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Re-Reading Batman the Animated Series’ Paul Dini’s Run on Detective Comics!

I am digging deep into some old Batman continuity, friends!  After starting a project to re-read Grant Morrison’s years-long run on Batman (click here for part one, and click here for part two), I decided to also re-read some of the other Batman comics of that era.  Parallel to the beginning of Mr. Morrison’s run on Batman, Paul Dini, one of the major creative forces behind Batman: The Animated Series (still my favorite non-comic book depiction of Batman), took over Detective Comics.  Right now I am having a heck of a time re-reading Mr. Dini’s run on Detective!

While most comic books of the day favored lengthy, multi-issue stories (something that is still the case today, a style which I quite enjoy when done well), Mr. Dini took the opposite approach.  In a deliberately retro choice, Mr. Dini decided to tell a series of done-in-one single issue stories.  This is a surprisingly difficult task to do well.  To introduce a compelling mystery and/or character story-line, provide several twists and turns for the reader and complications for our hero, and then to resolve everything in a satisfying conclusion, all within the span of just twenty-two pages is fiendishly difficult.  Mr. Dini, thankfully, proves a master at this form of story-telling.  Each issue is a little gem all of its own, an entertaining Batman short-story.

I was particularly heartened to see how seriously Mr. Dini took the comic book’s title.  This isn’t Batman, this is Detective Comics.  Almost every one of Mr. Dini’s stories has a mystery aspect, in which the Dark Knight Detective must use his brains, far more often than his fists, to solve the mystery and foil the villain’s plot.  I love this more cerebral take on Batman.  There are super-villains galore in Mr. Dini’s run, and there are certainly some great fight scenes.  But the joy of each issue is in the slow unraveling of each new mystery, as the reader races with Batman to solve the caper.

Mr. Dini’s run gets off to a terrific start in Detective #821, illustrated by the great J.H. Williams III.  In my post about Grant Morrison’s run on Batman, I commented that the Black Hand three-parter (in Batman #667-670) was my first exposure to Mr. Williams’ amazing art, but I now see that I was wrong, as I definitely read Detective #821 first.  All of the characteristics of Mr. Williams’ spectacular work is on display: the brilliant way he shifts his art style to differentiate different characters and different situations, his dynamic page-layouts (including some particularly jaw-dropping double-page spreads), and a gorgeous, lushly painted depiction of Batman himself.  I wish Mr. Williams had illustrated more than one issue of Mr. Dini’s run.  (Having him illustrate Mr. Dini’s first issue was a bit of a tease, as at the time I assumed that Mr. Williams was going to be the regular artist on the book, leading me to quick disappointment when that didn’t prove to be the case.)

At the time these issues came out, as much as I loved Mr. Dini’s stories, I had two frustrations.  One, I felt that all of the artists who came after J.J. Williams III were something of a let-down, and I was frustrated to see so many different artists come and go on the book.  The ever-changing artists gave the series a very staccato feeling.  This was exacerbated by the stunningly frequent use of fill-in writers, jumping in for an issue or two every couple of issues.  I am sure Mr. Dini was a very busy man, but it was extremely frustrating for me as a ready of the comic on a monthly basis to have fill-in issues every three or four months.

Reading through Mr. Dini’s run now though, all at once, those frustrations quickly faded away.  I was surprised by how much I enjoyed many of what I had considered to be “fill-in” issues, the one-off stories written by other writers.  Some of these are really quite good.  (I particularly enjoyed the two-part “Siege” story in Detective #829 & 830 written by Stuart Moore.  It’s a fun Die Hard scenario in which Bruce Wayne is trapped at the top of Wayne Tower with a group of civilians while a masked bomber sets off a series of bombs that threaten to bring down the whole building.)  And the issues that aren’t as good as the ones written by Mr. Dini, well, they’re just one-offs after all, and when I don’t have to wait a whole month to get to Mr. Dini’s next issue, it’s far less annoying.

Although almost all of Mr. Dini’s issues are done-in-one stories, re-reading his run all at once made it clear to me how many connections Mr. Dini had woven through all of his stories.  There were some on-going story-lines, of course, such as the newly-reformed Riddler becoming a hype-seeking private detective who would rival Batman in his attempts to solve crimes in Gotham City, and the emergence of a new Scarface crime-lord, this time partnered with a gorgeous blonde woman with a mysterious past.  But re-reading the series made apparent that Mr. Dini had woven a number of far more subtle connections into his run.  A wealthy socialite who Bruce Wayne bumps into in one issue becomes a murder victim a few issues down the line.  A magician who Batman rescues in one story becomes a dangerous threat in a later issue.  An ex-girlfriend of an old friend of Bruce’s who we see in flashback in one issue becomes a key character in a later story.  It’s pretty cool.  What I had thought at the time to be completely separate, single-issue stories were in fact pretty tightly connected.

Equally cool is the way that Mr. Dini’s stories fit smoothly into the continuity of Batman: The Animated Series!  It’s subtle, and Mr. Dini’s comics also of course fit into the continuity of the Batman comic-books of the time, but there are a lot of little nods to Batman: TAS and Bruce Tim’s animated DCU.  Harley Quinn (the Joker’s “hench-wench,” created by Mr. Dini for Batman: TAS) figures prominently into several of the stories.  In the opening scene of Detective # 822, Batman tussles with Roxy Rocket, a villain from Superman: The Animated Series.  In Detective #824, Lois Lane appears, and her interactions with Bruce Wayne hint heavily at a prior romantic relationship between the two, a clever story-line we saw in “World’s Finest,” the crossover between the Batman and Superman animated series.  Heck, the font used for Bruce Wayne’s narration boxes (designed by Jared K. Fletcher) in the early issues of Mr. Dini’s run even imitate the art-deco-like style of Batman: The Animated Series!  It’s all very cool.

I was also impressed by the way in which Mr. Dini not only gave new spins to existing characters (like the Riddler) but also worked hard to introduce new characters into the Batman mythos, such as the villainous Facade in Detective #821, Harvest in Detective #823, the female Scarface, and more.  I also need to praise Simone Bianchi’s wonderfully evocative, painted covers.  They don’t always connect to the story being told in that issue (which is a pet peeve of mine, to be frank), but the covers are each such gorgeous works of art that I never minded.

Moving along through Mr. Dini’s run, Detective #826 is a highlight, in which Robin finds himself strapped into the passenger seat of a car driven by the Joker, careening through the Gotham streets on a murderous rampage.  On his own, unarmed, and bound to the seat, Robin must figure out a way to free himself and stop the crown prince of crime.  Detective #833 brings Zatanna into the mix, and I loved Mr. Dini’s depiction of the pairing of Zatanna and Bruce.  Mr. Dini plays off of the repercussions of Zatanna’s actions in Identity Crisis (click here to read my discussion of that controversial DCU mini-series), while also addressing the childhood friendship between the her and Bruce.  I always felt there was the potential for a romantic spark between the two characters, and Mr. Dini obviously agreed.  I loved seeing this idea woven into these issues of Detective, and I was bummed to see that pairing abruptly ended (in Detective #844), presumably to keep continuity with Mr. Morrison’s pairing of Batman with Jezebel Jett over in his issues of Batman (and also to allow the focus to shift towards Batman’s affections towards Catwoman in later issues of Detective, a pairing which frankly never worked for me nearly as well as Batman and Zatanna).

The arrival of Zatanna in Detective #833 began to bring together various story-lines that Mr. Dini had been weaving, in a terrifically entertaining way.  Mr. Dini’s run kicked into even high gear just a few issues later, when the series finally found a regular artist — and a spectacularly talented one — in Dustin Nguyen in Detective #841.  I adore Mr. Nguyen’s work.  His water-color wash covers are extraordinary — the hallucinogenic freak-out cover of Detective #841 is a highlight, as is his jaw-droppingly gorgeous rendering of Zatanna on the cover of Detective #844.  And his interior art is just as great.  Mr. Nguyen’s art has an aspect of the cartoony, a way-less-simple-than-it-might-look style of simplification that, while having a very different look, shares some similarities with Bruce Timm’s style on Batman: The Animated Series, making it even more perfect to accompany Paul Dini’s writing.  It’s magnificent work, and Mr. Nguyen is one of my very favorite artists to have ever illustrated Batman.  You read that right.

The high point of Mr. Dini’s run on Detective Comics comes with “Heart of Hush,” the five-part story-line that ran from Detective #845-850.  That series was given the Batman: R.I.P. header at the time, as a way of connecting it with Mr. Morrison’s Batman-destroying story-line over in Batman.  But despite a few cursory nods to that story (at one point a character mentions catching wind of the Black Hand’s plot to destroy Batman), “Heart of Hush” has nothing to do with that story-line.  In fact, at the time, I found it confusing that, in both Batman and Detective, Batman was facing two deadly criminal master-minds who were both unveiling elaborate plots to destroy him.  The two stories are much more enjoyable WITHOUT trying to connect the two.

And “Heart of Hush” is very, very enjoyable.  Hush is a character with a frustratingly convoluted history.  (Jeph Loeb introduced the character in his year-long story-line, “Hush,” illustrated by Jim Lee, in Batman #608-619 in 2002-3.  But after building up a terrific mystery as to the identity of the character, Mr. Loeb utterly failed to resolve things at the end.  A.J. Lieberman picked up the character in “Hush Returns,” a story-line in Batman: Gotham Knights in 2004-5 that got a lot of acclaim but which I found even more confusing.)  So I was delighted to see Mr. Dini cut through all of the confusion and twisted continuity and present us with a Hush with a clearly-drawn, easily understandable identity and motivation.  His plot to destroy Bruce Wayne is outlandish, but I found it to be gripping.  Mr. Nguyen’s illustrations are perfection, and his water-color covers are astonishing works of art, worth the price of the issues alone.  “Heart of Hush” is a terrific story-line, and one that would turn out to the the first in a spectacular trilogy of Hush stories written by Mr. Dini.

And then Grant Morrison killed off Bruce Wayne in Infinite Crisis, and all the Bat-books re-aligned.  But this was not the end of Mr. Morrison’s run, nor of Paul Dini’s association with Batman.  I am having a ball re-reading this fun period of Batman comics, and I’ll be back soon with my thoughts on “Battle For the Cowl” and future Batman story-lines written by Mr. Morrison, Mr. Dini, and others.

(Paul Dini’s issues on Detective Comics which I discussed in this post have been reprinted in the collections titled: Detective, Private Casebook, and Heart of Hush.)

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