I have to tip my hat to James Tynion IV. He’s clearly one of our most talented modern comic writers. I’ve always been fairly ambivalent about DC. And I’ve never, ever liked Batman. I’ve said before I think he’s overrated. In fact, he kind of annoys me. He’s this grumpy malcontent whose emotional development stalled as the result of a childhood tragedy and now (somewhat ironically) recruits child soldiers to help him battle the most dangerous and disturbed minds on the planet. He’s too dark, dangerous, and dour to ever be my sort of superhero. BUT James Tynion IV has taken this character I’ve never liked and created a comic I love around him. His Detective Comics is the lone DC book I need to read in my world of Marvel and IDW titles.
As I’ve written before, I’ve always felt like I was supposed to like Batman. As a kid growing up in the 80’s and 90’s, Batman movies were pretty much the only superhero fair I could count on at the movie theatre. And there were all these “important” stories – things like “Knightfall” and “Zero Hour” and uh, like a zillion ones with a “Knight” related title – that a young comic collector felt he should be buying. But I could never get into any of them. I liked when Dick Grayson was Batman. I liked Nightwing comics. But I’ve honestly never read a Batman comic that made me feel anything more than a very mild “…meh” in my whole life.
That was until I decided to give James Tynion IV’s Detective Comics a try.
How did I get here? It’s all a blur now! Okay, well DC was doing their Rebirth initiative and I was wondering if I should try and expand my pull list a little bit. I read a lot of Marvel. I love my IDW titles. But, as I stated above, I’ve never much cared for DC. But I figured I’d give them a try. Through that summer I sampled a few issues of Nightwing, Green Lanterns, Batman: Detective Comics, Batgirl, Red Hood and the Outlaws, The Hellblazer, Suicide Squad, Superman, Batman, Birds of Prey, and Wonder Woman. Now, a year and a half later, Detective Comics is the only one I still read. (Although, to be fair, I also enjoy checking in with Green Lanterns from time to time.)
And, honestly? Full disclosure, the only reason I even tried Detective Comics in the first place was they were coming in with issue #934 and I thought, “Huh, it would be kind of cool to read a comic book that hit issue #1,000 wouldn’t it?” So I tried it and James Tynion IV grabbed me from the very first issue. If I’m being honest, I kind of resent him for it too. For real! He’s made me love a Batman comic!!! I can no longer say “I’ve never enjoyed any Batman titles.” Well played sir, well played.
I think what makes Detective Comics work for me is how rich the cast is. I’ve read other posts that say Detective Comics is a Batman comic that isn’t really about Batman. I wouldn’t go that far but I would agree that Batman is one of many supporting characters in the book, no more important than any other. Issue #934 opens with him recruiting his cousin Kate Kane – Batwoman – to help him put together a team to protect Gotham in an unprecedented way. This team is what keeps me coming back issue after issue.
Obviously we have Batwoman – the most intriguing character I’ve ever found in a DC comic book. I love her so much I’ve been thinking about exploring her solo series too. Then there’s Cassandra Cain (Orphan), Basil Karlo (Clayface), Luke Fox (Batwing), Jean-Paul Valley (Azrael), and – at various times during the run so far – Tim Drake (Red Robin) and Stephanie Brown (Spoiler). One of my complaints about Batman has always been that he’s the epitome of a static character (a literary character with no development, growth, or inner change). Hey I’m angry and I haunt the night and I punch my problems and I keep everybody at a distance and I am fear and I’m cool and moody and intense. But this team is filled with characters, one more dynamic than the next.
Cassandra Cain was trained by her father to be a living weapon, her training so intense that she was taught to fight and read body language at the expense of verbal communication. Her mother is even more evil than her father, leading the League of Shadows in an effort to recast the world in their own image. Now, as a young woman, Cassandra can fight better than the Batman but she struggles to speak in more than one word sentences or fully express her thoughts and emotions out loud. Yet, despite all that could keep her from forming “normal” human connections, she doesn’t stop trying. The result is this commanding story of a broken, scarred girl fighting to finally, fully define herself as she wants to be – while also being one of the deadliest people on the planet.
Basil Karlo, once one of Batman’s most violent villains as Clayface (also one of the villains who most creeped me out as a kid and made me a little scared whenever I saw him on Batman: The Animated Series), is seeking to atone for the horrible evil he’s done in the past. His is a story of transformation and redemption. He knows using his powers is dangerous, as he can only transform so many times before “he” is burned out and only the monster’s mind remains. But he also can’t stay in his human state forever at the risk of burning out that form and allowing the monster identity to claim him that way. He’s damned if he does and damned if he doesn’t. But instead of wallowing in self-pity he’s doing all he can to help protect Gotham City.
Luke Fox…uh, okay. He’s a pretty blatant Iron Man rip-off. (And, as this brilliant post makes clear, he’s nowhere near as engaging or important a Batwing as David Zavimbe was.) Even still, he’s a fun character and he brings some entertaining banter to the team. I don’t dislike him, even if he isn’t as captivating as the others.
When I was a kid (who only ever intermittently read Batman comics (and was always disappointed by them)), Jean-Paul Valley was just the weird dude who filled in as Batman when Bruce Wayne had his back broken by Bane. And he was kind of a nut job too. Now, reading about him as an adult and seeing how expertly James Tynion IV presents him in Detective Comics, I am fascinated by him. I see a man turned into the prefect weapon and brainwashed with zealotry by religious fanatics. Having freed himself from their hold, he fights to protect the innocent but – most incredible of all – he hasn’t lost his faith. You don’t see many comic characters with developed faith lives. He is deeply devoted to God and has a rich prayer life. He lives his faith too, volunteering at a medical center to help heal others when he isn’t doing his vigilante thing.
With Tim Drake and Stephanie Brown, Tynion explores how Batman’s compatriots can feel trapped in this world, unable to leave it behind even if they want to. There’s this need to play their part in his crusade but also to make their own lives…and balancing the two can be difficult, if not impossible.
The story in Detective Comics, filled with all these incredible characters, manages to offer what I once thought was impossible in a Batman comic. We see these people challenge Bruce to change. We see the honest effects of Batman’s crusade on crime. We see the innocents he’s hurt, as well as how his psychologically broken demeanor affects those around him. Even more surprising, as they challenge him to be better he seems to honestly want to accept that challenge. No one does this more constantly or more effectively than Kate Kane.
I love, love, love, love, love Kate’s character! As Batwoman, I find her a far more competent (not to mention compelling) hero and leader than Batman ever was. I write often of the importance of diversity in comics so I appreciate her representing both the LGBTQ community and being Jewish too. And, best of all, Kate calls Bruce on his bullshit! Batman’s always had his “Bat Family” and, sure, there were disagreements from time to time with Dick or Barbara or Tim or whoever. But they all looked to Bruce as a mentor or father figure. So they’d challenge him, but they still sought his approval in one way or another. Kate isn’t looking for his approval. She doesn’t need nor want it. She believes in the cause, in the team they’re building, and in support of that team she forces the sort of connections and admissions Batman’s always avoided into his life. I adore her character and I can’t get enough of her.
The brilliance of how James Tynion IV pulls this all together is I don’t just care about all the characters around the Batman in Detective Comics (something, admittedly, I’ve always done – I think he has one of comics’ best supporting casts and easily the most horrifying rogue’s gallery), although I certainly do. I care about these characters as much as I have those in any team book I’ve ever read. But, with his writing, I’ve come to legitimately care about the Batman too. I’ve never, in all the comics I’ve ever read, felt any sort of emotional connection to Batman. But the way Tynion writes him, the way he connects him to this web of relationships around him – Kate, Cassandra, Basil, Luke, Jean-Paul, Stephanie, and Tim – I can’t help but finally, finally see him as a real character, capable of human connection and worthy of emotional investment. I never thought I’d see the day…