Monday, February 1, 2010

Batman: Streets of Gotham #8

Amidst the constant super powered distractions, the death of Bruce Wayne, the hunt for his allegedly reanimated corpse and the revival of most of the DC Universe's dead heroes and villains in Blackest Night, it seems like ages since we were reminded that Batman is, first and foremost, a detective. That's a blemish DC aims to zap away with Batman: Streets of Gotham, a moody return to form for the caped crusader that concentrates more on the human element of crime in Gotham City and less on the garishly-garbed creatures who inhabit Arkham Asylum.

Stepping in temporarily for Paul Dini, writer Mike Benson brings a surprisingly firm grip to this series. Benson seems to know what makes Batman tick in a classical sense more than a large percentage of the hero's regular creative team. After years of elevated activities amongst the heroic elite, it's surprisingly relaxing to see Bats slumming it in the alleyways, conversing with his pedestrian sources and trying to get to the bottom of the mystery surrounding a nameless, faceless vigilante killer. Fortunately enough, that's where Benson does his best work.

The real focal point of this issue is in the dialog Batman shares, both with Commissioner Gordon and with the stream of seedy informants outside bars and strip clubs in the unfriendly corridors that line his city's limits. Benson doesn't dance around the issue: he gets Batman in and out efficiently, but doesn't sacrifice a few shreds of character development or personal insight along the way. Dick's little chats get right to the point without feeling overly concise or bland, and remind us on more than one occasion that there's a different guy under the cowl than we've seen for all these years. He's still doing an impersonation, and while the layman probably wouldn't know the difference, the character's more dedicated readers should be able to see Benson's little nods and nudges for what they are.

Dustin Nguyen's thickly shadowed, jagged-edged artwork gives Streets of Gotham an immediate identity. Throwing back to an era when noir was more a way of life, Nguyen's work is rich in character and long on atmosphere, a tight fit for the more civilian nature of the story. Like many detective films from the '40s and '50s, Nguyen deals in sharp contrast first and foremost, often leaving very little gray area in his compositions. In this instance, it works for him grandly. Not all characters would benefit from the attention of such a harsh light, but Batman absolutely thrives on it. The majority of his visual history demands a firm understanding of the importance of shadow, and in this area Nguyen is a modern master with an assist from John Kalisz's efficient, muted color palette. On one or two instances, Kalisz exhales and turns in a brightly colored page, which only serves to highlight just how critical the desaturated tones he brings to the rest of the issue really are. The artwork just doesn't look right alongside the energy that accompanies a full spectrum.

I'll be frank: this two-issue mini arc probably isn't going to be of much consequence in the long run. It's just Batman returning to the roots of his identity, doing what he does best in the shadows without throwing any punches unless they're absolutely necessary. Next to the search for Bruce Wayne or the identity of the domino mastermind, this may not seem like much, but it's absolutely necessary. Every single arc can't be an epic, and to tell you the truth I'm generally much happier with those that aren't. Streets of Gotham doesn't aspire to be more than it is, and that allows it to really hunker down and deliver a damn fine detective yarn. Borrow it and enjoy.

On a scale of 1 to 10, where 1 is poor and 10 is amazing...
Overall Score: 8

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