Welcome to the review for Detective Comics #950! This is a special anniversary issue commemorating the milestone that Detective Comics has just crossed. As such, the issue is extra-sized, coming in at 38 pages and containing three different stories. All three stories are written by James Tynion IV but feature different artists. Two of them are not new to the pages of Detective: Eddy Barrows and Alvaro Martinez have been staples of the series since the premiere of Rebirth back in June of 2016. They are joined by Marcio Takara. Sine this issue is breaking the model, you’ll find my review has done the same. Each story will be given its own review with accompanying score. The final score at the very bottom of the review will be an average of the three. So, without further ado, let’s jump right into the prologue for “League of Shadows”!
The feature story for the anniversary issue focuses heavily on Cassandra Cain and comprises the majority of the issue. In a nutshell, it’s completely beautiful. And I’m not just talking about the art. But Tynion’s written word. It’s thoroughly evocative. For anyone who has ever doubted Tynion’s skill as a writer, this story is a perfect example of him at his peak. The effortless way in which he strings words together to create such a compelling narrative is truly a joy to behold. It’s times like these when I seriously can’t understand why Tynion doesn’t get more attention.
Some people might think this story has too much prose; but I however tend to miss its inclusion in contemporary stories and I am happy to see Tynion use it so extensively. Back when I first started reading comics, art wasn’t necessarily always enough to fully convey a story. Writers often resorted to prose and plenty of descriptive narration to assist you in deciphering the illustrations. As time went on and visuals got better and better, more often than not, writers began allowing the illustrator to tell the story. While I won’t disagree that artists have come a long way, and at times they can nail expressions, it isn’t always that simple.
In a comic, an artist has but a single frame to convey to you what you are supposed to interpret from any given facial expression. In a movie (or real life), you get to watch the emotion play out on the persons face over time, which is immensely helpful in understanding their mood. We also get musical cues in movies that further assist us in the translation. Comics have a lot harder job than movies. Not only are we hoping that the illustrator picks the perfect frame to show us what they wish to convey, but then we have to be able to interpret it correctly. Prose simply helps to add another element to the story that we can use to interpret what is going on more easily.
Instead of telling this story through visuals and contributing dialogue, Tynion has told the story with prose and allowed the visuals to complement his words. Personally, I found it to be immensely engaging. And I feel like it eliminated a lot of the second guessing that can come from relying on visuals alone.
The first five pages feel like a little mini story unto themselves. They detail the life of a Gotham Metropolitan Ballet dancer. And before Chris Conroy even brought up Batman&Robin Eternal in an editor note, I was already thinking back to my two favorite issues from that series (#7+8 written by Genevieve Valentine). There’s this kind of “Phantom of the Opera” vibe where Cassandra secretly watches the dancers and joins in on their rehearsals. It’s just wonderful, haunting, and wistful all at the same time. Really excellent stuff.
In many ways, this story is a character study on Cassandra Cain. In addition to that, it gives us plenty of details on her background. To that point, I don’t think you really need to read Batman&Robin Eternal to get the gist of the character. It’s all pretty much right here in this story. Who she is, what she has been through, how she feels, and the things she still suffers through to this day. It’s fabulous.
The hardest hitting element this story has to offer is Cassandra’s infinite loneliness. She is surrounded by people, but completely shut off from them. Seeing her in such a depressed state really drives home something Stephanie Brown said from the conclusion of “The Victim Syndicate”. I’m paraphrasing here, but maybe teaching Cassandra to speak would’ve been more helpful than how best to throw a batarang. Hard to argue with that logic when you see how miserable she is. I feel like this story actually adds more weight to “The Victim Syndicate” storyline. In addition to that, it definitely supplies Steph with a much stronger motive that we can now see through example.
If I had to point to any negative in this story it would be the Mayor Hady and Clayface scenes. They just felt unnecessary to me. And really, they seemed to interrupt the flow that Tynion had established. Perhaps the Hady thing is set-up for the future. I don’t know. But it felt out of place and I didn’t really feel like it added to Cassandra’s story at all. While I also didn’t think the Clayface stuff wasn’t integral to Cassandra’s story, I at least liked what it had to say about him and saw how what he was going through could be loosely applied to Cassandra. However, I thought all the specific info about his predicament would have been better suited in another issue. I’m simply not here for Clayface right now. Giving us such important info about Clayface at this juncture kinda steals some of the spotlight from Cassandra, or even worse, we might forget it entirely since we are so focused on her.
Art for this story is handled by Marcio Takara. Let me say up front that I think 90% of this is just beautiful. But Takara tends to go more abstract and show less detail. And that’s really not my thing. So when I see images like this:
I wonder if I am looking at an actual sword or a toy lightsaber. Seeing as it’s Cullen, I’m leaning towards toy. But I think you see what I mean when I say that visuals can occasionally be hard to interpret.
And here. Look at this dude’s face. Or that dude’s face. Or why does Batman look so rigid. Once again, this is probably more personal preference than anything. But yeah, things like that bug me. They just look bad to me. But then most of what Takara does looks like this:
And it’s absolutely beautiful.
- Hell yeah! I’m super excited about this! Been too long since I’ve seen Lady Shiva. During the New52, I remember she had an appearance in Nightwing’s book (#13+14, 2012). And it was just terrible. Or at least I was super disappointed by it. Having seen nothing more than this single image, I’m calling it. Tynion’s Shiva is guaranteed to be better than whatever the hell this thing was supposed to be:
Tynion teases that Dark Days are coming, but I’m like,
“Dude, the dark days are behind us as far as I’m concerned”.
- I shared this one before in one of my reviews for Batman&Robin Eternal, but seeing as it’s relevant again, here you go. From Azrael #61 (1999).
This story alone is worth buying the book. It’s touching, informative, and subtly elegant all at the same time.
SCORE: 9 / 10
Our back-up story comes in at 10 pages and features Jean-Paul Valley. Or, as he is better well know, Azrael The Avenging Angel!
Ok…that’s just badass.
The story starts off with Azrael praying to God to give him strength and grant him victory in battle against the forces of evil. Look, I’m certain that some people might look at this opening and be offended by it. What I can tell you is that I attended 12 years of private catholic schooling. So, I’m not insensitive to peoples religious beliefs. But even with my background, I can detach myself enough from it to realize that the same religion can mean many different things to many different people. Azrael is simply looking at it from his perspective. And I can appreciate that. Azrael is basically a crusader from an ancient order. In that sense, I’m cool with him invoking the name of God and St.Michael to smite evil. It’s real old testament wrath-of-God type stuff.
As a kid, I was into comics. So, the idea of good vs evil always appealed to me. But not abstract notions, more direct confrontations. Like battles and such. When I eventually learned about St.Michael leading the armies of heaven to defeat the armies of hell and battle the devil, well, it definitely went all “Lord of the Rings” in my head. I guess what I am trying to say is, you can look at the Bible as a series of stories with morals that teach us how to live. Which I do. But you can also look at it as a bunch of really cool stories where epic crazy stuff happens with magic and armies and monsters and worldwide calamity. I can see it that way as well. So yeah. This opening appeals to that side of my appreciation for the Bible.
Bahahahaha. Dude. You need to spend more time thinking about your next move and less time coming up with witty banter.
After preparing for combat, Azrael and Batwing fighting 50-foot tall robots in a Gothic Cathedral. (Talk about setting the mood!) It doesn’t take long for us to realize that it’s simply a Mud Room training exercise. At this point in the story I took pause as a light bulb went off in my head that should have gone off months ago. Seeing as how I am aware that Tynion likes the X-Men, I should have already made this connection, but the Mud Room is basically the Batman equivalent of the X-Men’s Danger Room. It took them battling giant robots (Sentinels) for it to finally click with me. I’m not sure how I feel about this. One part of me is saying, “Hey, that’s already been done.” The other part is saying, “Well, it’s different enough that I didn’t make the connection till now.” While I can’t give Tynion full points for originality, he did make it his own. So I have to give him some credit for that.
Ok. I know someone is going to say it. So I’ll save you the time. “Why does Tynion have to make Batman look bad in order to make other people look good?”
After that short but intense scene of action, Jean-Paul and Luke get to sharing ideas. Right out of the gate, I thought it was odd that Luke doubted the power of prayer. After all, Luke’s own Batwing series dealt with religion. But perhaps I am remembering his standpoint incorrectly. In any case, Jean-Paul admits that part of his ability comes from Artificial Intelligence that is integrated into his suit and mingles directly with his own brain. I guess that is kind of like receiving strength from God. I mean, if God made us and we made A.I. then I guess it is coming from God. But actually, I kind of dislike the idea of Azrael’s abilities being rooted in tech. Originally it had to do with biological tampering and mental conditioning (although, it’s implied that still happened as well). I guess I just like the idea better that his strength comes from within him and not an outside source. Although the story does point out that he can handle himself just as well without the aid of the A.I., but still.
The rest of their discussion, while nothing I haven’t heard before, is actually rather intriguing. It deals with the idea of science versus religion. But in Jean-Paul’s case, he has been able to integrate these two philosophies with each other. Kinda like how people can be religious and still believe in the theory of evolution.
Art for this story is handled by Alvaro Martinez. And what can I say that I haven’t said about Martinez before. For me, his work captures what I think of in my mind when I picture standard comic art. While that might sound like a bad thing, because who wants to be considered standard, his work still has a technical superiority to it that makes it delightful to look at. Another way to look at it is, I’d rather look at really really good standard art than someone who has something very stylistic and distinctive but you can’t make out their depiction of a face from a smudge on the wall.
- The final revelation in the story is that the Order of St.Dumas, in the event that Azrael went rogue, would upload the Azrael A.I. into a robot body to henceforth carry out the will of Saint Dumas. Ok, too much robot and A.I. for my taste. I prefer the Order where they discovered an archaic science that everyday man never discovered. And even though at first glance it looks like a bunch of Dark Age stuff, it’s actually leaps and bounds ahead of anything we have now.
While the first and third story in this book fell in line with what I expected to get, “Higher Powers” totally took me by surprise in that it sets up a story that I didn’t even know was in the works. On top of that it boasted great art, some over-the-top action, and delved into some thought provoking ideas concerning religion and science. The one thing I didn’t really care for was the heavy use of A.I. in conjunction with a character whom I felt should remain more grounded in willpower and archaic ritual. But still, a really good read.
SCORE: 8 / 10
Of the three stories presented, “The BIG Picture” is the smallest (ironically enough), coming in at a mere 4 pages. As such, I see it more as bonus content than a full story. It features Tim Drake, but before you get all a tizzy, it’s only a flashback story. He’s not actually back yet and we don’t get any further insights into his captor. What I find interesting is the number of times Tim has appeared after his supposed death (really he was captured by OZ). Not only is Tynion finding ways to include his favorite character despite his absence (flashbacks/mudroom/prison cell), every time he brings Tim up, it is a very effective reminder that something big is coming. It’s things like this that bring a real sense of connectivity to Tynion’s work. He isn’t only skilled at developing the current arc, he is keeping an eye on the bigger picture (yes that was intentional) and ensuring that we will stick around to not only see how the current storyline is unfolding but the ones to come as well.
While one could say that this was little more than an advertisement for other books, the way it is presented is anything but shoddy and overt. It references other series such as Nightwing, Red Hood, Teen Titans, and Justice League of America. But more than just acting as suggested reading material, it serves to remind us that all this stuff is happening in the same universe. That it has a bigger purpose that you may not, as of yet, realized. And even if you choose not to partake in those titles, it gives you a very brief summary of what is going on in them so you will understand the present state of the world at the moment. Simply put, it doesn’t seem like a cheap bid to get you to read other books so much as a genuine conversation between two people about things that are happening around them.
Art for this story is presented by Eddy Barrows, and as usual, it’s wonderful. I particularly liked the “visual effects”. The way the monitors not only stood out from the rest of the environment, but the way you could make out horizontal lines tracing back and forth across the whole screen. Similarly, I liked the reflections on the tinted windows of the Red Bird and the way we could just make out the blurred surrounding outside of the car as it zipped through the streets.
Incidentally, I’ve started to notice that Barrows really likes this particular pose/angle. The cover itself has Batman in a very similar pose. We can also see this aesthetic presented on the cover of Detective Comics #939 with Tim Drake. Other than the ones I’ve mentioned, you can go back through the comics he has illustrated and find it several more times. I’m not pointing this out as some kind of negative. Just something I have noticed. And hey, when it looks that cool, why not depict it over and over. What could be scarrier than looking up into the night sky and see Batman plummeting down at you.
It reminds me a lot of this awesome poster the Steve Rude did back in the day.
- The Red Bird makes a cameo in this story. For those of you not aware, Red Bird was Tim Drake’s “Batmobile”. While it made many appearances over the years, I will always remember it most distinctly from the cover of Tim’s first ongoing series from 1993.
With this story, Tynion proves that sometimes less is more. While not doing too much to provide genuinely new content (I recall Tynion using Tim and the concept of him keeping an eye on the bigger picture before), the art is wonderful and Tynion’s ability at promoting his own stories and the sweeping universe in general is definitely effective. I’m beyond excited to see where all this is going!
SCORE: 9 / 10
- You need to refamiliarize yourself with Cassandra Cain. Or not, it’s still an excellent read regardless.
- You were happy to see Azrael return but sad that he hasn’t had too much page time. This story remedies that!
- You want a preview highlighting a bunch of stuff coming our way!
Given the extensive amount of content in this issue, and the likewise extensive review I wrote for it, it’s kinda hard to boil it all down to a single paragraph and do it any justice. Suffice it to say, Tynion never ceases to impress me. This book contains three different stories, all of which are written by him. They are all clearly written in his voice, but each story forces him to focus on a different aspect of his craft. The first is written in heavy prose with a very melancholy tone. While tasked with conveying a great deal of emotion, he still manages to make it equally informative. The second is filled with the back and forth dialogue that I’ve come to associate with Tynion. Taking two opposite minded characters and throwing them together to see what shakes loose is something Tynion seems very gifted at. The third story, while little more than an ad, is carefully disguised and hidden within a meaningful exchange between Batman and Tim Drake. Each story is afforded a different artist, and while all displaying different skill levels and styles, they each manage to bring something to the table that contributes positively to the story they are attached to. All in all, this is a seriously great issue. And at only 3.99 for 38 pages, you’d be passing up one heck of a deal. And not just when it comes to quantity, but quality as well.
SCORE: 8.5 / 10