My very initial thought once I saw this graceful cover illustration was Snyder's previous work in pre-New 52, which was in Detective Comics with Dick Grayson as Batman in that memorable dark tale entitled The Black Mirror which has to be one of my favorite Batman stories collected in a trade paperback. I quickly glanced at the list of names in the credits and nodded appreciatively as I saw the artist Jock in it because that meant I was right to make that comparison. Jock (real name Mark Simpson) originally worked on The Black Mirror himself for several of its issues, giving that particular tale an eerie, haunted look that may not be as polished as most modern visuals in the roster of most comics title, but is nevertheless creates an atmosphere of dread when you turn the page. His depictions for issue #44 of Snyder's Batman is no exception. I can't get enough of those delicately drawn bats!
Co-written with Brian Azzarello, Snyder's installment for this month took us back from post-Zero Year timeline where Batman is adjusting to the stress of lone vigilantism as crooks and supervillains began coming out of the woodwork to make life even crazier for Gotham City. The story started with the murder of a fifteen-year-old boy from the Narrows named Peter Duggio who entered a life of crime because he wanted to take back the building where he and his father and brother used to live which was now used as a rendezvous base of operations by the Four Five gang operating in the Narrows. He sought the aid of Oswald Cobblepot who is a rising star in the criminal enterprise, but in a typical Penguin fashion, he backstabs the boy and instead gives away the place completely to the gang. Batman suspects him of murder but Penguin profusely denies it, claiming that he had never killed Peter and accusing him so meant that Batman knew little of the way things work in Gotham if he believed that. What follows after is a a very unexpected emotional story focusing on this boy Peter and his struggle to push back against the insurmountable evil surrounding his life. It was simply rendered in a very stark yet humble prose, emphasizing that there are certain battles of the human spirit that even Batman himself can't defeat. This was wonderfully explored in A Simple Case.
Now I had a complicated one-off relationship with Brian Azzarello as a writer, mostly because the first time I ever read him in comics was during his work for the Before Watchmen series where he handled the writing for the Comedian and Rorschach, two of my most favorite characters in the roster. And, personally, he handled both arcs poorly, more so with the Rorschach one (the Comedian's story eventually got a little better by the last two issues). Since then, I became very lukeward towards him as a writer based solely on that, but since I read BW almost four years ago now, I've completely forgotten about holding a petty grudge against this writer so I was perfectly fine reading this Snyder issue where I believe Azzarello took a more leading role in the narrative. The story he produced was both straightforward and opaque with deceptively bold strokes at first that slowly revealed an intimate portrait about the ordinary lives of Gotham citizens who live in terror and despair and what that desperation could push them into doing such as things that they will forever regret or, worse, even result in their demise. Batman coming to terms that he doesn't always have to function as the Dark Knight to make a difference in his city is a rather uplifting message once this tale ended.
Reading Bruce Wayne as Batman has been nostalgic too because I do miss Bruce under that cowl and seeing him relating to other human beings such as those delinquents on the streets was so moving that I could only stare at that last page in disbelief. It was a nice touch. Much like everyone else, I suppose I was hoping we get the origin story of Mr. Bloom for this issue and though he made that really creepy appearance midway, I was glad we didn't focus on him on this story at all. It also adds a new layer of mystery to his identity after reading this. It would seem he has been around Gotham after Zero Year and has bid his time in the shadows, waiting for the moment to strike. The illustrations for this issue, especially the way Batman was drawn, were astounding and spectacular to peruse! There are so many angles and shapes in Batman here that were unique and fun to look at. He looked like a smudge on paper in some parts and an overpowering inky presence on others. It's visually distracting in the best way possible.
The composition of the colors (lots of black and grays with only select pages in color) was so delicately balanced and atmospheric that I could stare at some of drawings for minutes, lost and enthralled. I like the pages that had the newspaper clippings as interruptions in the flow of an otherwise linear narrative. That style really pulled me into the pages since I've always paid close attention to newspaper articles myself growing up and back when I would watch my father from across the table read his paper during breakfast and I would try to read along with him from the other side. Seeing that here in this issue reminded me of that childhood memory in such a pleasant yet uncomfortable way as well. I'm ending this review with my favorite pages: