Batman: The Drowned #1
Written by Dan Abnett
Art by Philip Tan, Tyler Kirkman, Dean White and Arif Prianto
Lettering by Tom Napolitano
Published by DC Comics
‘Rama Rating: 10 out of 10
“Sometimes you kick. Sometimes you get kicked.”
While the first three Dark Nights: Metal tie-ins either directly or indirectly tackled themes of consequence, fate, and how much our external lives influence our internal lives, Batman: The Drowned is able to serve as a vehicle for those themes while also embracing a few more in such a masterful way that it easily floats to the surface as the best of the tie-ins to date. The comic’s most central theme is best recapitulated in the aforementioned INXS lyric, as Earth-11’s Bryce Wayne acknowledges that you’ll probably drown under the unfair hand the world deals you unless you, quite literally, drown the world first. It’s the skill and depth that writer Dan Abnett explores these heavier thematic elements that really catapults this book to the heights that it reaches, which, given the outstanding performances of artists Philip Tan and Tyler Kirkman and colorists Dean White and Arif Prianto is all the more impressive.
Narratively, the Drowned, who is distinct in that she is the only corrupted Batman so far to not be referred to by that name in the text of the comic book itself, has more in common with the Murder Machine than with the Red Death or the Dawnbreaker. The Drowned isn’t a version of Bruce Wayne that has been born to rule Atlantis, but rather one which uses cunning and intellect to manufacture a powerset that reflects and overpowers that of the Justice League member to whom she is a counterpart. One of the consequences of having a few of the evil Batpeople acquire their powers and enhancements through artificial means is that it reinforces just how competent and dangerous the original Bruce Wayne is. The loss of the humanity that is so vital to Batman could have literally catastrophic consequences for the world. He doesn’t have superpowers, but he’s still one of the most dangerous people on the planet.
After avenging her fallen love, Sylvester Kyle, and murdering every rogue metahuman, Bryce Wayne’s Batwoman prepared to defend against the invading forces of Aquawoman’s Atlantis - or at the very least, her untrusting interpretations of the Atlanteans intentions. She kills the Queen of Atlantis with a trident through the gut, cleverly mirroring Bryce’s narrations about trusting one’s gut. While the art throughout the issue is stunning, and there is a real viciousness to Bryce’s knife-laden design as Batwoman, it’s an odd choice to have her marine-based combat suit include heels. The Atlanteans respond by waging total war on Gotham, flooding the city entirely. In turn, Bryce undergoes self-induced surgery in an unsettling series of panels to integrate Atlantean DNA into her own DNA, turning her into something of a biopunk abomination as opposed to the Murder Machine’s cyberpunk horror. The Drowned then creates an army of Dead Waters to inherit the submerged world that she has created after wiping out the undersea invaders. In an interesting paralel to the Dawnbreaker’s love of darkness, Bryce loathes the light for what it represents: the surface.
And that dichotomy of depths and surface is just one of a multitude overflowing from this issue. The Drowned makes explicit mention of her planned conquest of Amnesty Bay as an example of “the ‘have-nots’ taking what they need from the ‘haves,’” which really shines a light on the cosmic inequality central to the overall Dark Nights: Metal concept, but one which doesn’t get much of a mention in the text prior to this. Bryce Wayne is a villain, but her world turning out the way that it did was out of her hands. As a minus world, it was predetermined. It had to decay, to submerge, to drown for the sake of Earth-0, the surface. The Batman Who Laughs makes this point explicit when he says how the suffering of each dark Batperson is for the betterment of that other world, and that “the worlds and the peoples that paid the price so that the light could thrive.” In the heightened visual and narrative atmosphere of this whole event, that is a jarringly human appeal. Some people are born to be victims of drowning. Some people are born to drown others. “Drown” as a word even captures this prevalent sense of dichotomy. When one “drowns,” there is an ambiguity to whether they are engulfed in water or if they themselves are doing the engulfing. Bryce Wayne is doing both constantly, and her transformation of Mera into a zombie-like Dead Water is dramatically framed as a drowning.
Between the sequential art and the colors, four hands were involved in the visual makeup of this comic book, though you would never tell by looking at the panels. Every panel has the momentum and positioning of well-timed cinematic cuts while never betraying the medium, with panels interacting with The Drowned’s tidal waves early on. The Drowned’s design and presentation at larger than life, arguably coming off as the largest threat among the tie-in antagonists so far. Visually, there is a definite pirate theme to the costume, mirroring some narration where she describes her invasion of Amnesty Bay as piracy, as well as deep-sea predators, mirrored in her aversion to light. Tan and Kirkman are also adept at creating a sense of motion and action within and between panels. White and Prianto beautifully color the distinction between the purple, corrupted waters emanating from The Drowned in juxtaposition to the more natural blue of the ocean. An interesting juxtaposition of blues is in a panel transition between ocean-based scenes and Bryce’s lair, lit by the blue light of her monitor. Her tech is the conduit by which she is able to exist within the sea, so seeing the light from her machinery shining up at her face creates an effect of a character looking into a body of water before taking a dive. Tan and Kirkman seem to convey this visually as well, as Bryce’s adjustment of her cowl has a diver cap or scuba mask vibe to it.
Not only is this tie-in nearly perfect in introducing the reader to a corrupted Batman that they may have otherwise easily written off, it will also likely create new Aquaman readers through the strength of Dan Abnett’s script. This issue is 22 essential pages. Not a single moment or panel is wasted. There isn’t any narrative excess or visually uninspired panels. The issue revels in the weight of everything it presents the reader. Batman: The Drowned definitely warrants a deep dive and rewards readers with a wealth of thematic content to mull over, while also being rewarding as a purely aesthetic experience courtesy of the artists involved.