Mighty interesting issue. The solicitation called it "the epilogue to 'The Court of Owls'", but that's fairly disingenuous, for this story has nothing to do with The Court of Owls storyline, save for the fact that Batman is involved in both. And for the majority of this issue, even that isn't the case.
Instead of putting the emphasis on Gotham's Caped Crusader, as has been the norm for Scott Snyder's run on this title, we spend the issue getting to know Harper Row, a new character that we've actually encountered twice before during Snyder's Batman run, we just may not have realized it until now. She revived Batman with an impromptu defibrillator after his thrashing at the hands of the Court of Owls in Batman #7, and she actually appeared as a background character at Bruce Wayne's charity dinner-type thing all the way back in Batman #1, a scene that is reprised in this issue. That means that this issue #12 actually takes place before that whole Court of Owls business, and it illustrates that Snyder has some rather long term plans for the series, considering that he waited an entire year before starting to elaborate on who this character is.
And just who is Harper Row? She's a young woman who lives in the Gotham's Narrows neighbourhood with her brother Cullen and who works as an electrician on Gotham's extensive power grid. She's a strong young woman who is fiercely protective of the people she loves, something that is demonstrated a number of times throughout the issue. As an introduction to Harper, this issue is a great success, seeing as Snyder spends the entire 28 pages of this issue to let the reader really understand who she is and what her motivations are. It makes for a real change of pace for the book, and again, shows how important Harper is clearly going to be in Batman going forward.
However, this decision also really changes the tone of the comic, providing us with something that could far more easily be described as Harper: Year 1 instead of Batman #12. That's not necessarily a bad thing, but with the issue taking place in the past, it's hard to feel any real tension in the book. Snyder tries to set up some mystery on the first of what seven words changed Harper's life, but even that quickly gets lost in the shuffle of the narrative, and their reveal at the end feel anticlimactic when we recall that we've already seen Harper in action in issue #7. Harper is really fleshed out over the course of this issue, there's a lot of neat ideas introduced here (including the way that Batman uses Gotham's power grid for his own purposes), but the story feels like it lacks consequences. We already know what's to come, so while it's interesting to discover the why, it isn't exactly thrilling.
Building on the book's different tone, I really appreciate that they brought on another artist to fill-in for Greg Capullo this issue, so as to have an immediate visual difference in the comic to reflect that change. It's just a bonus that said fill-in artist happens to be Becky Cloonan, whose distinct style is one of the more eye catching in the business. However, I must admit that I wasn't blown away by her work on this issue. To be honest, a lot of her pages looked pretty plain compared to her usual lively work (this was especially evident when I opened my issue of Conan the Barbarian and saw her usual flair on full display). It's certainly still above the work of a lot of people in the industry, but it's hard not to make direct comparisons to her other work when she has a second book releasing the same week that looks much prettier (i.e. Conan). I don't know if this can be ascribed to Cloonan being short on time (as she wasn't able to draw the entire issue, only the first 21 issues), the fact that she didn't ink all of her pages, the colouring work by FCO Plascencia, or something else entirely (direction from DC brass?). That's all conjecture on my part; all I can say is that I wasn't as impressed by Cloonan's work here as I expected to be.
Continuing on the art question, I was taken aback when Cloonan was replaced by Any Clarke towards the end of the issue, because their styles don't really have anything in common. Where Cloonan's is often loose and evocative, Clarke has a much more photorealistic style that insists on showing every detail imaginable. They even layout their panels in incredibly different ways. These differences made the transition quite jarring, as there wasn't an obvious reason for the sudden switch. Looking back at it, I wondered if it might have to do with the fact that Batman's appearance, implying that the world actually feels different when he's around. While I like the idea and believe that it would be an effective stylistic choice (kind of similar to what's done in Batwoman, come to think of it), I realized that Batman isn't present for all of Clarke's pages, so that kind of interpretation doesn't really hold water. Especially when you remember that Batman shows up earlier in the issue under Cloonan's watch without any changes in style. So again, it looks kind of like they had to bring in a replacement artist to get the book shipped on time, which I don't have any problems with, but I wish they could have recruited someone whose style was a little closer to Cloonan's so the transition would feel more natural.
Verdict - Check It. This book suffers from expectations. Whether it's the high level of excitement Snyder has been providing throughout this series or Cloonan's inclusion, Batman #12 just isn't able to live up to its own hype. It's clear that this story and this character will be important to Snyder's future Bat-stories, but that in and of itself doesn't make the issue an interesting read. It really feels like there's no real payoff at the end of this issue, as if it's all building towards something that will come later. Even what little payoff we get in Harper's decision to help Batman is cheapened by the fact that we already know she does this in issue #7. And again, the art, which should have been awesome, was a bit of a let down, especially when it comes to the random swapping of artists at page 22.
I suppose it wouldn't be fair to how good Conan the Barbarian #7 looked without talking about it a little more in-depth. Fortunately, I'm happy to do so. Brian Wood's Conan continues to wow me with its ability to not only make me care about Conan (something I still believe I'm saying) but also to provide thrilling adventures that are worth following.
The last arc, "The Argos Deception", was an awesome story of Conan, Bêlit, and the crew of the Tigress doing quite the number on the city of Messentia. It was a pretty thrilling tale in and of itself, with James Harren providing some great art that really emphasized the brutality of our heroes' actions. That being said, I still missed Becky Cloonan's presence from the first three issues of this series, so I was quite pleased to have her back on board in this issue. And I'm even happier to report that the wait was well worth it.
This issue takes us to the northern lands of Cimmeria, the place where Conan was born and raised. The main focus is on some mysterious man who has taken to calling himself by Conan's name and slaughtering villages throughout Cimmeria for reasons unknown. This is what has brought Conan back, but he has not come alone. While the majority of the Tigress' crew lays in wait, Conan's love, Bêlit, accompanies him on this quest. It is really an inspired choice, as up until this point, Bêlit has been a terrifying force, seemingly unstoppable in anything she puts her mind to, but in Cimmeria, she is out of her element, a situation that she clearly hasn't been in often. Bêlit's attempts to deal with this new challenge also make up a good portion of the book, but it's succinctly symbolized in the opening pages when we see that Bêlit has developed snowblindness while roaming the Cimmerian hinterlands with Conan. A really neat way of demonstrating Bêlit's unease.
Beyond that opening action sequence and the partial action sequence we get at the end of the issue, this comic is pretty exposition-heavy. Wood spends a lot of pages showing how Cimmeria has changed in Conan's absence and how it challenges Bêlit sense of self. In the hands of a lesser wordsmith, these scenes could have been a bore, but Wood infuses them with energy and life, using them to impart information to the reader, but also to develop his characters. We learn a lot about both of our heroes from their time in Conan's village, discovering the details of the false Conan. I was really impressed with how captivating this sequence was.
Of course, Cloonan's art was definitely a bit help in making these pages worthwhile. Her skills are on full display here, picking the perfect moments to emphasize the words on the page. Whether it's an establishing shot, a slight zoom, or the occasional full page splash, every decision that Cloonan makes feels like it was the right one. I was especially struck by the many different expressions she gives to Bêlit over the course of the issue. Her haughty indignation at the "savages" of Conan's homeland turns to frustration turns to misery. It's some beautiful stuff, exactly what I'd expect from Cloonan's hand. Unsurprisingly, Dave Stewart is a champion on colours here, making Cloonan's wintery landscapes come alive, her dirty villages appear sufficiently dirty, and generally doing a phenomenal job of making each and every page look better.
Verdict - Buy It. This creative team really seems to understand each other, and I'm glad that they got another kick at the can here with Conan the Barbarian #7. While solicitations say that Cloonan won't be around for the next few issues, I can always hope that she'll come back. Failing that, I'll always have brilliant issues like this one to remind me of how good she, Brian Wood, and Dave Stewart are together.
Written by John Arcudi
Art by Jonathan Case
The Creep #0, like last week's Beast of Burdens: Neighborhood Watch and a number of other recent Dark Horse comics, is actually made up of a few shorter comic book stories that originally appeared in the ongoing revival of Dark Horse Presents. I came to this comic on a bit of a whim. I'm mostly familiar with John Arcudi from his collaborations in Mike Mignola's expansive Hellboy-verse (particularly his time on B.P.R.D. and Lobster Johnson). I'd never heard of this character, I hadn't read any of his previous appearances, or even those more recent ones. That being said, I totally dug it.
The Creep tells the story of Oxel Karnhus, a private eye who is contacted out of the blue by Stephanie Brinke, his college sweetheart from twenty years prior, with a desperate plea to investigate her son's suicide. Already, it has all the ingredients for a pulpy detective story, but Arcudi does us one better, as Oxel has acromegly, a syndrome that he describes as "growth hormone gone haywire", which causes a person's body to never really stop growing. You may already be familiar with this condition, as both Andrew the Giant and Paul "The Big Show" Wight had it. From what I understand, the character of Oxel has always suffered from this condition, but in this story, it's revealed that he developed it after things went sour with Stephanie, meaning that she's never seen him in his current form. It's a nice addition that adds a lot to the overall narrative.
Frank Miller provides the cover for this issue, which obviously put me in the mind of Sin City, and while The Creep isn't anywhere near as violent as that series, it does have a similar concise and terse writing style that works really well for the story that Arcudi is telling. Things are both more and less complicated than they initially appear, putting into question the real motivations behind Stephanie's request. It quickly becomes unclear if she wants Oxel to look further into her son Curtis' suicide or if she's merely reaching out to someone who was once important to her in a time of need. This is really the central focus of the book, and Arcudi handles the question quite well throughout the issue. Stephanie's initial contact is done through a letter, and the two only ever speak on the phone, never appearing in the same panel together - at least not in the present day.
Since this is a story heavily steeps in its characters' pasts, there are a number of flashback sequences throughout the issue, and I imagine that will continue in the coming issues. Arcudi's writing ensures that the reason behind each and every flashback is clear, but these sequences also demonstrate why Jonathan Case was perhaps the perfect artist for this book. In interview, Arcudi has praised Case's ability to draw in many different styles, and Case puts that to great use in this book. The flashbacks are all rendered in a warm, colourful style that implies nostalgia and idyllic remembrances that people often hold of the past. These portions of the book are brightly coloured, with red as the main colour. Conversely, the present is not nearly as happy a place. Things are rendered in a concrete style. The world feels more substantial, draped in a sheen of cold colours: there's a lot of blue here. It's a simple idea, but Case executes it perfectly here, creating a clear distinction between pats and present.
With the way the past is depicted in such an idealized way and the present seems so bleak by comparison, it can sometimes feel like life itself has lost some of its lustre. This is especially evident on the opening page, where Curits is about to commit suicide. The first four panels are awash in the red and yellow that seems that it belongs in the past, while in the fifth panel, the one where Curtis holds the gun to his head in his room, his room is overwhelmed by dark, sombre blues, the earlier colours visible outside his window. It's a powerful use of imagery that augments the story's meaning. A similar thing is done during a hallucination, where the colour-scheme is a mixture of past and present, making it unclear what is happening. Again, it's a simple thing, but Case puts it to great use in making what was already a well-written comic exponentially better.
Verdict - Buy It. It's tempting to pass over The Creep #0 because it might not be as flashy as other comics on the stands, but this would be a big mistake. While recently John Arcudi has perhaps been better known for his work with Mike Mignola, this comic quashes any doubts people may have had as to whether he can still run a story on his own. He can and he does. The decision to Johnathan Case on board was an inspired one. This guy is something special.
A lot of good things coming from Dark Horse this week. I really urge you to give The Creep #0 a look. I think that this series is going to go places, and you should get in on the ground floor. Did you read it already? What were your thoughts on the book? The week in general?