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Previously in Detective Comics, Batman and his band of allies have been squaring off against the Victim Syndicate—a group of enhanced assailants who share an unfortunate categorization: they are, each of them, victims of the collateral damage caused by Batman’s crusade. When we left off at the end of Detective Comics #945, the Syndicate had infiltrated the Thompkins Free Clinic, with Jean-Paul Valley—the avenging angel himself—reaching for his sword to protect the patients of this sanctuary.

#946 opens in flashback, as Bruce and Tim discuss the former Robin’s vision for what Batman can mean for Gotham, if his mentor would only realize the potential of what he has built and who he has trained. As we shift to the present, Batman and his team arrive at the clinic to confront the Syndicate. The heroes appear to have the upper hand, but as things usually go in Gotham, nothing plays out quite as it was planned. Spoilers follow.

Asking familiar questions

Last week’s Batman #12 was perhaps the second-most divisive portrayal of Batman that we’ve seen in 2016. I won’t get into any analysis here—it would be redundant—but I’ll just point out that, alongside the controversial elements, Tom King did an excellent job of poking at the existential crisis of the Batman.

James Tynion has a similar idea on his mind with “The Victim Syndicate,” and he explores it more deeply than before in this particular installment. It starts with Red Robin’s speech in the opening flashback. Even though Tim does not condemn Bruce’s approach to his war, he says flat-out that things could be much better if they focused on prevention—healing the broken, including those who intend harm. It’s the sort of idealism that Gotham never allowed to develop in Bruce, yet could not snuff out in Dick or Tim, no matter how hard it tried.

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Stephanie’s critique cuts more to the heart, suggesting that Batman’s methods do not actually work—that they in fact make things worse. And while it’s easy to retreat into the simplistic idea that a brutal place like Gotham needs a brutal vigilante like Batman, I am happy to slow down and see where Tynion is taking this. Some of my favorite Batman stories are those in which he must justify his existence. Steph’s underlying question is a good one, too: when does it stop? Joining up with Batman and his crazy crusade seems like hope when you’re the daughter of “a third rate villain who tried to kill [you];” but when there doesn’t seem to be anything beyond punching crime in the face (thanks, TK), you find that hope is on fragile ground, and anything that makes you slow down long enough to ask what the heck you’re doing with your life is enough to make it all crumble.

The first (real) victim

The Victim Syndicate is, of course, the most direct challenge to the Bat in this whole arc; but up to this point, their portrayal hasn’t made their victimhood obvious. Sure, we got some backstory on everyone but The First Victim, but all of the screen time for the Syndicate has been devoid of sympathy. They’re attacking a gala and making threats, challenging the clear good guys, and so their (later) concern for Stephanie could easily be interpreted as a manipulative device.

That starts to change this time around:

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My heart breaks for Glory, but it also breaks for Clayface. Batman has offered him hope, but hope is doing whatever it takes to beat the bad guy, as long as it doesn’t cross a particular line. Glory was a victim of Basil’s villainy all those years ago, and now she is a victim of his heroism. Tynion’s work on Clayface in the first arc pays off here, his apologies to his first victim feeling painfully sincere. It’s breaking him to break her (and it’s breaking me, too).

Looking…okay

Barrows, Ferreira, and Lucas reunite for most of the pages in this issue, and it’s the usual mixed bag. I love Barrows’s layouts (though the final two-page spread has way too many panels on the right side) and environments, and some of his finishes are really good (especially on those paint-like shots where Lucas adds more of the detail), but he produces quite a few weird faces and anatomical proportions, and the weird scale-like texture he gives to Batman and Batwoman’s capes is very distracting. Overall, I like the artwork, but I think writing this good deserves better.

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I will never tire of seeing Batman bust through a window.

Recommended if…

  • You’re a fan of James Tynion’s character-driven, team-dynamic approach to Detective Comics.
  • You enjoy good visual storytelling even if there are some quirks in the finishes.
  • Clayface is your favorite character in this run—he gets the strongest moment in this issue.

Overall

A pivotal chapter in “The Victim Syndicate,” Detective Comics #946 contains strong character beats for several members of the team. While Barrows’ pencils exhibit the usual quirks in close-up, his layouts are, for the most part, rich storytelling. If you’ve been waiting for a deeper connection with this arc, this issue may be just what you need, and it sets up what looks to be an emotional thriller of a finale in two weeks.

SCORE: 8.5/10