Detective Comics #21 Review: “Shadows and Ghosts”

by Tyler McGoff

Det Comics 21 Cover


Detective Comics #21 begins a new story arc in Batman’s classic title, written by John Layman with art by Scot Eaton. This issue picks up right where last year’s #0 issue left off. If you aren’t familiar with those events, let me catch you up before we jump into this week’s issue #21.

Previously, in Detective Comics #0:

Before Bruce Wayne became Batman, he spent years traveling around the world training. The story starts with Bruce arriving in the Himalayan Mountains to train under Zen warrior Shihan Matsuda. Bruce spends several months learning the ways of Zen meditation, controlling his mind and body under extreme conditions. During his time in the mountains, Bruce meets a local girl named Mio, who flirts with him whenever he stops by her sword shop. Shihan Matsuda warns Bruce to stay away from her because a true Zen warrior must never fall in love. In the words of Shihan, “Intimacy is a weakness. It is to be mortal, and to be mortal is to die. Love will erode your discipline… Let no one in. Distrust everything and everyone. Only then will you become a true warrior.” Despite the warnings from Shihan, Bruce continues to see Mio and they spend a lovely afternoon together looking at cloud shapes in the park. Shihan’s wife Matsuda-Sama encourages Bruce to keep seeing Mio and advises him not to shut out his emotions entirely. Only by understanding and knowing his emotions will he be able to prevent succumbing to them. She tells Bruce how Shihan has hardened out his heart to become one of the world’s greatest Zen warriors, but at the cost of their love and marriage.

After locking up one night, Bruce sneaks out to visit Mio. She does not want to be caught with Bruce by her father, so she tells Bruce to return home and leave a window open that she can use to get in. Bruce complies and falls asleep waiting for her. Bruce is woken up by the sound of Shihan shouting for help. He arrives in time to see an assassin stab Shihan through the chest. He quickly knocks the attacker into a window, only to learn it was Mio the whole time. Mio apparently dies from her wounds. Matsuda-Sama, no longer able to live such a loveless life with Shihan, had hired Mio to kill Shihan. Shihan throws a knife in Matsuda-Sama’s back, killing her. Before Shihan dies, he warns Bruce with a final lesson that this is what closeness will bring him.

Now in Detective Comics #21:

“She died that night,”  are the opening words over a flashback of Bruce kicking Mio into the window. The glass shards that went through her back killed her. Bruce Wayne was there, holding his love in his arms as she died that night 10 years previously. The reader soon learns, however, that Mio faked her death by using meditation skills taught to her by an unseen, shadowy master. Her sensei scolds her for the “inelegant murder” of Shihan Matsuda, claiming she was weak for allowing her mind to wander to the boy. The master says she must abandon her life and give herself completely to his training and become one with the shadows.

The story jumps to the present day Gotham City, where the reader sees Batman plant a spike-strip in the street for an on-coming van of mercenaries. After taking them down, Alfred reminds Batman that Bruce Wayne is hosting the Prime Minister of Bhutan and other foreign dignitaries at Wayne Towers for a political summit, to which Bruce Wayne is running late. Batman suspects the mercenaries were not only sent to assassinate the Prime Minister, but also to distract Batman from other, more subtle threats to the diplomats.

Det Comics 21 Harper

The story shifts to the perspective of Harper Row and her brother Cullen, as they are outside Wayne Towers for Harper’s job as an electrical engineer for the city of Gotham. Harper has used her electrical engineering skills in the past to help Batman, but Batman does not want her to risk her life and orders Harper to stop helping him. Bats even confiscated some of her equipment, like grappling gear and utility belt. Despite Batman’s warnings, Harper spots a suspicious looking woman in the crowd and decides to follow her into Wayne Towers. She manages to trail the woman up to the 14th floor meeting room, where she sees the woman display some type of mystical ability to materialize multiple arms and weapons out of the shadows. Harper is then caught by the assassin, who calls herself Penumbra.

Det Comics 21 Mysterious Woman

Det Comics 21 Ulp

Always watching the cameras, Alfred notices Harper’s predicament through the Wayne Towers security cameras, and alerts Batman to stop the assassin. Batman crashes his Bat-jet into the 14th floor meeting room just in time to stop Penumbra from killing Harper. A fight between Batman and Penumbra ensues, with Batman faintly recognizing her voice from some time long ago. Determined to show Batman that she can help, Harper runs downstairs to tell Commissioner Gordon what’s going on when she gets the bright idea to stop this shadowy assassin by shining one of the giant city spotlights on the 14th floor meeting room. The bright lights cause the assassin’s shadow-limbs and weapons to vanish, and Batman gets a good look at her face.

Of course, it’s Mio. Batman is stunned that she is alive, and Penumbra seems to have a hard time remembering her old name and old life. Batman tries to talk her down, telling her that she doesn’t have to be a hired killer. Mio falls out the window to her apparent death before Batman can get to her, although the police on the ground never find the body. Before Batman leaves, he returns Harper’s utility belt and other equipment to her, admitting she did a good job tonight. Back at Wayne Manor, Bruce and Alfred discuss Harper’s persistence and even compare her to Damian by saying she’s “smart, capable, independent, and a little reckless.”

Before the story concludes, we see the master sensei from the beginning of the story order Mio/Penumbra be sent to one of his jail cells for failing to assassinate her target. She begs for forgiveness saying that the master needs her. Leaning forward into the light just enough to reveal his trademark goatee, Ra’s al-Ghul replies, “Need you?! My dear girl, assassins are one thing I will never be lacking.”

The Good:

Layman did a nice job of connecting the events we saw in issue #0 last year to the new arc. We can now assume that Ra’s al-Ghul and the League of Assassins will be the primary villains for a while. Ra’s al-Ghul has been largely absent from the New 52, so it is exciting to see what Layman does with the Demon’s Head. The reader saw a glimpse of Bruce’s personal life and the emotional impact Mio had on him.

It was touching to see Batman wishing he could have done more to save her, and wanting closure for their relationship. This was Harper Row’s first appearance in Detective Comics, though she has popped up in other recent Bat-titles. She’s got a genuine personality that comes through in her relationship with Batman and her brother Cullen. Her appearance gives more credit to the rumors that she could become the newest Robin. Assuming DC goes all-in and treats her character well, Harper could be an excellent choice. She has proven herself to be quite capable and intelligent, even though she frequently gets herself into trouble. If she doesn’t become Robin,  she would make for a great Oracle, as she clearly has the technical know-how.

Scot Eaton is the guest artist this month as Jason Fabok takes an issue off, and he’s a great replacement. I raved about Fabok’s art in the last review of issue #20, and Eaton comes close. His art doesn’t have quite the same dark, ominous mood that hangs on each page like Fabok’s, but his pencils are just as detailed, sharp, and realistic.

The Bad:

Batman flew his Bat-jet into Wayne Towers. Let me repeat that. Batman flew his Bat-jet into Wayne Towers. Does that seem like something Batman would do? I don’t think so. In the story, Batman is flying around Gotham on his way to Wayne Towers when Alfred alerts him to the assassin about to kill Harper. I don’t know about you, but I assumed that Batman himself would come crashing through those windows (like he’s done so many times before) to tackle Penumbra and save Harper. Or maybe he would use one of his dozens of gadgets that the Bat-jet has in its arsenal. All he had to do was distract Penumbra long enough to prevent Harper’s death. So what does he come up with? I’ll crash my jet into the side of Gotham’s largest skyscraper. That’ll do it!

Why on Earth would that seem like a good idea? It’s not like our nation has a fear of planes flying into buildings or anything. Also, the jet crashed through the windows and tore up the floor, but all the damage seems to have been superficial. The floor is still stable enough for Batman and Penumbra to have their encounter. Nobody down below seems to be freaked out that a plane just crashed into Wayne Towers, where there’s a political summit going on. And how is Batman supposed to get his plane back afterwards? Does he just leave it in the board room to pick up later? We see Bats grapple out of there when he’s done talking with Harper, but there’s still a giant hole in Wayne Towers with the Bat-jet inside. All Batman has to say about this is, “I’d planned on remodeling this floor anyway.” Well alright then. Last issue, I complained when Batman used the Tumbler to drive through the Cobblepot estate’s front gate. Just barges through for no reason. And now with this Bat-jet incident, I’m starting to get the feeling like Layman isn’t quite sure what to do with all of Batman’s many vehicles.

The Verdict:Rating3(3/5)

This was a good beginning to a new story arc. Layman connected it with issue #0 nicely, and added new layers to the story. We saw some newer characters like Harper Row and Penumbra make their first appearance in Detective Comics, while older characters like Ra’s al Ghul and the League of Assassins lurk in the shadows. The more I see of Harper Row the more I like her. Scot Eaton’s art was realistic and detailed as he showed he’s got what it takes to hold down a classic title like Detective Comics. This story arc has only just begun and, with the exception of a jet-sized hole in Wayne Towers, it has started on a high note.

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