Writer and Fables creator Bill Willingham’s fingerprints are all over Batman vs. Bigby! #1, for better or worse. The introductory issue to the crossover mini-series is essentially a mixed bag of comic crossover tropes and a simplistic albeit gratifying narrative. Fundamentally, you know what you’re getting into as a reader if you’ve read Willingham’s superb Fables series or are a long-standing comic fan. The art is… adequate, and will appear familiar to Fables fans, but doesn’t jump off the page or provide a feast for the eyes. Admittedly, the best part of the series is knowing that it will serve as the impetus to the return of the Fables. Nevertheless, despite some drawbacks, A Wolf in Gotham has enough Easter eggs and callbacks to warrant a read.
A string of murders in Gotham city has led the Dark Knight onto a trail of mystery. The gruesome scenes indicate a wolf-like creature, with bodies ripped to shreds, humungous bite marks, and tell-tale fur found at every site. The crime scenes have sparked rumors of the “Wolf of Gotham” within the city’s underbelly. The “world’s greatest detective” is on the case, but all the while, a mysterious figure — Bigby Wolf — is lurking in the shadows at each scene. Meanwhile, we are introduced to a shadowy cabal with ties to classic literary work searching for a specific book somewhere in Gotham.
Any comic fan knows what the build-up here is going to be. The plot’s predictability is comic books 101: Our heroes clash on a false impression, and eventually, they come together to face a familiar foe. Of course, we all know full well that both Batman and Bigby are on the side of good, and Bigby is not responsible for the murders. Unfortunately, like every single crossover ever, there is a misunderstanding causing our heroes to come to blows, which does happen in A Wolf in Gotham. Granted, it’s understood that the name of the series implies a battle between the two, but the way they arrive at this point is as cliché as they come. On the good side, the fight is entertaining, playing into both characters’ abilities in terms of skill and power and eventually leading to a genuinely fun cliffhanger ending. I wish Willingham had taken a more novel approach to reach their conflict.
Another point of contention is introducing a new character with apparent ties to the grisly serial murders. In and of itself, that wouldn’t be a concern for a continuous series, but considering this is a miniseries steeped in mystery, the obvious conclusion is the character has ties to the group of literary criminals or — more likely — is the actual werewolf responsible for the murders. While meeting with Commissioner Gordon, Gordon introduces Batman to Lieutenant Molly Grace, a new arrival to the Gotham P.D. who is working the case alongside Gordon. Considering her arrival to the city coincides with the string of murders, the proverbial writing is on the wall. Understandably, the narrative needs a villain to mirror Bigby’s werewolf abilities, but this felt far too evident. I’m hoping Lt. Grace is a red herring, and the actual killer comes as more of a surprise.
In terms of characterization, Willingham seems to start on shaky legs in his representation of Batman but quickly gathers his bearings and captures the essence of one the best heroes in all of comicdom. The issue kicks off with Batman swooping into a crime scene while communicating with Robin on an earpiece. It’s a minor annoyance, but Batman’s dialogue is curt and truncated, never fully explaining or fleshing out his sentences. If you’ve read Watchmen and heard Rorschach’s speech cadence, you get the idea. However, Willingham effortlessly taps into Batman’s skills as the “world’s greatest detective” — his analytical skills are front and center. The way Batman breaks down the crime scene, analyzes the evidence, and consults with Gordon is the best aspect of the story. It truly does feel like a renowned detective on a complex case. Its true crime meets graphic novels, a facet that shines in the opening chapter.
Also, it’s apparent who “the boss” of the criminal organization is, but considering his name is never uttered aloud in dialogue or narrative boxes, it seems to be a pending reveal. Finally, an incredible touch/Easter egg Willingham puts in the series is the henchmen’s names that make up the literary crime organized crime crew. Each is named after famous literary authors: Mr. Salinger (JD Salinger), Mr. Austen (Jane Austen), Faulkner (William Faulkner), and Burroughs (William S. Burroughs) are a few examples. It’s a fun addition and also another hint to who the head of the family truly is.
But what is a comic without art? Sadly, the art left me wanting. Brian Level’s pencil work leaves a lot to be desired. Characters are inconsistent depending on the panel or frame, and some wide shots lack detail. The best way to liken some of the splash pages is to a Where’s Waldo? Book. Thankfully, there are some practical and unique ways the pages are framed. For example, some of the gutters – the space between the panels – are framed using stacks of books. It ties into the theme of the miniseries and Fables. Also, Jay Leisten’s ink work helps clean up some of the pencils, adding a unique layer to the art.
When it all comes together, the narrative moves at a good stride. Things are slowed down, but still fascinating on the crime-solving aspect while ratcheting up the pace in the final third of the issue, leaving off on a clever ending that will have me coming back for the next issue. Despite some foibles, Batman vs. Bigby #1 is a commendable opening chapter in what should be an entertaining miniseries.
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