You know, I’d have been minded to open this review with a grumble about the lead character of the world’s longest-running continuously-published comic being unceremoniously booted out of the pages he made his own just so that DC could shift a few more copies of a story that they chickened out of giving its own series and effectively sat on for a couple of years. But it turns out that them doing that is actually a bloody good idea, if it means getting more people to read this – because it’s actually kind of excellent.
Primarily, as I’m about the millionth person online to say, that’s because of the way it looks. No two ways about it, this is a beautiful, incredible-looking comic. If JH Williams III showed with his “Club of Heroes” collaboration with Morrison (not to mention the all-too-brief stint on this very book back at the start of Dini’s run) that he had the potential to tell dazzlingly atmospheric noirish Bat-stories, then it’s here that he opens up and fulfils that potential. It’s not even one particular element that does it – it’s the entire package. Naturally the character work and draftsmanship are as classy as you’d expect, making for a sumptuous feast for the eyes, and one for which colourist Dave Stewart deserves just as much credit – but his storytelling is magnificent also.
This isn’t so much in a Quitely-esque, moment-to-moment kind of way, though, as it is the way he uses the composition of panels to trigger mood in the reader’s mind. The gorgeous, dark epics that stretch across the pages whenever Kate is Batwoman – layered blacks and greys broken up by evocative slashes of her white skin and the brash, orange-red elements of her outfit – use unconventional panel layouts, but strung along a theme that deliberately causes a “flash” in the reader’s mind: you can’t help but think “bat” as your eye scans across the jagged lines. All of a sudden you can almost see what Simone Bianchi’s been trying to do in Astonishing X-Men, only… you know, done properly. Even better, though, is the contrast between these scenes and those featuring her out of costume. The colours get sunnier and brighter, the panels go back to conventional boxes – and not even with the jarring effect of a turn of the page, but instead in a left-to-right progression across a double spread. It’s bravura stuff, it really is.
Still, even as the issue is entirely worth buying for the art alone (and it’s not often I say that), it’s lucky that the story is pretty decent as well. It’s a bit difficult to figure out exactly where it’s supposed to take place – Batman and Detective should never take place in entirely different timeframes, and there’s “Batman Reborn” branding on the cover; yet the Batman who appears feels more Bruce than Dick, and references to the precise time that’s supposed to have elapsed since we first saw Kate are vague at best. That said, despite the fact that she’s only made fleeting appearances since her overhyped debut in 2006, Rucka does a good job of leading us into this as a new setup – it’s a well-played “issue one”. We learn as much as we need to about her character (and come to that, her experiences in 52 seem to have lent her a welcome sense of humility), personal life and “hero” setup – right down to her “Alfred” figure, an apparent father with whom she shares her masked life in an interesting, militaristic way. As far as I’m aware, this character is entirely new – but again, we’re given all we really need.
That said, for all the decent character setup, I can’t say that the opening “case” has much of a hook – the “Religion of Crime” idea isn’t desperately interesting (and I honestly can’t recall where they spring from originally – are we going back to 52, and the people who stabbed her, here? A bit more of a refresher would have been nice), and “Alice” is well designed but drawn almost entirely from a combination of existing cliches. Even so, this is a mightily impressive start to the run (to say nothing of the fact that, hey! Detective is (sort of) an anthology book again! And the backup story is a Proper Detective Story about ReneeQuestion! And it’s drawn by Cully Hamner! And it’s quite good as well!), and in tandem with Batman & Robin (not to mention an acceptable if unspectacular range of peripheral books), you have to say the Batbooks are looking in splendid condition. Bruce who?