Review: Batman Vol. 4: The Cowardly Lot hardcover/paperback (DC Comics)


James Tynion performs some curious alchemy in Batman Vol. 4: The Cowardly Lot, taking what might otherwise be considered a plotting difficulty and making it a central piece of the story.

Tynion’s Batman run has been an enjoyable mess of fits and starts, about to come to a sudden halt after the next volume, the “Fear State” crossover; as such I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from Cowardly Lot. I’m not wholly sure this volume isn’t just an exercise in biding time until the crossover, and yet, there’s some brilliant ideas and intriguing possibilities here. Whether any of this will come to fruition in the next volume — or ever be mentioned again after — remains to be seen.

[Review contains spoilers]

At this point Tynion has pretty well jettisoned most members of the Bat-family from this title, replacing them with his own creations; Ghost-Maker, most prominently, occupies the space in which we might expect to see Nightwing. I’m not necessarily complaining, mind you; there is such a voluminous library of Batman material already that bringing in some new faces is about the only original route left.

Though, at the same time, there’s quite a farm team already unused without bringing new characters into the mix. Good thing Spoiler, Cassandra Cain, and Huntress are all in use, though one imagines Signal and Harper Row’s impatience as Miracle Molly steps to the fore.

[See the latest DC trade solicitations.]

Really, with four Robins already plus the aforementioned non-Robin sidekicks in the wings, Miracle Molly seems destined for limbo no later than when Tynion takes his bow. And yet, I rather liked the kid more than I expected. The tattoos-and-neon costume as depicted by Jorge Jimenez seems perhaps the ultimate personification of Tynion’s Batman run and his techno-pop Gotham, where all the cool kids wear Joker colors. Molly is the “kids in America,” her loyalty to an ethical cause being even more important to her than the knowledge of her own identity. What a fascinating New Age Robin, though at this point Batman’s got more candidates for that job than he can handle.

It is a flaw that no sooner was Bane vanquished, having taken over Gotham in Tom King’s Batman: City of Bane, that Tynion’s Joker equally took over in Batman: Joker War, and now Tynion’s Scarecrow seems on the verge of doing the same. The uninitiated reader, especially, couldn’t be faulted for finding it all a bit repetitive. And yet, whatever risks are being taken with reader attention, it’s interesting to see Tynion leaning in to the repetition — because Bane took over and then Joker took over in quick succession, the people of Gotham are primed for panic with the threat of the Scarecrow. In Cowardly Lot, the implied repetition isn’t a bug, it’s a feature.

This leads to one of the most astoundingly low-tech Bat-foe schemes I can recall, where Scarecrow simply has actual scarecrows placed in major figures' homes and Gotham devolves into panic. That’s great, and demonstrates Tynion stretching for a Scarecrow plot that doesn’t involve the narrative crutch of a “fear toxin” that does whatever the writer wants. That kind of restraint won’t last, as the lead-in to each of Cowardly Lot’s chapters shows us, but it’s a nice precedent.

Speaking of narrative crutches, I was sorry to see that no sooner is Oracle back than Tynion has returned her to her 1990s-era role of chief expositor of the Bat-family. Anything Batman doesn’t know, history that needs to be explained to the reader, another character that needs called to the scene, Batman just gets on the horn to Oracle and it magically happens, plus she’ll probably also nag him about taking care of himself. It’s a terrible regression for the character, as opposed to cutscenes of late where restored Batgirl Barbara Gordon would offer her counsel while beating on bad guys. Tynion and Jimenez' Oracle is perpetually lounging in her chair, eating successively messier meals while she works — it borders on a little weird.

It is not as though nothing happens in Cowardly Lot — depending on where your focus is, we get here the origin of Future State’s Peacekeeper-01 as well as the first appearance of Miracle Molly. But again, past Tynion and into Joshua Williamson’s single volume and then to Chip Zdarsky’s run, whether any of that will matter, I’m not sure. So then, what of note occurs in Cowardly Lot is simply that Scarecrow is in the background, and then in the end Scarecrow emerges to the foreground, to be continued in “Fear State.” That’s not wholly different than Tynion’s Batman Vol. 1: Their Dark Designs — a good story itself, but too mostly just a feint to lead in to Joker War.1 I’m entertained, but I see equally how readers could be frustrated.



One more note — throughout, Batman Vol. 4: The Cowardly Lot depicts the characters cursing via bat-icons; this, on the heels of an important moment where the Joker refers to Batman as a “dumb [redacted] kid” in James Tynion’s Joker Vol. 1. A couple years of DC Black Label has made curse words in the mouths of the world’s greatest super-heroes almost commonplace, and one feels Tynion straining here in his mainstream titles (shortly before he packs up his things and goes elsewhere). Can it be that long until DC has a Black Label ongoing? Probably never Superman or Batman, but do we really need a Harley Quinn series that’s anything but? Cowardly Lot is more evidence the tide is shifting.

[Includes original and variant covers]

  1. Where is, by the by, Dark Designs character the Underbroker? Cynically one imagines the benefit to DC writers these days of creating as many characters as possible on the chance of their use in other media (see, intentionally or not, both the characters Godspeed and Bloodwork out of Joshua Williamson's Flash.)  ↩

Comments ( 2 )

  1. Re: Tynion jettisoning the traditional Bat supporting cast, I think he stated in his newsletter that was a necessary evil. Because of the upheaval at DC due to the ultimately aborted 5G plans, the pandemic, and the larger corporate merger, he HAD to create his own characters to compensate for the availability status of the Gotham characters changing almost daily.

    As for the Underbroker, as far as I know, he vanished after Joker War. Tynion hasn't brought him back in Joker and I'm not sure anyone else has picked him up.

    Anyway, the lead-up to Fear State for me is like the lead-up to Joker War during Dark Designs, i.e. the journey was more fun than the destination. But I'll hold off until we hit that review.

    I did really like the arguments Miracle Molly made here about Bruce's mission statement being unknowingly stuck in the Year One mentality -- about how what worked for the Gotham of Carmine Falcone and the Mob (ex. Matches Malone, the 'Crimminals are superstitious ans cowardly' mantra) hasn't really evolved

    Part of that is of course Bruce's character and his core. But it's also a blind spot I hadn't really thought about and Tynion's interpretation has validity.

    1. Yeah ... overall I liked Miracle Molly's perspective too, though I feel like that sentiment's one of those that's only true if the writer wants it to be true. Like, Molly says it and it hits home for Bruce, but do we really think all this time later Batman hasn't iterated his crimefighting strategies from when Falcone was around? So it seems a little easy to me, but then again, I thought it was interesting on the page too.


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