Sunday, July 14, 2024

Something’s Missing In Detective Comics

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[Danny Elfman Theme Plays, Kinda Off Key?]

I feel like I’m gonna be in the minority with my opinion here, so I’ll be blunt at the top of this: this just didn’t work for me. This issue of Detective Comics felt like a lot of cool ideas and great character moments that are too many to list (once again showcasing Martinez’s ridiculous strength as an artist) that didn’t really…gel. They don’t fit together, and I’ve been trying to figure out why that is and what specifically isn’t working.

And it’s not just a “been there, done that” scenario, though this does borrow quite a bit from Rise of the Batmen in the context of basic beats. Metal Pope is Jean-Paul Valley Senior, the city is gonna get slaughtered by robots, Batman’s ideals taken to an extreme by a third party, a last-minute OHKO for all the mooks… We’ve done all that.

All of the things I just listed, by the way, were only revealed in this issue of Detective Comics. Aside from a single page in the previous issue, with Ascalon using the Batwing drones to search the city, the stakes for the first four issues of Intelligence were largely personal and emotional ones. And with the tiniest of tweaks they could, and I would argue should, have remained that way.

Frankly, I thought Ascalon’s introduction was supposed to be setting that specific tone as a clever subversion of the Victim Syndicate opening (also drawn by Martinez), where everyone is super stressed and Tim’s death is still an open wound:

Never gets old.

Tynion’s style with Detective Comics so far has been one of character-over-plot, which is…y’know, how it’s supposed to be done in basically all forms of narrative. The first arc was (among many other things, not the least of which was formally cementing Batwoman into the greater DCU) about the team coming together, and us learning why we should care about them. It worked phenomenally. The second arc was about Steph and Clayface struggling with their individual trauma, as well as being masterful subversion of War Games as a sort of reclamation of agency for the character of Stephanie Brown. Again, this stuck the landing. League of Shadows was a follow-up to Rise of the Batmen, giving larger context to Jacob Kane’s actions as well as diving deep into DCU continuity shenanigans and really fleshing out the heart of Cassandra Cain. Interspersed within those arcs were great character moments between the team members that weren’t necessarily in the spotlight quite yet, like Luke and Azrael.

So, what was Intelligence about? What was the goal of the fourth arc of Tynion’s Detective Comics?

Simply put, to show us why should care about Azrael and Luke. Well, that and have some fun with Zatanna while expanding on the Tim Drake mystery. I already liked Luke quite a bit beforehand, as his excessive work ethic coming from a place of witnessing all-too-common racially charged police brutality resonated with me. I imagine it did the same with many others. Jean-Paul, on the other hand…I’ve been struggling to get through his original solo series for the past several months in my attempts to prep for this arc. And I just couldn’t get through it. For whatever reason, his neo-templar thing just doesn’t connect with me, and this arc didn’t really push me any further towards that.

I value Jean-Paul as a counterpoint to Kate and Luke’s mentality towards the concept of faith, which is something I’ve covered in earlier reviews of this arc. I also value him as a living example of what Cass can, and did, accomplish.

But other than that…it just feels like the nostalgia goggles are on a little too tight with this one. The best example of that I can think of is the Bat-Azrael armor. The set-up to the reveal was great; connecting it back to Superheavy and bringing in the pseudo Batman AI was a cool idea to let two hardcore belief systems duke it out inside Jean-Paul’s head. But once he put the suit on…I gotta say that execution was leaning almost entirely on nostalgia especially since Jean-Paul didn’t even keep it!

There’s a line between being dependent reintroducing elements of a narrative that were legitimately missing, which is what the first three arcs of Detective Comics Rebirth did all but flawlessly. But this? A redesign of a very 90s comic book costume? That’s just not gonna fly for new readers or even ones who don’t absolutely adore Jean-Paul Valley.

But the problems this finale has don’t stop there. At the last minute, Tynion raises the stakes to…a confusing level. Ascalon ruminating about sin in earlier chapters as a point of confusion was very interesting, but then we find out he’s…trying to purge Gotham? Like, okay, what? I understand what Ascalon is saying, and why they’re saying it, but none of it fits totally with the narrative of the arc.

All this talk about QUESTIONS and ANSWERS in Detective Comics makes me wonder: WHERE IS RENEE?!

Why was this necessary? This was originally a very personal, emotional story about Jean-Paul struggling with his identity  (with some fun Lovecraftian elements thrown in) and at the last minute it became “Gotham is at risk!”. Which was, honestly, completely out of left field. Yes, Ascalon took the drones, but there’s no reason he had to do that. Luke would still be at his desk for the finale here, and the last issue for that matter, trying to figure out a solution. If Ascalon’s only goal had still been to, you know, kill Nomoz through his search for knowledge and original directive, what would have been lost? I’d argue nothing, as I feel it only detracts from the story.

Sometimes the stakes don’t need to be “the fate of the city”. They can just be “there’s a teleporting zealot super robot on the loose” and that’s it. That is a threat, and it’s something that’s just genuinely fun to consider the larger implications of…until it tries to purge sin because that’s what all AIs eventually think of doing: kill all humans. And the team’s solution to this, or rather Zatanna’s, was…to teach the robot to love. And then let the robot, who can inexplicably create life because it knows everything about everything, just up and leave because it understands love?

Don’t need money, don’t need fame. Don’t need no credit card to ride this train…

Sure, the team finally learns that Tim is alive through this (and a wonderful callback to the panel where Kate comforted Bruce after Tim’s “death” in Detective Comics #940), but seriously? Zatanna feels like her duty is lightened after she tossed one of the most dangerous weapons in the universe in the hands of a previously unstable murder-bot who can, again, create life and is thus analogous to a God which—wasn’t the point here that Ascalon was not God? And the lack of faith it displayed was kind of the point?

From a Doylist perspective, I totally get why Zatanna had to give up the Gnosis Sphere in the same arc it was introduced, and she gives that reasoning pretty explicitly about a world with “no easy way out”, which is of course an example of a great character moment that…doesn’t make sense in the larger context. Like, that can’t be a thing they have access to, as it would break all the stories. I get that. What bothers me more, though, is that Zatanna just leaves so clearly because she’s overwhelmingly overpowered for this book.

Magic trumps everything, as we saw when she just casually blew up all the Batwing drones. Which, yes, lead to an adorable moment of Kate crushing hard on her and Cass either agreeing that they’d make a cute couple…or hinting at her own possible queerness? Beats me. Anyway, add in the fact that she didn’t heal Jean-Paul because he declined—seriously? Jean-Paul got himself mind controlled, so how is this something he needs force himself to suffer through? This just seems like a weak justification for “I want Bruce to push Jean-Paul in a wheelchair to Nomoz’s grave” because the scene itself is evocative. I mean we all know by the next arc, or even issue, he’s gonna be fine. So this just seems really silly. 

And then that ending… Part of me likes that Ra’s is running around pulling strings, and that Tynion is hinting at bringing over The Light from the recently revived Young Justice cartoon series. But at the same time, I don’t think this arc really earned that reveal. For the record, I don’t think the Benefactor is Mr. Oz. There was a cover reveal for the next Action Comics arc, that will run concurrent with the fifth arc of Detective Comics—A Lonely Place Of Living— that will bring about the return of Tim Drake, where Mr. Oz’s identity was spoiled as…Jor-El. Yeah, bet you didn’t see that one coming, eh? And not just any Jor-El, presumably, but the original Pre-Crisis version from the Golden Age! So yeah, it wouldn’t be him.

It could, however, be Vandal Savage. But I guess we’ll see. 

Fandomentals Score: 7/10

NEXT WEEK: BATWOMAN #6—okay, this snuck up on me again. How does that keep happening?


Writer: James Tynion IV

Pencils: Alvaro Martinez

Inks: Raul Fernandez

Colors: Brad Anderson

Letterer: Sal Cipriano

Images courtesy of DC Comics

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