I have to give Fabian Nicieza credit right off the bat, in that reading his “Battle for the Cowl” tie-ins-first “Azrael: Death’s Dark Knight” and now “The Network”-I feel like he and I are on the same page as to what “Battle for the Cowl” should have been. With “The Network,” it all starts off exceedingly well. Oracle is trying to coordinate all of Batman’s old allies and assistants (plus some of her own), even as Gotham’s villains continue to rear their ugly heads.
I’d go so far as to say that I enjoyed the first half of “The Network” a great deal. It’s fun to watch Oracle juggle operatives and out-think the bad guys. While I’m not a huge fan of Hugo Strange, it makes sense that he would try to take advantage of this power vacuum full of people vying for the role of Batman. But somewhere along the way, frustratingly, it gets a little easy. The game of “who would you save, dooming the others in the process?” is an old one, one that we’ve seen in all forms of media. But Nicieza stacks the deck a little too much to one side; when you’ve got the Huntress on one side and everyone else (Oracle, Manhunter, Ragman, Misfit, Batgirl) on the other, it ends up feeling like a, “Let’s gang up on bad ol’ Huntress,” morality play, and that’s something I thought DC Comics had finally put to rest a few years ago.
It doesn’t help, either, that this is a story where the bad guy keeps changing the rules. That isn’t always a bad thing, mind you; an unpredictable villain can result in an exciting and slightly crazy ride for the reader. Here, though, it feels like Nicieza has Strange change the rules to result in a slightly easier end to the situation he’s set up, and that’s a shame. Like so much of the “Battle for the Cowl” stories, “The Network” doesn’t seem to so much come to a conclusion as it stops dead in its tracks. At least here Nicieza is able to wrap up his main story, but its final page feels more like a set of editorial notes than an epilogue, unfortunately.
“The Network” was originally solicited with pencils by Don Kramer, but early on J. Calafiore takes over that role. I have to say, I’m happier with Calafiore’s contributions to the book. I like Kramer’s pencils in general, but it’s Calafiore’s angular edges to his characters that feels a little more rough and tough. That’s a mood that “Battle for the Cowl” in general needs, and Calafiore is able to successfully bring that to life here. I especially like how Calafiore draws Ragman, really looking like the strange misshapen construct that the character should be.
“The Network” isn’t the worst “Battle for the Cowl” tie-in; in many ways I think it’s actually one of the better efforts. But in general, this event feels like a failure, with so many characters and stories scattered far and wide that there’s almost no way it can all come back together in the conclusion. Nicieza, Calafiore, and Kramer try their best here, but I think in many ways the biggest problem isn’t what they’re doing, but the set-up of the event itself. And in the end, that’s a shame, because this could have been a lot of fun.