In the world of Batman, murder and mayhem are the daily grind, but one particular string of deaths has the Dark Knight at the end of his rope in Batman Vs. Bigby: A Wolf In Gotham #1. As victims turn up dead, torn to shreds by some kind of animal, rumors declare that a werewolf is on the loose. Is there something supernatural at work? Or is there something more grounded, but just as sinister behind the gruesome killings? These questions are enough to put Batman on edge as he tails every lead. As it turns out, though, the Dark Knight might be leaving a trail of his own -- and a certain hairy chain-smoker is following closely.
Two dark and terrifying worlds -- and heroes -- collide in the new series Batman Vs. Bigby, a crossover between the Dark Knight and Fables. As expected, the book features an oppressive atmosphere, with heroes who are as violent as the villains. For the nigh-hopeless and beleaguered world of Gotham, this is par for the course. However, the aesthetic and writing style here reflects the trend in recent years towards darkness, grittiness and bleakness -- often to the point of ridiculousness and not matched since the 1990s.
Writer Bill Willingham does a good job of setting up the story. The characters on both sides -- good and evil alike -- are introduced quickly. Most notable is the excellent introduction of Fables' Bigby Wolf as a mysterious and very hairy man, with a lit cigarette always in hand as he stalks Batman. The werewolf angle sets up a good whodunit with potential twists and turns, leading to a tense confrontation between Bat and Wolf. Willingham also employs good use of dramatic irony, giving the readers more information about the crime before the characters in the story realize what is happening, which creates plenty of tension as Bigby falls under Batman's mistaken suspicions.
However, for a detective story, Batman Vs. Bigby doesn't involve that much detective work -- or a lot of mystery, for that matter. Despite the strong start, the issue begins to unravel in terms of writing, pacing and characterization. Batman's anxiety leads him to act in a particularly harsh and impulsive manner, which can be hard to watch. The writing also resorts to cheap tactics to make the audience sympathize with the villains' victims; one scene involves images of the victim's family as he is getting tortured, a cliché that robs the scene of real tension.
The biggest flaw of Batman Vs. Bigby is the way it handles its mystery. While the use of dramatic irony worked for this issue, it does dampen down the "whodunit" and "ironic twist" aspects the first scenes were setting up. It's hard to tell, going forward, if the story will continue in a classic whodunit format, or if it will go for the Hitchock-style approach, especially now that the two opposing heroes have met.
Meanwhile, the art has a more delicately balanced sort of hideousness. Artists Brian Level, Lee Loughridge and Jay Leisten portray a decaying Gotham with an eerily realistic filthiness. Pages are laced with broken windows, cracked walls, garbage, stray newspaper pages and more smoke than a noir film, thanks to Batman's chain-smoking stalker. Loughridge's beautifully nauseating color palette is especially effective. Brights such as yellow, red and purple appear diseased to convey unease. Sweat, tears, blood and mucus on the human characters add to this dirtiness. In the hands of lesser artists, this approach would render a comic repulsive, dull and near-unreadable; however, the team instead presents an ugliness that is compelling and beautiful, in masterful Gothic fashion.
The murder mystery elements are the main selling points in Batman Vs. Bigby, but the story gives away too much too quickly. While the first issue may have showed its teeth too soon, the messy violence and darkness so far hint at a brutally bloody good time in the next issue and potential for a truer, more covert mystery to explore in the process.