by Michael DeLaney and Taylor Anderson
This article contains SPOILERS. If you haven’t read the issue yet, proceed at your own risk!
Michael: “Do I fit in?” If you are a human being, then you have likely asked yourself this question at least once in your lifetime. We all want to be a part of something; to be a member of a group, team, or soul-costing cult. And if you’ve been reading Scott Snyder’s Batman run for the past few years, another question has been on your mind: “What the hell is the plan for Duke?” Batman and the Signal 1 finally begins to answer that.
Cully Hamner opens the issue with Duke’s POV as he addresses other members of the Bat-family. Interestingly, while the fellow sidekicks are speaking in traditional word bubbles, Duke is communicating with them via caption box. A few panels later we find out that this is a recurring dream that Duke has. While that might explain those boundary-breaking caption boxes, it also plays as Duke addressing the reader.
The Bat-fam clubhouse is a little crowded, and Duke (and probably Damian) wonder if he even belongs as a member. Hamner illustrates this by keeping Duke’s face hidden for the first few panels — first by his POV then in shadow, before being revealed by the light.
The onus is on writers Scott Snyder and Tony Patrick to distinguish Duke from the rest of the Bat folk, which they do with some pretty striking dichotomies. The most notable difference is that Duke — as The Signal — is a hero of the light, not the dark. In fact, there’s nary a panel in Batman and the Signal 1 that doesn’t take place in the light of day. Letterer Deron Bennett specifically notes the times that Duke’s out and about: 5AM and 7AM — when most of Gotham’s heroes are probably going to bed.
The people of Gotham themselves aren’t very happy with Duke’s daytime heroing, however. “Daytime is when it’s supposed to be safe!” This is a fascinating, though not surprising idea: Gothamites run all of their errands and enjoy their leisure time during the daylight and flee into their homes at nightfall. Like reverse cockroaches.
There’s also something to be said about Duke operating in the daytime, for everyone to see. For a group of Americans who can feel invisible or overlooked in the eyes of various institutions such as law or media, it’s a powerful image to have a black hero proudly do-gooding in the light of day.
While Duke wonders if he fits in, an overly-smily and encouraging Batman disagrees, as he gives Duke his own secret base: “The Hatch.” Another way that Duke is distinguished from the other Bat-fam members is that he is the only one who has superpowers — though he’s still figuring out what they are and how to use them. This is one of the reasons Batman has given Duke the Hatch — so he can monitor and investigate the uptick in young metahumans during the daytime.
Though still vague, Duke’s powers are light-based — so much light! Duke can replay the events of a given area by visually manipulating the natural light, which is a nice cheat code that will probably come in handy for writers every now and then. Does Duke work with the visual spectrum like The Ray?
Besides Duke himself, I’m not all that interested in his supporting cast thus far — maybe it’s because I never really dug the whole “We Are Robin” concept. Snyder and Patrick introduce us to another character – Detective Alex Aisi, who is on the same trail of metahuman mystery as Duke Thomas. Aisi has recently moved to the dayshift, which makes me hypothesize that she will become Duke’s daytime Commissioner Gordon somewhere down the line.
Taylor, what did you think of Batman and the Signal 1? Is Duke being a daytime avenger enough to make him stand out in the Bat fam? I know that the in-story reasoning for superheroes’ names is pretty arbitrary, but does Duke’s “first knight” story seem like kind of a stretch to you?
Taylor: Yeah, the origin of Duke’s alias is awkward at best. As he tells it, the name “Signal” is a reference to his mother who was a social worker, who often was a first responder when people were in trouble. As Duke puts it, this equates her with the first knight on the battlefield, which in times of yore were called signals.
Curious about the etymology of Duke’s name, I did some cursory research to see if the word “signal” was ever indeed used as the word for first knight. Google and a couple different dictionaries say nothing about the word “knight” being associated with the word “signal,” so unless anyone reading is a medieval scholar and can speak otherwise, we’re left to believe that Snyder and Patrick made this origin up.
I’m fine with that and the attempt on the writers’ part to ground Duke’s alias in something that means something to the character is a step in the right direction. However, the fact that this origin is made up means that it’s meaning could be better. When I think of the word “signal” in the context of a Batman comic, I immediately think of the bat-signal used by Commissioner Gordon to summon Batman himself. While it might be presumptuous to assign Duke a name that is so readily associated with Batman, I can’t help but thinking that would have been a better origin of Duke’s alias than what is presented here.
Even if the origin of his name is dubious, the Signal is an interesting bat-character given that he mostly fights crime during the daytime. And yet, while that’s a fun inversion of the typical Batman hero, once again the reasoning behind it is a little vague. By all rights, it seems that Batman doesn’t want to go out during the daytime, so he’s enlisted Duke to do his dirty work.
Now I don’t actually think Batman has any aversion to patrolling when the sun’s up, but his preference for nighttime escapades is an awfully useful device to give Duke something makes him unique. However, this logic just doesn’t hold. If we’re to believe what Batman is saying, he wouldn’t venture out in the daytime even if the Joker or Bane was running amok. In that case, would Duke be left to handle everything by himself because Bruce is at home sleeping? That hardly seems likely.
That’s where the nifty plot device of Duke’s powers come in. Aside from being a daytime hero, Duke also is set apart from his Bat-Family by his metahuman abilities. What these abilities are is kind of confusing, something to do with light which allows him to see, among other things, villain weak points and small bits of the past and future. Other teens are gaining these abilities (assuming their heads don’t explode, which literally happens elsewhere in this issue) and they are using their powers for ill, so Duke is also needed as a daytime hero because he has the powers to combat those who also have metahuman powers.
That’s all a pretty tightly wrapped package and the result makes up for some of the vagaries that threaten to derail the issue. Overall, Duke and the Signal are compelling enough on their own because they stand in such a different light from Batman and his other compatriots. How far that will carry this character and the series will be interesting to see.
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