Today, Drew and Scott are discussing Detective Comics 16, originally released January 9th, 2013. This issue is part of the Death of the Family crossover event. Click here for complete DotF coverage.
Drew: Batman, as an idea, is essentially a very elaborate scared-straight program. The whole reason Bruce Wayne dresses up like a bat is because he believes criminals — a superstitious and cowardly lot — will be too afraid to commit crime in Gotham. Sure, some criminals are too cocksure to fear him, or simply don’t believe that he exists, but pretty much everybody runs once he actually shows up. Joker is different. For whatever reason — that he doesn’t feel fear, doesn’t mind fear, or just that he just sees Batman as a guy in a costume who keeps insisting that everybody take him seriously — the idea of Batman doesn’t deter Joker from crime. In fact, modern interpretations of the character suggest that he commits crimes in order to gain Batman’s attention. That notion is what’s made their struggle such a fundamental one, and also explains why the Joker has so many fictional fans — if he can not blink in the face of terror, so can others. The idea that the Joker could be an empowering figure is a fascinating one, but unfortunately, Detective Comics 16 doesn’t take the time to do it justice.
The issue opens, confusingly, with a spoiler for the backup (which is re-spoiled in its own cold open), but quickly cuts away to a series of Joker-inspired crimes. Batman is doggedly hunting down every Joker-worshiping group, focusing on one in particular that’s already killed five people. That group plans to kill a group of people at a youth center, assuming that Batman is too far away to get there in time. It turns out they’re wrong, but it doesn’t matter: one of their own has already released all of the hostages. He also cut off his own face to look less like the Joker, because hey, this wouldn’t be Detective Comics unless there was gratuitous face-removal and impossible-to-follow character motivations.
Actually, let’s examine that character’s motivations. Allow me to introduce you to Rodney Spurman:
We later find out that this was an accident that Rodney simply hasn’t been able to live down. Nobody accepted him after what happened, so he turned to Joker cultists, who loved him for who he was, as long as he was willing to alter his appearance and behavior. Here’s the thing, though, he introduces himself as “Torch.” It’s hard to believe he has much guilt about killing his parents when he talks about it so blithely. Come to think of it, maybe suspicion that he didn’t really give a shit was why nobody could relate to him after the fire.
Other weird thing: Rodney balks at killing strangers, but he had absolutely no qualms killing his own psychiatrist, who died in the fire we see him fleeing from here. Oddly, it doesn’t even seem like the gang he’s with put him up to it, since we later see him meeting one of the only three other members for the first time ever. That psychiatrist is their connection to each other, so it seems like, you know, they would all be in on his murder. Also, shouldn’t the psychiatrist have done something about all of the homicidal tendencies these people have? I get that there are sociopaths out there, but they’re usually a) not in treatment or b) receiving some treatment beyond having a psychiatrist they could easily kill.
Anyway, I was talking about Rodney and his stupid motivations. After he frees the victims, his gang members leave him alive because he “doesn’t deserve the gift we have to give” (yet somehow the would-be victims who were every bit as complicit in the escape he helped stage did deserve that “gift”). So he’s safe and sound, and even helped save some innocent lives, but then decides his problem is that he looks too much like the Joker. His solution? Cut his own face off. In order to look less like the only other person in Gotham with his face cut off. I think Batman says it best:
I get that stupidity exists, but it kind of sucks as a character motivation — just ask everyone who saw Prometheus (zing).
The backup doesn’t suffer these same problems, but any sense of drama is undercut by it’s structure. Ogilvy has a plan: take over Penguin’s racket and blame every crime on the Joker, which is clever enough, but the first part of that plan was explained last month, and the second part was explained twice before the backup even gets started. Showing us the cool stuff and then going back to explain the boring path there is the absolute worst structure, reminding me quite a bit of the Star Wars prequels. I don’t even feel bad saying that.
I really want to like this title, but writer John Layman keeps executing his ideas in the worst way possible. We dropped this title VERY hard after the last Gotham crossover, and while I don’t feel quite as strongly this go-round, I’m feeling the ken to drop it again. What do you think, Scotty? Was there anything redeeming about this issue?
Scott: There really wasn’t. It’s risky to introduce a new character and ask him to shoulder the emotional weight of the issue, and Rodney wasn’t quite up to the task. Drew, you nailed it when you said stupidity sucks as character motivation. I get that Rodney is supposed to be confused, but that’s not an excuse for Layman to make him confusing. Cutting off his own face seemed like such an extreme overreaction that I had to reread the panels leading up to it to make sure I wasn’t misunderstanding his rationale. I mean, when someone ends a story with “…And that’s why I cut off my face,” the details leading up to that must be pretty devastating, not just, “Well, I’m starting to regret these clown tattoos.” I least, I hope those are tattoos- if it’s just makeup then he’ll have entered a whole new ballpark of stupid.
The biggest problem with this issue is not Rodney’s lack of motivation, but Batman’s. There is never much at stake for Batman, just a lot of him fighting petty criminals that even he knows pose little threat.
Joker has been front and center in other recent Death of the Family crossover issues, and yet Batman is only dealing with gangs of (mostly incompetent) Joker copycats? Lame. Detective Comics 14 left Joker, Ogilvy, Clayface and Poison Ivy as lingering threats to Batman, and only Ogilvy appears in this issue, primarily in the backup. It’s not like Layman didn’t have anything interesting to work with, he just ignored it all and came up with an issue that feels like it’s just biding time, waiting for it’s turn to play with the cool bad guys.
Speaking of the backup, while the double-spoiler was certainly overkill, I thought this was the second straight issue where the backup was actually more successful than the main story. Last month’s backup saw Poison Ivy tricking Clayface into falling in love with her before breaking him out of Arkham Asylum and manipulating him to do her bidding. Sometime later, he figures this out and turns on her, and the backup winds up serving as both a prologue and epilogue for the main issue. This month it’s more of a side story, establishing Ogilvy as a competent and forceful successor to the Penguin. That this was the most interesting stretch of the issue speaks to the issue’s overall lack of a compelling arc than anything else, but for me at least it settled some questions about whether Ogilvy has what it takes to run Cobblepot’s empire.
I do find it odd that Ogilvy insists on being called “Emperor Penguin”. Penguin always seemed to have the most blatantly derogatory supervillain nickname, one that mocked his stature and mannerisms. Ogilvy does not share these characteristics, and it doesn’t seem like he holds Cobblepot in high esteem, so I can’t figure out why he wants to associate himself with the Penguin name. It’s like if there was a guy everybody called “Buttman” and his successor chose to go by the name “Really Smelly Buttman”. That’s a really stellar example, so you’re welcome.
Drew, I can’t imagine you are the only reader eager to drop this title after this issue. It’s frustrating to consider how much ground this issue could have covered, and then to be left with a story where it’s virtually impossible to care about anything that happened. What a waste.
For a complete list of what we’re reading, head on over to our Pull List page. Whenever possible, buy your comics from your local mom and pop comic bookstore. If you want to rock digital copies, head on over to DC’s website and download issues there. There’s no need to pirate, right?