Batman: The Murder Machine #1
Written by Frank Tieri and James Tynion IV
Art by Riccardo Federici and Rain Beredo
Lettering by Tom Napolitano
Published by DC Comics
‘Rama Rating: 9 out of 10
If last week’s Batman: The Red Death was a case study in Alan Moore’s “One Bad Day” theory of Batman becoming a villain, Batman: The Murder Machine #1’s great source of dread is that it isn’t one particular bad day, but any one of us or our heroes can be utterly changed and corrupted by any number of catastrophes both world-shaking and profoundly personal. Writers Frank Tieri and James Tynion IV deliver an impressive story that is captivating from start to finish, while artist Riccardo Federici and colorist Rain Beredo deliver an onslaught of highly detailed and engaging panels. The result is both a story and visual presentation that reflects the human/machine dichotomy of its two subjects, Batman and Cyborg.
The Murder Machine’s contrast compared to The Red Death starts on the first page. Readers don’t get the full view of Batman becoming the Murder Machine. Instead, we open on Cyborg in the Justice League Satellite having a video conversation with his father when the system alerts him to Batman’s presence. Earth-44’s Murder Machine Batman surprises Cyborg and quickly knocks him to the ground while uttering a line that will have eerie resonance throughout the issue, “I’m here to help.” A flashback ensues and readers are treated to another Bruce Wayne corrupting “bad day.” Batman’s rogues take turns in brutalizing Alfred in the first of a handful of genuinely upsetting and distressing scenes in the comic, with Bruce Wayne-44’s repeated viewings of footage of Bane breaking Alfred’s back before killing him kicking off the violence in the issue that gets pretty close to being outright uncomfortable - though with a title like “Murder Machine,” it’s to be expected. This is a mature comic book and it takes advantage of that effect, becoming a single-issue adrenaline shot for an unexpecting reader.
Bruce, who has digitized Alfred’s consciousness with Cyborg’s help, seeks to artificially reconstruct his beloved father figure. The AI malfunctions and begins to continually self-replicate as it systematically murders every one of Batman’s threats in an effort to protect his charge, all while repeating the cold mantra of “How may I help you?” Despite Victor’s protests, Bruce goes against Victor’s warnings and lets the Alfred-AI’s into the Batcave, where they infest and overtake his body and humanity. This scene is described through dialogue, which works well enough in establishing it as a gruesome instance, but it does seem odd that a comic book in which an elderly man’s back is broken, a man’s head is ripped from his body with his spine attached a la Sub-Zero’s classic Mortal Kombat fatality, and the main universe’s Cyborg is hopelessly ripped limb from limb, that it chooses this pivotal moment to happen off-panel.
Artistically, Federici’s work bears some resemblance to Juan Giménez’s work on The Metabarons, with the fine attention to detail and coloring courtesy of Beredo gives the issue an aesthetically timeless quality. Strip all dialogue from this comic and it would be hard to peg when exactly in the past thirty years this issue came out. This issue’s thematic interest in father and son dynamics juxtaposed with humanity and cybernetic dynamics makes a comparison to Jodorowsky’s classic interesting to explore, especially as Tieri and Tynion avoid making the Murder Machine a cold, android parody of Bruce Wayne. Murder Machine’s dialogue when specifically focused on Alfred takes on vaguely religious tones with the level of reverence and devotion implicit in the text, which also parallels the dogmatic transhuman and posthuman themes of Metabarons. The dialogue is strong throughout, and Cyborg’s father demanding to know “How can I help you?!” as his son is being mutilated is particularly striking.
While the art is noteworthy, there is something about the Murder Machine’s face that is distracting in some panels, particularly when it has a grimace that originates an uncannily long distance from the center of his face. Apart from that, few artists have been able to depict the melding of technology with organic material as effectively as Federici, with the ever changing and tentacle laden depictions making the cybernetically enhanced Batman downright alien. The plot also has some minor issues. While most of the flashbacks appear delicately placed, the last one feels arbitrary and disrupts some of the narrative flow. It’s hardly major, and most readers will likely not be bothered or even notice.
With Batman: The Murder Machine #1, this event again bears some of its strongest fruit in the issues that would otherwise seem like throwaways or inessential. And while you may not need this issue to understand the main event storyline, it's hard to not emphatically recommend it for readers who are enjoying where Dark Nights: Metal. It’s also hard to not find yourself eagerly anticipating the next tie-in given the strength of this one, which is a sentiment few comic readers often have.