Coming into this issue, I had high hopes for Batman: Secret Files: Signal. After Batman & the Outsiders, it actually felt like DC was going to take their time with Duke as a character, and slowly let him grow to earn his status as a developed hero in the universe. But then I cracked this book open, and it was very clear that DC was back to their old shenanigans with good ol’ Duke Thomas. I’m not excited about it.
Oh, where do I even start?… I guess we’ll just go with the character himself. Duke, as a character, is a great and wonderfully interesting character. Debuting in Scott Snyder’s Batman: Zero Year as a child prodigy who helped Batman solve the Riddler’s riddles, when Duke popped up again in continuity, I was excited. The moment that Duke’s parents were attacked with Joker gas in Batman: Endgame, I had reservations for Duke because I knew they were going to try to make him a hero.
The outcome wasn’t as bad as I’d expected. Now a teen, Duke took inspiration from Robin and created a gang of young, teenage do-gooders with a mission to help Gotham City in We Are Robin – which is a wonderful and underrated book for anyone who hasn’t read it. In fact, I loved the book so much that I threw all reservations aside, started citing the title as one of the best books on DC’s slate at the time, and then… All-Star Batman happened. *Sigh*
There was suddenly a weird training wheel that was introduced and Duke moved into more of an active vigilante role, taking the moniker of Signal while sporting a bright, yellow costume, and served as Batman’s daytime vigilante. We got the entire Dark Nights: Metal arc where he got his powers, and since then, Duke has been a heavy-handed, over-hyped, desperate push from DC (aside from a solid stint in Batman & the Outsiders). If the corny name and less-than-well-established power-set weren’t enough to turn people off to Signal, readers definitely started turning on the character when his ascension came at the expense of legacy characters…
Anyway, we’re back with Batman: Secret Files, and just like DC did with the Magistrate, they’re going all-in with most of the elements that people didn’t respond well to before… I guess they never learn. Duke is the “daytime hero” again for Gotham, and the issue kicks off with him having some drama in the park with a “friend.” The story jumps back a few hours so we can catch up, and we’re overloaded with so much exposition. This is the literal example of an info dump, and every time I see this, I just find it lazy.
We’re also back to pushing this idea that Duke is the second coming, and he’s the only one capable and qualified to operate in the daytime and take on the missions Batman has planned for him. He’s just now moving into “Phase 3” of his training, mind you, but he’s the only one who can carry this burden. (Yes, I did just roll my eyes. I’m glad you know me well enough to know when I roll my eyes… It will certainly happen again.)
Before I dive into the plot, I do want to discuss characterization. There are a lot of questionable character decisions that are made in this issue. Most importantly, Duke has lost all of the emotional growth that he gained in Batman & the Outsiders, and that’s a shame. He’s back to his arrogant, brash, and naïve way of thinking, and I hate it. But he isn’t the only character that’s presented poorly.
I found myself questioning characterization multiple times. Batman feels off here. Then there’s a scene early in the issue where Duke is getting the upper hand on Cass while they’re sparring. That wouldn’t happen. We’re reintroduced to a number of the We Are Robin crew, but they’re either cold and/or jaded, or verging on straight villain… It just seems like a big leap from then till now.
Two of the returning characters from We Are Robin are Riko and Dax. Unfortunately, they’re two of the characters who feel like full-on villains now. They’re wearing crazy costumes and have superpowers. I have no idea where their powers came from since it isn’t explained, we’re just supposed to run with it. And this is on top of Duke’s poorly defined abilities. It makes everything feel disjointed. I found myself questioning way too much, and that pulled me from the book.
Hell, even within the fight, there’s weird stuff going on that doesn’t even make sense from what I understand these characters’ powers to be. . I mean, we’ve got Riko stealing powers, and then despite nobody having ice/ freezing abilities, Duke somehow freezes Dax… It’s a mess.
Which, transitions nicely into the plot. There isn’t much of one – at least not a complete one anyway – and even when there is a cohesive thread, the pacing and structure are so bad. It’s clear that Tony Patrick didn’t really know what he wanted to do, so he just threw everything and the kitchen sink in there. We’re getting random scenes to provide context/ flashbacks of Duke’s past, plus new potential, future plot threads, plus new character directions, plus a reembracing of Signal’s role as the daylight hero, while also being set up as nothing more than a trainee… Patrick needed to pick a lane and focus, and he didn’t.
Also, what’s up with the dialogue? All of the kids talk like some extreme stereotype of what a misguided, middle-aged, writer assumes kids sound like these days. And before anyone calls me out as being “old,” I’m constantly surrounded by teenagers. I know how they speak… This is not it.
The dialogue is at its worst when Xander meets with Bruce to rub it in that Bruce would still be rich if he’d let Xander buy his company two years ago. The entire exchange is obnoxious – and I’ll give Patrick credit, that’s the point – but, my God, I hated reading it. As it turns out, Xander is essentially leading Riko and Dax, and they share a similar mission as Batman and Signal… Investigate the White Market.
What’s the White Market, you ask? It’s essentially a flea market for villains. The set-up for the market itself isn’t fully explained at the expense of name-dropping C and D list characters, but it’s clear that the market is the crux of the story and what everything is building to… Until it doesn’t.
Riko steals Duke’s powers so she can access the market (it still isn’t fully explained how his powers access the market, or where the market actually is… or how they know where it is… mainly because this book is so poorly written). Duke gets free from Dax and goes to the market. They get caught at the market. Duke gets pinned down. It looks like he’s going to have to fight the likes of Parasite, Prometheus, and others on his own (he’d be dead in a heartbeat). And then… His powers conveniently wig out and he wakes up in Batman’s care… I’m not joking, that is how the climax – and basically the issue itself – ends.
And here I was hoping we got a good story when I should’ve just been wishing for a complete, cohesive story.
Christian Duce delivers the art for this issue and does a solid job. I especially love the way he draws his characters. I do think his craft works better when characters are out of costume as it really allows him to play with their emoting and facial expressions. I feel like we get so much characterization and acting from his faces alone. The costumed scenes are also good, just not quite as good.
If I were to pinpoint an area of opportunity, it would just be his background. They’re not bad by any means, but they do come off as generic, and don’t feel authentic or lived in. The best way I can describe it is like when you’re watching a film or television show, and you can clearly tell they’re using a backdrop for the scenery instead of filming on location… That’s how the backgrounds look here. And I don’t think the colors do much to help either. They’re lacking depth or richness – perhaps a texture – and that also makes the backgrounds feel flat and lifeless.
- If you were a fan of Batman & the Signal.
- You want to see what Duke is up to post-Outsiders.
- You like the idea of Gotham having a daytime hero.
As much as I wanted to like Batman: Secret Files: Signal, I’m sad to say that the book is an unfocused, structural mess. There’s not a clear, distinct story that’s told from start to finish, and the pacing is all over the place. Right as the narrative feels as though it’s building to a moment, it transitions to a different subplot. This forces the entire story – as well as the characters – to feel underdeveloped. Because of that, I’m definitely not excited that the story will continue.
Disclaimer: DC Comics provided Batman News with an advance copy of this comic for the purpose of this review.