If there's one thing that sets this current era of Batman comics apart from its predecessors, it's the wide array of new and buzzworthy characters. Some of those new faces have already proven themselves to be formidable additions to Batman lore, while others have seemed a flash in the pan. Going into this week's Batman Secret Files: Clownhunter #1, I wasn't sure which category Bao Pham a.k.a. Clownhunter would fall into — and after reading the issue, I'm still not entirely certain. Batman Secret Files: Clownhunter #1 is an entertaining and frenetic take on its titular teenage vigilante, but it still leaves something to be desired.
Batman Secret Files: Clownhunter #1 follows two separate points in Bao's life — a string of violent days during his tenure at Gotham Academy, and a present-day quest as Clownhunter. As Bao follows a trail that could lead to The Joker — the man responsible for killing his parents years ago — a sequence of events places him in Punchline's crosshairs, another clown who might change his status in the vigilante-laden world of Gotham City in the process.
Those two vignettes are stretched across the entire issue, a decision that has the potential to be inspired, but comes across as shallow and dizzying. It's easy to see the hypothetical need for such an extended flashback sequence, as it showcases Bao's underdog fight in the faces of forces much stronger than himself. The flashbacks also allow for some well-plotted fight sequences, which demonstrate the spark that would lead to Clownhunter's DIY vigilante ethos. But there's also a sense of nuance that's missing from that version of his "origin story," especially when compared to the additional pieces of emotional canon that have already been established in the various ongoing Batman titles. Instead of resorting to a few bubbles of narration, followed by repetitive flashbacks of Bao beaten by jocks, it would have been interesting to see those earlier emotional beats expanded upon, especially given how new of a character Clownhunter is. Otherwise, if this is your first Clownhunter book (which, realistically, must be the case for a portion of its audience), you might walk away with a wildly different read on what makes him who he is.
Without that emotional complexity — which could easily be showcased across the issue, instead of repetitive flashbacks to Bao beaten by jocks — the present-day sequences don't pack the comprehensive punch they seemingly could have. The scenes are certainly well-executed and impactful for Clownhunter's individual journey, and his rivalry with Punchline shines through in some creative ways. If his recent run on Marvel's New Mutants was any indication, Ed Brisson does a good job of capturing young adults possessing complicated relationships with authority, a sentiment that proves true for how both Bao and Alexis are characterized throughout the issue. And, honestly, a tenacious teenage vigilante who has a bone to pick with Batman is not exactly a new idea in the DC universe — something that, without getting into spoilers, is overtly addressed in this issue. But outside of one sequence posing questions about Clownhunter's moral code, and how a slight shift in circumstances could have put him on the side of the villains, the story only begins to investigate what sets Clownhunter apart from the pack.
Given the dark past and violent tendencies of its titular hero, the art for Batman Secret Files: Clownhunter #1 could have gone in any number of directions. In the hands of Rosi Kämpe, it's decidedly hyperactive and expressive, something that lends itself well to Clownhunter's punk rock sensibilities. Even the smallest bit of action feels visceral and significant, with clever layouts and panel shapes that keep the movement flowing, particularly in present-day fight sequences. What helps ground the issue in a more palatable "house style" is Andrew Dalhouse's colors, which makes some decidedly vibrant choices — but choices that also feel necessary, preventing the action from becoming overly grimdark. Simon Bowland's lettering is the icing on this proverbial cake, especially with the infinitely clever all-lowercase approach to Clownhunter's dialogue.
It's clear Clownhunter was conceived to be a relatable, but complex, addition to the young sidekicks of DC Comics' Gotham City, and there's a lot about his character that can still be unpacked. Over the course of the thirty-something pages of Batman Secret Files: Clownhunter #1, that potential only begins to display itself — which isn't an inherently good or a bad thing. The issue is filled to the brim with energy and effective story construction, which mitigates the holes in the story's narrative. Batman Secret Files: Clownhunter #1 might not be the definitive, Earth-shattering solo story for Bao Pham, but it will likely get readers more excited for that tale's eventual arrival.
Published by DC Comics
On August 17, 2021
Written by Ed Brisson
Art by Rosi Kämpe
Colors by Andrew Dalhouse
Lettering by Simon Bowland
Cover by Mico Suayan and Romulo Fajardo Jr.