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Batman: Face The Face
James Robinson
Titan graphic novel £8.99

review by Jonathan McCalmont

One of the strangest aspects of the comics' world is the slavish devotion to the idea of continuity. Given that most of these characters have been around for decades, it is unavoidable that eventually someone will want to do something radical with an established character or maybe start that character's story again in order to play around with the mythology and place a different interpretation on a familiar idea. However, given that not all superhero stories are nicely self-contained books, and writers and artists change more frequently than product lines, it becomes necessary to have a system for dealing with continuity.

In the case of DC Comics, this system involves an almost impenetrable series of parallel universes where alternate versions of the same characters exist, thereby allowing writers to swap one version of a character they might inherit from the previous creative team for a version they'd prefer to work with. Rather than having to completely reset a character's timeline and therefore pull him out of synch they can effectively completely change a character without breaking verisimilitude and without having to go through the process of explaining why Superman is all of a sudden the way he was 15 years ago. Another interesting aspect of this system is that from time to time DC Comics effectively reboot the entire universe that the different comics share. This allows them kill off unsuccessful books, consolidate popular comics by making changes permanent and even reintroduce old characters as well as re-launch series with new interpretations of established characters. Unknown to most casual comic fans, DC Comics has recently carried out such a mass shake-up of its comics' line and Face The Face is their attempt at re-launching Batman.

Having spent a year away from Gotham city attempting to find himself, Batman returns to find Commissioner Gordon back in charge of the police department and a criminal underworld that has made the most of the Penguin's disappearance to reorganise itself. Accompanied by Robin, and aided by a human detective who can do Batman's legwork during the day, Batman starts to investigate the cold-blooded murder of a number of minor super villains. Having left Harvey Dent (who was once Two-Face) as protector of Gotham, Batman is horrified to learn that the evidence links his old friend with a strong of murders. Has Dent gone back to his old ways? Is someone trying to frame him? Who is trying to take over the Penguin's old empire?

Dark, moody and full of nice set pieces and visual flair, the artwork in Face The Face is nothing short of superb. The action is short and easy to follow and every frame positively oozes that dark oppressive atmosphere that makes Batman comics such great reads. The writing is also surprisingly good. James Robinson has a nicely discursive style and rather than portraying Batman as a lone violent sociopath, he makes great efforts to portray him as a world-class detective who doesn't just help the police arrest super villains but actually works on the nuts and bolts of cases with them too.

Robinson also attempts to humanise both Batman and the villains he fights by developing Batman's relationship with Robin (Batman winds up adopting Robin, prompting a very affectionate scene that goes some way to dispel the idea that 'ward' was a 1950s' euphemism for catamite), he also depicts the super powered underworld as if it were a real underworld. Rather than having a bunch of villains who appear out of nowhere and try to blow up things, there is a real pecking order with the villains funding their grandiose schemes through real criminal activity. All of these little twists combine to launch a Batman who is a detective first and a superhero second.

As nicely as this re-launch is handled, it's also quite noticeably risk averse. Indeed, apart from having Batman adopt Robin, there is nothing here that has not been seen a hundred times before. In fact, the idea of Batman as a detective has been pretty much the default interpretation of the character since the 1970s. The book also undermines this 'back to basics' ethic by having Batman continuously engage in fights with super-powered villains. Frankly, these fight scenes feel as if they have been forced into what would otherwise be a nicely written detective story. After reading this book, I could not help but wonder whether Robinson was forced to include those fight scenes as during one of them Batman carries on a mobile phone conversation about the book's main case. It is as if Robinson is saying, 'while you might be able to make my Batman fight costumed freaks, you can't make him care.' Indeed, it is a pity that Robinson is not allowed to play to his strengths and really create the Batman he wants to as this book suggests that Robinson has the writing ability to really make Batman the world's greatest detective.

An intelligent and entertaining read, Face The Face combines top quality artwork with a back-to-basics vision of Batman to lay the seeds for what could turn out to be an interesting run. However, the lack of a bold uncompromised vision or anything new makes this a solid rather than an excellent comic. Frustrating...
Batman: Face the Face

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