How do you follow a nearly year-long epic storyline? With a change-of-pace story that exists in the nooks and crannies of that epic. But you do not just throw out a story to take up space. No, you allow it to develop a supporting character and tackle a contemporary social issue with a perspective that is fresh for superhero comics. This is the routine when Batman attempts to fulfills the potential of DC’s New 52.
Write Scott Snyder is a narrative architect, but he is also something of a story carpenter. He has the ability to use words like fine pieces of mahogany, shaping them to fit flush with the structure he’s created. With Batman #12, he accomplishes three distinct tasks: he adds to the Batman mythology, he fleshes out a new supporting character and he addresses a prominent social issue. The result is a single issue comic that builds upon the established rather than merely maintaining the status.
The story of Harper Row, Snyder’s new character who made brief appearances in previous issues, is the personalization of a contemporary Gotham City. Snyder has been dedicated to the idea of the urban space as more than location since his run in Detective Comics. It has been a focal point of most (if not all) of his work with Batman. Just like Bruce Wayne, Harper is molded and shaped by the city itself, working deep in the bowels as an electrical engineer. She is also a part of the modern streets of Gotham. The illustration of that point is taken from her socioeconomic position, her survivalist attitude, her gumption and her response to the oppression of being bullied because of her brother Cullen’s lifestyle.
Tackling social issues is not an easy task. Aim too high and your work becomes a soapbox sermon. Aim too low and it’s completely lost. The key is for the social issue in question to be organically part of the story, something that adds a layer and drives the narrative forward. Snyder accomplishes that by taking the homophobic bullying and using it to shape his characters’ personalities and directly leading them to their encounter with the Batman. This interaction has a profound effect on Harper, driving her to be an action oriented heroine, which fuels the climax. This is using contemporary real life as a compliment to narrative structure. It’s not the entirety of the issue, but a firm support to add another layer to the foundation.
The co-carpenter for this story is artist Becky Cloonan – the first woman to draw Batman. The issue works as a showcase for how much humanity Cloonan brings to her pencil work. The depth to the lines she draws brings out the tenderness, brutality and emotion of the story. Its concentration on body language and facial expression refines the narrative structure, smoothing edges, matching grains and balancing the aesthetic. Her opening pages have a charm that fades as the story progressives to its gritty heart and then rises again for the climatic action. This movement maintains interest and appeal, directing the plot and character development. While Greg Capullo’s artwork for the title over the last eleven issues has enhanced the kinetic necessity of the action and adventure inherit in superhero comics, Cloonan approaches the emotional core with the same veracity, striving to fulfill the promise of DC’s comics in this self-actualized new era.
Then there are the last few pages.
Just as Snyder and Cloonan drive the story home, readying it to be installed in the narrative they’ve built; the creative shifts to accommodate co-writer James Tynion IV and artist Andy Clarke. This is by no means criticism of Tynion and Clarke’s work. Tynion, more so than others, has shown a tremendous amount of potential. And Clarke’s work has the desired style for modern action comics. However, the addition of their pages, or rather the abrupt hijacking of the story, certainly disjoints the entire effort. It’s no longer flush, but rather cobbled together with non-original manufacturer pieces. They work to bring the creation together, but they are not a perfect fit. The different grains would work better as separate pieces rather than as an assembled whole.
As a one-off, Batman #12 works differently, adding a further layer to the just concluded “Court of Owls” epic. It also delves deep into a character that we have not seen the last of. Harper is a modern amalgamation of a heroine – resilient and determined, just as she is feminine and emotional. She doesn’t have to choose between worlds; she can inhabit both without losing any part of her core. Her realization is the intricate work of Snyder and Cloonan, aptly using the tools in their belts to actualize a narrative that expands the overall direction of Batman. That Cloonan did not have the opportunity to complete the entire issue is the only point that harms this issue. It is, no matter the misstep, one of the closets books to realize the potential of the New 52 relaunch.