Detective Comics #971 review

This is chapter 3 of Fall of the Batmen, the current arc running through Detective Comics. In previous chapters we saw Gotham’s mayor interfering with Batman’s business, with the intent of shutting down his team. Additionally, the Victim Syndicate is back as the opposing force, and Stephanie has rejoined the Gotham Knights. In this week’s issue there are quite a few plot developments, but unfortunately I fail to see logic in them, which makes for a rather confusing and at times frustrating reading experience.

I wrote about the covers as well. See the spoiler tag.

Cover A (by Guillem March and Tomeu Morey): Behold the Batman, his face soaked in blood, his body bound to Arkham Asylum’s gate in rusty chains, and surrounded by scary bats. The Batman throws his head back, an agonized cry erupts from his throat. The red blood drips down the crest on his chest, while his black and purple cape flutters about like the wings of a monster. It’s an amazing cover, one that sets a horror tone before even opening the book. The pencils, the inking, the coloring—it all blends into a perfect rendition of a captured Batman. The execution of this piece is seamless. It’s outstanding!

Cover B (by Rafael Albuquerque): Where the Batman was in chains on cover A, we see him standing beneath Arkham’s gate with a cannon in his hands on this cover. Batman looks ready for battle, determined as ever, not minding the snow sailing on the cold wind around him. The cover’s color schemes range from grayish blue to stark white, except for the small details for the beholders with keen eyes: there are hints of orange on the gun, adding simple but nearly hidden layers to the piece. The only thing I’m wondering is why Albuquerque drew snow on the cover, as there is no snow to be seen in the issue’s interiors. Nevertheless, Albuquerque once more delivers an expertly crafted cover. I suspect you’re going to have a hard time choosing between the two.

As the story opens, the stage is set through exposition, instantly giving the reader the context they need to dive into the book. In but three word balloons it’s established that Arkham Asylum has been taken over by the Victim Syndicate and that the GCPD has surrounded the place. A young, terrified journalist stands at the door and is greeted by the wicked Abigail, whose features are obscured by a frightening mask, and whose fear toxin needles creep across the door, holding it open. A sinister tone is set for the issue, and—although it begs the question why the villains are simply assuming the woman really is a journalist and not a cop—I quite enjoyed this opening sequence. However, as soon as I flipped the page and read the First Victim’s lines, things started to fall apart rapidly for me.

The first thing that stands out to me as odd is the speech pattern of the First Victim. He speaks in convoluted lines that I had to read three times before I really understood what he was saying. The reason for this is that the sentences are made up out of chunks that don’t flow well together. Take the following sentence, for instance: “Casting the people who would push back against the power structure alongside the lunatics that are allowed to run our city ragged.” It’s quite a mouthful, and by the time I’m halfway through I forget the beginning of the sentence. This could’ve been made much more concise. Unfortunately, this is a problem that more characters than just the First Victim suffer from, and therefore it’s an issue that lies with the script as a whole. It’s rather jarring.

The second thing that I notice is that there is absolutely no logic to the First Victim’s motivation. Of course, this isn’t new information for those who’ve read The Victim Syndicate (Detective Comics #943-947), as the First Victim and his freaks acted plenty erratic in that arc as well. But in this particular issue of ‘Tec it’s just hammered home to me that the entire way of thinking behind the Syndicate’s operation is utterly nonsensical. The First Victim claims that he and his buddies are not the ones hurting people, but that they want to help. He goes on to complain about Batman’s alliance with Clayface, and calls Clayface “a killer and a crook, who ruined many lives.” This is problematic in that the First Victim blames Batman for all the innocent victims caught in the crossfire between him and his enemies. Moreover, he tries to make Batman look bad by pointing toward the (ex-)villain he’s allied himself with. But Batman is just trying to help Clayface, who is in fact a victim of a terrible accident himself, and genuinely doesn’t want to be a bad guy anymore. Instead of recognizing Clayface as a victim, the First Victim decides to start a fight with Batman. In order to facilitate this fight, the First Victim somehow managed to recruit civilians in the streets. Civilians who might end up caught between the crossfire as well. To make matters worse, these civilians have painted their faces like the First Victim, bear torches, and bring an overall aggressive attitude—it looks like riots can break out any moment. In short, the First Victim is accusing Batman of exactly the things that the First Victim himself is guilty of. Now, you could say that his weird speech patterns and erratic behavior stem from his madness, and that this is intentional. But even if that’s the case, I can’t help but just be incredibly annoyed by the man. Bluntly put, I don’t think that his illogical motivation makes him more interesting. If anything, I feel like it makes the character look like a bad joke, and I find it hard to take any of this seriously, which results in overall boredom. Add to this the fact that he wears armor adorned with spikes and a blood-red mask, and you’ve got to wonder how anyone could possibly believe that this guy wants to help. You’d think Gotham citizens recognize a supervillain when they see one by now, especially when one’s wearing such an exaggerated outfit.

This nonsensical way of thinking continues throughout the issue. For instance, on pages 4 and 5, where we find the Gotham Knights team at the Belfry. The First Victim demands that Batman unmasks and steps down, but if I think about it, that would just mean that there’s but one less superhero in town (if Batman even were to do such a thing, which he never ever would). In any case, Batman’s retiring doesn’t automatically mean that all of the other superheroes (Red Robin; Spoiler; Orphan; Batwoman; Batgirl; Black Canary; Huntress; Nightwing; Damian; Red Hood; Gotham Girl; Batwing; Azrael; Signal; am I forgetting anyone?) also unmask and step down. I mean, Damian, for one, will be too stubborn to give up his mantle, and the others will have reasons of their own for continuing to fight the good fight. In turn, it doesn’t guarantee that the other villains (Joker; Two-Face; Scarecrow; Bane; Ivy, to just name a few) simply stop doing what they do either. I see Joker committing horrible deeds to try and get Bruce to come back as Batman. I see Two-Face just robbing a bank or taking hostages whether there is or isn’t a Batman. Scarecrow might still want to experiment on innocent victims with his concoctions, even if Batman has vanished, because this is something he’s been doing all along. There will always be villains in Gotham, and there will always be vigilantes to oppose them. Nothing is going to change that. Even if all heroes and villains would vanish, that just allows for more room for the gangsters. This is Gotham City, after all. Criminal activity is part of everyday life in that place. It’s been like that all along, even before Batman was around. Gangsters have been threatening the lives of innocents since the very start. For all these reasons it’s silly to ask Batman to unmask and step down. It won’t accomplish anything and, by extension, it’s also not at all shocking or exciting for me as a reader.

Besides the idea of Batman unmasking, I also don’t buy Steph’s actions. She tells the team that she sneaked into a civilian meeting, organized by the Victim Syndicate, and apparently that’s where she found out that the Syndicate was making plans for a big protest. Tim asks her why she was keeping this information from the team, and she answers that both Tim and Bruce are rich superheroes and therefore should be able to handle such a situation. However, I don’t see how the sheer fact that they are rich and superheroes means that they can handle a situation that they may not have seen coming, given the hectic circumstances. I also don’t see how this has kept Steph from informing her teammates. Perhaps we can chalk this up to her not completely having accepted Batman’s ways yet, and that she still harbors some anger toward him. But still, if she’s gone as far as to infiltrate a meeting, simply passing along the info shouldn’t have been too much trouble. This has me wondering whether or not there will be consequences for Steph’s reluctance to cooperate. In an earlier issue, Batman actually grounded her. As it stands, Stephanie is not being helpful at all, and when all is said and done I expect Batman to deal with her in one way or another. If this doesn’t happen in a future episode, I’d consider that an oversight; that would be inconsistent writing.

What’s more, during the scene at the Belfry, Batman receives a phone call from the mayor. His brief conversation with the mayor is actually quite interesting in that it can be read as commentary on the current nature of Bat-books. The mayor tells Batman to go to Arkham alone, without the team, and that he’ll work with Jim Gordon to solve the situation. After this, the mayor says, they will discuss the disbanding of the Gotham Knights and returning Clayface to Arkham. Essentially, that means doing away with the current state of affairs and returning to the old status quo. Think of it like this: the Bat-books have changed significantly over the years. These used to be stories about Batman working detective cases on his own, sometimes assisted by Robin, and meeting with Gordon on the GCPD rooftop to discuss evidence, patterns and suspects. Stories used to be of a much smaller scale as well, which allowed for them to be more focused on a specific adventure, or villain, or case, rather than having all these confusing character arcs that need to be juggled simultaneously. These days, however, there seems to be this notion that every story needs to be as big as it can be, involving all of the Bat family and laying waste to the entire city. While that potentially makes for epic storytelling, there comes a moment where those big, apocalyptic arcs possibly become tiresome and can begin to backfire. At this point a return to the old school stories—a Batman being an actual detective, working from the shadows—might be desirable. When read through this lens, it’s almost like the mayor is commenting on this notion, and while he can be considered somewhat annoying because he’s thwarting Batman’s operations, I actually end up agreeing with the man. I never asked for Detective Comics to turn into a team book—all I want is just a compelling adventure, preferably with lots of detective work (seeing as it’s in the series’ title!).

Moving on, when Batman arrives at Arkham Asylum, Gordon tells him that the Syndicate will start releasing villains if Batman doesn’t enter the asylum and surrenders. Again, this is inherently problematic. The cops have the asylum surrounded, so I see two possible outcomes. 1) The cops manage to stop the villain(s) in question but at the cost of several lives, and it could be argued that the cops, in this case, would be innocent victims as well. It’s not like they unleashed the villains on themselves—they didn’t ask for any of this. 2) Said villain(s) will somehow escape the cops, and Batman, or another superhero, will be required to capture them. This can potentially lead to a full-on chase through the city streets, and if these villains are running wild, who knows what they’ll do to innocent people (turn them into victims perhaps?). Take into account the protests—which are getting dangerously close to turning into riots—and people will suffer, there’s no way around this. Basically, the Syndicate’s plan is incredibly counter-intuitive, and goes against everything they claim to stand for. In a way, this is almost emphasized by Anarky, who meets Batman in the asylum’s courtyard and tells him: “You wanted to fight oppressive systems so hard that you turned around and created an oppressive system.” If we read these lines and think of the Syndicate, it rings true: The Syndicate says they want to end suffering but instead they create more suffering.

On a somewhat brighter note, this does actually lead into a powerful Batman moment. He steps into the hall and is immediately surrounded by a great number of henchmen, some carrying guns and others clubs. The First Victim attempts to act tough and starts talking, but Batman immediately dismisses him by activating a hidden protocol, which locks down the entire asylum. The First Victim points out to Batman that he’s severely outnumbered, to which Batman simply says: “Yeah. So let’s get on with it.” Now, there are two things going on here. First, we finally have Batman being his good old competent self, able to fight against great odds and employing one of his many contingency plans in order to defeat his foes. Second, (and this is less positive) it feels like this scene builds up to an awesome fight sequence between Batman and the henchmen, but unfortunately we never actually get to see the battle itself. On the next page, we see Batman standing in the center of the hall with bloody knuckles, surrounded by unconscious henchmen. I think this is a missed opportunity. I can’t recall a single moment from Tynion’s run where he’s actually shown us Batman’s masterful martial arts. This, right here, was a moment where Tynion could have delivered. In spite of this, however, I suppose we’ll just have to be content with what we get: a victorious Batman towering over fallen enemies, drawn by Miguel Mendonça. And yet, even here, I can’t be completely satisfied, because Batman’s chest looks much broader than on previous pages, which is an annoying visual inconsistency.

With regards to the art, and pencils in particular, the aforementioned inconsistency is actually a problem throughout the issue. Proportions of characters’ bodies and faces shift ever so slightly from panel to panel, and, to be fair, it is quite distracting. The backgrounds are rather empty and uninteresting, and I wish there were more details to study, but at least there are no severe continuity errors from page to page. On the flip-side, a plus is that the villains look genuinely creepy. The First Victim is scary what with his red mask, and those black holes for eyes and mouth. His teammates all look unhinged: Gloria with her distorted features and the creepy look in her eyes; Abigail with her horrific mask and those sharp needles; and even Anarky, whose emotions are impossible to perceive beyond his mask.

The inking is done by Diana Egea. Her lines are rather thick but in my opinion they never really muddy up the panels. I honestly don’t have any real complaints about it, but at once the inking also doesn’t stand out to me as amazing. It’s solid enough to get the job done, and that’s all right. In a book that has such an illogical plot, at least I’m glad that the art is effective when it comes to continuity and designs, and that I can make out what’s going on visually.

As for the colors, Jason Wright’s palette ranges from okay to very good. Okay because the colors look somewhat flat across the book, which makes everything seem very plastic. This takes away from the sense of depth and makes it slightly harder for me to get immersed in the story. But at the same time, it never particularly gets so bad that I have big complaints about it. What it does manage to do very well is that there’s variety in the color-work on every page. For instance, if it’s a darker, black and gray page which muted tones, we still see Red Robin in one or more of the panels, adding red, green and yellow to the overall aesthetic. Or look outside the asylum, where the area is drowned in a sea of red and blue from the sirens of the police cars. Furthermore, First Victim’s mask looks like blood is seeping down his face, onto his shoulders, which adds to the horror vibe of the character.

Recommended if…

  • You’re a fan of Clayface and would like to see what happens to him

  • You don’t mind the Victim Syndicate

  • You’re okay with plots that don’t make sense

  • The completionist in you compels you to pick up this issue

Overall: The story’s plot is very wonky because it’s based on villains whose motivations make no sense. It would’ve been okay if readers simply disagreed with a villain’s motivation, but if there’s no logic behind it whatsoever, it makes for very tedious reading, and, as a result, the rest of the story threatens to fall apart. The art is okay this time around, but it’s nothing to write home about, either. At a basic level, I’d say it’s serviceable. All in all, I recommend that you skip this issue as, to be perfectly honest, it doesn’t really seem to go anywhere. You see, it’s hard to get involved in a story whose villains are unconvincing and where the struggles are just straight-up uninteresting. Your money is better spent elsewhere.

Score: 4/10