The decision to hit the reset button on all Batman continuity is an understandable one for DC. Inevitably, this will create some strong stories as writers try to retread familiar ground without seeming predictably. Inevitably, also, some stories will serve as fill-in. Not every Batman publication can be a showstopper.
As much as I admire Tony S. Daniel’s drawing style, I was rather disappointed by the writing here. All the prerequisites for an early Batman story are here: the Joker, the Penguin, a cameo from Catwoman, and no Robin yet in sight; a young Gordon; a Bruce Wayne still intent on maintaining a playboy façade. Perhaps it’s my personal preference, for though this hasn’t the logistic flights of fantasy of The Joker’s Last Laugh, its grisly obsession with pseudo-medical sadism and piecemeal disfigurement hearkens to Batman of the future, less so to Batman Begins. And indeed, there must be enormous pressure to do something completely different to the Nolan!verse. Unfortunately, for me, Nolan!verse is my comfort zone and default Batman setting.
Daniel draws Batman better than almost anyone else working today. His sense of composition is dynamic and complex. His Batman is bold, powerful, rippling with muscle, but never unwieldy or an unimaginable beefcake. I like his Harvey Bullock, Gordon, and though his Bruce Wayne looks a little too Superman for me, I think there’s a little in joke in that one of the (impossibly proportioned) female characters has a perfect porcelain mask that never reveals what horrors like beneath.
Horrors, indeed. There are some excellent moments in Faces of Death which stand out from the general malaise the volume gives me. Batman’s interior monologues are crisp and convincing. The Joker has become a cult figure to disaffected (or plain vicious) Gothamites, reflecting scenes from Can’t Get You Out of My Head or the viral campaign that preceded the release of The Dark Knight. The plotline involving Mercy Hospital has nice (if unintentional) echoes of the Nolan!verse, and Alfred is, as ever, a delight. The Charlotte-the-reporter and Jill-the-assassin storyline was far too incredible for me to give it any credence (why do all women in DC Batman-verse have to be either fighting machines or victims? The only exception I can think of is Dr Leslie Tompkins—for all her sins, Rachel in the Nolan!verse was in many ways a far more stable female role model). I liked the character Snakeskin (surely a Clayface preamble?), and the Joker had a few truly Burton-esque panels which looked wonderfully retro.
For me, the most exciting part was “Russian Roulette,” with very striking art by Szymon Kudranski and Toneu Morley, featuring Catwoman and a hitherto unknown (to me) character, Eli Strange.