A mysterious figure from Batman’s past comes to Gotham to show the Dark Knight how it’s done. But who is Ghost Maker, and what is he really doing here? That is the primary question left on the table by Batman #102, but is it worth the lead-up?
You can’t get there from here
Whether he’s had good ideas or bad ideas—and I’ve seen both—James Tynion’s problems tend to come more in the how than the why. I think much of his ‘Tec run was good big ideas wrecked by excessive, awkward dialogue. I think Joker War was an awful idea writ large, but it’s the details that drove me nuts: Punchline’s dialogue, Joker’s dialogue, everyone’s dialogue. Do I think the character names and designs are dopey? Sure I do. But I probably would have thought the same thing about the Joker if he was a brand new character today—it’s how he’s been written that has shaped him into the cultural force that he’s become. Unfortunately for Tynion, the strength of his ideas is most times irrelevant, because good and bad alike fail to take hold when they are handled poorly.
For the record, I think that Ghost Maker is thus far a bad idea. The last page of my paper copy has a brief interview with Tynion, who talks about the seeds of a story focused on a rival from Bruce’s past being planted during Zero Year, when he—known then as Scott Snyder’s protogé—was writing backup stories for the Batman title. In case you’ve forgotten, these stories were focused on the time before Zero Year, when Bruce was traveling the world, training himself to become a man worthy of the vow he’d made to his parents.
Pete did it better
This concept is not new, of course, and the challenge inherent in taking it on is that new stories will be compared with old ones. Surely you remember Kyodai Ken from The Animated Series, a great rival to Bruce-in-training who came back to haunt him in his Batman years. But for my money, there hasn’t been a better take on this motif than Tomasi and Gleason’s first arc in The New 52’s Batman and Robin title. In that story, it was Morgan Ducard—son of master manhunter Henri Ducard—who meddled in Batman’s business. Operating as the dangerous, difficult-to-detect Nobody, Morgan harassed (and worse!) the Dark Knight’s allies overseas before coming to Gotham and attempting to use Robin as a pawn to hurt Batman.
What made that story so compelling was the personal nature of it—from Morgan’s motivation, to his appeal to Damian’s darker proclivities, to Batman’s care for his hard-to-reach son. It wasn’t about Gotham—it was about relationships and human pain. Of course, we’re only at the tip of the Ghost Maker iceberg, so it’s possible that Tynion will try to make things more personal, but early indicators are not encouraging. The flashback we get seems to frame the conflict between Bruce and GM as something born of the latter’s perspective on Bruce’s silver spoon-fed life. He comes to Gotham for Gotham, and what seems to be personal pride—not for vengeance.
But the real problem—and here comes the why—is that Ghost Maker is annoyingly chatty. We open on him monologuing to a street cop, talking about what Batman should have done, yada yada yada. The whole thing seems to be a lead-up to the cop referring to Ghost Maker as “a bat,” so that Ghost Maker can say “do I look like a Bat?,” but the lead-up to that line doesn’t really work. Ghost Maker isn’t exactly acting like a member of the Family, and there have been enough morally ambiguous masks in Gotham to make the officer’s assumption a stretch. And of course, the cop flat-out says “I’m not a dirty cop…that’s not how you Bats work,” indicating that he already knows this guy ain’t with Batman. Which brings us back to why say it all? It makes the cop’s presence seem contrived, so that he can serve as a sounding board for the annoying monologue (talk about “offend[ing]…your senses”), and provide the assist to allow GM to deliver his super badass “do I look like a Bat” line. Not a good start.
Nobody, in contrast, was a wraith at the beginning. There was a mystique about him. Ghost Maker feels like Jean-Paul Valley in a sillier costume, sniffing his own righteous farts. But at least Paul had a sympathetic backstory. At least he started with noble aims. All we know about Ghost Maker so far is that he’s an arrogant alpha-douche who stole poor Bruce’s Irish knife instructor. Man alive.
Making everything new is getting really old
The Underbroker. The Designer. Papa Roach. The First Victim. Punchline. Clownhunter. Ghost Maker. Burr Grinder. The Grinners.
James Tynion likes making new things. Making new things is fun. But writing a character as entrenched as Batman is about finding the right balance between the old and new—between what the character is (a complicated topic, I know) and what the character is becoming under your hand. Tynion’s work with the Dark Knight has often felt disrespectful—or, more charitably, ignorant—of the former, and awkward at the latter. Tynion clearly wants to define Batman’s future by his periphery, and it’s getting exhausting. Yes, Batman has an amazing rogues gallery. Yes, they’ve become a significant part of who Batman is. But you can have—and we have had—amazing Batman stories in which he never encounters a one of them.
And really, we need time with new things to give them a chance to take. Let’s face it, most of us Batfans are stubborn, and our default reaction to new things is skepticism. But, given enough time—with the right creators leading the way, of course—we can open our hearts to fresh characters and ideas. But pelting us with so-so character after so-so character while depriving us of the things we actually enjoyed about Batman in the first place? That’s just frustrating.
“One of the absolute coolest new superhero designs I’ve seen in the last few years”
Visually, Batman #102 is a decent book. There’s an artist swap 13 pages in, and while the difference is obvious once you’re aware of the personnel change, I wasn’t jarred by the switch as I read through the book. Pagulayan and Anda are both capable storytellers, and with Anda’s pages confined to a location change and a shift to two characters more suited to his aesthetic, it works pretty well.
What I don’t like, however, is the Ghost Maker design. There’s no accounting for taste, of course, but I think there’s just too much going on with it. Even when it’s Jorge Jimenez—who designed the suit—drawing it, as on the cover, the multitude of elements seem to add up to zero, and we’re left with a fairly incoherent mess of a suit.
Tynion, of course, calls this “one of the absolute coolest new superhero designs I’ve seen in the last few years.” He’s welcome to his opinion, and I’m all for him supporting his collaborators, but love or hate the design, the problem is it feels like the design—and only the design—is what we’re being offered. Look at my new characters. Wouldn’t it be cool if there was a Clownhunter figure? The absolute coolest new design I’ve seen…
Batman is the coolest character in all of fiction. He’s awesome. And his costume IS AWESOME. But why is his costume awesome? I would argue that the biggest reason the Batsuit is awesome is because Batman is awesome. Sure, artists have done amazing things playing with the base elements, but it is Batman’s presence, his demeanor, his character that ultimately pulls the whole thing off.
James, do you want us to love Punchline? Clownhunter? Ghost Maker? Stop hyping their aesthetics. Stop low-key begging manufacturers to make figures. Give your characters memorable stories—today—and they’ll actually have a shot at being around tomorrow. No more Harley 2.0, no more teenaged edgelords with bats. No more also-ran takes on motifs that others did way better before you. Give us someone worth remembering, and then maybe we’ll get excited about his Punjabi pants and shiny helmet.
- You dig Tynion’s approach to Batman.
As a single issue, this one isn’t awful. But it feels like an all-too-familiar start to an all-too-familiar disappointing ride. Ghost Maker is a less-compelling take on a concept we’ve seen handled better by more capable writers, and with the arc ahead devoted to his conflict with the Dark Knight, I’m not optimistic. Decent visual storytelling from Pagulayan, Anda, and crew help to soften the blow, but with little faith in the overall direction of the story, I find even that is bittersweet. Unless you’re one of the Tynion faithful, I say pass.