Today, Drew and (special guest writer) Scott Baumgartner are discussing Detective Comics 0, originally released September 5, 2012. Detective Comics 0 is part of the line-wide Zero Month.
Drew: I have kind of a strange relationship to Detective Comics. As the original home of Batman, and the namesake of DC Comics, I have nothing but respect for the history of the title — I want to like it. Unfortunately, since the relaunch, the title has been marred by embarrassingly clunky writing, leading it to be the perennial “Retcon Punching Bag” until we unceremoniously dropped it after issue 9. Most of that blame falls on the shoulders of writer/artist Tony Daniel, whose overly grim tone and unnecessarily convoluted plotting made the title a real slog. Well then, the fact that Daniel is off of writing duties as of this issue should be a good thing, right?
Not so fast. Writing duties have been taken over by Gregg Hurwitz of Batman: The Dark Knight fame — a title that is somehow more grim and convoluted than Detective Comics. To be fair, we stopped reading Batman: The Dark Knight before Hurwitz took over writing duties, where by all accounts he’s doing a markedly better job. Unfortunately, “markedly better” than the first nine issues of Batman: The Dark Knight is still pretty middling, and his writing on this issue feels surprisingly familiar (as in, indistinguishable from Daniel’s). That tonal match-up is not only unnecessary for a one-off flashback issue, but it’s unfortunate because the tone doesn’t actually work.
The issue opens with Bruce arriving “somewhere in the Himalayas” ten years ago. He arrives at a compound hoping to study with Shihan Matsuda, a “Zen-Buddhist Monk Warrior” (his title is laden with a bit more exposition, but I’ll leave it at that for now). He is told that no such man exists and to go home, but Bruce obstinately waits on the doorstep for several days, and is then accepted into the fold (a la Project Mayhem). The issue proceeds as a bizarre mix of a training montage and a budding romance between Bruce and the local sword-sharpeners daughter, Mio. The weirdest detail is that Shihan is married, in spite of espousing the philosophy that, “if you carry love, you carry weakness.” It turns out his wife is kind of bitter about that whole thing, and that Mio is actually an assassin she had hired to kill Shihan. In a final bloodbath, Mio kills Shihan, Bruce kills Mio, and Shihan kills his wife. As Shihan dies, he emphasizes the moral of the story to Bruce: “this is what closeness brings you.”
But is that a moral that jibes at all with the Bruce we know? Do we even buy that he could be distracted from his studies by a romantic relationship? This is a man who has devoted every waking moment since he was eight years old to avenging his parent’s deaths. In this issue, Bruce rattles off a list of places he’s visited on his single-minded journey to make himself an unstoppable crime-fighting machine. I can’t claim objectivity here — this honestly feels like The Last Temptation of Wayne-level sacrilege to me — but I just have a hard time believing this is the first time in all of his journey he’s met a pretty girl.
I guess my biggest issue is that I have no idea what kind of conclusions we’re supposed to draw from it. It’s clear Bruce didn’t take Shihan’s lesson to heart, as he’s been romantically entangled more times than anyone could care to count. Moreover, love is actually the source of Bruce’s greatest strength — it’s the love for his parents that drove him to become Batman in the first place. But it’s also clear that Bruce didn’t swing absolutely in the other direction, either. He still generally keeps his loved ones at arm’s length, which I’ve always read as Bruce not wanting to be distracted from his ultimate goal, but also has to do with the secrecy of being Batman, not to mention that he spends all of his time in a cave in his basement. In the end, this just feels like a series of things that happened to Bruce in his past, not an important moment in his development, which strikes me as a totally wasted opportunity.
Leaving aside these larger philosophical disagreements I have, there are just some goofy things going on with the writing. I mentioned the awkward exposition at the beginning where Bruce just flat-out explains to Shihan is, but my favorite exposition dump has to be where Shihan’s wife explains that he amassed a fortune in Japan before moving to their current location, explaining why a Buddhist Monk living in the Himalayas would be married (Japanese traditions allow Monks to marry), as well as establishing a motive for her betrayal. It doesn’t explain how he made that money in the first place, or even why a Buddhist Monk would want or maintain vast quantities of money, but never mind that, it sets-up this totally underwhelming reveal.
Wouldn’t this scene actually have more impact if there was no mention of money? If she simply killed her husband because she wanted freedom from his loveless ways? Adding money to her motives undermines the emotional reasons, muddling the whole message.
Of course, abdicating the writer’s chair doesn’t remove all the blame from Daniel’s shoulders. His art is often dynamic, but his wooden faces don’t do much to help Hurwitz’s dialogue. The few glimmers of decent acting we get are turned in by Pere Perez, who shared some of the pencilling duties here. I did, however, like the sequence where Bruce waits outside for several days. For once, Daniel’s ability to draw the same scowl over and over becomes an asset.
Credit where it’s due: much of the praise for that sequence also belongs to colorist Tomeu Morey, who manages to convey the passage of time beautifully.
I didn’t mention the back-up at all, but there’s hardly enough event to warrant much discussion — prior to Bruce’s return, the Kane family threatens to pursue legal action if Alfred doesn’t turn over Wayne manor. Bruce returns, so this is more-or-less a non-issue, but the fact that it was written by James Tynion IV makes me suspect that the Kanes may play some kind of role in his upcoming Talon title. We can conjecture about that in the comments, but in the meantime, I’d like to introduce guest writer Scott Baumgartner. He’s my younger brother, and while he doesn’t really read comics, he does know how to make me laugh like nobody else, which we all thought would be a good idea after having to read Detective Comics. This issue wasn’t quite the spectacular disaster we feared it might be, but it also wasn’t that great. So what do you think, Scotty, was this an effective introduction to the world of comics, or is this title as shitty an ambassador as I think it is?
Scott: Well Drew, I wish I could take a definitive stance on how shitty I thought this comic was, but I don’t have much to compare it to. Like you said, I really don’t read comics. With that in mind, I feel I can confidently say that this is one of the best comics I have ever read, and also more than likely the worst. But that doesn’t mean I won’t share my opinions with anybody willing to listen, so here goes.
I just did a google map search of The Himalayas. Turns out, they’re big. Either Bruce had more information about where to find Shihan than they gave us here, or he was knocking on a lot of doors, spending a few nights on each doorstep before deciding he must have the wrong mountaintop mansion. Drew, I think you nailed it with the Project Mayhem comparison. To Bruce’s credit, he is a more determined potential disciple than Robert Paulson was in Fight Club, although I can’t be sure he wouldn’t have given up if Shihan had come out and taunted him for being too fat.
I don’t think I’m as enamored as you are with the four panel montage of Bruce’s cold, lonely wait on Shihan’s doorstep. It is a simple and effective way of showing the passage of time, and the colorist certainly deserves credit for his work here, but there’s a difference between an artist being able to draw the same expression repeatedly and actually just using the same drawing four times, which seems to be the case here. Aside from coming across as lazy, it undermines the idea that Bruce has come looking for Shihan in order to learn the sort of discipline and focus that will allow him to sit out in the snow without so much as shivering. When we see him do it on page two, it kind of lessens the impact of when he accomplishes essentially the same thing 15 pages later. Sure, he lets out an “EEEK” in the fourth panel, which suggests the harsh conditions are in fact getting to him, but it was ambiguous enough that I’m choosing to read it as the release of the fart that he’s been holding in for the past 36 hours (hey, he doesn’t have the complete self control of a true warrior just yet).
I agree that it is totally weird that Shihan is married, but does the marriage actually contradict his “love no one” philosophy if he and his wife have absolutely nothing in common? For two people who have seemingly been together for decades, they really aren’t on the same page about anything. They’re effectively playing the roles of angel and devil on Batman’s shoulders, which is rendered all the more comical by the fact that Bruce seems to be the most easily persuaded person in the world. First, Shihan spiels his philosophy during their training sessions, which Bruce buys into with little hesitation. Then Bruce goes to confide in Shihan’s wife, who gives him the exact opposite advice, which he immediately accepts. (They seem to be setting up a Batman character who will listen to The Joker’s explanation of why Gotham must be destroyed and respond with “Hmm, I guess you have a point there.”) I can’t help but think this issue could have been avoided had Shihan and his wife ever been in the same room while giving Bruce advice, allowing him to weigh their arguments side by side and come to an unbiased decision about which path is best for him. But alas, their dinner table conversations consist only of reminding Bruce that he does not, and never will, have parents.
I haven’t even mentioned Mio yet, but there’s not a whole lot to say. Are we really supposed to believe Bruce traveled halfway around the world to study under Shihan, but then ignores everything he is taught as soon as a girl offers him an apple and tells him to smile? And I guess it’s supposed to be a shock when she’s revealed as the assassin, at least it is for Bruce, but it’s hard to call it a twist when the killer turns out to be literally the only other character Bruce interacts with up to that point. I mean, they didn’t give us much reason to suspect she was under the mask, but they also didn’t give us anyone else to suspect. It’s an incredibly tidy way of reinforcing Shihan’s mantra about shutting yourself off from closeness. This whole reveal sequence does provide my favorite series of images in the issue, however. I especially like Bruce’s expression of utter shock as he turns to see Shihan’s wife standing over him with a knife, just because of how silly it looks.
Why would you hire an assassin to sneak into your always-locked home when you already share a bed with the guy you want dead and you have your own knife? Just off the guy while he sleeps for crying out loud.
Maybe this wasn’t a great first foray into the world of comic book reading, but I still thoroughly enjoyed it, and it was eye opening in some ways (I’ve never seen a dark-haired Alfred before). My thanks to Retcon Punch for giving me the opportunity to do this, it was really a lot of fun, and I can’t wait to see what the other guest writers have to say!
Scott Baumgartner is a writer/comedian living in LA. He currently works as a production assistant on impossibly dumb reality shows, which you should probably ask him about some time. You can follow him on Twitter @scaumgartner.
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