When this new run of Detective Comics began in early June, I was nervous. The writer, James Tynion IV, billed it as his “dream book”. The Bat-Family team book he’d wanted to read since the early ’90s, that doubled as a home for Gotham-based characters without a title of their own.
These include, so far:
- Orphan (Cassandra Cain; human weapon who could beat Batman)
- Spoiler (Stephanie Brown; self-taught unconventional tactics with dead supervillain for a father)
- Red Robin (Tim Drake; tech genius/world’s second greatest detective with loving parents)
- Batwing (Luke Fox; custom power armor and tech/business genius)
- Harper Row (former vigilante known as Bluebird; electrical engineering whiz)
- Azrael (Jean-Paul Valley; reformed brainwashed master assassin)
- Leslie Thompkins (old surgeon friend of Thomas Wayne; runs a free clinic)
- Clayface (Basil Karlo; former supervillain shapeshifter with Hulk-level strength)
But the biggest surprise is the woman right in the center; the co-leader and field instructor for the team. Batwoman.
Unfortunately, in recent years, she has suffered from a good deal of controversy. Some of it stems from editorial mandate, like that time DC Comics wouldn’t let her marry her fiance. Or, most disturbingly, it’s the result of a replacement creative team defaulting to Rape as Drama apparently unintentionally.
However, once the first arc, Rise of the Batmen, concluded, all of my anxiety vanished. Tynion smashed the landing. Kate is back, and so is everyone else. What’s more, though, is that Detective Comics has been so well-received, with many publications claiming that it is by far the best book in the Rebirth line, that Batwoman is getting her own solo series again!
Detective Comics even managed to beat out Greg Rucka’s newest run on Wonder Woman, which is especially astounding since he’s the guy who redefined Kate Kane in the first place.
I don’t want to spend too much time on background for this title, but I am starting my reviews in the middle of the second arc, so I thought it pertinent. Still, this is a very continuity-heavy book, but not in a way that would make it inaccessible to new readers. Unless you haven’t been reading this current run, which is what I’m going to assume so that I only have to do this once.
So, yeah, we’re gonna be playing a little catch-up since there is just so much to unpack.
This isn’t a result of me having an excellent memory for comics published before I was born. The original Suicide Squad run by Ostrander, Yale and others is considered to be one of the best titles the Big Two have ever published.
The title was very much ahead of its time, showcasing a surprisingly diverse cast of characters tasked with performing “unsanctioned” black ops in areas too politically dangerous for the American government to officially get their hands dirty.
Amanda Waller, the black woman on the right, is generally regarded as one of the most ruthless and terrifying characters in the DCU. Stephanie Brown, the blonde teenager on the left, doesn’t have the best track record of being taken seriously.
By all accounts, she should be. She’s the only character to have ever held the mantle of both Robin and Batgirl. Before they rebooted the DCU back in 2011, at least. If Tynion’s interviews are any indication, he aims to fix this discrepancy.
And Detective Comics #945 is clearly the start of that.
It takes a lot to shake Batman, so for Steph to manage it, as a teenager and not a powerful middle-aged woman, she has got to have one hell of a point.
And she does. Oh boy, does she ever.
Another “Death” In The Family
Back in Detective Comics #940, Tim Drake, aka Red Robin, seemingly sacrificed himself to save hundreds of Gothamites from a drone fleet. Of course, it turns out that he wasn’t killed, but rather removed from the timeline by…you know what, I’m not even going to get into that. Would take way too long.
Let’s just say that there are bigger forces at work, and Tim’s rekindled relationship with Steph—which was a big thing before DC’s 2011 reboot—threatened to mess up someone’s super-high-level plan. Because the Power of Love is just that strong.
Anyway, Red Robin is “dead”, and the Bat-Family is in mourning. True to form, Bruce has erected a memorial in the Belfry, the new centralized base of operations for Gotham’s bat-vigilantes that Tim himself designed.
The rest of the team, along with Nightwing, Red Hood and Robin in their respective books—because somebody forgot to tell Batgirl that Tim died I guess—are all grieving in their own way.
What makes this particular death, unlike so many others, so compelling is that he wanted out of this life. He was going to hang up his cape and enroll at Ivy University on a fancy scholarship, but never got the chance to do so. He figured he could do more good without the mask.
And Batman didn’t know that.
If They Feel Victimized, They Probably Are
The titular Victim Syndicate, the antagonists of this arc, believe that Batman and his allies are bad for this city. They invite more destruction and pain than they prevent. Each member of the Victim Syndicate, lead by the mysterious First Victim, have all been personally affected by Batman’s crusade on crime. Innocent people caught in the crossfire of attacks meant for him.
During the Bat-Team’s initial encounter with the Victim Syndicate, they attempted to rally Gothamites against Batman by hijacking the nearby news cameras at a GCPD charity gala. Our heroes stopped them from broadcasting the message, but the Syndicate managed to escape…right after Mr. Noxious poisoned Stephanie to almost-death, and Madame Crow released an Anti-Fear toxin that enticed the GCPD officers in attendance to fire into a smoke cloud they had surrounded with zero visibility.
Thankfully, they weren’t holding their usual service weapons. The gala was also a showcase for FoxTech’s new line of non-lethal deterrents Luke was pitching for law enforcement. And one of the weapons just so happened to be a gun that can only fire rubber bullets unless lethal force is authorized.
Man, wouldn’t that be handy to have in real life.
They take Stephanie to the Thompson Clinic, and she wakes up to find the First Victim standing over her, suggesting that they have a little chat. And that’s where our story picks up, but there’s still more ground to cover so we’ll be doing that as we go.
Everyone Remembers The Giant Monsters, Right?
We open with Batman asking Steph what exactly the First Victim told her, since any and all information could prove vital to their mission. Harper is there as well, as she called Batman once Steph told her about the supervillain showing up in her hospital room. Apparently, the Victim Syndicate is going to strike again that very night and people are justifiably terrified. Harper tries to make Steph understand just how dangerous the situation is, but she’s in no mood to listen to anyone.
Clearly, there was more to it than that. It’s also more than a little disturbing that Steph’s wording there makes it seem like she’s defending an abusive partner. Or family member, perhaps. I’m sure it’s to illustrate how she’s not allowing herself to grieve for Tim, as well as her anger towards Batman in all of this. Since, from her perspective, he has no idea what he’s talking about. He’s not the hero she thought he was.
Which was most likely the idea that the First Victim infected her with. The very same idea that she’s more or less raging at Batman about on the front cover pictured above. She was already emotionally compromised, so convincing her to cast further doubts on the mission as well as the team wouldn’t be difficult.
Now, in all fairness, the Victim Syndicate does have a point.
While it’s true that Doctor Strange’s—not to be confused with Doctor Strange—genetically engineered kaijus wouldn’t have attacked Gotham during the Night of the Monster Men Bat Family Crossover if there wasn’t a Batman, they did manage to get through the night, which also featured a super-storm and a city-wide evacuation, without a single casualty.
So, again, the Victim Syndicate makes a good argument. It’s an extension of that age-old assertion that Batman creates his villains, which isn’t entirely false. He does often invite larger threats to Gotham simply by existing.
Hell, that was basically the only reason Bane even wanted to break him during the Knightfall storyline. Some guy he was in prison with said that Batman ruled the night in Gotham.
There wasn’t anything personal about it. Bane just wanted to prove that he was the best.
Interlude: Bruce Forgets That Kate Isn’t Jim Gordon
This is just one of those moments when the art absolutely shines. While this issue does have two fill-in artists, due to the stressful nature of twice-monthly shipping, the relatively minor consistency issues are more than balanced out by the quality of the work itself.
Barrionuevo’s pencils feel like a sharper variant of Barrows, one of the primary artists on Detective Comics. While Barrows tends to favor a rougher style that reminds me a bit of pastel art, with less defined lines so the characters can blend with the backgrounds, Barrionuevo does it a bit cleaner. His facial expressions, as well as structural variations from person to person, are excellent as well.
Nowhere is that more obvious than this page. At first, I didn’t understand why I was laughing so hard at it. The dialogue wasn’t funny. The expressions weren’t funny. And then it hit me: it’s the staging.
Ignore the words (sorry Tynion!) and focus on Bruce’s movement. We see him jump onto the rooftop to speak with Kate, and then promptly leave. Normally, this would be par for the course, except this time he doesn’t simply appear and then vanish. He lands, walks across the roof while having said conversation, and then zips away in full view of Batwoman…who has not moved at all during the entire sequence.
She just watches him leave, and he looks beyond ridiculous doing it.
It’s such a small, simple thing that I can’t help applaud the creative team. This could’ve been a radio call, intercut with Batman doing something else. But it wasn’t. They decided to tell a supremely clever, subtle joke that highlights just how off his game Batman is. And they even had the guts to show that Kate absolutely noticed.
Callbacks and Memories
After he leaves Kate to do her thing, Bruce hops in the batmobile and starts reminiscing about the first time he put on the costume in an attempt to discover the identity of the First Victim. Eagle-eyed readers will notice that the video footage playing beside Bruce is an homage to Detective Comics #27, Batman’s first appearance back in 1939.
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Of course, the instance that he remembers isn’t his first outing. According to Alfred, that was the second time he went out in costume and neither of them can quite remember what the first night entailed. Considering how memory leaks and cracked continuity have been spreading across the DCU ever since Rebirth began, this isn’t exactly surprising. Perhaps it’ll be someone connected to that larger mystery that Tim Drake is now a part of.
Or maybe it’ll be a Stranger Behind The Mask scenario, where we’ve never heard or seen this character before. Wouldn’t count that out.
Meanwhile, Steph arrives at the Belfry, having been called by Batwoman, and takes a moment to visit the spot where Tim was “killed”. The impact craters left by the rockets haven’t been completely repaired yet. She walks into the main room, only to be stopped by Batwing before he realizes who she is.
He shows her the tech he’s been working on, namely upgrading everyone’s suits so that they can counteract the Victim Syndicate’s abilities. Steph will be getting a short-term bubble shield similar to the one the First Victim used to stop exactly one punch from Batman in the previous issue.
I’m more than okay with Leslie performing Psych Evals for the team, especially with the insight we get into Steph and Basil’s head this issue, but it’s still funny to me that Kate specifically requested a psychiatrist with credentials she could vet…and got a surgeon. I mean, there wasn’t really anyone else they could trust with the job, but maybe some part of her is remembering the last time she addressed her mental health.
Didn’t go that well. Part of why she broke up with her fiance, so that’s a fun memory for her.
This is also when we start seeing some art shifts in this issue. And since they’re separated by scene, rather than exclusively by page, it’s really not that jarring. However, if the art were to change mid-sequence, then it’d take a moment to refocus. But since everything is its own completed “idea”, it works!
Especially since the last three pages by Barrionuevo are a double-page spread and what is effectively a splash page. Much easier to digest.
And it doesn’t hurt that Carmen Carnero and Scott Hanna are great in their own right. While not nearly as stylized as Barrows or Barrionuevo, which isn’t always a good thing by the way, the amount of emotion they capture in Clayface’s session with Dr. Thompkins really tugs at your heartstrings. That entire sequence, really, is just extremely well done.
Bit by bit, we see Basil slip out of his “normal” form, his trauma and guilt making it difficult for him to keep his feelings under the surface. Same with his true self. When he does fully transform, the session doesn’t stop. He continues to talk and pour his damn heart out, and I keep having to remind myself that this guy was a supervillain. Depending on the writer, one of the cruelest in Batman’s rogues gallery. Like, eats puppies cruel.
Then, we shift gears a little to get a nice moment with Cass. She appears to be waiting outside for Basil to finish his session. It’s a clever touch of, again, staging, since they both see themselves as the outsiders of the team in a very big way. They’ve bonded through that over the past month, if Detective Comics #943 is any indication, and it’s especially adorable to see this friendship communicated solely through physicality.
Since Cass has difficulty with spoken language, as the language center of her brain was almost entirely rewired to exclusively read body language, what she does is infinitely more important than what few words she’s able to speak at any given time. And instead of training in the Mud Room—think Holodeck, or the X-Men’s Danger Room—she chooses to spend her time supporting her friend.
Just in case.
Jacob Kane And The Annoying Soldiers Who Won’t Stop Talking
I don’t know if this was intentional or not, but the two Colony soldiers captured back in Detective Comics #939 immediately reminded me of Shore Leave and Sky Pilot from The Venture Bros. Maybe it’s the mustache, or that they’re playing “I Spy” so casually while captured with their CO, but damnit if that’s not hilarious.
Except now I keep reading Jacob Kane’s dialogue as Hunter Gathers, so that’s an entirely different problem.
For those of you just joining us, Jacob was technically the one who “killed” Tim. That drone fleet? His. He’s the commander of a rogue U.S. military black ops group called the Colony. They’re an army with bleeding edge tech ten years more advanced than anything else modeled after Batman, but with military-level precision. As it turns out, all of that training that Kate underwent in becoming Batwoman wasn’t so she could do the vigilante thing forever.
Her father wanted to bring her in as a free agent once she’d built herself a reputation, since re-enlisting after a dishonorable discharge, even if it was “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”, is an absolute legal nightmare no amount of money can solve. I covered the true depth of this in my Separated at Draft piece, regarding how Asami Sato from The Legend of Korra and Kate were basically the same person—as well as how Hiroshi and Jacob were not—in a scary amount of ways.
In the end, Jacob’s plan to kill hundred of Americans to save hundreds of thousands failed, and he ended up “murdering” a teenager. That’s a gross oversimplification, as at worst Jacob is a Well-Intentioned Extremist, but that’s neither here nor there. Point is, he’s in the holding cells beneath the Belfry and will only talk to Kate. Who, of course, has absolutely no interest in talking to him.
Kate Kane And The Stupid Kids Who Keep Almost Dying
We then cut to Kate watching the prisoners on the monitors, and she has had more than enough of her father’s crap so she shuts off the audio. Luke gives her his sympathy for how screwed up the situation is, and offers some perfectly reasonable advice about how to move forward. Since keeping him in a dungeon doesn’t solve anything.
Kate does not respond well to this and tells him to go do something productive. Like set the Mud Room to some insane threat level—it’s probably a recreation of that time she killed Medusa—and “sweat a little”. Luke, far more calm and collected than everyone else on this team right now, sees through this and asks why Kate is being so dismissive.
The result was, well, something I couldn’t not see: a very distinct parallel to her own solo series, with her cousin Bette subbing in for Luke.
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Detective Comics #943 had some of this tension as well, and the friends I discussed it with were all a little confused as to why Kate was reacting with such hostility towards someone she just met. For me, the reasoning was obvious. Kate effectively spells it out herself during the gala: she thinks he’s a child.
She sees him as no more mature than her cousin Bette, back when she was training under her. Somebody who walked away from a lucrative career in STEM to become an MMA fighter, and then started a tech company because he was bored.
And how long will it take until he’s bored of vigilantism? This is another one of those beats where, if you know the character, the whole damn thing takes on an entirely different meaning.
Kate sees Luke as an individual who had his entire life ahead of him, everything he could ever possibly want, but chose to throw it away because he didn’t care. And then, out of the blue, he shows up, and takes it all back. Because he can.
Anyway, as it turns out, Kate is very wrong about Luke. He’s seen his fair share of trauma and hell in this life, but that’s something that we, the reader, know about. Kate does not. And considering recent events, she isn’t exactly open to trusting any new people in her life. Plus, Luke didn’t make the best first impression a few nights prior, even though he was pretty much just putting on a show for the press.
Luke’s going to have to prove he’s got something to fight for, because if he doesn’t the only thing Kate will ever see when she looks at him will be this:
That put Bette into a coma for the better part of a year. She woke up about five minutes before hospital surgeons cut her open and harvested her organs. So, it’s rather natural for Kate to have this kind of reaction to anyone she believes isn’t taking this seriously.
Bi The Way, Back At The Clinic
Earlier this week, in response to a fan asking if Harper Row was canonically gay, Tynion tweeted to “Pick up Detective this Wednesday”. Naturally, I assumed that meant a significant portion of this review would be dedicated to this reveal but is obvious that was not the case. No, there were about fifteen other things that needed to be unpacked and deconstructed because that’s just how layered this damn book is!
This piece was never supposed to be this long, but here we are. And honestly, I can’t even get mad about that. If I can find over 5000 relevant, and ideally engaging, words to say about a 20 page comic in the middle of an arc, that should tell you just how fantastic this book really is. In case you hadn’t figured that out yet, of course.
Anyway, I’m over the moon about this. I’d long suspected that Harper was bi, as she’d had her fair share of Les Yay since her introduction, as well as one particularly explicit, and heartwarming show of solidarity towards her gay brother Cullen. He’d been the victim of gay bashing in Batman #12, and Harper wasn’t going to let him feel alone.
Just a heads up, it does involve a rather harmful slur, but the context here is reclamation and strength in unity, so I feel it’s appropriate.
Most of all, though, it’s incredibly refreshing to see that this just wasn’t a big deal to, well, anyone. Not to Jean-Paul and apparently not to Harper herself. And that, honestly, is validating. There was a moment of hesitation I noted here before she decides to come out to him. And you can just tell she’s reminding herself that this man is good and someone she can trust. Which is infinitely relatable.
I also found that our friendly reformed master assassin’s commentary on faith to be…rather poignant, regarding recent events. It’s a genuinely sweet exchange that is bound to be helpful for new readers who may have no idea who Jean-Paul Valley even is.
Or, was, as it were.
But, sometimes you can’t take things on faith. Sometimes, you have to tell your friend to call Batman so that you can punch a lectern and pick up a flaming sword to strike down the demons that would destroy your sanctuary. Because that overly-specific example is exactly what happens.
The Victim Syndicate attacks the clinic and Azrael gets ready to go 1994 all over their butts.
Twelve Years In The Making
If there’s one thing I know about Stephanie Brown fans, it’s that they’re incredibly passionate. Their love for her character is so strong that they created their own wikia devoted to her, as many of her adventures throughout the 90s and early 2000s were never formally collected in trade paperbacks.
The amount of dedication they feel for her is inspiring, and it’s a fandom in its own right.
So I can only imagine how unbelievably cathartic the end of Detective Comics #945 must be for hardcore Spoiler fans. Even more than this was back in 2010:
As I mentioned at the beginning of this review, there’s a long history of Steph not being taken seriously. Of being taken for granted and exploited when she’s most useful.
See, Batman has a nasty record of treating Steph horribly. He brought her on as Robin after Tim quit in the hopes that it would make him jealous—the intention was retconned, but still—and fired her the moment he realized that Tim wasn’t coming back.
Bruce held her to an impossible standard that she couldn’t, by design, ever live up to. The fact that she’d built herself up from nothing and completely independent of him didn’t seem to matter. Bruce was even, at times, emotionally abusive.
He treated her like trash, and after a time she really started to believe that she was.
His excessive mistreatment of her actually lead to Steph being tortured to “death” in 2004 during the War Games storyline—retconned as well, but again jeez—by Black Mask and plunging Gotham into a nightmare of gang warfare.
All because he refused to trust her.
The sexist implications here are clear as day. Even worse, though, is that at the time these stories were designed so that the reader sided with Batman. Even though the biggest mistakes Steph ever made, aside from the one that “killed” her, were miniscule at most. She couldn’t win no matter how hard she tried. This time around, however, the situation is mostly inverted.
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It’s not nearly as black and white as War Games, but with every issue this arc feels more like an incredible subversion of that tale. The original premise was that Steph wanted to prove that Batman was wrong for firing her as Robin. That he wasn’t always right, and that she could be a hero.
Now, during what Steph quickly realizes is an interrogation rather than a therapy session, which is messed up for so many reasons, she snaps. It’s not about if she is good enough for him.
It’s if he is good enough for her.
If his mission is even worth her time. Worth anyone’s time.
Is he a hero, or just a selfish man in a mask? Does he truly care, or is it all an act that helps no one? Does the symbol of the Bat even mean anything, or is everyone just projecting their own values upon it?
And damn it all, if she isn’t completely on point with this, because he is scared. He’s absolutely scared that the First Victim is right. He all but admits it to Alfred earlier in the issue. The other stuff, though, there are arguments to be made, sure. But at the end of the day…it depends on the writer.
It really does.
This is exactly the kind of person Bruce often presents himself as in many, many stories. A gruff, brooding loner who is the best at everything. He knows everything about everyone and is always right. He uses people as tools in his crusade on crime, and when they’re no longer convenient he tosses them away. That is the Batman that most people know.
But, in a beautiful twist of irony, that’s not the Batman in Detective Comics. He’s far more akin to his animated series counterpart than anything else.
He trusts his team. He’s open, albeit begrudgingly, to people calling out his crap. He didn’t design their base, Tim did. He didn’t create the training regimen. Kate did. There are a ton of recent examples, so it’s just painful to see that even when he is trying…it’s just not enough.
Not yet, anyway.
The Only Stage of Grief Is Denial
After Steph tears into Bruce, Luke barges in and tells them that the Syndicate has attacked the clinic. Batman grounds Steph from the mission, and everyone heads out. And then Steph does something I don’t think anyone was expecting.
Remember when I said, way up there, that she wasn’t allowing herself to grieve for Tim? This is why. I’d imagine some readers felt confused by this surprise, believing him to be some sort of hallucination. But, if you look a little closer, the explanation is far more devastating.
Steph has been using the Mud Room for the past month, in secret, to create a fake Tim to talk to. Who told her about the false wall in the interrogation room? The clay model of Tim. Somehow, he must’ve loaded part of his personality into the Belfry’s central computer. And Steph, in her grief, is abusing the hell out of it.
This is probably the reason she hasn’t left the team yet. The Mud Room is her last method of “communicating” with Tim. So when Leslie asks why she believes she doesn’t need someone to talk to, well, she already has somebody. Just not someone real.
10 out of freaking 10
In case it was somehow difficult to tell, I loved this issue. I love the art. I love the absurd attention to detail, and of course above all I cannot praise the writing enough. Every time I think Tynion has reached his peak, he proves me wrong.
This entire run, from the beginning, improves significantly with every issue. The first arc, to me, was an instant classic. It had everything I could have possibly wanted, and about forty other things I didn’t even know I wanted.
It was smart, witty, and so damn layered that it took a huge portion of my Separated at Draft piece just to deconstruct the conflict between Kate and her father.
But this? The Victim Syndicate? It just might top it.
If you’re not reading Detective Comics Rebirth, go out and pick up the Rise of the Batmen trade once it’s out. And, of course, if you’re able, pick up the back issues of this arc, too!
Or, hell, if need be, go digital and buy ’em all.
Even if you’re not a comics fan, I can’t recommend this title enough.
Images courtesy of DC Comics
Writer: James Tynion IV
Pencils: Al Barrionuevo and Carmen Carnero
Inks: Scott Hanna
Colors: Adriano Lucas