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Look, I’ll admit I’m a sucker for Xmas issues of super-hero comics. I can’t really explain why. Maybe it’s because I once owned a DC Digest book called “Christmas With the Super-Heroes.” In any case, I’m a sucker for them, rank sentimentality and all. With Batman Annual #1, we get an anthology of stories all centred around Xmas, and the results are remarkably cohesive and enjoyable.
The first story, written by Tom King with David Finch on art is kind of delightful. It’s a charming tale focused on Alfred attempting to reform a dog once utilized by the Joker into the faithful four-legged companion to Batman we all know (and love? I guess?) as Ace the Bat-Hound. The story is both touching and funny, as Alfred attempts to give a typically pessimistic and distracted Bruce a loyal companion. While the story is pretty funny, King manages to make it poignant, as Bruce believes initially that the dog is too scarred and broken to ever heal into something positive. Alfred’s dogged (sorry) determination to prove Bruce wrong and give him a taste of the unconditional love only a dog can provide is both touching and representative of his optimism for Bruce himself. It’s a great little story, helped by Finch’s art which, given the tiny page count, is among his most expressive.
Scott Snyder writes the next story, with Declan Shalvey on art. It’s a pretty stereotypical Batman Xmas tale, with Bruce’s often negative worldview getting a little lift of faith and hope by the common Xmas Spirit. I continue to really enjoy Shalvey’s art though, and he doesn’t let me down here, with a number of lovely panels that elevate a pretty run of the mill script from Snyder, albeit one that hits the right buttons. Paul Dini writes the next story, with legendary Bat-artist Neal Adams handling art chores. It’s a sweet story from Harley Quinn’s creator that finds her sharing a Xmas car ride with Batman that involves singing carols. It’s meant to be a fun little slice of life, and it manages to be so, particularly in the way it continues to reframe Harley as a kind of hero. Adams’ art is either going to drive you crazy or not surprise you. He’s one of my favorite artists ever, his impact is massive, so if he wants to ink and color his own work in a way that maybe rubs people the wrong way, well, nobody’s earned it more than him. I don’t love his current style, but I know what I’m going to get, so I’m hardly surprised. He gets plenty of moments here that still remind you of how good he’s been over the course of his career, most notably in the way he can draw Harley in her sexualized modern look without feeling exploitative somehow.
The last two stories kind of don’t fit with the first three in that, while they are set during the Holidays, they clearly aren’t uplifting holiday stories. “Stag”, written by Steve Orlando with art by Riley Rossmo, is more of a preview for stories to come in “Detective Comics” than a stand-alone story with an actual plot. After all the Xmas fun, this dark and foreboding story is kind of jarring, though I liked it. It just didn’t really fit in with the others. “The Insecurity Diversion”, written by Scott Bryan Wilson with art by Bisques Evely, has the same issue, though less so. While the tone of the story is decidedly darker and more sinister, it does have the benefit of telling a complete story with an interesting antagonist. It’s definitely a bit too wordy, particularly in the climax, but the art is gorgeous.
Batman Annual #1 is a solid anthology book, which features one great story as an opener and a succession of stories that are all enjoyable though more variable. Considering its cover price, you could be excused for thinking this issue a bit too disposable, but with King and Finch’s really great tale, plus Orlando’s jarring but enticing lead in for things to come and Snyder and Shalvey’s slight but warm tale, you’ll find it impossible to not enjoy the book as a whole. 8.5/10