Review: Batman and the Signal trade paperback (DC Comics)


I'd never scoff at the opportunity for a bunch of issues drawn by Cully Hamner, and writer Tony Patrick (with Scott Snyder) creates a viable world for Duke Thomas in Batman and the Signal, with his own supporting cast and villains. I'm nagged, however, by the sense that this story is not all that it could have been, that this is not the fate I'd hoped for Duke Thomas or that this particular realization of Duke's fate doesn't make a convincing enough argument for itself. I will be curious to see to what extent future uses of Duke uphold this "Batman of the daytime" idea; it comes off gimmicky here and not particularly well-founded, and so ultimately Duke doesn't emerge with the kind of distinction I would have liked.

[Review contains spoilers]

In a particularly on-the-nose moment of theme-stating late in the book, Batman tells Signal Duke Thomas, "You're a metahuman hero forged in the shadows who can crack the codes of daytime." This idea of "crack the codes of daytime" sure sounds nice but it's terribly loosely defined. In this story specifically, Duke's power to see and predict the light spectrum allows him to track down a villain who's using sunlight to bad ends. That's a very specific coinciding of powers and threat, and one is left with the sense that most writers are going need those kinds of theatrics to tell a story with Duke. That Duke can "crack the codes of daytime" is virtually meaningless unless a writer puts such "code" in front of him, whereas a character like the Flash's ability to run fast lends itself to a multitude of different adventures.

This extends to the very idea that Batman even needs a "daytime" operative. With a little thought, one can come up with any number of missions Batman's undertaken in the day time, if not as Batman then as Bruce Wayne. Especially in the post-"urban myth" era, and with Snyder's portrayal of Batman as a Gotham icon, the idea that Batman can't operate in the day and needs Duke to do it for him is another example of obvious writerly fiat; it's true here because it sounds good, not because it's true. Daytime doesn't even prevent most of the Bat-family from coming out to give Duke an assist in this book's finale. Patrick and Snyder could have at any point taken the opportunity to demonstrate in-story how Duke solves Bruce's limitations (or what those limitations are), but they do not.

I'm also displeased with the idea of Duke as a metahuman. Among the appealing aspects of Duke to start out was the potential for a Robin who was African American; if not taking the mantle proper, the leader of a team of Robins was good enough. But with Metal, under Snyder's pen, we've gone from Duke Thomas, Gotham kid whose parents were hurt by the Joker and fights street crime as Robin, to Duke Thomas, whose mother was among a rank of immortals and who uses his hereditary abilities to battle his super-villain father. No longer does Duke really fit in with the Bat-family -- he'd be the only main Bat-operative with superpowers -- but rather he finishes here as a kind of generic teen hero. For a new iteration of Blue Beetle, separate from Batman, this is great; for the kid who seemed the once and future Robin, this feels like the wrong way to have gone.

The end of this book strongly suggests, combined with events taking place elsewhere, that Duke will next appear in Bryan Hill's "Outsiders" book. The absence of Snyder and Patrick makes it seem unlikely that former Robins Izzy and Riko, or GCPD Detective Alex Aisi, will be showing up in Hill's book; there's no reason for Hill to keep the supporting cast of this one miniseries. Indeed, my guess is that "Outsiders" preserves Duke's vision powers but dumps his operating in the daytime entirely, given what seems an arbitrary rule. All of that is probably for the best; while I liked this supporting cast, putting Duke on a team book and jettisoning some of these too complicated attributes of his mission and methods will probably strengthen the character in the long run.

Conversely, what I like about the Batman and the Signal story itself is its very heartfelt attestations that Duke has an important destiny and he represents something new and different in Gotham. There's a strong aspirational sense that "something important is happening" in this book, even if it doesn't manifest. Batman here is part kind and motivational uncle, part technology-fueled super-god -- all of this very positive and feeling exceptionally Snyder-esque. The "Cursed Wheel" stories re-collected here (reviewed previously with All-Star Batman Vol. 1: My Own Worst Enemy and All-Star Batman Vol. 2: Ends of the Earth) are well-drawn by Declan Shalvey and Francesco Francavilla, with both horror and puzzling mystery; these, too, hold the promise of something deep and revelatory.

Support Collected Editions -- Purchase Batman and the Signal

But in the run-up to Metal, the actual meaning of the "cursed wheel" was never explained. As with much of this book, again this is a lot of build up without any payoff. I'm happy to see Batman and the Signal -- I'd as soon Duke headline his own miniseries than not -- but it doesn't seem like the creative teams have quite figured out what to do with "the Signal" yet. Hopefully that's on its way to being rectified.

[Includes original and variant covers, sketches and designs]

Review Date
Reviewed Item
Batman and the Signal
Author Rating
3 (scale of 1 to 5)

Comments ( 2 )

  1. I wonder how much behind-the-scenes business affected this book. I found the Cursed Wheel back-ups largely impenetrable, and I wonder if Snyder had originally planned to roll it into Metal - if that series had ever been imagined as anything other than a rock-n-roll riff on Grant Morrison's multiversal adventures.

    Add to this a few abrupt delays between the three issues of B&TS, I can't help but feeling this book was meant to be something else.

    The Signal does show up in Bryan Hill's backdoor pilot for The Outsiders in a DetCom arc, so you're on the money there. He also shows up in an issue of Steve Orlando's "The Unexpected," which seems to derive its title from the random surprise guest-stars.

    1. I'm enthused to hear about Duke's appearance in Unexpected; come to think of it, he has a tie that ought put him in Unexpected or Immortal Men at least for an issue, I'd think. I liked an advance copy of the Damage trade better than I expected, so I'm rather eager now to get into the other New Age of Heroes titles.

      I'd be interested to see Snyder finish/explain "Cursed Wheel" someday.


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