Batman Digital Justice created by Pepe Moreno was released in 1990 and someone at DC was clearly banking on this one making some waves or being the next big thing, given it’s larger format and the lavish hardback treatment, complete with a silver circuit board design on the books inside cover.
The cover proudly boasts “Computer Generated” which is a strange thing to read in 2015. With computers being so ubiquitous in the creation of modern comics and indeed many other types of media it would now barely seem worth pointing out. Computers are now a natural extension of an artists toolbox and in most cases used to replicate or add to traditional media, obfuscated to the point that you probably can’t tell. Digital Justice is the other extreme, using very early and basic art software it has a distinctly synthetic and computerised feel to it. It’s basically the future as seen standing on the cusp of the 90’s. That becomes part of it’s charm, how it’s essentially a time capsule. A snapshot of a certain moment in time and in comics.
I know I said I try to refrain from the negative, sarcastic style of reviewing, which would be really easy to slip into for Digital Justice, but there is just one thing I can’t let slide. Inside the dust jacket the copy proudly declares “Digital Justice will be compared to such dystopian visions as 1984, Brave New World, Blade Runner, the novels of Phillip K.Dick”. A bold, bold statement and an especially strange one to make directly upon the books release, rather then letting the public decide. If I had to guess I’d say you’ve heard of the works it’s compared too and not Digital Justice. They’re incredibly high bench marks for any book, never mind this one so kudos for the creators for at least aiming high.In a lot of ways it makes perfect sense. If you’re going to draw influence from something it might as well be something decent.
The story is essentially a melding of the Batman mythos with the Neuromancer, cyberpunk dystopia aesthetic that was all the rage for a few moments back in the early 90s. In terms of setting the Batman has always proven to be pretty robust when it comes to reinterpretation. As seen in countless comics and the Batman Beyond cartoon, a future setting works more often than not. Maybe it’s the gadgets, maybe it’s the brooding, whatever it is Batman seems to work when thrust into a suitably dark dystopia It’s certainly no more gimmicky or silly then any other Elseworlds tale and I certainly enjoyed reading it a lot more then the dreary attempt at po-faced Dracula Batman and it’s ilk.
Sometime in the next century in Gotham Megatropolis, on the surface an almost perfect place but in reality “a world with a heart that beats in binary code. One or Zero-god or the void”. Overwhelmed with technology and cold unfeeling code the legend of Batman has all but been forgotten until a cop, Jim Gordon dons the suit to fight a rouge code dominating the cities citizens behind the scenes. If you can’t guess even now who the uploaded conciousness behind the rouge code is even now, then you are probably someone who has never read a Batman book. Jim is of course the grandson of Commissioner Gordon and with the recent Batman stories I’m left wondering if the Gordon and Wayne families will forever be entwined with members taking turns to adopt various Bat-personas, forever and ever amen.
This is one of my favourite panels. Early on in the book Gordon stumbles upon a box of his fathers effects from his time on Gotham’s police force. Among them is a newspaper informing us that Bruce Wayne threw Batman a Lavish retirement party. I defy anyone not to imagine that playing out like a scene from Mrs Doubtfire, with Bruce awkwardly changing between outfits throughout the party. Just me? oh well.
If there’s one comparison that the cover flap got right, it’s Neuromancer, at least in terms of the language used. like William Gibson’s seminal cyberpunk novel, it drops the reader right into the thick of it in terms of language. There’s no hand holding here, as with Gibson’s novel words are introduced without explanation and left to the reader to work out within the context. It’s not quite to the same extreme and with twenty five years of technology and the language surrounding it becoming more common place, it’s a lot less jarring. Maybe one of the overlooked misses in speculative fiction that isn’t often mentioned is language, who could have predicted the future wouldn’t be full of ‘neo’ or ‘synth’ but ‘clouds’ and ‘pods’. However what is interesting are the themes that have come right back around to being relevant again, or at the very least were included and have since become more relevant. At the start of the story Gordon has to deal with unmanned and armoured Police Drones out of their jurisdiction who shout several civilians and police officers, a subject in the public eye as of late and tackled in the lacklustre Robocop.
As previously alluded too, it’s boiled down to the most recognisable elements even the most casual comic book reader would recognise, Batman and Robin, The Joker and of course Catwoman. Here she is cast as a futuristic pop star who reinvents herself as Batman’s sometimes adversary after news of him and his exploits start stealing attention and viewers away from her own concerts. To begin with she uses the costume and identity merely to garner attention back for her own shows, using the costumed superhero and villain more as a fashion statement before eventually being drawn into the action and aiding Batman. It’s an inventive take on the music industry latching onto other trends.
First tackling street based crime, Batman eventually uses a digital avatar to destroy the digital version of the joker who is behind the underlying troubles plaguing the Megatropolis. This is when it gets the most Gibson-esque with a full page of full blown, free flowing digital beat poetry.
Produced by Moreno, the distinctive computer artwork is definitely polarising. The few people I showed it to in preparation for this post either loved it for it’s retro kick or were really put off by it. Whatever your opinion it’s a testament to Moreno that this boo exists at all. Working in 1990 he was using hardware that just wasn’t meant to produce artwork, let alone a full graphic novel. Pushing what limited hardware he had to the limit he pulled it off. It’s an experiment, but what a fascinating one. Don’t get me wrong, twenty five years on Digital Justice looks dated as hell, as it probably did about five minutes after it’s release in 1990. It’s strange in that it both wants to draw attention to and away from the distinct art style at the same time, often unsure of itself. The intro describes Moreno’s desire to “turn cold computer technology into a warm product and make the computer invisible” and while the technology is clearly very visible throughout, he has succeeded on the other front. Digital Justice, past it’s artwork and boundary pushing does have a heart at it’s centre and not one that beats in binary code. Neither of these books are masterpieces but they are charmingly offbeat and quite obviously made with love and at times equally both dumb and fun. Two examples of creators making a distinct and idiosyncratic version of what they considered to be Batman, creating two books I’d gladly pull down from the shelf or list among my favourites.