I've greatly enjoyed John Layman and Jason Fabok's run on "Detective Comics," with their "Emperor Penguin" story grabbing my attention almost instantly and coming to a strong conclusion last month. I guess that's why "Detective Comics" #21 is a little disappointing on some level; it's not bad, but Layman and guest artist Scot Eaton's one-off story doesn't feel like it has quite the same amount of punch in its pages.
"Detective Comics" #21 serves as a sequel to "Detective Comics" #0, taking a character that appeared to have died and bringing them back as a new addition to Batman's rogues gallery. It's a typical comic book convention, one that is probably a little overused but not utterly out of the realm of plausibility. The problem is that the character isn't that interesting; Penumbra is little more than a hired killer, and while there's a connection to Batman's past, it's from a not-very-memorable story and there's no real hook to make the character stand out. After such a strong creation in the form of Emperor Penguin, Penumbra is literally just a shadow in comparison.
What might make the main story in "Detective Comics" #21 stand out a bit more to some readers is Harper Row's guest appearance; up until now, she's only showed up in the main "Batman" title. With her crossing over into another title (especially with the set-in-the-past "Zero Year" story around the corner for "Batman"), it's nice to see that she's not a character who's confined to one particular writer. Her role in the story unfortunately isn't that exciting -- it's actually very standard and predictable -- but it continues to show the long-term potential in the character. If nothing else, it's nice to see Eaton's visual take on the character. He's got all her piercings and hair dyes still in place, and the wardrobe is also consistent with what we've seen, but I feel like Eaton's depiction of Harper feels a little older and more mature, less of a teenager. It's a good look for her, and one who comes across at a glance as someone with whom you can see an eventual working relationship between her and Batman.
The best part about "Detective Comics" #21 is actually Layman and Andy Clarke's back-up story about Man-Bat. Following on from his appearance in the title two months ago, we find out what Kirk Langstrom's been up to since then, how permanent the Man-Bat serum is, and what Kirk's found while out on the town in his transformed state. There's a nice little mystery building here, and all in all it's a pleasing back-up feature. It doesn't hurt that Clarke's art is gorgeous as ever, with lots of small delicate lines and a creation of texture on the page that reminds me of artists like Brian Bolland. When Man-Bat faces off against one of the mutated dogs from a couple of issues ago, the hair on Man-Bat's torso looks so fuzzy you almost want to touch the page and feel it for yourself. It's an impressive feat.
"Detective Comics" is such a dependably good title that it's almost a bit of a surprise to have an installment that's just average. Nonetheless, I'll be back for more; when a dip in quality is down to average from great, that's the sort of variance that I think most readers can handle just fine.