Review by Nick Katsiadas
James Tynion IV and Alvaro Martinez close yet another successful arc in the Detective Comics: Rebirth run with the finale to “Intelligence.” The title’s significance to the end of this story is very fitting: What better way to show Jean-Paul Valley’s psychological struggle than to use the classic trope of the Brother Battle—Jean-Paul Valley, aka Azrael, vs. Ascalon?
Among the highlights and reveals in Detective Comics #962, which will, no doubt, shake the foundations of the DCU’s main continuity, the highlight of this issue is the way that Tynion IV and Martinez and Lucas Fox introduced Batman programming into Jean-Paul’s psyche to neutralize his programming by the Order of St. Dumas (Order): “A moral A.I. program based on Batman’s best attributes.” At the same time Fox introduces the Code of the Bat deep within Jean-Paul’s psyche, he also provides the vehicle through which Jean-Paul accesses the Code, which was revealed in Detective Comics #961: the Azbat armor.
With its distinct visual appearance, readers are encouraged to recollect the events of Knightfall and anticipate a showdown between Azrael and Batman. This image recalls the history when Bane broke the Bat, and Azrael was entrusted with the Mantle of the Bat. Readers might be disappointed to discover that Tynion IV and Martinez nix the possibility of an Azrael v Batman event. The Azbat suit matters in this arc’s finale in the way the artists use the weight of Jean-Paul’s internal struggle with the Order’s programming in Knightfall. This internal struggle manifests, again, in his battle with Ascalon. If this issue tells us anything, it is that Jean-Paul will have a significant role to play in the upcoming war Batman has anticipated. Why else would DC make efforts both to recall the events in Knightfall and highlight the fact that the Batman AI is now an integral part of Jean-Paul’s psyche? The logic follows that he may yet have a role to play in the Dark Nights: Metal event, in which avatars of Batman from the Dark Matter Universe begin to cause trouble on a cosmic scale. Will all allies of the Bat need to stand on the line with Bruce? Indeed, Scott Snyder once used this idea in The Court of Owls arc.
The beginning of the Detective Comics #962 opens with the Batman A.I. program challenging the Order of St. Dumas’s programming within Jean-Paul’s mind (above). The complexity of this challenge should not be overlooked, though, as it psychologically pits the religious zealotry of the Order of St. Dumas against the Code of the Bat. The dialogue complements this idea. Ascalon reprimands Jean-Paul: “You abandoned everything we were built to accomplish! Everything you are!…I am going to kill your friends and be what I was meant to be!…You can’t stop me. I am stronger than you. I represent a higher power—” Ascalon and Jean-Paul are cut short and awestruck as the Batman AI enters the scene. Martinez’s art is breathtakingly appropriate in terms of depicting the Bat A.I. as demonic, and the cerebral space/place of Jean-Paul’s mind allows him to symbolize this idea of the Bat Code in larger, mythic proportions. As the two entities approach each other (and notice the symbolic light and dark color contrast), Jean-Paul suddenly hears a voice: “Wake up, Jean-Paul. Wake up,” and he sees Lucas, Cassandra Cain, Kate Kane, Rookie, Batman, and Zatanna. Lucas asks, “Buddy…are you okay?” He answers, “You aren’t asking if I’m okay, Lucas. You are asking if I can fight. I am angrier than I have been in my entire life, and I am sharing my mind with one murderous AI, and another modeled off the world’s most dangerous vigilante. Yes, Lucas. I am ready to fight.”
Meanwhile, Clayface distracts the robotic host of the Order of St. Dumas’s programming (also named Ascalon) by dividing himself into multiple versions of Nomoz, the dwarfling. Dispelling Clayface quickly, Ascalon continues his mission to eliminate Nomoz by giving orders to the batsuits that he controls. He commands, “The dwarfling won’t have gotten far. Level the building. Continue protocol, targeting most populated structures in 1.3-mile radius.” This decision is dramatically ironic for the audience and very telling of the Order’s programming: Ascalon professes a divine mission while exhibiting a willingness to sacrifice hundreds, perhaps thousands, of innocent lives to carry out the mission. In this moment, Tynion and Martinez implement a crucial role for Zatanna to provide needed damage control, and they return to Jean-Paul’s brother-battle.
When Jean-Paul confronts Ascalon, Tynion and Martinez encourage readers to understand the situation as one in which the character confronts an immature version of himself, and the dialogue captures the idea. Ascalon says, “What is happening? I do not understand…” Jean-Paul rebukes him: “That is because you are only a child. You cling to your blind faith with no understandings of what it means to believe. You seek assurance. You seek absolute truth. You mistake this for godliness. There is nothing godly in what you have been sent here to do.” Ascalon looks upon his new batsuit and responds, “You…What have you become?” Answer: “Your downfall.”
In-between exchanging blows, Jean-Paul seeks to reason and empathize with Ascalon, appealing to him on a human level. He says, “Listen, Ascalon. You were right. You saw me and thought we were the same. And it is true. You are as much a part of me as my own true soul. I know your pain. Your anger. Your fear!…You are too afraid to see the world from an outside perspective…because it might prove you wrong.” Threatened by these ideas of his own fallibility, Ascalon dismisses everything Jean-Paul says: “Enough. If I fear anything, Azrael, it is you. I fear that any part of myself could knowingly reject God’s light. To accept weakness! To embrace sin! If I accept what you say, Jean-Paul, then I am nothing. And I refuse to be nothing.” Nomoz enters the room, and he barely speaks the words “He is your br—” before Ascalon slices open his chest. Before he dies, though, he can reveal that Jean-Paul Valley, Senior—Jean-Paul’s father—both activated the robot and programmed Jean-Paul to be Azrael, making Ascalon a brother figure. They were both made. In the aftermath of the battle, Jean-Paul forgoes dawning the batsuit in favor of a modified Azrael suit, and it reveals important aspects of his characterization: He can resist the Order’s programming but still maintain his identity as Azrael, and he is able to do so because Lucas Fox’s Batman AI is “still inside” his psyche.
The key to defeating Ascalon is revealed by Zatanna, and it rests in a mythical object that anticipates the Detective Comics title being affected by events within other books. She tells Ascalon, “You only think you know everything…Do you know what this is?” and she reveals the Gnosis Sphere. Back in Detective Comics #960, Zatanna reveals the power of this sphere (below). She says, “It reveals hidden truths. They say it was built by the Aletheia of Olympus. That’s where it takes its other name…” Batman says, “The God Machine.”
When Ascalon holds the sphere in his hands, he can see past his programming. He says, “I…Oh my…Oh God. I see…I see your love. Jean-Paul…Brother. I am sorry. I did not understand.” More importantly in this scene, Batman receives a revelation from Ascalon—a revelation that will affect titles connected to Geoff Johns’ DC Universe Rebirth. He says, “Batman…the pain in your heart. The boy you lost. The one who drove you to draw this sphere out, and bring about my culmination. He is alive. Timothy Drake is alive.” Before Batman can ask any questions, he disappears.
The final panels of the issue also recall what Zatanna revealed to Batman in Detective Comics #960. In this issue, she says, “A demon moves in the dark, in all directions, shaping a plot beyond your knowledge and comprehension…targeting not just you, but everyone you love and care about. And there is another question that could shake the very cosmic fabric of the universe… A question about metal?”
Following Zatanna’s surmises in #960, in the final page of #962, we see The Demon—Ra’s al Ghul—in the Swiss Alps, and he is visiting Jean-Paul Valley, Senior (below). Ra’s says, “Mister Valley…You have outstripped our organization’s greatest hopes. You have a seat at our table.” Valley responds, “After all I’ve sacrificed, I damn well better have. What’s your plan?” Ra’s replies, “My plan? You have the wrong idea entirely. I think it’s time you met our benefactor and got a sense of the big picture.”
Does Ra’s mean the table of the 13 Immortals, who we saw in Dark Days: The Casting? If so, who is the “benefactor”? If not the Immortals, then whom? What role will Valley, Sr., have in Rebirth, and what will Jean-Paul Valley, Jr., must do to stop him? They already invoked the Brother Battle, so we can healthily anticipate a Father–Son conflict soon. It may shape the fortunes of many characters.
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