It's villains to the fore in this latest collection of shorts. Seven stories, eight reprobates, 70pp intended to enthral and illuminate. Let's take a look at what editors Harvey Richards, Janelle Siegel and Mike Marts have gathered together in Batman's name:
- 'Reality Check', by Peter Miriani and Szymon Kudranski, is that old chestnut, the Joker vs the latest Arkham Asylum shrink. But it's a beautifully written, gorgeously drawn, chestnut that tastes rather good. While I find the lack of security at Arkham ridiculous, that's the way it apparently has to be for Batman stories to work. It's a shame that the psychiatrist's arrogance/naivety stacks the odds so heavily in the Joker's favour - isn't there one mental professional in Gotham worthy of their medical degree? Miriani's script is sharp and the best is brought out of Kudranski's moody artwork by John Kalisz's thoughtfully placed colours. Dave Sharpe's letters are rather good too.
- Marvel Comics regular Paul Tobin dips his toe into the DC Universe with 'May I have this dancer?', a sweet story featuring the currrently reformed (and much less interesting) Riddler being blackmailed into considering a return to crime. Catwoman cameos in an enjoyable romp, given peppy visual life by Ryan Kelly and colourist Trish Mulvihill. Steve Wands ties things together with his usual splendid lettering
- 'Every day counts' stars - you guessed it - Calendar Man. I can't recall the longtime villain ever having a spotlight, but his day has come. Matthew Manning's script is nicely crafted and adds poignancy to a one-note character, while the art of Garry Brown and John Livesay has a haunting quality. I've come across neither Brown, nor talented colour artist Chris Beckett, previously, but this assignment should guarantee more work for both of them. Pat Brosseau - who also handles this issue's production design - letters.
- 'The Crocodile Hunter' involves an urban legends-hunting TV crew going into the Gotham drainage system to investigate 'The Sewer Crocodile'. This would be a TV crew which, somehow, has never heard of Killer Croc. Mandy McMurray does a decent job telling the story, but it's a story that refuses to acknowledge the realities of its setting - this isn't Seattle, or San Francisco, where you wouldn't expect to find a mobster mutated into a man-eating reptile; it's Gotham City, where Killer Croc has hunted for years. Still, the inky artwork of Matthew Southworth is grimly effective, especially the last couple of pages. Southworth does his own colours, while Dave Sharpe is back to letter (though the credits say Steve Wands - see comments, below).
- 'Threshold' has Scarecrow trying to get inside the head of Batman. We see the nightmares caused to the Caped Crusader by his latest fear toxin, and he comes to some conclusions, based on physiological responses and Batman's cries, that he reckons will give him an advantage in future. Writer-artist John Stanisci presents memorable, nightmarish imagery, and I get that Batman's feelings of guilt are amplified, but the story still leaves the unfortunate impression that our hero is a basket case. Letterer Pat Brosseau and colourists Tanya and Richard Horie lend support.
- 'Within the walls of Dis' is a twisted tale from Brad Desnoyer. Sad too, as the terrifyingly hapless would-be repairman Humpty Dumpty winds up in the middle of a sick game played by the Joker and Two-Face. The outstanding script is brought to life by penciller Lee Ferguson, inker Marc Deering and colourist Jose Villarrubia. There's a marvellous synergy between the three, with the art having a Brian Bolland quality, while remaining its own animal. Letters by Sharpe.
- The last story breaks the giant's format, by not offering so much as a single villain. But I'm glad it's in here, because it's my favourite. 'Two-Face' defies expectations by not being about Harvey Dent. It concerns the parallel lives of Batman and Bruce Wayne and is one of the cleverest, most satisfying strips I've seen in a long while. And apart from the fascinating structure, a single page sells the idea of Bruce as playboy better than anything I've seen. Sean Ryan, who usually has an editor's credit, surprises with this deft little tale, one which artist Joe Suitor brings to dazzling life. If there's a comic book award for best short, DC should submit this right now.