Batman: Year Two: Fear the Reaper
Batman, Year Two features the four issues of Detective Comics (575-578) that made up the original arc, plus the 1991 one-shot prestige comic Full Circle. The trade paperback was released in 2002.
Batman: Year Two: Fear the Reaper is the spiritual successor to the epic Year One that showcased one of the best origin stories around. However, Year Two doesn't actually continue any of the story lines from that book, and the subtitle inevitably leads to highly unfavorable comparisons. Featuring a terrible new villain, an awful, contrived story, and ill advised romance, not even some pretty good artwork is enough to save this collection.
Fear the Reaper is the story of Batman's fight with what is essentially a more ruthless, bloodthirsty version of himself. A new villain is on the streets, hacking people apart indiscriminately in the name of stopping evil, and it falls on Batman to stop him. This premise is the best part of the comic: it sets up a good theme about what justice truly is, presents a villain that contrasts Batman in most ways yet could potentially be the rare sympathetic antagonist, and promises plenty of action. Unfortunately, none of this happens.
The first step in the wrong direction is when Batman goes to fight the Reaper for the first time. The Reaper is a pretty tough guy, with a hardened suit, twin scythes, and gun concealed within his melee weapons, and as a result Batman is beaten badly and forced to run away. Nothing wrong with this, but what happens next is so baffling that the comic's credibility is all but destroyed: Batman resorts to taking up the gun of the man who killed his parents in an attempt to bring the Reaper to justice. This is a completely out of character move from Batman because: it showcases Batman's complete desperation after one bad fight, works contradictory to his mandate to attack from and stay in the shadows, doesn't make any sense considering all the cool gadgets he already has at his disposal, and takes away his moral high ground that prevents him from taking another life. Arguably the worst part is that it plays absolutely no bearing in defeating the Reaper. The gun falls by the wayside not long after the second ridiculous twist is introduced.
This second curveball is arguably even more insulting than the first, as Batman resorts to teaming up with criminals in order to take down the Reaper. Not just any criminals though, but none other than Joe Chill, the man who KILLED HIS PARENTS. That's right, the callous gunman seen in every Batman origin story ever, who shot his parents over a fancy necklace and some pocket change, is Batman's sidekick for the first arc of this collection. What makes the least amount of sense is probably the fact that Joe has absolutely nothing in the way of special abilities: he is just a thug with a gun, no super powers, fancy suit, special knowledge of the Reaper, etc. What exactly makes this man a better choice then any other superhero that pops up so readily in other Batman works? That list includes but is in no way limited to: Nightwing, Superman, Batwoman, Batgirl, and so on. Even Catwoman would have been a more logical choice. With so many options that Batman doesn't hate, and that could actually help him in a fight, it makes no sense for him to ally with a guy that brings nothing to the table except character tension. Like the gun, Chill is introduced seemingly for the sole purpose of creating conflict, as he plays no real role in the resolution of the story, and the one promising element of his arc (Batman's promise to kill Chill after the Reaper is taken care of) is cheaply cut short. This story just doesn't have much going for it. There are some good fight scenes, but the writing is very poor, mostly due to the aforementioned nonsensical dramatic events the book conjures up.
The fifth part of the story, a one shot prestige format featuring the return of the Reaper, is a slight improvement. Unfortunately, it does feature a second super hero, and this is unfortunate because it is none other than the most annoying Robin I've yet to read. This Robin disobeys Batman, shows off, and pouts when he gets scolded, all while spouting extremely cheesy and unnecessary lines that damage the book's otherwise credibly dark atmosphere.
Bruce Wayne deals with three main characters for his time out of the suit in the issue: Alfred, Leslie Thompkins, and Rachel Caspian. He is kind of mean towards Alfred, with no sense of companionship or sympathy passing between the two in this book, though Alfred gets some nice scenes with Leslie where they reflect on Bruce's life. Leslie is a character I don't know that much about, but she gives a good showing here as someone who cares deeply for Bruce in a similar way that Alfred does. She is aware of his alter ego and shows grave concern as he becomes less and less logical to hunt down the Reaper.
The third key figure is Rachel Caspian, Bruce's love interest for this arc. The relationship between the two is completely forced, and it doesn't help that Rachel does nothing but get herself into bad situations over and over, never coming into her own as a character. The conclusion to their romance is really hard to buy, and it kind of feels like a waste to have included this character in the first place. Commissioner Jim Gordon shows up throughout the book too, attempting to deal with his new role as the boss while struggling to bring down the Reaper. We don't spend a ton of time on him, and in that regard this book has very little in common with Year One, but he gives a solid showing as a constant presence in the events of the book.
The Reaper himself couldn't have been a worse character. Besides the fact that the authors decided to tip off his background within the first 45 pages of the comic, utterly ruining the mystery behind the guy, we have the atrocious dialogue that he spouts at every turn. Borrowing a page from the most poorly written Scarecrow you can imagine, the Reaper is totally obsessed with fear and his mantra, which he repeats at least once in every scene he appear in is "(something something) fear...the Reaper!" The second incarnation of the Reaper, found in the prestige format issue at the tail end of the book, is slightly better in terms of origin, but brought down by the same laughable dialogue and a strangely convoluted plot to kill Batman.
Artwork is fairly good throughout. There is some inconsistency in styles, even within the four issue opening arc, as various creators dropped in and out of the project. The middle two issues are the strongest, featuring pencils by Todd McFarlane (of Spawn fame) and inks by Alfredo Alcala. The two work together very well, with McFarlane's dramatic renditions of Batman (fans of Spawn will be instantly familiar with the way Batman's cape and face are rendered, in addition to the copious amounts of gore) and Gotham City lending themselves well to Alcala's bold ink jobs that are quite similar to the work seen in Year One. The two have a good dynamic and the middle of this story is easily the best where art is concerned.
Unfortunately, the opening and closing issues aren't quite up to par. The fourth issue, featuring McFarlane on both inks and pencils, is easily the worst as it is sloppy, poorly conceived, and terribly colored. The opener, with two totally different artists, is an acceptable piece of work, but a bit too bright compared to the good parts. As for the prestige format bonus story, Full Circle, the art team is completely new, though that isn't necessarily a bad thing. The style here seems more vintage to me, and is quite a bit more refined. My only complaint with the art in Full Circle is that some of the action is very confusing, otherwise it is a strong conclusion.
Batman: Year Two is a stunning disappointment compared to the resounding success of Year One. It ditches the more introspective, profound workings of that book in favor of a fast paced action comic and fails to build up enough steam through its numerous fight scenes and stupid plot twists to achieve an enjoyable adventure. Even with a mostly good artistic showing, Year Two is a far cry from the quality of its predecessor.