I wish I had better things to say about Denny O'Neil's return to the world of Batman, but "Detective Comics" #851 is a poor follow-up to Paul Dini's recent work on the series. Though I've preferred Morrison's elliptical and symbolic explorations of Batman's psychogeography, Dini's recent "Heart of Hush" story was quite good -- tightly plotted, expansive, and unveiled with precision. This "Last Days of Gotham" story (of which part two will run immediately after Morrison's final issue of "Batman" later this year) is a disappointment on several levels.
In essence, this is a Two-Face story, dealing with a beautiful young actress who has been horribly scarred by a Two-Face imposter. Batman is nowhere to be found, but this issue offers no additional information that would clarify Batman's current status. Nightwing mentions to Oracle that "the boss...disappeared," which presumably refers to the end of "Batman R.I.P." but might also refer to the events of "Final Crisis" or some other mysterious path yet to be determined. Commissioner Gordon and Sgt. Bullock assume Batman's still around someplace, as they shine the bat-signal into Gotham's night sky, even though Bullock seems skeptical that the light will "bring him outta whatever hole he's been hidin' in."
So Batman's M.I.A., and Nightwing is on the case. It's a Nightwing comic masquerading as a Batman story, and it offers nothing you couldn't get from an average issue of his own soon-to-be-cancelled series. O'Neil is an efficient storyteller, using narrative captions and dialogue to move the story along and explain everything along the way, but there's little thematic substance here. It's just another story about a Gotham City madman and a costumed vigilante on the prowl.
Guillem March employs a style that's part early Tim Sale (from the "Grendel" years, perhaps) and part Katsuhiro Otomo (from the "Akira" years, apparently), but falls short of both. I've seen some of March's illustration work, and his website gives samples of his other sequential art and none of it looks as inconsistent and rushed as this issue. His characters sometimes look photo-referenced (like the female version of Two-Face, who looks distinctly like Charlize Theron in a couple of panels), and at other times they look like quickly sketched manga characters. His page-to-page artwork is so inconsistent that when a character appears wearing a Two-Face mask, it's difficult to tell whether it's just a bad drawing of Two-Face or a guy in a bad Two-Face mask. Perhaps that uncertainty is intentional, but that wouldn't explain the inconsistency throughout the rest of the pages.
This story feels like a situation where O'Neil and March were called in to produce some filler before the really "important" stuff starts coming out in 2009. "Last Days of Gotham" may lay important groundwork for future stories, or it may be a way to give O'Neil a victory lap after a long and storied career with the character, but it doesn't feel like it. It feels inessential and unimpressive, and that's too bad.