After Judd Winick dared publicly mention the fact that he was working on writing of Batman: Battle for the Cowl before artist Tony Daniel was announced as that miniseries’ writer/artist and was subsequently booted off of Batman after just five issues, the publisher turned to the most obvious choice to replace him on Batman—writer/artist Tony Daniel, thus seemingly confirming what they must have assumed Winick implied, that Daniel was a second-string Winick or something.
One thing both creators have in common is that I’m not fond of either of their work and, in fact, would rate Daniel pretty high on a list of The Worst Batman Artists Ever for his collaborations with Grant Morrison. The only writing of his I had read prior to reading these comics, which constitute the first five parts of six-part story “Life After Death,” was his Battle for the Cowl miniseries, which was, as discussed previously, not very good (in addition to being completely pointless in the way that only a comic that has no reason to exist existing anyway can be).
I’m happy to report that these comics are much, much better. Both Daniels’ art skills and his writing skills, as evidenced here, seem to be head-and-shoulders above what they seemed to be as evidenced by his run as penciler on Batman and as the writer/artist of Battle.
Part of that is perhaps simply because Daniel was a better artist and writer by the time he was producing these issues—everyone gets better the longer they do something, right?—and part of it may be because he had a lot more control over his work here.
He was illustrating his own scripts rather than trying to dramatize Morrison’s (something not all artists are equally good at doing, and Daniel seemed particularly poor at it), which certainly should have eliminated all of his problems with staging that plagued his Morrison collaborations, and he while this script seemed to have had a whole bunch of stuff dictated by the editors (It picks up on what Winick was doing, and foreshadows what other creators since did in Bat-books), it has to have been much less rigidly planned out than Battle, which was more of an exercise in connecting pre-arranged dots a few panels at a time then it was an actual story.
This story arc continues to chronicle the struggle for control of Gotham City’s underworld by various colorful gangster rogues, as initiated in Battle and continued in Winick’s four-issue arc, “Long Shadows.”
As this story opens, Batman Dick Grayson is investigating an ambush of Black Mask II’s new “False Face Society,” which consists of brainwashed civilians in gas masks.
After that last story arc, Black Mask has pushed Two-Face out of town and has The Penguin under his thumb, and is now apparently holed up in Devil’s Square, some part of Gotham City where the National Guard has him surrounded but are unable to move in due to the hostages—thousands of ‘em, apparently. I guess Devil’s Square is a neighborhood, maybe? It’s unclear, and Daniel’s not gotten much better at setting scenes or communicating a sense of place.
Black Mask has a small army of other Batman rogues working under him, including Doctor Death, Professor Hugo Strange, some lady named Fear and a back-from-the-dead Reaper (But not the one from Batman: Year 2 or the one from Batman: Full Circle, this is a less popular one revived from Pre-Crisis continuity…all of which I needed the Internet to figure out, although the character is presented throughout this story as if a reader would already be familiar with him).
They’re challenged by the Falcone crime family, which played a big role in Year One, The Long Halloween and Dark Victory.
Batman and his crew—Alfred, Damian, Oracle and Huntress—are trying to bust everybody, and there are a few more independent players running around with their own agendas, including The Penguin, The Riddler, Catwoman and (new?) character Kitrina “Kittyhawk” Falcone, a teenage escape artist.
As you can tell from all the name-dropping, Daniel is certainly taking a Greatest Hits-style approach to the story, squeezing in as many characters as logically possible (The Mad Hatter, Hush and Dr. Arkham all appear as well), making for a strategy evocative of Jeph Loeb’s Hush and aforementioned Tim Sale collaborations, Long Halloween and Dark Victory.
A lot of this name-dropping accomplishes little more than the name-dropping—The Falcone family trying to reclaim Gotham from the freak criminals they lost it to, or an unfrozen German Jewish holocaust camp survivor who dresses as the Grim Reaper to serve as a mob hitman at the behest of evil psychiatrists could be (should be?) stories of their own, but here are treated like just a couple of the many plates Daniel is spinning.
With so many moving parts and relatively little space to pay attention to most of them, “Life After Death” (or the first five-sixths of it, anyway), has an admirable complexity and scope to it. Whatever the various players are attempting to accomplish, it certainly seems exciting, given how many players there are and how many different agendas there are. I cringed at some dialogue (Damian shouting “Epic fail!” leaps back to mind) and couldn’t swallow some of the action (The Reaper chopping open a speeding car with his scythe for example), but the scripting is so much better than that of Battle it seems to be the work of a different, better writer.
It may be overstuffed and a little undercooked here and there, but it’s a fast, it’s fun and there’s a degree of excitement and suspense about it.
As for the art, Daniel still seems to be learning—or perhaps just struggling—with page layout and the mechanics of comics storytelling, but it too is vastly improved over what I’ve seen previously from him. He makes weird choices sometimes, but I never had a problem figuring out what was going on, or matching the verbal narrative to the visual narrative the way I did in “The Resurrection of Ra’s al Ghul” or “Batman: R.I.P.”
He’s inked by Sandu Florea and colored by Ian Hannin, and together their panels look quite slick and stylized. Daniel still looks like a Jim Lee devotee to me, but here he seems to be a better artist influenced by Jim Lee, rather than a young, new artist attempting a bad Jim Lee impression.
So, whatever accounts for it—writing his own scripts with less input from editors, different collaborators, just plain old getting better—this is all around much better work.
Uh oh, am I getting too positive? Well, we can’t have that! I should wind down by registering one disappointment—the sudden change in creative teams lead to a sudden change in creative focus, and this story quite jarringly abandoned Winick and Bagley’s focus on Dick Grayson trying to replace Bruce Wayne as Batman in favor of a story in which the only real clue that there’s a different man in the Batman costume is the fact that Alfred and Selina Kyle sometimes say “Dick” instead of “Bruce.”
That is, the vast majority of what’s in here could have been in any Batman story at any time, and doesn’t seem all that specific to Dick Grayson. Daniel’s depiction of Batman doesn’t look any different than his depiction of Bruce Wayne-as-Batman. This Batman doesn’t smile, he doesn’t jump around and fight differently, heck, he doesn’t even wear the new Batman’s different gauntlets.
It’s not a major problem, of course, and if all you’re looking for is a decent enough Batman story, well, this is a decent enough Batman story. But given what Morrison was doing in Batman and Robin and what Winick started in this title, it seems disappointing that there’s so little characterization of the title character that it doesn’t matter who’s wearing the suit, just so long as the suit is there.
Hey, before we call it a night, let’s look at some art, shall we?
That's a pretty good drawing of Batman angsting on top of a gargoyle on a stormy night, isn't it?
Here's that scene of The Reaper taking out a speeding car all by himself. Points for the Incredible Herculean sound effect, anyway.
I'm totally fascinated by the middle panel here, in which Selina Kyle apparently leans so close to Dick Grayson that her big, floppy sunhat smooshes against his forehead, which he doesn't react to at all. It looks a little like they're not looking eye-to-eye either, like maybe she's a few inches to his left, which would explain why the hat is off to the left side of his head...? I don't know; I spent a lot of time looking at that panel...
You know one of the things I hate most about the comics corner of the Internet? Whenever someone complains about rape or the threat of sexual violence in their Justice League or Teen Titans comics, and then someone comes along in the comments section to say that rape in superhero comics is totally cool because, you know, there's rape in the real world, so the superhero comics are only being realistic by turning Dr. Light into Dr. Rape or whatever.
This has nothing to do with Tony Daniel or his Batman work. I just saw the above drawing of the Huntress in her motorcycle armor outfit after hearing another round of someone trying to argue about that subject (this time on Twitter, regarding the threat of child rape in a comic entitled Brightest Day, and thought, "Wow, that's not a very realistic riding around on a motorcycle and getting into fights outfit, is it?"
If you've been asking yourself when The Penguin would finally do a nude scene in a Batman comic, you can stop now—Tony Daniel has heard you.
Next: Tony Daniel and Guillem March’s Batman #698.