Today, Drew and guest writer Greg Smith are discussing Detective Comics 23.3: Scarecrow, originally released September 18th, 2013. This issue is part of the Villain’s Month event. Click here for our Villains Month coverage.
Drew: Peter Tomasi is an ideal utility player — he’s able to synthesize and adapt the ideas other writers introduce in flagship titles into something that can stand up on its own. He regularly turns what could be an unwieldy Frankenstein monster into something beautiful, so long as he’s given the space to do so. It turns out that last caveat is rather important — without appropriate time to develop the ideas, he’s forced to strip them down to the connective tissue they are, yielding stories that feel rushed and obligatory. Unfortunately, Detective Comics 23.3: Scarecrow falls firmly into this latter category, squandering some etherial, appropriately Scarecrow-y Szymon Kudranski art on a strange housekeeping issue.
Scarecrow is on a mission to approach all of the former Arkham inmates to warn them of a coming war with the former Blackgate inmates. This is made rather simple by the fact that Penguin divvied-up Gotham into territories lorded over by each of the Batman rogues. Scarecrow makes stops with Mr. Freeze, Riddler, Killer Croc, and Poison Ivy, slowly realizing that the Blackgate inmates are being led by Bane. Oh, and then Scarecrow kills Hudson, the Arkham guard who apparently exists for the sole purpose of being killed by Scarecrow.
It very clearly sets the stage for Forever Evil: Arkham War, but goodness gravy is it a slog to read. Every single detail, from the warlord setup of Gotham to the brewing war with Bane, were first introduced in other issues, and will all pay off in other issues. The entirety of this issue’s plot could have just as effectively been deployed with the line “Scarecrow warned me about this,” whenever the Blackgate inmates finally make their attack. I’m generally not one to complain about a story being too light on plot, but when it’s replaced with clunky exposition, you get all of the negatives of a plotty story without the benefit of anything interesting actually happening.
Just to break it down, this issue is potentially connecting Forever Evil, Batman 23.3: The Penguin, Batman and Robin: 23.1: Two-Face, Batman: The Dark Knight 23.2: Mr. Freeze, Batman: The Dark Knight 23.3: Clayface, Detective Comics 23.1: Poison Ivy, and maybe will also connect Batman 23.4: Bane, Batman and Robin 23.4: Killer Croc, and Detective Comics 23.4: Man-Bat, plus the three part Forever Evil: Arkham War that ties into the larger Forever Evil event. Whew. It’s clearly not necessary to read them all, but I think there’s a sense of being absolutely in the dark that grows with each issue you haven’t read, and there may be some a critical mass one must read in order for this to make any kind of sense. (I should add here that I haven’t read all of these, so I may be overestimating a bit. I might have assumed, for example, that Batman 23.2: The Riddler might have added some context to Nygma’s appearance here, but having read it, I know that, if anything, it may actually contradict this issue.) At any rate, this issue clearly suffers from just how many connections it needs to make — each new character, each new name-drop, carries a world of baggage that Tomasi has to navigate carefully.
I have to hand it to group editor Mike Marts — the interconnectivity here is impressive. Unfortunately, it’s also unexpected, and perhaps to the detriment of this issue’s appeal. I suspect that many fans were excited for this issue because they like the elemental qualities of fear that we associate with Scarecrow. That is, we expected to see him scaring people, not serving as the wrangler of disparate factions against a common enemy. Speaking for my own experience, I was particularly excited at the thought of Kudranski rendering fear toxin-induced nightmare scenes. It was a bit of a letdown to see him saddled with talking heads.
Admittedly, they’re dramatically-lit talking heads, but it isn’t the quite showcase for Kudranski’s otherworldly art I was hoping for. I’d go so far as to say Kudranski is more coincidental to this issue — another artist could have fared just as well — in much the same way that Scarecrow is. Replace Crane with any other villain, and the story doesn’t change in any meaningful way.
Woof. Greg, when I invited you to write on this issue, I was expecting an isolated on-off featuring everyone’s favorite fear monger. This issue is decidedly not that. We started from a Batman-free, villain-run Gotham, and just piled on the references from there. Were you able to role with these punches, or was it as impossible to push through all of the connections as I think it is? Was this issue any less disposable than the late Mr. Hudson?
Greg: What’s worse: a person shouting “I’m gonna kick you in the balls!” or a person straight up kicking you in the balls?
My first improv comedy instructor at Upright Citizens Brigade presented this hypothetical to differentiate between interesting and uninteresting scenes. An uninteresting scene involves players showing off how clever they are by talking through the “successful” beats of a scene, rather than actively and emotionally performing it. I couldn’t help but think of this testicular example while reading this issue, as Scarecrow travels from villain to villain, explaining away what he’s thinking in oh-so-clever language and turns of phrases. Sound and fury, signifying nothing. Why doesn’t he just kick someone in the balls already?
Drew, you worried I’d get bogged down in the complex connections of the issue, but the idea of complex connections in superhero fiction is something I’m used to; matter fact, it’s one of the chief pleasures of the medium. Yet the best connections don’t require the momentum of a story to grind to a screeching halt; matter fact, they work best as a natural, organic result of the story propelling forward. Here, Tomasi’s dialogue feels like a blunt “Last time, on Detective Comics” recap designed to orient readers like me who are dropping in out of context. This type of thing should feel as subtle as a sneak attack from Batman. Instead, it’s about as heavy-handed as a thwap from Bane.
Reading this thing felt like reading an academic paper. On page 16, editor Rachel Gluckstern includes a footnote reminding us of Killer Croc’s intentions, and cites issues to read to fully understand. I don’t read comics for a professorial list of recommended reading, Ms. Gluckstern, and I resent your giving me extra homework. Coupled with the tiresome anchor of Dr. Crane’s rambling psychobabble (at least Frasier or Niles would’ve had a couple clever quips), and the experience feels like taking a tour with a strikingly pretentious, joy-robbing guide — think Michael Sheen in Midnight In Paris wearing a scary mask.
Drew, you touched on the primal element of fear, a powerful engine that is at the emotional core of Batman as a whole. While the introduction to the issue promises us a visceral, throat-grabbing portrayal of fear incarnate, it loses its momentum nearly immediately. It seems as though Crane is about to get in the meat and potatoes of why his love of fear and darkness is both exhilarating and ennui-inducing, yet such promise dissipates when Freeze shows up and must be caught up to speed. As you mention, Kudranski gives us some startling and enigmatic pictures, yet it feels like a consolation to the reader, an apology for not providing a similarly engaging story.
Maybe in a serial context this issue was necessary. As Scarecrow says on page 19, “So, I said a lot of things earlier, old friend. But like all good therapy, it cleared my mind just to talk my way through it.” Maybe the larger arc needed this clearing of minds, this saying of a lot of things, for a big, cathartic, active series of events to come. As it is, the only thing scary about this Scarecrow is how dry it is.
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?