After mocking the Bat for years, Garth Ennis takes him on directly in his first proper Bat-book since Legends of the Dark Knight. This, after scathing parodies in The Boys and The Pro. And, of course, having Tommy Monaghan puke all over his boots in Hitman. But, in spite of Ennis’s cynicism towards the Dark Knight and his fellow caped crusaders, there’s always been an undercurrent of respect there. Batman, Ennis has said, is “one of those military genius figures – you’d want him on your side, but you wouldn’t want to spend more than two seconds in his company.”
And it’s this begrudging respect which informs Reptilian, the latest DC Black Label miniseries from Ennis and artist Liam Sharp. Something is tearing up bad guys in Gotham, leaving Scarecrow, Riddler and the Penguin ripped to pieces. Batman is on the case, enlisting one of Gotham’s many goons-for-hire to help track down the monster responsible. All of this, without checking in on the really obvious suspect. Notable for his absence in this first issue, it doesn’t take the world’s greatest detective to work out that Killer Croc is probably involved somewhere, somehow.
Could Garth Ennis’s Black Label debut boil down to something as simple as a Killer Croc story? It seems unlikely, but even if this were just a basic Croc-on-the-rampage story, this first issue is anything but basic. Ennis sets aside the sneer to deliver Batman at his most imposing, most self-righteous, and downright loquacious. Talkative Batmen are a risky prospect (just ask Kevin Smith, and his Widening Gyre), but it works for Ennis’s vision - goading an acquitted abuser into attacking him, then knocking him out in front of a full press gallery. It certainly beats the usual overplayed “I am Batman” schtick.
Artist and colourist Liam Sharp leans into this less-than-conventional approach to the character, and his Batman design is equally odd - a cross between Dave McKean’s Arkham Asylum design, and the live-action Michael Keaton. It’s a far cry from the neat and precise Steve Dillon work that was initially intended, but works wonders for the story. His Batman is scary and imposing; his villains stubby and weird; his Gotham City a bleak Gothic hellscape. His Alfred? Christopher Plummer.
This creative direction is unlikely to work for all, but it’s a great addition to the Black Label line-up; an off-continuity horror story which delivers a compelling take on its leading man. Not one that you’d want to spend a lot of time with, but certainly one that you’re glad to have around.