For all the hubbub surrounding DC's New 52 relaunch, the company's Batman line has served as a rallying point for the company's fans and executives. Built around Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo's top-selling Batman series, the "Bat-Family" of books largely focuses on individual members of the character's supporting cast, with frequent crossovers and tie-ins to whatever plot arc Snyder and Capullo's series is caught up in. Five of DC's twenty top-selling books (or 25%) feature "Bat" in the title, and a sixth stars Batman's principal supporting cast member Nightwing, a seventh is an event comic with Batman in a lead role, and two more of DC's top twenty series star members of Batman's rogue gallery. It's really not a controversial statement to say that Batman is the hot brand at DC right now.
This leads us to Batman Eternal, a new weekly series by DC Comics that will serve as a central book for the Batman family of characters for the coming year. Of course, DC has experience with weekly series, they've released three similar series in the last eight years. The first, 52, was considered to be a success and was written by four of the industry's greatest writers at the time. The second, Countdown to Final Crisis, was an unmitigated disaster, panned by critics, fans and several creators who worked on the series. The third, Trinity, was mediocre in my opinion, but I was largely worn out by weekly series by the time it had rolled around, so take that opinion with a jaded grain of salt.
Like 52 and Countdown to Final Crisis, Batman Eternal features a rotating team of writers. Scott Snyder, James Tynion IV, Ray Fawkes, John Layman and Tim Seeley are all credited as writers in the first issue, the first two for writing the story and script, the latter three as "consulting writers". Of course, we found out several months ago that John Layman had amicably left DC during the early stages of this book to focus on creator-owned work, so I'm sure his name will quietly disappear from the nearly half page of credits in future issues. Also credited is Jason Fabok as the artist, Brad Anderson as the colorist, Nick Napolitano as the letterer, Katie Kubert as the editor and Mark Doyle as the group editor. Bob Kane is also credited as the creator of Batman, which is nice, but it'd be even nicer if Bill Finger would have gotten a mention. That's not DC's policy at the time, however, so no point crying over spilled milk.
[EDIT: My comments on Finger are not necessarily meant to be a criticism of DC or its current management. I understand that there's some sort of agreement between Kane and DC that credits him as the sole creator of Batman and recognize there's nothing DC can do about it at this time. While it's I do believe it's an injustice, it's not one that DC can easily solve and I think that DC's management would take steps to correct the Finger situation if they could. But enough about my soapbox, here's more of my thoughts about the actual comic.]
Batman Eternal #1 begins with Gotham City in flames and a bloodied, unmasked Batman tied to a broken Bat-Signal. It's a pretty foreboding opening page, but it's a little tempered by the fact that Gotham is a frequent victim of calamities and mass destruction in recent years. I can't recall if the city was destroyed during the ongoing events of Forever Evil, but I do know that Gotham is being portrayed as a weird Mad Max sort of wasteland in Snyder's Batman series right now. Granted, that book is currently working its way through a mega flashback arc, but it's hard for me to take wanton destruction of a city seriously when it's seems to be a frequent trope in Batman books, and superhero books in general.
Anyways, after a page of Gotham in flames, the book immediately flashes to an uncombusted Gotham skyline, complete with dirigibles straight out of Paul Dini's Batman: The Animated Series. I do like the contrasting views of the Gotham skylines, especially a building called "The Beacon", which is shown under construction in the past and completed (and burning) in the opening page. In my opinion, the first two pages (three, I guess, since the second page is technically a double fold) are the best two pages in the book on a technical level. There's a solid establishment of setting, the introduction of a stand-in for the reader (Jason Bard, making what I think is his first appearance in the New 52), and a nifty little monologue about how bright Gotham is at night. I really liked that monologue, especially in the sense that it captured the setting as much as the half page panel of Gotham's skyline.
From there, the plot quickly unfolds at an even pace. Bard, a new police detective handpicked by Commissioner James Gordon, arrives in town and is given a quick meet and greet of some other detectives while Gordon and Batman fight Professor Pyg and a couple of goons. Gordon is quickly and rather obviously set up to take a fall, there's a big, but not entire city in flames big, tragedy and Batman finds himself lurking in the shadows as one of his allies is taken off the board. And we know he's taken off the board because the unnamed mastermind behind Gotham's future destruction basically says so.
Batman Eternal is not subtle in pointing out what to pay attention to. From the laughably large lettering on a sign pointing out The Beacon's construction, to a police officer all but announcing out loud in the middle of a police department that he's on the take, to how quickly apparent it was that Gordon was getting led into a trap by Rosehead McBaldiegoon (his real name is Grady, but I like that name better), the creative team does everything but insert very large flashing arrows over the panels at what to pay attention to. If DC had that AR gimmick that Marvel uses to insert voiceovers and animation and other extras into its comics, I bet they would have actually used flashing arrows to make sure readers knew what to pay attention to. I guess we can credit the creative team for doing a great job on setting up future payoffs without requiring readers to reread the issue to catch anything they might have missed.
I did like the claustrophobic feel that Batman Eternal had, which I feel can be attributed mainly to Jason Fabok's pencils. I think a lot of comic artists nowadays forget that most city alleyways shouldn't be easily able to fit fifty people and do a poor job of reminding readers that scenes are taking place indoors. That's not an issue with Batman Eternal. All of the indoor scenes set in enclosed places feel as such, which is a very underrated quality in today's comics. I don't have much experience with Jason Fabok's other work, but I think that the pencils in Batman Eternal are a couple grades better than the typical house style found in most of DC's work. There were a couple of action scenes that were a bit off, including some scale issues in an indoor scene featuring Professor Pyg flying a small plane in a large aviation museum hanger, but they're minor problems at best.
While Scott Snyder is credited as one of the main writers of the book, this doesn't "feel" like a Snyder written issue. His fingerprints are there and I think that the first issue lacks any real structural or plot problems because of his (and probably Kubert and Doyle's) guiding hand. However, and this could just be me being delusional, Batman Eternal lacks the sort of mood that other Snyder books have. American Vampire, The Wake, Severed, Batman, even Swamp Thing at times all have a foreboding sense of dread to it, which makes sense because Snyder got his start as a horror writer. And while the book opens with Gotham on fire and Batman defeated and ends with an unrevealed villain saying "Can't you see the grand design?", I just didn't feel unnerved at all. However, I will admit that Professor Pyg's pig-spider gatling gun robots were quite terrifying. More of that, please.
So who do I think would enjoy Batman Eternal? Batman fans will obviously enjoy the series, as will people who will enjoy well-paced, unproblematic superhero comics. I think that Batman Eternal will be more like 52 than Countdown to Final Crisis, and I think that it will be a very stable weekly dose of Batman for those who aren't content with the doses of Batman that DC already doles out on a weekly basis. I think that people will probably praise this book a little more than they should, but people did that with 52 as well, and that was a pretty alright book. Will this be a definitive Batman book for all time? I don't think so, but I could be wrong. However, it doesn't seem like it's just a blatant cash grab for more Batman fans' hard earned money, either.