Duke Thomas has appeared in Zero Year, Endgame, Superheavy, Future’s End, Batman & Robin Eternal, We Are Robin, White Knight, All Star Batman and now he has his own three issue miniseries. It’s been a busy five years and a lot of exposure for a character that’s left a lot of Bat-fans cold. From the opening scene of Batman & The Signal it’s clear that Scott Snyder and Tony Patrick are well aware that Duke is surplus to requirements and there’s a suggestion that this series will be their manifesto for us accepting Duke over, say, a Huntress/Red Robin/Question miniseries.
(The first page is pretty confusing; it took me a while to work out that the family are responding to Duke’s caption boxes)
While I can’t say I particularly enjoyed it, I was intrigued by this well-structured, frenetic issue which manages to pack in a meta dream sequence, an action scene, Duke’s relationship with the public, the reintroduction of a few old faces…and a conspiracy involving kids getting powers.
When I began the issue, I thought this might have something to do with all the people that changed after the events of the Amazo Virus arc in Justice League. It’s then made clear that only kids are affected which just made me think of the X-Men, which probably isn’t a good thing when you’re reading a DC book. Anyway, that’s Duke’s first mission; to stop juvenile offenders with powers and to find out how he got his (by the way, the aforementioned offenders all reside at Arkham Juvenile Detention Centre, a name which can’t be doing their self-esteem any good). The first villain he fights this issue is called Null and can ‘manipulate negative space’ according to Duke (This sounds rather like the Hawkman villain of the 90’s who looked very different but had the same name and could manipulate gravity). Apart from providing the action, Null’s main purpose is to provide semi-nonsensical dialogue that foreshadows Duke’s importance to the new generation of metahumans. We don’t know exactly what Duke can do yet but it’s impressed upon us that it will be Important with a capital I. At the end of the book, the Signal does discover a new power in his repertoire which is pretty sweet and will definitely help with the detective work but his overall significance is yet to be explained.
Batman’s opinion of Duke and his powers is explained in the book’s most controversial scene. For a while we’ve known that Bruce is trying something new with Duke and has been training him separately from his team in the Belfry. It transpires that Bruce saw something special in Duke when they first met and wants him to forge a new path independent of the Dark Knight (which begs the question: why does Duke’s suit feature a bat symbol? Also, Duke mentions an itchy tag in his costume. Why would there be a tag? Maybe part of it was bought in a store? I suppose Alfred doesn’t craft everyone’s armour by hand). The gifts and compliments Batman gives Duke in this scene are going to upset a lot of readers. Not only is he bad-mouthing his own methods and every sidekick that came before Duke, he’s smiling while doing it. I wish it had turned out Dick was disguised as Batman in this scene because Bruce should never be this cheerful.
Batman goes on to explain that Duke will be different from him because he’ll operate by day. Does Gotham need a daylight superhero? After an early morning brawl, Duke encounters some ungrateful civilians who ask this very question. If you were a criminal in Gotham, it would be sensible to gravitate toward daylight villainy if you were planning to avoid the Batman but why haven’t they tried that already? And why can’t one of the other members of the family take care of it?
While Batman’s voice may not be what I’d hoped, I was fine with Gordon’s sweet avuncular manner (even if some of his dialogue is pretty clunky- I winced when he joked that the sun needs a bat on it for him to want to look at it) and Duke comes across as humble, which I personally find endearing (I think I’d get on with Dick Grayson or Jessica Cruz a lot better than I would with brasher characters like Selina, Damian or Jason). Duke’s voice is undeniably a young one without all the condescension the youth of today received in such issues as Batgirl #35 (the modern reinterpretation of Barbara) or Gotham Academy #14 (the dreadful first Yearbook issue).
Izzy Ortiz and Riko Sheridan make a brief appearance. You’d be forgiven for having forgotten them; they were part of Duke’s team in We Are Robin. As we’ve seen with Seeley and Humphres’ work on Nightwing, it’s important for our hero to have a supporting cast to provide assistance and the soap opera element but I didn’t really connect with this scene, partly because Duke’s uncle seemed an unnecessary and rote addition and partly because the team stumble upon another signifier of Duke’s importance which makes him stare into the distance as if he’s left the oven on.
I’ve not seen Cully Hamner’s art before but I’ve warmed to it more with each read-through. The simplicity of it and Laura Martin’s appropriately bright palette makes it a bit cartoonish at first sight but the character proportions, consistently drawn faces and detailed city-scapes inject a lot of realism too. I especially like how shabby and friendly Gordon appears. The cover delivers too, promising daylight adventure and a new sidekick in the usual pose of sharing a gargoyle with his mentor (the last new character to do this was Harper Row/Bluebird. Hopefully the Signal will fare better than she did). Plus it doesn’t prominently feature those weird nunchuk things so that’s a plus.
- You’d like a short, upbeat series to read this winter.
- You want to collect everything spinning out of Dark Nights: Metal.
- You enjoy it when Batman behaves like a totally different character.
- You like vigilantes named after Batman’s gadgets. We’ve got Batwing and the Signal now. Presumably the next sidekick will be either Whirly-Bat or Smoke Grenade.
Kids with emerging superpowers, Duke’s Peter Parkeresque tone and the forthcoming
Incredible Hulk Damage series… Batman & The Signal seems to mark the transformation of daytime Gotham into Marvel’s New York, which is something we don’t need.
Issue #1 is no disaster but its off to a rocky start. I’m pleased that DC aren’t just focusing on the same old characters and that they’re giving new voices, ideas and talents a chance as this benefits everyone; the industry and the readership. Maybe a character as unjustified and redundant as Duke isn’t the right choice to spearhead this approach. Time will tell. I have my fingers crossed that Tony Patrick will nail the Batman characterisation in the two remaining issues of the series and turn things around.