The last issue of Batman was a touching retrospective-cum-upbeat reunion between Batman and the original Robin (Dick Grayson AKA Nightwing) which accentuated the importance and depth of the two’s bond over the years. In Batman #55, that bond is tested when Russian super-assassin KGBeast shows up in Gotham.
Per the official DC synopsis:
The KGBeast lives! The Russian super-assassin is back–but under whose orders? Does he have a specific mission, or is this simply some leftover Cold War mayhem? Nyet, comrade–it has to do with Bruce Wayne’s recent court case involving Mr. Freeze. Something is rotten in Gotham, and you can still smell it, even if it’s on ice!
KGBeast, who first appeared in Batman #417 in March, 1988, has always been an interesting character in Batman lore. I say interesting because he by all rights could be an A-list Batman villain — he’s part Deathstroke/part Winter Soldier; he’s super-strong, has a rifle for an arm and is a remorseless killer; he’s one of the few Bat-villains who can adequately hold his own against Batman in a prolonged physical contest; he once cut his own hand off to escape Batman and even kept fighting Tim Drake after having his goddamn eyeball ripped out. Dude, by all means lives up to his namesake: he’s a Beast.
That being said — and despite a strong recent showing in Snyder’s All-Star Batman — he’s not a character as recognizable as say the Riddler, Bane, Two-Face, Killer Croc or even Kite-Man at this point. Maybe some people still can’t get over his original costume, which looks like one of the S&M outfits the Average Joes unintentionally had to wear in Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story. Whether Tom King will elevate KGBeast’s ranking in the Batman rogues gallery tier list (and give him better wardrobe swagger) or not with his iteration still remains to be seen but one thing is for sure: he makes the Beast’s presence felt and then some in Batman #55.
Much like last issue when Batman and Nightwing took on the likes of the “Condiment King among teetering grocery store aisles of ketchup bottles, mayo jars and BBQ sauce containers,” this issue sees the original Dynamic Duo take on a scrub villain — this time one with an Egyptian-mummy theme named Phantom Pharaoh. Much like last issue, Nightwing drops puns aplenty in attempts to counterbalance Batman’s taciturnity. Much like last issue, Nightwing infuses what has been a chiefly grim narrative with much needed levity. Unlike last issue, KGBeast is introduced — an even bigger foil to Nightwing’s demeanor than Batman. King deftly juxtaposes scenes of Nightwing cracking jokes and diving carefree off Gotham rooftops with the Beast’s methodical heinosity. Although many of the sequences feature the heroes and villain on opposite ends of the city, the danger is no less palpable and King’s build-up no less suspenseful. By the time the issue is over, you’ll still be wondering what the hell just happened — how it could have happened — and most importantly, what will happen next.
The art by Tony S. Daniel (pencils), Danny Miki (inks) and Tomeu Morey (colors) is a choice that seems like it shouldn’t work with the story at hand — but shines strong nonetheless. Daniel’s linework is very much DC house style with traditional, oversized comic book musculatures reminiscent of old school John Byrne and Morey’s colors, though muted here, are brighter than what one might expect when dealing with a villain like The Beast — but overall their visuals make the narrative all the more alarming in retrospect. Daniel draws a straight up bad-ass looking Batman and splash pages which feature Batman and Nightwing sprinting through alleyways, orange-red glow of the Bat-signal and city lights reflected in the rain-soaked pavement or the dynamic, dangerous perspectives used to depict the two grappling-hooking between skyscrapers are visual treats.
My only gripes? Batman and Nightwing’s banter (if you can call it that), though fun last issue, becomes a bit bothersome in this one; Batman might be stoic but he’s not completely devoid of a sense of humor, even if he is still sulking over a break-up. If you weren’t a fan of some of the excessive Bat-Cat back and forths King previously penned, you’ll find yourself slightly agitated here. Also, I’m all for humanizing Batman and his ilk, but it’s still jarring to have the Bat-family thrust into such dangerous situations that even the slightest scintilla of the vigilance and foresight they exhibited in Snyder and Morrison’s runs could have prevented.
Still (and I’m starting to sound like a broken record here), this is yet another issue where King has managed to write a stirring, emotionally impactful story that has us dying to find out what happens next. I’m reminded of the Iron Maiden lyric, “For the Devil sends the Beast with wrath.” King has done just that. (Does that make him the devil to our Bat-God?)