The log line for Batman: The Imposter is simple enough: Imagine if the Caped Crusader existed in the real world. This Gotham is no fantasyland, but a place where “every punch leaves a broken bone,” as a DC press release put it.
That’s a fascinating premise and, for parts of this oversized first issue, writer Mattson Tomlin and artist Andrea Sorrentino unpack it in a creative, even revelatory way.
But too often, this comic reads like an upscale version of the same, gritty Batman stories that have been in vogue for decades. Tomlin, a screenwriter who co-wrote DC’s upcoming The Batman film, conjures up a darker, more disturbed version of Bruce Wayne that bears some similarities, at least visually, to the goth look of Robert Pattinson’s Batman. (If the tone of this book ends up being a preview of the movie, expect a much more grimdark Batman than any we’ve seen on screen.)
The comic’s strength is in Sorrentino’s striking art, which ably serves this more realistic story through restrained fight scenes and visually resplendent panels. I especially love how Sorrentino uses insert shots, which are often colored in black and white, as a way to accentuate the action or deepen the noir-ish vibe of a scene.
The realism of the book extends mostly to the action and the way Bruce Wayne is perceived. Instead of his crimefighting being seen as heroic, Tomlin presents Dr. Leslie Thompkins as a crucial perspective in the story to criticize Bruce’s rage and delusions. The introduction of the titular “imposter,” who kills criminals while dressed as Batman, sets up a familiar identity struggle: where does Batman draw the line? How does he build trust while hiding behind a mask?
In this version of Gotham, Bruce is still quite young and operates alone. Alfred has left him and Jim Gordon, after a brief alliance with the vigilante, is disgraced. (That incident “drowned our credibility in the toilet,” one cop says.) The Gotham police force, viewed here as less of the bastion of corruption it is in other stories, is mostly viewed through the eyes of Blair Wong, a young detective who understands quickly that Batman may be as useful to the city’s corporate titans as he is something they fear.
There is not much new material here, but casual Batman fans — especially readers who know the character more from the movies — will appreciate the story’s self-contained focus and use of original characters like Wong. Unlike many modern Batman stories, this one comes without a lengthy reading list or laundry list of references to prior continuity.
As a standalone work, it excels, thanks to Tomlin’s tight narrative and Sorrentino’s brilliant page designs. (One page is organized as a set of puzzle pieces; another is arranged into the shape of a police badge.) Perhaps the comic’s most striking aesthetic achievement is how its view of Gotham seems at once familiar, but also quite foreign. That is mostly a credit to Sorrentino and colorist Jordie Bellaire, who create a barren version of Gotham that more resembles the setting of a horror comic than anything else.
Even if this issue left something to be desired in terms of its story — and the use of its intriguing premise — it still looks gorgeous and suggests the possibility of a more psychologically complex understanding of Bruce Wayne than we often see. That’s reason enough to keep reading.
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