Collecting Detective Comics 800-808, 811-814, this 287 page tome is something to really sink your teeth into. I read this not too long after reading the War Games epic which ran across all the Bat Universe titles, and found a world of difference between the two. Lapham’s thriller is much more cohesive than the sprawling chaos of War Games, perhaps rightly so, considering it’s coming from a single writer of a single comic. While appearing in the issues shortly after Ed Brubaker’s epic, the chronological time for this story is unknown. There are no cues saying whether it took place before or after, but the previous event is never mentioned that I could find. Robin is definitely Tim Drake, Akins is the police commissioner. Beyond that, it could really take place any time.
The title is apt: this is as much a story about Gotham as it is about Batman, maybe moreso. A beautiful gothic Gotham, beautiful like the wings of insect seen close up, a stinging, poisonous insect. Ever since Tim Burton’s film, Gotham has been almost universially represented like something out of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, ironically enough, whereas Ramon Bachs give his Gotham a warmer feel. It’s the warmth of fresh blood, however, oozing from a slit throat. The first issue in the collection sets this tone, taking you on a journey through Gotham at night, a madman’s tour, pointing out the garishly painted masterpiece of a city. The price of admission is just a small bit of your soul. This is very much a prelude to the rest of the collection, lasting only 8 pages. This was originally a back up story, with the bulk of the issue having a War Games epilogue, but this collection only reprints this one.
Lapham has set the stage, and issue 811 contains the overture. Batman is seen sparingly, more hinted at, while Gotham’s residents go about their violent, unpleasant lives. Even the routine takes on a sinister cast when it occurs in Gotham. And the passing shadow in the gloom, preventing a domestic altercation with a thrown batarang, shows that Batman is there, even when not seen. He is an offspring of this city, but this parent does its best to reject its child, in much the same way as creatures in the wild attempt to consume their young. The characters start coming into play as the issue continues, lining up like a length of fuse, waiting for the spark to set them off, consuming each in turn just before the explosion that you know is coming.
The successive issues extend the plot, bringing in a few classic Batman villains, and hinting at a mastermind. There is much that is gruesome in this arc, and Lapham doesn’t shy away from the adult themes. Batman’s prime motivation in this story stems from an encounter with a Lolita-esque girl and his rejection of her advances. A run-of-the-mill tragedy in Gotham explodes into an atrocity to shake the city apart. We have an interlude in the action in issue 807 as a new act begins, and we focus on a specific neighbourhood. A magnifying glass is held up to a map of Gotham and we see this stretch of streets in detail, from the decaying dog in the gutter to the decaying crones gossiping on the stoop. Bachs’s art is glorious in its grotesquery, where we literally see all the warts. We also get to see Batman in a role that he seems so rarely used for anymore: being a detective. We see him almost as much out of costume as in it. The action ramps back up again for the rest of the arc, until the concluding battle royale.
This story worked in so many ways, compelling to me to keep reading far after I should’ve put it down for the night. It was nearly a compulsion to see what happened next, something that I haven’t found in comics as much lately. I can see where some might be frustrated with some of the convolutions that the story goes through, but it kept me riveted. I want to seek out Lapham’s other works to compare, see what he does with his own stories. The detail of the art kept me looking at panels over and over, picking up new things and little easter eggs with each new look. The muted colour palette fit in well with the noir revival setting, although it may have appeared differently in the single issues, as the trade used newsprint. I assume the single issues used the standard glossier paper, but the pulpiness of this story almost cries out for newsprint. The panels are on a black background, but a yellowing of aged newsprint wouldn’t feel out of place with these comics.
As I said, the chronology of this story isn’t pinned down, but in a real world context, Infinite Crisis is in swing, Jason Todd has reappeared as the Red Hood in the Batman comics, and One Year Later will start in just a few issues. The self-contained aspect of this story lets it exist on its own, outside of all of the continuity laden events going on in the rest of the DC Universe. No special knowledge, no real history lessons are needed here.