In June, DC Comics kicked off the start of its Rebirth initiative. After a wave of criticism surrounding the way they have treated their characters’ rich histories since 2011’s New 52 relaunch, DC has decided to rebrand. They hope that by restoring their characters’ pasts, they will restore readers’ faith in them as well. Do they succeed? That’s what the Comics Beat managing editor Alex Lu and entertainment editor Kyle Pinion are here to discuss. Book by book. Panel by panel.
Note: the reviews below contain **spoilers**. If you want a quick, spoiler-free buy/pass recommendation on the comics in question, check out the bottom of the article for our final verdict.
Writer: James Tynion IV
Penciller: Eddy Barrows
Inker: Eber Ferreira
Colorist: Adriano Lucas
Letterer: Marilyn Patrizio
Alex Lu: This week, DC released the fourth part to Detective Comics’ Victim Syndicate arc. On the whole, Tynion’s and Barrow’s run on this title has proven itself to be one of the most fascinating series in the Rebirth lineup. In a genre known for stagnation and the “illusion of change,” the creators working on this title have made impactful character development the core that gives their plots momentum. In the first arc of this run, Kate Kane, better known as Batwoman, was torn apart as she was forced to confront her militant father. That storyline resulted in the death of Tim Drake, the Red Robin, which leads directly into this storyline, where we see Tim’s bereaved partner and girlfriend Stephanie Brown, Spoiler, being forced to confront the consequences of Batman’s war on crime.
Until now, Stephanie Brown has seen Batman as a force for good in Gotham. Her father, the Cluemaster, was a b-list villain who was actually hunting Stephanie throughout 2014’s Batman Eternal until the Dark Knight managed to stop him. He saved her life and in doing so, inspired her to save others as Spoiler. However, she had little idea of what joining Batman’s war would mean for her until Tim Drake, a person she loved, died. Since then, she has come to see a dark reflection behind Batman’s message of justice. After being confronted with the Victim Syndicate, a group of metahumans who gained dangerous abilities after encounters with members of Batman’s rogues gallery, Stephanie has started to view Batman’s need for order and control as selfish and damaging to the heart of Gotham. The previous issue of this arc, made that abundantly clear when she deduced that the one thing that ties the members of Batman’s new team, which includes Orphan, Batwoman, Clayface, and Spoiler together is that they are all damaged goods. They each have dangerous elements to their pasts that could result in they themselves becoming Batman’s enemies if not sufficiently tamed. It’s a brilliant idea on Tynion’s and Barrows’ parts as it emphasizes the most negative elements of Batman’s character while retroactively enhancing Tim Drake’s importance to the story. Tim was the pure-hearted soul who believed Batman’s idea for a Bat-Team could be based on “trust, not fear. Collaboration, not coercion,” as he elucidates in a flashback that opens this issue. Without Tim, fear and coercion are the only tools left to the team as Batman’s leadership grows more and more pronounced. Without Tim, the idea that a team of Bat-soldiers could be a force for good quickly starts to show its flaws.
While most of the action in this issue of Detective Comics takes place at a hospital the Victim Syndicate has taken hostage in order to force Batman to reveal his identity to the world and end their reign of terror, the crux of this book is Stephanie’s encounter with a computer simulation of Tim Drake back at the Bat-team’s Belfrey base. Earlier in the arc, Stephanie was hospitalized following an encounter with the Victim Syndicate. During her hospitalization, the team’s leader, First Victim, visits Stephanie to apologize for hurting her. If that isn’t shocking enough, he says he’s only there to ask her a question, which she poses to the simulation of Tim in this issue: “why do I fight?”
Much of the time, we take it for granted that superhero stories are mostly about people punching their way out of problems. Even when comics tip their hat to the issue, they lampshade the oversaturation of violence in the genre and play the acknowledgement off as a joke. Batman is a character who is obsessive at best and totalitarian at worst. As other writers and artists have acknowledged in the past, despite the many things about his character that have changed, at his core, Batman is the story of a child who swore a vow of vengeance and never moved past that state of mind. In that sense, Batman is inertia. Batman’s war cannot end despite his rallying cry for justice because he himself will not let it end. There are always more villains and when there are no villains, there are victims who will rise up to take their place.
There’s a brilliant moment in the issue where the Tim simulation asks Stephanie “what world do you want?” Stephanie pauses, staring at him with tears in her eyes and gritted teeth. The page turns to reveal a double page spread that hard cuts back to the hospital where Clayface is staring at a bulletin board that says “A world of peace and love.” In many ways, Batman represents the opposite of both of those things. He is a man driven by his war and his hatred of the people he considers evil. That is why, from Stephanie’s perspective, Batman needs to be stopped. This in-depth questioning and careful characterization is why Detective Comics #946 is a must read for me. What say you, Kyle?
Kyle: I was an early critic of Tynion and Barrow’s initial issues within this title, which I found overly wordy and expository, an ongoing problem I’ve faced with much of the writer’s work early in his career. I’m not sure what changed exactly 3 or 4 installments in, but Tynion and co. found a pretty nice groove and suddenly this became a very fun take on the Batfamily in a way that I’ve found sorely lacking for years. And as with most of these Rebirth titles, there’s some nice creative energy that’s crept up in these shorter second and even third arcs, after much of the introductory heavy-lifting has been allowed to subside and everyone now is able to loosen their respective ties a bit.
Tynion and Barrow’s “Victim Syndicate” arc has played right to form with the rest of the line in these improvements, and as such, has found itself perhaps becoming the stand-out title in the Batman corner of the DCU. For one, Tynion’s development of his individual character voices are ringing out loud and true, and their various plights and internal struggles have hit the point where they work as compelling singular subplots all on their own, while also serving the “A” plot of each arc. It’s honestly been a while since I’ve really enjoyed a team book this much (that isn’t Doom Patrol, of course) for a fairly significant period, maybe not since Rick Remender’s Uncanny X-Force or the initial Morrison Batman Incorporated, of which this series owes as some tiny source of inspiration.
As for the issue at hand, I was already pretty won over by the concept of the title villain group, especially as a physical embodiment of the collateral damage that has been incurred by the various members of Batman and Batwoman’s squad, though, really just Batman. I’m somewhat reminded of the Terminus storyline that Tomasi and Gleason introduced in Batman and Robin a few years back, with a bit of a similar grudge being held against Batman, but instead by minor criminals who had been at the receiving end of his abuse. Where that story was clever but relatively minor, this carries heavier weight because these are all presumably innocent people that have been turned into something much more tragic.
This week’s installment does a really effective job of breaking up the individual battles – The First Victim vs. Batman, Mudface vs. Clayface, Madame vs. Batwoman, etc…each conflict contains its own little plot in miniature, where the insecurities and vulnerabilities of the protag teammates are all sort of exposed thanks to the mirror that each of these foes are holding up to them. This, of course, holds double true for Stephanie coming face to face with the computerized version of Tim, who posits that question you raise above Alex. I’m not wholly sure how the resolution to all of this will really shake out, but I’m certain it’ll be a heroic swerve and Spoiler will reassert herself as a significant presence among these recruits. Or perhaps Tynion and Barrows have something else up their sleeve altogether? I’d appreciate something unpredictable that would serve as a good lead-in to this League of Shadows arc that they’ve been building to. That I’m this interested, really, says it all.
I also very much admired the intro scene between Bruce and Tim getting the ball rolling on this plan that would create the core of this title, it was a very sort of “television series flashback”, but I thought it came at just the right time, when its thematic heft tied in quite well with the story that followed.
I still sometimes struggle with Barrows’ panel layouts, which are flashy, but sometimes go against where my eye naturally wants to take the panel flow. It’s a minor quibble, and often I enjoyed his symmetrical approach, but every once in awhile, some consternation is endured. Never a deal breaker though.
Final Verdict: Buy
Writers: Paul Dini, Tim Seeley, Eric Esquivel, Heath Corson, Mariko Tamaki, James Tynion IV, Gene Luen Yang, K. Perkins, James Asmus, Bill Freiberger, Steve Orlando, Vita Ayala
Artists: Elsa Charratier, Ian Churchill, Dan Jurgens, Norm Rapmund, Gustavo Duarte, Matias Bergara, Robbi Rodriguez, Andrea Mutti, Paolo Pantalena, Reilly Brown, Thomas Pitilli, V. Ken Marion, Scott Hanna
Colorists: Alex Sollazzo, Hi-Fi, Marcelo Maiolo, J. Nanjan, Alejandro Sanchez, Ben Hunzeker, Arif Prianto, Tony Avina,
Letterers: Carlos M. Mangual, Josh Reed
Kyle: I usually don’t go in for these kinds of annual “Specials”. For example, this year’s Election Special was an utter waste of a cute Prez story in service of a horrible Catwoman tale, and the New Talent Showcase had some really nice standout takes on characters buttressed with some less than savory short stories that hardly made it worth the investment for the curious fan. But with this new Holiday Special, I think I finally found a premium priced comic I can get behind.
With a framing narrative that’s set-up like one of those old Christmas variety show extravaganzas they used to show on television (not that you’d know Alex, youngin that you are, but these things used to be an annual occurrence that our grandparents and parents used to watch) but with Harley Quinn as the host, Paul Dini has some fun with the concept and he’s ably translated onto the page by Elsa Charratier’s expressive and undeniably appealing linework. Visually, she is a perfect match for the madcap humor Dini is aiming for, and I hope there’s another partnership in their future.
There’s a heartwarming element here in each of the stories that Harley guides us through, and there are two key takeaways that I stuck with me after I put this book down. 1) This is truly a HOLIDAY book, as it maps out a number of celebrations that occur from the end of December into early January – specifically Christmas, Hanukkah, Dongzhi, New Year’s Eve, and Three Kings Day/Epiphany – in the order in which they occur, and celebrated in some way, big or small, by the heroes that would take part in each. 2) I was struck by how heartwarming each story is, and how this feels like a culmination of the “back to the core” approach of Rebirth in general. These are characters that have a great deal of affection for each other, and each of these stories celebrate that. There’s not a gritted grimace in sight. Instead these heroes smile, and support one another, and do good things for the right reasons. Damian Wayne buys Jonathan Kent a Christmas present, the Flash Rogues call a truce with Barry to make sure Central City’s orphans can have a wonderful Christmas morning, Batman and Detective Chimp team up to help Santa Claus, and in maybe my favorite bit of all just because of how resonant it is, the Titans spend New Year’s Eve together in appreciation of what Roy reveals is his favorite holiday, a signifier of new beginnings.
I could break down the various artists and approaches, from the opening familial Superman-focused stories, to the action based Constantine and Batwoman stuff, to the super cute Nightwing and Batgirl date, but it’s such an enjoyable ride that I don’t want to cheat anyone out of and is basically everything I ever want out of a DC Comic. There’s Krypto story about how he gets his collar for crying out loud! And did I mention that Batman and Detective Chimp team up??
Certainly, at 10 dollars, the price point is very high. But, my suggestion, buy it, read it..and for once, don’t do that thing we all do, which is put it in a plastic bag never to be seen again. Instead give it to a kid in your life as a present, it would be a perfect stocking stuffer and it’s such a rich little intro to the DC world, you might very well create a new fan in the process. That would truly be a Christmas miracle.
I’m selling this way hard, I know, but wow I loved this. Alex, you wanna bring me down to earth? This book even made me fall in love with Simon Baz and Jessica Cruz!
Alex: It’s certainly not my place to be a holiday scrooge and bring down your vibe, Kyle! Frankly, I honestly enjoyed the DC Rebirth Holiday Special a great deal as well. We’ve seen a number of these prestige format specials come out in recent months. Most of them have ranged somewhere between sporadically great and generally below average. This one, however, is a big winner.
As you mentioned, Harley Quinn opens this issue by guiding us through a holiday party that has gathered together DC’s best and brightest. Paul Dini and Elsa Charretier show us a lovely shindig replete with humorous visual gags and meta commentary about the cloying nature of holiday specials like this one. The book never takes itself too seriously and in doing so, effortlessly captures the unifying nature of the holiday season.
However, what really sells the book for me is how seamlessly the whole thing comes together. Most DC specials are anthologies with completely disparate stories united by a loose theme. This book, though, features Harley and the party introducing each short story to the reader, making the reader feel like they’re sitting by the fireside exchanging goofy tales with old friends.
Indeed, this book is filled with utterly nonsensical but fun moments such as Clark haplessly attempting to buy his son, Jon, a hard-to-find new gaming system for Christmas. At one point, an old woman snatches the last console off the store shelf in front of Clark and is depicted taunting him with her tongue out, yelling “Haha, suckers!” Then, during an interstitial featuring Harley, we see her turn on a TV to find Mr. Freeze trying to freeze Santa’s reindeer. He’s rendered in an adorably unthreatening style and then gets blasted by some lasers while screaming “*sob* Nora…!” And yeah, Bobo the Chimp teams up with a Frank Miller-esque Batman. That happens, too.
As usual with books like these, there are some stories that work better than others. I could name some clear favorites including Heath Corson’s and Gustavo Duarte’s aforementioned Detective Chimp story and Mariko Tamaki’s and Mattas Bergara’s “Dreaming of a White Christmas,” which features Constantine. However, because this book is so carefully woven together, it feels disingenuous to pick it apart as though it were a normal anthology. Plus, on the whole, every story in this book is of a higher level of quality than those in most other recent DC anthologies. Heck, this might simply be one of the best floppy releases DC has put out in months.
That said, I do find it somewhat disheartening that the DC Rebirth Holiday Special is mostly centered on Christmas despite indicating a much broader scope in the title. Some attention is paid to other holidays such as the winter solstice, which is celebrated by Gene Luen Yang’s and Andrea’s New Super-Man story. However, that particular story is only one page. K. Perkins’ and Paolo Pantalena’s Batwoman story has some small mentions of Hannukah, as does the Harley interstitial introducing it, but there isn’t much beyond that. I concede the reality that we live in a Christian-centric society where even secular culture is influenced by Biblical myth. I still celebrate Christmas while not being religious, for example. However, in the future, I hope DC can use their huge roster of characters to explore the holidays from less conventional perspectives. I’d love to see a Kwanzaa story, a longer version of that Winter Solstice Tale, some more New Years stories, a completely secular holiday story, or hey, even some wild alien holiday story. Why not?
In a final analysis, despite the misgiving I elucidated above, I wholeheartedly recommend picking up the DC Rebirth Holiday Special. It’s a wonderful title and one that I, like Kyle, hope you’ll pass down from generation to generation.
Final Verdict: Buy
- I want to love Supergirl. I have a great respect for Steve Orlando’s writing, particularly on Midnighter, and Brian Ching’s art is consistently gorgeous. However, this first arc just is not working for me. In Supergirl #4, Kara Zor-El is forced to watch helplessly from a newly rebuilt Argo City as a cybernetic version of her father and the cyborg populace he has built try to kindle their robot souls using the lifeforce of people from Earth. It’s a weird plot and that’s not necessarily a bad thing, but I don’t like the position it puts Supergirl in because it’s one we’ve seen many times before with her character and Superman’s. Forced to choose between a family on Earth or a “family” on Krypton (or some remnant of it), who will the -El choose? The answer, many times over, is always Earth, and it’s never really a choice because the Kryptonian remnant is somehow malevolent. I would have preferred that Supergirl play the long game, building up the various supporting cast members that surround her. There’s interesting stuff to be mined from KatCo, the DEO, and Kara’s high school. I really don’t need robot Kryptonians trying to murder people right off the bat in a series like this because frankly, I don’t have a enough reason to care about the people left on Earth yet.
- Speaking of playing the long game, watching “The Lies” and “Year One” storylines come together in Wonder Woman is incredibly satisfying. In Wonder Woman #12, the “Year One” storyline soldiers on. We get lovely moments where we see Diana continue to adapt to the new world around her, talking to birds and lizards, flying through the skies, and sharing tender moments with Steve Trevor. We experience terror as Ares bursts onto the scene for the first time in Diana’s memory. It’s all beautiful stuff and it means so much more in the light of Wonder Woman #11. We see the burning tree symbol of the Sear Group echoed in the burning tree of the illusory Themyscira that taunts her in “The Lies.” We see her briefly nurse the wound that has festered in the modern day storyline. We see Ares hunting her then as he does in now. Greg Rucka, Liam Sharp, and Nicola Scott have created pure poetry over the last six months and I’m looking forward to seeing more as the weeks go by. Moreover, we get textual re-confirmation of Diana’s bisexuality this week. We last saw her partner, Kasia, in issue #2, I believe, so it will be interesting to see how she weaves into the fabric of Wonder Woman’s “Year One” and present day storylines moving forward.
- The above two comics were my biggest highlights this week, but I came away continuing my admiration for what Joshua Williamson is up to with The Flash #12 which wraps “The Speed of Darkness”. As I mentioned a few weeks ago, I was a big booster of his approach to The Shade and his bringing in Hope O’Dare to really hammer home the Starman shaped hole that has been in my life for some time. This issue spent more time on the budding partnership between Barry and Wally, which has been the strongest growing element of Williamson’s run thus far, with the final establishment of trust between them and their relationship looking to finally become fully-formed. I’ve also greatly enjoyed the art of Davide Gianfelice, which has added a wonderfully cartoonish vibe in parts that has melded well with the more youthful focus on Wally and his growth as a hero. I’m not totally sure I buy the final moments, as the Barry and Iris haven’t really registered much as a potential couple in the current run, but perhaps it’s building off some things I’m forgetting from earlier comics. This is one of those highlight books I look forward to every two weeks.
- I echo Alex’s statements about Wonder Woman #12. We knew Ares was coming eventually, I just can’t believe I didn’t recognize the obviousness of the Sear Group reveal. I figured they were involved with him, but I didn’t even realize it was right there in the name. That’s one of those head-slapping reveals that I’m ashamed I didn’t pick up on sooner.
- Action Comics, Supergirl, and Superwoman keep on being enjoyable. I’m growing especially fond of what Dan Jurgens and Patrick Zircher are up to with Superman, and I think this “Men of Steel” story-arc, with its cosmic morality play hook, has shaped up to be the kind of Jurgens storytelling that I like best, the fact that this comic had a Thor-like figure that reminded me of my other favorite run of his certainly doesn’t hurt. And Superwoman’s density is something I really admire about that book, it reads like no other title from the publisher, with the always appealing Jimenez visuals to match.
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