Review: Batman: Detective Comics Vol. 1: Rise of the Batmen (Rebirth) trade paperback (DC Comics)

Thursday, April 13, 2017

James Tynion's Batman: Detective Comics Vol. 1: Rise of the Batmen is startlingly good, in many ways a faithful bridging of DC Comics's pre-Flashpoint and Rebirth continuities, but one that's not beholden to the past. Any number of times Tynion zags where precedent would have told him to zig, creating something that's not simply reminiscent of the past but rather an improvement on it. Artist Eddy Barrows is doing the work of his career, adeptly illustrating all of his pages and offering some fantastically complex two-page spreads, upheld later in the book by Alvaro Martinez. Detective Comics has been in the Batman title's shadow at least the five years of the New 52 if not decades before that, but this is one of the first times in a while where Detective comes off the better and even the more relevant of the two series.

[Review contains spoilers (and Spoiler)]

I will now make a lot out of Red Robin Tim Drake and Spoiler Stephanie Brown sleeping together, not out of prurience but because the fact of it and how Tynion handles it speaks volumes about this book. Consider eighteen years ago the ill-advised, heavy-handed story of teen vigilante (and then-perpetual screw-up) Spoiler getting pregnant by another boy confusingly about the time she was dating Tim, and the inexplicable chasteness of their relationship given Stephanie's other activities, not to mention virgin Tim's laughable naivete in wondering momentarily if he might be the father! In contrast, the second-issue scene in question has sensible young adults Tim and Stephanie having a witty, mature conversation in their pajamas about whether Tim should remain a vigilante or go to college, which ends with a kiss and a simple image of their co-mingled costumes to let us know what happens next. Far from sensationalistic, Tynion's sequence is tame, a realistic depiction of how two twenty-somethings might act. It has within it both sex and sexiness, but in a way that's both not egregious and also part and parcel of the story being told.

The Stephanie character was at her best just before Flashpoint, starring in the title role of Bryan Q. Miller's Batgirl. After years of serving as the Bat-title's punching bag, Miller finally wrote Stephanie as a capable person -- shortly before Barry Allen's antics erased her from continuity. Most recently Spoiler appeared in both Batman Eternal and Batman and Robin Eternal, the latter of which -- co-written by Tynion -- suggested the post-Flashpoint Stephanie would follow Miller's model. Here, Tynion takes pains to demonstrate Stephanie as Tim's equal, and Tynion even leaves in a bit (but not all) of Tim's historic holier-than-thou attitude toward Stephanie; now, however, she has no difficulty putting Tim in his place. It feels, again, like a bridge from the previous good aspects of the characters over to now, with the benefit of the New 52 having actually erased some of their past silliness.

The flip side of this is that Tynion fairly well decimates Batwoman Kate Kane's relationship with her father, Colonel Jacob Kane, sticking a knife in even Colonel Kane's earliest Greg Rucka-penned appearances. Rucka had presented Colonel Kane as the Alfred to Kate's Batman, except that he was truly her father, and theirs was an admirable partnership that the reader could get behind; when their relationship was strained in later books, frankly it felt like those stories lost a step. Tynion's revelation of Colonel Kane working against Batman all this time doesn't scan of course because it's a retcon, not meant to fit exactly; I do grant that Kane is a logical villain for this story (and also that Tynion ties it well into the circumstances of Kate's mother and sister), but the fact that it really doesn't work in the grand scheme is surprising given Tynion's smooth writing otherwise.

Tynion's affection for these characters isn't in dispute, considering first and foremost that he immediately gets Tim back into the closest he can come to his old Robin costume. In the same vein, even the hardest heart has to melt when Tynion brings "The General" Ulysses Hadrian Armstrong on the scene (note to DC: let James Tynion use Anarchy Lonnie Machin here). There's plenty of moments like this that, in the Rebirth vein, honor the past and look to the future: that Batman reveals his identity to Batwoman, that Batwoman already knows and demands equal treatment from him, that they've been friends since they were kids, and the fact that Batman and Spoiler break down and hug after Tim seemingly sacrifices himself. It's great and moreover it's mature; the characters are forthright and normative rather than melodramatic and angst-ridden. (Note to DC, the second: when Tim comes back, let Tynion use the Redbird.)

I have admittedly not always been high on Eddy Barrows's art, finding it at times too dark or otherwise simply ill-fitting for the characters he was drawing. But Barrows is just right for this title; it does hew dark, but Barrows's art is never over-dark (with inker Eber Ferreira), as in the bright opening sequence with Azrael Jean-Paul Valley or in the Kane residence. Moreover it seems Barrows has loosed some of the sameness in his previous work that distracted from the story itself. I intuit that Tynion gives Barrows (and co-artist Alvaro Martinez) pages of some fairly dialogue-heavy conversation, and among them the creative team turns these into panel-filled two-page spreads (I count fourteen in the Kane manor sequence, and another with fifteen). These are beautifully done, neat and clear and sprawling, and they work as well to give Detective Comics its own unique identity.

Batman: Detective Comics Vol. 1: Rise of the Batmen comprises seven issues, and not only didn't it feel too long, but I didn't want it to end, either. As I've said before, I think there's a certain destructiveness in getting too attached to the past, not to mention simply trying to graft the past on to the present; there's every danger James Tynion could have done that here, but in ways subtle and overt Tynion takes the past and steps it forward. Not unlike Scott Snyder's Batman: Black Mirror, this is not a rehashing of the past but rather a tribute to the past that builds toward a better present. Maybe there's something to the Rebirth thing after all.

[Includes original and variant covers, character and cover sketches, and layouts]
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17 comments:

  1. "the better and even the more relevant of the two series"

    Them's fighting words! I'll agree that DetCom is the more relevant of the Bat-headliners, with its effects reverberating into Teen Titans, Action/Superman, and of course the main Bat-title, among other places. Indeed, a lot of Rebirth is reminding me of the great fun from "Countdown to Infinite Crisis," which was one of the last times I remember the entire DC line feeling like a cohesive universe. ("Blackest Night," too, although it felt a little like an intrusion; it's hard to believe, more than five years gone, that "Batman Inc" and "World of New Krypton" were happening at the same time!) With the upcoming "The Button" crossover, though, I wonder if "Batman" will edge closer to the center stage.

    However, I can't agree that it's "better" than "Batman." Speaking as a dyed-in-the-wool Tom King devotee (no relation, by the way), I absolutely relish what he's doing with Batman. He's managed to blend his moody tone poem style with a momentum where every issue feels like a big season finale cliffhanger. That said, I understand that King's style isn't what everyone enjoys, though anyone who tells me that VISION wasn't the best comic of 2016 will have to meet me outside!

    I think we're seeing a shift in how the Bat-titles are written, something I'll chalk up to Grant Morrison. He famously told Scott Snyder to write Batman as if the Dark Knight were a creator-owned character - put another way, write the Batman YOU want to see, not the Batman that continuity demands. (That Morrison found a way to do both is a testament to his unique brand of continuity porn.) So we've got a Batman book that feels like a Tom King original, just like we had a very clearly Scott Snyder Batman before him. These aren't Batman books by famous writers; these are top-shelf writers putting their stamp on Batman. (Kind of like how "Batman Returns" was a Tim Burton movie with Batman in it, rather than "Batman '89," which was a Batman movie directed by Tim Burton.)

    In the meantime, DetCom has taken its focus to be "The World of Batman" and consequently roots itself in the DC Universe writ large more than a creator-owned Batman would want to do. But I'm digging it so far; I bristled, as you did, at the Jacob Kane twist, while I'm fascinated by the idea of rehabilitating Clayface - which, with all the madmen running around Gotham, is frankly something of which Batman should at least attempt to do more.

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    1. If I haven't stated it before, I do believe Rebirth is shaping up to be the culmination of what Dan DiDio's been trying unsuccessfully to do since Infinite Crisis, that they kind of fell backward into catching lightning in a bottle with DC's Infinite Crisis-era shared universe, but then failed to replicate that success with Final Crisis, with Brightest Day, with the New 52, etc. But with Rebirth they've got it, either because they've got some cooperative writers in place or because Geoff Johns is taking a heavier hand or both (both of these were in play during Infinite Crisis). That one can follow a certain character from DC Universe: Rebirth to a cameo in Batman Vol. 2 to the Batgirl annual and then to the Supergirl series is exactly what worked in Infinite Crisis and then didn't work in the rest and is now working again; a shared universe where the writers are all on board and the "mythology" sequences feel organic and don't distract from the main story. Good, good stuff.

      (In nodding to Batman, Inc. and World of New Krypton, don't overlook the side-by-side Batman: Superheavy and Superman: Truth events, which don't get much love because they happened during DC You but were a really cool example for continuity wonks of a whole bunch of titles playing off one if not two mega-events, plus those mega-events even playing off one another.)

      Regarding Detective being better than Batman, I should say at the time I was comparing first volume to first volume. I've now had an advance look at Batman Vol. 2: I Am Suicide, and the competition becomes a whole heck of a lot tighter. I Am Gotham didn't strike me as anything outstanding; I Am Suicide is the kind of emotionally-wrenching story layered in an issue-by-issue puzzle box of the kind we've come to expect from Tom King, and it definitely makes King's Batman a contender.

      In that view, you're right; they're just different books. Previously, under Scott Snyder, Batman had been the main and mostly continuity-relevant title, whereas Detective was the also-ran, almost skippable. Now Detective is in some respects the more continuity-heavy whereas Batman is more slimmed-down and character-focused -- but then again, we can't just dismiss Batman as being continuity-light for many of the reasons I stated at the very top. So I come around to thinking we actually find ourselves in the unusual position of a Batman and Detective that are both very strong and relevant, and it's hard to quantify that because it's been almost forever since that was the case.

      All of which speaks to it being a good time to be reading DC Comics.

      (PS There is such a good Clayface scene in Night of the Monster Men.)

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  2. Agree with most of your points. Detective is one of my favorite Rebirth titles right now, and far superior to the main Batman title. I also liked how it's basically the heroes of Gotham all in one book rather than each having their own book.

    So far I'd say my favorite Rebirth titles are:
    3. Hal Jordan and the Green Lantern Corps
    2. Detective Comics
    1. Superman

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    1. I have not heard much praise for Hal Jordan and the Green Lantern Corps, though I'm glad you said so. I hope to start reading that not too long from now.

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    2. Yeah, I heard that too and was worried, but thankfully it wasn't (at least for me). It actually felt like Venditti was able to write without a leash, and all the plot threads going on in each lantern title from the New 52 looks like it's going to come ahead in this title to form the next GL epic.

      I love Venditti's Sinestro in this (which is strange since I didn't like his interpretation of him in vol 7 (?) ) and Venditti really nails Guy. I don't think I've been this excited for Guy in a while. He's like pure badass.

      Anywho, I just really like where Vol 1 sets up each Lantern and pits them in new situations that makes me very excited for future volumes. Also, it relies on the continuity from all lantern books from the New 52, so I think I like that aspect of it the most.

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  3. I did considered buying this, but I do not approve of the depiction of Jacob Kane. James could have used a original character or the general. Instead, he ends up butchering a great supporting character in jacob. I know not everyone read rucka's run on Detective but for those that have read it (myself included) I just can't stand this change.

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    1. Yes, Jacob Kane is the great tragedy of this title. At the same time, if the trade-off is a Tim Drake who's not a jerk and a Stephanie Brown who knows what she's doing vs. losing Jacob Kane, well, some loyalties run deep. Clearly the DC timeline pre-/post DC Universe: Rebirth is not the same; I choose to believe Superboy Prime punched a wall and we ended up with another timeline's Jacob Kane, and Rucka's Kane is off living in a Convergence bubble somewhere.

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  4. This was the best of the Rebirth books that I've read so far. And I really want to know what happens next.

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  5. I'm jumping back into the Batman Rebirth titles after a long New 52-ish hiatus -- with exception of Snyder's Batman, Grayson and the first three Batwoman trades. Your intro is promising, that this is a nice marriage of pre-Flashpoint & after -- but wondering if I'll find it overall accessible? (Didn't read past that to avoid ruining the story). Or were there lots of New 52 adjustments to many of these supporting characters that will make me scratch my head? Or any pre-Rebirth books recommended pre-reading for this?

    Btw -- great blog with really smart analysis. I'm a long-time reader/silent appreciator.

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    1. Thanks for the kind words -- don't hesitate to speak up more often!

      I think you should be mostly OK reading Detective. Between Batman and Grayson, you know Tim Drake is kind of a separate un-Robin, and you know who Batwoman is. The other characters in Detective -- Spoiler, Orphan -- come out of Batman Eternal and Batman & Robin Eternal; that's 78 issues and five trades, so no small task, but if you want to be very up to date, those are what you need. I have a sense Batman & Robin Eternal will become more and more relevant as Detective goes on.

      If you don't choose to read those, however, I do think you'll be relatively fine; there's good introductions of all the characters at the start of Detective.

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    2. The first chapter gives you a bit of a "Who's Who" with the characters, so you should be fine starting there.

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    3. Thanks for the additional context. Always the dilemma in this crowded marketplace -- where to devote the time and budget.

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  6. I'd have to disagree with this. I found Detective Comics to be among the weaker of the Batbooks, down there with Batgirl and Red Hood and the Outlaws. A big part of it is that it's really exemplary of Tynion's big weaknesses when it comes to writing team books. Tynion hones in too heavily on one or two traits for most of the characters. Batman is not a good team player. Cassandra is good at fighting. Tim is a computer nerd with a Deus Ex Machina-level of tech ability. Stephanie is Tim's girlfriend. And Jacob Kane's turn was telegraphed from his first appearance in the comic. It's not uncommon for writers to be a bit reductive when it comes to writing the first arc of an ensemble book, but Tynion's tendency to have characters just express their emotions with paragraphs of text exacerbates this problem. In fact, Tynion really has a big problem with too much exposition all throughout.

    I also have issues with how Tynion uses computer hacking as a plot device. If I didn't know better, I would have thought that this book was written by a much older writer who's not quite in touch with the younger generation. Stephanie hacks grenades to detonate off soldier's belts. Tim has trash-talking sessions with "T3h_G3n3r4l" about who out-hacked whom. And the big setup that led to Tim's "death" felt really contrived. Tim's hacking expertise is enough to control every drone in the Colony's network, but not enough stop them from killing a target?

    I can see what Tynion is going for. Where King is putting his own tragic twist on Batman, Tynion is trying to re-capture the magic of the Dixon-era Batfamily. But he seems to miss the ingredient that made the Dixon-era Batfamily work back then. Dixon didn't try to go big. He wrote relatively low-stakes stories, and took it slow. He established character dynamics at his own pace, letting them just hang out and talk like everyday people. Tynion pushes for big action moments and big threats too quickly, without building up a good rapport between the different characters. The result is that Tec has the odd combination of feeling too decompressed but also rushed at the same time.

    That said, there were a couple of things I liked about this book. I think Kate, for the most part, is well written, and her relationship with her father brings an intriguing dynamic to her arc. I'm actually enjoying the Batwoman solo that spun-off from this. The other element I liked was Clayface. He was a wild-card out of left field, but his redemption arc is actually interesting.

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    1. I agree 100% with you about Tynion's writing. It's the very same thing that bothered me about his Batman and Robin Eternal issues: zero subtlety and nuance, and characters stating their feelings with enormous speech balloons that could use some serious editing. His affection for the characters makes up for it at times, but he has lots of room for improvement.

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    2. Appreciate the thoughts. I don't agree, but I've heard what you're saying a lot from many wise sources. Hopefully, as HelloThere said, maybe these are first arc jitters that'll balance out in time. Got to say, I love the big conversations in this book, and I was so impressed with those two-page talk-heavy spreads. I do see what you're saying about Dixon's stories being low-stakes, but I think modern audiences are in some ways past Robin Tim Drake and Sheriff Shotgun Smith chasing down the Electrocutioner; I think those stakes might be too small now. But I get your point.

      *Such* a good Clayface moment in Monster Men!

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    3. I'm not sure how far you've gotten with Rebirth, so I'll keep it vague, but I think Superman and Nightwing both capture the heart of those types of Dixon stories without being too low-stakes, in that they tell relatable personal journeys set against a backdrop of comicbook craziness. Reminds me of Grant Morrison's approach to Superman, which isn't too surprising since both Peter Tomasi and Tim Seeley seem to be fans of him.

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  7. Reading these comments is fascinating because I loved this volume. Detective might be my favorite of the Bat books currently, and I thought Night of the Monster Men was a total blast. I loved Grayson to bits, but I thought King's I Am Gotham was a bit messy, and I'm having real trouble getting through Seeley's Nightwing, which feels a bit TOO backwards-looking for me with the setting and the character drama.

    Maybe it's a good thing they've covering the bases with different styles of storytelling, because it looks like what works for some is exactly what doesn't work for others.

    Looking forward to more reviews!

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