Graphic Novel Friday: "Batman: Battle for the Cowl"
This year was a morbid one for Batman fans. February kicked off the funeral proceedings with Grant Morrison's Batman: R.I.P., which led directly into Final Crisis (also by Morrison), where the Dark Knight finally met his match. The eulogy remained to be continued, however, as Neil Gaiman offered a few words in Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader, a dream-like send-off to years and years of crime-fighting stories.
But Alfred barely had enough time to check the tires on the Bat-hearse before the Battle for the Cowl began. Writer and artist Tony Daniel presents post-Batman Gotham as a city under siege, no matter how extended the Bat-family has grown in an attempt to contain the threats. There are not one, but four Robins (OK, the original, Dick Grayson, has matured into "Nightwing," and the second, Jason Todd, was murdered), a Batwoman, a Batgirl (two Batgirls, actually, if we're counting the original, Barbara Gordon, who now goes by "Oracle"), a Man-Bat, and a Catwoman. The city is once again rife with crime, and even the heroes are beginning to doubt whether Gotham can survive without its guardian.
This leads us, naturally, to a mysterious vigilante swinging from the rooftops in a bat-eared cowl. It would seem that while Nightwing and the two remaining Robins (Robin III: Tim Drake; Robin IV: Damian, Batman's bratty, illegitimate son) were speculating about who should take over the mantle, someone else swept in and beat them to the Biff! Pow! Bam! When they finally meet the usurper, he comes complete with sidearms, what looks like a cheese-grater over the usual mouth portion of the Bat-mask, and an attitude straight out of 1990s anti-heroism. Crime will pay! (Given the eventual reveal, it shouldn’t be a surprise that this character is a few years behind the times, so I suppose his costume can be forgiven.)
Aside from the overzealous impostor, Battle for the Cowl is an easy breather from the more heady Batman stories that preceded it in 2009. Daniel's Gotham City looks reminiscent of Jim Lee's Hush, and includes several nods to other Batman stories: Tim Drake decides to do some sleuthing, and he dons the Neal Adams/Jim Aparo yellow oval Bat-suit, to which Catwoman quips, "I wondered whatever happened to the Caped Crusader." Daniel shifts his style somewhat in these sections, giving the action a throw-back touch. Fans should also watch out for a crowbar scene recalling A Death in the Family, and a wink-wink mention of The Dark Knight Strikes Again. Daniel's storytelling only lost me once-- in a confusing panel sequence involving Gordon and a particularly gruesome henchman (still not sure how/why Gordon was attacked, or what the spoken threat meant)--but the rest was breezy fare with eye-catching visuals, wrapping up as adventure stories have for years: with a big fight on a speeding train.
As a bonus to the collection, DC added a chapter called "Gotham Gazette," hightlighting peripheral characters (Vicki Vale, Harvey Bullock) as they cope in a city run amok. Kudos to writer Fabian Nicieza, who named one of the streets "Breyfogle Way" in a tip of the hat to one of the most criminally unsung artists in the Bat-mythos, Norm Breyfogle. This story isn't padding at all, but a solid epilogue to the book.
For readers craving more Bat-periphery, there is also a Battle for the Cowl Companion, collecting five stories occurring around the edges of the main book. Watch out for the "Arkham Asylum" chapter, which gave me the creeps, as well as "The Underground" chapter, which sets the stage for the forthcoming Gotham City Sirens.