Detective Comics #840
Title: The Resurrection of Ra's Al Ghul: Epilogue
Writer: Paul Dini
Penciler: Dustin Nguyen
Inker: Derek Fridolfs
Colorist: John Kalisz
Letterer: Randy Gentile
Cover: Dustin Nguyen
By Michael David Sims
23 January 2008 — How far will Batman go to protect Gotham City and the world? More importantly, how far will he go to protect his family? That's the question Paul Dini asks and deftly answers in Detective Comics #840, the epilogue of the recent "The Resurrection of Ra's al Ghul" storyline.
Before I continue, I should note that I have not read said storyline. When it's eventually collected, that's when I'll read it. So then, what am I doing reading the epilogue to a story I didn't follow? The answer is simple: I heard it was good.
And it is. It's really good.
Despite having not read "Resurrection," Detective #840 did an excellent job filling me in: Ra's al Ghul was resurrected (duh), but something went wrong (presumably that's where Batman fits in) and now Ra's wants revenge on Batman, his city and family. Armed with that, I was able to comfortably read this issue without a single question being raised. Furthermore, I haven't read Detective Comics in the single-issue format since issue #817 — the first part of the "Face the Face" storyline that spanned Detective and Batman. So even though I'm rusty on what Batman's been up to in his premier comic, it was like I never stopped reading. In my book, that's the mark of an excellent comic! If a reader can walk away for a while and return without so much as a hiccup, the writer has done something right.
Granted, that could be the nature of the character — Batman really is a great gateway character — but here it's the writing. "Resurrection" was a massive story, one which filtered through Detective Comics, Batman, Robin and even Nightwing. This being the clean-up / aftermath issue, new and / or returning readers could very easily be put-off by the connection. Too often these epilogues have been used to squeeze a few more dollars from our already strained wallets. And too often these epilogues have been of a lesser quality. So naturally we're leery of them. In this case, other comic book writers should pay very close attention to what Paul Dini has done here. In just a few captions he summarized the storyline without clunky exposition, and then moved forward with the story he wanted to tell. He also made this feel important to "Resurrection," which, again, isn't something these types of books normally do. This issue will have long-lasting consequences on Batman, his pocket of the DC Universe and, quite possibly, all of the DCU. Yes, believe it or not, #840 is a weighty issue that lacks exposition and is easily accessible to new readers
Back to the questions I asked at the opening of this review: Batman has a line. We all know what it is, and he's sworn never to cross it. Here, this is the closest he's ever come to pulling the trigger — so to speak. Dini cleverly takes Batman right to said line, but stops short enough so that the character isn't compromised. It would have been quite easy (and made sense) for Batman to kill Ra's after what he did in this issue (and presumably in "Resurrection"). Instead he implemented a plan that doesn't compromise who Batman is, yet will weigh heavily on his soul for a very long time. It also reminds us that Batman has contingency plans. He's always thinking of ways to neutralize a threat, and this is how he does so with Ra's.
Another thing Dini does well here is to bring all of Batman's skills together; he's a crime fighting ninja with a cunning brain that can be used to dupe villains into revealing their schemes. And while he never takes his villains lightly, he doesn't get cocky. He's a scientist, a detective and a master of disguise. He's manipulative, too. But most importantly he's a protective patriarch. When I say that Paul Dini touched upon all that in one issue, I mean it. The Batman in this issue isn't a one-sided, gruff, bat-themed lunatic. He's a living, breathing man whose motivations anyone can understand: when you come to Gotham City, when you threaten his family, you're done.
Enough about Dini; what about artist Dustin Nguyen, who makes his Detective debut?
Two words: stunningly moody. His angled lines remind us of the harsh, deadly world in which Batman lives. Detail-rich backgrounds are provided when needed, but he knows when to let them fall away so as not to distract from the action. Together his angles and details come together to form a Gotham City that's a melding of modern and gothic architecture, where sleek skyscrapers meet haunted mansions meet slums. His character designs are all his own, yet they never lose sight of who these people are; even though Ra's is in an all-new body, anybody who's ever seen him in the comic books or Batman: The Animated Series will instantly know who this is. Faces are distinct. Shadows are used appropriately to set the tone of every scene, including one that gives us a look into Batman's tortured heart and soul. More than once the point-of-view is skewed to send us topsy-turvy. The action is swift, yet the final, brutal moment between Ra's and Batman seems to slow to a halt. There isn't anything Nguyen does wrong here, with much thanks to his collaborators Derek Fridolfs and John Kalisz who add the right tones to Nguyen's pages — especially the final four.
Though some people might find Nguyen's slight Asian flair all wrong for Detective Comics and Batman, I couldn't disagree more. What better way to move a book and character forward, stylistically speaking, than by embracing a very small piece of Eastern comic books? No, Bruce Wayne doesn't have spiky blue hair, and Ra's doesn't make a "GUH-HUH?!" face when Batman enters the room. What they do have, however, are subtle hints of manga in their faces. It's in the way Batman's cape and cowl are drawn. The angle and shading of his chest are a bit foreign, if you'll pardon the expression. When pieced together with what we've come to expect from a Batman comic, you'll notice there's something different about the characters and world, but it will never feel out of place. Nguyen's at home on Detective Comics, and hopefully he's here to stay.
My only real gripe pertains to the decision to bring Ra's back, so it isn't even a slight against the book. Without spoiling the outcome / Ra's fate, allow me to say this: why stage such a crossover, why bring Ra's al Ghul back from the dead only to end the issue in this manner? Saying more wouldn't be right, and, again, I want to reiterate that I'm not holding this against #840. I simply don't understand DC's decision here. That said, the ending is chilling, and I can't recommend Detective Comics #840 enough. Don't worry about coming into a storyline at the very end. Don't worry if you haven't read a Batman comic in years. Don't worry about Nguyen's art. Don't worry about anything. Simply read this book.