Written by Tom King
Art by Mikel Janín and June Chung
Lettered by Clayton Cowles
Published by DC Comics
Review by Matthew Sibley
‘Rama Rating: 9 out of 10
There’s a certain necessity when it comes to superheroes and secrets - they can’t just reveal their identity to just anyone. Normally this secret keeping extends further, to the point where they don’t tell their partners, whether in crime or in life, the deepest, darkest ones that they really should share. As Tom King’s Batman has progressed in its first year, Batman and Catwoman have found themselves circling the other and their relationship has developed in such a way that means they are now both partners in-crime and soon to be in-life. In order to progress, Bruce has derived that he must tell her what happened following "Zero Year" in what’s become known as "The War of Jokes and Riddles."
Framed by Bruce’s narration from the present day, this epic takes place one year after "Zero Year," in which time the Riddler has been jailed, with some of the Gotham City Police Department using him as an aid for crimes they cannot solve and in that vacuum - and the Joker gradually gaining a reputation for depravity. Despite being an anniversary issue, this is surprisingly light on Batman himself, save for the narration, he appears in a single scene. Instead this issue is more of a potboiler, focusing on the impending moments before the war and the key players that constitute the heads of both sides.
King treats this as a dual-focus narrative, cutting expertly from one to the other as they gradually converge. While not isolated vignettes, these scenes can stand alone. There’s a recurrent sinking feeling as the Riddler provides the answer to a scene or the Joker reaches his punchline, built up and made more powerful as they start to stack up and begs the question: if this is just the beginning, how much more sinister is this going to get? Each tells its own story, but all together, the conflict is evident. It’s as if the Riddler and the Joker are fighting it out for space in the issue to show how they can be much worse than the other.
Despite how ugly it looks like this story is going to get for the characters involved, the strength of the creative team means it’s sure to look pretty. This issue succeeds in showing how comics have been missing out on Mikel Janín’s pencils in the time since "I Am Suicide." The bulk of this issue might take place in the criminal underworld, but Janín gives it an appropriate level of grime while still turning in remarkably clean pages. Rarely, if at all, does it seem like he’s overstuffed his pages or gone the other way, aiming for empty spectacle, highlighting the strength of this collaboration between King and Janín. Their timing of beats is pitch-perfect from the first scene, three pages where the dynamic changes on each one.A later page has a set of four panels involving the Joker and a car where it goes badly for the driver. This strip-style set-up doesn’t waste a moment and the larger scene itself allows for the horror to be taken in, only to then reveal there’s more to the scene.
When the war breaks out, it’s certain to be a tumultuous time for Gotham and Janín shows a diverse slice of it already affected. With colorist June Chung, they handle a daytime scene with a sense of coolness in the air, while a later spread is breath-taking to behold because of how open the space is. Rather than get in close with the characters, the trio treat it like a Western standoff emphasizing how these characters are fighting on specific terrain, a wholly unique city, a sentiment which cannot be conveyed in medium-length shots and close-ups, but boy, do they shine those moments as well.
Batman #25's first panel is one of a set of eyes, and the fear present in them is instantly identifiable even as Janín pulls back until they can barely be seen. This links to the way that pair work with darkness as shadows frequently obscure parts of faces, while still outlining the characters. Even when it’s the eyes that are obscured that fear comes across in the composure of the characters like the way they grit their teeth.
It’s interesting in a run that has taken every opportunity to push forward, that the creative team have chosen to jump back, but it’s perhaps because this is only chance Batman and Catwoman have for this tale. To get it out in the open means the cards are laid out on the table and they can move on from that. To wait any longer is to harbor a secret, which would be at odds with the prior events of the run dealing with being open about who they are.
With that in mind, this becomes a tone-setting issue, much like Batman: Rebirth a year ago. It establishes the major players involved and the mood of the piece in a very controlled manner. This might be Bruce telling Selina about an event in the past, but it doesn’t feel like a mere flashback to fill time, there’s a sense of deescalation, subsequent escalation and gravitas to the proceedings. When the Riddler and The Joker finally meet, their encounter is dialogue heavy, but it moves quickly. A later page offers promises of encounters to come and a sense of foreboding, of a story that needs to be told, but not one that Selina may want to hear. It looks like chaos is about to be king in Gotham, but King, Janín, Chung, and Clayton Cowles are decidedly in control of this story.