There’s a scene midway through Future State: The Next Batman #2 where Tim Fox, unmasked for the first time, nurses a combat wound while sitting on the floor of a storage unit. Fox, who goes by Jace, is from one of Gotham’s wealthiest families, but has to operate as Batman without any of the high-tech trinkets made famous by Bruce Wayne. No Batplane is coming to save him. To evade the mysterious private security force known as the Magistrate, Jace has to make do with an old-fashioned utility belt, Batarangs, and a motorcycle.
Writer John Ridley has talked about the idea of Jace being an “analog” Batman and that idea permeates this issue, in part due to Laura Braga and Nick Derington’s excellent art, which contrasts Jace’s low-tech vibe with the Magistrate’s robotics soldiers.
In nearly every incarnation of Bruce Wayne’s origin, he undergoes a setback that is strikingly similar to the scene of Jace in the storage unit. Bruce, not the seasoned crimefighter he will eventually become, receives a humiliating beatdown from a group of street toughs. He is humbled and comes back a stronger, more wizened hero.
But Ridley gamely inverts the conclusion to this familiar setup. Jace receives his comeuppance, but it’s not clear that he will come back emboldened, ready to escalate his war on criminals. Instead, he learns something that Bruce is still figuring out: no crime occurs in a vacuum, and just because you’ve found the culprit doesn’t mean you’ve solved the crime.
“When we contextualized The Next Batman, we baked certain things into the equation that were going to allow us to discuss stories in a sandbox that were going to be bordered by race, class, policing, and community—those quadrants,” Ridley said recently in an interview with The Ringer. “Everybody knew going in that they would deal with that.”
Bruce Wayne acts outside of the law, but he is also a friend to the law. (The city police commissioner is arguably his closest non-superhero ally.) His whiteness and privilege are almost as key to the character as two dead parents and a butler. Jace, a young Black man and former juvenile delinquent, necessarily has a different view of the police and of his own mission as a vigilante.
“Sometimes I’m not sure if I’m trying to punish the guilty, or just punish myself,” he thinks in one quiet moment. Last issue, he apprehended two teenagers, choosing to turn them over to children’s services rather than hand them over to the police. Jace’s journey seems to be one that challenges the notion that crime was ever something Bruce Wayne could beat. Even if he could, was he always looking in the right place? Who even are the criminals worth chasing in this world, if not the people bankrolling and arming the Magistrate?
That’s an answer Jace might not struggle to answer. His mother is a lawyer working to justify the Magistrate’s police state. His father, Lucius Fox, is supposedly arming their agents with a laundry list of weapons: killer drones, shotguns firing “dragon’s breath,” and bullets tipped with uranium. So far we’ve seen Jace fight petty criminals—some with no motive, others with quite a convincing motive—while an obvious confrontation awaits him at home with people who share a larger responsibility for what has happened to Gotham.
Ridley only has two issues left to complete Jace’s story, but I expect some plot threads to carry over to The Next Batman: Second Son, which DC announced last week as a digital-first series. The comic, written by Ridley with a series of different artists, will explore “Tim’s estrangement from Lucius Fox and the rest of the Fox family and his evolution from man of mystery to Gotham’s newest guardian,” per a DC press release.
The other thing I haven’t mentioned: Jace Fox’s story is only one-third of this mammoth issue, which contains two, other, full-length stories: “Batgirls” and “Gotham City Sirens.” If you read the first issue of The Next Batman, you might recall seeing backup stories about the Outsiders and Arkham Knights. Those stories will conclude in the third issue of this miniseries while the current backups reappear in the fourth issue. I’m inclined to agree with Will Nevin at ComicsXF that this publishing decision is “strange,” to say the least, but the net result has been four extremely compelling stories that, in their own way, add complexity to the themes already explored in Ridley’s lead story.
The two stories here are well-paired as each dives into an aspect of how Gotham’s antiheroes are challenging the Magistrate’s law enforcement role. In “Batgirls,” by writer Vita Ayala and artist Aneke, Cassandra Cain and Stephanie Brown meet up inside a detention facility where one effect of Gotham’s “no mask” policy becomes clear. If villains and heroes are viewed with equal contempt by the ruling authorities, it only makes sense for them to team up. Cass and Steph are the viewpoint characters here, but Ayala saves some fun moments for other detainees like Victor Zsasz, Big Barda, Beast Boy, and—my personal favorite—Jimmy Olsen. The mystery here is why Cass and Steph are initially at odds and who, or what, is behind the organized “Resistance” to the Magistrate.
Ayala, best known for their work on Marvel’s X-line, nails these characters’ voices and builds tension ahead of their inevitable team-up. Along the way, Ayala tosses in references to The Odyssey and Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Dispossessed, which made me: 1) proud of being an English major, and 2) wish this comic could have been twice as long.
Aneke and colorist Trish Mulvihill have a tough task with a story that is heavy on dialogue and features some staid scenes in the prison, where nearly everyone wears the same, orange jumpsuit. The details were what made the art shine for me. Aneke captures every one of Cass’ many (many!) pissed-off faces and makes the many background characters fully distinct from one another. The best showcase for Aneke and Mulvihill is in a full-page reveal of another detainee, whose identity I won’t spoil, that sets up a heck of a quandary for the second part of this tale.
If “Batgirls” is the story exploring the criminal justice angle to the Magistrate’s rule, “Gotham City Sirens” is the one with more to say about the socio-cultural impact of Gotham’s tech-bro overlords. Catwoman and Poison Ivy are the leads here, but the central character is Dee-Dee, a cyborg created by Dilton Luxury Tech, one of the contractors underwriting the Magistrate’s surveillance state. She and other cyborgs are used as slaves by Dax Dilton, a noxious inventor-type, who we learn “just got engaged in Tuscany” to a “human rights lawyer.” Writer Paula Sevenbergen draws from some classic cyberpunk tropes in crafting Dee-Dee’s story, which reminded me mostly of the film Ex Machina with shades of the underrated comics series Alex + Ada.
Dee-Dee’s eventual team-up with Ivy and Catwoman leads to a classic girls’ night out, where the emancipated cyborg gets a taste of the real world. The character work is splendid and, though the absence of Harley Quinn in a “Gotham City Sirens” story might be somewhat jarring, it was nice to see Ivy navigating the playful setting of a superhero speakeasy without Harley taking up all the space. The speakeasy was brilliantly rendered by colorist John Kalisz who, working off of artists Rob Haynes, Emanuela Luppachino, and Wade Von Grawbadger, infused the bar with a bright, neon vibe. That the story ends with a whopper of a cliffhanger only has me more excited for its conclusion in the fourth issue of this miniseries.
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