With Infinite Frontier in full swing, there is a new era at DC Comics, and no group of comics has seen its benefits more than the Batman line of stories. Each book has taken characters we’ve always loved in bold directions and put them in new places. From Nightwing’s new sister in Nightwing #81 to Jim Gordan’s “solo” comic in Joker, the Bat-Family is creating a bright, distinct new era of Batman
Infinite Frontier has challenged the way Bat-Family stories work together. New 52 and Rebirth were periods that captured how Batman used to be. Both eras tried out variations on what had been done before. Characters maintained (or slowly returned to) the status quo without much character growth to show for it. For example, the most significant thing to happen to Bruce in his last story was that he still didn’t marry Catwoman. Fundamentally, the Gotham at the beginning of New 52 is the same Gotham that exists throughout Rebirth. Similarly, the Bat-Family failed to expand or change in any noticeable way, with the only major additions being Duke Thomas and Harper Row, two characters who only appear once in a blue moon. Compare that lack of expansion to Infinite Frontier, where the Bat-Family has already added Ghostmaker, Clownhunter, and the Gardener to the list of “heroic” characters.
This is just one example of how Tynion has gone out of his way to focus on creating unique new heroes and villains. In his first issue of Batman (#86), Tynion introduced two villains: Gunsmith and Tooth Eater. Both characters have a very distinct look and outfits that stand out and fill in character details. Gunsmith is a Comedian-esque patriotic “hero” who got “his name after building a gun out of what he could buy in an airport electronics store and taking out his target on a crowded flight without detection” (Batman #89). Mr. Teeth, on the other hand, is a true horror villain full of stitches and a creepy smile who is tied to mysterious murders in the Pacific Northwest in which “every victim was found with their teeth surgically removed from their mouth and surgically implanted into their stomach” (Batman #89). Their costumes explain their gimmicks in the same manner as the designs of other villains such as Mr. Freeze, The Riddler, and Catwoman. Though Mr. Teeth and Gunsmith were meant to be small characters, they had one core focus: looking cool and being interesting. The look of a character is integral to their popularity, and Tynion, with the help of Guillem March, came up with characters that would pop out.
The focus on new characters really escalated with the arrival of Punchline, a girl who became obsessed with the mystery of the Joker. Ruthless, intelligent, and assassin-like, Punchline embodies Joker’s darker side. When her design was revealed, fans immediately began cosplaying her, and her first appearance caused the speculator market to go wild (Tynion Newsletter #10). Punchline is a great example of what makes Tynion’s new characters work so well. She has a clear purpose right off the back as Joker’s sidekick, immediate connections with other characters (like her tense relationship with Harley Quinn), and, as we learn, a fleshed-out backstory.
Unlike Harley Quinn, who came to the Joker through an unhealthy obsession and got caught in an abusive relationship, Punchline used to be a college student, Alexis Kaye, who was kidnapped by the Joker and rescued by Batman. Wanting to make sense of the traumatic event, she processed by creating a podcast series trying to understand the reason the Joker was in her life. She “couldn’t accept that the attack… was random” and wanted to believe this moment in her life had meaning (Punchline #1). Going over every crime scene and the Joker’s words over and over, Kaye came to the conclusion that the Joker couldn’t be overanalyzed because all of his jokes were the setup to a missing punchline. Punchline is the Joker’s legacy character: one who takes what the Joker is and interprets it in a unique way that builds in a new direction.
Tynion understands what makes the original characters work so well. If you compare Punchline or Clownhunter to Rogal Zar, Red Cloud, Synmar, or Zumbado—Bendis’s original characters on Superman—the latter all have unclear names that tell you little about their characters, bland designs, and a lack of depth. In contrast, Tynion crafts characters with distinct names, designs, and goals. Tynion’s approach to new characters reminds me a lot of Krakoa. New and/or reworked Krakoan villains have memorable names like Hordeculture and distinct designs like Homines Verendi. This clearly establishes them as mirrors of the Hellfire Company, ones that contain as much depth as the Children of the Vault (who, while not quite “new,” are still reimagined significantly). This approach to the creation of new characters is discussed by Tynion in his newsletter, the Tiny Onion:
“New readers want new characters that they can get in on the ground floor with. Once you give them those characters, then you can use them to introduce those readers to the entire larger mythos those new characters are connected to. A new character deployed correctly creates new tensions, and new social dynamics in the core cast of a book, and gets a new generation pulled into the soap opera.” (Tiny Onion Newsletter #23)
Characters like Clownhunter immediately create new tensions and dynamics. Clownhunter, a boy named Bao Pham who loses both his parents to a Joker attack, swears revenge on the Joker and his clowns and goes about ruthlessly hunting them down. He has clear relationships with Punchline and the Joker, who are his enemies. Harley Quinn forces Clownhunter to reconsider his beliefs. Batman sees parallels between the war on crime he began as a kid and Clownhunter’s war on the Joker over the loss of his family. These characters serve to give new depth and new angles to Gotham and its various characters.
Clownhunter’s story is a version of Bruce Wayne’s, but in a Gotham that has evolved past petty street crime. Instead, this Gotham is captured by Bane and gassed by the Joker in a single year. What does Bruce Wayne look like if he starts in a Gotham where the city’s biggest worries are not organized gangs, but rather the villains and dangers that have evolved as Tynion discusses in Their Dark Designs? Clownhunter is more gimmicky, more ruthless. He knows the clowns will kill you for fun with gas, guns, and grenades. He knows knocking them out and sending them to jail doesn’t work, so he meets the clowns on their level and hunts them with the same joy. Clownhunter fleshes out Gotham and the Bat-Family, while enabling Tynion to have something to say.
This new direction and focus on original characters as foils to explore the larger picture also shows up in many of Tynion’s other new creations. Ghostmaker serves as a parallel to Bruce and challenges Bruce’s version of the war on crime. Miracle Moll breaks down how Bruce’s bourgeois life ignores the common Gothamites, who are destroyed by the current inaccessibility of the American Dream and lack of upward mobility. And the Gardner gives more backstory to Ivy and Harley’s past.
Together, these characters help establish a new era of Gotham with fresh ideas that make the city more interesting and powerful. They enable conflicts and discussions about different parts of characters that readers wouldn’t consider elsewise.
The Main Cast
The classic cast of Batman stories has also received a massive set of changes in this new era. Whereas most Batman eras only prioritize a couple of characters, Ben Abernathy and the various creative teams on the Bat-Family titles are taking a new approach to Gotham that “everybody matters.” No character should be left without a story line, because that character may be a different reader’s favorite.
Traditionally, Batman books often exclude characters and/or relegate them to unimportant miniseries or ongoings that are doomed to sell poorly. For example, Duke Thomas came into Rebirth as a big new character, but basically quickly disappeared from the family. After a brief set of back-issues in Snyder’s All-Star Batman, Duke Thomas didn’t play a major role in any Bat-Family story until his three-issue Batman and the Signal miniseries, finally taking a supporting role in Bryan Hill’s Outsider stories. Similarly, Batwoman found herself without a major story after her series ended August 2018 with Batwoman #18.
Characters that did get consistent stories often found themselves in the same spot they were in at the beginning on New 52. Stephanie Brown’s first appearance in New 52 introduced her under the moniker Spoiler, but since then her only long-lasting character development was dating Tim Drake. From the end of Tynion’s Detective Comics run, Stephanie appeared only occasionally to act as a love interest for Tim in Young Justice. Stephanie was defined more by Tim than her own stories and history. At one point, Stephanie became Robin and Batgirl along with an upward trajectory in popularity and potential. But now she is a minor character, causing new readers to ask “who is that?” when they see her.
As traditionally supporting characters, most Bat-Family members rarely had a solo or lead role in a story in Rebirth. Stephanie Brown never had a significant solo story. Huntress never had a significant lead role story. Renee Montoya was merely a supporting character in Lois Lane. Throughout Rebirth, nearly every titular lead role revolved around Batman, Barbara Gordon, a Robin, or Batwoman. Characters that people loved didn’t receive a spotlight and instead only served other characters’ stories.
James Tynion wanted to fix those problems and looked at Marvel’s X-Men titles for inspiration.
“I think the most successful content like that is something like the current X-Men line at Marvel, which fully embraces its convolution and doesn’t shy away from it. It’s a whole line of books for the X-Men lifers, who want to know what’s happening in the lives of every minor character from the X-Books that were on the stands when they first started reading, and it does it without favoring one era over any other.” (Tiny Onion Newsletter #23)
Tynion realized that you can successfully embrace the history of a character and lean into the convolution rather than pretend it didn’t exist. With this philosophical shift, Stephanie Brown can acknowledge her history as Robin, Batgirl, and Spoiler, and use it to grow her character. She is no longer stuck pretending core elements of her past didn’t happen. Now she is a Batgirl with Cassandra Cain, working alongside Oracle, and no longer dating Tim Drake.
Stephanie’s also expected to get a major story in Fear State. When asked in a Word Balloon Podcast whether Batgirl would receive a solo series or not, Joshua Williamson teased “you should read Fear State” (Beyond DC’s Infinite Frontier, Word Balloon, 1:00:10). Later in the podcast he confirmed that some new titles would be spinning out of Fear State, likely implying a Batgirls story. If true, this means that two characters who’ve been out of the spotlight are stepping back in.
One key way that Abernathy makes the phrase “everyone matters” work is through the use of back-issues. By adding an extra ten-page story to the back of Batman and Detective Comics, multiple characters can get a story who wouldn’t normally get that opportunity to star in a comic. Huntress, for example, has the back issue of Mariko Tamaki, Clayton Henry, and Dan Mora’s Detective Comics and a supporting role in the main part of that comic. This is Huntress’s first major solo story since New 52 began. While she had supporting roles in Grayson, Batgirl and the Birds of Prey, and an arc of Nightwing, Tamaki is finally letting her shine.
Helena Bertinelli’s story focuses on an investigation into the death of Mary Knox, with whom who she used to go on walks. During her investigation, she runs into Batman in the main story. On a macro level, her story acts as a supplement to Batman’s. Reading it is essential to following the main story line of Detective Comics. According to solicits, the main story establishes a plot thread about a parasite, but doesn’t have the time to finish that thread. Huntress instead gets to move toward finishing that plot thread in her back-issue, before the story’s finale in Batman Secret Files: Huntress #1 in July.
Huntress’s story is a great example of the complexity of comics. Stories weave in and out of each other and create a shared universe. While Huntress may not be the core driver of Gotham, the stories of the core drivers like Batman give her room to shine by herself.
The other key way that Abernathy makes “everyone matter” is through the long-requested Batman: Urban Legends anthology collection. In Batman: Urban Legends, Abernathy basically has four different books in one, focusing on characters who normally don’t get books of their own (or get books that sell poorly). For the first three issues, Batman: Urban Legends gave solo stories to Red Hood, the Outsiders, Grifter, Oracle, Harley Quinn, and Lady Shiva. Outside of the Lady Shiva and Oracle stories, every one of these stories fills a role in the broader story of Gotham.
Red Hood by Chip Zdarsky and Eddy Barrows follows the plot thread of the cheer drug first teased in Infinite Frontier #0. Grifter by Matthew Rosenburg and Carmine Di Giandomenico focuses on the reveal from Batman #101 that Lucius Fox hired Cole Cash as his bodyguard. The Outsiders by Brandon Thomas and Max Dunbar will spin off into another story later in the year, and Harley Quinn spun off into Harley Quinn #1 by Stephanie Phillips and Riley Rossmo.
This format gave DC the perfect opportunity to tell stories that were important to the world of Gotham without needing to give these less marketable characters a miniseries or ongoing. Grifter hasn’t received a solo story since 2013, but now has a place to shine. Grifter fans will buy the book for Grifter even if they don’t care about Red Hood. Personally, I’m buying for the Tim Drake story, and could care less about Grifter, but I’m supporting Rosenberg’s work by getting the book even if I would normally skip a Grifter story.
Speaking of Tim Drake, it is very likely that he will have one of the biggest and boldest shifts at DC. The story is early on, but his Batman: Urban Legends run, which begins with #4, teases the confirmation of two decades of queercoding with a coming out story. Tim Drake’s story is full of queer tropes and what is a date in all but name. In the first part of the story by Meghan Fitzmartin and Belen Ortega, Tim Drake is talking with Barbara Gordan when she says “you’re so incredibly scared that if you use that big brilliant brain of yours to analyze yourself, what you find is going to change you” (Batman: Urban Legends #4). The idea of needing to look inward to find something suppressed about yourself is a typically queer sentiment. Upon hearing this, Tim decides to meet with Bernard, a college friend that he hasn’t seen since Robin #140 in 2005.
When he sees Bernard, Tim thinks, “It feels like it’s been years, but he still looks… he looks…” Moments like these are designed to imply a coming-out story, but for extra confirmation, the artist of the story, Belen Ortega, liked multiple tweets related to Tim Drake going on a date and/or being bisexual on Twitter. This matches with one of Tynion’s newsletters where he teased, “There’s some Tim Drake stuff coming that I am particularly thrilled about and cannot wait for you all to read. Teenage Tim Drake fanboy James was cheering on his feet reading the outline for this upcoming story.”
There is only a small number of things that James Tyion IV, himself gay, would likely have thought this about. One of them would be Tim Drake coming out as bisexual. If Tim Drake comes out, as these many signs seem to indicate he will, DC would be making a bold move that they would never have only four years ago.
Gotham’s smaller characters have been given chances to shine where they normally wouldn’t, but some of the bigger characters are also getting big new directions. Take Harley Quinn, a fan favorite who has been relegated to the Deadpool role for years. Harley Quinn has traditionally had out-of-continuity, off-the-wall, fourth-wall-breaking stories that are fun, but ultimately fail to make an impact or tell a story within the DC status quo. With Infinite Frontier, Stephanie Phillips took a new approach: writing a book about the monumental shift in Harley Quinn’s world coming out of Joker War. Ivy has disappeared; Joker has moved on to Punchline. Harley, stuck trying to find a role in this new Gotham, decides to lean into her psychology degree and help people formerly influenced by the Joker come to grips and recover. This puts her in conflict, however, with Mayor Nakano, who’s trying to rid Gotham of the clowns. The story doesn’t shy away from Harley’s signature sense of humor, but still makes an effort to stay grounded in Gotham’s current events.
Harley Quinn is also trying to find Ivy, whose romantic relationship with Harley is now more openly recognized by DC. DC was long scared of telling explicitly romantic stories about Harley and Ivy; as recently as 2019, the Harley Quinn & Poison Ivy comic backtracked their relationship into a friendship. In this new era, Tynion in Batman and Phillips in Harley Quinn can make the subtext actual text. Harley Quinn is allowed to take a new direction that her comics haven’t been allowed her for the last decade.
With so many characters in the spotlight and very few who aren’t getting a chance to shine, of Batman’s supporting cast, only Batwoman and Azrael have yet to show up in solicits with stories. While DC’s future plans have yet to be seen, it’s likely that they will be featured more eventually, thanks to the idea that everyone matters.