A month before Christmas, Batman Annual #1 taps into the Caped Crusader’s lighter and more whimsical side with heartwarming stories from comics greats like Tom King, Scott Snyder, Ray Fawkes, Paul Dini, David Finch, Declan Shalvey and Jordie Bellaire, and Neal Adams, who colors his own pencils in a super fun Harley Quinn/Batman team-up story that pokes funs at her overwhelming popularity. Then, the comic takes a turn for the freaky with a couple of unsettling stories from Steve Orlando, Riley Rossmo, and Ivan Plascencia and Scott Bryan Wilson, Bilquis Evely, and Mat Lopes. This is where the comic takes a downturn in quality with Wilson, Evely, and Lopes’ story relying on verbose Batman narration instead of the thrills and chills of villain, who kills with her victim’s DNA.
The current Batman creative team, Tom King and David Finch with colorist Gabe Eltaeb, lead off the annual with a funny story about Batman adopting a dog. The fact that Finch and Eltaeb draw and color it in a slick, yet traditional superhero makes it even more hilarious as Alfred tries to house train Ace (who of course becomes the Bathound) while Batman is off taking calls on the Bat-computer and ignoring this adorable pooch, who was trained by the Joker to be an attack dog. As in most Tom King comics, there is a lot more under the surface as the story illustrates the fact that while fighting the big picture of crime in Gotham, Batman sometimes forgets to connect with individual people… and animals. And Alfred reminds him of this fact in a panel that will make long time Batman readers smile as he places a little mask on Ace, and the first story of Batman Annual, like many of the DC Rebirth comics, expertly blends the traditional and forward thinking.
The visually strongest of all the Batman Annual stories is the second one where Batman enjoys a silent night in Gotham courtesy of Scott Snyder, Ray Fawkes, Declan Shalvey, and Jordie Bellaire. Like most of Snyder’s Bat-stories, the setting of Gotham plays a major role as Batman now has a special Bat-signal that cycles through all the emergency calls and helps him jump into action quicker , but Snyder and Fawkes don’t go the criticizing Batman’s problematic and illegal surveillance route.
Instead, they rest on the lean minimalism of Shalvey’s pencils and inks and the even keel color palette of Bellaire, who doesn’t go primary color bright or full black and gray dark to show what a crime-less moment in Gotham feels like for Batman. There are repeated panels of computer code that stop lighting up as two acrobats perform for Gothamites as Champions Square, a kind of Switzerland for both criminals and ordinary citizens. Batman investigates the acrobats, but literally, nothing wrong is happening. Snyder returns to the theme of Alfred and Batman as father and son for a short moment when Alfred shares some British special forces wisdom telling him to rest for the moment because “the bombardment will surely resume.” And it does with Shalvey and Bellaire crafting a full-page splash of the hero in action with a billowing cape in tow.
In a dream-like story, Paul Dini returns to his most famous creation, Harley Quinn, with legendary Bat-artist Neal Adams in tow. Adams’ work is superior to his recent work on Coming of the Supermen as he colors his own work, and you can still see much of his original linework like when Batman accidentally starts singing Christmas carols with Harley Quinn. The story fits into Harley’s more heroic, yet still, wacky alignment as a gang of basically her cosplayers keeps Gotham safe so Batman can have an uneventful holiday of listening to Harley wail Christmas carols. These look-alikes symbolize the omnipresence of Harley Quinn in 2016’s pop culture as Dini rejoices in her stardom, and Adams’ art is definitely up to the task of showing her unbridled energy as she still wants to go Christmas caroling at 4 AM after a long drive from Gotham to Coney Island.
In Steve Orlando, Riley Rossmo, and Ivan Plascencia’s story, the tone of Batman Annual #1 switches from broad comedy to horror. This is despite the comic opening with a campy riff on Arnold Schwarzenegger’s performance as Mr. Freeze in Batman and Robin with a villain, who wants to start a new Ice Age. Plascencia’s colors for the aptly named Minister Blizzard are a rich blue, and you can feel the winter chill as you turn the page. And it brightens as Batman beats up Blizzard in front of a crowd of poor children, who get to be happy and watch their hero save the day in front of him. Rossmo also gives Gordon some humorous reaction panels as he watches Batman completely dismantle the bad guy. His features change to maybe feeling a little bit sorry for Blizzard as Batman’s punches draw blood.
But, in the final page, funny and heartwarming switches to horror as Rossmo brings out the gore and the shadows to go with Plascencia’s red and blacks. There is a twist ending as the kind Gotham philanthropist, Barry O’Neil, meets a grisly end, and Batman can’t do anything to stop a new villain called the Stag, who sports long, spindly fingers and a creepy mask. And they are supposed to return in 2017 so be prepared for more chills in various Batman or other DC comics to ring in the New Year.
Scott Bryan Wilson, Bilquis Evely, and Mat Lopes’ story in Batman Annual #1 is the most ambitious of the five and also the most disappointing. The comic has the clever setting of an Arkham Asylum Christmas party that the villain Haunter spreads a special mix of fear gas to give the inmates anxiety as she runs off to be with her friend, Scarecrow. She has the ability to kill using DNA, but Wilson talks about this ability more than cutting loose Evely and Lopes loose to show it. He also spends a lot of time having Batman narrate his plan to defeat Haunter instead of showing his cleverness the ending is pretty fantastic though with Batman leaving Haunter and Scarecrow giving them a choice to try to survive them in the cold. instead of just sending them back in Arkham even if the story seems overpacked for a six pager.
Batman Annual #1 shows a rare heartwarming side of Batman and his crusade to fight crime with the Christmas holidays as a backdrop and also acts as a showcase for comics talent, old and new.
Story: Tom King, Scott Snyder, Ray Fawkes, Paul Dini, Steve Orlando, Scott Bryan Wilson Art: David Finch, Declan Shalvey, Neal Adams, Riley Rossmo, Bilquis Evely Colors: Gabe Eltaeb, Jordie Bellaire, Ivan Plascencia, Mat Lopes
Story: 8 Art: 9 Overall: 8.5 Recommendation: Buy
DC Comics provided Graphic Policy with a FREE copy for review