I was hesitant to check out Dark Nights: Death Metal Guidebook #1 since guidebooks tend to feel like a sketchbook, composed mostly of snippets of art, ideas, and bios. Thankfully, this is a traditional comic book story for the most part and it also plays an important role in Dark Nights: Death Metal.
In fact, I’d call this issue Death Metal #3.5, since its final few pages give important information that ties directly to the ending of issue #3. Told across five stories, the book flows nicely and gives readers a lot of bang for their buck since it explains how the world was taken over by the Batman Who Laughs, a detail the main book never fully explained.
There are quite a few creative teams attached to this book. The opening chapter is called “The Fall of Earth” and it’s written by Scott Snyder, James Tynion IV, Josh Williamson with art by Doug Mahnke. This issue delves into the all-out war the Batman Who Laughs brought down on Earth after the Justice League were magically zapped away at the end of Scott Snyder’s run on Justice League #39.
This story alone gives readers a lot to consider, a lot of action, and interesting details on how Earth could have fallen. It plays directly into the cliffhanger in Dark Nights: Death Metal #3. The art by Mahnke is quite good and it suits the mostly war-time scenes as it’s a bit grittier in its renderings. It also sets up the following four stories, giving them enough context to make sense in the grand scheme of things.
Between each story is a full-page dossier setting up the tale, further making it easy to dive into each story. This is certainly the glue that holds it all together and also what gives the book its “guidebook” namesake. Each of these pages contains info on location, characters, and mini sketches to help acclimate the reader. They’re each designed quite well, with a chain serving as a bookmark and the paper looking handwritten.
The next story is “Queen of the Desert” by Chip Zdarsky and artist Khary Randolph, focusing on Harley Quinn. This is a quick tale following Harley’s exploits in a radioactive desert. We find out in the dossier that proceeds the story she works for a Batman version of Dr. Arkham. Zdarsky has a good handle on Harley, and the story has a purpose, since it sets up how Harley befriends her giant hyena.
Becky Cloonan takes on Aquaman next in “The Umbozu” with color by Tamra Bonvillain. This tale takes Aquaman into the depths, facing off against a Cthulu-like Batman and a once-believed-to-be mythical creature appearing. As the protector of the seas, Aquaman attempts to bring this creature to his side. It has that signature Cloonan feel throughout, from how she makes Arthur look the part of the heartthrob prince to the disturbing monster imagery.
Vita Ayala and Dan Panosian tell a tale with Wonder Woman and Poison Ivy called “Seeds of Hope”. This is an interesting one as it touches upon Wonder Woman’s prior job as jailer to supervillains, as we saw in the first issue of the event. There’s an interesting connection between the two made that’s endearing and acts as a reminder heroes and villains alike are prisoners in this world. Panosian draws a well-focused tale and you can tell it’s all hand-drawn. There’s a Mad Max: Fury Road visual reference that doesn’t quite work for me, but it does harness the vibe of the story well.
The final story is “Dragonlance” by Christopher Priest and Eduardo Risso. The tale involves Batman — the real Batman, who is now a Black Lantern — teaming up with Jonah Hex to fight a flying Joker dragon. The story meanders a bit, involves milk to save the day, and is mostly ramblings between the two characters. Risso can do no wrong in my book, though, as his style is measured and striking. His style of using silhouettes of characters suits the tale and Risso’s colors have a dirty washed-out feel that convey the end times.
All in all, this is a good anthology comic book one-shot and an especially good value. It has five stories, cool one-page dossiers between each story, and enough to make it all matter to the main event. There’s also a great map of the remade world by Jared Blando and honestly a lot here for any type of reader.