Thursday, September 4, 2008

batman: face the face

I know it’s not very often I actually criticize the art in a graphic novel. There are so many talented artists out there, it’s easy to take their skills for granted. However, I will just say that Face the Face has really exceptional art by Don Kramer and Leonard Kirk—pages and pages of absolutely mind-blowing art that goes above and beyond the normal panel-by-panel reconstruction. I suppose it’s sadly appropriate, then, that the script by James Robinson isn’t quite up to snuff, at least until the last third or so.

In chronological terms, this takes place after Detective but right before Death in the City and some time before Gotham Central. Face the Face picks up after something called the Infinite Crisis where, in the DCComics world, the reset button has been hit after a year. So Batman has been absent from Gotham for a year. Wait til you see who he put in charge in his absence. Anyway, the action does start right away, with the death of a second-tier villain KGBeast plus a confrontation with Poison Ivy. Oh, and what gorgeous lighting techniques Kramer, Kirk, and their inkers and colorists are able to achieve—like Tim Sale, they love to use ink. I quite like the Poison Ivy confrontation here—drawing-wise and content-wise—as with our present era of green, Ivy doesn’t seem like such an insane person after all. “If she wasn’t going about it all wrong,” says a sympathetic Jim Gordon, “I’d almost want to side with her.”

The story is partially the third Robin’s. I’m slowly, slowly figuring out the whole Robin chronology. Dick Grayson was the first Robin, and he turned into a superhero in his own right called Nightwing. The second Robin I think he died. The third Robin, Tim, is an orphan, and I can’t quite tell if he was the Robin who sent the Joker in the path of a semi in Slayride or not. In any case, I think all writers try their hardest to make Robin appealing. He has a good sense of humor and a compassionate heart. I like what he says to new detective Harper. “Don’t worry, he [Batman] liked hearing you say that [it’s great to have you back].” “How do you know?” “I know.”

In discovering the death of another second-tier villainess named Magpie (who, except for the hair, I would probably dress like if I were a villainess), old skool detective Bullock notes, “Why didn’t a second-rate villain like Magpie move to somewhere like ... like ... Apache Junction? She’d rule in Arizona. Hell, even England. They got like, what, two heroes in the whole damn country? Imagine what crazy quilt could pull of there.” That’s funny on so many levels. In all these killings, a two-barrelled hand-gun is used, pointing the finger at a reformed Harvey Dent. Who Batman left in charge during the year he was gone. What?! Is he nuts? Well, wisely the graphic novel keeps us in suspense about how Batman charged Dent with keeping things in order until the last third.

We see the Ventriloquist offed and meet the rather appealing, humorous, totally egotistical gumshoe Jason Bard, who Batman hires to help him do some detective work. “Is this a quick visit, or should I put the coffee on.” “Interesting.” “Coffee? If you say so.” “I know men. Their fear. You have none for me. I like that. Men of good heart have nothing to fear.” Batman’s assertion to Bullock that “All evil is bad. I don’t have a sliding scale” is interesting; I think it would jive with something the Eighth Doctor once said. The ring of villains ever widens, including the Penguin as well as a strange one named Orca. Jason Bard interviews her husband in a very illuminating and well-paced section after her body has been discovered in a sewer—mauled by something called Croc—ewwww. Bard has a run-in with a hitman named Tally Man as the Harvey Dent/Batman/Two-Face tension is ratcheted up.

I’ve always thought that the whole Two-Face story had a variety of Phantom-y qualities, which proves to be the case here, although a stunning opener for the last third in which Two-Face tries to break out of Harvey’s psyche is more like Gollum confronting Sméagol. Being Two-Face, was, apparently, better than sex, heroin, cocaine, weed, opium, Valium, crystal, acid, and ecstasy combined. Hence there’s a potent call on Harvey’s soul, and with his vanity and jealousy piqued by the fact Batman is not entirely sure Harvey’s being framed for the murders on the villains, it doesn’t take much to send him over the edge. Apparently he did a competent job while Batman was away, which rather boggles belief if you ask me. Certainly Two-Face’s original origin, in that he got splashed by acid, must have come from the Claude Rains Phantom. But the Phantom would never, had he gotten plastic surgery, re-mutilate himself with nitric acid and a scalpel! Major gross-out!

There’s a final confrontation with the Scarecrow, who looks rather different from any of the versions seen in the Scarecrow Tales collection (ostensibly because Face the Face is from 2006, after Batman Begins, and therefore he is looking a bit more like the Cillian Murphy version). Robin makes off with another great-one liner after Scarecrow accuses Batman of being cruel. “Yeah, pot, he’s a black kettle.” I like seeing Jason Bard kick butt—I hope he shows up in more stories. The story finally winds its way to its conclusion with the whole thing having been masterminded by another Phantom-like villain, but I won’t spoil who. There’s such a sweet ending to this story that I almost cried, because I’m a big baby, but the future doesn’t look so bright considering Two-Face is roaming the streets again! His facial reconstruction surgeons must be pissed off!

So that’s all the villains accounted for, except for Harley who we know from Death and the City is in Arkham, the Joker who must be involved in the Loxias thread, and Mr. Freeze, who may have died, I don’t know. Is there anyone I missed? Anyway, the art is un-missable, and once the narrative by Robinson gets going, it’s like a steam train. All aboard!

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