Review: Batman Annual #1

[Editor’s note: This review may contain spoilers.]

Writers: Tom King, Scott Snyder & Ray Fawkes, Paul Dini, Steve Orlando, Scott Bryan Wilson
Artists: David Finch, Declan Shalvey, Neal Adams, Riley Rossm0, Bilquis Evely

Summary
The first story in this Christmas-themed annual begins with Batman facing a grim scene. Apparently, the Joker had dressed a pack of dogs in matching playing card theme outfits – sort of a canine Royal Flush Gang. However, the Joker had gotten bored with them and left them to fend for themselves. Only the dog dressed up as the Ace of Spades has survived.

Three weeks later, we see Alfred at the Gotham Pound attempting to adopt the dog, despite the Pound manager’s insistence that after what the dog’s been through, it is only fit for dying. But after a hefty donation to rechristen the pound as the “Martha and Thomas Wayne Humane Society,” Alfred is soon departing with the dog.

The next day, we see Bruce in the Wayne Manor dining room. Instead of his breakfast, he finds an angry dog guarding the breakfast from him.

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We then see Alfred’s attempts to train the dog over the next few weeks. Finally, Bruce tells Alfred that it’s no use. The Joker has broken the dog, and it appears there is no fixing him. But after Bruce leaves, we see that Alfred has managed to teach Ace one command – sit.

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This seems to be the turning point, as a few days later, we see Batman returning to the Batcave, to get an enthusiastic greeting from Ace. Finally, on Christmas, we see Bruce has gifted Ace with a mask so he can be a “Bat-Hound” to match his master’s disguise.

Bruce points out to Alfred that he has forgotten to get him a gift this Christmas, and Alfred apologizes for the oversight, but it’s apparent that Alfred’s gift to Bruce is the unconditional love of a pet, muttering to himself “World’s greatest detective. Indeed.”

The second story begins with Batman on patrol in Gotham on a winter’s evening – possibly Christmas Eve? Batman ponders the fact that with a population of 8.5 million and 5.5 911 calls every minute, that Gotham City never has a “Silent Knight” – that is, a slow night where there is no need for Batman to take it slow and not have to address any emergencies.

In fact, Batman will be even more busy, now that he has launched what he calls the “Bat Signal 2.0,” a computerized system that analyzes Gotham’s 911 calls for keywords, linking to police reports and known hotspots, and sending Batman GPS coordinates to the locations where he’s most needed.

Meanwhile, a group of eight people dressed in red and black converge on Champion Square, for some unknown purpose. The new system marks this as a possible terrorist attack, and Batman rushes to the scene.

However, just as Batman arrives, the Bat Signal 2.0 stops feeding any new information. Batman asks Alfred if there is a problem, but it just seems that for a brief time, nothing is happening that flags the criteria as an emergency that requires Batman’s attention.

Also, he finds that instead of a terrorist attack, the group is not perpetrating a terrorist attack, but rather putting on an unscheduled acrobatic display for the Gotham public.

Batman finds himself with a moment of peace in his busy night, and Alfred sagely advises him, “enjoy it while it lasts. Bombardment will surely resume.” Bruce heeds this and enjoys his break, which is quickly broken by word of another emergency.

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The third story begins with Batman stopping Harley Quinn from breaking into Police Headquarters from the roof. Taking her away in the Batmobile, Harley maintains that she wasn’t up to anything bad, all she had with her was candy and cookies. But Batman points out that she also had a suspicious looking pudding emblazoned with the visage of the Joker.

Batman states that as Harley appears to have reformed, he isn’t handing her over to the police, but dropping her off at the city limits. Harley tries to object, but Batman gives her a choice between the city limits or Arkham Asylum, so Harley acquiesces.

Harley then tries to engage Batman in singing some Christmas carols, but Batman isn’t impressed with her choice of “Jingle Bells, Batman smells.” Undaunted, Harley continues with other Christmas songs.

On the way to the city limits, Batman spots some children taking some toys to a charity drop off being accosted by a gang of teens. However, one of the children, a girl dressed in a red and white coat, takes one of the presents, a baseball bat marked like Harley’s mallet and fights the teens off.

Following that, they spot a number of similar situations where people dressed similar to Harley stop situations where Batman would normally have to intervene.

Harley catches Batman singing quietly along with one of her carols, then comments that Batman never had to stop once to beat anyone up during his patrol. Batman comments that it’s been an unusually quiet evening. Harley suggests this might be due to the spirit of infectious good cheer that she spreads.

Finally, the ride is over and Batman orders her out of the Batmobile. Harley starts to grump about how Batman dumped her out in the middle of nowhere in the dead of winter, but quickly realizes that Batman actually drove her all the way to her home in Coney Island where her friends are waiting for her.

The annual’s fourth story starts at a Christmas Town for the children of Gotham City, provided by Barry O’Neill, a billionaire that has pledged to spend his entire fortune on philanthropic causes before his death.

However, the proceedings are interrupted by a villain who calls himself Minister Blizzard, who apparently has been sending O’Neill letters. Blizzard claims to be Prime Minister of an ice kingdom and seeks to restore the world to the Ice Age. Minister Blizzard feels that O’Neill’s fake Christmas Town is a mockery of his life’s work.

Batman appears and very quickly takes Blizzard down. Commissioner Gordon rebukes O’Neill for not telling the police about the letters from Blizzard, but acknowledges that Blizzard didn’t seem like a serious threat.

Later, at Wayne Manor, Bruce is in a pensive mood, and Duke Thomas asks him what’s on his mind. Bruce tells Duke about all the good Barry O’Neill has done for the city, but that O’Neill, an elderly man in his nineties, will someday soon be gone. Even though Batman can stop threats like Blizzard, everybody will meet an end that Batman can’t save them from someday.

Little does Bruce realize that this someday has arrived for Barry O’Neill. As Bruce is talking with Duke, Barry O’Neill is being stabbed to death by a mysterious figure called the Stag.

The final story starts with Batman worried over a Christmas party for the inmates at Arkham Asylum. Batman sees this as the latest of a long string of bad ideas from Arkham psychologists. However, Batman has to deal with other emergencies and can’t spare the time to check in on this party.

At this party we see one inmate, a woman going by the identity of Haunter using the party to escape Arkham using her power to kill people using samples of their DNA, which is a very dangerous power, as she can commit mass murder just from the large amounts of DNA in the environment around her.

Batman, meanwhile, has been combating an outbreak of Scarecrow’s fear gas, but comes to realize this is a distraction to keep him away from Arkham. Batman arrives at Arkham to find that Haunter has escaped and sets out to recapture her. He tracks her down to find her meeting up with Scarecrow.

Haunter attempts to kill Batman by using a sample of his DNA that Scarecrow has procured for her. Unfortunately for her, Batman has prepared for such an eventuality and has taken precautions to make sure his DNA isn’t lying around for anyone to find.

In fact, Batman has turned the tables on them by using Scarecrow’s fear gas to create a nerve toxin to paralyse Haunter and Scarecrow.

Positives
This Christmas-themed annual bears the Rebirth banner, and you can see that the Rebirth ethos of  returning classic elements to the DCU was kept firmly in mind during its creation. We have the return of Ace the Bat-Hound to DC continuity, and two callbacks to the classic Batman Christmas story “The Silent Night Of The Batman” from 1969’s Batman #219 – one of them drawn by the original artist of that story, Neal Adams.

In the original story, Batman hangs out with the GCPD on a Christmas Eve and miraculously not a single emergency requiring Batman’s attention the entire night. This newer take on the same theme makes it clear that Batman is even less likely to get a rest in this more complicated era, but still allows Batman a brief Christmas miracle.

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The Harley Quinn story also refers back to this one, but by taking it in the opposite direction. The original was a “silent” story with no actual dialogue. However, this story adds Harley Quinn – a chatterbox that can’t stop talking throughout the entire tale. But Batman once again gets a break from fighting crime and saving lives, as it seems that Harley spreads some Christmas spirit that inspires Gothamites to come to each other’s aid without Batman’s intervention.

Also, the other component of DC Rebirth’s agenda is evident in these stories as well. Rebirth also aims to carry the DCU’s storylines into new directions, and we get short introductions to two new DC villains – three if you count the easily defeated Minister Blizzard. We are shown a quick tantalizing peak at Stag that gives little information about his motives or abilities. Also, we are introduced to Haunter, a new villain with horrifically deadly powers, who could prove to be one of Batman’s deadliest foes.

Negatives
Despite the nostalgic reintroduction of Ace the Bat-Hound, I have a bit of trouble with this story in terms of continuity. First off, there already is a dog in the Batcave, Damian’s pet Titus, not to mention a cat and a cow. Surely, the introduction of an ill-tempered dog into such a situation would need to show how Ace and the other animals react to each other.

Also, this story shows Bruce at home on Christmas with Alfred and Ace. Shouldn’t other members of the Bat-Family be present for the holiday? At the very least, I would expect Bruce’s son Damian to be present. There might be a valid reason for Damian’s absence, but it seems odd that no explanation is offered.

Verdict
Some readers may find Batman being used in feel-good Christmas tales to be somewhat sappy, but I find it a refreshing break from the bleakness that Batman is typically faced with. Maybe the stories are a little weaker story wise than the typical Batman fare, but it’s nice to see that even the Batman gets a break from the doom and gloom once in a while.

4outof5

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Derek McNeil

I have been an avid reader of DC Comics since the early 70s. My earliest exposure was to Batman and Superman comics, Batman (Adam West) reruns, and watching the Super-Friends every Saturday morning.