Detective Comics 881: The Death of a 74-Year-Old Legend

Historically significant. Those are the two words you would associate with the end of Detective Comics, a title that over its 74-year-run launched Batman and, with Action Comics and Superman, ushered in the golden age of comic books. After 881 issues, volume one of the title ends. It’s almost unthinkable. But DC has decided that to infuse new blood their entire line of superhero comics must be relaunched with new number one issues and new creative directions, including Detective Comics.

Originally an anthology comic in the style of the time, Detective Comics #1 debuted in March of 1937 featuring hardboiled detective stories. The title wouldn’t matter significantly until issue 27 saw the debut of Bob Kane’s “The Bat-Man”. This issue is widely considered one of the most valuable comics to ever see print – a copy sold at auction for over $1 Million in 2010. Issue 38 featured the debut of Robin. Issue 225 introduced Martian Manhunter.

Along the way, the title would give its publisher a new name, change formats several times, cement the legacy of its featured character and feature some the greatest comic book writers and artists of all time. You could call it a legacy title, but that doesn’t seem capture Detective Comics significance in comics and pop culture in general.

Enter writer Scott Snyder and artists Jock and Francesco Francavilla. The three of them took over as the creative team at an odd time in the title’s history and the history of its signature character Batman.

Dick Grayson, the character that debuted as Robin in issue 38, had been Batman since 2009. But at the time Snyder et al assumed creative responsibility there was a strong disconnect between the cowl and the former acrobat. None of the creative teams in the other Batman titles had been able to capture the true possibilities of Dick as dark knight, and the creative direction of many of the Batman titles suffered as a result.

With Detective Comics #871, Snyder and Jock took the reins and something clicked. Suddenly Dick as Batman became fresh, inspiring, yet implicitly rooted in the heart of the Batman mythos. The tone of the comic became darker and more dangerous.

What Snyder did so much more than previous Batman writers was to get into the head of Dick Grayson. His perspective became stronger; his motivations more in focus; his methods more striking. There is a vast difference between Dick as Batman and Bruce as Batman and Snyder handled the variation with the stroke of a writer who had clearly delineated that disparity. It is not a stretch to say that the run of issues beginning with Detective Comics #871 has put a definitive stamp on Dick Grayson’s time as Batman.

For all the characters utilized during this ten issue run, including Dick Grayson, Commissioner Gordon, Barbara Gordon, James Gordon, Jr., and even the Joker, the real central character has been Gotham City.

The entire run of Snyder, Jock and Francavilla’s Detective Comics has been about Gotham City herself – her influence on the denizens amongst the horrors of urban strife. This has had a grounding effect on the title, giving the creators a playground unto which to unleash their gloomy narrative.

The best statement you can make about the conclusion to Snyder, Jock and Francavilla’s run on Detective Comics is that it concludes…neatly. All of the narrative threads are weaved together leaving nothing hanging.

Barbara has been kidnapped by psychotic James, Jr. Batman and Commissioner Gordon frantically search for them, their hunt allowing for James and Barbara to have a heart to heart years in the making. This is where James reveals all of his secrets, his motives and his intents. This is the type of reveal that has become a never ending convention in comic storytelling, yet Snyder plays with the cliché villain explanation exposition, using it to further strike terror at the heart of narrative. It’s a refreshing effort as it revitalizes the tired convention of telling a reader the plot rather than showing it. The dialogue is pointed and never dull. James has been a strong character to begin with, but Snyder, aided by the moodiness of Francavilla’s pencils, fleshes him out even further, and while the ending is utterly satisfying, you wish that it doesn’t end.

Throughout the run, the artwork by Jock, Francavilla and David Baron has been stark and moody, with sharp angles and harsh lines, reflecting the darker tone. Issue 881 is no exception, as the pencil team divides the perspectives between them – Jock penciling Dick’s perspective and Francavilla drawing James’ perspective. It’s a wonderful narrative technique for the story, utilized to perfection by the art team. There is no jarring jump between the points of view of these scions of Gotham. They are equally strong in their own distinct styles, and weaved together effortlessly.

By all accounts Detective Comics #881 is a fitting end to volume one, as the issue captures the roots, spirit and lineage of the title. It would work as the absolute end of the book, but Detective Comics will continue.

In comics, publishers would have us believe that numbers don’t mean much. But they do – and it’s more than sequential organization. It’s about the legacy of a title, about its history, its significance to our reading lives. Creative directions change, but numbering endures. This may mean little to publishers, but when you strip away all of the reasons for starting over, what’s left is nothing more than cheap marketing tricks.

Perhaps there is symbolism? Perhaps it’s a symbolic renewal to match the editorial direction? Perhaps. But for whatever can be gained from the “arbitrary” digit one, you lose the strengths of history, legacy and endurance. 74 years of consistent publication is nothing to dismiss. Hopefully DC knows what it’s doing, because pushing aside the history of its namesake should not be taken lightly.

Regardless of what the future holds for Detective Comics – and for all of DC for that matter – this closing chapter to Snyder, Jock and Francavilla’s run is one of the best comics published in recent memory, and is a fitting conclusion to the story that began in issue #871. It so happens to also be a great end to volume one. The chief reason for that complement is that the story Snyder et al has told in these final ten issues has been so strong and deserving of being part of the legacy that is Detective Comics. All good things come to an end (sadly). There is nothing suggesting that Detective Comics will lose any of its nostalgia or legacy with a new number one issue, but something will be missing.

RATING 9 / 10