Detective Comics #964
Detective Comics #964 by James Tynion IV, Christopher Sebela, and Carmen Carnero
Clayface and Spoiler invoke a wonderful portrait of the many layers of identity and the threats that lie within.
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Layers of Identity
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Since DC Rebirth began, DETECTIVE COMICS has perhaps done the best job of threading multiple storylines together. We’ve seen so many wonderful arcs like “Rise of the Batmen,” “The Victim Syndicate,” and “League of Shadows.” Each arc tends to set its rotational focus on a different pairing of characters, sometimes in the same storyline, sometimes in different ones. Yet, there’s always a significant carryover from an older storyline, paying off in unexpected ways. So DETECTIVE COMICS #964 is the perfect example of this.

The most recent arc, “Intelligence,” paid off elements from “League of Shadows” and “Rise of the Batmen.” DETECTIVE COMICS #964 picks up story threads from both “The Victim Syndicate” and “The Wrath of Spoiler.” “Utopia” uses these older stories to craft wonderful payoff arcs for Stephanie Brown (AKA Spoiler) and Basil Karlo (AKA Clayface). The two antiheroes take center stage in two separate storylines. So the two story threads are all about a quest for identity and the price of revealing who you really are.

DETECTIVE COMICS #964: Spoilers Ahead!

DETECTIVE COMICS #964 page 2. Image courtesy of DC Entertainment.

In the previous issue, Anarky brought Spoiler into his new underground utopia. DETECTIVE COMICS #964 picks up with Anarky showing her around the small community. A few of Stephanie’s old friends, like Harper and Dr. Leslie Tompkins, are contributing to said community. The utopia itself seems too good to be true. Consequently, when Batman swoops in and reveals Anarky’s connection to the Victim Syndicate, Spoiler’s allegiance is tested.

Meanwhile, Basil Karlo has his own test to endure. His new doctor, Victoria, insists that he go without his restraint bracelet for a full 24 hours. This way she can study his biochemistry and hopefully create a cure. Essentially, this forces Basil to try and build up a tolerance to the distress caused by the removal of the node. Basil’s panic rears its ugly head in the form of his own private monster inside. Basil must battle Clayface from within, and discover whether he has what it takes to live with himself.

Dual Identities

I love how sincerely DETECTIVE COMICS explores its deeply flawed and scarred characters. We had a wonderful arc with Cassandra Cain in “League of Shadows,” which enabled her to grow as a person. So we see that pay off here, as Cassandra functions as the sole reassuring voice for Basil. She sticks by him because she recognizes a kindred spirit. For Basil, DETECTIVE COMICS #964 explores his psychological damage beautifully. In another callback to “The Victim Syndicate,” the issue opens with a conversation between Clayface and Mudface. Basil excitedly reveals the prospect of a cure to her. Mudface then tells him that no matter what cure he offers her, Basil will always be the person who destroyed her. He will always be a monster.

READ: The previous arc culminated with the return of Bat-Azrael! Discover the secrets of the God Machine with our review of DETECTIVE COMICS #962!

So this fear eats away at Basil throughout the issue, and it convinces him he needs his restraint device. Basil believes it’s the only thing that can contain him. This subject matter is, in fact, a very clever allusion to the effects of medication. The bracelet is basically Basil’s antipsychotic drug. With the medication, Basil feels secure because he has his own mental buffer. Without it, he’s overtaken by fears that he won’t be able to control himself. Clayface — like the worst of humanity’s pestering inner demons — does indeed emerge again. Yet was it only the removal of the restraint that unleashed it, or was it also Basil’s complete lack of faith in himself?

How to be a Superhero

DETECTIVE COMICS #964 writers James Tynion IV and Christopher Sebela present us with these fascinating questions. Indeed, after Clayface’s restraint device is returned, Basil removes himself from the group. He’s convinced that he may never be able to control himself again. Much like damaged individuals who suffer a relapse, Clayface fears that said relapse is a sign he’ll never get better; that the only solution is to remove himself from society. Ultimately, like with the rest of us, the only solution to a relapse is to keep fighting through it; to acknowledge the monster we carry within us, along with the humanity. In the end, Cassandra shows this to Clayface in a very moving sequence, where she reminds him just how similar they are. Basil is as much a human as he is a monster. He’ll always have Clayface inside him, but he’ll always be Basil too.

DETECTIVE COMICS #964 page 10. Image courtesy of DC Entertainment.

Basil’s wrestling with his own identity takes on a mirror image in the form of Spoiler’s story. Her struggle with Anarky is less personal, and more about the philosophy of how to be a hero. Spoiler has felt a bit lost lately, leaving Batman’s service after Tim Drake’s “death” and acting as a renegade agent. That changed when Anarky found her. Since then, he’s attempted to indoctrinate her into his service. Spoiler is aware that their philosophies are similar. They both believe in the dangers of Batman’s mission, and how much collateral damage it incurs. The difference between them boils down to morals. The moment Stephanie learns that Anarky made a deal with the devil (in the form of the Victim Syndicate), she turns on him. Spoiler quickly uses everything she learned about Anarky against him.

Victims of Circumstance

With Batman’s help, Spoiler dispatches Anarky quickly. Yet the battle against Anarky was never the point. The point was Stephanie’s battle against her own better angels. As with Clayface, this was really an internal struggle. With all the combating philosophies around her, Stephanie still doesn’t know who she is — she only knows who she isn’t. That’s why she rejects Anarky and, in the end, rejects Batman as well. She walks away from him, not even bothering to turn back as he calls out to her (he had crucial info about Tim Drake, ironically).

READ: Meanwhile, Batman has finally chosen a side in the War of Jokes and Riddles. Find out which one in our review of BATMAN #30!

Stephanie has closed herself off completely, just as Basil came close to doing. The difference between them is their friends. Basil had Cassandra there to bring him back from the brink. Stephanie, because of her own self-imposed exile, has no one. Not even Batman could turn her back. DETECTIVE COMICS #964 has a compelling hidden message about damaged psychology and the importance of relationships. A good friend can help you heal. Without any, you’ll continue to be your own worst enemy. With Cassandra, I suspect the only one who can bring her back now is Tim Drake. The next arc of DETECTIVE COMICS will be telling.

Sequential Storytelling

My only point of frustration with this issue comes from Carmen Carnero’s artwork. There’s nothing wrong with the style itself. It has to do with the way the panels are laid out. Sometimes the panels progress vertically, other times horizontally. With this random disparity, it’s often hard to tell where we’re supposed to look to find sequential action. This has been a problem throughout DETECTIVE COMICS’ run and seems like a fairly easy one to correct. For now, however, the creators seem to be sticking with this format as an odd (and misguided) stylistic choice.

Luckily, the artwork itself is still quite striking. The action scenes are supercharged with fluidity, particularly the sequences with Basil. Clayface’s animation is always a thrill to behold. Since this issue features the re-emergence of Clayface the villain, Carnero has plenty of opportunities to present him in all his fluid, monstrous glory. She depicts Clayface with many arms, spiked and clubbed weapons, and various changes in size. So you can practically track his violent movement across the panels.

DETECTIVE COMICS #964 page 12. Image courtesy of DC Entertainment.

Final Verdict

Ultimately, DETECTIVE COMICS #964 impresses on several levels. It ties back to earlier storylines while setting up an exciting return for the Victim Syndicate. It also promises that Clayface’s inner turmoil is far from over. Anarky and the Syndicate are poised to use him as a scapegoat to prove Batman’s “villainy.” The consequences could be disastrous. Ultimately though, the real beauty of this storyline is its emphasis on the characterization of Basil and Stephanie. Despite the fact that they never interact, Tynion beautifully uses their dominant storylines to tell a moving tale of the search for an identity, and the fear that the identity you gain isn’t what you really wanted.

Comic books, like all forms of fiction, have so much potential to create commentary on the human condition. Thanks to DETECTIVE COMICS #964, we have another shining example of this potential being realized. Clayface represents the ultimate battle against the worst parts of ourselves. Spoiler represents the never-ending struggle to make our own unique impact on the world. Together, they form a thesis on identity: to find ourselves, we can’t act by ourselves. Sometimes we need a friend — or even a whole team — to help us out.

Thankfully, Batman’s team is on the case.

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