With issue #961, “Intelligence” continues to be the defining arc of James Tynion’s Detective Comics run so far. Though it lacks the sense of scale, and that may be changing, of “Rise of the Batmen” or “League of Shadows”, the pacing and team dynamic of Tynion’s Tec has really come together since this arc began.
Though Batman and family guarding survivors from a far more than human adversary is certainly an idea we haven’t seen recently, I’m not sure that we care enough about Nomoz or Ascalon for that story to really resonate yet. It feels like Tynion thought so too, as this issue provides a chance to learn a little about the threat our heroes face before it puts plans into action. And that opportunity comes in the form of a backup villain, Batman’s own ally Azrael.
His programming reactivated, Azrael makes for a fantastic mid-story threat. Azrael has always been portrayed as much stronger and faster than Batman and, debatably, an even better fighter in terms of technique, but not a very clever combatant. He’s not really human anymore. That has potential, but Tynion wisely decides not to harp on how tough Azrael is and to show us instead.
By pitting Azrael against a Batwoman-Cassandra Cain tag team, Tynion immediately makes it clear that the avenging angel means business, but it also shows just how capable Kate and Orphan are. It’s a lovely dynamic where both sides are elevated for their part in the fight rather than one being used to sell the power of the other. It also means that the fight doesn’t have to focus on how strong the combatants are, it can just be. And the way it chooses to be is brutal.
Most good fights in superhero comics tell a kind of story within themselves, a back and forth that often represents a moral or dramatic allegory. It keeps them interesting and keeps things from becoming blandly violent. So it’s especially interesting to see a fight that doesn’t really obey that paradigm. Tynion keeps his dialogue trim and focuses the reader on the force and duration of the fight. If we’re going to see another battle between heroic teammates, we might as well feel the consequence of fighting a friend. Though Azrael is outnumbered and clearly outclassed by Cassandra, his resilience makes it an engaging brawl and, after a while, you have to actually sit with the discomfort of watching this a bit.
And, once again, Batman is too preoccupied with finding Red Robin to take part, allowing the rest of the cast to have some time in the spotlight. A welcome development.
One of Azrael’s problems as a hero was always that he wasn’t always clear. What are his powers? Is he an anti-hero? How does The System that controls him work? These were frequent issues for Azrael during the nineties. And back then he had a lot more time and build up than he’s received since the New 52. So it’s greatly beneficial that Tynion has found a way to use this story to give us some answers.
Jean-Paul, himself, remains off the board for the most part, however a couple of scenes inside his mind do wonders for the character. The original version of the character took years to give readers a strong enough understanding of his issues to feel out the shape of The System, the programming that transformed him into Azrael. This time, Tynion takes the direct approach and makes The System into its own character.
The result is a truly creepy villain that helps give Azrael, and this entire arc, a very particular tone. Indeed, what’s truly clever about this is that it not only tells us about Jean-Paul, but about Ascalon. Ascalon is a copy of the same dogma and, though he is presented as a separate and somewhat different threat than the reclaimed Azrael in this issue, it’s also made abundantly clear that the Ascalon robot and the embodiment of The System calling itself Ascalon are different forms of the same being. This allows two differing versions of Ascalon to explore different parts of the character, one sophistic and furious and one physically powerful but curious.
This efficiency of space and time proves to be the issue’s, and perhaps the arc’s, defining feature. Tynion also spins the conflict with Azrael into a mystery tied into Scott Snyder’s “Superheavy” arc, a chance to write some of the most charming Batwoman dialogue I’ve ever heard, and a tease for the return of another cleverly repurposed Azrael staple that should raise an eyebrow for anyone who’s read a Batman comic from the nineties. And then there’s the opening scene.
There’s a quiet vibe to our opening interlude that belies how much set up is going on. From an introduction to magic, to a burgeoning plan years in the making, to a big time cameo that ties this story back into Tynion’s larger myth arc, there’s a lot going on here, perhaps more than it appears at first. While the revelation that Zatara was working with, or at least forced to deal with, some especially shady characters might obscure it, a reference to an obscure Batman villain seems to hold a great deal of promise. After all, while he never reappeared, the Obeah Man remains a relevant figure in Bat-history specifically because of his place in the life of one of Batman’s partners, one that I can’t help but suspect is very significant.
We also get another look at the mystic secret that Zatanna’s family guards. This artifact has been set up as the nuclear option in Batman’s feud with Ra’s al Ghul and the League of Shadows and cut content from Tec #957 hints that it either is or once was an essential tool towards Bruce unraveling the mystery of Mr. Oz and the Button. The Gnosis Sphere.
And, though it seems as though this is a larger plot, separately bubbling while Ascalon broods, one can’t help but notice the very specific connotations of the word “gnosis”, especially when Batman keeps being distracted from obtaining it by a runaway Gnostic robot. Perhaps everything is more connected than it at first appeared.
Around these deepening mysteries, Tynion continues to draw some lovely moments out of the tension between Bruce and Zatanna and Bruce and his younger self. Though I believe that Tynion could have stood to make the scene even more personal, he again demonstrates his talent for writing teenagers with both respect for their depth and acknowledgment of their immaturity. Zatanna gains a great deal from seeing the effects of her unusual childhood rather than some heavy handed flashback about her isolation. And we also get to see a young Bruce coming face to face with his limitations as a crime fighter. Even Zatara gets a great moment, highlighting the double life that he and Zatanna lead and lightly brushing up against the questions of identity that it brings with it.
Unlike the few that came before it, this issue doesn’t have as many ‘big’ images and is generally lighter on splashes and spreads. Instead, this issue seems to specialize in small panels working in concert and it proves rather effective.
The brawl between Azrael, Batwoman, and Orphan is a particularly impressive piece of work. As we’ve grown older and claimed to grow more mature as a culture, there’s been a general move away from grand, sweeping sword fights and wild martial arts spectacle in film and comics. Seeking to convey the overwhelming danger of fighting, we’ve turned most battles in movies into frantic, unintelligible cuts of motion and comics have experimented with their own version of the trend. As such, it is worthy of note that Alvaro Martinez has managed to present the strengths of this style without sacrificing the clarity of classic comics combat.
Martinez employs many small panels alongside larger, more traditionally sized ones, allowing brief flurries of action to be punctuated by a single, dramatic image that gives the reader time to breathe. And it doesn’t end there. Regardless of panel size, Martinez manages to convey place and momentum beautifully, avoiding the unmoored confusion that often arises when fights are depicted through tightly focused panels. Though you may not yet know where Orphan and Batwoman are exactly in relation to each other, the art ensures that it’s clear how their attacks connect with each other and where they are compared to Azrael, giving a neat sort of radar sense to the fight.
Martinez remains best at drawing capital S, one word Superheroes and villains, thriving on their drama and costumery. Azrael and Batwoman prove natural subjects for him, the sleek, performative perfection of her costume and make-up letting Martinez direct attention and shape tone. Even the way Azrael’s suit takes damage looks great, creating a creature that only becomes less human as you peel away the layers, glowing eyes peering out over snarling, metal mandibles.
Characters in more casual dress are also drawn well, but they’re undoubtedly weaker in execution. While this issue includes some particularly strong panels of Zatanna, looking at some characters, including Young Bruce, too closely can reveal blank facial expressions and characters that depend very heavily on Brad Anderson’s colors to fill them out.
Still, the strong layouts and knack for blocking pull this one well into the black artistically. It may not be a book that you pick up and buy for the art, but it’s probably one you buy and then realize is pretty gorgeous.
I also want to say that editors Dave Wielgosz, Chris Conroy, and Mark Doyle are putting out a fantastic book. Their contributions seem particularly in evidence on this arc, as Tynion’s plotting reads much smoother and the myriad moving parts of the various story threads start to pull together. That said, this is the second issue in a row that’s featured a small but highly noticeable mistake, in this case a repeated word in place of another. It’s not easy to catch little things like that, especially after who knows how many reads, but one hopes they’ll be corrected for the trade.
Last time I reviewed Detective Comics, I argued that with issue #959 Tynion’s take had finally found its voice. Just two issue’s later it’s starting to become apparent that not only was I right but that the entire run is coming into focus, and it seems bigger than we gave it credit for. More than big enough to anchor DC’s flagship title.
This issue is essentially a detour on the road to the Bat-family’s showdown with Ascalon, built around a lengthy fight between teammates. On paper it sounds generic and unnecessary, but the execution is superb. James Tynion gives every character in this issue their own charm and desires, playing them off one another expertly and doing so in a manner that adds to the greater story rather than distract from it. Azrael and Ascalon in particular come out of this issue more completely fleshed out, but it’s full of lovely character moments. Combined with strong art that animates an exceptional fight scene, Detective Comics #961 hits all the right notes.