After getting sidetracked (as books almost always do) by a multi-title event, it’s good to see writer Tom King and artist Mikel Janin back on track with Batman #9. It’s a crackerjack of a set-up issue that finds Batman recruiting some of his most unbalanced enemies for a Suicide Squad-type mission on behalf of Amanda Waller. But Batman clearly has his own reasons and objectives for this mission. What makes the issue so enjoyable is the lean efficiency of King’s writing, which effectively elevates tension and suspense as Batman prowls through Arkham with Jim Gordon and Dr. Arkham, selecting his team.
The idea of Batman being forced to work with a team of his villains has almost certainly been utilized before. But King manages to keep things feeling fresh and tense as we see faces old and new (at least new to the post-Rebirth or New 52 DC anyway) pop up to be member son Batman’s own Suicide Squad. But King could have made this nothing more than a copy of the first scene of “The Dirty Dozen,” if not for touches of mood and atmosphere throughout that keep Batman #9 as moody and sinister as possible. There’s a leanness and meanness to the scenes where Batman cooly recruits his team that is juxtaposed with moments where the inmates display their various psychoses and even creepier moments focusing on the team’s ostensible target, Bane.
I’ll be honest. I kind of hate Bane. He’s just never been as interesting to me as everybody clearly wants him to be. Yes, he broke Batman’s back two decades ago, but to me he’s never had that kind of effortless menace that better villains such as the Joker or Two-Face or even the modern Calendar Man had. he always feels as if he’s trying hard to be imposing, even in “The Dark Knight Rises.” But King, who has already shown a great talent for injecting sinister and unsettling weirdness into super-hero books (please, please, please read his “Vision” series for Marvel, which is genius) finally made Bane click for me in just five creepy, unsettling and compelling pages.
King’s writing is kind of a text book example of the opening act of this kind of “troops on a mission” story. He gives Batman a clear and vital intention in his opening scene, then sets about introducing characters he has to rely upon but absolutely cannot trust, thereby establishing one of his obstacles. Batman is resolutely driven here, single-minded in a way that could wind up forcing him to cross some lines he hasn’t before, and that’s also set up well. King even provides one heck of a good and intriguing cliffhanger that serves to kick you into the next issue with energy. When you combine the Batman/Arkham scenes with the Bane scenes, you get a great issue the feels like the opening salvo in a dark and suspenseful action film.
So much of the success of the issue comes from Mikel Janin’s great work on art. If you want to be a good Batman artist, you have have a handle on atmosphere. That doesn’t mean just evoking a noir sensibility, though. Anyone can make things shadowy. It’s knowing when to accentuate Batman’s noir aspects vs his action aspects vs his more grounded aspects. Janin actually eschews a gothic, grimy aesthetic for Arkham, maintaining a rather clean, modern and spartan look to the facility. Which makes sense. Why should a hospital for the mentally ill look like the setting for a Daphne Du Maurier story? Instead, Janin uses close-ups on the inmates themselves to communicate their menace. Take for example the moment where the Ventriloquist looks at his empty hand, devoid of the puppet that he used to follow without question, and then smiles and accepts Batman’s offer in the creepiest way possible. Janis lets the characters, not the setting, be the most unsettling aspect, which is as it should be. But choosing that requires skillful grass of your layouts and character work.
All in all, Batman #9 is a solid opening chapter to what could be a far better storyline than I initially thought it would be when I heard about Batman working for Amanda Waller’s Task Force X. King and Janin deliver an opening chapter that may on the surface feel like the opening chapter of every other “men on a mission” story, but they’ve kept it just scary and perverse and personal enough so that it works to draw the reader in and get them ready for the Squad to head into action. 8.5/10