"Detective Comics" ranked high on my list of Top 10 comics of 2009. This certainly isn't the "Detective Comics" it used to be.
Obviously, Batwoman's gone, and so is the Question back-up, and so are Rucka and Williams III and Hamner, and all the things that made this comic one of the best on the stands. But issue #866 isn't even of the caliber of the recent Hine/Haun two-partner. No, this is a fill-in story that feels like it doesn't matter at all. Because it doesn't. Not within the story, not within the larger scope of the Bat-Universe, not anywhere.
It's just Denny O'Neil telling the story of a small, irrelevant tragedy, and Dustin Nguyen and Derek Fridolfs taking an opportunity to play around with a different style while showing the early days of Batman and Robin.
The art is good, certainly. Nguyen is credited with layouts and Fridolfs handles the finishes, and it’s a bit more raw than their art usually is. A bit sketchier and more expressionistic. But that's something that helps the issue. It's really the only valuable part of it, as we see the present-day Dick Grayson Batman occupying a world of swirling blackness, and we cut between that and the day-glo (yet faded) past, when Batman and Robin were new to the job, and the Joker was in the early stages of his career. Nguyen and Fridolfs put a Bruce Timm spin on the flashback sequences, and it's a fun choice, but the story they have to work with isn't enough to make it more than an artistic curiosity.
The problem with the story, besides the flat dialogue -- mostly declarative, never saying anything that really matters, even when it tries for some kind of poetic closure at the end -- is that it's ultimately the story of a minor-league minion who isn't established as anyone worth caring about. So all that's left of interest is the all-too-often repeated gag of, hey, there's the old-timey Batmobile. And, hey, look how goofy Batman and Robin used to be in their old days.
And into that tired mix, O'Neil retcons some St. Dumas/Azrael nonsense that involves a medallion and a flaming sword and doesn't seem to serve any purpose within this story.
Maybe it will serve a larger purpose. Maybe this whole seemingly fill-in issue has some relevance to the world of Gotham and the current adventures of Dick Grayson and his pals. But it doesn't feel like it will. So all it has to rely on is its own internal strength, its power to affect the reader within these twenty-two pages. And on that level, the story just fails, even if the art has a bit of charm.