Review by Karl Verhoven
Over The Cowardly Lot’s opening chapter James Tynion IV stresses how Gotham City is falling apart, how the feeling is that Batman has lost control, and how the lunatics now command the city. Although espoused by someone with shady motives who’s exploited the situation, there’s some truth to that. “A cold unfeeling system that was designed decades ago and has been falling apart for longer than any of them have been alive” is how new character Miracle Molly sees Gotham.
Tynion increases that feeling by minimising Batman’s presence for half the book. Very few pages of every chapter actually feature him as Tynion tours his spotlight around others. New villain Wyze and his Unsane associates get plenty of space, as do Mayor Nakano, Oracle, Harley Quinn, technological genius Simon Saint, and even Bruce Wayne’s informer alias Matches, but there’s not an awful lot of Batman over the first half. Still, turning Batman into an ensemble book and deconstructing Gotham yet again are only problematical if Tynion doesn’t ensure the thrills are sustained, and they are. The title refers to Gotham’s citizens, as per Miracle Molly quoted above, who continue with their daily lives aware something’s very wrong, yet so few are motivated to do anything about it, and that sustains the status quo.
If Jorge Jiménez stunned when drawing The Joker War, he’ll blow you away with The Cowardly Lot. The sheer thought and effort dazzles. The cityscapes are full, and with Tomeu Morey’s colours added the lights almost seem to blink. How much effort does Jiménez put in? There’s a scene where Oracle is eating a burger as she talks with Batman, and close-ups of her face show small traces of ketchup. His Batman is a little too sculpted, but not as excessively exaggerated beyond the bounds of superhero acceptibility.
All but the opening and final chapter are told as flashbacks, Tynion reminding readers of that with chapter openings showing Batman attempting to resist the Scarecrow’s mind-altering fear potions. The Scarecrow is apparently all over The Cowardly Lot, planting scarecrows in the homes of the influential, but taking no other action, causing fear by suggestion, and that eventually panics the mayor into acting rashly. Better still, while The Cowardly Lot is mainly just a prelude for Fear State. Tynion moves a lot of people into the places they need to be, and while doing so still delivers a compelling story, while following up what was introduced in Ghost Stories.
A downside? Apparently swearing is now okay in Batman comics, but not proper swearing reflecting the world as it is, but a preposterous halfway house where swear words are replaced with lines of little bat-symbols. It’s not cute, it’s not smart and it annoys everyone. It’s okay not to have people swear. If readers can accept a world where a man dressed as a giant bat swoops from the sky, they can certainly make the minor adjustment to not hearing potty mouths. If DC want to do it, though, why this stupid halfway house? It’s not only Gotham’s middle class who’re the cowardly lot.