Detective Comics continues to be at it’s very best when the focus turns heavily to the characters themselves, while also realistically tackling some very big hard to solve issues. This is hands down one of the best stand-alone (sort of) issues of a Batman-related comic over the years, as it’s solid and gorgeous and memorable on so many levels.
Social/political issues and comic books (and all forms of art really) have gone hand in hand since the very beginning. While there have been a great number of comics that have hammered or tackled certain issues wonderfully, there are tons more that either only halfway pulled them off or others that crashed and burned from the start. Often the issue is that these forms of entertainment try to soft-peddle the issues and give things a happy ending.
This is definitely not the case when it comes to Detective Comics 2021 Annual #1.
Batman and the rest of the Bat-family have been working hard for many years to deal with injustice and crime within the borders of Gotham City. It’s a city that is broken and corrupt from its very core in some ways, the slew of evil/bad coming from the city seeming to be never-ending. Here, Mariko Tamaki and Matthew Rosenberg aim their story at the very clear inherent flaws of not just Arkham Asylum and Gotham City but society as a whole when it comes to those that slip through the cracks, and the entire criminal justice/prison system.
What makes their version work so much more than some others that try to tackle the topic is that it’s messy and realistic and doesn’t shy away from the fact that this is not an issue that can easily be solved. At the same time, it beautifully and accurately places Nightwing as the voice of reason and the one that realizes the flaws of the system and knows that something new needs to be done. This is paired with the fact that the writers very much allow Batman to not only be wrong but be somewhat of a jerk about it before coming to the correct conclusion that his son is right in this matter, and he tries to do better.
Bruce and Dick have long been set up to represent two different ways of doing things, more often than not one of them representing the old established ways and the other representing the idea that things are always changing and should change. Everything about this story just works, and while it has bits tied to stories that are still to come it feels like a stand-alone story in the best ways.
Tying the present-day case to something from Bruce’s past, was a great one. Not only does it create a connection for the characters from the start, but it also shows us parts of why Bruce got the way that he is overall. Also, more time to see Thomas Wayne passing down good lessons to his son (one that he remembers thanks to Dick) is always welcome.
Tamaki is the regular writer of this book and as noted in the review of the last regular issue of the book, character work is just truly one of her strongest skills. That doesn’t change with Rosenberg joining her for an issue, as this is a character-heavy story with an old-school Batman and Robin-style adventure acting as its partner.
David Lapham’s artwork just works perfectly for this story, as it’s so clean and detailed and allows the emotion and facial/body language to stand out even more. There is no jarring type transition between more wholesome pages and ones that are more horrific or sad, all of it just flowing together as smoothly as the ice cream young Bruce is chowing down on at the beginning. A lot of his work and paneling allows for a great number of close-up shots of varying degrees, which is a great companion when one is telling a very heavily character-focused story.
That being said, there are tons of shots of the city proper or the sewers or other settings that are wonderfully detailed and beautiful in their own ways. The best art feels alive like it could leap off the page, and this is what you get with Lapham’s art.
Tackling the colors is Trish Mulvihill and Lee Loughridge, who match that same bright but also dark energy that Lapham is putting off. One would think that having such bright poppy colors as the start during the young Bruce moment would feel off with the other horrific moments of that scene, yet it doesn’t. In fact, the colors being so bright and fun actually amplify the horrific feeling of what is happening. Because it feels more realistic, that unfortunately, a bright shiny day can take a turn at any point because it’s out of our control.
As the issue progresses the colors take on darker tones and the shadows increase, bringing out the gritty and street and horror sort of vibes that are usually part of the best Batman-related stories. There are also many pages where the colors come to that happy middle ground, especially when we’re given looks at the characters and Gotham itself in a light that makes them less scary and more just a city full of people trying their best in a system that is flawed to the core.
Beginning with this annual, the series is gaining a brand new letterer in the form of Ariana Maher who is truly one of the best around right now. Maher has been picking up bigger and bigger assignments across Marvel and DC, and this book is just perfect for her. There is a ton of energy and care and variety that Maher puts into all of her work and it fits perfectly with the art of this book in particular but just with the overall vibe of this series since Tamaki took over alongside Dan Mora and Jordie Bellaire.
A lot of that fun and variety can be seen through the SFX that fills the pages, it all feels similar but also wholly unique, but also heavily within the rest of the lettering. There are changes to the balloon styles and fonts for various characters, making their dialogue stand out and feel unique to them and their personality compared to other characters. Even during some of the extreme close-ups, the captions and dialogue are placed perfectly so that they are prevalent but never take up too much space or overlap the artwork too much.
Detective Comics 2021 Annual #1 is now on sale in print and digitally from DC Comics.