By James Tynion IV, Eddy Barrows, Eber Ferreira & Adriano Lucas
What is the phrase? No good deed goes unpunished? This idea has echoed through superhero comics when characters are forced to confront the question of whether their actions cause more harm than help. Do their righteous actions save lives or simply invite more crazies to come out from under the shadows? Would the citizens of urban centers such as Gotham City be safer without such a tantalizing target as Batman patrolling the rooftops? James Tynion IV is not the first Bat-scribe to dive into this dilemma, but he has found a way to reengage the subject in a compelling manner. Ably aided by Eddy Barrows’ fantastic art, Tynion continues to bring new life to Detective Comics.
Tynion’s boldest stroke was switching the series from a solo title to a team book. On one level it is a subtle acknowledgement of Detective’s history as an anthology. To a deeper extent, it alters the dynamics of the storytelling. Batman has one of the widest and most intriguing supporting casts in comics, yet, while they often play a role in his adventures, it is frequently as side players. Tynion moves them more to the foreground, making the story as much about them as it is about the Dark Knight. In the process he shines a brighter light on the man beneath the cowl.
This plays out beautifully in #946’s opening scene, a flashback to when Batman first introduced his “boot camp” idea to Red Robin. Red Robin is immediately enthusiastic, looking beyond the immediate goals to more long-term applications. Instead of fixating on the problem at hand, he speaks of designing a medical response system, of sending members into prisons and asylums to counsel at risk individuals. Together they could change Gotham from a city defined by decay to one built on trust. “Collaboration, not coercion.” These words an intriguing choice as they get at the heart of what has been Batman’s most crippling character flaw: a hesitance to trust those fighting by his side. He often comes off as an aloof tactician, more interested in manipulating people than empathizing with them. Batman himself acknowledges this fact to Red Robin. He confesses that there will be times when he will fall into old habits, when “I’ll forget to trust, I’ll forget to reach out . . .” It is a poignant moment of self-realization, a reminder of The Caped Crusader’s own fallibility. It is also a clever nod to the past. Tim Drake first earned his place in Batman’s inner circle by arguing for the importance of Robin. In the aftermath of Jason Todd’s death, Tim observed that Gotham’s hero was growing increasingly erratic. Batman required the steadying hand of a partner, someone to keep his darker traits in check. Now once again, Tim is there to provide counterbalance to The Dark Knight. At least until another tragedy strikes the Bat-family. Once more no good deed goes unpunished.
This idea feeds into the central conflict of the current arc, The Victims’ Syndicate. The antagonists are a group of individuals who all blame Batman for their misfortunes. They might have been collateral damage in one of Batman’s battles through the streets of Gotham. They might have been the toy of some costumed villain simply interested in drawing out the Bat. In each case, they represent the harm caused by Batman’s mission, the nagging question of how to balance the good with the ill. If Batman truly wanted to make Gotham City safer, shouldn’t he retire his cape? Would not the Jokers of the world fade away entirely (or at the very least from Gotham) and allow law-abiding citizens greater piece of mind? In the end, who is the symptom and who is the disease? Tynion does an excellent job of exploring this question, allowing each cast member to confront it in their own way. One of the strengths of this team book is how it allows each member their time to shine.
As mentioned above, Barrows is doing some fabulous work on this series. His action sequences are bursting with energy. The standout one this issue depicts a confrontation between Batwoman and Madame Crow. Batwoman fights with a lithe intensity, landing each hit with a forceful elegance. Barrows takes a similar sweeping approach to some of the character beat scenes. An introspective moment for Spoiler is laid out over two pages dominated by a large close-up of Stephanie’s face. Smaller panels alternate Stephanie’s tearful remembrances of Tim with Batman’s latest fight. It is a striking visual representation of Tynion’s theme. Not all of Barrows’ pages are so overtly dramatic, however. The opening flashback has a still, meditative air about it. As throughout the issue, the ambiance of the moment is accented by Adriano Lucas’ stunning coloring work. The interior of Old Wayne Tower is defined by drab browns, yet these are lit by rays of soft light shining through the broken windows. Side by side, Batman and Red Robin gaze out into the skyline. There is a calm serenity to the scene which underlines Tim’s hopeful vision for what could be, as well as facilitating Batman’s blunt honesty about himself. Once the narrative returns to the present, those optimistic white beams disappear. Instead, characters are defined by dark shadows pierced with fiery red bursts and toxic green mists.
Hero or unwitting villain? Builder or destroyer? Cold-hearted controller or empathetic leader? Tynion, Barrows and Lucas express these conflicts with a sure hand throughout Detective #946. Thrilling set pieces, touching character beats and stellar art all work together. From the beginning, Detective Comics has been one of the highlights of DC’s Rebirth initiative. For this issue, it is also This Week’s Finest.