Thursday, July 18, 2024

Detective Comics Gets All Lovecraftian

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[Danny Elfman Theme Plays]
Man, my timing is just sort of impeccable? See, I’ve been playing tons of Bloodborne over the past week (bought it shortly after launch and finally got into it) and imagine my surprise that the final page of Detective Comics #959 would feature something eerily similar to the goddamn Undead Giant chalice dungeon boss.

“What’s wrong with your FAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAACE???”

Except Jean-Paul’s demon has wings and also looks a tad more like Ascalon!

Bloodborne, for those who may not be aware, is an action game that is very much steeped in Eldritch-inspired horror based upon the works of H.P. Lovecraft. I’m using the term “based” very liberally here, since it’s mostly design mentalities and a general thematic choice that carry over. Basically, there is a “truth” of existence and reality that, if studied or understood, drives mortal beings insane as it is beyond human comprehension. It is not something that should ever be known, since the risks of madness and/or destroying the world (I think?) do not outweigh the reward of higher knowledge equivalent to that of a God.

Since Lovecraftian monsters and demons are all but impossible to accidentally create in modern media, I’m pretty floored by this level of a twist. At least, what I think is a twist. Again, not an expert on Azrael, but I feel like cursory research, assuming I didn’t blatantly miss it, would have brought up the Lovecraft angle. Which I am also not an expert on, but thankfully this one isn’t too complicated. At least, I don’t think it is.

The Darkest Nights Are Hidden In Lights

We open with a still-in-training young Bruce Wayne and Zatanna flirt-brooding on the top of…I’m trying to remember the layout of the Las Vegas strip (I was there over Christmas to see Jerry Seinfeld). The funny thing is that I can recognize the other casinos being depicted, since that fountain and the mini Eiffel Tower are always great landmarks, but if I had to guess…it’d be the Cosmopolitan? I could be remembering this entirely wrong though; the strip is enormous, but that just goes to show how insanely above and beyond Martinez, once again, goes to further set the tone of a single scene.

People are often baffled as to how J.H. Williams III ever managed a monthly schedule (the secret is that he mostly didn’t; he worked really far ahead!), and I’m starting to get that same feeling again with Martinez. There’s a level of consistency and expressiveness in his art that is just… I’m just going to assume he’s not being paid nearly enough for the work he does. I know he got an exclusive contract with DC, and that’s amazing to hear, but every freaking issue he does he just keeps getting better. I don’t know if he’s constantly pushing himself and yet seemingly has no limits, sorta like Cass, but hot damn this is far and beyond what I could have hoped for.

And, imagine that, it perfectly matches the tone and style of the story being told! If you have a few minutes to spare, take a very close look at how the “camera” is placed in each panel of this issue, and where characters are in relation to one another, and what the background details say about each moment. You’re gonna love what you see.

Back to the plot, Bruce waxes on about something that, on the surface, could be about Gotham being a living entity of some sort, or perhaps an allegory for a form of God that Bruce isn’t so much consciously avoiding as a realization, but rather that it’s something he feels he could never understand. Which is quite similar to one of the basic thematic principles of Lovecraft. This speech about the lights serves more than just those purposes, though. The most obvious reasoning is that he’s concerned that his vow to “war on crime” (it’s really more of a crusade, if you think about it) won’t actually work or have any real lasting impact after he returns to Gotham. Simple Batman stuff. Another option is that he’s speaking about an unnerving sense of unknowable knowledge that is not only Lovecraftian, but directly ties into DC’s Dark Nights: Metal event starting next month, which will delve into the Dark Multiverse. Also it’s apparently a heavy metal rock opera. Or it could just be a subtle nod towards Rebirth and Dr. Manhattan. The whole neurons thing certainly points to any of these, if not all, conclusions.

Plus, it’s nice to see that Bruce’s doubts and insecurities are affirmed by a young Zatanna. Seriously, who hasn’t felt like no matter how hard they work or try they’ll never actually achieve what they set out to do either all the time or every other day or every day? Nobody, that’s who.

And The Truth Shall Drive You Mad

Okay, I might have been more on to something about Lovecraft than I previously thought, re-reading this issue again. The fight between Ascalon and the Detective Comics team is a relatively short one, but it’s steeped in the search for an unknowable truth. Actually…pretty much every scene in this issue is about mysteries and questions without answers. 

After Zatanna magics Bruce into Batman, and gets her face sprayed with some sort of foam by Ascalon, as she can’t use her magic too well if she can’t speak, an uncharacteristically smirky Batman heralds the arrival of the Detective Comics team.

They come bursting through the ceiling, further cementing that, yeah, they are a fully formed and functioning team at this point. Kate takes over crowd control with Cass and Clayface, attempting to bring the monk and the other civilians to safety, but Brother Kodo commits suicide before they get very far. Meanwhile, Bruce, Luke and Azrael go toe-to-toe with Ascalaon. And, uh, this happens:

“It seems that you do not appreciate my dietary expertise. Do you know what happens to your body without fiber?”

Luke and Bruce try to wrestle Jean-Paul free from the giant robot, but are unable to do so. Thankfully, Ascalaon gets so freaked out by Azrael’s existence that he teleports away…but not before it exposits that it “does not comprehend what [it] has seen…” and that it must “seek further knowledge” and “the truth”. Eh?

Dr. Strangelove October: Or How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Bomb Super Science

Hey, it’s Dr. Victoria October, post-human biologist extraordinaire! We haven’t seen her since Detective Comics #948, during  the Batwoman Begins two-parter where she was flirting with everyone and acted like a faux supervillain because it was fun. At the time, her introduction drew some flak from the transgender community for her use of the term “deadname” in conversation as a means to reveal that she was indeed a transwoman (and also that Batman sent her a card after her transition, which I will never not find adorable and perfect) as explicitly as possible. The use of it was considered to be unrealistic and not the best of choices; the general feeling was that Bennett and Tynion used the word because it was “trendy”. To me, it seemed more like they overcompensated in wanting to make it super clear that she was trans, but that’s just my take on the situation.

Anyway, good news and bad news. Bad news: they didn’t fix that with a minor relettering change in the trade paperback of Victim Syndicate, which is rather unfortunate since the set-up to do so in a clever way was already written in there. Y’know, something about how if you get to choose a new name, why not do so with some panache like Kate did for Batwoman? Simple, and effective. Good news: Tynion very clearly learned from that stumble and, to my understanding, nailed the depiction with his extremely clever use of Nomoz as a way to open the conversation about gender identity. Which, in itself, is a very complicated question that is occasionally without an answer, which is totally fine, of course. It makes perfect sense that Nomoz, a genetically engineered person with the mind of a human being, wouldn’t exactly be super agreeable that he was a “dwarfling”, whatever the hell those are.

Dr. October plays “mad scientist” for a moment before remembering that yeah, this dude isn’t Frankenstein’s creature, and falls back on something entirely logical for treating a patient that, while based on the human genome, very distinctly is not one. Hence, post-human. Good bedside manner is important, regardless of the patient or operation being performed, so again, it’s a pretty organic way of bringing up gender identity…and also establishing that neither Clayface nor Cass have any problem with that. Not that they really could. Basil is a shapeshifter, so that’s a whole other thing there, while Cass understands people primarily through body language and most likely doesn’t assign gender as something particularly high on the totem pole of “things she uses to recognize individuals”.

So, after Basil does his thing and shows Nomoz the face of Brother Kodo, Dr. October puts him to sleep and focuses her attention on Clayface, which warms his little heart. It hadn’t occurred to me that she might be able to do something Batman or Batwing couldn’t, but it makes sense. She is the expert, after all.

Faith And Pragmatism, Part II

We cut to Luke and Kate, a pairing (not like that) that is the furthest thing from a coincidence, flying over the river. Or rather Luke is flying and carrying Kate like Superman would Lois Lane, which is just hysterical. Kate, forever unfazed and not remotely bothered by the method of transportation (it’s probably the most efficient at the time), listens to Luke rant on and on and on about Foxtech, though doesn’t appear to be disinterested. Seems like their friendship that’s slowly been building is really taking hold, since there’s no real reason why Kate would need to be here for this scene outside of thematic reasons. Luke wants company to bounce ideas off of, and that’s kind of sweet.

We’re privy to a big fancy shot of Luke’s fancy totally-in-plain-view-of-the-water robot workshop with bat symbols plastered everywhere (seriously, Luke? At least Tim’s windowed secret base is super high up!) and a few Easter eggs! The giant “face” on the upper right of the page, above everything else, is most likely the chassis of Bruce’s “Justice Buster” suit he used in the beginning of Snyder/Capullo’s Endgame Batman arc to defeat the Jokerized Justice League. The other is more explicit, and kind of adorable: Jim Gordon’s Robo-Batsuit from the subsequent Snyder/Capullo arc Superheavy and Bloom. Except now it has “emotions” in the form of ASCII emoticons. No Emojis for Batbot! It’s too…something for them. Logical? Probably that.

“We should be best friends! You can call me friend-best-oh!”

Anyway, Luke explains what the hell Ascalon is, curiously using the word “congregation” as a way to describe the way it thinks and learns. And then Luke makes a joke usually reserved for whoever is wearing that dashing bulletproof three-piece suit that denotes The Question. Specifically about how, hey, it’s unknowable and crazy and pretty scary to think about. What kind of problem would anyone need a zealot assassin supercomputer to solve, anyway?

The easy answer would be “Is there a God?” A more fun answer would be “If there is a God, how do I kill it?”. But the most fun? Ascalon is having a true crisis of faith and has no idea what to believe, so it’s leaning back on old programming (old teachings, per se) and is getting caught up in its own zealotry. Finding things that it cannot explain through faith alone, since it’s the living embodiment of, you guessed it, faith and pragmatism. Well, more so than Kate is, at least. Because she’s not a robot.

“All The Lights In The Sky Are Stars”

We get a nice parallel of the opening scene here with Zatanna and Bruce, except instead of the Vegas strip it’s Gotham. The disparity is a little too perfect, if I’m being honest. It’s even drawn from the reversed “perspective”, with them looking out to the left of the page, with Vegas being on the right. Sorta like you’re supposed to see and process Gotham itself before Batman or anyone else, which makes sense. Gotham is a character as much as the Batman himself, and it has been for a long, long time. It’s the moodiness here, though, that makes so damn striking. The lights Bruce spoke about when he was young…they’re not even there. The rain is masking them, if they’re even there at all. It’s the shadow of Gotham; that unending challenge towards the residents. I’ve always loved Snyder’s interpretation of Gotham as this grand crucible that either breaks you into madness (Two-Face, Scarecrow, etc) or forces you to become the best version of yourself just to survive. So Zatanna isn’t really teasing or mocking Bruce here about the lights; she sees it too. There may not be anything else like Gotham, but that’s not necessarily a positive. Same as what Bruce came to Zatanna for.

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Again, answers to questions that cannot be answered. Memories being changed for their own protection. The fear in Zatanna’s eyes suggests…something pretty scary. My first guess is that Bruce is asking about the one thing he really could ask a teenage Zatanna at that point in his life: is resurrecting his parents possible? With enough study, could he bring the dead back to life? Could he change history so that they’d never been murdered at all? Of course, Bruce knows that returning from death is entirely possible: both Jason and Damian were very, very dead but managed to return. Jason’s predicament was the result of extra-dimensional forces correcting his death in the first place (he wasn’t supposed to die; it’s complicated) while for Damian…let’s just say Bruce quite literally went to a place worse than hell itself, tricked Darkseid, the New God more evil than evil itself, into giving him the power to change reality, beat the snot out of him, and then made his way home just to bring Damian back to him.  

There are other examples of resurrection in comics, of course. Diana once fought her way out of Hades, and we all know about the Death of Superman. Bruce, however, has never, not in over 75 years of main continuity stories, technically died. He’s experienced brain death (it’s complicated), but that’s about as far it’s ever gone. For Bruce to explicitly seek out Zatanna for a way to use magic, not pseudo-science or the New Gods, to bring Tim Drake back is…terrifying. Of course, if Zatanna actually does agree to help him, it’d be pretty freaking amazing for the spell to fail so Zatanna has to come to the conclusion that, yup, Tim is still alive out there somewhere.

Again, Eldritch-style knowledge which is immediately followed by Jean-Paul Valley struggling to meditate…but is instead interrupted by that Lovecraftian abomination pictured way up at the top of the page! Yeah, I think Luke might be understating just how out of their comfort zone they’re gonna be.  



Writer: James Tynion IV

Pencils: Alvaro Martinez

Inks: Raul Fernandez

Colors: Brad Anderson

Letterer: Sal Cipriano

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