For this edition of Chad Reads Things, I wanted to highlight an issue that’s currently on the stands at your local comic shop that otherwise could very easily be overlooked: Batman Annual #4.
Here’s the basics:
Writer: Tom King
Artist: Jorge Fornes (pages 1-29, 38)
Artist: Mike Norton (30-37)
Colorist: Dave Stewart
Letterer: Clayton Cowles
$4.99 From DC Comics
This is the second week in a row I’m checking out the work of Dave Stewart and Clayton Cowles. Those guys must know what they’re doing!
If rumors are to be believed, this issue is the last issue that Tom King scripted on the main Batman book before being shuttled off to finish his story in a side series called Batman and Catwoman. I can neither confirm or deny that statement, but I will say this issue serves as a solid coda on Batman from King, who has been writing the Batman book (minus a few fill-ins) for the last 82 issues since Rebirth.
Here, King offers his commentary via Alfred on how Batman works, and then he has fun diving into all the stuff that makes Batman …Batman.
There are some writers that ‘get’ a character the same way I do, and there are others who don’t. Tom King’s run on Batman has been divisive amongst fans, with many bemoaning his pacing or takes on the characters. I get that. Around the Ghosts of the Stratosphere offices, I famously railed against Dan Slott’s decade-plus run on Spider-Man, not because his work wasn’t of professional quality, but because it wasn’t what I wanted. He had a different Peter Parker in his head than I did. Peter declaring “No one dies” or becoming a billionaire industrialist didn’t jive with my personal head-cannon version of the character. For lots of other folks, Slott’s run worked, and they enjoyed it. I just bided my time and waited for what I hoped would be a better replacement. That’s not to denigrate Slott as a person, as I’ve liked some of his other work immensely. His Spidey just wasn’t for me. And it frustratingly kept going and going and going. Several Batfans have been doing that with King, waiting for him to hand over the reigns of one of their favorite characters. My reaction to King’s Batman is the equal but opposite of Slott’s Spidey. I feel like he does have a grasp on the character and his universe, that the story he’s telling is simultaneously complex and layered, as well as occasionally silly, but always full of life.
Previously, King’s “Double Date” issue (#37) with Bruce and Selina doubling with Clark Kent and Lois Lane held the crown of one of my favorite single issues with gems like this as Superman and Batman swapped costumes for story reasons.
Superman: “The S stands for hope.”
Batman” The bat stands for a bat.”
Hilarious! That story as well as the annual story involving Ace the Bathound’s secret origin had previously been highlights of King’s spectacular run on the book. Add this book to that list, and hand it the title for “Best Single Issue I’ve Read In a While.”
What makes this book so great from a story perspective? It’s got a taste of everything. There are two basic parts to this story. In the first part,
Batman rides a horse.
Batman slays a dragon.
Batman fights an MMA match.
Batman solves a mystery.
Batman consoles a lady friend.
Batman catches a train and puts on a fake moustache.
Batman steps into a Steve Ditko’s Dr. Strange-esq astral-plane-style situation.
Batman handles it all because Batman is Batman.
In the second, there are far too many situations to list. Each panel of the 9 page story highlights one moment per day. The first page is one panel, the second page 2, and each page increases the panel count with the varying days of Batman. One day he’s fighting Kalibak, the next he’s skiing through frozen Gotham. Then he’s in space fixing a communications satellite. The next day he’s riding a Triceratops.
Each panel highlights how Batman is Batman, showing his range from traveling into space or consoling a friend or helping an old lady cross the street.
But that’s what makes Batman what he is. He’s not a man man without fear, he’s just able to overcome his fears because someone needs to. He’s constantly preparing for any varied situation, but he’s not going to hesitate to dive in if the situation warrants it. “Preparation is purpose” King writes through Alfred channeling Bruce, “But preparation can also be paralysis.” Sometimes you have to just jump in and slay that dragon, metaphorical or otherwise.
King’s Dark Knight focuses on the Knight portion of the character, but he never forgets that Batman is a person, which sometimes works for or against the character. Regardless, Batman always is Batman.
Let’s talk about the art for a moment. Jorge Fornes’s art style is mostly David Mazuchelli mixed with a dash of Franchesco Francavilla and a whole lotta awesome. My first instinct when seeing his art was “this guy’s just aping one of the greats!” Heck, here they even ape the cursive lettering style from Batman: Year One for the purpose of Alfred’s diary. But Fornes keeps doing it, and doing it really well. And that particular great (Mazuchelli) doesn’t make many super hero comics any more. Aaaaaand Fornes is popping up in Maz’s old haunts, particularly Batman and Daredevil, and bringing it each time out.
It’s so good, I can’t reasonably consider it derivative, or if it is, I don’t care. I will happily take a Fornes book over most other artists working today. He delivers here, just like he’s been delivering in comics since he popped up out of nowhere a few years back.
The second story by Mike Norton is pretty awesome as well. I will say that I’ve seen art from Norton I’ve enjoyed more; however, he fully commits to the bit here. Each panel he produces adds to the fun and zaniness and just plain old Silver-Age awesomeness of Batman. Whereas the Fornes vignettes had an opportunity for more depth, Norton has the opportunity to show Batman wearing a lab coat.
His work doesn’t skimp on the character; it’s an inch deep and miles wide, so to speak. The grimaces, the tenacity, the “I guess I’m on a dinosaur today,” all contribute just as much to what makes Batman what he is. Norton gets to take on Batman the Knight, Batman the Vampire Slayer, Batman in Space…a lot of Batman. Not all the Batman, though, as Bats is all this an so much more. The Bat stands for a Bat after all. He doesn’t have time for metaphors, he’s got to get ready to slay the next dragon.
Do yourself a favor and pick up Batman Annual #4. Don’t skip it because it’s an Annual, a dollar more than a regular book, or not important to the next big crossover event. It’s double the page count and still barely manages to contain the awesomeness that’s inside. King’s story hits all the right notes; Fornes’s art is a treasure; and Norton leans heavily into the fun as he explores a unique approach that you can only do with comic books.
Until next time, I’ll be on the lookout fo they next book to take the belt of “Best Single Issue I’ve Read in a While!”