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Sunday Slugfest: Detective Comics #861

Posted: Sunday, January 31, 2010
By: Thom Young

Greg Rucka
Jock ("Cutter") and Cully Hamner ("Pipeline")
DC Comics
“Cutter” and "Pipeline 2.2"

In the first story, "Cutter," someone's cutting up women, which Kate doesn't like--and what do flashbacks to an old case from Bruce Wayne's past have to do with it?

In the second story, Renee and Helena make a deal with an assassin.

Shawn Hill:
Dave Wallace:
Thom Young:

Shawn Hill

What a difference a change in art makes!

Though there's nothing really wrong with Jock's expressive, shadowy work in Detective Comics #861, it's just not to my taste.

His anatomy is fine, but his inking is overly heavy and detail-free. While he does sell an important plot point about specific body parts on the last page, his Batman and Batwoman might as well be vampires for all the times they emerge out of and fade into the shadows. Kate barely has a face, and the knife-wielding (and knife-embedded) villain has little personality.

Some old folks fare better. Commissioner Gordon does look suitably gruff and downtrodden, and one fleeing criminal has a crusty air of desperation. Maggie Sawyer is unrecognizable, however--which is not good when she and Kate are supposed to be sort of flirting.

Kate's cousin Bette fares slightly better, but that's mostly because she has long blonde hair and Kate is in her red bob around family--and also because the aforementioned body part is Bette's, and Jock makes sure we see it.

As to the story, dismembering girls to build your own perfect one is a cliché noir thriller plot on the level of the disfigured making pretty girls ugly and spontaneous pregnancies that possess the mother. Nothing about the generic villain makes it new in this issue, and Kate's strong-arm tactics leave her scarred and bleeding--as usual. When it comes to knives, this girl virtually runs toward them and impales herself . . . time and again.

This issue is the first time I've preferred the Question back-up to the lead story in this incarnation of Detective Comics; Hamner's art has the precision Jock's lacks. He does really great work with the facial expressions of Tot, Renee's disapproving advisor--and his depiction of the villainous hitman, Zeiss, lives up to his name in the weird eyewear department.

I'm enjoying the Huntress in her team-ups with Renee, and while the action is brutal in their fight with the killer, the emotions run just as high once things calm down and dirty deals are done. Rucka's writing remains strong, but I think I like him better when the old Bat isn't around.

Dave Wallace:

Detective Comics #861 sees the title kick off a new story arc, retaining the format of previous issues (i.e., a Batwoman lead story followed by a Question “second feature”), but substituting “Jock” for regular series artist JH Williams III.

Whilst Jock’s art doesn’t match up to the quality of Williams’s usual work, it’s still above-average comics artwork. The panel-to-panel storytelling is clear, characters are recognisable, and there are even one or two particularly arresting splash pages that demand that you pause and appreciate the artist’s work before moving on to the next part of the story (such as the dark and atmospheric “hero shot” of the title page).

Inevitably, however, Jock’s work suffers in comparison to that of regular Detective Comics artist J.H. Williams III. There aren’t many people in the industry today who are working at Williams’s level, and the innovative uniqueness of his art has been one of the big selling points of the book’s current run of Batwoman stories.

Thankfully, Jock doesn’t attempt to imitate Williams's styles--providing more conventional layouts and a looser, darker, less detailed and more angular look for the book that nonetheless suits the characters quite well (particularly when it comes to Batman).

No, that last sentence wasn’t a typo, as whilst Detective Comics is still billed as “Batwoman in Detective Comics” and is still focused on the activities of Batwoman, her male counterpart plays quite a significant role in this story too.

At first, I thought that this might be just a straightforward guest-appearance from Dick Grayson, of a similar sort to Batwoman’s guest-appearance in this week’s issue of Batman and Robin. However, when I immediately saw that this Batman’s costume didn’t match up with the current version sported by Grayson (it has three scallops on the gauntlets rather than Dick’s two, and it also sports the old yellow oval design for the Bat-symbol), I reasoned that this was perhaps a story that was not set in the current continuity.

I assumed that Rucka had chosen to ignore the post-Final Crisis landscape of the DC Universe and write the Bruce Wayne Batman into this story in a similar manner to the way that he wrote him into the first Batwoman issue of Detective Comics. I proceeded on this assumption throughout my first reading of the issue. However, upon reading it a second time, I realised that Rucka was actually doing something slightly more clever with his story.

When I noticed that the Batman scenes referred to Jim Gordon as “Captain Gordon,” and remembered that the yellow-oval Bat-costume was nowadays considered an old-fashioned look for Batman, I put two and two together and realised that the Batman scenes were set in the past, whilst the Batwoman scenes were set in the present (or thereabouts).

This realisation made me consider the story in a new light. Whilst the Batman sections of the story seemed unusually vague on a first read--never really giving us much in the way of detail regarding the crime that he investigates--the fact that it presumably predates the Batwoman scenes by some years suggests that Batman’s case may be linked to the origins of the “Cutter” supervilllain that Batwoman deals with in her story.

Presumably. Maybe. The truth is, there’s no way to know for sure whether there is a strong link between the two characters’ activities at this point (other than the fact that both story strands appear in the same story). Also, Rucka seems to have gone out of his way to make his timeline ambiguous and not immediately obvious--never explicitly telling us that the story is juggling multiple timeframes, and leaving it to observant readers to work it out for themselves from the few clues that he offers.

Equally, the artwork doesn’t help to convey the distinction between the two timeframes. Colourist David Baron could perhaps have used a more distinctive colour palette for the two story strands, or Jock could have varied his style a little for the two different eras.

In fact, the symmetrical layout of one double-splashpage (in which we see parallel sequences depicting Batman and Batwoman going about their business) seems to imply that the two stories are happening at the same time, which seems needlessly misleading.

I’m not sure why Rucka and his art team chose to leave the timeline as ambiguous as they did. Perhaps the writer wished to avoid the use of explanatory captions in order to capture a greater sense of verisimilitude, as with Grant Morrison’s Final Crisis. However, there are other ways in which Rucka could have made the timeline more obvious--and I’m not sure why he didn’t employ them, as the ambiguousness doesn’t seem to serve any particularly useful purpose for the story.

Aside from this, the story is a reasonably good first chapter of a multi-chapter arc. We get a sense of who the main players are and of who the villain is, without too much being given away just yet.

There’s also a fair amount of action, and fairly good characterisation of the characters involved. That’s not enough to make this story good enough to compete with the kind of stories that Rucka and Williams have been producing for the past seven issues, but it’s not enough to make me drop the book either . . . not yet.

Finally, we’re treated to another backup story involving the Question by Rucka and artist Cully Hamner. I’m enjoying the second chapter of “Pipeline” more than I did the first, but it’s still not anything particularly special. That said, Hamner’s artwork is still decent, and there are one or two fun touches in this part of the chapter (such as the manner in which the heroes deal with their opponent) that add a little fun to an otherwise fairly unremarkable story.

Thom Young:

Unlike my colleague, Dave Wallace, I realized immediately that we were getting flashbacks of a case Bruce Wayne had worked on as Batman interspersed with Batwoman's contemporary case, and the connection between the two cases seems obvious to me--the serial killer/serial mutilator known as "Cutter" in Batwoman's case is attempting to assemble the missing woman from Batman's case, Vanessa Hansen, by cutting off (or cutting out) the body parts of the victims in Batwoman's case.

I'm guessing that the Cutter in Batwoman's case is the man who was suspected of kidnapping Vanessa Hansen in Batman's case--a man with the last name of Garrett who was not guilty of the kidnapping but who went to prison for providing cocaine to the woman and having sex with her. He expressed regret or love (or both) for her on page three.

Anyway, I'm guessing Garrett is now out of prison and is trying to re-created Vanessa by appropriating the matching body parts of women he sees. He studies and photographs women from a distance to see if they have any parts that match those of Vanessa Hansen--her hands, her jaw line, her eyes, et cetera--and then he surgically removes the matching body part. What he does with it is not clear. Is he assembling some sort of Bride of Frankenstein made up of the various body parts, or is he simply preserving them in formaldehyde in order to have Vanessa in a jar--or many jars, as it were?

In some cases, the women die from the trauma--such as the woman whose hands were removed bleeding out from the ultimate slit wrists. In other cases, the women are mutilated but alive--such as the woman who staggered into the hospital without her lower jaw. How she didn't bleed out as she staggered to the hospital is anyone's guess--unless the Cutter performed the surgery in the hospital's parking lot.

The premise is somewhat reminiscent of the current "surgeon serial killer" case that's been running on C.S.I., whom Laurence Fishburne's character refers to as "Dr. Jekyll." Of course, both premises actually harken back to the theory that Jack the Ripper was a surgeon.

Anyway, Cutter's next target is Batwoman's cousin, Bette Kane (or her ears, actually). Tune in next issue to see if Batwoman can save her cousin's ears.

Overall, the story is adequate, though somewhat predictable--which is about the same assessment I have of Jock's illustrations. As Dave suggested, a change in style between the flashbacks and the present-day scenes would have been welcomed. After all, it's how J.H. Williams III would have done it.

As for the back-up story. . . .

I am not enamored of Cully Hamner's illustration style, but it is adequate in its service to the story. The main problem I have with this story is that its co-stars, The Question and The Huntress, essentially trample on their predecessors who went by those names: Steve Ditko's Charlton Comics character and Paul Levitz's version of the Golden Age Batman's daughter.

The idea that a character based on a Ditko creation would pay an assassin three million dollars (or two million plus the title to Helena "The Huntress" Bertinelli's Lamborghini) is absurd. Of course, Aristotle Rodor (aka, "Tot") knows it's absurd--the story ends with Tot telling the two "heroes" that he's ashamed of them, and that "Charlie" would be ashamed of them, too.

"Charlie," of course, was The Question before Montoya took up the faceless mask. However, Ditko's character was named "Vic Sage," and he's the one who would really be ashamed of The All-New Question and her three-million-dollar payoffs of criminals (albeit with the mafia money that The Huntress inherited from her mob boss father).

If the back-up feature starring non-Ditko-related Question wasn't there to read after the Batwoman lead feature, I would have stopped reading it months ago.

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