Friday, 4 April 2014

Batman, Detective Comics, Volume 3: Emperor Penguin Review (John Layman, Jason Fabok)

I’m so relieved DC booted Tony Daniel off of Detective and replaced him with John Layman, the writer of the excellent Image series, Chew. DC must’ve been paying attention to the negative reaction of Daniel’s run because right on the cover is a blurb acknowledging that his series was dead in the water: “Layman has reinvigorated the book with his first story arc”. That said, while I think the new creative team - Layman is joined by artists Jason Fabok and Andy Clarke, both outstanding - is definitely a step up, the new Detective Comics isn’t brilliant. 

The first half of the book concerns Poison Ivy and Clayface who’re up to some shenanigans, while the second half follows a new villain called the Merrymaker, a dude in a plague mask inspired by the Joker. In the background is the titular character, the Emperor Penguin, who is the Penguin’s former assistant, Ogilvy, who’s decided to take advantage of Penguin’s absence (he was forced to help Joker in the Death of the Family storyline) to become the new head of Penguin’s empire. 

The Ivy and Clayface storyline was a complete flatline for me. It was Ivy doing her usual act of making guys do her bidding and the only “mystery” was why Clayface was going along with it, believing he was Ivy’s husband. I say “mystery” because I definitely didn’t give a damn one way or the other and my reaction at the reveal was a shrug. 

The Merrymaker storyline isn’t much better but is definitely more interesting. Referencing the Joker’s return in the Death of the Family storyline, a new group of devoted fans called the League of Smiles (terrible name!) is killing in the name of Joker. The references to fandom and Joker’s influence over weaker-minded people are narrative avenues Layman explores in a semi-compelling way. 

The entire Emperor Penguin stuff though… meh. Emperor Penguin doesn’t distinguish himself enough from Penguin so while we see Oswald on his ass dealing with being on the bottom of the ladder, Emperor Penguin isn’t doing anything very differently from the original Penguin - he’s still scheming, coming up with criminal plans to beat Batman, etc., plus his personality is your bland stereotypical villain. 

I was pleasantly surprised to discover this was the first New 52 book in a long while that wasn’t stuffed with pointless crossover issues. This volume collects Detective Comics #13-18 and NOTHING ELSE! It does reference events like Death of the Family and Damian’s death in Batman Incorporated but doesn’t have issues from those titles shoehorned into it. DC, if you’re reading this, and of course you are, let’s have more volumes like this please! 

Layman’s a good writer but the storylines here don’t enthral (the aimless Ivy/Clayface one especially) and he needs to find a better hook for the series. I wouldn’t say he’s reinvigorated the title but he’s definitely pointed it in the right direction, away from whatever the hell Tony Daniel was doing. Jason Fabok and Andy Clarke’s art on the other hand is wonderful. Fabok draws the main issues and Clarke draws the backups (those focus on small players in Gotham’s underworld, some of which are actually more interesting than the main stories) and both draw Batman and Gotham beautifully - dark, gothic, beautifully dramatic, and exciting. 

So is Detective Volume 3 a must-read? Nope! It’s an unfocused collection of middling Batman stories with great art, but there’s potential with this creative team that might develop in future volumes, so, unlike Tony Daniel’s first Detective book which turned me off the title, I’ll be around for the next one.

Batman Detective Comics Volume 3: Emperor Penguin HC (The New 52)

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