There’s not really a model for what a nine-hundred and fiftieth anniversary issue is supposed to look like; very few, if any, comic books have ever legitimately achieved the milestone. Despite this, it’s not unknown what the general formula is. Anniversary issues tend to be celebrations of the character and #X50 issues that aren’t tend to be beginnings or endings to major stories. However, in the past few years, Batman celebrated his 75th anniversary, the 900th issue of Detective Comics, and his second Detective Comics #27. We’ve seen a lot of reflections on Batman lately and, by its very existence, Detective Comics #950 reminds us that we are a scant fifty issues from the unmatched issue #1000. So James Tynion decided to do something a little different.
Detective #950 is split between three stories. The first, and longest, is labeled as a “League of Shadows” prologue and titled “Shadow of a Tear”. I’ll skip right to the point and admit that it’s beautiful. James Tynion IV, Marcio Takara, and Dean White all do things that are, flatly, beautiful.
Living up to his promise, Tynion shines a spotlight on Cassandra Cain, showing us what she gets up to on one particular night. Orphan, Tynion strongly, but unobtrusively reminds us, is the only member of the Bat family who doesn’t have a daytime life. She belongs entirely to the dark of night. The opening pages set the tone, introducing us to a foil for Orphan whose scant page-time hints at her metaphorical power. Christine Montclair immediately introduces us to Cassandra’s innocence, her purity and joy, and her intensity through the contrasts and similarities between the two girls.
Especially with the stage so cleverly set, Tynion proves that he has a powerful idea of Cassandra’s emotions, communicating her guilt, her anger, her fear, and far more down to an impressive level of granularity. Tynion’s sweeping, mournful prose does a fine job of explaining Cassandra’s struggles, while cruelly highlighting what she yearns for. There are just enough little glimpses of truth, likely gleaned from real-life – perhaps even personal – stories of anxiety and loneliness and these provide something for readers to grab hold of, to dig for.
That said, there is a lot of text on some pages, I mean a LOT of text. There’s a lot of recap and a lot of telling you how Cassandra is feeling. It never reaches a point where the pictures feel unnecessary, but that’s largely because the team involved were smart enough to have the text and images showing – not telling – two slightly different stories.
But even that lacks a certain kick. This is a classic reintroduction to Cassandra Cain, but, in that role, it fails to bring more to the table. The arc of this story is that Cassandra enters an enigma to others and exits a known quantity, if only to the readers. She is silenced and silenced until she screams the only way she knows how. It’s moving, but it lacks a sense that you just saw something and that’s undercut even further by the fact that many readers have already seen Cassandra struggle and conquer these problems in her original series.
While Orphan handily takes the leading role, there are a couple of other scenes that do provide some new ideas. Clayface continues to be a particularly interesting character under Tynion’s pen, walking the awkward line between choice and biology very tightly this week. It’s also a fine way to show how quickly Luke Fox is becoming part of the group and how natural he feels in that role.
Perhaps the most interesting scene, in the long run, sees Batman meeting with Mayor Hady. It’s not a wholly original conversation but the power of Hady’s office gives it some intrigue. Things are changing in Gotham and the question for Batman seems to be if that’s a problem or the whole point of his enterprise.
The art is rather stunning. Marcio Takara and Dean White work together wonderfully and bring a real variety to their rendition of the script. Batman’s encounter with the Mayor is flatter, occasionally almost Capullo-esque, while Cassandra and Basil’s struggles have an impressive depth to them. Cassandra’s musings often have a warmth to them, even when part or all of the scene uses cool tones, while Takara and White nail the eeriness that Tynion’s script attributes to Orphan in costume. Even individual panels of Cassandra can look radically different as she is called upon to silently say something else.
Of course, that’s not always a good thing. It can be weird to see Cain’s features shift slightly from panel to panel. Every here and there a character crosses into the uncanny valley, with enormous eyes or oddly connected chins.
Still, the overall effect of the art is exceedingly pretty and many of the problems that an eye combing each panel will find disappear in the act of reading them together. There’s a grace in the movement and a force in the emotions that speak loudly.
One, admittedly trivial, thing that bothered me with this story came towards the end. Just before she retires towards the quiet climax of the tale, Cassandra muses about the people she’s surrounded herself with. Clayface, she thinks, is an odd and important connection and the only one who truly sees her. Luke Fox is a reminder of how foreign the world is to her. And Jean-Paul Valley seems a mix of hope and disparagement: one like her who has seemingly conquered his demons. Her thoughts on Batwing speak loudly about her and there’s an obvious connection between she and Clayface and she and Azrael.
Despite this, the issue continues, it’s Batwoman who she aspires to be most. Kate Kane has been a cornerstone of this team since its inception, however, this argument rings false. There’s no communication between the two in this issue – almost none in the entire series so far, if I recall – and everything that’s said about her seems just as true of Azrael or of Batman, who she shares some meaningful moments with. It would be a minor weirdness, if not for Batwoman’s upcoming solo series, which makes the underjustified moment feel like an uncomfortable attempt to nudge readers toward that title. Certainly fans of Cassandra Cain are already on board that train (the Kane-Train? Oh, please forgive me…). It’s really not a big deal, but it distracts slightly when we’ve seen Orphan connecting with Clayface or when much of this issue seems to draw inspiration from an old issue of Azrael: Agent of the Bat, which largely defined Cass and Jean-Paul’s friendship. But I’m getting ahead of myself…
The next story is called “Higher Powers” and, to my delight, it’s an Azrael story.
There’s a nice amount of action, new exposition, and character building in this story, and even a further acknowledgement of Tynion’s love for the X-Men, but, I will admit that the excitement is kind of front loaded. Thankfully, what keeps the story afloat is the relationship between Luke Fox and Jean-Paul.
Tynion is really using the Belfry to its fullest in this series, and it presents a wonderful device for throwing characters who might otherwise not interact together. With Luke and Jean-Paul we have a classic scientist and believer duo and, while there’s only so much new to be said with such ideas, they feel very much like characters rather than representatives of their philosophies.
We get tons of interesting Azrael backstory in this issue. It’s certainly exposition heavy, but it’s reasonable that Luke would ask and it’s especially nice because much of it is completely new. Tynion’s take on Azrael adds to the more unified vision of the character that Kelly and Lanzing provided in Batman and Robin Eternal while modernizing the dualistic ideas of the Denny O’Neil original. Though I still miss the System as it existed originally, fusing it with the Suit of Sorrows and some classic sci-fi tropes works well. Not only that, it sets up a pretty cool cliffhanger.
Tynion gives us a different but essentially honest portrayal of Jean-Paul and seeds his world with more far-reaching possibilities. Azrael is still a badass and the team provides some serious action without making him seem like a bland muscle-head.
The high-tech of Batwing’s workshop and the… also high-tech but gothic passing of Azrael provide Alvaro Martinez and co. with a wealth of great subjects and contrasts. The fight scene at the beginning is everything a comic fan could ask for except longer and the layouts make a lengthy conversation engaging and dynamic. Occasionally Jean-Paul’s hair changes length between panels and, in one case, it’s easy to mistake a double page composition for two different layouts, but really the worst thing about the art is that it has to follow Takara’s and just can’t hit the same highs.
Even so, Martinez and Brad Anderson continue the issue’s impressive use of lighting and shadow. It’s next to impossible to overlook just how beneficial the lighting choices are. Together with Martinez’s arrangements, the lighting gives this story a cinematic feel that propels it through the exposition and draws readers back, even once they’re processed the new information.
One thing that James Tynion has been very clear about in interviews and appearances is that he wants Detective Comics to feel like the most important book featuring these characters, even while Tom King and Scott Snyder handle the other major Batman books. For me, he’s done a great job, and Detective is easily one of my favorite DC books on the shelves today, but you’ll notice that I still felt the need to begin this sentence with ‘for me’. This issue’s final story, “The Big Picture”, takes a huge step towards erasing those qualifiers. At four pages, it’s easily the quickest read of the issue, but for those readers who aren’t quite so invested in Orphan and Azrael, this is likely to feel like the main event.
Tynion’s Detective Comics has an almost agnostic quality about it. It knows the Batman cannon inside and out and it’s fully aware of the contradictions therein. One thing that’s been so enjoyable about this run has been seeing Tynion working out how those contradictions reconcile on the page and, here, they once again become central.
Once again there’s a lot of talking and most of it comes from one character, but, especially on the same week that Justice League of America: Rebirth was released, the story has a quality of opening up the world. Everything suddenly feels connected and that’s something that shared world comic books can do and very few other mediums can.
Eddy Barrows returns to art chores. His trademark painted panels are utilized as gorgeous visual aids on Red Robin’s computers, though they are missed in the story itself. Oddly enough, I think that the average quality of the art is the lowest here of the three stories, which should say something nice about the issue overall. Many panels are clearly given lesser importance, making them easy to skim over and more likely to have awkward anatomy or unclear blocking. However, the flip side of that coin is that the panels that Barrows and his team highlight hit like a truck. There’s simply no escaping how iconic Barrows’ Batman is.
Detective Comics #950 is not a celebration issue or the traditional launch or landing of a major story, despite some attempts to convince you otherwise. Instead it provides a deepening effect, allowing its extra pages to go towards giving readers a greater sense of who the characters are in ways that, while rewarding, often would have ended on the cutting room floor.
It’s, at times, a very talky issue, with lengthy chunks of prose and one-sided conversations, but it’s also an issue full of powerfully beautiful artwork. The script is different and occasionally uneven but I actually kind of love it. This is a perfect example of how smart and considered Detective Comics has been in DC Rebirth, with subtle and powerful narrative devices and a host of new ideas that expand this title’s range and that of the universe as a whole.
Despite the sizable number, Detective Comics #950 is not a strictly necessary issue for readers of this series. In fact, while they will not go wrong with it, it’s not even an issue that every Cassandra Cain fan needs. But it’s clever, interesting, and stunningly rendered with plenty of meaningful moments for fans of the characters. This is a gift to the fans and a jumping off point for what looks to be a big year of Detective Comics.