Sunday, April 21, 2024

Detective Comics Sticks The Landing Yet Again

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I wish I could just post pictures of every page of this week’s Detective Comics. I wish that was a legitimate option, because honestly I think so much of the Victim Syndicate speaks for itself. And, the strongest thing it’s saying is rather simple, yet equally complex and compelling:

Batman is human.

We all know that’s true, of course, but most of the time we’re shown that through the fact that he doesn’t have superpowers, rather than actual humanity. I went over this in my review of Tec 945, but the fact of the matter is that the Bruce Wayne we’re getting in Detective Comics is the most human and relatable he’s been in…

Frankly, I think you have to look back to the DCAU era to see something comparable. Sure, there have been moments of vulnerability and genuine humanity, but that’s, for the most part, all those really were. Moments.

Cracks in his “Goddamn Batman” armor.

Just for contrast, of course.

We know that his supporting cast, the entire Batfamily and beyond, are human. We’re shown this consistently as they are, by design, not infallible as opposed to some interpretations of Batman. This issue does highlight that aspect of the mythos as well, but at the end of the day it’s Bruce that failed.

And that happens, too. Wouldn’t be a story without some form of conflict or obstacle. But, when was the last time you can remember Bruce admitting fault in a way that was genuine and not focused completely inward?

No, seriously. FOR CONTRAST.

You’d be hard pressed to find an answer more explicit or effective outside of the Paul Dini/Bruce Timm era. Yet, this week, we’re treated to something emotionally raw and filled with sincere personal reflection. Because this time, once again in a beautiful subversion of War Games—which I will do my best not to rehash since I’ve gone over that very comprehensively already—Batman isn’t just aware that he’s not perfect. He knows he’s not, he knows he never can be, he knows his way isn’t the only way, and he is fully committed to doing better.

Since, if he doesn’t, if none of them do, he can never prove, incontrovertibly, that Stephanie is wrong. That the mission is good enough for her.

Tower of Babel, Spoiler Style

As predicted, Steph quickly dispatches the rest of the team with curated countermeasures to slow them down just long enough for them to listen to her. She knocks out Batwing’s armor systems (really Luke? Not using a closed system is a rookie mistake) and neutralizes Clayface with something we all knew Batman would cook up.

She gasses Cass in a moment that is particularly heartbreaking. Those two were the best of friends long, long ago, and some of that is old history is clearly bleeding back in.

What Steph does with Kate is, I have to admit, exceedingly clever of both Tynion and the always-fantastic art team of Martinez, Fernandez and Anderson. Aside from the whole “Steph out-cheated the biggest damn cheater” angle, of course.

At first glance, it’s odd that Kate’s uniform isn’t insulated, but there’s something more going on there. If you look closely, she isn’t getting shocked from the outside.

One of these days, Kate will get her butt properly handed to her. And it will be AMAZING.

It’s internal. Her suit’s circuitry is overloaded, which then electrocutes her, knocking her out of the fight.

Back in her solo title, the DEO outfitted Kate with enhanced taser gloves along with the rest of her bleeding edge gear. Until she the switch in creative teams, she used them pretty consistently. Additionally, and this is important, her gloves and gauntlets are separate pieces. Gloves first, then the gauntlets.

So, rumor has it that Chase ain’t straight over in Supergirl Rebirth. If that’s true, every interaction she had with Kate becomes so much more interesting. And also, I’d imagine, infuriating for Kate. Y’know. Queer woman in what is basically the military? Reminds me of Alex Danvers. OH WAIT

I’m no engineer, but even I know that for electricity to flow, a circuit has to be open. So, those gloves of hers would need to be extremely easy to use and activate with little to no effort to be effective in the field. As in: the circuit can be opened easily. Plus, if the DEO gave her taser gloves like that, they’d be sure to insulate her suit so she didn’t accidentally shock herself.

The Taser-Rangs—a perfect reference to Bryan Q. Miller’s Batgirl run—Kate pulls out are primed and ready, so when Steph overloads them the current is sent through her palms and more or less straight into Kate’s body. The other six in her belt are activated as well, with the sudden burst of electricity arcing up into the metal of the rangs she’s holding, hitting Kate that much harder.

How do I know this? Well, Martinez went out of his way to draw the little wiring imprints of Kate’s taser gloves, which haven’t been seen, to my knowledge, in years.

Anyway, what’s most notable here is that Steph had to create these countermeasures. Batman didn’t have these at the ready in case his Detective Comics team were to ever go rogue, which ties back into the kind of person Bruce is being portrayed as in Detective Comics.

More trusting, more open. More human.

It’s a decently well known fact that Batman has contingency plans for every member of the JLA in case they were to ever go rogue. Part paranoia, part distrust, and part due diligence. It’s mostly in case they get hit with Mind Control. Which is not uncommon in his world so it’s not even that weird an idea.

So there was that time the Joker used crazy toxin to turn the JLA on Batman…

But, for his Detective Comics team, despite knowing full well how effective they can be, Bruce has not done the same. Maybe it’s because he assumes he can stop them all on his own, but considering the method in which Luke is taken out of the fight, I think it’s because he really does trust them.

Which is why Stephanie was able to pull this off in the first place: he didn’t consider the possibility that there’d be an attack from within.

Of course, the First Victim, being the giant jerk-face that they are, assumes that this whole exchange means that they somehow turned Steph into a supervillain…

Pbbbbbbbbbth, no. She’s not her dad, you lunatic.

…which is appropriately shot down because that would be beyond stupid.

 War Crusader Games

One of Steph’s defining character traits, as I’ve mentioned before, is her unbridled optimism, though you wouldn’t necessarily know that if you’d only read this arc. She’s been a bright light in the dark since she first debuted in the 90s, and it’s a big reason why she connected with so many people.

As I’m sure you’re all well aware, everything in that decade was grim and gritty and super edgy. That was like, the thing. And along comes Stephanie Brown, Spoiler, by way of Chuck Dixon.

Whether or not she was meant to be a direct commentary on the era’s popular culture isn’t something I can say for sure, but remember that this is the decade that killed Superman and broke Batman’s back within a year of one another.

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And, strangely enough, neither team knew what they other was doing.

Anyway, Steph has been struggling with her personal outlook for this entire arc, and there’s something beautiful about how she tries to talk Batman into “quitting”. Originally, yes back in War Games, Batman tried to crush Steph’s zeal and positivity, as he believed it had no place in this life. That people were not fundamentally good.

This time, there’s no attempt to burn away the kind of person Steph is to prove a point. Everything she does in her “betrayal” was for a better world, and a brighter tomorrow. The clinic, what is supposed to be a safe haven and a place of healing, has been bombed to hell and back. People injured in this crusade have had to run from their own sanctuary, and it is, in a way, Batman’s fault.

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And he knows that. He accepts that, completely. In true Animated Series fashion, Bruce wants to help everyone. He wants to rehabilitate, not punish.

Additionally, and I really should have spotted this last issue, but the climax of this arc takes place in the Thompson Free Clinic. The exact same place Steph “died” all those years ago. To say that this is meant to be the Rebirth of Spoiler is putting it mildly. 

“There’s Room In Our Line Of Work For Hope”

What Steph wants, and what she demands ultimately falls apart rather quickly. Not because anyone disregarded her, as she threatens to out Batman’s secret identity if he doesn’t “quit”, but because she’s so focused on the world she wants that she refuses to live in the world she’s in.

Sounds a lot like Batman, huh?

Ow. My heart.

Tim is “dead”, and nothing can change that. Cass would not do well in the Foster Care system. If they could cure Basil, they would have by now. And, it’s really the moment when Steph suggests that Kate head up the Police Academy that you can see her desperation in full.

Thanks to Rise of the Batmen, Steph knows more about Kate than I’m guessing Kate ever intended or is comfortable with. So, she knows exactly how much that wouldn’t work, and how unhelpful a suggestion it is.

But, right after that, Steph’s own optimism is used against her. Not in a way that’s malicious or cruel, but out of compassion.

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Connecting Luke’s non-lethal weapons tech from the beginning of the arc to one of his primary drives was a great storytelling decision, but more than that it’s topical. Very, very topical in way that, while obvious, doesn’t feel pandering since…yeah things are that bad.

I live in Chicago. It really is that bad. The Black Lives Matter movement doesn’t exist for no reason, folks.

But, this moment is more than just culturally relevant. It’s, at the core, how Jacob defined Kate’s mission all those years ago.

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Even after all that’s happened between her and her father, she can’t deny that he was right in that. That her focus, and why she puts on the uniform, has to be about a greater sense of duty or there’s no damn point.

Of course, digging deeper, the biggest reason this connects to Kate, at least in my opinion, is that it comes from a very genuine place of systematic oppression. And that is pretty much Kate’s natural state for her entire life. Oppression is so deeply carved into the bones of her characterization, and unfortunately you just don’t see that very often in any form of media. It’s normally watered down or made to be less threatening for the “wider audience”. But, with her, there’s no avoiding it.

She’s a woman, she’s gay, she struggles with PTSD, and she’s Jewish. The world she lives in hates every part of her, and she will always be aware of that.

As for Luke, he’s a black man in America during a period of resurgent racism and re-branded normalized Nazis. The world he lives in hates every part of him, and he’ll always be aware of that. But he still fights. He still moves forward and tries to make the world safer and better, just like Kate. We all knew she misjudged him, but I don’t think any of us expected for this to be the moment that she realizes the same.

It’s gutsy, deep, sincere and has a certain gravitas to it that cannot be ignored. Everything it should be. And I’ve got a good feeling that these two are going to build one hell of a friendship in the coming months. Or, ideally, years. Please?

The other moments, Clayface reminding her that she knows full well that he’s trying to be a better person and Cass pleading for her to stop by tugging on her cape, pull on your heartstrings as well, but they don’t quite have the same level of depth as Luke’s moment does. Not that anything really could, but still.

Kate, do you do these to entertain yourself? I think that you do. Hell, I totally would.

Also, Kate gets a one-liner and Steph runs away.

A Little Help From Our Friends

After a rather heartwarming page featuring Glory Griffin and Clayface—which if I were to go over it’d consist of a few hundred words of fawning because the odds of Clayface actually being rehabilitated on any permanent basis are basically zero despite how amazing his characterization is—we get something rather curious.

While the last issue did an excellent job of highlighting just how lucky the Victim Syndicate got in how they timed their attacks, as well as how ineffectual they would be at any other time since their rationale is far from rational, the ending here for the First Victim really solidifies just how much of a non-entity the group really was. In big picture terms, at least.

Scarecrow, Poison Ivy and Clayface were all created independently of Batman’s existence, so really, as I said before in my last review…seems like the First Victim is just aiming hate for their own selfish needs.

Which makes their identity little more than a footnote, if we get there.

And that’s not a bad thing by any means. This is really the sort of story where the mystery of the Big Bad isn’t exactly relevant, as the larger conflict is internal rather than external. I’m remaining in the League of Shadows Sleeper Agent camp, though.

Still, it’s intriguing that Kate, once again, brings her A+ gender-neutral pronoun game to the table even after they’ve captured the First Victim. Since being unable to discern their sex when admitting them to a mental institution is so many levels of absurd, we’re left with the notion that our villain more likely than not identifies somewhere outside the gender binary.

Which, if I have my facts right, means they’re the second DC character to fit that bill. Certainly takes the whole “I AM ALL OF YOUR VICTIMS!” thing super literally, that’s for sure. They/Them as actual plural nouns, rather than gender-neutral. Or, okay, more likely both, but you see what I’m getting at.

And then, well, we’re reminded that Batman is an actual person. That Bruce is, as I’ve said, a damn human being.

You ever get that feeling that you’re reading something that’s, y’know, DOING THINGS? Yeah. That. Here. Every two weeks.

I can’t help but be reminded of something very early in this run. Back in Tec 936, Kate tells Renee that the mission Batman entrusted her with, training the next-generation of heroes, “has the potential to be the most important thing I do in my life,” and now we’re finally going to see the full extent of that.

Sure, we’ve been shown hints. Brief moments over the first arc, where Kate had to get her own head back in the game while also dealing with the Colony. Then we got Night of the Monster Men, and we were shown quite a bit of what Kate had accomplished in such a short amount of time, but even still…not quite a full display of what she’s been doing. Victim Syndicate gave us the first real look into it, as the Detective Comics team operated as perfectly coordinated strike force in every action sequence, yet at the same time they weren’t up against the A-listers.

So, it’s only natural that the next primary arc coming up in February is entitled League of Shadows. You remember those guys, right? The crazy international omni-pervasive sleeper cell terrorist organization that “didn’t exist” because Jacob Kane “made it all up” so his Colony would have something to fight?


You’d be surprised how many people still think Jacob was crazy…

Oh, Bruce. You were wrong about the Court of Owls, and you were wrong about this one, too. And if the League of Shadows operates anything like I think they do, well, you are in for a very bad time. And, uh, so is everyone else.

What’s more, though, is that this is the first time that Bruce and Kate have truly spoken to one another as actual equals. Not as something Bruce was attempting to push, or as a concept Kate was struggling to accept. But as a real, tangible and factual relationship.

It took time for them to actually get there, and I honestly love this book all the more for that. It’s a complicated dynamic to pull off since Batman doesn’t really do equals. Even if Dick is better than him at basically everything. There are no orders. There is a discussion. There’s advice. But, again, no orders. No power struggle or unclear lines of authority. They’re in this together, as a team. Partners, and this time I can actually see it. And it’s freaking amazing.

Too Evil To Fail (It’s Gonna Be A Thing)

This is a small moment, but like pretty much everything else that has to do with Kate in this book, it’s also pretty big in a greater context.

I’m not crying, you’re crying.

So. Yeah. Maybe you know this, maybe you don’t, but it took Kate 20 issues to speak to her father the first time around. And even then, her entire family had to ambush her with a damned intervention to make that happen. Maggie had to give her an ultimatum.

Every single aspect of Kate’s identity, all of her relationships, everything that makes her who she is…it’s all spotlighted at the end of Batwoman #20. And on the off chance you’re reading this: Here’s the scene to beat, Bennett. And I know for a damned fact that you can.

That also happens to be my favorite Batwoman scene ever, but that’s not really the point.

Did Jacob kill anybody back then? Sure, but nobody she knew. He was just… The circumstances here are so much more extreme, but Bruce is able to convince her to try when years ago, in far less stressful times, she’d have snapped at anyone who suggested the very notion of speaking to him. Which is what she did to Bette.

I think the biggest difference here, as for why Kate is even open to this, isn’t so much that it’s Bruce trying to help her; he clearly cares more about her than she does about him for the time being. That’s just how they’re written. No, this is more in how Kate is in a position of power now.

She beat her father. She won. Tim “died” saving thousands of innocent lives, and for once Kate doesn’t really have anything too big to hate herself for regarding this situation. Used to be that she thought she’d killed Beth, but that turned out to be…well, half-true, since she came back, but now all the blame rests on Jacob. Kate is in control of when he sees her, and what they talk about. Sure, he can most likely still get in her head…but she can always leave. She can always close that door again if she wants to.

It’s almost like she’s following in the footsteps of another beloved character here at the Fandomentals. But that would be completely accurate silly.

Spoiler: Voice of the People

Tynion has stated that he believes Steph fills a void in Gotham that no other character really can, and I’m fairly certain that this is what he was getting at. The Bat Family operates with zero oversight, and while that does make them far more effective and efficient, it also means that when they screw up the only people around to punish them or set things right are themselves.

So, what if Spoiler was that oversight? What if she watched them to make sure they didn’t put innocents in jeopardy? Acted as their conscience, of a sort. She’s the one keeping tabs on them. A constant reminder that they need to do and be better.

Oh, hey look another War Games reference.

And, of course, an unintentional motivator towards that end.

It’s even more clever than I’m making it sound, actually. If Batman, and by extension everyone else around him, are Gotham’s “Watchful Guardians”, then, heh, who watches the Watchmen?

Hm, well that’s a pattern. Flashback in penultimate chapter to give greater context to moment of vulnerability between Bruce and Kate, followed by Tim stuck in Mr. Oz’s prison. Interesting.

All of this Rebirth/Watchmen stuff just keeps popping up more and more, huh?

Final Thoughts

To say that the finale of The Victim Syndicate felt like an emotional gut punch doesn’t quite do it justice. Almost, but not quite. It’s the start of something greater than what it is.

Meta-textually, in-universe—it’s got it all.

Tynion’s scripting continues to impress with every issue, and this is no exception. Alvaro Martinez’s beautifully expressive and slick pencils shine with Raul Fernandez’s tight and powerful blacks, while Brad Anderson makes every bit of every panel pop with pitch-perfect coloring. Nothing is ever too much, or too little.

It’s just gorgeous.

Honestly, if I praised the art team for everything I loved about this issue—ah, hell, I’ll just list it out the biggest “standout” moments for me. Lord knows they deserve it.

  1. Clayface. Every instance is equally threatening and endearing
  2. Modernizing Steph’s original costume; you folks absolutely knocked it out of the park. Equal parts classic and functional
  3. Steph’s Tower of Babel sequence is efficient and stunningly rendered, appearing both frenetic and controlled
  4. Page 9. The argument all happening within the lines of Spoiler’s outfit was artistically brilliant
  5. Kate and Bruce’s reflections, and the lighting itself, right outside of the First Victim’s cell perfectly conveys the “equal footing” moment.
  6. Tim’s short-lived escape sequence, specifically all of his tech scattered across the floor. Desperation, but clearly unbroken.
  7. Every damn facial expression. All of them.

If Rise of the Batmen was the set-up, then The Victim Syndicate is the beginning of one hell of a payoff. The status quo has been formally set. Everyone’s in their proper place. I, for one, cannot wait for what happens next.

And I’m not just saying that because the next arc is BATWOMAN BEGINS. 

Check back in two weeks; I’ll be here flipping out.

Not entirely, at least.


Writer: James Tynion IV

Pencils: Alvaro Martinez

Inks:  Raul Fernandez

Colors: Brad Anderson

Letterer: Marilyn Patrizio

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