A criminal is loose in some dingy alleyway of Gotham City, and Batman is on the case. You already know how this encounter will end, so when Future State: The Next Batman #1 begins this way, the setup is familiar, even comforting. But the comic itself, written by John Ridley with virtuoso art from Nick Derington and colorist Tamra Bonvillain, is anything but your standard Batman book.
For one thing, the Batman at the center of the story isn’t Bruce Wayne. In this dystopian version of Gotham City, where a fascist police force known as the Magistrate has outlawed “masks,” the Caped Crusader is Tim Fox, the son of Wayne Enterprises executive Lucius Fox. Readers know Lucius well at this point—and have likely seen Morgan Freeman play him in the Christopher Nolan-directed movies—but Tim Fox is still something of an unknown quantity.
One of the many ostensible goals of Future State, DC’s major publishing event for the next two months, is to push Fox and other new and legacy characters to a place of prominence among the publisher’s more established heroes. But DC is also using the event to experiment with how it collects stories. Instead of serving as a standalone story, The Next Batman collects two other longform tales set in Gotham: one focused on Katana, the other on a group of villains led by Astrid Arkham, a character introduced in Detective Comics #1000. Next issue, these stories will be swapped out for features on “Batgirls” and “Gotham City Sirens” stories before returning in The Next Batman #3.
Plenty of prestige superhero books have back-up stories, but that’s not exactly what DC is doing here. Even though Ridley and Derington get top billing, the other stories are more than 20 pages each—which is where that $7.99 price comes from—and feel as fully realized as Tim Fox’s corner of Gotham.
In bringing that part of the city to life, Ridley has an especially inspired collaborator in Derington. Since his breakout turn on Batman Universe, Derington has become a fan-favorite Batman artist and his work here perfectly complements the throwback vibe of Fox as Batman. To avoid the Magistrate’s surveillance tech, Batman has “to be analog,” as Ridley described it in a recent interview. “You’re outmanned, you’re outgunned, and the only thing you can really do is go back to the original Batman—the shadows are your friend. Night is your ally. The city is your battleground.”
Derington’s backgrounds are a thing of beauty, showing a Gotham that evokes the noir of Batman: The Animated Series and the high-tech future of Batman Beyond. Colorist Tamra Bonvillain is key to that effort, adding a splash of purple or pink in some panels as a contrast to Batman’s shadowy costume.
Who Tim Fox is and why he decided to take up Batman’s mantle are the central mysteries of Ridley’s story, even as he introduces additional elements like the Magistrate and a teenage gang modeled after Bane. For a character in such a prominent position, there is still much we don’t know about Fox. He is a former delinquent and estranged from his family, which assumed control of the Wayne family fortune after the events of Joker War. His brother Luke wants nothing to do with him, his sister is recovering in a hospital from a “relapse” of some sort, and his mother is a lawyer working on the side of the Peacekeepers, the Magistrate’s brutish enforcers. How Tim inhabits a character like Batman is crucial to the story Ridley plans to tell and just the latest example of his effort to spotlight DC heroes of color.
Best known as the Academy Award-winning screenwriter of 12 Years a Slave, Ridley is no stranger to the comics business. His underrated miniseries The American Way explored the way a Black superhero was treated after joining a crimefighting team during the Civil Rights Movement. Most recently, he launched a Black Label series, The Other History of the DC Universe, which focuses on characters of color like Black Lightning and Renee Montoya.
When reports began circulating as early as September 2019 that DC was planning to introduce a Black character as Batman, the immediate speculation centered on Duke Thomas or Luke Fox. Both characters previously assisted Batman in the field and have appeared far more frequently than Tim, who was first introduced in 1979 and mostly sidelined in the decades since.
Fans eager to get a sense of what motivates Tim might be frustrated by Ridley’s surprising choice to not properly identify him as Batman in this issue. When shown behind a full mask as Batman, he doesn’t mention or reflect on his civilian identity and, outside of a brief conversation with his brother, Tim barely is shown outside of the costume. If DC hadn’t announced the news in a press release last month, it wouldn’t be clear who was actually donning the cape and cowl.
The mystery of this Batman’s identity is part of the story Ridley is telling and, in its own way, harkens back to the character’s first-ever appearance in Detective Comics #27, where Bruce Wayne is initially introduced as Jim Gordon’s socialite friend before his identity as Batman is revealed on the final page.
Ridley’s designs for Tim and the increasingly important Fox family make this issue a compelling read, even if it will take some time for the extent of his plans to become clear.
The other stories collected in this issue helped build out the status quo of Gotham under the Magistrate’s thrall. In “Outsiders,” by writer Brandon Thomas and artist Sumit Kumar, Katana explores the outskirts of Gotham while evading the Magistrate’s omnipresent agents. Her pursuit of Kaliber, an arms dealer familiar to Batman and the Outsiders fans, is rendered by Kumar and colorist Jordie Bellaire in a double-page spread that masterfully uses color and sharp linework to guide the reader’s eye.
I was particularly impressed with the odd third story, “Arkham Knights,” by writer Paul Jenkins and artist Jack Herbert, which finds Astrid Arkham leading a group of villains in open rebellion against the Magistrate and its Peacekeepers. Arkham, a cult leader who seems particularly adept at rallying Gotham’s weirdest characters to her side, is delightfully strange. Jenkins wisely tells the story through her narrative captions, which document her near-religious fixation on the Sun and habit of referring to characters like Killer Croc and Humpty Dumpty as “Mr. Croc” and “Mr. Dumpty.” More Astrid, please!
An event like Future State is bound to invite some apprehension. We’ve seen dozens of alternate universe stories before and legacy characters will only matter to the extent that DC prioritizes them when the event is over. It’s too early to know where characters like Tim Fox will shake out, but it’s certainly intriguing that elements of the Magistrate and Peacekeepers are making their way into James Tynion IV’s Batman run after Future State. Now all we need is an Astrid Arkham ongoing series.
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