It's all-out war as only Batman stands between Red Mask and a Gotham City full of bodies! How much is the Dark Knight willing to sacrifice to save this city?
Sometimes it feels like the multiverse has been hammered to death in comics and comics-adjacent media. It doesn’t help that endless events (Convergence, Secret Wars, Metal & Death Metal) at the big two have spun their wheels regarding the notion of parallel worlds. The concept of a multiverse alone is one of spectacle, offering exciting visuals without an emotional core, ensuring the stories feel bland or routed. That hanging of a story on an emotional core has made the current arc of Batman feel fresh, with the creative team emphasizing the emotional fallout of multiversal implications over the pure spectacle of other realities.
Batman #134 – from writer Chip Zdarsky, penciller Mike Hawkthorne, inker Adriano Di Benedetto, colorist Tomeu Morey and letterer Clayton Cowles – picks up on Batman and alternate Catwoman’s uneasy truce, with the doppelgänger taking Bruce to the Arkham Caves. In this universe, the system of caves below Gotham has been twisted into the labs for Red Mask, hosting not only Batman’s rogue’s gallery but other villains and metahumans from across the DC Universe.
The issue moves along steadily, revealing that Red Mask tapped into the multiverse through chemical compounds and, for a moment, linked with the main universe Joker’s mind. It causes a shift in the billionaire’s view of the world and creates an obsession with becoming the Joker, who Red Mask sees as his true self. The plan shifts thanks to Batman’s appearance in this reality, and Red Mask plans to use his multiversal energy signature to infect large groups of Gotham with Craine’s gas.
As Red Mask escapes, Batman is forced to fight this universe’s version of Ghost-Maker, who’s juicing on Venom. Batman succeeds in taking down Ghost-Breaker and slowing down the gas, but the win is a double-edged sword as Red Mask launches another attack on the city. Ghost-Breaker puts Batman through the wringer while Catwoman and Jewel attempt to save as many people on the streets from the incoming gas. Elsewhere, Alfred and Leslie Thompkins, married in this reality, also try to help the average citizens as they flee from Red Mask and his machinations.
Elements from Batman: The Knight surface in this issue, exploring the relationship Zdarsky built for Bruce and Ghost-Maker in the prequel series. It can be challenging for Batman writers to interject an equal for the Dark Knight, and Zdarsky makes it clear that Ghost-Breaker is usually similar but is overwhelming on Venom. The scripting for the problem is more of the same, as Zdarsky weaves elements from the wider DC Universe and his other Bat-titles. It’s nothing groundbreaking but a solid execution of craft that propels the character forward and builds the tension of a well-placed action sequence.
Zdarsky also plays with the most exciting elements of Batman’s supporting cast, many missing from the main universe. Alfred, a missing element of the Bat-line since the era of Tom King in the main title, has proven to be an emotional anchor for this arc. Here, Zdarsky explores what a married Alfred is like and how it clashes with Leslie’s drive to protect Gotham. It’s a small moment like Alfred and Bruce’s confrontation in the previous issue, but it channels the emotion and takes advantage of the alternative universe premise on a character level.
The pencils for this issue match those emotional moments, utilizing plenty of reaction panels and close-ups to render the expressions of these characters. Hawthorne uses a comprehensive conference focusing on Alfred’s pained expression, which speaks volumes, as the dialogue is strained between him and Leslie. It’s a little moment in the larger scheme of the issue but showcases where the writing and art are focused for this arc. Di Benedetto’s inking gives a simultaneous sense of hard lines but softness to Alfred’s expression, highlighting the conflicting emotions at Leslie’s circumstances.
Hawthorne and Di Benedetto handle the more significant moments with the same skill level, delivering an extended fight sequence between Batman and Ghost-Breaker that doesn’t drag. It’s reminiscent of what makes good action films – like John Wick, which can help but be on the mind right now – utilizing a rhythm and pace that breaks up the long fight. The battle moves from layer to layer of the sewers, showcasing heavy outlines for the figure in the foreground. Di Benedetto’s inks sell the weight of the action as it applies a suffocating pressure onto Bruce. Hawthorne uses an exciting mix of panels for these heavy inks, showcasing tall panels to add an extra dimension to the action, which sells the falls Batman takes throughout the fight.
The issue also gets the opportunity to play with its colors in both the exposition and action sequences, channeling deep reds in Red Mask’s backstory to provide insight into the villain’s twisted mental landscape. The red hues saturate the flashback page, working in tandem with the red vapors of the chemical compound to set the sequence apart from the other pages. Morey’s choice of red is never more striking than on the page, with Joker smiling behind the shattered glass. The image alone is striking, but with a red overlay to shade Joker with a crimson haze that highlights the altered state of Mask’s personality.
The multiverse also plays into the backup story, another installment in Tim Drake/Robin’s search for Bruce across the collection of parallel worlds. On the way to find Bruce, Tim stops and converses with his mom, who died before his introduction to Batman comics. Just like the main story, this gives Zdarsky a chance to dig into the reconciliation that a parallel universe story can bring. Written by Zdarsky with art by Mark Mendonça, colors by Roman Stevens, and letters by Clayton Cowles, the story diverts from Red Mask’s mind break and pivots to the benefit that the multiverse can bring.
Tim shows how far he’s come and affirms that he’s found a family for his mom, offering them both peace of mind that not many people get. Mendonça’s art concisely depicts the duo’s embrace, letting the costume and spectacle of the multiverse take a back seat. The explosion of parallel worlds rounds out the backup’s last page of the backup, but the bulk of this story is quiet and introspective. A softness in Mendonça’s pencils echoes Hawthorne’s work in the main story, providing a cohesion that links these two stories on more than just a plot level.
Batman #134 is a consistent installment of the “Bat-Man of Gotham” story arc, showcasing more of the same strong elements of this run. Zdarsky blends emotional storytelling with clear, concise action while weaving in elements introduced in his other Bat-books. Hawthorne’s pencils develop a steady rhythm thanks to interesting panel layouts and tight focus on subjects and expressions. Di Benedetto’s inks work in tandem to establish the striking figures of Batman and Ghost-Breaker in the fight sequences while adding a layer of complexity to the facial expression of Alfred, Bruce, and Leslie Thompkins across the story.
These elements are brought together with Morey’s colors, which highlight the twisted mind of Red Mask after his accident. Batman #134 is a strong part of a larger story, and while executed with obvious craft and skill, doesn’t offer the level of spectacle of the “Failsafe” arc. Instead, it builds on the emotional core of the Batman supporting cast, utilizing the framework of the parallel universe to strong effect. As Batman #900 looms, promising bombastic multiversal action to wrap up this storyline and set the course for the future of Batman under Zdarsky, this issue is a good place to remember the person on either side of the multiverse.
Batman #134: In Another Life
- Writing - 8/108/10
- Storyline - 8/108/10
- Art - 8/108/10
- Color - 8/108/10
- Cover Art - 8/108/10
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