With last month’s silent issue leading up to a promised confrontation between the Batgirls and Cluemaster, this one only has to fill in the blanks of Stephanie’s time with her dad while Cass was searching for her. The series has been intent on creating building up an emotional confrontation between child and parent, so lets see how this one plays out.
Where the last issue focused mostly on Cassandra and her search for Stephanie, this one is focused on Steph and Cluemaster. The majority of the issue is focused on showcasing the relationship between father and daughter, and also on painting a picture of who Aurthur Brown, aka Cluemaster, himself is.
Taken as a whole, separate from everything else going on and with the context of Stephanie and her dad’s checkered history this issue does some good things, but overall so much of what it’s going for isn’t really earned. It focuses on inter-generational conflict, cycles of abuse, and the desire to break free and there are aspects of this that I feel like are represented well, until the whole thing jumps the shark. So let’s take a close look at all those elements.
To start with, I want to talk about Cluemaster. I thought Cloonan and Conrad did a good job representing Arthur. He is not a good person, he’s manipulative, angry, unhinged and loves Stephanie in his own twisted way. His abuse is never painted as okay or something worth forgiveness. They also don’t lean on the fact that the Mad Hatter seemed to have a hand in his return. It’s very clearly painted as his own choices that led him to the place he is in and it will be his own choices if he wishes to change who he is.
Stephanie’s own reactions to Aruthur feel very well done as well. She is angry with her dad, and hurt, and there is a part of her that does love him. But she is also very firm in her desire to not become like him, and to separate herself from his influence. These complex emotions are written well and displayed equally well on the page by Neil Googe’s pen.
I’ll pause here to talk about the art briefly, because the rest of this review is going to be dedicated to the areas the issue struggled with and the art was not one of those issues. Neil Googe is on art while Rico Renzi does the colors for this issue. The characters are wonderfully expressive in this issue. Stephanie is consistently fierce and angry when she needs to be, and visually heartbroken in other moments. Arthur’s expressions are wide and ranged along with his body language, you can feel how unhinged he’s getting as you get further through the issue. Even the backgrounds are detailed and give you a sense of the place this is all taking place in. Overall between the lovely coloring and the art, visually the issue is incredibly well done.
While the art does a great job displaying emotions, the story struggles to land the emotional beats it’s trying to go for. I feel like a lot of what this issue is trying to do would have worked better if the series had focused at all on her own attempts to not be like her dad and done something to show what the impacts of growing up with a villain father were on her. Instead it’s basically dumped on us over this arc. So all the emotions that the team has tried to build here, while strong, don’t land like they should.
Additionally, all this careful work is thrown out completely with the resolution of the story. The writers cram a lot into the last chunk of the book in a way that is rushed, messy, and frankly infuriating. I’ll go into detailed spoilers in a minute, but if you want to skip to the end I’ll say the writers push the narrative to an emotional high it does not deserve, and then attempt to clean it up before readers can even breathe. There is no nuance to the ending, and the little there was at the start is dwarfed by these end decisions.
Now to get into where this issue really falls apart.
Near the end of the issue, Arthur shoots Stephanie. This is a very dramatic moment for all of the characters involved, and arguably the climax of the conflict we’ve seen between him and his daughter this whole issue. There is so much I could say about this choice. This blatant violence against women for drama and to ‘punish’ or give pain to a male character is an old trope I wish would die quickly. It’s worse that it’s Stephanie in this position, whose already gone through similar unreasonable violence in the past.
Then, even his killing her, is invalidated in almost the same breath it happens because she’s revived immediately. Cassandra uses Lazarus Resin she got last issue when investigating how Cluemaster was revived, to bring Stephanie back. We get no time to sit in the reality that she has died. That Cassandra has lost her friend. That Arthur must deal with the fact that he’s now killed the one person he claimed to love. It’s gone almost before characters can even feel it. And I have to ask, why it was even included in the first place, if not for shock and –again– to specifically punish Arthur.
Additionally, after the police have arrived and Steph and Cass are safely back at home we get to see Arthur in Arkham Tower. Here he is apparently quite the changed man. Killing his daughter seems to have magically made him decide he’s no longer all about giving out clues and ready for recovery. Which–again there is so much to unpack with this trope. I’m not against characters changing and seeing the error of their ways, but he went from completely unrepentant to “I’m not that man anymore” in the span of an issue. That is not enough time for that kind of change.
All of this is so very much to try to pack into what can generously be called the last third of the issue. And so little of the final elements are earned. Instead of letting the themes and ideas presented in this issue breathe and have the room of say, a few issues, the writers chose instead to rush into a huge dramatic moment, and then attempted to fix everything and humanize the villain at the end. This is not me saying that drama is bad, or that redemption stories are unwarranted even for the truly terrible. It is me saying that you have to earn those things, and this? This is not earned.
As frustrated as I am with the resolution to the issue, I do hope that the writers don’t decide to leave these themes dead in the water. There is room here to continue the conversation about moving past abuse, and striving to become a person who does not repeat the cycle they were born into. Added to that, what Stephanie goes through in this issue is traumatic, and I’d like to see the aftereffects of that displayed realistically. Though, I suppose asking for realism in comics (especially superhero comics) is a tall order sometimes. But when you’ve chosen to do an issue focused on parental and generational cycles of abuse, I should be allowed to expect you’ll follow up and build a narrative worth reading.
- You wanted to see Stephanie confront her dad
- The art is lovely
- Cass gets some cool fight scenes
This issue could have been really good. It does do a nice job initially in telling a difficult story and in giving us characters who are complex. Unfortunately it jumps past realistic into dramatic and misses it’s mark completely. There is nothing earned about the major emotional beats it attempts, instead they read like cheap shots for drama and nothing else. This could have had a much more impactful ending if it had simply allowed the story room to breathe, and not rushed into things, instead it tried to take a longer story and push it into a single issue.
DISCLAIMER: DC Comics provided Batman News with a copy of this comic for the purpose of this review.