It's my favourite Snyder Bat-book. It's easily the best of this ten-volume run and I also prefer it to Last Knight on Earth, although that's good too. Crucially, it's not THE BEGINNING!!!, or THE ULTIMATE JOKER STORY!!!, or indeed any kind of THE ULTIMATE!!! at all. It's not trying to reinvent anything. It doesn't play silly buggers with canon. (Well, mostly. There are places where it succumbs to temptation, but those are also its weakest stories.)
It's an anthology of one-offs from here and there, doing nothing grandiose and instead quietly telling good stories. It also has a dazzling array of artists.
1. BRIGHT NEW YESTERDAY (20 pages, Batman 0)
Bruce isn't Batman yet, but he's trying to infiltrate the Red Hood's gang. In other words, it's a prequel to Zero Year that belonged in Volume 4. Why wasn't it included in there? It's okay.
2. TOMORROW (8 pages, Batman 0)
It's vignettes of future Robins and Batgirls. This might sound pointless (and it probably is, frankly), but it's redeemed by Andy Clarke's almost Bolland-ish art.
3. RESOLVE (28 pages, Batman 18)
Harper Row and Cullen go to Blackgate Penitentiary to visit their father, who thoroughly deserves to be there. Apart from anything else, he's a homophobe who takes jabs at his son's sexuality. Harper then goes chasing Batman, who's going off the deep end for reasons he won't talk about. (A few months earlier, Grant Morrison had killed Damian Wayne in Batman, Inc.)
This one's pretty good. I like Harper, who's not yet a superhero and hence still less interesting. She has surprising scenes with both of Bruce's identities and her big speech works all the better for coming from a rough-edged teenager with flaws of her own. The art's also striking, even if Kubert's Row Sr. is a bit cartoonish.
4. NOWHERE MAN (40 pages, Batman 19-20)
It's a Clayface story, with a trick opening and (hilariously) the bat-suit from Batman Beyond. The conversations about Damian have emotional resonance, but otherwise this is just an exciting hunt-the-shapeshifter story. It's fun.
5. GHOST LIGHTS (16 pages, Batman 19-20)
Bruce and Clark talk to a ghost.
I love Batman-Superman stories. I hadn't even realised it until recently, but that seems to be true. I like their friendship and how they work together. It's a relationship that neither will ever have with anyone else, not always comfortable but deep. Alex Maleev's scratchy, noirish art makes him a hilariously bad fit for Superman, but he's perfect for Batman's world and I love the atmosphere.
6. CAGES (38 pages, Batman Annual 2)
Eric Border has just started working at Arkham Asylum. He's an idealist who wants to help his patients and believes in making a difference. Then, he learns that there's an Oldest Arkham Inmate, called the Anchoress. She's been there so long that she thinks of Arkham as a hospital, not a jail for killers. For her, it's a sanctuary. She's just an old woman who's locked in a cell, with a distressing body (self-mutilation?) and a fish-face that resembles a scary mermaid.
She hates Batman for creating this sordid, violent prison. Furthermore, Batman's having himself committed to Arkham Asylum to see how escape-proof it is.
I love this premise. The story becomes less interesting when the Anchoress meets Batman and turns into a supervillain, but it's still one of my favourite Batman stories. It showed me a franchise cliche (Arkham) through new eyes. Mind you, that love comes mostly from anti-Batman reasons and I can imagine it boring Bat-fans who just want to see fights.
Yet again, the art's completely different. It's streamlined, simple and mildly reminiscent of children's cartoons.
7. THE MEEK (22 pages, Batman 34)
Another great little story. Its murderer is a mundane nobody, but sometimes that's the best kind of Batman villain. He's nasty, disturbing and has an interesting motivation. Also, for once, Batman is being a detective and following a trail of evidence.
It's also my favourite of the few Leslie Thompkins stories I've read to date.
Matteo Scalera draws memorable, stylised art. The last page is nightmarish. It's a simple, dark, realistic tale of normal people, but it's also worth reading and rereading. I'd get indigestion if we didn't get Batman stories like this from time to time.
8. GOTHAM ETERNAL (22 pages, Batman 28)
Well, you know what they say. Always end in a bag of shit. What's this doing here? "The story continues in Batman Eternal."
In other words, it's an out-of-place shard of an ongoing story, with a punchline that will only mean anything to fanboys. Meanwhile, Harper Roe becomes yet another costumed sidekick, destroying everything I liked about the character. I'd been expecting it, admittedly, but I hadn't guessed it would be this bad.
Not terrible, but not worth reading either.
Frankly, this is the only book where Snyder's run feels to me like proper Batman. That's silly of me, obviously, since there are a million ways you can write this infinitely elastic character... but that was still my reaction. There are some good stories here. Dark, twisted, emotionally grounded and about more than just superhero soap opera.