Reviewer: Kevin S. Mahoney
Story Title: City of Crime Part 11: Place of Fear
Written by: David Lapham
Penciled by: Ramon Bachs
Inked by: Nathan Massengill
Colored by: Jason Wright
Lettered by: Jared K. Fletcher
Editor: Bob Schreck
Publisher: DC Comics
The City of Crime storyline is very different from any other tale in any other Bat-title currently published. For starters, the story is twelve issues long. Next, the events all take place prior to the most recent Batman crossover, War Games. Thus, the story cannot interact with any other title (except perhaps in ret-con?), and must stand on its own in spite of being set in the DCU’s recent past. The change in timeline has certain strengths and weaknesses. Cast members who have been killed or written out in the last few months/years can reappear. On the other hand, more modern events (like both Identity Crisis & Infinite Crisis) haven’t happened yet, so a reader intent on observing Gotham under its newest stressors would be quite disappointed. The story itself also veers wildly away from most Batman conventions in terms of its villains, plot obstacles, and themes. The City of Crime does so much so differently, it requires a lot of patience and benefit of the readers’ doubt. The success or failure of this arc might rest not on the plot, characters, mood, or even its resolution, but instead on how many readers are willing to try and stick with such an unusual story.
This particularly issue is interesting, if very cryptic. The Dark Knight is hot on the trail of The Body, the occult organization slowly wresting control of the city. While the detective investigates, the city flails in the grip of hallucinations. These visions of latent fears produce their own odd conflict. Commissioner Gordon, for example, almost shoots a petrified hospital patient thinking him the Joker. Batman is not immune to these citywide terrors; he’s literally haunted by a missing girl though it won’t hamper his investigations any. Meanwhile, The Body and its/his minions seem to be declaring open warfare against the Bat using the chaos as a cover. The plot flows steadily forward without jumping around, which is commendable, but even given that it is difficult to see how the many separate events interrelate, if at all. That’s a major weakness for a penultimate issue.
The mood and accoutrements of this arc are extremely odd, and that’s as off-putting as much as it is a selling point. The idea of Gotham finally out of any kind of civilian control is intriguing; not even No Man’s Land resulted in the breakdown Gotham is now experiencing. No one can be trusted because no one’s senses can be trusted. On the other hand, The Body seems to have little agenda besides ruling the city through its manipulations and faceless agents. That’s a bad weakness from a character standpoint, if only because the amount of pages invested in this tale requires a vibrant and motivated evildoer. The internal narration also seems a mixed blessing. Batman’s thinking reads just as a driven, intelligent, and suspicious mind should. The fragmented thoughts of Norman Steiner as well as the omniscient narrator (who refers oddly to Batman in the third person) are difficult to follow, and while that adds to the tale’s conspiracy flavor, it undermines the events through excessive obfuscation.
The art in this issue is as flawed a success as the story. The settings are brilliant. The spires of Gotham, the sepulchers of the underground, the agents of The Body, are all well rendered and evocative. The Dark Knight is neither blandly drawn nor over stylized. On the other hand, the civilians and most notably Robin look incredibly “off”. There isn’t anything specifically wrong with their depictions necessarily, they just seem to look sloppy and contrary to their established nature. It’s not enough to ruin the remainder of the story, but it’s certainly enough to pull the reader out of the book. Combine those pencils with heavy inking and a heavy reliance on earth tones for color, and the art receives a very weak passing grade.