[22 January 2014]
PopMatters Associate Comics Editor
When DC Comics decided to relaunch their entire universe under The New 52 banner, and start new volumes for every title, the publishers and editors must have realized the opportunity they would have when it came time for Detective Comics #27 – a good two years after the launch of their revitalization initiative. In no way could they hope to recapture the noir magic of Batman’s first appearance in 1939, but they could acknowledge that moment and pay tribute to the 75 year history of the character while also offering a glimpse at what the future holds. Detective Comics, volume 2, #27, certainly has those pieces, and while some excel at delivering interesting thematic points about Batman, in many respects it is an unremarkable and pedestrian effort.
Detective #27 is not without its merits. It contains several thematic questions that I assume the issue proposes to answer. Who is Batman? Why does Batman do what he does? When does Batman end?
The first two questions wholly speak to the existential nature of a character so consumed and driven by the tragedy of his parent’s murder. The last question is split between existentialism within the overall Batman narrative and the perpetual storytelling of a media property so vastly popular. The answers to these questions are important, especially in this era of storytelling that, in my opinion, has had trouble defining the dark knight. That trouble stemming from so many different takes on the character existing at the same time in various media. Some new, some old having transcended the test of time and the shrinking attention span of pop culture. And within the pages of Detective Comics #27 we have some acknowledgement of that, but in terms of the changing decades of Batman’s comic history.
To begin, Detective #27 opens with writer Brad Meltzer and artists Bryan Hitch and David Baron’s “The Case of the Chemical Syndicate,” a recontextualization of the original Batman adventure. (Coincidently, another take on this story is currently unfolding in the pages of Batman by writer Scott Snyder and artist Greg Capullo.) It’s reminiscent of 1991s Detective Comics #627, in which the Alan Grant, Norm Breyfogle, Marv Wolfman and Jim Aparo did their own takes on “The Case of the Chemical Syndicate.” All of these versions of the story are like cover songs, and while some cover songs soar, such as Tina Turner’s take on John Fogerty’s “Proud Mary,” others sit as a reminder of the original’s greatness, such as The Wallflowers cover of David Bowie’s “Heroes.”
Meltzer et al’s take is the later, and while it obviously tries to modernize the tale, whatever modernity it has is sorely lacking. Instead we have the journal entry of Bruce Wayne line by line explaining why he does what he does. Most of these lines are inconsequential and clutter some truly stunning art by Hitch, but a few ring true, such as “I do it because I have to.” That line speaking to what I’ve argued is the tragic hero’s fatal flaw, the unwillingness to relinquish the control he lost when his parents were murdered. He has to be The Batman, and through that guise regain a sense of control in an uncontrollable world.
The stories that follow are similar to Meltzer and Hitch’s take on “The Case of the Chemical Syndicate,” in that their themes and tones are very familiar to long time (and even short time) readers of Batman comics. Gregg Hurwitz and Neal Adams’ “Old School” takes us through the different decades and changes Batman has gone through, but while it is an ambitious story it seems to barely crack the surface of its subject. In many ways it is lip service to the necessity of acknowledging that Batman’s tone has changed from decade to decade. It’s a good start, but doesn’t move beyond its gimmick.
“Gothtopia” the upcoming storyline appearing in forthcoming issues of Detective Comics and other titles by John Layman and Jason Fabok opens within this issue. It’s a good use of the celebration comic to showcase what’s to come in future issues. The story is rather familiar; Batman wakes up in a world where he is becoming less and less necessary, he begins to suspect not all is right, his allies turn against him and it’s eventually revealed that some villains are poisoning his mind so that he gives up secrets or stays sedated. In this case, the success of this story depends on the spaces between the plot points. The places that investigate all the elements that makes up the character and his world. While we can’t tell from this initial installment whether this effort will be worth the trouble of such a familiar plotline, there is a large amount of set up that needs to happen for these types of plots to work, we do see the potential for a story arc that could answer the questions Detective Comics #27 proposes to answer.
The last story, “Twenty-Seven,” by current Batman writer Scott Snyder and artists Sean Murphy and Matt Hollingsworth is something of a moral conundrum wrapped in an answer to the third question mentioned earlier. When does Batman end? The short answer is never, as long as Bruce Wayne has breath in his body. The story suggests that at some point Bruce will clone himself in some way so that decade after decade, century after century, there will always be a copy of Bruce Wayne under the cowl of Batman. This point would seem to underscore my argument that Batman’s fatal flaw, the hallmark of any tragic hero, is that he can not in any sense not be in control. But the idea of cloning oneself, and the moral questions and implications that come with that process, would appear to speak to certain narcissistic and psychopathic aspects of Bruce’s personality.
In the previous continuity, Batman was against using Ra’s al Ghul’s life rejuvenating Lazarus Pits. To see him embrace the quandary of cloning is a shock to the system. And that’s Snyder’s point and in keeping with his often used approach of exploring a character’s fears to their somewhat logical conclusion. Regardless of the moral dilemma “Twenty-Seven” presents, Snyder’s story does answer the question rather succinctly. When does Batman end? Never. The meta quality of that answer in regards to perpetual fiction notwithstanding.
The remainder of Detective #27 is humdrum. Francesco Francavilla’s beautiful “Hero” is in some respects a story, but feels more like an extended pin up. Just when it gets started it ends. Peter Tomasi and Ian Bertam’s “Better Days” is a silly send up of Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, and Mike Barr and Guillem March’s “The Sacrifice” is so familiar that you could recite it without ever reading it. All in all, Detective Comics volume 2, #27, is unremarkable. Given how much advance notice the publishers and editors at DC Comics had, readers should expect more and better. Certain stories are rather enjoyable, but taken as a whole the issue does not feel as if it will be remembered a year from now. That is a wasted opportunity.