It isn't easy for a new Batman villain to bed in. Most creators seem dead set on giving us their Joker story, followed by their Joker story sequel, and maybe a smattering of Two-Face, Penguin, Riddler and Scarecrow tales. It's rare that new characters are used often enough to become staples of Batman's rogues' gallery. Ventriloquist, Black Mask, Killer Croc ... they're among the lucky few created since the Seventies to have caught on with both writers and readers. Whether Red Hood and Hush, who have been shoehorned into numerous Batman stories over the last few years, stay the course remains to be seen.
I don't know if The Absence, the villain created by Paul Cornell for his three-issue run with penciller Scott McDaniel, will prove to have longevity. But should Batman and Robin #17-19 turn out to represent her one day in the sun, well, it'll have been a day to remember.
For some new villains don't get even one good story before vanishing, and The Absence is getting a splendid starring role.
Actually, oblivion would suit her down to the ground, given what we learn of the character - real name Una Nemo - in this issue. McDaniel's striking visual shows her with a massive hole through her head, and that's not artistic licence - a genuine medical syndrome combined with a robber's bullet sends her down a dangerous path. And it's a path for which Bruce Wayne should take some responsibility - or so she (quite reasonably) thinks.
Una spends several pages recounting her bizarre past to Dynamite Duo Dick and Damian, and while big infodumps can often stop a story dead in its tracks, her narrative transforms an absorbing tale into compulsive reading. Una's thoughts, her motivations and plans make perfect sense given what we see of her relationship with Bruce Wayne. He treated her like an empty-headed girlfriend, someone who could be used as part of his disguise. He was half right. No idiot, she put two and two together and made 'beard', and everything went downhill from there.
All credit to Cornell for taking advantage of the new Gotham set-up to tell a story that wouldn't have been possible a month or two back - Una's actions turn on Wayne's recent Batman Inc revelations. What results is a clever story that in no way reads like the fill-in it technically is ... it takes place at the same time as Bruce Wayne's Japan trip in Batman Incorporated, and feels far from throwaway.
Una's narrative means there's less room than usual for Damian's dialogue gems, but every panel we do get of the little tyke counts. Dick is as perfect a Batman as ever, as concerned about the safety of Una's gang as he is their own. And Una is a treat to spend time with, delivering lines that reference her schtick without a single slice of ham ('We've a lot to get through'; 'Nothing's going to happen').
Sharing the pencils with McDaniel is The Batman Strikes! artist Christopher Jones, and I could barely see the join - the illustrations are big and clever, and well-inked by Rob Hunter, Art Thibert and Andy Owens. Guillem March provides a wonderfully nightmarish cover, capping a very strong package.
When is a fill-in not a fill-in? When it's a great comic.