DETECTIVE COMICS #974 / Writer: James Tynion IV / Artist: Philippe Briones / Colors: Allen Passalaqua / Letters: Sal Cipriano / Release Date: February 14, 2018 / Published by: DC Comics
Clayface fans who were clinging to hope following the end of Detective Comics 973 are best served by not reading Detective Comics 974. Hope is extinguished early, and the ensuing story is not about Clayface but about the consequences to the Knights. The knowledge of a dark future gained from older Tim Drake looms ever larger, and the big question is this: is it any longer avoidable?
Detective Comics 974 opens on the heels of the tragic gunshot that closed out the previous issue. Basil Karlo, once a promising actor and later the villain turned hero named Clayface, lies in Cass’ arms melting away. James Tynion IV allows the characters little time for grieving, though. Batwoman’s actions set off a chain reaction. Bruce confronts Kate who defends her actions as having saved hundreds of people from a rampaging Clayface. In a perfect moment of symbolism Cass rips the bat symbol off Kate’s uniform; Bruce dismisses her shortly after.
This sets up a potential split with Batwing and Azrael, and Tynion IV doesn’t say explicitly whether they are leaving the Knights with Kate or not. A few days later Tim is back in the Robin’s Nest, hard at work designing a newer, better Belfry. He’s convinced everything can be made right if only he can bring enough technology and resources to bear on the problem. Stephanie goes to confront Tim. She’s leaving Gotham—in part to do some soul searching but primarily because she sees the path Tim is on and she won’t watch him go down it no matter how much she loves him. Stephanie’s departure sets up perhaps the two most important pages in the issue. Bruce arrives on the heels of Stephanie’s departure to find a Tim Drake who is alternately despondent and angry. The issue concludes with scenes setting up a potential new direction for Batwoman and introducing someone who’s manipulating the Knights to force their dark future upon them.
The best plots are arrived at through good characters. The crises arrived at through Batwoman’s actions are consistent with the Knights’ disparate personalities. Batwoman’s a soldier, and she was trained to follow certain rules of engagement. She made a choice consistent with those rules to save innocent lives. When Cass points out that being a Knight means not killing, Batwing asks the perfectly logical question: why? Does not crossing that line—a line Batwoman says a soldier or police officer could have crossed and been commended for in this situation—risk not winning? Treating a refusal to kill as an absolute creates problems when innocent people are in harm’s way, and Tynion IV’s superior character building in all of his issues makes a schism on that basis believable.
Detective Comics 974 tells a story about relationships ending, and whether or not a story like that succeeds rests heavily on the artists’ ability to sell emotion. Fortunately Philippe Briones excels at close-in shots of the characters. Most impressive is Briones’ ability to convey emotion with Bruce and Kate when he has only the lower half of their faces to work with.
Briones’ most effective work comes with Tim Drake after Stephanie has left him. This is more than a romantic breakup, and Tim Drake’s world is crumbling. The art conveys that in every panel. Readers can follow the emotional progression on Tim’s face: shock, loss, despondency, anger, and fear. Tim is the loneliest man in the world in that moment, and Briones’ depiction of that personal fragility—a man pressed down to his knees by life—is perfection.
That final Tim Drake scene turns out to be the heart of the issue. Even with the fracturing of the Knights. Even with Cass’ heartbreak. Tim Drake goes right back to work trying to fix things—trying to reclaim that optimism readers saw in the previous issue’s prologue. Tim Drake doesn’t want to be Batman. He never has. All of his efforts go into avoiding that eventuality. In some ways they go toward making Batman himself redundant—a future where he’s perfected the support system to the point that no one need be in danger. Yet every choice made, by him and others, seems to propel him closer to the cape and cowl that his future-self called a curse.
Stephanie hits the nail on the head when she leaves: Tim is headed down the very course he doesn’t want to be on. Tim may be in denial, but Stephanie recognizes it and won’t stand by and watch as it happens. In a way denial has become Tim’s watchword. During the previous issues as Clayface rampaged through Gotham, Tim didn’t quite come down in support of any solution, merely brooding over the potential consequences of each option. His response to Batwoman is consistent with that attitude. Perhaps she crossed a line, but Tim neither presents an alternative option nor admits there were no other options available. And a mere three days after Basil’s tragic end Tim is back at it planning his new Belfry: “A way to make this work. A way to do it right.”
“And how much of yourself do you need to lose to make that happen?” Stephanie asks. She can see it. Even Tim can see it. The beauty of Tynion IV’s writing is how all of the events leading to this issue have been avoidable despite the characters’ actions seeming inevitable. Tim Drake wants to stop—he wants to be someone else. But in that final Tim Drake scene, with Briones’ art breaking the reader’s heart by putting a crying Tim on his knees, the worrying answer is that maybe Tim can’t be saved.
Verdict: 4.5 out of 5 melted Basils
Theron Couch is a collection of 1000 monkeys on 1000 typewriters trying to produce Hamlet. From time to time he accidentally types comic book reviews. Theron’s first novel, The Loyalty of Pawns, is available on Amazon and he’s published assorted short stories. Theron maintains a blog with additional comic and book reviews as well as posts on his personal struggle with mental health.