Today, Mark and Michael are discussing Detective Comics 40, originally released March 4th, 2015.
Mark: On a week to week basis, comic books are junk food. Most everything that comes out is disposable, easily forgotten. While occasional stories and arcs will make a mark, for the most part Batman’s latest encounter with a violent psychopath quickly becomes only of interest to the most diehard continuity enthusiast. These are the same stories that DC has been telling for basically 30 years, and they work. They’re engaging. They sell a dwindling number of books. Detective Comics 40 ends an arc built around hatred, revenge, and the murder of children. It’s another take on the classic Batman formula: a new threat emerges in Gotham, Batman tries to control the threat, Batman loses control and order in Gotham is threatened, Batman confronts the source of the threat, almost loses, but through strength and determination, Batman defeats the threat. Mad libs “threat” for the name of any member of his rogue gallery, and you’ve got yourself a Batman story.
This time, the threat is Anarky, unmasked in this issue as Sam Young. After failing to receive justice from within the system, he’s been using the Alice masks to control the minds of Gotham’s residents as revenge for the death of his sister and his friends at the hands of the Mad Hatter. With Gotham on the brink of chaos, Batman takes out Anarky and destroys the mind control device with the help of Detective Bullock.
Did I like this issue? Sure, it was fine. Looking back on the arc as a whole I have some quibbles, just like I did after Icarus. I mean, if the citizens of Gotham were being mind controlled, why was it necessary for Young to erase the backgrounds and digital histories of everyone? What did Bullock do to disable the mind control? Put on the Mad Hatter’s hat? Why the odd Alfred moment where he confronts the mob outside the police station with cartoonishly proper cadence?
But on a more macro level, I look at an issue of comics like Detective Comics 40 and I’m conflicted. On the one hand, I can appreciate it. Francis Manapul and Brian Buccellato are an incredible artistic duo. The writing is sharp overall, Batman engages in actual detective work, and the art is lovingly rendered. But on the other hand, is this a particularly good Batman story? Would I use it to introduce new readers to the medium? Is this a story I would give to my nephew to introduce him to comics? No, it’s not. This is a contemporary Batman story with technology and violence and grit at the forefront, but I wonder if it’s not already outdated. DC has been selling a variation on this idea non-stop basically since Crisis on Infinite Earths ended 30 years ago.
It’s a reductive argument, I know. Not every story, not every issue, not every book needs to cater to new readers. Different books are appropriate for different audiences. And there are titles across DC and Marvel doing interesting work telling new stories. Detective Comics doesn’t need to be anything but Detective Comics. I get all of that. I really do. I don’t even really mean to single out Detective Comics 40, it just had the misfortune of triggering these thoughts on a week I wrote the lead. Every week the Big 2 release plenty of titles to which this is just as relevant.
I love comic books. I’ll continue reading stories about Batman taking out violent psychopaths. But I guess I’m saying I’m ready for the next major narrative shift in mainstream comic books. The Batman we’re reading today has evolved over 75 years, and I’m ready for the next evolution. You can only kick the teeth out of someone’s face so many times before it feels stale. I’m ready for it to be different.
Michael, sorry, I didn’t do a lot of talking about the issue itself. What’d you think?
Michael: Detective Comics 40 is not an amazing Batman story, but I don’t think that it is by any means a bad one. I can’t really speak to the execution of the “Icarus” storyline because I never finished it, but I was looking forward to seeing a new spin on the character of Anarky — a villain that is very relevant to the modern day. To Mark’s credit, I do feel like Manapul and Buccellato reneged on some interesting ideas that they had initially laid out for Anarky, playing it safe in the end. Having the Gotham revolution led by Anarky turn out to be nothing more than a “Mad Hatter-tech mind control situation” was a big letdown for me. Granted, the idea of one of Batman’s villains turning the city against him/the establishment is not a new one, (i.e. Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy) it is still a fun and frightening notion for a Batman story.
As much as Scott Snyder likes to position Gotham as a crucible that makes its citizens stronger, it is still a pretty terrible place. I don’t think that it would be out of the realm of possibility to believe that Gothamites would want to “take control of their city” as Tom Hardy’s Bane put it. But alas, that is not what Manapul and Buccellato had in mind for Anarky. Mark pointed out several of the more outlandish plot points of Detective Comics 40: Bullock’s hat ex machina and Alfred’s weird plea for sanity (when did he leave the cave again?). I present to you my main point of confusion: how the hell is Alfred talking to Bullock? This may be silly, but there is no indication that he is talking through an ear piece or anything. All of a sudden, Alfred’s voice is just available to Bullock. It’s silly, but it annoyed me a bit.
Despite any personal disappointments I have with Detective Comics 40, I think that Mark might be a little off-base here with his arguments. I am totally understanding of the frustration of comic books’ refusal to do anything drastically different, especially with the big two. BUT that is the nature of the beast — it has been that way for probably the entire publishing history of Marvel and DC Comics. Marvel and DC have experienced MASSIVE successes with their characters in the past 75+ years. Batman and Spider-Man are awesome as all hell, but they are basically Coca-Cola and Pepsi. Sure, you can throw a couple different flavors in every now and then just to shake things up, but you’re not going to change the recipe that made them so popular in the first place. (ASIDE: Crystal Pepsi is most definitely Electric Blue Superman and/or 90s mullet Superman.) My current frustration with superhero movies is the lack of risks they take with the characters: I could go on and on about how neglecting Tony Stark’s alcoholism in the Iron Man movies is like cutting out a piece of his soul. But Disney is not about to have one of their hippest, most marketable toys be drunk at the wheel. No. Way. It sucks, but it makes sense.
Many comic book fans discuss the gimmick/trope of comic book deaths, especially here at ol’ Retcon Punch. The argument is that “death never sticks” etc. This really can be extended to any sort of long-term change in a particular Marvel or DC comic book. Like I said, they have both tweaked their formulas a bit — a character dies, gets replaced, gets married, has a child etc — but most times these changes are eventually reversed. The status quo prevails. However brief these changes are, they can often provide excellent pieces of comic book lore. For my money, Bucky Barnes as Captain America, Norman Osborn in charge of SHIELD (HAMMER), and Tony Stark on the run marked one of the most fascinating periods in recent Marvel history. Similarly, Marvel’s current books feature huge character changes in Thor, Superior Iron Man and All-New Captain America; all of which are very successful books.
I kind of touched upon this in my write-up of Thor 5, but things change in comics and then they un-change. Even if you are bound by mega-sized corporations and their restrictions and you can’t make any real radical changes to the mythos in the long run, it’s important to make your story mean something. If Batman does a by-the-numbers caper, I’m OK with that, as long as he’s learned something and shown some relative growth as a character. Do I think that Detective Comics 40 achieved this? Not necessarily, but I don’t think that it deserves my personal condemnation by any means. Sometimes toeing the company line and making a standard Batman caper is a victory in-of-itself. Do we all remember what Detective Comics was when The New 52 launched? I’ll save any ill words for Tony Daniel and just say that Manapul and Buccellato have brought the book back to a place of respect (not crazy about John Layman’s run either. Sorry.)
At the end of Detective Comics 40, Alfred and Bruce have a discussion of Gotham still needing Batman. While I feel that this whole bit was a little unnecessary and kind of out of place in the context of “Anarky,” it’s kind of pertinent to our conversation here. Francis Manapul and Brian Buccellato are still relatively new to Detective Comics and the world of Batman. So far I think that they have done a respectable job of delving into what makes a Batman story a Batman story. But maybe one day, they won’t need to use the typical framing device of a Batman story. Maybe one day, they’ll do something truly revolutionary. I have faith that they will.
For a complete list of what we’re reading, head on over to our Pull List page. Whenever possible, buy your comics from your local mom and pop comic bookstore. If you want to rock digital copies, head on over to DC’s website and download issues there. There’s no need to pirate, right?