Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo’s Batman #17 came out this week, concluding their ‘Death of the Family’ storyline to universal approval from reviewers. But in all the rush to celebrate and praise, there’s been precious little evaluation of the book itself — many of the reviews, in fact, read more like a pre-emptive defense of the issue than an objective look at the story, writing, and artwork. In that regard, I offer a second opinion.
Which isn’t just my way of saying “everybody else is wrong and the issue isn’t good”! Promise. There’s good and bad here, and it simply feels like a shame that nobody seems interested in discussing both when they review the issue.
Although there are some big, jarring problems in the narrative and storytelling, the issue itself is generally fine. The collaboration between Snyder and Capullo remains the key selling point of the series (besides, well… the fact it’s Batman), with the pair working together to fill each page with startling and resonant sequences, pages and images. Capullo’s artwork remains utterly reliable, even after drawing 16 issues in 17 months. His work is key in getting across some of the stranger leaps in faith required of the reader, and he manages to give proceedings a low-key sense of the cinematic – helped by Jonathan Glapion’s work, his art flows flawlessly round the page, but without the need for big splashy experimentation.
In terms of the writing, Snyder takes in the new characters brought into the arc (Batgirl, Red Hood, and so on) well, writing them within character but to breaking point – not an easy take. He particularly shows off a keen grasp on Damian Wayne for a brief, memorable panel, which I shan’t spoil here. Regardless, it’s rather touching, and Snyder uses the supporting cast to expand Bruce Wayne’s heart a few tough millimetres. This is a softer version of Bruce Wayne than seen usually, more tense and emotionally affected than writers usually chose to portray him. It gives the character somewhere new to develop, and creates most of the tension in this pulse-racing story.
But, yes, there are some major problems in the overall narrative itself, which weakens this individual issue. While Snyder does manage to give meaning and depth to most of the cast, he weakens in one of the most important areas — The Joker himself. After five issues or so in which we’ve been told the Joker has a mean plan, we’re let down massively by the big reveal here, which is limp and uninspired. Rather than anything daring or dangerous, this Joker feels rather neutered, like somebody who is pretending to be crazy rather than somebody who is genuinely unpredictable and dangerous. This is the safest version of the Joker seen in a long time.
Which robs the threat away from the issue, defanging the story. Damningly, the act which creates the ‘death’ of the family occurs off-panel in this issue, with only vague hints that Snyder will ever return to reveal what Joker did, exactly. This is not a complete story. We won’t know what happened until a year from now, if then — and this is especially evident when you read the story as a whole. Granted this is nothing new in serial storytelling, but previous issues promised a real sting in the tale, and the decision to keep that sting a mystery… well, it takes away the entire point of the story.
On top of that, much of the issue is based in telling interesting lies which are then whipped away, to form fairly boring reveals. Time and time again Snyder promises to do something exciting and surprising, only to reverse himself at the last minute and celebrate the traditional status quo. I wasn’t hoping for a story where Joker, y’know, actually murders everybody, but it’s a frustrating read to see so many promising ideas be so quickly thrown away. This is especially true towards the end, with the last few pages dedicated to restablishing everything back to status quo, with none of the characters particularly changed or developed from the story.
This has been a far too reverent storyline, overall. Rather than a progression or acceleration of the Batman myth, Death of the Family has homaged a lot of great stories without ever aspiring beyond them. There’s some of Ed Brubaker’s tone, traces of Alan Moore’s brutality, and heaps of Grant Morrison’s character tics. But there’s nothing of Scott Snyder in here. Whereas Grant Morrison’s Joker used his sexuality to unnerve Batman in Arkham Asylum, Scott Snyder’s Joker comes across more as a symbol of gay panic. Readers were expected to dislike the character simply because he treats Batman like his husband. It continues Morrison’s work in a way which acts to the detriment of the characters — homage without forward progression.
Batman #17 highlights a narrative which planned for a lot of things to happen, but then simultaneously rips them out of the air. Events were set up and put into motion which then did not result in exciting or surprising payoffs, with each ‘punchline’ (I am not strong-willed enough to avoid this metaphor, sorry!) whimpering like a bomb-filled lion cub. There are an abundance of ideas here, and the general concept is solid – but the vague nature of the narrative pulls every punch it can, despite Snyder’s best attempts, and the character work is weaker as a result. The Joker, in particular, now feels more devalued than ever before.
The issue reads… fine. And the story as whole reads… fine. But it could have been SPECTACULAR. And despite the slew of 10/10 awards being given out, Death of the Family simply didn’t prove to be anything more than just another Joker story.