I'll admit that I was worried about "Detective Comics" when DC announced that its second feature (along with the other ones, line-wide) would go away after December 2010. Scott Snyder had just come on board the title, and in addition to the main story illustrated by Jock, "Detective Comics" #871 had started a second feature by Snyder and artist Francesco Francavilla.
Turns out I shouldn't have worried too much. Snyder was able to take what would have run in "Detective Comics" #873 and combined it with additional pages, forming an entire story in its own right that promises to kick off a much larger story within "Detective Comics" about the return of James Gordon Jr., the son of Gotham City's Commissioner Gordon.
The first half of "Detective Comics" #874 is wonderfully creepy, even though it's something as simple as Gordon and James Jr. sitting down for a conversation within a diner. Up until this point all we've learned about James (aside from footage of him releasing birds from Gotham's Aviary) is through the reactions of others, most notably his adoptive sister Barbara. We've been told to be afraid of James, not to trust him, to be wary of his returned presence. And now that he's center stage? You can see why.
It's some of the quieter beats of the story that stick with you the most; after being told first that James earlier killed a waitress and stuffed her head in the restroom toilet, immediately followed by his promise that it was just a poor attempt at a joke, it's that bathroom door that continues to loom in the background even as James tries to explain where he's been all these years. And as a liquid starts to trickle out from under the door, that seed of doubt that Snyder has planted in the mind of both the reader and Commissioner Gordon starts to take root. Was it really a joke? Or is a nasty shock waiting for whomever pushes that door open? We only see the door a couple of times, even as James continues to talk, but it's just enough to get you worried. And if Commissioner Gordon himself pushes that door open, what does it say about how he views his own son and what he might be capable of?
In general, I appreciate that Snyder is approaching this from a "show, don't tell" attitude. We're four issues into his run and we're still getting hints and pieces of information about James Jr.'s earlier time in Gotham, for instance; mentions that Dick Grayson wouldn't trust James, or references to the "Peter Pan Killer" and the death of Barbara's friend Bess. But in the same way that people who had already lived through an event wouldn't stop and start randomly dropping exposition into their own conversations, we don't get that here either. We're left to start piecing the information together for ourselves, and the picture we've got so far is already looking grim.
The second half of the issue is a little more standard in some aspects, with Dick teaming up with Tim Drake while he recovers from the toxin he was exposed to in the previous issues. At the same time, though, we're starting to see the links between their current mission and the events surrounding James Gordon Jr. This other story doesn't exist in a vacuum, and it makes everything up until this moment feel even more dangerous, the picture slowly expanding as it ceases to just be an internal family squabble.
It helps that Francesco Francavilla is illustrating this story. As much as I love Jock's art (and I'm delighted he's still the other regular artist), Francavilla's own moody style is a welcome treat here. It reminds me in many ways of artists like Joe Kubert, with strong portraits of people and carefully laid down lines that form a strong texture, from the ring on James' collar to the silhouette of his hair. (There's even, dare I say it, a touch of Alex Toth's draftsmanship here.) And by using a limited palette to color the art, Francavilla makes the pages look that much more moody and atmospheric.
Then again, in general the art is an integral part of the story. Something as simple as following water running down a floor drain, into the sewer, and then to the shipyard is more than just a page of bridging art. Tim's dialogue running over that page, kicking off with the comment, "You're fooling yourself again," applies not only to what we're about to see, but what we've just seen as well. The words, like the water, serve as a link between the two halves of the issue, and with the pair of them working together it's a strong one-two punch of a transition.
Snyder and Francavilla are continuing to bring us a moody, dark, primal look at Gotham City and its protectors. From the opening scenes in the Gotham Aviary to the cargo (and visions) in the shipyard, even the most innocent and natural seems dangerous and larger than life. This is, in short, outstanding. If you aren't already reading "Detective Comics" you need to fix that right now.