With the year of 2020 coming to a close and 2021’s new horizons fresh before us, I think that all of us were hoping for some respite from the chaos of the last twelve months – but recent events have served to remind us that things don’t get magically better overnight, even with the replacing of our calendars. For those of you who live in the United States, I extend my support and my best wishes: If you can, please lend your support to one another, and lift up the voices of those who are struggling and in need of assistance. Best wishes to all of you in the new year – let’s hope it gets better from here.
After the events of Dark Nights: Death Metal, the multiverse of DC has branched out into a sea of infinite possibilities – and one such universe has created the realities we see in DC’s Future State event! There was a lot of discussion during the comic’s announcement about the state of its “canonicity” – some pictured it as a line-wide soft reboot, a rebranding of the “5G” concept where old heroes stepped back to let new ones take centre stage. Others imagined it as a Future’s End-esque peek into a possible future, but one that definitely won’t actually happen in any reality we know. Finally, some saw it as a testing ground: a series of alternate-universe takes on established heroes, testing to see if their books would allow for new and diverse content. So, which is it?
…Well, it’s all three. But seeing as Death Metal ends by literally telling the audience not to think about continuity, it’s best we don’t read into it. I’ll be treating The Next Batman as its own beast, and I suggest you all do too; that may be the way to get the most enjoyment out of this incredibly intriguing comic. But before I continue, a clarification!
For those of you who know my reviews, you would know that price point is often a difficult factor for me – and is a big influencer on whether or not I’d recommend you purchase a book. In response to that, DC has made the genius decision of releasing comics with even higher price points, and I want to start my review by stating that I’m not sure I like the decision. Comics need to be accessible, and the more expensive they are (especially when you’re reading issues and not collected editions), the harder it can be to draw in new readers. That being said, there’s a benefit to this new format as well!
The Next Batman is not, in fact, just one comic – but actually three different comic books stashed together in an oversized coat, masquerading as one entity in order to get into a movie theatre. This is a decision that will be continuing going into the future, and it means that in my future Justice League reviews, I’ll actually be reviewing two books: Justice League and Justice League Dark. On the one hand, I like having the idea that I’m getting more quality in each of my comics! Finishing one book – especially if it’s a satisfying read – and then knowing I have a whole other comic in store for me afterward? That’s a good feeling, and it makes me feel like I’m getting some serious bang for my buck. On the other hand, for that feeling to continue being satisfying, both issues need to be somewhat good – which isn’t always an easy task. I’m going to be experimenting with how I review these comics going forward throughout these reviews; today, I’m going to try keeping them as slightly shorter mini-reviews, like I’d do for an anthology book. I welcome feedback and advice about how to format these reviews going forward! For now, let’s dive right in.
The Next Batman
What really surprised me with this comic – a comic that has had a lot of behind-the-scenes buildup for the past year – is how subdued the final product actually is. This is a story with only four issues, so you’d think that writer John Ridley is looking to rush this book. On the contrary – if anything, I’m shocked at how little happens in this chapter, aside from setting our characters on the board that is the new, paramilitary-controlled dystopia of Gotham City. I actually mean this as a very good thing! There was a refreshing feeling I gained from reading this book, in reading through a far more grounded tale than the main Batman comic has been in a while. I do have a serious critique of it – that being the dialogue is very expository, and very keen on telling rather than showing – but the worldbuilding it accomplishes doesn’t override the core story being told here. There are many quiet scenes throughout the tale, from Luke Fox’s interactions with his family across Gotham, to a cop talking to her ex-partner as he practices his baseball swing. This isn’t just a story about a new, mysterious Gary Stu taking down a police super-force and looking cool while doing it – this is about a different, street-level Batman, saving who he can amidst a city that’s decaying around him.
Batman here is a very interesting character, and I’m a big fan of how he’s been written so far. Tim Fox – who calls himself Jace Fox, like Bat-Family names aren’t complicated enough – has a strained relationship with his family, yet clearly finds himself eager and willing to make a difference in the city around him. Luke (his brother and Batwing in continuity) is written in a way that makes me actually interested in him, too! It’s strange that the story acts as if Luke is Batman instead of Jace; I have to assume DC was a little too keen on spoiling the reveal in advance, which ruins the mystique a little. In any case, he has a presence that feels different enough to be unique in the world of Gotham, without necessarily treading on the toes of those that came before him. It’s a tricky balance, but it’s helped by all the various little moments with him in and out of the suit.
Nick Derington and colourist Tamra Bonvillain are the stars of the show here, though. You can see more of Derington’s work in books such as Batman: Universe (PLEASE read Batman: Universe), but his work with Bonvillain here creates an entirely different aesthetic – and one I absolutely adore for this story. The pinks and purples of the story remind me of a modernized version of 80’s-90’s colouring – the Banelitos give me Graham Nolan vibes, and the entire piece paints a version of Gotham that’s just a little out-of-sync with the original DC Universe. The way Derington draws action is something else, though. There’s the clear and easy-to-follow fight choreography, the way he can tell a story like the director of a film, how he makes the most important panels of his work predominantly silent – all of it contributes to the product of an illustrator who knows exactly what they’re doing. It’s important to give your artists room to breathe when you’re giving them a story to adapt – Derington uses that space to create panels that might make the readers hold their breath instead. His work is exciting, crisp, aesthetically pleasing, and in top form here. If this story only had good art, I might still suggest checking it out; but there’s so much more to this opening chapter that has me itching for more. A solid start to Future State.
A sign of a genuinely great book is when it manages to get you interested in its previous content – and “Outsiders” manages to pull that off almost effortlessly by the end of the opening action sequence. This is a story I didn’t expect to love as much as I did – Duke Thomas fans have been eating well over the past couple of months, as I really enjoyed the dynamic he had with Katana throughout the opening chapter. I’m a sucker for word play, and the realization that writer Brandon Thomas had managed to work in a literal interpretation of the Outsiders’ name – a group of heroes dedicated to getting citizens of Gotham outside of the city – felt like a stroke of relative genius to my jaded little prune of a heart. More than Duke, however, Katana’s role is the standout: there’s a compelling emotional hook to her plight as she jumps from location to location, investigating the layers of corruption that hide within the fascistic Magistrate. Katana’s dialogue with her husband (framed as if she’s talking to herself) takes some getting used to, but becomes a vital part of why I care for her struggles throughout the issue. This is her book, and Thomas knows it – and uses it to create a strong case as to why I should read the rest of the recent Outsiders issues.
Meanwhile, Sumit Kumar turns the foundations of a strong book into an incredibly well-executed title. More than The Next Batman, Kumar leans into the cyberpunk-esque nature of Batman’s Future State lineup – particularly in Katana’s design, but also in the Magistrate base, along with the enemies she encounters along the way. The way Kumar portrays action is incredibly crisp and easy-to-follow; which is impressive, because he was tasked with drawing someone blocking a flurry of bullets with her sword, over the course of just one panel. His best work, however, comes when Katana is tasked with decimating a Magistrate facility, travelling down from one level to another as if she were leaping from panel to panel. It’s yet another page that reminds me of Batman: Universe, yet it has its own spin on it to make it both visually unique and aesthetically exciting. That’s not even mentioning his depiction of Black Lightning, in an ending that felt a little sudden (yet still provided a great hook for what comes next). This book is incredibly refined, and while these aren’t characters that I’m normally invested in, it gives me the impulse to learn more – which is the sign of a very solid comic.
What I find impressive about this collection of books is that while each book tells a vastly different story, they each work well together in how they escalate in scale. While The Next Batman is a far more subdued opener to the world of Future State, Arkham Knights has the bombastic nature of the event that this line is intended to be – and manages to implement some fascinating worldbuilding in the process. The Arkham Knight is a relatively recent addition to the world of comics – while Jason Todd wore the helmet in the titular video game, Astrid Arkham is the woman of the hour in continuity. I wasn’t sure if I liked her during her introduction, but I have to say, her inclusion in this book feels like you couldn’t have picked a more perfect character for the situation. For so long, one of the biggest complaints heard from Batman detractors was about the comic’s villainization of mental health issues: characters such as Two Face representing neurodivergent traits that aren’t to be seen as monstrous, but issues that impede the quality of life of those affected. Here, Arkham Knights plays with two conflicts at the same time. On the surface, we see an action-heavy tale about villains uniting against a common enemy, under the sway of a charismatic leader – but the implications of the story run deeper than that. While I’m not a fan of so much expository narration, and there’s a stilted element to how the villains address one another (“Mister Dent”, “My Lady Astrid”, “Mr Croc”, etc.), what writer Paul Jenkins is doing is portraying the Arkham Knight as a leader who sees these villains as people. Astrid sees the flaws in these villains – after all, she has the psychotic Mister Zsasz on her team – but she also believes them capable of doing good, despite these qualities that have damned them in the eyes of society. What this does is paints a more nuanced picture of Gotham City’s world, and while the execution isn’t perfect, the overall mythos of Future State is all the better for it.
For this very reason, one of the best scenes in this story is an interaction between Astrid Arkham and Doctor Phospherous, and it’s drawn with an authentic sincerity by illustrator Jack Herbert. I don’t think the art is perfect in this final installment: while Herbert’s work is well-suited for the scale the story requires, there are moments where I find proportions, poses and expressions to be somewhat wonky. In particular, while I understand the principle of the Arkham Knights having a uniform, I don’t think it looks good on at least half the characters, and could have used another pass during development. However, when it works, it works to great effect – the pursuit of Killer Croc through the sewers is beautifully inked to portray the shadows of the location, and it’s a great example of a book having just the right amount of action to serve the story. This book is motivated by character, rather than plot: and it creates a satisfying cap to the three stories contained in this collection.
- You have the expendable income for a rather expensive comic – but one that more than satisfies for its price.
- Bruce Wayne’s role as Batman isn’t what you read Batman comics for: each story is about characters largely relegated to the sidelines of the larger Batman mythos, yet it still feels like the central narrative to Batman’s Future State lineup.
- You’re looking to decrease the resell price of this comic on account of drooling over Nick Derington’s pages, along with those from two other incredibly skilled illustrators.
- You want something fresh! Different! Exciting! I’m really keen to read more.
I have spent the majority of my 2020 reviews deriding the state of DC comic books – and I’m not confident that Infinite Frontier will solve my issues with the brand as a whole, despite its promises for change. But for at least two months, I have been given the pleasure of reading and reviewing a book that is decidedly unique, and different from the Batman stories we’ve been given for quite some time. Future State makes me excited to read comic books again, and I wish it lasted longer – but for the time I have with it, I think I’m going to enjoy it (the good books, anyway). This is a great start, and I’m excited to see what issue two holds – and where this takes the comics I love going into the future.
Disclaimer: DC Comics provided Batman News with a copy of this comic for the purpose of this review.
Author’s Twitter: @ObnoxiousFinch