Stokoe did not disappoint. His work is saturated with detail in a way that seems downright foreign to superhero comics now. Instead of manipulated photos of buildings or cars, he drew the hell out of a Park Row street front in the first panel, every brick seemingly drawn with pen and pencil and carefully shaded. In the last panel, as we see Batman soaring into the sun rising over the Gotham skyline, Sand tokoe draws some twenty skyscrapers crowd together, each full of windows and fire escapes and chimneys and signs and the design elements of buildings.
It's definitely, totally, unabashedly Stokoe's work, from the curious but effective use of colors, to the grace note details like the face on Leslie Thompkins' teapot, from the the characters in the Mortal Kombat-esque video game that the protagonist plays, to the montage of Batman vs. Joker battles that suggests a half-dozen stories each as epic as "Joker War".
Stokoe is working with regular Batman writer James Tynion IV, whose work I sometimes have some concerns with, but who has been doing a pretty great job on his Batman run, from what I've seen of it so far (the major downside of his first arc, "Their Dark Designs", was the lack of a single artist to give the story shape, style and mood; here, a done-in-one annual, that's obviously not an issue).
Stokoe's version of the title character appears a couple of times. First, as a sort of nightmare version during Leslie's recounting of the murder of the Waynes (yes, we see that again, but Stokoe's version is unlike any of the other dozens we've seen, as he draws flocks of bats pouring out of the exit wounds of Bruce's parents as they are shot), and then these flocks of bats all seems coalesce into a giant figure made of bats, with glowing red eyes.
Batman appears briefly in two other scenes, talking to the other main characters. Stokoe's version of the character is a bit of a big, black triangle with two points at the top; he's all scalloped cloak, his mouth the only really human-looking part, and there's a suggestion of an armored helmet around his mask and cowl. His ears are pretty long too, somewhere between Breyfogle and Jones on the Sprang-Jones scale.
Finally, during the montage of Batman vs. Joker encounters, we see him in a few more superheroic poses, and Stokoe seems to give him a big, Dark Knight Returns-like build, but, again, he's mostly exaggerated cape and horn-like ears.
All in all, it's a take I quite like.
Stokoe's Joker is also pretty damn scary, centered on a smile that is just too damn big not only for his face, but for his own head, as if the mouth is from an entirely different, far larger person.
Tynion's plot construction is fairly simple. Leslie is walking to her clinic through Crime Alley one night, narrating about the area and Batman's origin—tiresome to many of us, perhaps, but necessary here, as Tynion is quite intentionally using it to parallel the origin of Clownhunter—and there she gets an unexpected, but not entirely unexpected, visitor.
This visitor is Clownhunter, a teenage vigilante who is more Punisher than Batman (dude even talks about punishment in one panel) and who kills Joker henchmen with his bat-bat, a razor-sharp Batagrang Batman once gifted him tied to the tip of a baseball bat.
Batman had given him Leslie's card, and he is there to get stitches and talk about the way the world doesn't seem to work, while recounting his origin.
He was a fairly ordinary teenager until Harley Quinn, The Joker and their gang come into his parents pho restaurant one night. At meal's end, The Joker kills them with Joker gas, and tosses a $100 bill to young Bao, telling him, "Parents just get in the way."
Batman visits Bao at the crime scene, and promises to stop The Joker, but in the intervening years, Bao grows resentful, watching Batman catch The Joker again and again, but never actually stopping him by killing him, or, as he tells Leslie, finding some way to lobotomize him or paralyze him or "just something."
When "The Joker War" storyline unfolds, and gangs of clowns terrorize Gotham while Batman is missing (I'm trade-waiting Batman, so this is the first I've read of the Joker War), and people in clown masks start killing his neighbors, Bao throws together a costume and goes out to murder a clown. And then he keeps doing it, although we only see the one killing here.
Leslie seems pretty chill about his confession to multiple murders, but their conversation about the nature of the world, the effectiveness of violence, and human beings' capacity to change is all pretty engaging stuff, and probably would have seemed quite insightful to a teenaged Caleb.
I have a few questions about the character still, including how on Earth he's so good at fighting, and why Batman and Leslie don't seem to be trying to get him help in the system given that he is, you know, a confessed serial-killer and both of them have objections to that sort of vigilante behavior, but maybe those explanations occurred in one of his other appearances I haven't caught up on yet. (As for the fighting, the first clown he kills, he basically sneaks up on and hits with his bat-bat before burning him alive with a his own Molotov cocktail. That's all fine and good. But, directly after that, he runs and leaps into a crowd of at least a half-dozen armed men and, well, killing whole gangs at once seems to require a bit more skill or training than playing violent video games, you know? Kid goes from zero to Punisher in the time it takes to turn a page).
But, those quibbles with the superhero story aside, this is a really beautifully rendered Batman comic, and one of the best-looking ones I've seen in a while. Here's hoping Stokoe gets to do more Batman work in the near future; I'd love to see him do something where he writes as well as draws, perhaps in an issue of Batman: Black and White or the upcoming Legends of the Dark Knight revival.
That's one of the two arcs included within, the other being writer Chuck Dixon and pencil artist Tom Lyle's "Shadow Box," a three-part direct sequel to their 1991 Robin miniseries, in which the villain King Snake is revealed to have survived his battle with Lady Shiva, and he and his lieutenant Lynx make a play for Gotham City's Chinatown.
That's a pretty interesting story to re-read now, considering just how many Batman comics Dixon would end up writing by the end of the decade, and it still holds up rather well, as does the late Lyle's artwork, inked by Andy Mushynsky and Scott Hanna.
"Idiot Root" is the more interesting of the two, though, in large part because of how wild it is; with it's sci-fi elements, it's like nothing else in this book...or most other Batman comics. Written by Peter Milligan (a few months ahead of his own short run on Batman) with alternating chapters penciled by Norm Breyfogle and Jim Aparo, it finds Batman chasing a brutal serial killer named The Queen of Hearts to Rio De Janeiro, and stumbling upon something far worse than a madwoman who removes hearts with a power drill.
A doctor experimenting with a local hallucinogenic root psychically connected four of his patients, inadvertently creating a fifth personality that calls itself The Idiot and exists in "The Idiot Zone," the "place" people visit when ingesting the root...or the drug derived from it that the doctor has created and is selling on the streets of the city.
If The Idiot can get strong enough, which it does by eating the minds of victims who have ingested the drug, he can cross over into the real world and become real himself, something he does at the climax, using the brains of people as portals, so that he bursts out of people's skulls (the comics are remarkably, even shockingly careful in their staging of these events, as Breyfogle and Aparo mostly draw reaction shots of those watching, the gore almost always appearing off-panel; I guess that's the difference between making comics that you can sell to kids in drug stores and making comics that only sell to adults in specialty shops. I am completely confident that the various instances of exploding heads would have been on-panel if this were being drawn today).
Aparo and Bryefogle are among the all-time greatest Batman artists, although their styles are so different that they're something of a poor fit for alternating chapters of a single story (Breyfogle, obviously, draws all the weirdest, trippiest shit, although I think Aparo's more realistic, staid art has the benefit of drawing attention to any divergence from reality affected by The Idiot's powers). I'm also kind of glad this story is in here, as the pair of them sort of establish a style range, and Lyle's Batman falls directly in the middle of the poles they represent.
The rest of the book consists of done-in-one stories from the Alan Grant and Norm Breyfogle team.
The first of these is "No More Heroes," which is set at Gotham amusement park Heroworld, where the Dynamic Duo chase a couple of desperate criminals; meanwhile, a would-be sniper has set up atop a giant cowboy statue with plans to kill the gang members who hooked his brother on drugs (as is so often the case with Grant's comics, drugs are the greatest villain in Gotham City). Though this stars both Batman and Robin, it's one of my favorite Robin stories, and is perfectly representative of what makes this creative team so special.
Inker Rick Buchett joins them for "Of Gods and Men," Batman's red-sky tie-in to War of the Gods, in which Batman and Robin attempt to recover a special chalice from Maxie Zeus at the behest of Wonder Woman; aside from a few mentions of her and the appearance of a supporting character of hers (Oh, and a harpy!), it's basically just another done-in-one (The harpy seems a relative rare instance of something super or supernatural intruding upon the Batman comics of the era; it's always really weird when they do).
Finally, there's "Requiem For a Killer," in which Batman tracks down the escaped Killer Croc, and finds him living fairly happily among a group of homeless people beneath the streets of Gotham. It's a pretty great "last" Killer Croc story, one of two I can think of, although of course it couldn't last, because what do you want, comics creators to create their own characters to use in their comics?
All in all, this was the best $30 I spent on comics this month, even though I've read most of them already, the Aparo-drawn portions of "Idiot Root" being the only parts I had never read before.
The cover credits are interesting. Peter Milligan gets the top credit, having written four issues to Grant and Dixon's three apiece. From there they move to artists, with Breyfogle being the obvious choice, having drawn a full half of the book, but Aparo penciled just two issues to Lyle's three, and yet he gets the third credit.
As is, this reads like a book that needed a stronger editorial voice whipping it into shape, narratively and visually, but, like I said, I suspect this was actually plotlines for another 12 issues or so all getting boiled down into whatever story beats Bendis and Walker could fit into the last half-dozen or so issues they had to wrap the series up.