Let’s get this out of the way up front: “the Murder Machine” is a pretty silly name. And it’s not like the other Dark Knights are being subtle either: Devastator? Red Death? The Drowned? You know what these guys are about. Murder Machine is probably the most on-the-nose of the lot, but you know what? I don’t really care. This is such a genuinely good comic that they could have called him “Destructobat 9000” and it still would have been quality.
So, yeah, if the biggest complaint I have with a story is a kind of goofy name, that’s a pretty good sign.
It all comes down to presentation. This is a well-written comic that has thought and even heart out into it. The wisest decision writers Frank Tieri and James Tynion IV make is having technology serve as a means to the story, not the end. This isn’t a story about machinery and robotics, not really; it’s a story of grief and what it means to be human. That it’s a Batman story about the effect the loss of a loved one has on you isn’t that out of the ordinary, nor is a story starring Cyborg that explores humanity and the soul. Having those two narratives parallel each other is what makes this issue work so well, and sets a high bar for Metal and its accompanying tie-ins.
On the cleverly named Earth -44, Bruce Wayne has lost Alfred, and with him his last tether to humanity. In his desperation and grief, Bruce proceeds with the Alfred Protocol, an AI program designed to provide assistance to the Dark Knight.
The program, which been a minor part of Scott Snyder’s All-Star Batman, is based on Alfred’s personality, utilizing some crazy pseudoscience that we’ll just accept because it’s comics. Over time, it becomes a bit… overprotective and dogmatic, going to extreme measures to meet his master’s requests.
Eventually, Bruce gives into his grief and anger, allowing the protocol to overcome him and create the Murder Machine.
It’s pretty much “Iron Bat,” but man if that isn’t a slick design.
Contrast that with Vic Stone, the Justice League’s resident Cyborg, who is just as much machine as he is man yet keeps a firm hold on his humanity. He’s manning the Watchtower, exchanging banter with his father, the latter of whom wants to do anything he can to help his son. The parallels with the Batman of Earth -44 may seem fairly obvious, but Tieri and Tynion never bludgeon you with their script. There are a few pieces of clunky dialogue here and there, but generally speaking the writing is understated and moving.
Remember that the Dark Multiverse Batmen aren’t necessarily manifestations of what would happen if Bruce found himself in a certain situation, but his fear of what would happen in those situations. If Alfred were to die, Bruce would be devastated. Of that there’s no doubt whatsoever. He may even get close to going over the edge, but he still has enough support around him to prevent him from going too far. Dick wouldn’t allow it. Barbara wouldn’t allow it. Damian and Clark and Diana and everyone who loves him would keep bring him back.
But again, this is his fear, manifest as code and circuitry. It’s what happens when Bruce is driven too far, wracked with too much grief, and falls headlong into the most convenient means of escape. That he chooses technology is secondary to his pain and anger. It could have been any means, any vessel he chose to exact vengeance. The Alfred Protocol was simply what he saw as the best idea at the time, the best way to pursue justice while still keeping an attachment to his fallen friend.
It’s ironic, then, that his “replacement” leads him beyond the pale. He becomes that which he sought to abolish when he first became the Batman, and in doing so tries to tempt Cyborg to embrace his “superior” mechanical side. I’ve tried reading Cyborg’s solo series and just couldn’t get into it, as I felt it focused way too much on technobabble and jargon. Vic’s a likeable character with a great power set, so seeing him stand up to such a cold, ruthless analogue is rewarding. The Batman side of Murder Machine is moving and impactful in its own way, but the strength of Cyborg’s arc makes this one of his best solo stories ever.
Riccardo Federici’s gorgeous pencils, along with Rain Beredo’s colors, make this a book as stunning visually as it is engaging narratively. Federici is the artist behind that Dark Knights image from SDCC, and his style is perfect for this story. It’s detailed when it needs to be, from the bolts and joints of cybernetics to the muscles and sinews in Bane’s arms, and he mixes styles to create some wonderfully unique layouts.
Bane is fully detailed until you get to his torso, where it starts to become more abstract and sketchy. I love how he’s able to take some basic pencil strokes and hatching and still make his image look complete. A lesser artist may have made that page look unfinished or like a draft, but Federici knows how to compose the image to give it a nightmarish quality.
Federici and Beredo manage to make this book look both cold and inviting, sterile and alive at the same time. There’s lots of dealings with computers and machines, as you’d expect, and the images of technology look complex and sleek. They’re also able to evoke strong emotion, though, with a visual energy that never makes the book uninviting. It’s hard to describe, but even though there are lots of instances where characters need to be cold and unfeeling, the book never feels that way. From the emotive writing to the stunning visual style, The Murder Machine is a paradoxically moving book.
There are a few nits to pick. As I said earlier, there are a few lines of dialogue that are a little clunky and expository, and the Dark Knights attack Cyborg with a viciousness that borders on the extreme. Regardless, this book made me think, in a good way. It made me reflect on how a guy like Cyborg can maintain his humanity even when he’s mostly machine, and how grief can drive someone to lose themselves in anguish. It asks what it means to be human, like so much good sci-fi does, and pretty much sums it up in one word:
- You’ve been enjoying Metal.
- You’re a fan of Cyborg.
- Or Blade Runner.
- Or RoboCop.
- Or The Terminator.
- Or Battlestar Galactica.
- Or you get the idea.
Overall: What a delightful surprise this was. Rather than settling on the “easy” story that pits man against machine, Tieri and Tynion instead craft a story about grief and what it means to be human. This is as much a Cyborg story as it is a Batman story, and by using those two men to parallel each other this Metal tie-in makes the Murder Machine a terrifying yet sympathetic villain. A lot has been made about how brutal and scary this issue is, and rightly so: there are scenes of almost shocking violence, as gorgeously illustrated by Riccardo Federici, and the cold menace of the Dark Knights is unmistakable. It goes deeper than sheer terror, though, with a story that, at its heart, is remarkably sad and undeniably human.