DC Comics is in the early stages of a possible renaissance. It did a quasi-reboot of its whole superhero line back in May under the on-the-nose banner “Rebirth,” and has put out a bevy of acclaimed new series. Some of them feature leading roles for relatively minor characters like Deathstroke and the Spoiler, but naturally the publisher’s most lucrative titles are the ones featuring the most famous IP in modern comics. There’s no better example than All-Star Batman, which features a truly fantastic page in its second issue (out yesterday). It's a moment notable for both its innovation and clever, detailed execution.
Written by Scott Snyder and penciled by John Romita Jr., a formidable creative duo, the current All-Star Batman story is a sizzler with a deliciously simple premise: Harvey Dent, the decent man who periodically becomes the sinister Two-Face, asks Batman to take him to a rural location to execute a plan intended to rid him of his alter ego — but just before they hit the road, his Two-Face persona emerges and puts a bounty on Batman’s head. While Batman and Dent/Two-Face are on the road, a wave of villains comes after them.
The action mostly takes place in the sunlit countryside, which is a wholly unnatural environment for the Dark Knight, and on the fifth page we see Batman getting his ass kicked by Two-Face, Killer Croc, King Shark, and a D-list strongman named Amygdala. They’re on top of a moving train, with Amygdala holding Batsy up so an oncoming tunnel will bash his brains in. But then:
In case you, too, missed it: Batman's ears, at least in this story, are actually sheathed knives. It's a brilliantly violent bit of ingenuity on Snyder's part. The idea that the points on Batman’s cowl double as knife handles is — at least to my knowledge — a new one in the canon, and yet it feels so quintessentially Batman-y. The character may eschew guns (we don't recognize the Zack Snyder depiction), but he's an established whiz with weaponry. Of course he would have backup blades on top of his head for times when he can’t reach his utility belt.
The knives mean every part of his costume, even a seemingly superfluous adornment, has a purpose. There’s a scene in Frank Miller and Klaus Janson’s iconic The Dark Knight Returns where Batman muses on the fact that his strongest body armor is right beneath the giant logo on his chest, because it subconsciously makes enemies think of it as a target, leading them to shoot where he’s least vulnerable. Snyder’s idea is an extension of that kind of logic.
Letterer Steve Wands helps sell the hell out of the page by giving us top-notch sound-effects work. I’ve never seen a train whistle rendered as “TAWHOOOOOO,” but it works perfectly, as does the changing size and positioning of the letters. Then, it abruptly cuts out with some dashes — not necessarily because the sound diegetically stops, but rather, as in a film, because the creators want us to focus on another piece of audio, in this case the tiny “KLIK KLIK” of the blades coming out and, two panels later, going back in. After that, the whistle resumes. The lack of a scream from Amygdala implies that we’re supposed to let the visuals overtake the sounds. It also cleverly and subtly fits with the notion that Batman’s “ears” aren’t doing their usual job from the time they’re detached to the time they return.
What seals the deal here is Snyder’s dialogue in the final panel. “Sorry,” Batman says. “Were you saying something, Dent? I must have missed it.” This is, of course, a reference to the fact that his little bat-ears were otherwise occupied, so he wouldn’t have heard Harvey’s ramblings. More important, it’s straight-up a badass action-movie one-liner. Snyder most recently wrote a marvelous 50-odd issue run on Batman, one that was often meditative and intellectual, so it’s a delightful change of pace to see him give in to raw pulp in All-Star. It’s proof that he’s as versatile as he is inventive — and that there are still plenty of surprises possible for one of the oldest characters in comics.