It’s no surprise that, while Batman and Superman’s Rebirth issues came ahead of it, this is the first ongoing issue of a “DC Rebirth” title. How could it be otherwise? This is Detective Comics, the brand’s oldest, flagship, and namesake title. Without a Rebirth issue ahead of it, Detective Comics #934 dives right into a new storyline and gives us something somewhat different than the rest of the “Rebirth” efforts. So while there is much to say, I suppose I want to start by acknowledging: this has been a long time coming and it feels good.
This is James Tynion IV’s first solo arc with the main Bat Family characters.
This is the result of two Batman: Eternal weekly series.
This is Tim Drake back as and where he belongs.
This is Stephanie Brown stepping into the spotlight the way that fans had dreamed since the start of the New 52 and the way some felt she had been denied since the end of Batman: Eternal.
This is a return to the Batman I grew up with.
This is the return of Batwoman to the title that made her an icon and a classic instead of a token.
And, perhaps most importantly, this is the return of Detective Comics’ original numbering, a long awaited symbol of what “DC Rebirth” is to mean.
This issue is all of those things, and all of those things are gifts. By contrast and similarity with the past, this issue achieves some great things, and there’s also the future to consider. Tec #934 sets up a fascinating new status quo. Indeed, almost the entirety of the issue is devoted to building a team and psyching you up for what is to come. The structure ensures that every character gets a moment to shine and hints at what amazing things we can expect once they’re pulled together towards one purpose.
The one place that this issue falters is in the present. If we’re being honest, the plot is nothing special…yet. I am totally on board for this story, it could be something great, but, as of yet, there’s nothing about the threat Batman and co. face that excites. Obviously they spook the Dark Knight, but they’re still a somewhat shadowy and generic antagonist to motivate the formation of this team that is much more interesting than them. Tynion hammers home this focus on the future through his use of time skips and shadowed faces, which promise greater payoffs if the reader is patient enough to wait and focus just on the assembling heroes for now.
But this seems utterly known on Tynion’s part, so the question is how well did he accomplish what he devoted all these resources and conscious fiddlings with priority to. Well, for the most part it’s great.
Orphan, Cassandra Cain, is a character who naturally values showing over telling and, while she’s pretty baseline in her appearance, James Tynion gives us all the classic beats of the character in just a couple of pages.
Stephanie Brown and Tim Drake are even better. It’s wonderful to see Tim back to himself again. Sure, the New 52 era Tim was fine, still is fine technically, but he just felt like he was trying so hard. Back as Robin all but in name, Tim is fun yet serious and free to have doubt and yearning again.
Steph Brown is back as Spoiler and Tynion is writing her, I think, as her diehard fans would want her written. With the New 52 Steph’s added computer savvy making her more of an even match for Red Robin, Spoiler fits a much more comfortable, and less patronizing, niche. Some of her post-breakup frustration with Tim even remains in a new form, admirably synthesizing elements of her history into a unified whole. The best moment for these two is how quickly they switch from playful superhero banter to supportive best friend realtalk. It immediately reminds readers that these are people outside of the masks and that’s something that’s sorely missed in some parts of superhero comics.
Though I expect that fans will be largely happy with the portrayal, I have to say that I was underwhelmed by Batwoman. In fairness, I’m often comparatively underwhelmed by Batwoman, so perhaps that was inevitable, but, despite Tynion’s obvious appreciation for the character, she doesn’t feel fresh here. On the bright side, you can’t say that she isn’t treated with respect. This Batwoman is obviously Batman’s equal and, in many things, his superior. That said, I’m not a fan of how hard the issue pushes Kate’s military past. I get that it is an important element of her character and a logical way to tie her into Batman’s vision of a new era for Gotham’s vigilantes, but, for me at least, that’s the least interesting part of this issue.
One thing that this issue does absolutely right is that it nails the feeling of connection that justifies calling this group the Bat-family. Heck, at one point it even becomes literal! The Bat-family hasn’t been absent in recent years, but it has often appeared only during crossovers, and, even then, usually only long enough so that it can be tested or broken. This feels like the first time in a long time that it’s been the norm. So it’s interesting to see this issue, which refocuses on the those connections, also reinstate the military feel of the Bat-family.
Frank Miller probably did the most to canonize this interpretation when he had Batman acknowledge Jason Todd as a “good soldier”. Given that he later decided that Dick Grayson should be a murderous, immortal clown with all the homoerotic/homophobic subtext that the DKR series attributes to that, it’s probably no surprise that it typically has been viewed as an opposite approach. Robins as family or as subordinates. Mixing the two is tricky, and not entirely comfortable.
Thankfully, it seems that this is a very intentional move on Tynion’s part. It’s hard not to question that authority when it literally answers a confused teenager, “Don’t worry soldier. We’ve got a plan for you.” Batwoman later hammers the point home by reminding Bruce that she’s his partner, not his subordinate. As I said, Tynion is setting up a very interesting board.
But, even so, there’s clearly a best element of this story and it’s a scene in a movie theater. Nowhere in this issue, is Tynion’s writing or story sense brighter or stronger than here. Tynion’s handle on this scene is tight and thoughtful, using sparse and specific words to tell exactly the story he’s looking to craft. Karlo speaks with a cadence soaked in nostalgia. You can feel how old his spirit is, perhaps how he was before his accident. More than that, Tynion deftly paints a portrait of a man who can always blend in, but never belongs. This is the moment I was hoping for from Tynion and it delivers in a big way.
The scene is a clear return to the Batman of Timm and Dini and yet it contrasts with the stern hand Bruce takes with Tim and Stephanie. It does a huge amount to demonstate that Tynion knows his versions of the characters, their strengths and flaws.
It’s also obvious that the creative team understood that this was the big scene of the issue as Adriano Lucas and the rest of the artistic team give it a particularly gorgeous, painterly treatment, summoning up some old, smoke-filled film house.
Like the writing, the art doesn’t stand out quite as much in the rest of the issue, but it’s certainly strong. Eddy Barrows delivers a powerfully traditional take on the assembled heroes. Batman looks like the idea of Batman that we’ve agreed one. Even without the mask, Orphan looks like Cassandra Cain. And though Barrows is trying something very different than J.H. Williams, his Batwoman is very much in the same spirit. As much as it could, her introduction looks like she could have stepped out of “Elegy” or “Hydrology”.
And all of that is very telling about Barrows’ contributions and approach to this comic. It seems obvious that Barrows has done his research and is putting in a significant effort to provide the kind of classic look that befits a title like Detective Comics. You can see differences between this and his work on Martian Manhunter, notably a relative balance between complexity and cleanness of panels rather than the contrast of that series.
One thing that remains the same is Barrows’ eye for dramatic composition. Almost every page houses at least one panel that’s designed to immediately draw your eye and stick in your memory. Barrows’ panels don’t focus on flowing together so much as they give you the most important moments one after another in their most visceral form.
There is a part of me, one that is likely present in many readers, that feels like this style is still a little too ‘New 52’. It does have a taste of the DC house style of the past few years and Tynion’s writing does feel like it could have accommodated something of a younger and more innovative look rather nicely. However, there’s no denying that Barrows makes that aesthetic look good and that Tec’s history lends itself to a look that new readers and comic snobs alike can feel at home with. It’s not the style I was looking for, but I understand why Barrows was put on this book and why he drew it this way.
Detective Comics returns this week with an oddly quiet start to DC Rebirth proper. James Tynion seems to be focused on laying the groundwork for his run, trusting that readers will see the potential of the reborn DC flagship. Luckily for him, and us, the depth of that potential is fairly staggering. Tynion writes an elite unit of Batman’s most beloved allies with the respect that fans dream of and the confidence that pros envy, topping the whole thing off with one of the most fantastic Clayface moments in years. The art is strong and the compositions bold, but, while it tells the story admirably, it only wows occasionally.Detective Comics #934 is a middle of the road issue from some impressive talents, but it shines where it counts. Even if your assessment is harsher than mine, I can’t imagine a fan of these characters putting down this book without a legitimate hunger to see where they go next and what Tynion, Barrows, and their teammates have in store for them.