Following three volumes that covered the initial year of the run, James Tynion IV’s Detective Comics started off great, but slowly became a product of diminishing returns. Since the beginning of the run, Tynion has been setting up an ongoing storyline around the Bat-family that looms in the background during the individual arcs.
Fortunately, this storyline, which is part of the grand scheme that is DC’s Rebirth, takes a backseat for the most part. Although this is very much a team book, each volume puts focus on a single member and this time around, we delve into the backstory of Jean-Paul Valley, a.k.a. Azrael — a character who has had a peculiar history since the early nineties. Formerly a member of the sinister secret religious society "The Sacred Order of Saint Dumas," the past comes back to haunt him when the Order has created a more perfect assassin, the AI known as Ascalon, who targets Azrael and the entire team.
Although I was aware of him playing a pivotal role in the Knightfall story arc, I didn’t have a great knowledge of Jean-Paul Valley, except that his alter-ego did make a villainous appearance in the TV show Gotham. From having made a couple of cameos during the early issues to suddenly becoming part of the family, the exploration of Valley’s backstory does require the reader to have a pre-existing knowledge of the character’s history.
It also doesn’t help that the villain is just a big robot with a sword. Despite the cool design, Ascalon isn’t that well defined with a convoluted origin that mixes theology and science. A lot of the action consists of nothing more than robot-smashing — there is this internal conflict within Jean-Paul and how that affects the team, but because of the addition of the mechanical threat, it all gets psychedelic and not that interesting largely due to the fact that I still don’t know much about Azrael.
However, amidst the superhero high-tech action, what works best about this volume is the relationship between Batman and Zatanna, the magician who usually casts spells by speaking verbal commands backwards. It is here where we get to see a side of Bruce Wayne’s childhood, where he was trained under the mentorship of Zatanna’s father, Zatara. Although there is an element of fan service, in the "did they or didn’t they?" angle, Bruce’s relationship with the magician here shows his temptation of the use of magic, especially considering the recent tragedies of the book. It shows that he may be the World’s Greatest Detective, but Batman is still a mortal man whose emotions can get the better of him, something that Zatanna understands. Frankly, we need to see more of this friendship in order to add some fresh flavor to the Bat-family.
Another highlight of the volume is the concluding issue (co-written by Christopher Sebala) featuring the return of Stephanie Brown. Although she may remain under the guise of Spoiler, she is trying to break away from the other masked vigilantes of Gotham City by trying to fight any villains before Batman and his team can, even if she doesn’t see the inherent contradiction in her own plan. Drawn by Carmen Carnero, this one-off tale may feature yet another robotic foe, but Tynion’s characterization of Spoiler through her narration is spot-on and her brief interactions with Harvey Bullock add some humor.
This title has gone through many artists and even though that can often be jarring, they manage to keep a consistency. As the story jumps from the high-tech manufacturing of Bat-themed robots (including a cameo of Jim Gordon’s Batsuit from Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo’s run during The New 52) to the fantasy of Zatanna’s magic tricks, Martinez’s penciling is detailed and is enhanced by Brad Anderson’s multi-layered colors.
This is a step up from the previous volume, but the key criticism is still the convoluted amount of baggage that is somewhat negating the team dynamic that made this title great from the start. There is enough to enjoy, however, largely from the addition of Zatanna and the return of a certain member that adds interest to where the Bat-family will go next.