Overview: A collection of short stories featuring the Dark Knight.
Editor’s Note: Due to the anthology nature of this collection, we will feature a synopsis and analysis for each short story, rather than breaking up the synopsis and analysis. Spoilers are sure to be revealed.
Story #1: “True Strength” by writer Tom King and artist Mikel Janin
Synopsis: The story opens with Batman back at the cave, nursing a broken hand after a night of fighting crime. Superman has come to visit Bruce at the cave and has brought with him a gift, a piece of “Platinum Kryptonite”. All Batman has to do is touch it once and the Kryptonite will grant him Superman level powers. Superman leaves Bruce alone in the cave, and as he looks at the Kryptonite, he flashes back to a moment from Batman #48 where the Joker executed a hostage with Batman powerless to stop him, only with Batman fantasizing about having heat vision to melt the bullet before it can hurt anyone. Batman doesn’t reach for Superman’s gift and as Alfred walks into the cave with a cup of coffee. Bruce tries to hold the cup with his broken hand only to drop the cup and break it. The story ends with Bruce asking Alfred if he is enough.
Analysis: DC solicited this story, by the regular Batman creative team of King and Janin as providing a framing sequence for the rest of the book, and I can see how for a different collection of stories, how this story could be used to set up an anthology that attempts to answer the question that Bruce asks Alfred, and explore whether Bruce is indeed “enough”. As it stands there’s no real through-line linking the stories that follow, so if this story was indeed intended as a “framing sequence”, it doesn’t succeed in its mission.
That being said, the story is a tight little character piece and it is exactly the sort of story that I think Tom King excels at telling. King’s Batman is written as a profoundly broken person and his run on Batman has been an exploration of the terrible toll that his mission has taken on him emotionally. This short story focuses more on the physical cost of being Batman. I like how the story uses a moment from a recent issue where Batman was powerless to save someone and gives him a moment to think about how superpowers would have made a difference and balancing that with Bruce refusing to pick up the Kryptonite at a moment where he can’t hold a hot beverage in his broken hand. Mikel Janin does his usual stellar work. I think that Janin is one of the best artists working in comics today and it’s nice to get his work here, even if is only three pages.
Story #2: “The Nature of Fear” by writer Ram V and artist Jorge Fornes
Synopsis: The story opens with a police officer, Henry Fields, in a session with a psychologist following an incident involving the Scarecrow. Henry recounts responding to a break-in, only to be shot and caught in an explosion, after which he is exposed to the Scarecrow’s fear toxin. Batman appears to pull the officer out of the wreckage, with Henry hallucinating and viewing the Batman as a monster. Batman tells the officer to embrace his fear and stop looking for a light at the end of the tunnel and then drags Henry out of the building. Henry leaves his session speaking about how he is afraid that Batman is right and as he passes a cell door, he sees himself inside, strapped into a straight jacket. The story ends with Bruce Wayne getting a tour of the psychiatric facility, and explaining that Henry has not recovered from the fear gas.
Analysis: This is a story that tries to suggest that Batman’s secret to fighting through the Scarecrow’s gas is abandoning all hope that things will get better, and in trying to get the officer to fight off the gas in the same way, condemns him to madness. I think that the writer is trying to suggest that perhaps Batman is strong enough to endure things that would break a normal person, and setting the story around a normal person is certainly an effective way to tell that story. That being said, I didn’t enjoy the pessimistic tone that the story takes and I thought that the narration was far too flowery and lacked a more conversational quality that I think would have been more effective given this is supposed to be one person telling another person a story. Jorge Fornes’ art seems to be heavily influenced by David Mazzucchelli’s work on Batman: Year One and it is effective given the story that the writer has chosen to tell.
Story #3: “One” by writer Cheryl Lynn Eaton and artist Elena Casagrande
Synopsis: Batman meets with Gordon in a low-income neighborhood of Gotham known as “the Hill”, where five men with gang tattoos have been found gunned down without any clues as to who is responsible. Batman tracks down a witness, a young woman named Yeselle Derrick, who refuses to talk to Batman, stating that she can’t trust the police and that Batman never comes down to “the Hill”. Yeselle tells Batman that the gang that rules this area started using drones to distribute the drugs they sell and that the victims were killed by the defense mechanisms when they tried to steal the drugs from the drone. Batman is shocked when Yeselle tells him that “Wayne” was written on the side of the drone. Batman meets with Lucius Fox, who tells him that Wayne Enterprises’ drones were sold off to the US government which were then sold off through an anonymous buyer and is now using the drones to peddle a cheap Luther Pharmaceutical opiate to the streets of Gotham. Lucius activates a drone’s video feed, showing that a drone is currently chasing after Yeselle and the story ends with Batman shutting down all his companies’ drones, leaving Yeselle unharmed.
Analysis: I like the idea of exploring a story that while Batman is off chasing down supervillains and mobsters, there are areas of Gotham that he seldom, if ever, visits and as a result, there are people in Gotham that fall through the cracks. I think the strongest part of this story is the exchange between Batman and Yeselle, where Batman starts by trying to intimidate Yeselle into talking to him, only to have that make matters worse and only when Batman convinces the skeptical Yeselle that he is there to help that she opens up to him. Areas like the Hill are a reality of any major North American city and it’s interesting to see a character like Batman deal with a community that feels ignored and isolated. It’s equally interesting to have the culprit be a misused Wayne Enterprises prototype. I think that having these rogue drones exist without Bruce Wayne’s knowledge seems to be a perfectly valid story idea which plays nicely on the notion that Batman doesn’t really pay much attention to his own company. I do take some issue that Lucius Fox appears to be turning a blind eye to Wayne Enterprises being involved in shady dealing and can’t help feel that this character wouldn’t have allowed the program to continue if he knew it had been perverted and that the drones were harming people. Elena Casagrande’s art is well suited to a street-level tail like this one. I’d like to see more of her work and I think that she would do a great job with a writer with noir sensibilities like Greg Rucka for instance. If they ever decide to reboot “Gotham Central”, Casagrande would be a fine choice for the title.
Story #4: “Enough” by writer Jordie Bellaire and artist Jill Thompson
Synopsis: Batman travels to a cabin in Gotham’s snowy mountains to hunt a monster that has been terrorizing the area that Batman believes may be Man-Bat. Bruce remarks to himself how lonely it is up at the cabin and that he doesn’t enjoy being by himself. Batman hunts the monster in winter gear and a compound bow and gets shut into the cabin due to a winter storm where he is isolated and begins to hear sounds from an animal he cannot see, which builds until Batman shoots an arrow blindly into the storm, only to find that he has inadvertently killed a harmless deer.
Analysis: There’s not really a lot to say about this story. Its meant as a quick character study, but I have to wonder if the writer knew what character they were writing. The thing about a character like Batman being around for almost eighty years is that its hard to come down on a writer for not “getting the character” because there isn’t really one right version of Batman. Batman ’66 is just as valid as The Dark Knight Returns. That being said, there is something that feels very “off model” about this Batman. I don’t remember the last time I read a Batman story where Bruce was uncomfortable or unsettled by being isolated or alone. I mean, isn’t that kind of his deal? I’m all for a fresh take on a character but this one just didn’t seem like a Batman story to me and could easily have been a dozen other characters and I have to wonder if Bellaire was truly interested in telling a Batman story. Jill Thompson is a good fit for the story though. I liked the “Arctic-Ski-Lodge Batman” get-up he wears in this episode and Thompson does a good job of conveying the isolation that Bruce is feeling in the story.
Story #5: “The Worlds Greatest Detective, and Batman” by writer Tom Taylor and artists Brad Walker and Andrew Hennessy
Synopsis: The Dark Knight is perched on a gargoyle looking over the city when Detective Chimp appears, having tracked Batman down to ask a favor. Detective Chimp asks Batman to help him find the son of the man who freed him from his circus cage, who has now fallen in with the wrong crowd. Detective Chimp hands Batman a fingerprint to analyze and tells Batman that he suspects the Riddler, and the two agree to meet on a street corner. The two meet a short while later with Batman having analyzed the fingerprint and confirmed that the Riddler is involved. Detective Chimp tells Batman that he’s already solved a riddle that leads to the Riddler’s location. Batman tells Detective Chimp that if the boy, Matt, has hurt anyone that he will have to face justice. Batman crashes into the Riddler’s hideout, only to have Matt run and accidentally shoot Detective Chimp in the alley outside. Matt apologizes and Detective Chimp tells him to run, telling him that he will find him later to help him and that he doesn’t belong in a cage. Batman finds Detective Chimp, who stands despite his injuries and tells Batman that he is not hurt and that the boy deserves a chance, hinting that he knows Batman’s true identity. Batman tells Detective Chimp that he’s never underestimated him and takes Detective Chimp for medical attention.
Analysis: There’s something delightfully bonkers about the idea of a deerstalker wearing, mystery-solving monkey, especially in teaming this character up with a “dark and gritty” character like Batman. It shouldn’t work at all and yet it works. I think it is because Detective Chimp seems like the type of character that Batman is typically written to respect. Batman has always been more of one to respect a sharp mind then someone leaping buildings in a single bound. The story itself is a nice little showcase for Detective Chimp and I like that the story doesn’t waste any time in setting up Detective Chimp as a detective on par if not superior to Batman, which continues throughout the story, to the point of Detective Chimp hinting at Batman’s identity to get through to Batman that the boy deserves a second chance.
What this story does better than anything else is highlight the story potential for a title pairing Batman with other heroes, like Batman: The Brave and The Bold. Let’s face it, there’s never going to be a Detective Chimp ongoing title (although I’d read it) and this would be a great opportunity to bring characters like this into the sandbox for an issue or two at a time.
The art by Brad Walker feels very inspired by Batman: The Animated Series. I really enjoyed the detail that Walker puts into his characters and the Batman ’89 inspired cowl was a nice touch. I’d really like to see Walker get more work in Gotham City.
Final Thoughts: The “Secret Files” title is somewhat misleading. Previous Secret Files books have been primers for new readers, and have focused on recounting origins and introducing the basics for anyone looking to learn about Batman and his world. This book does not do this and seems to be trading on the name for lack of a better title. That being said, right now DC continuity is likely going to continue to be a bit of a “Choose your own adventure” story so if DC had gone that route with this book, I’m not sure which origin they would have used for Batman or the rest of his world.
I would have preferred that if they were going to make this a “Secret Files” book, I think there should have been more connective tissue between the individual stories. Batman Secret Files #1 stands with the other recent anthology books that DC has published, and while I don’t think that every single story was a home run, there’s enough value to make this book worth the time to read it.