but we have never seen a cohesive whole. Ideas have been bandied about--such as Montoya being their prophesied leader--only to be discarded shortly thereafter. Flashes of good ideas that were too quickly smothered; tt has been a bit frustrating, I'll admit.

As a fresh start though, this run in Detective Comics may redeem that ongoing story. It may also provide a stable platform for the Religion of Crime to blossom into a greater concept. It certainly benefits from the presence of Alice, who may be a great villain in the making.

Yes, it is another "Carroll-inspired freak" in Gotham, but thus far I'm not complaining. The Mad Hatter definitely pales by comparison--and, as seen in the pages of Secret Six, has become more a joke than a feared madman.

The narrative structure of the issue does a good job of mixing a forward-moving plot with clever poison-induced flashbacks that provide hints of Batwoman's origin--which should be told in the next arc. This issue is mostly action, but it benefits from loaded moments--such as when Alice establishes herself as a head-honcho madwoman with a blast of her gun, or when she uses a poisoned razor--all beautifully illustrated.

Elsewhere in "Second Feature" Land . . . Renee Montoya meanders about, kicks butt, and flashes her chest to a woman. Yep. It pales in comparison to the lead story, and does not benefit from the shortened format.

The story started off strongly last issue, and itdeals with sexual slavery--which attempts to provide commentary on the evil practice (and may end meaningfully), but here in this installment it's just flashy behavior and no substance. Does this second feature justify the higher cost of the issue? Eh . . . maybe not, but I sure prefer this higher cost to Marvel's approach.

Chris Murman:

Admittedly, I have an issue with silence. I can't stand it.

Lately I've gotten to the point where I fall asleep listening to a podcasts. Oh yes, I've grown so accustomed to listening to people having conversations that I can't fall asleep unless I hear people talking. As a result, I find a little bit of everything on iTunes to fill the time during the day. Every now and then, the podcast Word Balloon puts something out worth listening to, and a few are "must listen to"--chief amongst them is the "Rucka Debrief."

I had a feeling I would be reviewing one of the Detective Comics issues in Rucka's initial arc, so I thought I would listen his podcast (plus, the dude is very interesting to listen to). You can tell the passion in his voice when he talks about the Batwoman story he has been holding on to for two plus years--waiting for the chance to tell it.

Part of me wonders, though, if this stew sat in the pot too long--because I am having trouble seeing the vision and direction this title is taking with its story (or stories, if you consider the back-up feature).

First off, I don't care how Rucka or Dan Didio spins it to readers, the back half of the issue a "back-up story." Even on the podcast, host John Siuntres had a problem keeping the dreaded words back and up off the tip of his tongue as he spoke of Renee Montoya.

If the two stories were the same story told from different perspectives, I might see the idea behind the term "Second Feature." One story happens at night, the other during the day--or, one story moves slower than the other. They could even rotate which feature leads off every other issue. You get the idea.

Look, we all know Kate and Renee are star-crossed lovers who are, in some way, trying to find their way back to each other. However, if Batwoman's creator ever wants her to stand on her own as a character then she needs to be able to separate herself from Montoya. Putting the two femme-fatales in the same issue merely cements their place next to each other. Maybe this is what Rucka is going for, but I do not find it a good way to present either story arc.

Let's hop right into Batwoman's story titled "Misterioso." After reading the entire half-issue, I had to go back and re-read the title because I didn't see a single reason for the misspelling in which the "y" has been replaced by the initial "i." If they were going for a play on the word mister, the only major male character is Kate Kane's father, who only comes in at the very end to try and save his soldier . . . I mean his daughter. So why would the title be an allusion to a male mystery?

Then my editor, Thom Young, pointed out that the word misterioso is a direction found in musical scores. It indicates that the music is to be played "in a mysterious manner." Ah well, you learn something new every day. I guess we're supposed to consider this story as a piece of music--or perhaps an opera.

Anyway, speaking of the Colonel, I must say he's the most interesting character so far in this arc. It's obvious he has his daughter programmed better than any soldier could have during a campaign, yet he shows more concern than any field general could ever show for his flesh and blood. The whole setup of this "Batwoman Operation" seems to indicate that Col. Kane set it up and then plugged his daughter into the slot of field operative. Dad seems to have a little of Bruce Wayne in him.

All of this is amazingly presented in the visuals provided by J.H. Williams and colorist Dave Stewart. So far, the art on the main story is what is keeping this series going for me. I can only hope that the story catches up.

One thing I will note from the above mentioned podcast is something I'm looking forward to in the art. Rucka mentions that as the series continues, we will think there is a different artist doing the pencils because Williams's style "changes" halfway through the story. Part of me wonders what in the world he is talking about, but you can bet I'm going to hang around to find out.

As much as I wish we had a separate series for Montoya's story, I'm not complaining too much about getting to peek in here on the new Question. Just to see her evolution as a character--since climbing a mountain with Vic Sage--into the confident, powerful "hero for the little guy" that she was always meant to be is great. Again, though, I wonder if the right place for this story shouldn't be in its own mini-series--but I could end up being pleasantly surprised.

It's interesting to watch Montoya handle herself in a much different way than Sage would in the same role. Vic kept to himself, didn't mingle, and (to my memory) did not show his true face much. Instead, Renee waltzes into an office building shaking her moneymakers to get past the receptionist, only to put the mask on in time to get a few thousand volts sent through it.

Maybe she doesn't hide as much because, as a woman, she can get past doors Vic never could. Maybe that's sexist, but the truth of the matter is Sage wasn't known for his great social skills. To just walk in and charm his way past the receptionist wasn't his game. Half the fun of watching Montoya taking over Vic's role is seeing how she does things differently to get the same result.

DC always has done legacy characters better.

So . . . both heroines are unconscious at the end of this issue--with not a whole lot of drama waiting behind them waking up. Neither villain awaiting their rousing is that compelling, but it sure looks pretty. Granted, Rucka has earned my patience with the great stories he's delivered over the years. I just hope that by the end of this first arc I'm lauding more than the art.

Paul Brian McCoy:

Well, I liked this installment of Detective Comics a little better than last month's, but not enough to bump it up in score--mainly because where last month the script knocked the score down while the art was beautiful (if nipple-rific), this month the script steps it up but the art stumbles.

And before anyone starts yelling at me--yes, the art is still gorgeous for the most part, but I'm holding Williams up to a higher standard than I would most artists. Honestly, there are a few panels in this issue that have problems--however slight. Although that last panel of the story is pretty horrible, no matter how I might try to sugarcoat it.

However, more about that in a moment.

Now that we've gotten all of the boring and awkward "establishing of the character" stuff out of the way, this issue allows Rucka to focus on the main conflict between Batwoman and the Religion of Crime--albeit in one extended fight scene that makes up this entire issue, sans a quick cut back to Batwoman headquarters for a few panels.

Have I mentioned how dumb I think "The Religion of Crime" sounds? It doesn't really roll off the tongue.

Anyway, the R.O.C. (that's a little better) has a new leader, if you recall--and she's batshit crazy. I said last time that the gimmick of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland dialogue was going to get old quick, but I was not wrong. By the end of this issue, I really wasn't paying any attention to the words coming out of her mouth.

Which isn't too bad because at least she's dressed like some sort of Cosplay hooker, so her scenes are easy on the eyes.

Along those same lines, there's far less attention given to Batwoman's puffy nipples this time around--but, after last month, I may have just gone nipple-blind. Yet, when Batwoman disarms Alice--and then while they fight--I really felt awkward. It was like Williams was trying to make me horny. It's not like your generic pin-up art. There's something dirty about it.

Uhm, what was I talking about?

Oh yeah, Rucka gives us one big reveal (very interesting) and two big twists (one interesting, the other, possibly horrible) this time out. The reveal involves the final fate of Kate's mother and is very nicely played out as Batwoman stumbles through the woods hallucinating.

This flashback sequence is one of the good ones by Williams as he bleeds art styles into each other--letting us see what Kate sees. At the same time, the panel borders develop a wispy, fractal quality from the moment she gets slashed with the poisoned razor blade.

I'm not sure about the "in-the-mouth" shot, though, that looks out past Alice's teeth. I don't know how else we could get the visual information we need for the scene, but it's just damn weird.

The first plot twist--the moment Alice makes plain her intentions with this batch of R.O.C. loonies--took me by surprise. Whenever a comic takes me by surprise in a good way, an angel gets its wings. Or something like that.

Regardless, it doesn't happen often--particularly in mainstream Bat-Family titles--and it's another beautifully designed and laid out sequence by Williams.

The second plot twist--the arrival of three monsters on the final page of the story--is strange and surprising as well, but it's not the good kind of surprise. Whenever a comic surprises me with something stupid, an angel gets kicked in the balls. Or something like that.

Not only is this issue-ending twist particularly silly and seemingly random, it's horribly illustrated. It's practically on the weakness of this one panel that I cut the score of the story down a half-bullet.

The proportions are off and the designs are generic. I mean they're really bad. It's like someone with very little talent slipped in a panel and thought no one would notice. Dr. Girlfriend took a look at it and asked me if I drew it when I was fourteen and pasted it in.


Maybe next month both art and writing will sync up completely--unless we get a lot more with those monsters. I'd seriously consider not getting the book if that were the case.

This month's Question story is better than last month's, with Montoya's experiences again mirroring Kate's to some extent. We have the extended fight scene, some information is revealed, and then the bad guys get the upper hand. No monsters, though, so that's a plus.

Cully Hamner's art is growing on me, but I have to question (heh) the wisdom of having Montoya wear the fedora around when not in costume. I mean, how difficult will it be for someone to figure out that the small, wiry chick with the hat is the small, wiry chick with the hat and no face who keeps showing up nearby. I really don't see the point of the whole costume, I guess.

I was kind of disappointed with how easily she gets taken out at the end of this chapter--and the sudden appearance of the goon who TASERs her could have used a little more suspense. Sure, it's a back-up feature, and they don't have a lot of page-space to tell their story, but it could have been better planned.

Dave Wallace:

Two issues into Greg Rucka and JH Williams III's run on Detective Comics, and I'm still enjoying it--even if I didn't think this issue was quite as impressive as their dazzling debut.

Picking up at the exact moment that last issue's cliffhanger left off, much of this issue revolves around the conflict between Batwoman and "Alice." With both characters still only loosely defined, and a fairly thin plot to this issue's story, it's left to Williams's art to carry much of the story. Luckily, he's up to the task.

As beautiful as Williams's linework is (and Dave Stewart's delicately-shaded colouring makes it look especially good) it's the visual inventiveness that I enjoy the most about this book. Panels-within-panels highlight important elements of the art, jagged red lightning-bolt panels emphasise the more violent moments, and hand-drawn sound effects integrate with the rest of the artwork seamlessly. The result is a book that has already managed to carve out a unique visual sensibility in a sea of same-looking superhero titles.

Williams seems to understand exactly what Rucka is aiming for with each scene, and he captures the tone of his writer's story well. For example, despite the two characters being at odds with one another, the artist manages to capture a subtle sexual frisson between Batwoman and Alice as the heroine disarms her enemy. In this scene, Williams seems to be playing up the idea of superhero costumes as fetish-wear. Regardless of whether it's Alice's stockings, suspenders, corset, and frilly late-19th-century dress or Batwoman's figure-hugging black lycra-and-nylon, It helps to give the book a certain sexual energy without it feeling exploitative or crass.

(Having said that, on a second read I couldn't help but notice the recurring prominence of Batwoman's nipples--a distraction that my fellow reviewer Paul Brian McCoy pointed out when criticising the artwork of the first issue.)

There are also some great single panels in their own right. I love the shot of Batwoman gliding down from the tower, which is one of the few to reprise the stark black-and-white-and-red colour scheme that made such an impact in the opening pages of issue #854. Also, the panel that reveals that Alice is secretly hiding a razor blade in her mouth to attack Batwoman is drawn from a unique perspective that could be seen as gimmicky if it wasn't for the fact that it's a perfect way to convey such a concealed weapon.

There are occasional moments when the art doesn't quite work, though. For example, the splash page that shows Batwoman firing off her grappling hook and taking Alice to the top of the tower might look pretty, but the layout doesn't make for particularly clear storytelling. However, these lackluster artwork moments are few and far between.

As far as Rucka's writing is concerned, it's much the same as the first issue--there's nothing particularly wrong with it, but there's nothing to really write home about either. We don't learn a huge amount about Alice this issue (and her Alice's Adventures in Wonderland-shtick is already getting a little grating). And, despite a hallucinatory flashback, we still don't get many more details about Batwoman's backstory. However, we do get to see some evidence of our heroine's levelheaded, methodical crime-fighting methods as she deals with Alice--and there's a fun payoff for last issue's discussion between Batman and Batwoman about her hair.

One thing that did disappoint me slightly is that I didn't feel as though the fantasy/hallucination sequence went far enough. I would have loved to have seen Rucka write something really outlandish for his artist to get his teeth into. However, in fairness, he chooses to use the sequence to reflect Batwoman's own inner fears (which seem to stem from her violent origin story), thus keeping the writing focused on the character and story at hand rather than veering off into irrelevance and indulgence.

The end of the chapter leaves things on an odd note, taking a strange fantastical turn with the appearance of some mythical creatures that seem intent on menacing our heroine for reasons unknown. It's not yet clear whether these are hallucinations or not.

Williams's panel borders suggest that Batwoman might have imagined the creatures, but her father seems to be able to see them too. I can't say that it makes me particularly excited to read the next issue, other than to find out exactly what's going on at the end of this one.

Finally, I continue to be fairly uninterested by the back-up story involving The Question. The plot is a little too straightforward to be really gripping, and I find the artwork to be a little flat and un-dynamic.

Also, some moments in the fight sequence didn't seem to work at all, which made things feel a little disjointed and clunky. For example, I can't make sense of the movement between the two panels in which Renée says, ". . . very nice . . ." and ". . . may I?" as she begins to disarm her opponent.

If this was a regularly-priced issue without the backup story I might be inclined to give it a higher bullet-rating. However, since we're being asked to pay more for a story I could happily do without, it can't help but influence my reaction to the issue as a whole.

Whilst I'm not quite as impressed by this issue as I was by the first, I'll definitely continue to follow this book--for Williams's artwork if nothing else. I get the sense that Rucka is building towards a more thorough revelation of Batwoman's origin, which should help to define the character--and, hopefully, we'll see the plot involving Alice lead somewhere interesting, too.

What did you think of this book?
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