The Oracle Code
Written by Marieke Nijkamp
Illustrated by Manuel Preitano
Colored by Jordie Bellaire and Manuel Preitano
Lettered by Clayton Cowles
Published by DC Comics
A girl detective in a haunted house. An angry young woman who changed one future for another. Compared to the true-to-life obstacles Babs Gordon navigates, finding kidnapped convalescents in a hospital full of ghost stories is a piece of cake. Marieke Nijkamp has written something for DC’s Young Reader books that feels like the Vertigo of yesteryear, mining innovative stories from the pillars of what it means to be a DC comic. Family, struggle, strength of spirit. The Oracle Code reaches back to DC’s gothic horror roots.
This particular Young Reader pocket novel is a terse, shadowy thriller, a gradual descent into darkness, horror, “sophisticated suspense.” The mystery is in a rehabilitation home, an aged Gotham City house turned by Arkham into a hospital. Is there something in the water that cracks the foundations of every institution of Batman’s city? That’s for the imagination of the reader; what Babs faces in the bowels of Arkham’s Center for Independence is some Get Out BS no one has to speculate over the dangers of. The hospital doesn’t need a villain beyond a bent man with institutional power. We want to believe that behind the curtain is something impossible, blasphemous.
It’s tragedy that sets Babs in the shadow of Arkham, that puts her in a wheelchair, and a big part of The Oracle Code is her reclaiming her autonomy. Who Babs was before- Oracle- was someone who broke rules. While that doesn’t change, the young hacker wheels through haunted hallways seeking hard data, still assembling puzzles, Babs is surely someone new after her accident. She has a connection to a disproportionately vulnerable part of the world, a lesson to learn about vulnerability becoming perseverance before she can face the curse on the Center.
More frightening than being doomed is being erased. The danger in The Oracle Code is something that more people than just Barbara Gordon should be thinking about. She is angry in this book, and I love that. Be angry, Babs.
She starts the book wanting to solve the puzzle of Arkham. Getting to the heart of the mystery is an intellectual pursuit Babs was always capable of, but the change she’d gone through clouded her vision. We are all tested sometimes, we all get overwhelmed, and from struggle we are given a chance to connect to what is essential to us. Oracle learns from what she goes through, and we see Babs grow into her vision of power. From overwhelmed to running a team. The Oracle Code knows that life is life, as good as you live it.
The art suits the book, informed by the past but not a place we’ve been before. Manuel Preitano lays the blacks in heavy, clear lines for distinct characters, but brushes push shadows out beyond the strokes. Night falls, and Preitano’s inks come down thick. The ghost stories told within the story all have their own little aesthetics- like Cain, Abel, and Eve telling young Daniel their stories in the House of Secrets. Preitano draws with an eye for DC past, but just as striking is how comparable an aspect of the art is to modern horror master Junji Ito. Babs is indeed angry, face a closed fist, muscles in a clenched jaw. Ito and Preitano dial up the anxiety to eleven with strained faces.
Jordie Bellaire on colors collaborating with Preitano is, as with all of Bellaire’s work, an exercise in the wisdom of restraint, thunder and the silence before the rumble rolls and rolls. Bellaire plays along to Preitano’s Castlevania polarity inking: daybreak and Babs floats across each page, her passion is radiant saturation in a grey institution; after nightfall hope is swallowed as the Earth has eaten the sun. Babs is as close to invisible as someone who is made of ink can be. Bellaire’s dark, adventurous, intelligent choices evoke the horror comics of fifty years past and yet maintain a luminescence only found in today’s comics.
Unraveling a mystery, coming out of your shell, making new friends (whether you want to or not), Nijkamp’s vision requires a lot of words. This is a detective story, words are weapons when they aren’t shooting bull. Clayton Cowles letters are easy to read at high volume and speed, carry enough of a tight curve to evoke the archaic, the quill dripped, and feel special to the book. The words being said and thought are worth more than those built from plain bricks. It feels like the styles from just before the century’s turn, a typeface for a digital library. A computer font influenced by the elegance of typeset print, a fresh take on the horror pulps of yesteryear aping calligraphy.
Every member of the team on up to editor Alex Carr has performed flawlessly on The Oracle Code. A read greater than the sum of its parts. Taking the idea of Vertigo, to let the darkness give value to DC’s visions of hope, to tell those stories with respect, and pairing it with the respect for the reader found in the better books for young adults. Read me and think about it, begs The Oracle Code. Do not settle for anything less than justice.