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Thursday, April 11, 2013

Review: Batman #19

If you are up on your comics news, you have undoubtedly heard about the next big story coming to Batman: Zero Year.  Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo have already begun work on teasing the year-long story arc which will give new perspective on Batman's origin.  While they have said their story will acknowledge what has been done before, that has not done much to quell the fear that this New 52 origin for Batman will step on the toes of classic origin/early stories for the character, namely Batman: Year One and Batman: The Long Halloween.  Unfortunately, the already much-hyped Zero Year is still another two months away, meaning Snyder and Capullo are giving us a short little two-issue story starring a usually under-used member of the Batman's rogues: Clayface.

In Batman #19, Bruce is struggling with the recent loss of his son Damian, completely burying himself into his work.  When an associate of Bruce dies from strange causes, Batman investigates.  His investigation leads him to realize Clayface is at it again, but something is very different about the shape-shifting villain this time around.

This issue begins with a very tired concept in comics over the past few years: showing the audience the end of the story, before using the rest of the issue to explain how we got to the first 3-5 pages.  For this particular issue, we are on the scene of a bank robbery with the surprising revelation that the bank robber is, in fact, Bruce Wayne.  Commissioner Gordon is dubious about this, but Harvey Bullock says that "labwork" confirms that it is 100% the real Bruce Wayne.  As far as opening scenes go, one could do a whole lot worse than this.  It is a nice little shock that lasts about a page, but it wears off almost instantly.  Jim brings up the point that it is a bit odd that a billionaire would rob a bank.  At this point, it becomes incredibly obvious to the more astute Batman reader that this is not Bruce Wayne...it is decidedly Clayface.  It is pretty sad that this type of story is so common for the villain that it is not even a shock any more.  Clayface has a great ability, one which was exploited ingeniously in the 2011 video game Arkham City.  More on Clayface later, but there is one more thing to make note of in this scene.  While Gordon attempts to negotiate with the apparent Bruce Wayne, he lets slip a mention of "Zero Year."  More than likely this is a nod to the fact that Gordon will play a large role in the upcoming story arc.  This can only be a good thing as the character has been drastically underused in Batman since the New 52 began.  That being said, it was incredibly silly for Scott Snyder to have Gordon flat out name-drop the next story arc in the series.  It marked the first facepalm moment of this book.

Moving on.  This issue makes a little bit of a reference to the fact that Damian is gone.  While Damian never played a huge role in the main Batman title, Snyder would have been remiss to not make some sort of nod to it.  We get to see Bruce re-watching a crime foiled by Batman and Robin, presumably one of the last Damian ever assisted with.  It was a rather jarring scene, but it was a very nice touch to have Batman reveal that he records all of their crime fighting.  What most likely began as an idea to help improve his technique, Bruce now has, in effect, home movies of his son to go back and watch.  This is a rather nice move on Snyder's part, and he deserves credit for the twinge of sadness in seeing Damian's image fade as the video stops.

As mentioned earlier, this little two-part mystery in Batman is not much of a mystery at all.  While it is generally acknowledged that detective stories often have little clues at the beginning as to the person behind the crime, this one pretty much spells it out for the reader.  That being said, it was nice to see Clayface put into use and make his New 52 debut in the process.  Clayface is a villain who is not used very often, which may be due to the fact that it is difficult for writers to come up with ideas for stories about a character who shape-shifts.  Naturally such an ability will eventually lead to the main characters having their identities stolen, and this is exactly what Clayface is doing here (for about the billionth time in his history).  Scott Snyder does throw in a very nice twist, however, by revealing that Clayface has a new ability: as long as he touches the person he is mimicking, he can now perfectly copy their DNA.  While this is not a huge development in his character, it is a subtle enough touch to make things interesting.  In fact, what may be the biggest mystery of this issue is how Clayface will use this new evolution to his powers.

This is a very subtle issue on the whole.  Apart from the explosive opening, much of Snyder's story-telling in this issue is extremely down played.  This makes for a very interesting approach as, up until this point, Batman has been a very extroverted title.  Perhaps it is because this story is more of a place-holder before the next big thing, but it would be kind of nice to see Snyder do this a bit more often with this comic.  Having a very solid 5-6 issue story arc that is more subtle than all fists and things blowing up would be fun to see.

In terms of art, there is not much which can be said.  Greg Capullo is one of the best artists on a New 52 book right now, although David Finch's work on Justice League of America is certainly giving him a run for his money.  This issue is drawn incredibly well, with the design for Clayface being particularly grotesque.  It will be nice to see Capullo be able to draw the character a bit more in next month's chapter.

Let's briefly discuss the back-up story in this issue.  During the brilliant Court of Owls storyline, Scott Snyder made the announcement that Batman would begin featuring back-up stories in order to expand upon smaller aspects of the major arc.  While this did bump the price of the book up to $3.99, almost no one complained as the stories were generally quite good.  During Death of the Family, the back-ups excellently showed Joker's interactions with several members of Batman's rogues gallery.  With the introduction of Clayface into his first somewhat major story, one would assume that the back-up for this issue may decide to focus on the New 52 origins of the character.  Sadly, this is not the case.

Let it be known: the back-up story in this issue is bad.  Extremely bad.  Written by James Tynion IV (writer on Talon), this back-up tells the story of Batman and Superman exploring the paranormal disappearances of various people whenever they come into contact with a "ghost light."  Sounds interesting, right?  It's not.  Really.  This story is incredibly poorly written, has 0 relation to the story of the rest of the issue, and ultimately makes no sense.  There's nothing wrong with a back-up not referencing the events of the main title, Justice League has been doing it for over a year with Shazam.  With this back-up however, it comes off as more silly than intriguing.  Sure, it's nice to see Superman and Batman working together and to see Superman attempt to talk to Bruce about Damian.  Such a story could have easily been done in the main book, however, if not Justice League.  What really makes this back-up story such a bummer is that it ultimately comes off as feeling like a waste of time.  Undoubtedly the back-ups for Zero Year will be more focused on that arc, but, for this month and the next, DC is more than happy to take your extra $1 for a story that is utterly stupid.  The ONLY saving grace about this back-up is the art by Alex Maleev, which is beautiful.  Other than that?  You can stop reading the issue after the cliffhanger with Clayface.

Overall this is not a bad issue at all (despite the crappy back-up).  It is a decent enough, albeit predictable story, but it ultimately does not do much to feel larger than a place-holder until Zero Year.  Even the writing seems to show this.  Not only is Zero Year mentioned in this issue, but the script for this issue feels like Snyder is very apathetic about this story.  Were Clayface given a longer arc, it may have allowed for a more interesting mystery at least.  Fortunately, Snyder seems incredibly enthusiastic for Zero Year, so at least June is looking good.  Maybe two forgettable issues in an overall solid run is not necessarily a bad thing.

Rating:  B

Summary:  Batman #19 is a decent enough story with an interesting twist on an under-used character, but is very obviously a placeholder before the next big story.  Avoid the back-up by all means.
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