Peter Milligan occupies a really strange place in smart-dumb comics: Neither as out-there crazy as say, Grant Morrison or as mannered, intellectual (and boring) as Alan Moore. Milligan's strange position leads to comics that are rarely terrible and sometimes great (Submariner: The Depths being a recent example) but rarely totally work--they're always held back slightly by their over-arching conceit and formalism. Milligan's work is nearly always about something.
Not that all good comics aren't "about something", but that reading Milligan's work is more an adventure in how his plot/thesis will play-out, what scenarios and examples he'll develop to prove his point, than a kind of rolling, slowly working-itself-out, temporal sequence of events. The big, heavy ideas land with a thud by at least the end of issue one, and they get really fucking nuts and awesome, but what's being said, though leaning toward the empathetic and ambiguous, ain't all that surprising.
In Milligan's story arc, "The Bat and the Beast", currently running in Batman Confidential, the "about" is post-Cold War Russia, the ugliness and corruption that's spawned from the U.S.S.R dissolving. How this manifests itself though, is through the story of a Russian, bear-mutant--an updated, less retarded version of The KGBeast--and his connections to a Russian Mafia head who wants to hold Gotham for ransom by threatening to nuke the shit out of Batman's city. Maybe the best part of the comic so far is when Batman wonders to Gordon whether saving Gotham from an attack really matters because some other city will suffer Gotham’s near-fate. This concern sends Batman to Moscow.
The plot is Milligan in a nutshell: A quiet interaction with real history and comics history, some hint of political and social commentary, and a super-simple comic book story.
So yeah, let’s talk about the stuff floating in the background of this “Villain threatens to blow something up if he’s not paid a lot of money”. Namely, it’s but one more piece of pop-art that dares to make the point that maybe America isn’t the be-all and end-all of the world. Batman’s running around Gothan and eventually, Moscow trying to get info on “the Tsar” (the Mafia head and a simple but clever conflation of legal and illegal politricks) and quickly realizes he’s maybe out of his depth.
“Part Two” begins with Batman asking a thug about the Tsar and rather than answer, the thug puts a gun under his chin and pulls the trigger. And “Part Two” ends with a fight scene between Batman and the Bear. The most notable line of dialogue is the the Bear asking, “Why have you come here to hurt us?”—pretty much the question any and all governments, armies, and citizens asked when confronted with America’s funny form of diplomacy and prevention. Wisely though, there remains a distinction between the Bear and the heartless crime syndicate that raised him or carts him around—or something, it isn’t totally clear—and so, we’re working in a series of greys and not just…now here’s a comic deconstructing heroes and sympathizing/complicating the roles of “villains”.
This is an engaging comic and it’s smarter than most of the stuff coming out and it’s one of the few arcs in Confidential that feels on-par with the series’ obvious predecessor, Legends of the Dark Knight, particularly the slightly off-kilter art via Andy Clarke’s stringy illustrations—imagine Frank Quitely’s work, only every third page isn’t awful, but that’s all it is? You decide whether that’s “enough” or not.