Wednesday, May 11, 2005

BATMAN: DARK DETECTIVE #1

There's a trite old maxim: You Can't Go Home Again. And, with most trite old maxims, it's got a germ of truth to it.

I wasn't reading funnybooks when Steve Englehart had his run on Detective Comics. My knowledge of Englehart came much later and from a stack of old Green Lantern Corps issues that featured Kilowog's tour of communist countries and Hal Jordan's no-no-she's-really-legal-now fling with Arisia and plenty of other cracktastic moments of a kind that you just don't see anymore and not just because the editors are a little more sensitive to implications of statutory rape.

Silver St. Cloud is thus a name I knew only by reputation -- an intelligent, passionate woman who knew Bruce's secret and didn't want to live with it. She was the One Who Got Away. And now, courtesy of Englehart and Marshall Rogers, she's back, along with a Batman and a sensibility that haven't been seen since the Reagan administration.

The results are... mixed. It's not nearly as successful as Giffen and DeMatteis's reunion over in Formerly Known as-/I Can't Believe It's Not the Justice League because those two undertook a complete overhaul and updating. But on the other hand, it's nowhere near as dreadful as Chris Claremont's attempts to return to glory days over in the X-Men franchise.

Dark Detective is a throwback story that doesn't throw back far enough. It's unevenly retro, a glossy repainting of a very old house that is being sold as good-as-new even though nobody's updated the plumbing in fifty years. The story feels off because the world -- both ours and Batman's -- has changed in the decades since Strange Apparition but the writing hasn't. Englehart is working from an outdated and outmoded weltanschauung and trying to pass it off as current. You can't simply update the period references and have everything else sit as easily as it did before. Namedropping American Idol doesn't make this a contemporary story any more than throwing a cuirass on Orlando Bloom makes him a Crusader. This still feels more informed by the Cold War than the War on Terror in a way that doesn't seem intentional, just as this is a Gotham curiously untouched by No Man's Land or any of the other disasters.

Nowhere is this dissonance more evident than with Batman himself. Once upon a time, Batman smiling was not common, but also nonthreatening; in 1999's JLA/Titans: The Technis Imperative, Batman's broad grin was a dead giveway that he was an imposter. Englehart is pretending that this isn't the case and that would have been fine if he'd stuck to a slightly AU universe or simply made this a flashback story. You can argue all you want about how Batman has become too grim-and-gritty -- and that's before he got lobotomized in Identity Crisis -- but if you're writing a current-continuity story, you can't ignore the darkening of the character that has gone on post-Crisis. There's still an acceptably broad spectrum of Obsessed and Dour within which writers can work and not end up with a Batman either inhumanly cold or suicidally driven. (Heck, Jeph Loeb finds it all vaguely amusing.) Englehart is outside that spectrum and this Bruce is so comparatively unburdened, I thought he might float away. We all miss pre-Crisis Batman sometimes, but that doesn't mean we're not going to blink when he shows up in what is being billed as an in-continuity tale.

As for the story itself? Once you look past all of the references to modern day, it read like an homage to the original stories of that time. A good copy, but not the real thing. Silver St. Cloud, after all this build-up, is nothing remarkable. We are told, in word and picture, that she and Bruce had a history and that she knows who Batman is. But there's no remembered electricity between them, no old ember, and no real feeling for the storm raging on beneath their calm facades. Bruce disappearing and Batman appearing to save Silver's fiance should have played like a cruel joke for both of them, but instead Silver's a non-entity and Batman's tasting ketchup. The Joker's appearance didn't do much for me because I didn't get half of the in-jokes and because his threats were similar to those in February's Batman: The Man Who Laughs, where they felt more more wickedly done. As I said when I reviewed that story, you really have to do something with the Joker to make his showing up worthwhile. (A similarly time-displaced) Harvey's around, so perhaps the focus will shift. Englehart promised overstuffing and pulp and I'm sure he'll oblige.

Bottom line: If you can ignore the fact that this is supposed to be in continuity, then it's not bad, but, like the presentation of the new DC logo, the fuss is disproportionate to the actual thing. The original Englehart run has been collected in trade and that may end up a better read.

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