EP0031: Batman: Detective Comics Vol. 4: Deus Ex Machina

Zatara comes back into Bruce’s life while the cult that birthed Azrael has an idea for sentient religious robots. What could go wrong?

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Transcript below:

Batman has a magical meeting with an old flame and he and his team have to face off against a fanatical robot and Spoiler tries to save the city from vigilante superheroes by being a vigilante superhero. We’ll talk about it all in a review of Batman: Detective Comics: Deus Ex Machina, straight ahead.

Welcome to the Classy Comics Podcast where we search for the best comics in the universe. From Boise, Idaho here is your host, Adam Graham.

This is the fourth volume of the Detective Comics series in D.C. Rebirth and it collects issues 957 to 962. While Tom King’s Batman has been solely a Batman-focused book, Detective Comics has tried to be a team book. Batman forms a team because he senses something really dangerous is coming to Gotham City and he needs to be ready. And he chooses for his team a variety of characters and most of these had either had their own series or been quite popular with fans. The original team was Batwoman, Red Robin, Tim Drake, Spoiler, Stephanie Brown, the heroine Orphan Cassandra Cain, and the oddest choice for the team, the super villain Clayface who’s reformed now. In the first volume it looked like Tim Drake was killed, but it was revealed at the end of the issue that he’s actually being held somewhere, and then in the second volume Spoiler departed. In the third volume both of them were replaced on the team by Azrael and Batwing.
Batwing is Lucas Fox, the son of Lucius Fox, a long-time employee of Bruce Wayne. He’s a wealthy inventor and scientist in his own right with his own company and a kind of Tony Stark-esk ego, but not necessarily the charm.
Azrael is Jean Paul Valley and that character has a very interesting backstory. He was introduced in the 1990’s; he was a college student unaware that he was the latest in a line of assassin enforcers for the cult The Order of St. Dumas. However, he runs into Batman and he ends up giving up the path of the assassin and becoming a protege of Batman – which became important during the Nightfall event where Batman’s back was broken by Bain. And it was stated in the comics that Bruce would never walk again, and Jean Paul Valley actually took over as Batman. However, he became increasingly unstable and out of control, to the point that Valley and Bruce have to fight, with Bruce ultimately finding a way to triumph.

After Bruce Wayne took over as Batman, he would kind of kick around and appear here and there through the D.C. Universe, seeming to die in the late 1990s story ‘No Man’s Land’, but it all becomes kind of unclear. The D.C. Universe rebooted with the New Fifty-Two and he made an appearance in Batman and Robin Eternal, and then was introduced into Detective Comics. In this current timeline he’s alive and he’s been freed from the order St. Dumas, and prior to joining up with the Bat Team he was out helping up people in a shelter. And I liked in the last volume, it revealed even though he’s left this cult he still holds on to faith – which I think is kind of cool because a lot of comics would be tempted to turn him into an atheist or make some kind of straw man argument. And they didn’t go there – I give James Tynion credit for that. Deus Ex Machina in its A-plot is really an Azrael story. The Order of St. Dumas is trying to reassert itself over his armor and take control of his armor and him, and at the same time they’re also sending in robot versions of Azrael, trying to replace him with a robot who – unlike a human – will not be programmed to doubt and to alter or back away from the mission.

This story was kind of hard to get into. I don’t think the order of a St. Dumas was anywhere near the threat level of what was faced in the three prior volumes. It tries to get into Jean Paul Valley’s character but I don’t think it does a particularly good job in that. There are some good character moments early on but I think for us to really feel the weight of this possession story we really need to know him better, and given that he didn’t come into this whole team until rather late, this is a bit too soon for that sort of thing to really have the impact on the readers. The story seemed to be trying to say something about faith and philosophy but mostly it came off as somewhat cliched and not really saying anything at all. The robots do look nice and there are some fairly good fight scenes that work in. What does really save the storyline is the B-plot with Zatara. She and Bruce were kind of sweet on each other back when they were teenagers and there’s some reminiscing about the past which is nice and gives some insight into Bruce’s character, but he also has a need where he is wanting access to this relic that can reveal truth and information that he needs to deal with the threat that he sees coming, as well as some of his own doubts about the decisions that he has made recently and the consequences they’ve had particularly as it relates to the apparent loss of Tim Drake.

These are really fun to read and the art on those is just superbly drawn. Zatara looks great, she’s really cool in the story even if her magic is still the silly Silver Age thing of just saying stuff backwards and making it happen, and she does end up interacting with the A-plot in actually providing the resolution. And her entrance there – it is just a beautiful panel – and a really solid ending to a somewhat shaky story.

Of the other issue here – this was a five issue out of the six. The other issue in here is a solo story for Spoiler. She left after Tim Drake’s apparent death because she encountered a gang of victims – The Victim Syndicate – who were upset and blamed vigilantes for everything. And I think if you look at the psychology of it, she and Tim Drake were close and I think that there was this idea that finding someone to blame – in this case Batman – works and identifying with the Victim Syndicate and trying to take some meaning out of that, that really does seem to be her motivator which I think is a very realistic thing.

In ‘The Wrath of Spoiler’ she is playing a different role, she is no longer a superhero, she says. She is determined to stop the damage they do, which means that when Detective Bullock is ordered to fire up the bat signal she sabotages it and goes to the scene herself, figuring that if Batman shows up it will end up in carnage and terror, but she can stop the madman and not do the typical superhero thing – not take credit for it and defeat the villain without anyone even knowing that she’s there.

This issue leaves me with some mixed feelings: on one hand I think Stephanie is able to pursue her goals and defeat the villain without being known or showing up, and she does it as well as Batman might have – though in a slightly different way. I don’t think anybody would have died if Batman and handled it, but she did a good enough job and also managed to stay out of sight.

On the other hand, the story is a lot of monologuing. We get to hear a lot from her about how she’s not a superhero, how she’s not a vigilante, how she’s nothing like Batman. As she sneaks around in costume and has unauthorized fights with criminals, she is a vigilante in denial about it and it is just such semantics that it is a very annoying monologue.

It ends on a cliffhanger that explains why this book is set up a bit backwards. This was actually chronologically the first issue in this book. It’s covered at the end because it leads into an event that starts with Issue 963 and the next book; so, if you’re reading the trades you will go right from this story in Issue 957 to the story in 963, whereas if you were subscribed to Detective Comics or picking it up in your comic shop you read 957 and then had to wait like three months to find out what happens with her and the cliffhanger villain that appears at the end of this.

Overall Deus Ex Machina has solid art throughout and occasionally – particularly when Zatara is drawn really rises to the level of beautiful epic art. But the stories are a little bit more hit and miss, a very mixed quality, so I will have to give this book a rating of Not Classy. I’m not giving up on Detective Comics yet, even though this is the second straight trade where I’ve not been particularly happy, but from what I’ve read there’s some very strong storylines ahead and hopefully we’ll see some shake ups in the team that will actually lead to a better book. So I will check out volume five, but this particular volume just not really all that impressive to me.

Alright, that’s all for now. If you have a comment send it to me classycomicsguy@gmail.com. Follow me on Twitter at @ClassyComicsGuy, and check out my website classycomicsguy.com. From Boise, Idaho this is your host, Adam Graham, signing off.