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Ed Brubaker’s Run on Detective Comics – Dead Reckoning (Review/Retrospective)

23rd July is Batman Day, celebrating the character’s 75th anniversary. To celebrate, this July we’re taking a look at some new and classic Batman (and Batman related) stories. Check back daily for the latest review.

It remains quite surprising that DC have never capitalised on the work that Ed Brubaker and Greg Rucka did on their Batman line during the early years of the twenty-first century. Given the popularity of Batman as a character, and considering the success that has been enjoyed by Brubaker and Rucka in the years since, it seems strange that DC has never made a consistent or concerted effort to package and release high-profile collections of their work on the character.

It is a shame, because the work is very good – both as solo writers on various titles and in collaboration with one another. Ed Brubaker enjoyed a solo run on Batman with artist Scott McDaniel shortly after No Man’s Land and through the end of Bruce Wayne: Fugitive. A few years later, while collaborating with Greg Rucka on the underrated and sorely missed Gotham Central, Brubaker also had a short run on Detective Comics.

Putting on his game face...

Putting on his game face…

He wrote a team-up between Bruce Wayne and Alan Scott in Made of Wood. However, Brubaker also wrote the epic six-part story, Dead Reckoning. On the surface, Dead Reckoning appears quite familiar. It follows a fairly standard set-up. It’s an adventure that features the width and breadth of Batman’s iconic rogues’ gallery, and unearths a terrible secret about the history of Gotham that – in Brubaker’s style – is a clever updating of a classic piece of continuity.

However, underneath the surface, Dead Reckoning is something much more harrowing and unsettling. It’s the story of lives destroyed by calamities and forces outside the normal human experience – it’s about wounds inflicted on ordinary people by monsters playing a very strange game. It feels like a post-9/11 superhero story, treating Batman’s world as something hostile and horrifying.

Snow escape...

Snow escape…

To be fair, this was a recurring theme in the Batman line during the early years of the twenty-first century. One of the recurring themes of Gotham Central was the idea that innocent lives were inevitability warped and destroyed by proximity to these sorts of catastrophic forces. Dan Slott and Ryan Sook touched upon the idea in their own Arkham Asylum: Living Hell, a story about a normal criminal who winds up put through the meat grinder, caught up in weirdness and horror beyond his ability to comprehend.

Dead Reckoning is a story about normal lives destroyed by intersection with the world of Batman. The opening few pages feature a small-time hood who believes that he might finally be able to strike it rich by donning Killer Moth’s costume and staking a claim for himself. Searching through storage crates, his girlfriend worries. However, he reassures her, “Baby, I’m tellin’ you… this is gonna be our ticket to the big time.”

As the world burns...

As the world burns…

The next page reveals Lenny’s folly. The hood’s body is mangled on the pavement, shot by a handgun and dumped from the roof of a nearby building. It’s a decidedly surreal image. “Weird, isn’t it?” Detective Crispus Allen asks his partner, Renee Montaya. “Seeing a freak laid out like that. With a bullet.” In the first few pages, Brubaker makes his point; this is not a world that welcomes normal people, and any points of intersection inevitably end in tragedy.

Dead Reckoning raises the idea repeatedly. In order to draw Batman’s attention, the killer strikes out at James Gordon. In the wake of the Officer Down crossover, Gordon is no longer Police Commissioner. He is just a lecturer in criminology at Gotham City University. At one point, Batman pays his old friend a visit. Gordon is living a decidedly normal life in a suburban house. Batman catches him watching late night television. “You’ve got your garden back to life, I see,” Batman reflects.

Riddle me this...

Riddle me this…

It is the attempt on the life of James Gordon that earns the sympathy of Harvey Dent. “Gordon has suffered enough, don’t you think?” Batman asks Dent. Gordon has lost a marriage to Gotham, seen his daughter crippled and his lover murdered. In the years ahead, Gotham will even conspire to take away his son from him. Gordon is – more than any other member of the ensemble – an ordinary guy caught up in extraordinary circumstances. He knows about the concept of collateral damage.

Dent is so sympathetic to Gordon that he “bends” the rules of his coin toss as much as possible to help Batman. “I mean, this doesn’t have anything to do with Gordon,” Dent tries to rationalise. “Aw, hell… talk to Cobblepot. He knows the score… That’s all I’m saying, though… and it’s for Jim Gordon, not you.” Then again, one imagines that Harvey Dent feels some measure of sympathy for “normal” people who get chewed up by Gotham and spit back out.

Nobody messes with Jim Gordon...

Nobody messes with Jim Gordon…

It turns out that the entire plot of Dead Reckoning is driven by an attempt to kill Batman eight years earlier. It’s an attempt that Batman that didn’t even get past the planning stages. The Joker sabotaged its because he saw the opportunity to ruin an innocent person’s life. “Why?” Batman demands. “What about your plan?” The Joker is philosophical about his grand ambitious plan to murder Batman. “No, no… that damn thing was never going to work anyway… those team efforts never do.” This is business as usual.

Then again, as Batman confesses to Jim Gordon, it really doesn’t matter that the attempt never happened. It’s such a common occurrence that it would be difficult for Batman to identify a particularly incident. “I don’t even remember any attempts on me from eight years ago,” he reflects. “Not that it makes a difference. They’ve tried so many times over the years…” The only thing different about this attempt is that a “normal” person got caught in the crossfire.

Face-off...

Face-off…

Batman and his enemies exist in a world beyond the realm of “normal” people. When Batman finds Harvey Dent locked up in solitary in Arkham, he is curious what the former lawyer has done. “I drove the new shrink to a nervous breakdown,” he explains. “What can I saw? They breed them soft these days… Guy had no business being in Arkham in the first place if he couldn’t handle it.” Even that fleeting contact can be dangerous.

There is a sense that this is a post-9/11 story dealing with the fact that massive events tend to cause collateral damage, catching normal people in the cross-hairs. The story explicitly acknowledges that this concern is rooted in post-millennial anxieties. Visiting the Joker who has been detained in an international prison, Batman demands, “You brought a civilian into our world, and you’re laughing about it?”

This bird ain't gonna fly...

This bird ain’t gonna fly…

“Bah, civilians,” the Joker retorts. “Welcome to the 21st century, Batman. There are no civilians anymore… and really, there never were.” There’s a sense that everybody is now a legitimate target. Discussing his discomfort with Jim Gordon, Batman describes his own world as “the terror”, lamenting that “this time, someone else… and innocent… got caught up in the terror.” This is something that disturbs Batman, because this is a large part of what he works so hard to prevent.

The 9/11 anxieties play out across the story. The Joker’s international prison evokes Guantanamo Bay, while the script acknowledges that Batman and his rogues operate outside the scope of mere criminal procedure. Discovering the Dent was assisted in escape by his lawyer, Batman observes, “He shouldn’t have been allowed any visitors at all.” Montaya replies, “Yeah, unfortunately, there’s this little thing called the Bill of Rights that those of us in the real world have to deal with occasionally.”

Face Two-Face...

Face Two-Face…

It’s nice nod to the way that those rights were gradually eroded for those involved in terrorist offences – suggesting that the people responsible for committing those atrocities were more than simple criminals. Batman’s suggestion that the criminal justice system cannot hold a villain like Two-Face feels like a sly piece of commentary on post-Patriot-Act policies and politics. It’s a little touch that clearly defines Dead Reckoning as a twenty-first century Batman story.

Brubaker suggests that Batman’s guilt over Harvey Dent stems from that anxiety – that concern about collateral damage caused by the intersection of his own world with more grounded and mundane realities. The Joker’s plan to kill Batman even exploited this – Harvey Dent was a key part of the plot. “See, you’re always a little more gung-ho when it comes to Harvey Dent. I guess because you two used to be on the same side…” It is also because Bruce feels responsible for bringing him into this world.

"Have you tried acting, dear boy?"

“Have you tried acting, dear boy?”

The villain of the piece is an actor named Paul Sloan who tried to study Gotham’s madness up close. However, he flew too close to the fire, and wound up burnt – he endured a conga line of torture and betrayal at the hands of the Joker, Two-Face and the Scarecrow. They each acted separately to manufacture their own monster, to bring another human being into their world. It’s no wonder that Paul Sloan – calling himself “the Charlatan” – wound up paired with Two-Face, in a nice piece of symmetry. (Two Two-Faces!)

As the pair square off amid one of those abandoned industrial buildings that seem littered across Gotham, Paul Sloan reflects, “The two of us, we look like we could’ve been born in the cold metal decay… like industrial accidents.” Two-Face finishes the thought for him. “Except as I recall, we had it done to us on purpose.” There is a wry irony in the fact that Sloan should be disfigured while playing the role of Two-Face, just as there’s something grim about Two-Face creating another monster. Cycles of violence, and all that.

Crash and burn...

Crash and burn…

Of course, even outside of these fascinating themes, Brubaker’s script is packed with all sorts of nice touches. The villains featured all seem perfectly in-character, from the Joker’s willingness to screw his own plan for a cheap laugh through to Harvey’s rigid adherence to his coin. “I wish you luck, but I can’t untoss the coin,” he tells his colleagues, after he declines to get involved with their scheme. “Why not try for best two out of three?” the Joker inquires. Two-Face is not willing to compromise. “I don’t think so.”

Dead Reckoning also features a number of familiar Brubaker tropes and plotting elements. It is a story that trades on a rich knowledge of comic book continuity. His extended run on Captain America harvested story material from various nooks and crannies – the Red Skull’s daughter, the fifties Captain America, and so on. In fact, while working on Detective Comics, Brubaker’s entire Made of Wood story would get a thrill out of teaming up Batman with another Golden Age Gotham comic book hero, the original Green Lantern.

Suits you, sir!

Suits you, sir!

Here, the entire plot is based around the character Paul Sloan, who is an obvious homage to the character of Paul Sloane. Sloane first appeared in 1951 as an actor hired to play the original Two-Face, Harvey Kent. Sloane was – of course – disfigured in the accident and went around calling himself “Two-Face”, as you do. Sloane is a bit of an enduring comic book loose end, with writer Mike W. Barr even offering his own take on the character during his run on Detective Comics in the late eighties.

Here, Brubaker simply twists the origin slightly. No longer hired to play the role of Two-Face in a television drama before being disfigured, Sloan is hired by the criminals to play the role of Harvey Dent in a fiendish plot to kill Batman. It’s a nice twist and update on the story. Brubaker even manages to work in a cameo from Mark Merlin, a DC comics character – a magician hero – who first appeared back in 1959.

Flipping out...

Flipping out…

The art of Dead Reckoning is provided by Tommy Castillo. Castillo captures the mood and style of this era of Detective Comics rather well. It’s cartoonish and atmospheric – playing out like a grittier version of the iconic look and feel of Batman: The Animated Series. Batman is presented as an almost haunting presence, often silhouetted with nothing but white eyes showing – an excellent way of establishing the sense that Batman is a creature from a slightly different world.

Dead Reckoning is a fantastic piece of work, and well worth a look for anybody interested in a post-9/11 Batman comic exploring the intersection between the mundane and the monstrous. It is a suitable thematic companion to comics like Gotham Central or Arkham Asylum: Living Hell.

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