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Paul Dini’s Run on Detective Comics – Detective & Private Casebook

Paul Dini is, for my money at least, the best writer writing Batman today. Anyone doubting that would do well to check out his run on Detective Comics. In a return to the character’s pulpy roots (where buying an issue would generally give you at least one story), Dini’s run is dominated by done-in-one stories (with the odd two-parter and then the five-issue The Heart of Hush rounding it off). It’s brave and daring experiment, and that he attempted it is almost as surprising as how brilliantly he succeeded.

Do you want to point out he should keep both hands on the wheel?

Do you want to point out he should keep both hands on the wheel?

Note: Unfortunately I can’t find a library-bound copy of Death and the City for review, so I am missing the middle chunk of Dini’s standalone stories, but he does go to great pains not to lockout readers who haven’t read every issue he has written. If I find a copy anywhere, I’ll update the review.

This is the kinda run which deserves omnibus treatment. It is. And I’ve always had a problem with how DC packages their volumes as opposed to Marvel – their hardcovers are just shorter and less value for money. I don’t think the artwork contained in these volumes is strong enough to warrant an oversized volume, but it would be great to have all these stories in one large volume (and it wouldn’t be too large, in case the beancounters are too scared). That’s probably my most major complaint about this collection.

Kick starting the run...

For those unfamiliar with Dini’s work on the character, he’s one half of the dynamic duo behind the classic Batman: The Animated Series in the 1990s. The series managed to tell continuity-light stories featuring the character and was arguably his most iconic presentation during the decade, with a focus on fast-paced story-telling and character definition. Dini brings that storytelling style to his run on the comic book, telling a series of short stories (almost vignettes) featuring Batman, his friends and his foes, old and new.

What’s interesting to observe here is that – while Grant Morrison’s run on the sister comic Batman generally eschewed the traditional rogues (save for the Joker) – Dini really embraces both the traditional rogues and the whole concept of supervillianry as a whole. He opening story features Facade, just one of a wealth of colourful criminal figures he introduces over the course of his run (the Globe and Gotham Jack, for example), with few recurring (The Wonderland Gang) and really only one intended for a place among Batman’s core gallery (the new Scarface).

Surrounded by dummies...

Surrounded by dummies...

He also features some the more mundane crime that strikes Gotham – for example, the murder of a wealthy socialite or a serial killer stalking randomly. Dini uses these both to paint a picture of Gotham as a whole, more than a place featuring random violence at the hands of the Joker (though there is that too), for example, but also to display Batman’s detective skills (which do tend to get lost among the whole host of other traits he has). Both stories feature Dini’s reformed Riddler, which may be perhaps the finest characterisation of his run. Dini is fixated on the notion of how easy it is in this modern world for figures with dubious pasts to achieve fame and fortune – for example OJ Simpson, or any number of drug-dealers-turned-musicians. The Penguin is a nightclub operator robbing his customers over merchandise and his biggest rival is Sabatino, the son of a local crime don and former gun/drug runner.

One of the most interesting elements of noir is how it pits the bad against the worst. Enemies are forced into awkward detente by cold hard facts – it’s no coincidence, for example, that Edward Nigma’s private detective advertisement (offering his services to the good citizens of Gotham) is playing on television as Poison Ivy seeks Batman’s help in Stalked.

You have got to be kidding...

Maybe the past is not so easily forgiven, as Dini implies throughout – befitting a good noir story, which really is the genre in which Batman belongs. Sometimes our actions come back to haunt us – Poison Ivy finds herself pursued by the men she brutally murdered, there’s trouble on the club’s opening night in the aptly titled Opening Night and even the Riddler (the most non-lethal of Batman foes) finds himself held to account for past actions over the run. It’s fitting that the cover blurb begins with the line “nothing stays buried”. It wouldn’t be pulpy noir if it did. Each of the stories has a pulpy feel to it (even those which are firmly rooted in the modern Batman mythos – such as the epilogue to The Resurrection of Ra’s Al Ghul). And it works.

Dini knows his Batman and he delivers that here. His work calls to mind his work on the animated television show, just allowed a little more latitude for violence and darker themes. A perfect example of this is arguably the best issue in the entire run – Slayride. It might be the best standalone Joker story in years. Featuring the Joker kidnapping Tim Drake and taking him on a hit-and-run spree through Gotham at Christmas, the story is remarkably low key, but it hammers home the horror of the Joker’s pathology perfectly: it senseless violence, no matter how large or how small. In that story (as with most of the others), it was hard not to hear the voice cast from The Animated Series delivering the lines, just in a much creepier context.

The world's second greatest detective...

The world's second greatest detective...

The format is interesting. For the most part the continuity-light tales don’t suffer from being overcrowded or overloaded and manage to engage a reader who hasn’t been reading the comic year-in and year-out. There are little threads developed throughout (mostly the arc following the Riddler and his determination to outwit Batman, but also the Zatanna/Bruce romance). Ironically the exceptions come in the form of the two stories here not written by him. The Return of Dr. Phosphorus is a fine hammy read from Royal McGraw, with excellent visuals from Marcos Marz, but it’s weighted down by a lot of exposition and a rather half-hearted inspiration for Batman’s response to the return of his old foe, which might have benefited from a little more space. And then there’s The Suit of Sorrows by Peter Milligan, which feels almost like a lost companion piece to Grant Morrison’s Gothic – it’s markedly different in tone from all that surrounds it. Not that it isn’t a solid Batman story, it just seems… out of place here.

The art is generally solid. The earlier issues in the run are illustrated by a huge variety of talent, which befits the idea of each story representing a different take on the Batman mythos, featuring a different villain and standing independently. J.H. Williams III warms up for his stunning work on Grant Morrison’s title here with some solid (though not as impressive as he work on The Club of Heroes arc) drawings to accompany Dini’s first story, The Beautiful People. Another shoutout to Slayride here, which does look absolutely stunning. The later issues are all illustrated by Nguyen in a slightly less exaggerated version of the style he carried with him to The Heart of Hush. While I liked the jagged edges there as reflecting Dini’s warped antagonist, here they are somewhat less appealing. They are still solid visuals, and it’s never unclear what’s going on, but it might have been nice to continue the trend of individual artists drifting in and out of the title.

A very unmerry Christmas...

All in all, it’s a solid collection which really is perhaps the best and broadest collection of current work on the Caped Crusader. I hope that Streets of Gotham can live up to the standard set here.

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2 Responses

  1. I’m sorry, but if you think that Detective Comics: Stalked is a good comic, you are a moron. I have never said that about any other form of media, but it is true here.

    Poison Ivy is meant to be an anti-hero; she is full of rage and anger, and maybe even a hint of sadism, but there are lines she won’t cross. One of her greatest strengths as a character is her capacity for love and compassion, just look at how she fostered the orphans in Greg Rucka’s No Man’s Land. If people are kind to her, she tends to treat them with mercy or at least understanding. Having her turn into a sadistic, evil and sociopathic serial killer who murders all who show her affection is not only out of character, it’s shitty writing that shows Dini has no understanding of the character. The idea of having Ivy’s past crimes come back to haunt her is decent, but I have never seen such sloppy and immature execution in my life.

    The out of character and terrible dialogue doesn’t help (Robin joking about people getting horribly murdered…Even All Star Batman & Robin Frank Miller wouldn’t sink to such a low), neither does the gratuitous ass and nudie suggesting shots that litter that piece of filth. I really do think Stalked is one of the worst, if not the WORST, comic ever made. It doesn’t just have flaws it IS a flaw. It’s like The Garbage Pail Kids of comic books…

    • Hi Will,

      Each’s own, really. With regards to the characterisation of Ivy, it’s worth conceding that different writers have different takes on different characters. Consider Harvey Dent, who varies greatly depending on the author. Jeph Loeb treats him as a tragic almost-run, trapped in cycle of abuse. Chuck Dixon suggests that he’s a through-and-through villain who uses the coin to justify his horrific actions. Doug Moench portrays him as a truly monstrous deformed freak in the traditions of monster movie cinema.

      While there are some portrayals I prefer to others, I think that these sorts of inconsistencies are inevitable, and aren’t inherently bad. Greg Rucka’s Poison Ivy is great, but so is Neil Gaiman’s – Gaiman presenting her more as an inhabitant of Swamp Thing’s world than Batman’s. Here, Dini chooses to emphasise the terrorist part of “eco-terrorist”, and I don’t think that’s inherently invalid. (Just as I don’t think Scott Snyder’s revised Mr. Freeze is invalid; I love and cherish Dini’s sympathetic Mr. Freeze, but I don’t think any comic book character is truly set in stone.)

      I will concede that the cheesecake art is a bit much in places, though.

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