Following DC Comics’ cataclysmic Flashpoint event, the New 52 wiped the slate clean, resetting DC’s heroes and villains to a confined timeline of five years. Marriages were dissolved, teams disbanded, characters de-aged, and others made non-existent. But as was revealed in DC Universe Rebirth #1 — the issue which kicked off this new initiative — all of that was just a symptom of some force stealing ten years away from the DC Universe. The identity of this all-powerful force remains a mystery except for a single clue — a bloodied smiley face button.
DC Universe Rebirth #1 only introduced this intriguing detail, seemingly implicating a character from the Watchmen comics — a property also owned by DC Comics, first created by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons, but never officially made a part of the DC Universe. In this week’s Batman #21: The Button, the investigation into what this all means gets underway. Sort of.
Batman #21 — scripted by Tom King from a plot by Geoff Johns — sees Batman closely examining the mystery button, musing over its connection with the timeline disturbances. That connection, however, is barely touched on. Instead, the bulk of Batman #21 is devoted to a brutal and bloody brawl between him and Reverse-Flash — one of those characters made existent again thanks to Rebirth.
Their fight is thrilling, emotional, gripping, and impossible to separate from an earlier fight in Batman #21 — a hockey fight that breaks out in game seven of an intense series between the Gotham Blades and the Metropolis Mammoths. The hockey fight is a tease for the fistfight that becomes the real meat of the issue, but it also bears the only real Watchmen influence in the issue (apart from those nine-panel layouts). The hockey announcer asks, “Is this fun?” as the two players beat each other to a pulp, creating a mix of excitement and repulsion. Moore so often did this, too (and especially in Watchmen), reprimanding us for enjoying the violent entertainment he and his team were at the same time providing.
It’s an interesting dichotomy to explore, but Batman #21 doesn’t really have the time or pages to do so. The purpose of this issue is to set up the following three, which for some, might be a letdown. The fight, though, is an epic one, and it ends in a way that raises the very questions we need to be asking if we’re ever to get to the bottom of this mystery. Who is responsible? Who is “God”, as Reverse-Flash calls them? Is it Dr. Manhattan, as so many have assumed?
While the plot of Batman #21 doesn’t come with any answers, there is a beauty to the brutal work of Jason Fabok and Brad Anderson. Those nine-panel layouts are a chore, surely, but the work within them is worth it. The punches are visceral, the blood vibrant, and letterer Deron Bennet brings a real weight to the pummeling with his repeating of “ZPOW!” over and over. Even the final images of Batman #21‘s startling conclusion are striking, hinting ever more at Dr. Manhattan’s involvement through a touch of blue.
Those seeking answers should probably trade-wait this run, or at the very least wait for next week’s Flash, which might be more illuminating. Batman #21: The Button is a great tease for a story that may have enormous repercussions for the DC Universe, but it’s mostly just more teasing. Let’s get to that story.