I’ve spent about half an hour trying to open this review with a discussion of the current publishing circumstances of the Batman franchise. And I’ve failed miserably, because it’s making my head hurt. How did things get this complicated? Why did DC decide to let Grant Morrison kill off Batman and then hand over the immediate aftermath to an entirely different set of writers? How will Morrison’s return to the books be played? Why is the first issue of Battle for the Cowl being published before the second of the “last” issues of the titles it was supposed to be temporarily replacing? And perhaps most importantly, why are we supposed to care about DC doing a run of Batman books without Batman in (simultaneous with a run of Superman books without Superman in) if they’re not at least being handled by a writer with a degree of subtlety, intellect and interest in layered and in-depth storytelling? Why, indeed, was the project set up without a firm (and notable) writer in place, leading to it ending up in the hands of artist Tony Daniel? Didn’t the exact same thing happen to Marvel when they suddenly found themselves in the uncomfortable position of having to hand over a couple of issues of New X-Men to Chuck Austen?
So instead, I’m going to ignore what the series may or may not mean for the wider context of the titles over the upcoming year and beyond, and instead just try and take it on its own terms as a comic. But it has to be said that doing so strips it of almost anything interesting that one might say about it. It’s not spectacularly bad, or anything, but nor is it particularly good. It rolls along happily on the wave of “competence” that basically summarises Daniel’s entire career at DC. It sets up and lays out its premise effectively, it makes an admirable attempt to check in on the various corners of the extended “Batverse”, and it has the odd nice touch (such as the style of costume that Tim decides to wear as “Batman”). It rattles along with some decent action scenes (although by the closing page we’ve advanced story-wise about as far as that analogy from Blackadder Goes Forth), and for the most part (with the exception of an overreliance on stock action “poses” taking up half-pages) Daniel’s art is stronger than it was for fair chunks of his Batman RIP run.
At the same time, though, the plot is hardly as engrossing as you might expect (Tim is concerned about a nutso guy dressed as the last of the “three Ghosts” claiming to be Batman, Dick is moping around, and the Black Mask – really? Is that the best you can do? – is rounding up Arkham’s villains for some nefarious plot or other) and it fails on a number of the fundamental characteristics of convincing storytelling. It’s not enough to simply decide you want to use the Black Mask as your villain without giving a vague reason for why he’s not as dead as he was in his last appearance. It’s not really acceptable to have Oracle be essentially responsible for the death of a teenage girl by forcibly ejecting her from the Batmobile only for her to be eaten by Killer Croc and let the entire thing pass without comment (and while we’re at it, I think I’ve long since grown weary of female characters being eaten by monstrous villains in superhero comics, thanks). If you’re going to write a story that features Damian, it would help if you’d actually read the previous issues with him in (especially the ones that you drew) so that you don’t just have him speaking with the voice of an ordinary brattish teenager. And narrative non-sequiturs, such as Tim suddenly showing up halfway through the issue in the aforementioned Bat-outfit, only work if you’re doing something intelligent with them. Otherwise they just look like you left out a few pages somewhere.
If Battle for the Cowl had a truly compelling reason to exist, it wouldn’t matter that it was no more than a competent (if flawed) comic – there are plenty of those out there, and it would simply sit alongside all the rest as at least worth a look for those interested in the relevant franchise or character. And it wouldn’t matter if it served no real purpose in terms of furthering the overall storyline, either, if it were at least better-executed (the Gaiman story, for example, would probably fall into this category). As it is, though, it manages to mark itself out as less-than-essential reading even for those of us who were entirely gripped by Morrison’s run – and it’s impossible to shake the feeling that from now until the Scot’s return, the entire franchise is doing nothing other than treading water.