Tuesday, March 08, 2005

DETECTIVE COMICS #804

David Lapham has spent his tenure on 'Tec exposing flaws, gleefully casting a harsh, unforgiving light on Gotham City and all she contains so as better to see the failure and decay.

Gotham has been established as a character in her own right, more villain than victim, willing playmate of sinners, and enabling the corruption of innocence. Gotham likes to watch. The police are overwhelmed from without and diseased from within and Gotham City seems to like it that way.

We have moved in, from the city to its most powerful citizens -- the cankered elite, demonstrated in the self-congratulating harbor party in the first issue and bearing fruit in the person of Haddie McNeil, the child left to raise herself into a mockery of womanhood.

And now we have come up close to see how the pervading darkness of Gotham has infected Batman himself -- his refusal to listen to Robin can't possibly be seen as anything but willful ignorance of a larger problem for the sake of following his own personal quest. At that moment, as Tim stares disbelievingly at his mentor, you can see how Gotham has managed to remain uncleansed.

... at least I hope that's what Lapham had in mind.

I have been known to complain once in a while about the omnipotence of Batman, so in that sense, this is a welcome relief from the Dark Knight Detective who is often written to know about events that are frankly impossible for him to know about simply because "he's Batman".

On the other hand, this is a very broken Batman, far more effectively hobbled by his own weaknesses and demons than we see in the annual Crossover Event (where something goes wrong, Batman pushes everyone away, things get worse, and he brings everyone back and apologizes). Bruce's near-obsession with Haddie's life and death is frankly self-indulgent, even moreso than his promise to the mother of one of the city's missing pregnant teens. Intentionally or not, Lapham sets up the insult to Bruce Wayne by Haddie's father -- a wonderfully caustic moment -- as more of an impetus to act than the horrors gripping the city.

Batman is selfish -- he has always been selfish -- and now it's explicit. Penguin's aerie has blown up, Mr. Freeze is running amok, city corruption looks to be behind the baby ring, there's a brilliantly cruel madness sweeping through some of the city's citizens... and Batman is off doing his own thing, which thankfully seems to dovetail into the larger chaos.

This is an extremely unlikeable, offputting Batman (contrasted with a surprisingly human Bruce Wayne) and even the narrative bubbles seem prejudiced against him. He means well, but good intentions are the paving stones on the road to Hell, which looks very much like the interstate leading to Gotham.

Niggling annoyance, just because I am like that: there's no way a Gotham City police detective can be transferred to Bludhaven as a punishment; separate cities, separate police. It's not like dumping a Manhattan cop out in Queens when he runs afoul of his commander.

I am enjoying this month to month, but I really suspect that this story will read better as a trade paperback instead of as a serial.

The Barker, the backup written by Mike Carey, concluded with this issue with one of those 'it makes perfect sense, but it's not what we wanted' endings as Kitt brings Tomjohn's killer to justice. I'm of two minds as to how this story did as a backup -- it tied very loosely into Gotham and had nothing to do with Batman and I don't know if that's a good thing or not.

The story could have just as easily been set in, say, Cleveland -- the circus world's reaction to the murder of the Graysons was an interesting detail, but ultimately irrelevant to the story -- although that is perhaps a refreshing break from a setup where new characters can debut in back-ups and then be brought over into the main books without so much as a howdeedoo to introduce them to folks who didn't read the original story when it came out. (I'm looking straight at you, Josie Mac.)

As a story, it worked great for what it was -- a serialized back-up story -- although I'll admit that Carey has to work extra hard for me not to like his stuff (I'm going to pick up his and Oeming's Red Sonja, for pity's sake).

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