DETECTIVE COMICS #27/ Written by MELTZER, HURWITZ, TOMASI, FRANCAVILLA, BARR, LAYMAN, & SNYDER/ Art by HITCH, ADAMS, BERTRAM, FRANCAVILLA, MARCH, FABOK, & MURPHY/ Published by DC COMICS
It’s been 75 years since Batman made his first appearance in 1939’s Detective Comics #27, and DC marks the occasion this month with a “mega-sized” issue of its New 52 version of the title. The anniversary book packs in seven stories by some of the comic industry’s top creators, but the mix is uneven and ultimately disappointing.
The entry that feels the most complete in terms of story and art is “The Case of the Chemical Syndicate” by Brad Meltzer of Infinity Crisis fame and Bryan Hitch. Fusing together elements of Batman’s noir-ish Golden Age debut and Tim Burton’s 1989 film, Meltzer provides a straightforward, character-centric story that feels very much at home within the historic Batman canon. The art by Bryan Hitch blends old with new, decking Batman out in a classic yet modernized blue and grey Dark Knight Detective costume, complete with utility belt and cowl. The story is nothing revolutionary, but it does the best job of any in the issue in terms of capturing the essence of Batman and touching upon the core fundamentals that make up the character’s lasting appeal. The end result celebrates Batman in the most appropriate way–by running the character through what he does best without irony, camp, or wholesale reinvention.
The issue’s second chapter, “Old School”, takes an entirely different approach and mostly falls flat. Written by Gregg Hurwitz and drawn by Batman legend Neal Adams, “Old School” floats some interesting ideas about Batman’s existence as an existential loop, but the execution doesn’t live up to the high-minded concept. The story derails about halfway through and never recovers. Batman and Robin are shown evolving in real time, reflecting the change in comics throughout the years, from Silver Age camp to Modern Era grittiness. It should be a cool progression to watch, but when Adams renders the ‘90s Tim Drake Robin costume with Silver Age style exposed legs, the intended effect is diminished. The story ends on the worst kind of self-aware note and ends up being entirely forgettable, which is disappointing considering the talent involved.
Peter Tomasi lifts the issue up a bit with “Better Days”, a warmly reflective piece that heavily mines Frank Miller’s Dark Knight Returns. Fans of the Bat Family will find a lot to love here, with pitch-perfect renditions of Batman’s extended club of former sidekicks and associates. Robins abound. Ian Bertram delivers eye-catching artwork, but Dave Stewart’s colors do a disproportionate amount of the heavy lifting, adding tremendously to the futuristic sci-fi look of the pages. The Dark Knight influence is thick, yet the creators give enough of a nod to that fact to make it palatable. Miller’s trademark mutant punk visor is shown in one panel as an obvious tip o’ the hat to the master.
“Hero” by Francesco Francovilla features gorgeous art, perhaps the best in the book, but at only four pages doesn’t have enough time to tell much of a story. I wish this piece had been double in length and Francovilla had been given more real estate in the issue. Beautiful work but short and lacking any real oomph.
Mike Barr and Guillem March turn in “The Sacrifice”, a look back at Bruce Wayne’s life if his parents hadn’t perished in that alley. The story would make Charles Dickens smile and has a throwback pre-New 52 DC feel to it, with the Stranger playing the role of genie/ghost. This piece taps into Batman’s classically heroic and noble qualities more than any other in the issue.
“Gothtopia” takes us to some sort of altered Gotham City, where Batman has all but eliminated crime and partners with Catbird, a Selina Kyle Catwoman/Robin hybrid. The art by Jason Fabok is muscular and physical, with Batman, Kyle, and rogues like Poison Ivy looking like Greek gods in combat. The story presents an Age of Apocalypse-style alternate universe that could be an illusory construct of Batman’s mind. While interesting, “Gothtopia” seems out of place in an anniversary issue. Readers of the monthly Bat books will likely enjoy the chapter, but those picking up Detective #27 for history’s sake may find the entry confusing and dense.
Scott Snyder, the current writer of DC’s monthly flagship Batman title, closes out Detective #27 with artist Sean Murphy. The two recently worked together on the Vertigo title The Wake and their partnership here brings a lot to the page. The story goes far and wide, showing us a far-flung future of Batman: Year 200. There’s been ten generations of Batman, we’re told, spanning from Bruce Wayne’s Dark Knight to Transformers-looking robot versions, a Road Warrior/Mad Max Batman, and a sky-surfing Batman Beyond-ish incarnation. Murphy’s artwork is excellent, cramming in lots of angular detail and giving each of the varied epochs a distinct look and feel, often in just one panel. The story, while not bad, stretches the Batman concept just a bit too far to feel cohesive. It’s a grand idea that Batman has survived through the years and will survive for many more, but opening the scope to hundreds of years makes Bruce Wayne feel shallow in the same way that making every Stormtrooper a clone of Boba Fett feels weird. There’s certainly a lot to look at in “Twenty-Seven”, but I couldn’t shake the sense that Grant Morrison previously touched on the idea of an everlasting Batman mythology in much the same way and did so with perhaps more cleverness and heart.
All told, it’s a safe bet that 2014’s Detective Comics #27 will not encroach on the historic legacy of its 1930s predecessor. The anniversary issue gathers together some impressive talent, but its whole ends up being somehow tangibly less than the sum of its parts. At $7.99, this choppy collection is a worthwhile pickup only for the most engaged New 52 Batman fan. Those seeking classic Batman stories of a more consistent quality will find better value in picking up a couple issues of Batman: Black and White instead.