[23 January 2014]
For just about two-and-a-half years now, Scott Snyder has been the writer of Batman. In the age of the multi-title crossover event, and at a time when DC is publishing more bat-books than anything else (seriously, it’s like 25% of everything they put out), being the person who gets to create the stories of the flagship series is a big and high-profile job. Snyder has already been the architect behind two enormous storylines that spilled out of Batman and into several other DC books, and he’s currently in the midst of his third, titled “Zero Year.” The scope of his Batman tales is clearly vast, so they need a lot of time and space to be told in full, and this string-of-epics approach has made Snyder immensely popular as the Dark Knight’s head writer. Obviously, he must be doing something right. Yet for my money, Snyder’s strongest Batman work isn’t in the pages of Batman at all but, instead, can be found in his preceding run on Detective.
Right before DC relaunched their entire line with the New 52 (which is when Snyder took over as writer on Batman), Snyder had an 11-issue run on Detective with artists Francesco Francavilla and Jock. Bruce Wayne was believed to be dead at the time, so his first protégé Dick Grayson was under the cowl instead, giving up his Nightwing persona for a time so the world wouldn’t need to go without a Batman. Logically enough, Snyder wrote Dick–as-Batman quite differently then than he writes Bruce in the role now, but it’s not just the differences in the protagonists’ personalities that distinguish one series from the other. The way Snyder structured his narratives in Detective was also distinct from his current Batman arcs, far more intimate and contained. There is a unifying thread that runs through all the Detective issues dealing with the return of Commissioner Gordon’s sociopathic son James Gordon, Jr., but even as Snyder slowly builds on that overarching tale, he tells a few complete smaller stories along the way. Batman discovers and shuts down an underground auction of supervillain paraphernalia, and also defeats a couple of up-and-coming arms dealers, all of which is accomplished quickly enough that the James Jr. story can be developed in between and resolved by the end of the run. The sprawling storylines Snyder would ultimately employ in Batman are nowhere to be found in Detective, and it makes those comics more arresting and hard-hitting. There’s a greater sense of urgency to them, and a heavier emotional weight, because they can zero in more closely on the emotional lives of the cast when there isn’t such an unruly plot to get through. Snyder’s Batman is a series of blockbuster action stories while his Detective a series of tense noir-ish thrillers, and at the end of the day he writes the latter better than the former.
To be fair, it’s not solely because of Snyder’s scripts that I prefer Detective; the artists play a major role in that as well. This is not to put down the fantastic and ever-improving work Greg Capullo has been doing all along on Batman. Capullo’s Bruce Wayne is built like a brick house even out-of-costume, and as Batman, he’s a terrifying, intimidating, larger-than-life figure, which is exactly what he’s going for. Capullo nails that look, and even though he doesn’t technically have any superpowers, it’s easy to believe that Capullo’s Batman can survive all the insane violence and accidents and whatnot that he lives through every day. Physically, he’s a tank, perfect for the high-octane action of the book. Emotionally, he’s stern and deadly serious pretty much all the time, ever the brooding stoic, which adds to the atmosphere Snyder’s narratives evoke. The villains in Batman operate on a large scale: a secret society that controls all of Gotham from behind the scenes, the Joker attempting to murder the entire Bat-family, etc. Capullo’s Batman, and indeed every character he draws, fittingly add to the severity already in the air.
In Detective, where Dick Grayson is Batman and Bruce is nowhere to be found, things are no less grim, but they are a bit less intense in their grimness. Dick is able to joke and smirk and even sometimes smile, and the enemies he battles, while evil and insane, are not as big-time or ambitious. They are street-level baddies, thieves and thugs rather than the criminal masterminds of the Batman stories. Even young James Jr., who does have a rather lofty evil scheme he’s trying to pull off, has a more personal (familial, actually) motivation behind his plot. The problems Dick faces are serious, but their solutions are not nearly as complicated as what Bruce has to deal with. And the art from Jock and Francavilla reflects this.
Jock is the artist for the Batman-centric stories, while Francavilla steps in whenever the Gordon family has the spotlight. Eventually, these things intersect, and the two artists split up the duties accordingly, sharing issues with one another without ever steeping on each other’s toes. Jock makes it instantly obvious that Dick Grayson is Batman as opposed to Bruce Wayne—he’s slender, graceful, and even a bit playful when appropriate. Letting his personality shine through like that also adds to the reader’s emotional investment in the story, because Dick feels like a real person instead of just a character. The world around him is creepy and unnerving, but not as forcefully scary or overwhelmingly dark as when Capullo is in charge. Jock’s Gotham sneaks up on you, Capullo’s looms over you right away, more intimidating than startling.
The Francavilla-drawn sections focus on the Gordon family, specifically the return of James Jr. and how his father and sister react to it. Barbara refuses to trust her brother’s claims that he is a changed man, and while Commissioner Gordon wants to trust his son, he, too, struggles with that decision. Which is ultimately for the best, since it turns out that James Jr. is just as insane and dangerous as everyone feared, if not more so. He attacks his family brutally, almost killing his mother and sister both. He also creates a drug designed to turn babies into sociopaths, his endgame being to put it into vats full of baby formula and turn an entire generation of Gotham’s children into emotionless killers just like him. It’s a very personal story, one about the outcast member of a do-gooder family trying to make himself fit in somewhere, even if it means chemically attacking an entire city. Francavilla’s art is up close and personal, too, a lot of tight shots and panels of nervous, pregnant silence that draw you in and refuse to let go. James Jr. shows back up in Gotham unexpectedly, spouting a story about how he wants to be a better person now. While it’s evident right away that he’s lying, the depths of his deceit are only revealed gradually. Francavilla slow-burns the resulting tension expertly, so that each new piece of horrifying information we learn about James Jr. is just as gripping as the last. By the time all of his cards are on the table for the rest of the cast to see, we as readers have gotten glimpses of each of them individually already. We slowly but surely come to understand James Jr.’s true, hideous inner self, so his final defeat is a moment of tremendous catharsis.
All three of Snyder’s artistic collaborators do exactly what they need to do in order to most effectively tell their respective stories. So it’s not at all a case of Jock and/or Francavilla being objectively better than Capullo, it’s just that they and Snyder produced something heart-wrenching and gut-punching, whereas Capullo and Snyder seem to be going for more of the mind-boggling, eye-popping side of things. Neither is an inherently better tactic, and all of these artists are at the top of their game, but taste being what it is, Jock and Francavilla happen to win me over more fully than Capullo.
I want to make that abundantly clear, and also reiterate that on principal I have no problem with Snyder writing Batman so differently than he writes Detective. Those two series should be distinct from one another, especially since Batman’s secret identity was different in one than it is in the other. It’s admirable that Snyder took the time to write Dick-like stories for Dick and Bruce-like stories for Bruce. It’s impressive that he sees and understands the differences between those men so clearly and highlights them in his writing. All of that is to be applauded for sure. What I’m saying, though, is that Snyder is a writer more suited for the very human, unsettling, creeping dread type of narratives seen in his Detective run than the widespread, uniquely superhuman stuff he’s currently bringing to Batman. What he’s doing now is good, but what he did before was amazing, and no matter what happens moving forward, I will perpetually miss the days of Snyder writing Dick Grayson as Batman in the pages of Detective Comics.
Matthew Derman loves comicbooks and writes about them every week on his blog Comics Matter. He also loves his lady and their two dogs.