Sunday, June 23, 2024

Detective Comics Masterfully Subverts War Games Storyline

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knew it. I freaking knew Tynion was aiming for this. Knew it months ago, when the first solicits for this arc dropped. Knew it maybe a day or two after that, when I first typed it out in the Wild Mass Guessing section of the TV Tropes page for Detective Comics Rebirth. Granted, some of the specifics there aren’t quite on-point, but the idea—that I caught.

The Victim Syndicate is a grand subversion of the War Games storyline. The one that “killed” Stephanie Brown all those years ago. That’s what this has all been about.

Bravo, James. Brav-Freaking-O.

As I went over in my review of the previous issue, back in 2004, Steph was briefly brought on as Robin after Tim took a Ten-Minute Retirement from the role. After failing to live up to Batman’s impossible-by-design standard, he fired her and ordered her to quit being a vigilante. Wanting to prove he him wrong, Steph stole one of Bruce’s contingency plans for dealing with Gotham’s organized crime…only for it to go as pear-shaped as anything possibly could.

The lynchpin in that plan, as it turns out, was Matches Malone, a classic alias that Bruce Wayne often used to infiltrate organized crime rings. Of course, since Batman hadn’t trusted Stephanie with his secret identity, Matches Malone never showed up to the big mob boss meet. With no one there to take responsibility for the invitations, or ease fears that it wasn’t all an elaborate trap, a massive firefight broke out.

Gotham descended into a nightmare of gang warfare that ended with Steph being tortured to “death”, Black Mask seizing control of the city’s entire organized crime community and the public hating the Bat.

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As I said a few weeks ago:

“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?”

So, yeah. Called it. But, now I’ve got to prove it.

Dare To Be Better

Honest to God, this is the kind of stuff I’ve always wondered. As in, why has Batman never capitalized on his brand? Not for profit, of course, but for the greater good in a way that isn’t Batman Inc. Which…didn’t work out so great?

This issue starts off with a heart wrenching flashback of Tim and Bruce, a little over a month before the events of Rise of the Batmen. Everything Tim says here reminds me just how much I miss that kid. He can see through all of this, the drama and theatrics, and really pinpoint exactly how to make things better. It’s classic Tim, with none of that New52 malarkey lying around.

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His haunting promise to Bruce, that he’d be the one to remind him that he’s human is particularly compelling. And it’s not because Tim broke it, but rather that Bruce didn’t. Even a month after Tim’s “death”, he’s still trying so damn hard to keep that promise in mind. That asking for help isn’t weakness, or that his tunnel vision helps no one.

The old Bruce would have disbanded the team after they’d defeated the Colony, but he didn’t.

Because he knows Tim would tell him it’s the wrong choice.

This sequence wonderfully contrasts Stephanie’s conversation with Mud Tim, as his complete and total lack of understanding sends Steph down that spiral of survivor’s guilt and self-hatred. Tim’s vacant gaze and “uncanny valley” design here is genuinely unsettling, even though the biggest difference, as far as I can tell, are the glazed pupils in his domino mask.

It’s a testament to the artistic synergy between Barrows, Ferreira and Lucas who have proven, time and time again on this title, that they were basically destined to work together. The small moments hit even harder than the “big” ones thanks to a strong focus on dynamic staging, stylized shadows and reinforcing Barrow’s signature rough detailing that allows the characters to blend seamlessly with the beautifully rendered backgrounds.

Notice I did not say blending into the background. Because they don’t. They drag the background into the damned foreground.

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Anyway, without Tim around to remind her that there’s light and hope, that what they’re doing is right, Steph’s own character-defining optimism just isn’t cutting it anymore. She, ironically, becomes more like a stereotypical depiction of Batman. That need to force the world to make sense, instead of guiding it, is classic Batman…but it’s not quite the one we’ve got in Detective Comics right now.

He’s not the same kind of man who would treat Gotham’s bloodiest gang war as a game. But Steph can’t see that. All she sees is the shadow of a man who uses others to fight his never-ending crusade. Pawns on a chessboard.

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A man that doesn’t quite exist, just as Bruce, twelve years ago, could never see her as a legitimate hero. As someone he could trust or take seriously. Even though he does now.

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The symbol of the Bat has become twisted in Stephanie’s eyes. It doesn’t promise security or safety or really anything besides the inevitable: people will die. They will get hurt. They will suffer.

And this is exactly what the First Victim keeps claiming. Everything they’ve done is on Batman’s hands. Every death, every scar and every trauma are a direct result of his continued existence. Just as that gang war was unintentionally instigated by Steph, the fault, one some level, falls on their respective shoulders.

The difference is, of course, how they retake control of their chaos.

Hearts and Minds

In War Games, Bruce charged in without fully understanding the problem at hand, nor the cause, just as he did this time around. He doesn’t know who the First Victim is, but he’s determined to talk them down from all of this madness. So, he leaps into the fray, relieving Azrael of his duties, and confronts the First Victim.

An individual who, judging by the way this confrontation is framed, has no personal beef with Batman. It’s all one big lie. The First Victim, at every opportunity, neglects to elaborate why they hate Batman so much. What he did that made things personal, so long ago. Me? I’m thinking they’re an agent for the League of Shadows.

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Think about it. There never was a “First Victim”, which is why Alfred nor Bruce can remember them. This individual is just co-opting the real victims and using them to incite terrorism in an attempt to destabilize Gotham. Take out the Batman, and the criminal underworld would eat itself. Failing that, force him to kill you, thus destroying his credibility and the symbol of the Bat.

Hell, you wouldn’t even need to get Batman to kill you. You’d just need for the general public to see him pummelling his own innocent victims. Which would turn the entire city against him.

Eh? See what I did there? Turned it back around to War Games.

So, that sounds like the League of Shadows to me. Plus, it’d be the perfect lead-in to the third primary Detective Comics arc: the aptly named League of Shadows. And it would also legitimize everything that Jacob was talking about in Rise of the Batmen, so there’s that as well.

Or maybe I’m way off and it’s something completely different. Then again, it seems like the most organic reveal, don’t you think?

Little aside: this is absolutely brilliant art direction right here. The First Victim is blended in with the background every time they’re on panel, but this time Bruce reaches into that space and grabs onto him, pulling them into the foreground. Pulling him into the reality of the situation, real consequences and real danger. It’s an inspired way of showing us just how drastically the tables are turning.

Anyway, there’s significant deviation in how Batman reaches this point in Detective Comics. As opposed to War Games, he doesn’t just throw his allies all across the city with only the vaguest of orders while leaving the big plans for himself. No, this time the whole damn team, minus Spoiler, strike like a well oiled machine.

Clayface pulls on everyone’s heartstrings by tricking Glory Griffin into reclaiming her old form, only for the device to knock her out. Seriously, Clayface is the most sympathetic out everyone present. I hope we get to keep him on the team for as long as possible. He’s just the best.

Kate all but ignores Madame Crow’s rantings, which is perfect because it’s all noise anyway. Batwing stops Mr. Noxious with a swarm of nanobots that appear to be extremely painful, and Cass puts the Mute into the fetal position by sticking a speaker in his ear so he can listen to his wife’s last words on a loop.

All effective, but cold.

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Steph, on the other hand, turns her mistake from War Games on its head. Remember all of those countermeasures Batwing built into their gear in the last issue of Detective Comics? And that mask that I said sorta reminded me of her 90s Spoiler outfit? Those weren’t just seeded for fun, as it turns out.

Instead of accidentally stealing something from Batman without fully understanding how to use it, Steph, presumably, purposefully arms herself with countermeasures to use against the team itself.

It’s the ultimate subversion of the original instigator.

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When the team finally has the Victim Syndicate backed up against the wall, with victory all but assured, Steph swoops in and snatches it away. Just as Black Mask did when he masqueraded as Orpheus, an ally of Batman and the man who was supposed to take control of Gotham’s underworld.

Part Of The Legend

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And here’s the kicker: Steph has agency when she didn’t before. Every action she took in War Games inevitably brought her at odds with Batman’s master plan. A game that couldn’t be beaten, only reappropriated. The world she lived in, back then, existed entirely under Batman’s rules. His way, end of story.

Stephane was the victim, and that was the only thing she could be.

But, in the current era of Detective Comics, Steph has seen that there are other ways to fight the good fight. That putting on a cape and cowl can, in fact, be the worst possible choice. Harper Row is a living example of this dichotomy. Once a vigilante, but chose to retire and refocus her efforts in improving Gotham as a civilian.

And she’s safer. What Harper is doing is legitimate. There aren’t any laws being broken by volunteering at a clinic. With rare exceptions, like this arc, charity foundations and public works aren’t targets for supervillains. For the first time in God knows how long, Steph realizes that she has a choice.

She doesn’t have to be the victim anymore.

Steph doesn’t have to do this. She doesn’t owe Batman anything, unlike Tim’s state of mind before he “died”. She isn’t barred from serving a greater ideal like Kate or Clayface. And she can be a normal, productive member of society unlike, for the moment, Cass.

So what does she do? Or, rather, what do I think she’s going to do?

Steph will try to “fire” Batman. Make him stop this, once and for all, because that’s the only way she can see things getting better. Truly better, as opposed to the misguided violence doled out by the Batfamily. Giving the First Victim exactly what they want, if she succeeds.

And the greatest irony is that she’ll fail. She won’t be able to make Batman stop in the same damn way he could never convince her to do the same.

Because, really, what else could happen?

…okay, a lot of things, but even still. Evidence is pretty damning, I’d say.

Final Thoughts

I should probably mention that there is a distinct possibility that Steph is subconsciously remembering the events of War Games thanks to wacky Rebirth memory-bleed shenanigans. That could be what pushed her over the edge here, as evidenced when the subject of what the world is supposed to be like comes up.

The one she has isn’t “right”, and it’s not the one she wants either. It’s not “supposed” to be the way it is, which could nothing. Or it could be something. Something, perhaps, like everything. Mr. Oz did say that Tim was reconnecting threads that shouldn’t be reconnected. Part of Steph’s motivation could be the fallout of that.

Anyway, uh, read this book? It’s fantastic, you’ll love it, etc etc.

Look, there are only so many ways to recommend a title without repeating myself, alright?


Writer: James Tynion IV

Pencils: Eddy Barrows

Inks: Eber Ferreira

Finishes (pgs 14-16): Julio Ferreira

Colors: Adriano Lucas

Letterer: Marilyn Patrizio

All images courtesy of DC Comics

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