Drew: Last month, Shelby compared Detective Comics to a well-executed magic trick. Specifically, she was referring to the way Brian Buccellato and Francis Manapul wield misdirection, but I think the similarities between magic and art are manifold. Both rely on deceptively simple techniques to create effects that are greater than the sum of their parts. For me, the only real difference is how we value being “fooled” by those effects. If we see the strings, a magic trick is ruined, but understanding exactly how a scene was painted or filmed or carved can enhance our appreciation of a work of art. I personally enjoy knowing how a magic trick is performed, too — I think it gives me a deeper appreciation for exactly how skillful the magician is — but then again, I’ve always liked knowing how the sausage is made. Many folks would rather never know how the lady gets sawed in half, or how a painter simulates sunlight peaking through the clouds, or how a composer strings harmonies into a coherent musical idea. It’s an attitude I can’t fully support, but I do understand it: a little magic is lost when you can spot every palmed card. Manapul and Buccellato have long been a team that rewards digging beneath those effects, but this issue found me wishing that I wasn’t so aware of what they were doing.
That may be the most verbose explanation of a set-up issue I’ve ever written, so let me clarify: this is a set-up issue, focused more on putting the pieces in place than in being any kind of standalone story. We continue to follow the investigations of both Batman and Bullock, though Bullock spends most of this issue playing catch-up. Batman recovers Elena’s phone, leading him to the abandoned aquarium, where the Squid introduces him to an actual squid, before the Kings of the Sun arrive, leaving Batman in the middle of a good old-fashioned mexican standoff.
It’s a totally boilerplate story, leadened a bit by its own expository summersaults. Buccellato and Manapul open with a page of hard recap about Elena’s involvement in the story, but at this point, her story doesn’t even matter anymore. It might have been more helpful to remind us exactly who Jonny and Lawrence are, who play a much more prominent role in the actual events of the story, but instead, they slide into the action without ceremony, which might be confusing to anybody who doesn’t remember the Squid’s first name (or that of his bike gang-angering younger brother). More perplexingly, Icarus isn’t mentioned or depicted once this issue, in spite of being the title for the whole arc — is it important to this story, or isn’t it?
My chief complaint, though, is how obvious the machinations are to bring all of the story’s players together. Batman closing in on the Squid is a totally logical time for a fight (even with a cephalapoidal stand-in), but the Kings of the Sun are wild cards here, which unfortunately means that their inclusion feels a bit more tacked on. They’re just kind of coincidentally riding up just as Batman is breaking out of the Squid tank.
But maybe it’s wrong to nitpick the plot of an issue this gorgeous. Manapul has pushed himself to find new textures in Gotham, giving all of the water scenes an added depth, and making Batman’s cape almost tangible. More importantly, he continues to find inventive, economical layouts, often setting up the page as a meta-panel, and making the setting as important to the story as the characters. It’s a trick that works beautifully when giving us a glimpse of Bullock’s apartment, but feels a little forced when splitting an establishing shot of the pier into meaningless sub-panels.
One of my favorite things about Buccellato and Manapul’s run on The Flash is how deep every issue was — there always seemed to be some kind of meaningful meta-commentary bubbling beneath the surface. Here, I’m at a loss for anything beyond the notion that all the water here might represent Buccellato and Manapul being in over their head — or maybe just that this issue is treading water. The Flash Editor Brian Cunningham insisted on shorter arcs, something that doesn’t seem to be an issue with the Batman group, leaving Buccellato and Manapul with more space than they’re used to. That would be a clean enough narrative if it weren’t for the fact that The Flash was full of arcs longer than this, so I’m not sure what the problem is. Still, it’s hard not to see Batman (the paragon of comic book grief) looking stoic in front of a sky of scarlet (the color most closely associated with The Flash) and not think they’re lamenting the loss of something.
Maybe my expectations are simply too high — I was a big fan of their Flash run, and was absolutely floored by their debut on this title. They’re clearly building to something — Bullock doesn’t even come close to the actual action in this issue — but it’s kind of a bummer to see things cool off so thoroughly here. What do you think, Scott? Was this issue a dud for you, too, or do you have more patience for these set-up issues? Do you think Annette (and her motocross skills) will play a role in the resolution of this arc? Oh, and do you buy Bullock as a cat guy?
Scott: They’re clearly setting up Bullock to become the new Catwoman, and I think it’s egregious. Seriously though, the way that spread of Bullock’s apartment is laid out, at first glance it really looks like he lives with a dozen cats. That’s due to Manapul’s inventive page-management that Drew mentioned above, which is so clever it took me a minute to figure out what was actually going on. Turning Bullock into a crazy cat lady would’ve been going too far, but I can get behind the idea that a lonely detective — whose mother thinks he should have stayed with his prom date — might keep a couple cats around for company.
Drew, you’re absolutely right about this issue feeling weighed down by exposition and obvious set up for later payoffs. That bothered me throughout the first half of the issue, which I felt dragged, but less in the second half, which is centered around one major set piece. Without a lot of story to carry the issue, Manapul and Buccellato seem to be betting heavily on the effectiveness of their bold imagery.
Now there’s a sight that could just as easily have someone laughing at it’s sheer ridiculousness or rising out of their seat shouting “Oh shit, this is awesome!” For me, it was both. The fact is, having Batman fight a squid was always in the cards for this arc; hell, it may have been the arc’s most anticipated moment (it’s the moment I was most excited for, anyway). That the fight happened, and ended, so suddenly is what surprised me. It’s representative of the arc as a whole: there’s plenty of buildup but hardly any real tension when it counts. This squid fight should have been an epic moment — and it is on a visual level — but it falls totally flat at this point in the story. It didn’t conjure any emotions for me, much the same as Elena’s death, the event that sparked this arc.
I have a notion of who I’m supposed to care about and a somewhat vaguer notion of what each character is trying to accomplish, but I’m not invested in the story. I’m sure Annette’s motocross skills will somehow become relevant (could come in handy if she has to outrun that biker gang). I wish I cared more about the story, because I love almost everything about the art (I’m not a big fan of the cape, actually. It looks so stiff and wrinkly. Get an iron!) It’s clear how much thought is going into making this the best-looking comic book possible, and I really appreciate that. It makes me realize just how good a comic could be, if this art were tied to truly great writing. But then, it’s hard to say if Manapul’s art would be so transcendent if he weren’t also involved in the writing. I doubt it; I’m sure all those creative juices flow from one vision. Maybe this creative team is like a great visual director whose writing will never quite measure up. Maybe they’re the James Cameron of comics. That’s not a bad thing. I can promise I’ll be shelling out $18 to see Avatar 2 in 3D. And Avatar 3. And, wait…4? Really?! Damn you, James Cameron!
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?