Written by Tom King
Art by Mikel Janin and June Chung
Lettering by Clayton Cowles
Published by DC Comics
Review by Joey Edsall
‘Rama Rating: 8 out of 10
What has been perhaps most interesting about "The War of Jokes and Riddles" is that it has consistently managed to be both a treat for longtime fans of Batman and newer fans drawn to the undeniable momentum that writer Tom King has brought to the title. Batman #28 is no exception to that, and as the war rages on, King, Mikel Janin, and June Chung deliver another Batman issue overflowing with thematic strength, and which seems built on the idea of making every scene memorable in some way from a storytelling and artistic standpoint, although in the process it sacrifices a little of the narrative momentum that the first two issues had, while simultaneously eliciting a strong emotional reaction from the reader.
It’ll take about two pages to see what King is doing with the way that he presents his narrative in this issue. With panels showing Gordon either stripping to his briefs or putting on an orange jumpsuit and black hood, we see him escorted to the Joker and Riddler respectively. He then keeps this symmetrical sequential storytelling for a more tender scene between Batman and Catwoman before finally increasing the tension of it again with the Deathstroke/Deadshot sniper spectacular. As the two expert marksmen take aim at one another from across the city, we follow their respective first shots to the point where the two bullets collide. What follows is several panels of chaos detailing the five days that was the Battle of the Snipers.
What is interesting in these scenes is the way that King makes the deaths that happen feel important. Each day, lives are lost in the crossfire of the two villains. Some die due to a bomb that Deadshot set off, but most die to bullets between the two. Readers see citizens of Gotham running in fear, Batman trying to rescue people, and buildings on fire, but we don’t see a lot of actual confirmed death beyond maybe two civilians. All the while that this visual cacophony of violence is happening, King’s narration informs us of the lives lost each day. The way that we only see the periphery of the actual damage and actual loss of life, but are given such a clinical and matter of fact listing of the number of lives lost makes the entire issueic have a real emotional punch. You don’t just feel for Batman who is left playing catch-up, but for the casual citizen of Gotham as well. Think about that. When was the last time a comic book made you care about an average citizen in the city that was under the threat-of-the-arc? It’s a testament to just how emotional King’s writing can be, and the artists’ abilities to make that emotion resonate visually.
Unfortunately, this focus on duality comes at a cost. The style- and presentation- oriented nature of the story means that both the overall narrative of the arc and the story told in this particular issue are going to take a slight backseat to the greater significance that King is putting on what the story means. In short, what happens gets sacrificed for how important it is that things are happening.
There’s no clearer demonstration of this than the splash on the second-to-last page - a close-up of Batman shouting in anguish after having beaten Deathstroke and Deadshot to the point of injury. There is little doubt that the toll of lives lost during Deathstroke and Deadshot’s battle is weighing heavy on Bruce Wayne’s shoulders, nor is their doubt that he feels somewhat responsible as both the Joker and Riddler would call off their dogs if Batman had turned himself in. And the sheer weight of the situation, that Batman can’t do that because turning himself in to one means that the other either blows up several buildings or guns down civilians. It’s an impossible situation, but the splash does more to convey that this moment is important than showing readers what the moment is. The narration moves the plot to where it needs to be for the next issue to pick up, Mikel Janin’s art breaks with the expected style of the issue to let readers know that this is an important panel, June Chung’s colors become more highly stylized for the same reason, and Clayton Cowle’s letters are, for lack of a better word, as loud as the panel allows. The problem is that if this was such an important panel thematically as the art and layout suggests, why did the important plot development of the scene get relegated to some disconnected text boxes far on the right?
Janin’s art and Chung’s coloring rise to the occasion that King’s story gives them, illustrating the duality that King is playing with to tremendous effect by constantly mirroring panels, sometimes showing scenes playing out nearly identically, as with Gordon’s visit to the Joker and the Riddler, and sometimes showing mirrored panels with new contexts, such as Batman’s tryst with Catwoman. There are a few particularly interesting consequences of this. The first is that the mirrored Dutch angle panels, when paired, have an interesting balancing out effect. You don’t feel dizzy or annoyed like an abundance of Dutch angles ordinarily entail. Instead, the panels seem to lean against one another and it gives the full page a balanced, symmetrical look, which is really the last words you would think to use to describe a tilted-angle panel.
The second is the way that the art team plays with light in these scenes, with the aforementioned cowl-lovers’ scene being the perfect example of this. The scene jumps from Batman and Catwoman, fully in costume, to Bruce and Selina, mostly undressed. Each scene takes place at night, but the costumed version of the characters is well lit, as the more intimate moments without the costume are heavily shadowed, and honestly some of the best panels in the issue. From the art alone, there’s a lot to unpack, as the characters of Catwoman and Batman are so defined by their relationships with the night and how they move in the darkness, but whose actions are noticeably more high profile than those of Bruce Wayne or Selina Kyle, who despite being the characters daylight lives, are only shown in the night as cloaked in shadow.
A lesser comic book by a lesser writer would have been content to tread water in a very standard way to get from point A to point B. The third issue of an arc this size is not typically going to have the big, game-changing reveals, so King’s use of stylized storytelling instead gives readers a lot to mull over as they wait for part 4, while the art team does the same with panels that often go beyond their expectation. It may stall in places or rely on its structure more than its narrative, but at least that is indicative of a comic book trying to be unique, and when Batman #28 succeeds, it does so with aplomb. The war may be raging on, but this comic book makes every panel feel like a battle.