I feel like John Layman’s run on Detective Comics has been both underrated and overrated in a sense. It is underrated in that it doesn’t receive the same kind of attention that Batman and Batman and Robin do (if that’s the case, then we can consider Hurwitz’s run on The Dark Knight to be vastly underrated because it receives even less attention than Detective), yet it is overrated in the sense that its riding the hype of semi-big name writer (Disclaimer: Chew is one of the best things I have ever read [out of comics] but it is vastly over hyped and overrated by its audience, which I am fully a part of) and is therefore incapable of receiving any truly critical criticism (granted this is a base assumption, and a partially correct one at that), and is therefore very hard to review, because it isn’t terrible (it is in fact very good) but it’s not perfect, and I am certain if I had a big internet following a legion of rabid fan-boys would come to attack me.
But what gets me is that I am truly incapable of attacking Layman’s work, and I have therefore invalidated the prior paragraph.
Here’s what’s great about Layman’s Detective run: it’s funny. Even with a seriously grim character like Batman he manages to sneak in bouts of humor, whether subtle or blatant. Now the idea of something being funny is relative to the reader’s own tastes, at least Layman makes attempts at humor. The opening scene in here I find particularly humorous with the villain masked as an old lady is ousted after her accountant openly states that “Mrs. Wenner is dead.” It turns into a humorously grim situation with a monologue by Batman ending in a clever one-liner. What follows is the villains escape with help by anti-Batman analogue The Wrath and his “Wrath-copter”. That’s right: Wrath-copter. Layman’s run is full of things like this, and it’s just wonderful.
Another thing Layman’s run does is juggle multiple story lines and balances them out equally. During the run of the Emperor Penguin storyline, Layman balanced smaller plots involving Clayface, Poison Ivy, Man-Bat and some d-list villains. Some of those (particularly the man-bat one) still have ramifications to the current one involving The Wrath. Layman is one of the better writers in comics when it comes to this sort of thing. However, I feel like I need to address the problems with his run.
The big problem is that it has consisted primarily of tie-ins to other books until now, and is just starting to find an individualistic identity. Not that tying in to other books is bad (especially because it offers greater insight into something else), it’s just that it diminishes the books own personality. And that is not wonderful.
So what does Detective Comics Annual #2 do to find its identity? Well it builds upon last issues introduction of the Wrath, and it does the aforementioned plot-juggling thing with the Jane Doe character and Harvey Bullock’s psychosis. The main story focuses on Jane Doe but ties into The Wrath storyline and the backups, which focuses on Harvey Bullock. Layman’s strong talents as a writer shine through here.
The art by Scot Eaton, Szymon Kudranski, and Derlis Santacruz on the main story and backups respectively are excellent. Scot Eaton gives the characters a thick muscular quality enhanced by the inking while Kudranski’s typically ghostly art makes the first backup ghoulish and haunting. Santacruz has a polished, shiny style which provides a nice juxtaposition to the exploration of Bullock’s inner psychosis in the last backup. All of these add an extra layer of expressiveness to a book still finding its identity. Layman’s very good (but not great) writing is enhanced by very good (but also not great) art. It’s a book that does what it does very well but its identity is still needing some finding.
In a way, the characters in this particular comic are all about identity. Batman is the ultimate good identity while Wrath is the antithesis of this identity. You also have Jane Doe who has no real identity and has to steal others while Bullock has to hide his interior identity to keep his tough exterior persona on show. We get a glimpse of the different shades of Bullock in each chapter, and this ties back into the art expressing each of the different personas. In the main chapter we get the exposed Bullock, tied up and captured helpless. In the first backup, we get a sort-of (?) look at Bullock via Jane Doe and his inner sensitivity, and finally in the last backup, we get a look at his tough-guy exterior, appropriately portrayed via the shiny, surface-glossing art of Santacruz. It’s a wonderfully subtle way to combine Layman’s psychological examinations via three different art styles.
Detective Comics Annual #2 is still plagued by the same problems it’s had before but in an oddly ironic way. It’s an issue that deals a lot with identity, but in a weird sort of meta-textual way, it still struggles to find its own identity. It’s on its way to developing its own persona but for now it’s like the Jane Doe character: it has no identity of its own, and it has to steal from its own writer.