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Friday, August 12, 2011

Co-Review: Detective Comics #871-881

Geoff: Let's talk about Detective Comics!

Tessa: Crackerjack! It's been a hell of a run. I'm sorry to see it finished but very excited DC is giving Scott Snyder more to do, because boy did he prove his mettle with this one.
Geoff: Yeah, I can't think of a single issue I didn't like.  Plus, Jock and Fracesco Francavilla were consistently great too.

Tessa: Yes, absolutely

Geoff: I'll go out and say that it's the freshest that Batman and Commissioner Gordon have been in years.  right up there with Morrison's stuff, but a different flavor of it.

Tessa: Absolutely, I think one of Scott Snyder's greatest gifts is how he manipulates tone.  He works in a genre that people don’t talk about much these days.  You hear about thrillers and horror and action, but no one really uses "suspense" as a stand-alone term, and I think that's the best description of what he does.  Snyder was incredibly skilled at maintaining that sense of eerie disquietude over this entire run.

Geoff: And I think keeping Dick Grayson in the middle of this eerie tone is part of what made it so great.  He's a good, light-hearted counter balance to all the unsettling darkness that's happening all around him.  I mean, he's always been, and I think that's what Snyder was exploring with this run on Detective Comics.  We've always seen Dick act as the lighter side to Bruce's Batman, but now that he's Batman, the focus is wider.  Dick's now acting as the light in the darkness of all of Gotham, and this run is all about whether he's up for it.

Tessa: Yes, and Snyder gives him a lot to contend with.  The gritty awfulness of Gotham City has gotten a lot of play in the past few decades, but never has it seemed so threatening.  Snyder really plays with Gotham as the haunted city, whose grim history is practically oozing out of the mortar.


Geoff: This is one of the few instances in superhero comics where I've actually been concerned about the safety of the main character.  I mean, judging by genre conventions, it's pretty stupid to worry about what's going to happen to the title character of the book, but there were a few times where I was totally worried about whether Dick would make it out alive.  Like when all of the people in the Black Mirror auction were ready mangle him, or that one hallucination where Dick wakes up with no legs.


Tessa: Yes, having Dick and the Gordons at the center of the book definitely adds this quality of vulnerability.  These are people who can and have been hurt, and it seems like the entire city is rising up against them almost of its own will.  And James Jr., of course, is the perfect foil to this group of relatable and (for the most part) morally rock-solid characters.

Geoff: He has that great monologue in the last issue of the run about how Barbara, Commissioner Gordon, and Dick all try to shape Gotham because of their compassion and empathy -- things that James Jr. has written off as weaknesses -- which makes sense as to why he gets along so well with the dealer from the Black Mirror auction house.  There's that great bit in the second issue where the dealer is shouting about how purposeful evil is the true evolutionary mark that sets men apart from beasts, and how things like compassion and empathy are traits that belong to weaker, less evolved people.

Tessa: That, to me, was one of the strongest issues.  It also played on one of my favorite ideas about Gotham City, which is that the upper crust is always throwing gala events that are being crashed by supervillains.  So seeing a supervillainous gala event in Gotham was incredibly satisfying.

Geoff: But this Time-- the upper crust ARE the villains!


Tessa: Right, and also the notion that they've been in on it all along to some degree --that they get off on being close to danger and evil, and always have, which really ties into Dick reminiscing about his circus days, and what visiting Gotham meant:  "It meant putting on the biggest, riskiest show of the season. No catch wires. No safety nets. Everyone pushing themselves to the limit."  And that narration is revisited in the final issue.


Geoff: But when it opens the first issue there's another part that isn't repeated in the final issue.  After the bit about pushing yourself to the limit, Dick's father goes on to talk about how "some places just have a hunger about them [...] and you either feed them what they want, or you stay far, far away."  Gotham's hungry and it wants something from Dick Grayson.  Because of that Gotham seems to be challenging him by confronting him with a dark reflection of himself.  Same thing with Commissioner Gordon.  Gotham has been challenging Gordon for years, and now Dick and the Commissioner are both faced with a Gotham that has become a dark reflection of the two of them, challenging them more than ever to be the beacons of light that they’ve been by coming at them with a relentless darkness that invades every aspect of their lives.


Tessa: And it's acknowledged, even at the end of the run, that it's always going to be an uphill, and possibly losing battle.  That in some ways, Dick and Jim shoulder a bigger burden than Bruce did/does, because they ARE defined more by their compassion.  Their lives are a little fuller, but their vocations no less demanding.  Not that Bruce lacks compassion exactly, but more that he is defined solely by being Batman.


Geoff: Well, James Jr. even says that he sees that the old Batman works differently in that he's trying to shape Gotham out of an obsession or a pathological need.


Tessa: Yes, that seemed a very important point to me, that Jim and Barbara and Dick are more driven by wanting to do the right thing than anything else, and James is right in saying that this is a liability for them.  And I think that's why, as you brought up, it's scarier to see them imperiled than it is with Bruce -- they are vulnerable in a way he isn't.


Geoff: I love that James Jr. is the big test for Dick and Commissioner Gordon, but my one problem was that the conflict between Dick and James Jr. didn't feel as personal or meaningful as it did between James Jr. and Commissioner Gordon.  And it makes sense that it doesn't, but I just wanted Dick to have stronger feelings about James Jr.  Dick's conflict with James Jr. is working on a separate level, though, which I appreciated -- the idea of James Jr. as the flesh and blood embodiment of Gotham's darkness, the thematic black mirror to Dick Grayson


Tessa: Right, subtle in his imagery, Snyder is not, but deft with it nonetheless.

Geoff: It's not that apparent at the beginning of the run that this is what James Jr. is becoming.  I think maybe some subtlety was undercut by James Jr.'s big villain parlor speech, sure, but for the first half of the run there's a big question about whether James is actually still a killer or if Commissioner Gordon is just getting suspicious because Gotham's warped him so much that he can't even believe his own son.


Tessa: Right.  One of the things I also found interesting about James is his obsession with totems.  Which is actually more a mirror to Bruce than Dick.

Geoff: The key thing?


Tessa: Not just the key, but also his involvement with the Black Mirror organization.  I mean that's their whole deal.  The scene at the auction wasn't scary to me because of the mob, it was scary because of the crowbar.  Bruce's connection to totems was really heavily explored by Morrison, particularly in ROBW, but Dick isn't as attached to symbolism.  And as such it's compelling to see the way that symbols can be used against him.  The crowbar, the key, the orca.  Lots of big, dramatic, unsettling imagery.  He IS emotional, so those things resonate more.

Geoff: I don't know if I'd consider the orca a totem so much as it is just a big scary recurring image, but it does carry emotional resonance still, of course.  the thing with the crowbar was a bit strange to me, though.  I get that it's totem for the idea of a "Robin" character: a symbol for all the bad things that could happen, but that was Jason's crowbar, and since then it was a warning to all the Robins after Jason, and Dick had quit being Robin by then.  I see the crowbar for Dick, again, not so much a totem, but more a thing that does still carry some sort of resonance.  I don’t think it’s personal enough to be listed as a totem.  Dick is aware of its significance, but I don't think it carries any totemic power to be used against him.  In fact, Dick actually uses the crowbar to his advantage as he's trying to escape from the mob.  The best thing about that crowbar is that at the end of the story, Dick doesn't keep the crowbar around, he just tells Alfred to toss it into the river, taking away its power as a symbol.  It says something, though, that Tim is the one who initially keeps it around waiting for Dick to make the decision about what should be done with it.  The crowbar is a symbol to the later Robins, and they turn to the original Robin, the one who can remain unaffected by its power, for guidance

Tessa: You make a lot of good points here, but I don't really think we're on such different pages as you seem to think.  Where I disagree with you is that I think the crowbar transcends Jason and has a lot of significance for the whole Bat Family.  I do think it's interesting that Tim doesn't feel like he has the choice of what to do with it, which does suggest that it still carries more symbolic weight for him than it does for Dick.  But I think that escaping from the mob scene, him turning the crowbar to his advantage is a way of tying him to that mythology as well, the same way Damian bringing the crowbar into a locked room meeting with the Joker in Batman & Robin is his connection to it.  I hadn't really thought about it, but Tim's not being sure what to do with it kind of speaks volumes.


Geoff: Of course, but I still think Dick's connection to it isn't as meaningful as it is with the other Robins.  Tim sees it as a symbol of warning because he was the Robin after Jason.  Damian's use of the crowbar is more of a subversion of expectations because he uses this power against the Joker, the man to whom the power belonged in the first place.  Dick uses it to escape a mob.  Then he throws it away without thinking twice.


Tessa: I guess I read a lot into the fact that the appearance of the crowbar is the exact moment when Dick begins to feel the effects of the mind-altering drugs he has been dosed with.  And also that it's reflected in his goggles on the cover of the second issue.


Geoff: I actually see the inclusion of the crowbar in Dick's story as more of a fan service than anything. Especially the bit on the cover.  the whole idea behind Dick in the last 20ish years has been his power to move on.  he moves on from his parents' murder.  he moves on from being Robin.  he moves on from being Nightwing.

Tessa: Thank god.

Geoff: (Yeah yeah yeah. . . I know how you feel about Nightwing. . .) He's a character who is always moving forward.  (At least until next month's reboot.  But that's another topic)
  
Tessa:  I don't really think we're at odds here.  I think part of Dick's ability to move forward lies in his ability to confront the past rather than be defined by it.  Which is a motif that saturates this whole arc.

Geoff: Right.

Tessa: Zucco's daughter, James Jr., I don't see how that's any different, I guess. These are things floating to the surface that he confronts and moves past.  And he doesn't do that by being indifferent.  But he doesn't allow himself to become obsessed either.  There is a middle ground in there.
Geoff: Sure, I'm just saying the crowbar thing was never really a direct part of his past. He was nowhere near any of that when Jason was murdered.

Tessa: I get that, but being Batman comes with a lot of baggage that isn't necessarily your own, but matters nonetheless.

Geoff: Of course it does.  I'm just saying that particular crowbar matters less to Dick than it does to the other Robins.  But maybe less is the wrong word.  He is affected by the crowbar imagery in a different way.  A way that comes more out of that compassion that Gotham's been trying to break.


Tessa: That's what I was trying to get at.

Geoff: Well it's a good thing we're so good at arguing about something we agree about, then.


Tessa: No it most certainly is!

Geoff: What I was getting to was the idea of Dick moving on.  The whole transient, circus folk thing.  Snyder's run is kind of bookended by this idea of Dick being reluctant to really settle down in Gotham.

Tessa: Right.

Geoff: There's this idea that he's lived there for years, but he's never really settled down.

Tessa: Which makes sense, given that Gotham is, you know, terrifying.  But yes, transience and a willingness to transform have always been a part of Dick's character.

Geoff: Exactly.

Tessa: Which is why he was a natural choice to take over for Bruce.

Geoff: And the realization he comes to on the last page of the last issue of the run, the big lesson learned, that if you survive Gotham's vicious trials, you come out stronger -- I think it was a pretty obvious answer, but it was nice to see that Dick had a conclusion to this little character arc he was going through.

Tessa: Yes, and it's sort of a nice way to give closure to his pre-reboot story.  It's the "Dick Becomes His Own Man" resolution that he's earned.

Geoff: He's earned it, he's a good kid.

Tessa: Yeah, nicely done, Grayson. Knew you had it in you.

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