Debriefing #31: ‘Batman: Detective Comics Vol 1: Faces of Death’

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Batman: Detective Comics Vol 1: Faces of Death

Writer: Tony S. Daniel

Artists: Tony S. Daniel, Ryan Winn

James: So far we’ve dabbled a bit into the Detective Comics line, we did go back and see where it all began as well as checking out The Black Mirror. Reading this book, I think it’s fair to say that this is a different tone and texture to the Batman story than what we’ve seen so far in a lot of the main Batman storylines. My question to you is did you appreciate the different atmosphere and texture of this story or did it drift too far away from the familiarity of the Batman stories we love the most?

Edgar: That’s a good question and I’m glad we’re starting with this topic. It’s true that the Tony Daniel ventures off into much seedier territory than we’ve been accustomed to in most of the books we’ve read. Not that the graphic novels we’ve discussed in the past for Debriefings eschewed gritty material but this volume, Faces of Death, allows itself to go to some extremes. This is accentuated by the artwork which depicts some very grotesque things, like disfigurements and other such physical catastrophes. While it may be a turnoff for some I think it’s important to remember that Batman stories have taken on all sorts of tones for decades. Writers and artists have proven time and time again how malleable Batman his, visually, tonally and the like. For me, I liked the tone of the book. It felt neat to read this collection of issues that took themselves extremely seriously and showcased a really dark side to Gotham. There are some aspects we need to get into but I’d like to know your general thoughts first.

J: I appreciate some of the tonal ideas this book strove for, but in practice, it didn’t work that often for me. I like the idea of more of that ground level story, we see that in The Black Mirror. A lot of what Batman deals with here is the seedy underbelly of crime and less of the action/adventure flavor of a lot of the more popular books. It has a pulpy vibe, at times it feels like one of those old crime novels or a horror flick. However, the actual story, plot and characters never gripped me as much as I wanted them to. I always felt a step removed from being drawn into the action and had to force myself to read certain parts that I didn’t find interesting at all. It’s a darker take on the world of Gotham I’d love to enjoy more, but at least this version of it didn’t do much for me. It’s a shame, too, because there are some chilling images at work, for instance, the conclusion of the first arc of this story with The Joker. What did you think of that storyline?

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E: That’s the strange thing about this stretch of issues. I’m somewhat in agreement with the argument that the plot’s structure is perhaps poorly realized, but not entirely. More on that later. An example however of where Faces of Death is a can feel a bit discombobulated is with the Joker plotline. You think it’s leading somewhere and then he just disappears. The Joker is a major player in one issue and then he is totally inconsequential for the remaining episodes. As such the package has this odd vibe of jumping from one mini-story to the next, trying to connect a great many dots, sometimes successfully, other times less so. I did find the way they use the Joker here kind of interesting although I felt the Joker himself was not as fun as usual. He felt more like a straightforward psychopath. The ending is a shocker for sure, but then again, how much does his operation play into the next issue? That’s where Faces of Death Falters a bit for me? Where do you stand?

J: Yes, the Joker is quite bland in this version. I think that’s something that is true for me for a lot of stretches of this book, things are just a bit too serious and dry. There’s not the personality and idiosyncratic thatt makes some of these characters interesting. The Joker bit is a major dead-end and I’m always disappointed when stories do that. I think it speaks to the larger issue with this story: no story arc ever feels completely realized. We go from The Joker to a story about a girl disappearing to the introduction of a new villain to another story involving two characters trying to con The Penguin and while each of these stories have interesting ideas, I never felt any of them were satisfying stories in and of themselves. I am curious how you feel about some of these new characters, though. I think the big one we should talk about is The Dollmaker: A Frankenstineesque doctor who makes monstrous versions of other people out of the bodies of his victims. What did you make of his character?

E: I feel like I’m going to repeat myself a fair bit throughout this review. Conceptually I like the character. The challenge with the Dollmaker is making a memorable, formidable foe out of someone who literally does not have a face. With no face (or no mask, since many famous antagonists sport great masks) how does a foe strike fear, intimidate and leave an impact? I appreciate that the writer and artists challenged themselves on that level. On the one hand I think they succeeded. I’ve said before that if an antagonist looks fabulous, that character will score at least some points with me and on that level I think the Dollmaker does. On the other hand I never had the sense of finality about him that I felt we were promised when Batman discovers his identity and goes through that arduous fight with the Joker doubles. Like the Joker himself earlier, the Dollmaker vanishes from the story. I did like his minions however. They each had very distinct looks and brought added menace to their hideout. James, what did you feel when you came face to face with the faceless?

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J: I did like the horrific visual style Faceless and The Dolmaker presented the story. There’s a great monster movie vibe that comes from their presence in the story and the fight he has with them does get into some creepy imagery, such as those puppet Joker you mention. There’s a creepiness in that they’re familiar but also clearly cobbled together, much like The Dollmaker’s lackies. Speaking of his lackies, there’s one scene where Batman takes on of The Dollmaker’s goons and beats him up quite bad. I’m interested if you think this version of Batman is too violent. He doesn’t kill people, but he is quite brutal and gets into a grey area where you might consider some of what he does torture.

E: Well, nothing Batman does can equal that one issue we read in Batman Chronicles volume 1 where literally threatens to kill somebody if they don’t provide him with information, so I guess throwing someone against walls and metal pillars is child’s play. More seriously, Batman is pretty hard core in this book. I’m not sure what the impetus was to go to such extremes. Writers walk a fine line when making Batman exact extreme measures on his captives. Beating someone up is par for the course, but then we get a scene where a guard accidentally blows his own foot off and Batman doesn’t even blink. That felt a bit too far off the deep end for me. I suppose I have mixed feelings on the matter. Batman being so harsh is a very case by case issue with me. Did some of his behaviour rub you the wrong way?

J: I don’t know if I ever felt he crossed a line, but some of the graphic depictions did make me think a bit more about whether or not Batman is a sadistic character. I mean, one bit that did make me think they went a bit too far is the “bloodbath” joke. First off, it’s a corny joke in a bad way, but more than that it seemed like Batman was enjoying the violence a bit too much. I might be reading a bit into it. He’s definitely not cackling like The Joker, but he seemed a bit bloodthirsty to me. Am I crazy or did you pick up on that vibe at all?

E: At the present time I don’t recall what the bloodbath joke is but overall is does seem to be an undercurrent of a more venomous Batman longing to be unleashed. There are some moments when he really doesn’t seem to mind physically punishing his victims. One that comes to mind is when he is tracing who stolen a cargo of c4 explosives, he finds this small, scrawny little guy, pins him to the ground and in the same pannell we get three or four other smaller pannells in which Batman pummelled other people to find this one bloke. I don’t know if I’m ready to blame Batman for being too violent because he is supposed to intimidate. I think it’s the writer and artists who have chosen a way to depict his intimidation tactics that makes everything look way more intense than they usually are, which is saying something because we know just how terrifying Batman can be. On the flip side of the whole bruising and torturing aspect is the fact that this is Detective Comics. Batman has been awarded the title of World’s Greatest Detective (*cough* Sherlock Holmes cough*), a rather enviable title if you ask me. What did you make of his detecting skills and we did we get enough of them?

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J: I do think there was a bit of legwork in here, but, like a lot of this book, I think it wasn’t hardly enough. Part of the problem is that Batman’s investigation also coincides with his current reporter girlfriend, Charlotte Rivers, also doing her own investigating and it seems like she does a much better job of getting to the bottom of the case before Batman does, which is a bit disappointing. In fairness, Batman does have a lot on his plate at the time, but when the case gets broken by Batman’s girlfriend, you’re putting your title for World’s Greatest Detective at risk. What did you make of the reporter character in general?

E: It was refreshing to see Bruce Wayne with a woman by his side. I know he’s eternally a bachelor and whatnot but every now and then the guy needs some action if you catch my drift. Charlotte Rivers serves her purpose, she seems headstrong, unafraid of putting herself at risk. The only problem, so to speak, was that I didn’t know of her existence before reading this book and I think better familiarity with her probably would make her a bit more compelling. As it stands, she’s perfectly fine but I wouldn’t say she’s anything to write home about. Did you fancy her more than me?

J: It was nice to have a romantic interest that was more of an active player in the story and not just Bruce keeping up appearances. I didn’t mind that she was a new character, but I could see where you might want a more established character with a bit more personality in that role. A Summer Gleason or Vicki Vale could have made the role a lot better. I will say one thing I was disappointed with in general with this story was how Daniels drew all the women with big busts and lots of cleavage. The Dollmaker’s female sidekick in particular felt gratuitously sexed up. It just felt completely unnecessary and rather juvenile. I think Charlotte in particular deserved better than that.

E: Yeah, it’s true that the faceless woman a huge pair of-uh, I mean, yes, you’re right, the artwork really oversuxualized the female characters. Granted, this isn’t the first time we see this practice. I recall Hush really pushing the titillation factor strong with respect some up and close cheek shots. I wonder what it would be like if some female comic book artists were given the reigns for a couple issues. Would they indulge in the same tricks? There’s a part of me that strongly doubts it. Speaking of other female characters, near the end of this book we suddenly come across Charlotte’s twin sister, pirate girl. Her inclusion and what the story with her is pretty weird I find. It felt as though them being sisters was supposed to be a secret (I remember Batman deducing that information as if it were a surprise), plus her endgame is a little hard to fathom. What did you make of her?

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J: It’s another part of the story I think is a great idea poorly executed. She’s got a great femme fatale vibe and I could see the story being played as a great noir where Batman falls into the investigating detective. However, in practice, the whole story feels rather rushed and sloppy. She also doesn’t seem have the greatest exit strategy. I know we’ve already mentioned this several times, but I feel the need to reiterate that this is a book with a lot of interesting ideas that never are fully realized. I think there’s at least three interesting stories that could have filled up their own volumes.Now that we’ve talked about each one (Joker, The Dollmaker, The Iceberg Heist), which one of these three worked the best for you and why?

E: Oh god, this is like a homework assignment…I will have to choose the Dollmaker. It’s the one that brought the most fresh ideas to the table. The creators make a valiant attempt to present a striking new villain into the fold with some cool looking lackies to boot. They don’t stick around for very long but at least the book doesn’t kill them off so we may yet see them again. The Joker’s story really doesn’t go anywhere. As for The Penguin, I was glad they included him here and his plot does very much feel like something he would come up with but it’s too short and feels like it comes out of left field based on where the book started. I had no idea we’d spend the final two issues on and iceberg casino owned by the Penguin. Which of these three did you prefer?

J: I agree that The Dollmaker works best for me. It does get some points for feeling like the freshest of the three. Also, I felt of the three stories it had the best tonal consistency. It’s a horror story through and through and that gave it more personality and identity than the other stories that never quite struck a consistent mood for me. And yes, The Penguin storyline definitely suffers from breviety. It seems like they rush to the end not too long after it is introduced. And speaking of rushing to the end, what are your closing thoughts on this story?

E: I can’t say it is much of a story to be honest. I think we’ve established that is feels episodic, which in some ways strengthens the book and in some ways weakens it. I do appreciate how Batman’s investigation takes him to a variety of locales and forces him to encounter a number of nefarious folks. It helps convey the idea that evil’s tentacles spread wide in Gotham City. On the flip side, there are aspects to the book that feel rushed. I have this hunch that packaging the New 52 Detective Comics issues into volumes was difficult because there doesn’t seem to be any thematic texture to what we get in volume 1. It sort of just ends. A mixed bag although I seem to be a bit more positive on it than you. James, if you go out dressed as the Joker for Halloween, do you go for a cheap, mass produced mask or the real bloody deal?

J: I keep it real. It’s the only way to ensure children don’t get a wink of sleep for a week afterwards!

E: That’s the spirit!

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