Monday, April 25, 2005

BATMAN: JEKYLL & HYDE #1

I have a complicated relationship with Paul Jenkins's writing -- he's written for titles I follow and is often paired with artists whose style I enjoy, but I don't think I'd ever put him on either my Love or Loathe list. Rather than incite any sort of strong feeling, he's just sort of... there. I'm not alone in that regard -- the forgotten man in Hellblazer's pantheon of writerly heavies (he falls between Ennis and Ellis), none of his stories have been collected in trades yet.

Here Jenkins is teamed with frequent collaborator Jae Lee (Darkness, Inhumans) for a story that is both literally and figuratively a riff on the Jeckyll & Hyde story -- a madness is running amok in Gotham that has mild-mannered types turning savagely murderous and Batman has to stop it. The technical details of the crimes would perhaps lead Batman to other suspects, especially a shady scientist, but when he receives a summons from Two-Face, happily locked up in Arkham, things get more complicated.

Jenkins' take on Harvey Dent will probably have some folks mighty cranky until it becomes more clear whether this story takes place in or out of continuity. His Two-Face is not a man off the leash of society (and off his rocker), giving in to his darker impulses. Harvey has a much more garden-variety split personality here, the remorseful former DA chained unto death with the raving psychopath. They speak with different voices, are aware of each other's presence and inclinations, and are engaged in the usual battle for control that, naturally, Harvey is losing because he's the soft and weak one.

I suppose you could be tempted to figure out the rest of the story on your own -- Dr. Rousse is experimenting on Gothamites to determine the elemental nature of humans, cracking open unsuspecting victims to find their two essential personalities, and Harvey Dent is one such case already revealed. Batman gets a moment's hesitation when he sees that he could possibly cure his old friend Harvey, but Justice Must Prevail and everyone goes down... or not. There's enough wiggle room here among what initially seems like a collection of boilerplates that it may take a surprising turn before coming to the expected conclusion. The Joker can't die and Two-Face can't get cured -- most recently Jeph Loeb tried it and that didn't last beyond Hush.

Because this is a story that's going to end in exactly the place that it started -- all but the best Batman stories ultimately do -- the question of whether to read it comes down to whether you think Jenkins can say anything interesting about any of the principles before the roller coaster comes to a halt. I'm honestly not so sure -- there's a lot of psychobabble and experimentation stories tend to say more about the experimenter than the subjects, so whether the character development will come along in due time... *shrugs*

On the other hand, I think Jae Lee's art is worth the ride even if Jenkins doesn't manage to put a new spin on the wheel -- at least for the first three issues, which is as far as Lee got before he returned to Marvel under an exclusive contract. Lee is at his best in stories where his deft handle on shadows and the darkness within can be on display; his characters always look like there's so much more going on beneath the surface and his people have a haunted, poisonous beauty to them.

Bottom line: Jenkins has three issues to convince me to stay the course and show me he's got something new to do with Harvey Dent and Batman.

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