Review: Batman: Detective Comics Vol. 4: Deus Ex Machina (Rebirth) trade paperback (DC Comics)

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

James Tynion's Batman: Detective Comics Vol. 4: Deus Ex Machina never quite comes together. Tynion spins parallel stories that cooperatively examine the intersection of magic, technology, and faith, but the pacing is somewhat off. Batman and Zatanna essentially stand around and chat, dipping in and out of flashback, while Azrael and the rest of Detective's Bat-team fight a pitched battle, and there's a sense of distraction -- the Zatanna storyline never quite hits its mark and the end of the Azrael story has a seemingly large flaw.

It hardly matters. Is it possible to rave about Tynion's Detective Comics more? Even when it doesn't totally work, there's such a joy in Tynion's celebration of these twenty-something-year-old characters that the finer details can be forgiven -- and surely Tynion's still running circles around plenty of others. There's a certain moment in this book that takes what was once a symbol of conflict between two characters and makes it instead something aspirational; twenty years hence it's simply a wonder these characters are still around for us to read about, and Tynion's ode to the best parts of them epitomizes what Rebirth is and should be.

[Review contains spoilers]

In something of the same way as Bryan Hitch's Justice League, Tynion's Detective is caught between its own vague conspiracy story (involving Ra's al Ghul, we think) and also fealty both to the overarching DC Rebirth storyline and also Scott Snyder's Dark Nights: Metal event. This pulls Deus in a number of directions, no more apparent than when Zatanna lines up all these threats and challenges Batman which single one he wants to use a magical artifact to learn more about. As such, in the Bruce Wayne/Zatanna flashbacks, mainly meant to underscore Ra's shadowy role, it's never quite clear what Tynion's going for, which of the details in this story we're supposed to ascribe importance to and which are essentially just advertising, and that muddles it all a bit.

While stories of Bruce and Zatanna as childhood friends are always fun -- perhaps in part because of their rareness -- the overlapping of Zatanna here with a Batman story is problematic. We see Zatanna at one point simply do away with gravity -- a feat that must verily approach godhood -- and when she finally arrives in Gotham, she's able to take out an army of killer robots with a simple "Edolpxe." That's a gigantic amount of power -- intentionally, hopefully, the "deus ex machina" of the title -- and one wonders why the team has to struggle any further at that point, or even why Zatanna doesn't just stick around to magically heal Clayface and eradicate all crime from Gotham. The answer, obviously, is that there wouldn't be a story otherwise, but I didn't think Tynion did enough to reconcile the very fact of Zatanna with the aesthetic he's otherwise set up for the book.

This extends to the book's climax, in which Tynion has Zatanna hand over an artifact of essentially unlimited power to their enemy on the chance that it might lead the robotic Ascalon to see the error of its ways. That's a successful bet -- a reward, perhaps, for Zatanna's faith -- but a seemingly gigantically wrongheaded move, even as it finally leads to Batman learning that Red Robin Tim Drake is alive. Not unlike Tom King's Batman, readers seem to either entirely love or dislike Tynion's Detective; I haven't necessarily agreed with many of the detractions explained to me, but this did seem an instance where the author's intention for the plot generally overwhelmed what seemed reasonable in the story.

But again, one can almost entirely overlook that solely for the fact that James Tynion manages to put Azrael Jean Paul Valley back in the infamous "AzBat" suit of the Batman: Knightfall era -- but this time, the suit imbues Azrael with an artificial intelligence containing Batman's best qualities. When you consider the last time Jean Paul wore that costume twenty-something years ago, he went on a bloodthirsty rampage that included trying to kill Batman, that Tynion should have him wear the armor now as the ultimate representation of Batman's goodness is really remarkable -- an irony Tynion perhaps intended -- as is the heart-to-heart that Batman and Jean Paul have in the story's denouement.

Tynion's Detective Comics is not a book shy about its nostalgia, and in this and previous moments it really embodies the full definition of what nostalgia is, the coming together decades later and enjoying the memories of past times, forgetting to an extent the conflicts that underscored them. If Tynion's Detective is too backward-looking, its penchant for forgiveness is surely relevant in the here and now. And nothing, Tynion shows us, can't be subsumed; Batwoman Kate Kane's reference to having dated a vampire is a brilliant, joyful jab at one of that character's lowest moments.

It is of course a problem that despite all of this good character work (with Clayface and Cassandra Cain, too, awaiting their return to Detective's spotlight), Tynion's still writing a spoilerific Spoiler. This really ought have been Stephanie Brown's book with Tim out of the picture, and it seems a wrong turn for the character (when we know Tynion knows better) for her to presumably only return to the fold when Tim does. At the same time, the fact that Tynion and Christopher Sebela use the character at all lets us know there's a plan in place. And I appreciate Spoiler's hacking skills here in taking down Wrath (a villain whose mannerisms I don't think the writers got right), but again this role for Spoiler as naively in the wrong and overwrought only perpetuates all the problematic ways this character was used by writers who cared less.

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But the last page of Batman: Detective Comics Vol. 4: Deus Ex Machina has Anarky on it, leading us once again to wonder where has James Tynion been all our lives. The next volume will surely be big for Detective when Tim returns. Whether on-screen or off, a large part of this book takes its inspiration from Tim's 1990s adventures, and in many respects we still haven't seen what Detective will actually be about without the looming cloud of Rebirth always over this book. I imagine the next volume, if not the one after, will provide some clues.

[Includes original and variant covers]

Review Date
Reviewed Item
Batman: Detective Comics Vol. 4: Deus Ex Machina
Author Rating
4 (out of 5)
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