What if the indomitable will of Bruce Wayne, rather than promising to avenge his murdered parents, instead received the most powerful weapon in the universe and possessed the ability to avenge them on the spot? Would premature access to such extraordinary means corrupt the grieving young Bruce, or would it make him the ultimate force for justice in the cosmos? These questions are answered in Batman: The Dawnbreaker #1. SPOILERS AHEAD

Comic dissonance

Dark Knights: Metal has hardly been something for the uninitiated. There have been numerous significant elements that depend or greatly benefit from prior experience with the DC Universe, and Dawnbreaker similarly relies on what can be taken for granted in this universe. The significance of young Bruce receiving a mysterious talking ring would be completely lost on a newbie, as would the larger contrast between his behavior here and what fans would consider normal for Batman.

This is all fine—not every book has to reprint its own history, and there are plenty of other options for new readers. The flip side, however, is that with history comes expectations. We expect certain recognizable behavior from characters and from technology. When a creator deviates from these “laws” without good reason, or too quickly, then the dissonance between our expectations and what we receive can be jarring. For me at least, this is happening on several fronts in Dawnbreaker.

Who is this kid?

Humphries’ biggest problem here is that Bruce gets too bad too fast. I think he asks an interesting question: what if Bruce had the power to do something in that moment? And I’m fine with his initial answer, too: the shock of seeing your parents murdered before your eyes, paired with the power of a Green Lantern ring, might well lead to an outburst of retribution. It’s fair to wonder if Bruce (as we know him) was somehow protected by his impotence from doing something he would later regret. And while I don’t love it, I could even be on board with a Bruce who ends up like the Dawnbreaker—his heart calloused by grief, ultimately placing less value on human life than the criminals he fights.

Where Humphries loses me is in that he fails to set up Bruce as a very sympathetic character. The death of his parents drums up a bit of empathy, but so quickly does his grief morph into a monstrous desire to kill that I have trouble seeing him as a victim for long. He essentially wills his way past the ring’s anti-killing safeguards, which to me makes it seem like the monster was inside him all along. It’s really hard to walk alongside that sort of character. His later atrocities fail to achieve their intended shock value, because it feels like the character already crossed this line a few pages into the story.

A bunch of poozers

I’ve loved Humphries’ run on Green Lanterns, but if I could point to one thing that always makes me feel a little silly, it’s the “Emerald Sight” power that he gave to Simon Baz. Why has no Lantern ever experienced this before? And how does the ability to see the future lurk unnoticed—even by the Guardians of the Universe—within a Green Lantern ring? Baz has, of course, been “the first” on another occasion, having brought someone out of a coma; but that felt more like a triumph of will, and generally in line with the spirit of the ring’s abilities. Baz’s near-rescue of Red Lantern Bleeze was a similarly believable feat.

Emerald Sight is tough for me to swallow, because it seems like a left-field, arbitrary addition. And in Dawnbreaker, Humphries makes a few more arbitrary changes that seem to conform the “rules of the ring” to the story he wants to tell. As I mentioned above, Bruce overrides the ring’s safeguards with his rapidly increasing willpower, causing the ring to malfunction from the excess. But why would such a thing never have happened with another Lantern previously? And in Humphries’ own Green Lanterns, one of the very first ring-slingers came to her own ruin when she couldn’t control her ascendant will. So why do things work differently here? Why doesn’t Bruce disintegrate himself? Why does the technology work differently?

And while we’re asking questions, how exactly does Bruce “put the void” into his ring and make it capable of his new “blackout” power? I’m not completely opposed to new things, but it just doesn’t seem like a power that makes sense. And what’s more, how can he just take out the whole Corps?

Expected excellence from Van Sciver

Ethan Van Sciver and Jason Wright deliver an outstanding bit of artwork, particularly after the opening scene (how spooky is the empty skull of Chill, though?). His character aesthetics will never be my favorite, but the scope of a Van Sciver’s pages, especially when there’s ring-slinging going on, is something special. His background work is first-rate, as well, which makes the whole affair feel more real, and consequently, urgent—it’s not just a superhero slug-fest over splotches of color.

The other side of that coin, though, is that there’s a lot of artwork for letterer Tom Napolitano to work around, but he handles it wonderfully. Look especially at the page featuring The Batman Who Laughs—there’s quite a bit of text, and quite a few characters, but Napolitano deftly nestles the biggest chunks between TBWL’s creepy little Toddlings.

I’m still not nuts about the red text on black balloons, but that’s not Napolitano’s fault—it’s just the style in use across all of the Metal books for that particular character.

Unrealized potential

All-in-all, this is a fair story with excellent artwork and lettering. Humphries went toward the right end, ultimately, but I think he got there too quickly, and his Dawnbreaker fails to earn my empathy.

Recommended if…

  • You never tire of seeing Ethan Van Sciver draw Green Lanterns
  • You like seeing Joe Chill get his reward

Overall

It reads better the second time, but Batman: The Dawnbreaker still suffers from an unrecognizable hero and one-too-many ring-related contrivances. It’s a shame, because it’s a great-looking book that deserves a better implementation of the good idea at the root of it all.

SCORE: 6/10