Highwater Everywhere: “Detective Comics #32”

There is water on nearly every page of Detective #32. It has splashed into the panels and made the colors run. It has sprayed onto the white borders, leaving stains. Everything is wet, soaked. I can smell it. It is not the sunny smell of ocean spray but the fishy, industrial, human smell of an urban river. It stinks.

There is water on nearly every page. And blood.

There was a time when I could distinguish the motivations of Bruce Wayne’s Batman from Peter Parker’s Spider-Man, who both donned masks and swung though urban jungles in response to the death of a father-figure. Spider-Man was driven by grief and guilt. Peter was, in a way, responsible for the murder of his Uncle Ben, whose death he still mourned when he first vowed to battle the forces of evil. Batman, on the other hand, was driven by a sense of justice, by the need to avenge the death of his parents who were unjustly taken from him as a boy, through no fault of his own. This sense of justice and the passing years allowed the Dark Knight detective to be cold, calculating and rational. Batman fought crime with his head; Spider-Man, his heart. I suppose this explains why I have always admired Batman but identified with Spider-Man. I, thank God, don’t have much experience with vengeance as a motivation. Grief and guilt? Well, that’s another matter.

Detective #32 makes me doubt this distinction. In this book, there is grief and guilt on nearly every page.

Manupal and Buccellato allow the damp decay of Gotham City to permeate every panel in this third installment in their “Icarus” storyline. Batman swims in the murky river to find evidence for the murder mystery he is trying to solve; Detective Bullock finds blood and horror on the waterfront docks; the teenaged Elena seeks out a decaying pier from which to grieve the death of her mother; the villain, The Squid, lurks in an abandoned riverfront aquarium where thin glass is the only thing holding back watery terror.

In Manapul’s and Buccellato’s mystery, character is as important as plot. Bullock wrestles with the death of his partner, a loss brought back to him by the arrival of the Icarus drug in Gotham; the details are unclear, and Bullock’s obsession with the case is the reader’s only real hint about the depth of his loss. Elena grieves and, perhaps, feels guilty for the tragic death of her mother; we don’t yet know her secret, but Elena is clearly drowning under past mistakes. Batman grieves for Damian, feels responsible for his lost child; his obsession with the murky waters of this case, with Elena, is surely driven by something more than just a sense of injustice.

On the story’s title page, Batman stands unnoticed by Elena as she sits on the end of an abandoned pier, surrounded by signs of loss and decay. She speaks to her dead mother: “I hate this place. I feel like I’m falling down . . . you got caught in the undertow, Mom . . . and I’m drowning with you.” It is a wonder that Batman can hear her, over the waves that pound against the pier, over the wind that blows his cape; but he does. She speaks, to the waves and the wind: “Who would want to save this stupid place?” And Batman, his single word hanging in the air against the vast cityscape, against the rolling, roiling, stinking river, speaks: “Me.”

Gotham has never seemed so wet before, everyone soaked to the skin.

Who is responsible for the death of Elena’s mother? What drives Bullock, rendered here, in words and pictures, more lovingly than I can ever before recall? What is the secret of Icarus and how does it connect to Bruce Wayne? Will Elena be the new Robin? These are the questions that the mystery leaves us with but, in a way, they are the least interesting questions of all.

They pale beside the deeper questions raised by this tale of the Dark Knight.

How long will the levee hold? Is the current too strong? Will anyone make it to shore? Will we all be lost to grief, to guilt?

It’s rough out there

Highwater everywhere.

—B. Dylan

RATING 8 / 10