Sunday, September 5, 2010

Batman: Face the Face (comics)

Writer: James Robinson
Artists: Don Kramer, Leonard Kirk
Collects: Detective Comics #817-820, Batman #651-654

Much like Supermans "Up, Up and Away" storyline, the first Batman story taking place after Infinite Crisis and during the One Year Later initiative is a crossover built to serve the purpose of a reintroduction, jumping on point and a general reset of the status quo. Prior to One Year Later, the Batman franchise had become impossibly bogged down with a series of bad decisions meant to change the game that only ended up hindering the character and his world. Face the Face changes that, in effect bringing back many important pieces that had been removed from the puzzle entirely.

In effect, this is probably the most important thing the story does on the whole. It re-establishes the Batman and Robin team - actually, it probably tries a bit too hard to convince us of their effectiveness - brings Gordon back to his spot of Commissioner, returns Bullock to the force, brings back the Bat signal, re-establishes some characters that had strayed back to villainy and other smaller things. The status quo becomes something much more familiar, rinsing itself of the crust that had accumulated, which is only a good thing, really.

As a story, however, it has it's problems.

After a year away to find himself, Batman has returned to Gotham. Before too long, it's business as usual, but with a catch. Someone using the familiar MO of Two-Face is offing Z list Batman rogues. But Harvey Dent had been cured, right? Batman had even put him in charge of Gotham while he was away. Something doesn't quite add up and Batman knows it; but still, there is the nagging doubt in his mind, one that just might cost him.

It's a decent hook for a basic Batman story and Robinson writes it rather well. James Robinson has a reputation for his writing being purple as hell and this story doesn't do much to dispel that notion. But he does seem to have a decent handle on Gotham in general. This was my first true exposure to James Robinson, so I came away with a decently favorable impression of his writing.

Also, the story continues a loose "fathers and sons" theme that seems to have run through Batman since Under the Hood. Much is made of Tim Drakes lost family and friends, including his father. All of which culminates in the last few pages. It's a nice scene, really; and a pretty decent set-up for what would begin a month or so later. Another appreciated bit is a new officer introduced, who is a relative of an old superhero; we get Batmans outlook on the "legacy hero" and a bit of a knock towards it, which in some ways is overdue.

Unfortunately, that's where the praise ends. I've already established that the entire point of the story seems to be resetting Batman back to a better status quo. Technically, the story gets the job done and it's an admirable goal, as I'm no fan of the direction Batman was headed before IC and OYL. However, the trouble is that the story does nothing to convince you that it's anything but that; and while it's technically a success if your story accomplishes it's general status changing goals, if it doesn't build an engaging story around it, you're in trouble as far as anyone remembering it or giving a damn a couple of years down the road.

This is the central issue Face the Face has and it's one it can't really overcome. Robinson never really builds a story here that convinces you that this is anything but a status quo cleaning exercise and it eats up eight comic issues to do it. If you can't really convince the audience you're doing anything but franchise spring cleaning, you may as well just do it in two to four issues. This story really isn't much more than a slate cleaner for coming writers Grant Morrison and Paul Dini.

So that's an issue to be sure, but the story also has narrative failings. The story seems to want to position itself as a mystery. Typically, you're meant to follow along with the characters and be able to piece it all together yourself. Good luck with that here; it doesn't even reach a Scooby-Doo level of mystery competency. Against the piles of evidence that Two-Face is back, you get one measly clue deep into the story; and unless you're a goddamn expert in Batman villains, it's not going to be enough to figure it out. Hell, even if you are you may not guess it. There isn't even a way to realize or connect the new Tally Man to the ultimate mastermind until Batman lays it all out.

In the old days, this would sometimes be how you'd see a stories mystery played out; the hero figures it all out by some obscure piece of knowledge you'd never have thought of, the answers ridiculous and so on. But back then it took one issue, usually half of it, actually; or in the case of television cartoons, everything wrapped in half an hour. It didn't cost much. Face the Face's mystery operates at about the same level and takes eight issues. Plus it costs fifteen dollars SRP. Not sure I need to say much more.

The choice of villains used in this "re-introduction" story is also rather questionable. Most of the villains Robinson lays focus to in the story are practically Z list nobodies and he ends up killing most of them (which I hear is actually common in Robinson stories). Aside from Two-Face, the biggest name in here is Poison Ivy; who is reintroduced rather well, but shows up only to be smacked around a bit so Gotham knows Batman is back. Killer Croc shows up to eat somebody, get a few hits and then vanish, accomplishing little other than a bit of mid-story action. Other than that we're dealing with villains on the level of Magpie, a character created by John Byrne in an early Man of Steel issue to get Batman and Superman to meet who did a whole lot of nothing after that. While it's appreciated that Robinson didn't immediately go to the old Joker well, I'm not sure he chose the best lineup for such a story (nor am I sure he needed to kill several of them, though admittedly I kind of doubt anyone gives a crap about Magpie and her triple mohawk).

The art is pretty good though. I'll admit it, I'm not as much of an art critic as writing when it comes to this. For me to truly take notice, it needs to either be really good or really bad. One of the two - Don Kramer, I think - is pretty good with facial expressions, while the other holds up their end of the bargain, but doesn't do anything special I can think of. I'd talk more about the art, the similarities and the differences - I think one artist was doing 'Tec and one was doing Batman issues of this crossover, which alternated titles - but DC didn't see fit to put art breakdowns in the credits, so I couldn't tell you who did what.

The Score: 6.5 out of 10

Face the Face, in all, is a decently drawn story that kind of screws up narattively. It doesn't do much other than clean the slate; it's pretty much just a stopgap that follows Judd Winicks "Under the Hood" and sets up both Grant Morrison and Paul Dinis books. It can be skipped without worry, unless you've just absolutely gotta know what happened for there to be a new female Ventriloquist. It's serviceable, but never really rises up to be a genuinely good Batman story; and I hesitate to recommend it when so many legitimately great Batman stories immediately follow it that are far more worth your coin. Recommended only for completists or those who care about "bridging the gap".


  1. Hey Nice points and I agree with most of them.. to be honest i expected more from the writer of Starman!..
    And hey, Batman has come leaps and bounds since then, Grant Morrison is doing some amazing stuff..

  2. Unfortunately I've yet to really experience Starman. This story was my first real encounter with the work of James Robinson. Starman is purported to be Robinson's magnum opus, so I'll probably get around to it someday. But it's got quite the reputation; and honestly, that's part of why I expected more from this. But then, I guess spring cleaning is still spring cleaning; tiresome, messy and a major hassle, but it still needs to be done.

    Also, I agree that Grant's doing amazing things; I think when the unfortunate time comes that he steps away from Batman, his run is probably going to be looked at as definitive, up there with O'Neil/Adams.