Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Detective Comics Annual #11

Rich children are going missing in Gotham City, and as always the responsibility of their safe return has fallen to Batman and the Boy Wonder. Sending Robin undercover as one of the spoiled brats in question, Dick had hoped for an easy avenue directly into the villainous kidnappers' lair, but his plans didn't unfold without a hitch. When Robin was taken captive, the electronic beacon he was carrying went AWOL. Now his sidekick is trapped in the line of fire and time's running out for the Batman to make another of his famous last-second rescues.

It's been a while since I've heard from Fabian Nicieza. I know he's been back on the scene for a few years, but I haven't been particularly motivated to check out any of his new work. If this issue is any example of how he's been keeping himself occupied, though, I'm happy to have kept my distance. His work with the X-Men in the early ‘90s was, at the time, some of my favorite stuff, but my tastes have changed since then while his writing has stood perfectly still. This issue offers a plethora of dated, overused concepts, weak dialog, one-dimensional characters and confusing plot devices.

The cast may be wearing the wardrobe of Batman and Robin, but they're every bit as faceless and interchangeable as the supporting cast of Xavier's mansion was fifteen years ago. What small characterization Nicieza feels compelled to include usually comes in the form of a short sentence, affirming the character's secret identity or loosely alluding to a single, identifiable personality trait without offering any new introspection. Amon, the issue's primary villain, is as lukewarm as they come. I don't understand why the ritualized sacrifice of a cluster of wealthy children necessitates a larger-than-life raven's mask and a stegosaurus tail, or why he calls everybody “meat,” but somehow I think I'm better off remaining ignorant. This roster of heroes is trying with every fiber of its being to simply tread water, but they can't even manage to do that without getting their feet tangled and slipping under the surface.

Tom Mandrake's filthy art direction sets an appropriately dark mood, but I couldn't stop seeing similarities to Darrick Robertson. His gritty but cartoony general approach is mostly to blame for that, but his shady choice of scenery and the throngs of dirty, over-rendered sleazeballs wandering the streets don't hurt. The similarities are there, but Mandrake doesn't always benefit from them. One thing Robertson brings to the table that's missing from Detective Annual #11 is constant visual stimulation, often paired with a dirty, appropriate sense of humor. I may not always like his compositions, but I'd be remiss to neglect the hearty helping of personality and liveliness that Robertson brings along with every outing. Mandrake's work misses that entirely. His scenery is technically OK, but it's usually lacking that certain undefined element that helps bring the page to life. His panel choices are often dull and unremarkable, following the narration but refusing to elaborate. He offers a fair enough take on both the Question and Azrael, but his Batman is iffy – Bats is excessively blocky, stiff and postured, like a plastic-molded action figure.

I really can't endorse this. Although the Batman family has been home to some pretty decent storytelling lately, Detective Comics Annual shouldn't be associated with it. This issue features an empty plot, bland characterization, dreadful dialog and generic, B-list artwork. It offers nothing new and accomplishes little. Skip it and focus on the monthlies.

On a scale of 1 to 10, where 1 is poor and 10 is amazing...
Overall Score: 3

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