In “Batman Eternal” #39, Batman finally tracks Joker down, while new havoc is unleashed in Gotham under the watch of the writing team of Scott Snyder, James Tynion IV, Ray Fawkes, Kyle Higgins and Tim Seeley.
The plot is still building towards another climax and, consequently, the action of “Batman Eternal” #39 feels slow. The Riddler’s presence has the usual effect of breaking the plot into smaller parts as he refuses to provide Batman with any straight answers. The riddles are amusing and provide some visually interesting changes in setting that allow Ruiz to flex some artwork muscles. The very end of the Batman/Riddler confrontation is satisfying, since it proves that Batman’s hunch about the phrasing of “our foe” is correct, and the Riddler’s confession of his seemingly sincere desire to destroy Batman only when the latter is at the top of his game provides a moment of catharsis. At first, all the setting changes feel like needless background shifting and decompression but they do eventually justify themselves. The mountain environment emphasizes the isolation and thus the intimacy of the conversation between Batman and Riddler.
Meanwhile, back in Gotham, the reversal of the capture of so many villains is a ho-hum development. At the Riddler points out, Batman is worn down, possibly “half-mad” from so many traumas. There are only so many times Gotham can be razed consecutively before it loses effect. The conversation between Warren and Vicki also doesn’t add any new layers but the slow, quiet office scenes make for an effective visual counterpoint to the action on the streets.
Felix Ruiz’s linework and his crosshatched, powdery shading techniques are beautiful. Some interior scenes are gorgeous, especially the first look at the Bullseye Casino Resort interior, where Ruiz does a hauntingly lovely job of using the Batman silhouette with the inky tendrils on the floor meshing with the checkboard tiles. The swirling snow landscape is similarly effective as Batman ascends the mountain, and Dave McCaig’s muted color work in these scenes allows Ruiz’s approach to shine. The warm yellows in the sequence where several villains break loose are woven into great use of light and shadow, and on the final page, McCaig’s colors do the job of intensifying the cliffhanger.
Not every page visually clicks, though. Ruiz’s panel composition is needlessly elaborate — tilted with irregular panels — in the title page’s double-page spread and for the rest of the opening scene. The effect distracts and disorients instead of enhancing the story, the gutters not connecting quickly enough for the action to be smooth and decipherable. Another occasional artistic weakness is the readability of his facial expressions. In multiple scenes, expressions are stiff and the characters don’t look like they are participating in the lines of dialogue, the exception being Riddler’s “I can wait!” scene.
Still, the pros outnumber the cons in Ruiz’s work, especially when he provides a fantastic double-paged spread near the end of the issue, which shows off an impressive ability to use negative space for dramatic effect. John J. Hill’s lettering also comes to the forefront in those two pages; his use of a sound effect has even more impact than normal, because the arc of the letters reinforces and amplifies the movement of the action.
Ultimately, “Batman Eternal” #39 has better artwork than plot developments, but the confrontation between Batman and the Riddler hits a high true note when they are face-to-face on the mountain.