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Batman: Widening Gyre is Kevin Smith's second attempt at a Batman graphic novel after the OK-but-nothing special Batman Cacophony. It's a companion piece to that volume and sees a new mysterious vigilante appear in Gotham. Impressed by his skills, Batman questions whether he has found an ally who can assist in the fight against crime and who might ultimately prove a worthy guardian for Gotham, allowing Batman to retire. Meanwhile (in a slightly convenient plot device) one of the ex-loves of Batman's life - Silver St Cloud - reappears, looking to re-establish her relationship with the Dark Knight.
First the bad news: many of the criticisms that were levelled against Cacophony also apply here. First of all, the plot is not exactly original. There are dozens of examples throughout Batman's history of his struggle to balance his mission with his desire to lead a "normal" life. Similarly, there are plenty of storylines that have seen the appearance of another vigilante, anxious to either outdo Batman or to win his approval. In that sense, the Widening Gyre is rather disappointing, because once again, it fails to add anything new to the Batman mythology. Indeed, the story is not as well told as some other examples of similar storylines.
Everything in The Widening Gyre actually feels rather superficial, as if the writers are playing at being a comic book writer, rather than actually being one (which, of course, in a sense is true). Kevin Smith's background as a film writer/director should, in theory, help him out - he's used to creating stories and realising them in a visual medium; in fact it seems to hamper him.
You do rather get the impression that Kevin Smith doesn't quite UNDERSTAND Batman; that (given his ear for dialogue), he'd be better off in the lighter world of Superman or, crossing the Marvel/DC divide, with the wise-cracking Spider-Man. Batman is a dark, lone character and Smith wants to make him too chatty, too open... almost nice. This robs Batman of his main characteristics: the driven determination to stop crime at all costs, at the expense of everything else. He even has Batman crack a couple of small jokes, which is completely out of character (although in fairness, this unlikely change of attitude is referred to by another character). What sets Batman apart from all the other characters in the DC Universe is his unrelenting darkness - something which Smith doesn't seem able to grasp.
The characters in the book are equally shallow and one dimensional. Even regulars in the Batman Universe (Robin, Nightwing etc.) have very limited characterisation. Silver St Cloud simply comes across as a whiny airhead - not at all the sort of person that is likely to attract the affection of the REAL Bruce Wayne (as opposed to his playboy millionaire persona). Worse still, the complex Bruce Wayne/Batman dynamic - so crucial to the very best Batman tales - is all but lost. Indeed, at times the plot reduces Batman to the role of incompetent amateur, relying on allies to save him, rather than being showing why he is regarded as the world's greatest crime fighter.
There are superficial vagaries within the plot, too. The indecent haste with which Wayne suddenly forgets his lifelong battle against crime as soon as Silver St Cloud reappears just doesn't ring true. The driving force behind so many Batman tales is the conflict between Batman's desire to fight crime and Bruce Wayne's desire for a "normal" life. Yet, here it seems there is no conflict. Batman doesn't agonise over whether he can afford to let St Cloud back into his life - one flutter of her eyelashes and he's hopping into bed with her.
The same is true of the strand which focuses on the appearance of a new vigilante. When this has been done before (The Huntress, Anarky) Batman has been deeply suspicious and disproving of their motives and methods, seeing them as a destabilising influence in "his" city. Yet, as soon as Baphomet (the new vigilante appears) he's openly admiring and almost completely accepting him as a partner. This is just one of many examples of Batman acting totally out of character.
It's not that Widening Gyre is poor; it's just that somehow it doesn't engage in quite the way you expect it to, nor does it all hang together somehow. The narrative feels disjointed; it seems as though there are two separate tales here - one the appearance of a new masked vigilante and the other Bruce Wayne's renewed relationship with Silver St Cloud. Although there are clearly links between the two, they always feel like there is some vital connection missing somewhere.
There are plenty of nice touches: there is a deep sense of continuity with Batman history and lots of pleasing cameos from various people from the Batman/DC universe, including The Joker, Poison Ivy and The Outsiders (a group Batman temporarily teamed up with in the 70s and 80s). There are some genuinely touching scenes with Selena Kyle/Catwoman who misses her ex-lover Bruce Wayne/Batman and wants to know whether their relationship has any future. It's clear that when it comes to Batman Kevin Smith has the knowledge; he just doesn't seem to know what to do with it.
The real issue with the narrative, though, is that it is such a slow burner. The entire story is essentially building up to the very last page of the entire volume and there's not really enough going on elsewhere to keep your attention until you get there. The final few pages building up to the key revelation also don't tally with what we know of the "real" Batman, so whilst the final reveal is interesting, it still feels very artificial.
The artwork from Walter Flanagan is similarly of variable quality. Like Smith's narrative, you sometimes get the impression that Flanagan really understands Batman's world and captures the dark elements of the character well. When concentrating on these darker elements (the appearance of Cornelius Stirk, the Joker's cameo), Flanagan really nails the grotesque nature of the characters and the sense of danger they pose to innocent people. Similarly, the story flashbacks which examine Dick Grayson's time as Robin are well-drawn, with the day-glo colours perfectly capturing the more naive artwork of comics in the 50s or 60s. Where things are less certain is where Batman is frolicking with Silver St Cloud. These remove Bruce Wayne from his normal brooding environment and take place in broad daylight on idyllic beaches which simply do not suit the character. OK, so this is meant to be a direct contrast to the darker elements, but it doesn't really work.
At the end of the day, this is little more than a curiosity; it's a passable enough read, but you don't really feel that it actually adds anything to previous Batman tales. It's interesting enough so that I'll probably pick up volume 2 when it comes out, but I can't say I'm awaiting it with bated breath.
Batman: The Widening Gyre
Kevin Smith & Walter Flanagan
Titan Books, 2010
(c) Copyright SWSt 2011