Review: Batman Vol. 1: Their Dark Designs hardcover/paperback (DC Comics)

Among James Tynion’s mandates for his new Batman run starting with Batman Vol. 1: Their Dark Designs, I imagine chief among them was not to be Tom King. Hey, I liked King’s run very much (if fair is fair, in the final tally it’ll be recognized as something more than just superhero comics, approaching real art), but I recognize it was not the most accessible to the reader off the street, and that’s where DC’s got to cater. That’s by no means to denigrate Their Dark Designs, which is in its own way smart and multi-layered and has things to say about where Batman goes now in this strange new decade. But as was the case when King was on Batman and Tynion was on Detective, Tynion’s title is the more normative comics experience, a straightforward Batman romp without an instance of a character repeating only the same words of dialogue throughout an entire issue.

That’s ultimately good for Batman, which after a couple years of upheaval is due now for a calmer assessment of the new status quo. To Tynion’s credit (not that we expected anything less), Their Dark Designs is a respectful bridge, utilizing naturally what came before as it charts what comes next.

[Review contains spoilers]

Their Dark Designs is many stories at once — a rare spotlight on Batman’s most classic, most recognizable foes; a venue for Tynion to throw a lot of new characters at the wall and see what sticks; and in the end, prologue to Tynion’s inaugural big “Joker War” event. The structure truly is compelling, because for what turns out to be a big trick story, Tynion really commits: an entire issue dedicated in flashback to the villain Designer’s meeting with the Joker, Penguin, Riddler, and Catwoman, plus young Bruce Wayne’s encounter with the Sherlock Holmes who’s been hunting Designer-as-Moriarty. When it turns out all of this was a ruse by the Joker, it’s hard to believe that’s the last we’ll hear of the Designer mythology.

Between the Designer, the Underbroker, and the Joker’s new sidekick Punchline, Tynion demonstrates his knack for creating new villains that we also saw in his Detective Comics (I wouldn’t mind at all his bringing over the First Victim or others from that title to here). In both Designer and Underbroker, we see whole cloth not only costume and villainy, but also things like secret identities, day jobs, and individual foes aside from Batman. Tynion too breathes new life into old classics the Penguin and the Riddler; with Catwoman now a semi-permanent fixture and ally, Tynion seems to blur the line of friend and foe for Batman, Penguin, and Riddler as well, an enemy-of-my-enemy-is-my-friend kind of deal. To an extent, the “team” in this book (after Tynion’s Gotham Knights in Detective and his Justice League Dark) is Batman and his foes, similar to the latter days of A. J. Lieberman's Gotham Knights title, and I wonder if that’ll continue after “Joker War.”

I was less enamored with Tynion’s creation Punchline, though it was not clear to me how much I was supposed to be. There’s been much aftermarket uproar about her various first appearances, I understand, but I’m not sure how much of that is love for the character and how much is gambling on Punchline, aligned with the Joker, becoming a popular “next Harley Quinn.”

Maybe some of that would have been more apparent had Harley herself not been here (cementing her “new classic” place among three other Super Friends villains), but having the two battling in the seventh chapter, Harley comes off in every way the superior character — funnier, more nuanced, sounding less like a stereotypical 1990s cool-bad villain, not to mention that we already know how the Ambush Bug-esque Harley is equally comfortable both here and in a wild time travel romp, a similar promise that Punchline does show. Perhaps it’s simply not a competition, that Punchline functions perfectly well as “just” a Bat-villain while Harley can go off and have her adventures across the DCU, but pitting them against one another it seems like the audience is meant to choose and that the choice is obvious.

Alfred Pennyworth died in only the last storyline, perhaps the biggest seismic change in the Bat-titles in decades (if we thought it was ever going to stick). I might’ve liked to see that play out more but I don’t think Tynion had the time (maybe we’ll see that in Peter Tomasi’s Detective). Instead, we swiftly have Lucius Fox in Alfred’s role, making Alfred seem somewhat replaceable and without Batman seeming to learn to stand on his own without Alfred. All of that is regrettable, though I do give Tynion credit for a bunch of cool new Bat-toys with Lucius in the support role — the Nightclimber, the Bat-shot, the Echo, the Batspawn, and so on.

In this — Batman’s tech taking a leap forward, plus the underlying storyline of Bruce Wayne rebuilding Gotham — Tynion’s debut reminds of his predecessor Scott Snyder’s at the start of the New 52. In fact, one might opine a throughway from the New 52, where Bruce’s Gotham redesign was waylaid by the Court of Owls, through attacks by the Joker and Bane to the present, where everything’s calmed down enough for Bruce to try again. “Calm” is of course a relative term with the Joker having stolen all of Bruce Wayne’s money, but still, we start to see something now — a self-sufficient Batman without Alfred, a Gotham designed by Batman, a Batman “married” to Catwoman, a Batman allied with both the heroes and villains of Gotham.

All of these point the way to something actually new, different than the status quo, for however long that might last. There’s a theme in this book of an “exponential leap in the design,” the idea that Batman, his enemies, even Gotham City is only triumphant when it goes two steps forward, past the expected point of evolution — when a Year One Bruce Wayne suddenly became Batman, for instance, or this moment of the Joker stealing all of Bruce’s money. We’ll have to see how it all plays out, but arguably Tynion is trying to do the same — to jump the Batman title farther, to raise the stakes, to see in some regard the fruition of what Tom King started, an exponential leap in Bat-storytelling that makes a break with the old.

Support Collected Editions -- Purchase Batman Vol. 1: Their Dark Designs



Indeed I have no great qualms about Batman Vol. 1: Their Dark Designs and much excitement for James Tynion’s Batman run; I wouldn’t mind another 80 issues like Tom King did. If anything, I think the artists show their newness to the project, though neither are new; Tony Daniel has some improbably shaped figures in the first issue, with the characters' eyes staring past one another, and Guillem March poses Catwoman and Harley Quinn, especially, in ways that have nothing to do with the dialogue on the page. Later in the book, artists Jorge Jimenez, Javier Fernandez, and Rafael Albuquerque do well, and overall all of the artists are similar enough to give the book a consistent feel.

[Includes original and variant covers, Secret Files issue]


Post a Comment

To post a comment, you may need to temporarily allow "cross-site tracking" in your browser of choice.