BATMAN: THE MURDER MACHINE #1 By Frank Tieri, James Tynion IV, and Riccardo Federici
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BATMAN: THE MURDER MACHINE #1 is a riveting analysis of Batman's and Alfred's relationship, arriving at a thesis more darkly profound than any we've ever read.
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Never has an offer of help been more haunting. BATMAN: THE MURDER MACHINE #1 is the second in a series of special tie-in issues to DARK NIGHTS: METAL. While these issues could easily have been throw-aways to cash in on all the cool Batman mash-ups emerging from the main storyline, instead they’ve become something far more poignant. BATMAN: THE RED DEATH #1 was a great introduction to the exact nature of the Dark Multiverse. BATMAN: THE MURDER MACHINE #1 takes things one step further. It presents another alternative world where Batman and the other central character (in this case, Alfred, via Cyborg’s tech) fuse into one abomination of a Dark Knight. Yet this time, the origin of the new Dark Knight is gut-wrenchingly devastating, hauntingly evocative, and emotionally powerful.

BATMAN: THE MURDER MACHINE #1
BATMAN: THE MURDER MACHINE #1 page 5. Image courtesy of DC Entertainment.

BATMAN: THE MURDER MACHINE #1 features an alternative world where Alfred is murdered. Consequently, Bruce Wayne is shattered to the point of letting a murderous virus wearing the face of his beloved butler destroy everything else he cares about. It’s a shocking tale that hits us to our core because it presents the worst possible fate for characters we love. More disturbingly, it rings true. In a horrific way, it reminds us how important Alfred is to Batman — and just how far he might go to save his adoptive father.

We begin with a haunting image from Earth-44. Several of Batman’s rogues hold Alfred captive, demanding to know Batman’s location. Alfred refuses, so Bane breaks every bone in his body. Batman is next seen viewing the recording of Alfred’s death over and over again. His friends from the Justice League are around him, warning him that what he’s doing isn’t healthy. Yet Bruce, unshaven, dark circles under his eyes, can’t seem to hear them. When the rest of the League gives up, Bruce turns to Cyborg, begging him to help finish the Alfred Protocol. This is a program designed to protect Bruce, possessing the personality and emotional memory of Alfred.

READ: The first METAL tie-in issue featured an alternate version of Batman and the Flash fusing together. Discover the exciting details in our review of BATMAN: THE RED DEATH #1!

Meanwhile, on Earth-0, we see the fruits of the Earth-44 Cyborg’s labor come to fruition, as another Dark Knight emerges. The Murder Machine arrives on the Watchtower of Earth Prime with a single goal in mind: separate Cyborg from his father, Dr. Victor Stone, and use them both for the nefarious purposes of Barbatos, the evil entity manipulating these Multiverse-shattering events. Flashing back between the past in Earth-44 and the present in Earth-0, we witness first-hand how the Alfred protocol became a murderous virus that annihilated every single villain in Arkham Asylum, all the while uttering his own very helpful mantra: “How may I help you?” Eventually, the Bruce of Earth-44 allows Alfred to consume everything, including him. What emerges is an abomination that fuses the consciousness of Batman and Robo-Alfred through the technology of Cyborg. This dark being cares about only one thing: death.

This whole line of METAL tie-ins reminds me of the great DC Elseworlds tales, presenting alternative takes on our beloved DC characters. Although the storyline depicted in BATMAN: THE MURDER MACHINE #1 was never meant to be taken as canon, make no mistake — this comic contains the most moving, poignant commentary on Batman and Alfred’s relationship that I’ve ever read. It’s not the kind of storyline we would see anywhere else; no writer is ever going to permanently kill off Alfred. So writers James Tynion IV and Frank Tieri use this special opportunity to tell just such a tale.

BATMAN: THE MURDER MACHINE #1
BATMAN: THE MURDER MACHINE #1 page 7. Image courtesy of DC Entertainment.

For the Batman of Earth-44, Alfred’s death is permanent. So who is Bruce Wayne without Alfred? Just a frightened orphan boy, lost in an alleyway with nothing but darkness to keep him company. Upon Alfred’s death, that scared child is brought to the surface once more. This helps explain why Batman is so willing to let the Alfred virus into the cave, despite Cyborg’s warnings, despite the fact that Bruce knows he won’t be able to contain it. Bruce misses his father terribly and he would do anything to be reunited with him — even if it means losing himself forever. It’s not the choice of Batman. It’s the choice of Bruce Wayne, a boy who never stopped being eight years old.

Consider the sequence where the Murder Machine single-handedly kills every single member of his world’s Justice League. With Cyborg the last man standing, he makes one last ditch effort to reach Bruce, deep inside the armor of the Alfred protocol. Yet Bruce has made peace with his decision: “My father will always be there for me. And I will always be there for him. Everyone else is a weakness.” He then promptly rips off Cyborg’s head.

READ: Catch up on the events of the Dark Multiverse and find out how the seven Dark Knights were unleashed with our review of DARK NIGHTS: METAL #2!

Murderous actions aside, Batman’s words represent the convictions of a child who knows no better than to listen to his father — even when his father is a lethal computer virus. This entire sequence is terrible to behold, for its horrifying imagery but also the sheer sadness of knowing that it all comes from loss. A Bruce Wayne without Alfred is a Batman without hope, and that is a truly terrifying prospect.

In the present, the subverted Alfred and Batman relationship acts as a parallel to the relationship between Cyborg and his father. While the Murder Machine unleashes the Alfred Protocol on Cyborg, he turns on communication to Dr. Stone’s lab so he can hear the whole thing. A desperate Dr. Stone screams helplessly: “How can I help you?!” Where Alfred’s question is a disturbing perversion of a father’s caring, Dr. Stone’s is the genuine article. Where the essence of Bruce Wayne was consumed by the artificial specter of his father, Dr. Stone is the last connection between Cyborg and his own humanity. Without his father, Cyborg’s deepest human connection would disappear, leaving only the machine. That’s exactly what happened to Bruce Wayne.

BATMAN: THE MURDER MACHINE #1
BATMAN: THE MURDER MACHINE #1 page 14. Image courtesy of DC Entertainment.

The artwork by Riccardo Federici is a subtle masterpiece. He uses distinctive styles to represent the past and present timelines. Earth-0 is drawn in full color, with a rich, painterly quality. The figures are impressive and intimidating, taking on a larger than life stature not unlike the heroes of Greek mythology. The sequences on Earth-44, meanwhile, utilize the same bold designs, but in a much more archaic quality. If the present day figures are the heroes of Greek mythology, the figures of the past are its villains, drowned in darkness and shadow.

These sequences take on a blurred and hazy quality, giving them the effect of a barely reachable dream. There’s something vaguely unpleasant about them, not quite tangible, but forever lurking on the edges of consciousness.

The color palate is much more muted, nearly black and white, but maintaining just enough color to break through to our world. The Murder Machine is the link between both worlds. Federici gives this Batman a sleek design that’s evocative of Black Panther, his skin-tight suit fitting like a cybernetically-enhanced glove. The suit’s robotic overtures give the image of perfect sterility, a Batman who has overcome nuance to become something utterly flawless and totally lacking in humanity.

BATMAN: THE MURDER MACHINE #1
BATMAN: THE MURDER MACHINE #1 page 17. Image courtesy of DC Entertainment.

BATMAN: THE MURDER MACHINE #1: Final Thoughts

Overall, BATMAN: THE MURDER MACHINE #1 is a harrowing one-shot, delivering the eulogy on the Batman and Alfred relationship that we never wanted to read. The storyline is both haunting and poignant, bringing us a Batman pushed to the brink of despair and loss. Like the Dark Multiverse itself, this story exists on the edges of our mind, leaving us with a haunting feeling that we don’t want to acknowledge. It gives us the distinct sensation that the way this Batman acts when Alfred leaves him is not so different from how the Batman we know and love would act. It’s a hidden truth we don’t really want to acknowledge, but now it’s there for us to see.

The only reason Bruce Wayne didn’t go completely insane is because of Alfred. Without Alfred, there’s only one place left for Batman to go. Thanks to a surprisingly moving one-shot, we now have an answer to Alfred’s question: “How may I help you?”

Just stay alive, Alfred. Just stay alive.

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