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Digital ComicsAlliance: ‘City of Crime’ Brings the Horror Back to Batman

Batmanology is usually the domain of Lord Christopher J. Sims, but hopefully he won’t mind if I step on his toes a little. This week, the 12-part Batman storyline City of Crime was released digitally (in the individual issues of Detective Comics 800-808 and 811-814) and there’s a solid chance that you missed this story the first time around. Written by David Lapham, drawn by Ramon Bachs, and colored by Jason Wright, City of Crime brought the horror back to Batman comics. Let’s take a quick trip down memory lane for this edition of Digital ComicsAlliance and look at one of my favorite Batman tales.

David Lapham made his name with Stray Bullets, a series that is only rivaled by Naoki Urasawa’s Monster for the ability to leave you tense and scared at the end of each issue. Lapham is a master at making the mundane horrific; he opened Stray Bullets.with an as-yet unidentified body in someone’s trunk, a mystery that became becomes more and more troubling with each issue, and ended on a cliffhanger for the ages.

Lapham knows how to scare you, is what I’m saying. He can put the fear of God into you when he really wants to. He bent those powers toward Batman for City of Crime, which opens with a three-panel summary of Batman’s origin and then it’s off to the races. Lapham’s Batman is meaner, scarier, and more of a spectre than Batman tends to be these days.

Batman barely appears in the first half of the first chapter, but his presence is definitely felt. Ramon Bachs draws the edges of Batman’s cape or the shadows of his gloves over the course of those pages, showing the Dark Knight through his actions without showing the man himself, before finally pulling out to a wide shot of Batman in his city. It’s an inspired choice on the part of the creative team, and it sets the stage for the rest of the arc. Batman is as much a part of his city as crime and supervillains, and he’s inescapable. He does what he wants, and you just better pray that you’re on the right side of the law.

City of Crime is similar in tone to Frank Miller’s hard-edged take in Dark Knight Returns, but there’s a wry humor present, too. Robin and Jim Gordon are present throughout the series, and Robin’s approach to heroism is drastically different from Batman’s. Robin feels like a kid sidekick, rather than a hyper-competent nerd, and it’s a great take. When he gets in over his head, he calls for help, rather than trying to tough it out.

When Batman spends too long inside a burning building, Robin grins, because he knows his boss knows what he’s doing… until Batman spends way too long inside a burning building, when finally gets worried about his boss, only to be proven wrong to worry in the very next panel. The Robin and Batman relationship is fun, and Robin actually feels like the brightness in Batman’s life, rather than just another soldier.

So what’s this series about? It’s about a lot of things. It’s about what happens when Batman gets obsessed. It’s about the little people of Gotham who get caught in the crossfire or start fires of their own. It’s about motherhood. It’s about innocence. It’s about free will. It’s about two heroes trying to stem the coming tide of evil by any means necessary. It’s about all the things that all good cape comics are about, and Lapham and Bachs slather the proceedings in terror.

Criminals are proven to be superstitious and cowardly. Heroes are overwhelmed and forced up against the wall. Innocents can’t escape from fates they don’t deserve. It’s a dark read, but never a dreary one. The horror is thrilling, like good horror should be.

But the hands-down best parts of City of Crime are when Batman is interacting with thugs and villains. He faces down hordes of villains to make a statement about his prowess. He cows Mr Freeze into giving up his plans. He brutalizes his way through Gotham’s underworld, and all of that ugliness is a joy to read. It’s Batman as mythic entity, someone who is bigger than his physical body and can strike terror like no one else.

Frank Miller perfectly explained what Batman is when he had him kick his legs back on a dashboard, cross his fingers behind his head, and say “Striking terror. Best part of the job.” Lapham’s Batman knows how to strike terror, and he does it in a way that not only makes you grin, but makes you think that he’s grinning on the inside, too. He’s too good at his job not to enjoy it.

The panels spread throughout this post are all from the first chapter of City of Crime. They’re part of just one of several scenes throughout the series where Batman is at his Batmannest. When you reach that point where Batman tells the thug “I’ll give you a pass. Because that’s what I do. Give passes” and the guy panics, you’ll know whether or not you’re in for this series. If that doesn’t do it, Batman emptying out a bar between a barkeep telling a joke and catching a breath will do it.

For my money, this is one of the best Batman tales ever.

Reading:
-Detective Comics 800, featuring a short story written and drawn by David Lapham
-Detective Comics 801-808, 811-814, the entire City of Crime arc

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