The true star of The Next Batman is Derington and Bonvillain’s Gotham City
For a DC Comics first, the publisher’s first black Batman as part of its official cannon and multiverse, Future State: The Next Batman #1 is somewhat underwhelming. That’s not to say it’s a bad comic, but given its short runtime and the fact this was to be a momentous occasion, this first entry of the miniseries set within the world of Future State is not the statement on the future of DC I thought it would be.
But these observations largely concern the new Batman’s character development and plot progression domains. I believe writer John Ridley could’ve gone for a more explosive opening rather than the more subdued and slow-paced intro he settled for.
Fortunately, Future State: The Next Batman #1 is very much a two-sided coin, with the other side belonging to Nick Derington’s kinetic and vibrant illustrations and Tamra Bonvillain’s pop-like colors. What this team achieved with their share of the storytelling goes above and beyond what the words accomplished, giving us a new and truly different take on Gotham City.
Future State is presented as a dystopian version of the DCU in which a private police force called The Magistrate is cracking down on masks in the name of law and order. As such, this short jump into the future feels more science fiction than the usual superhero comic. There are traces of cyberpunk and classic police state imagery coursing through the majority of the Future State stories. Derington and Bonvillain take full advantage of this to give a masterclass on worldbuilding through their version of Gotham while still honoring the city’s past iterations.
In a surprise twist on the traditional Batman formula, Derington and Bonvillain decide to bathe Gotham in colors. Whereas artists such as Greg Capullo, J.H. Williams III, Frank Miller, and Jim Lee have gone for more of a modern gothic look for their Gothams (all unique in their own way), Derington and Bonvillain aim at altering the city’s very identity with more lights, which means less shadows to hide in.
Whereas the artists gave us a city defined by dark alleyways and towering symbols of moral corruption, Derington and Bonvillain opted for a Gotham that’s wide awake and somewhat paranoid. It’s hard to escape the sensation that Batman is being watched from all sides and that Gotham is playing against the hero’s strengths. As consequence, Future State Gotham becomes a living trap that forces Batman to do his bidding while being completely exposed to the police force that patrols the city.
Bonvillain’s colors excel at creating this effect. Even when in an alley, nothing is entirely drenched black. There’s a light source in every panel, as if a spotlight were always trained on Batman. It creates a sense of inevitable surveillance and raises the stakes in each action sequence because of it.
Derington’s line work is full of movement and fluidity, taking a step away from the brooding and inky settings Gotham is known for. For a dystopian version of iconic city, the comic prefers to keep things from looking too futuristic. In fact, it’s in the Magistrate’s security officers and gadgets that The Next Batman finds its science fiction elements. Batman’s mouth covering does give the character a semi-futuristic look and sets him apart from the previous Batman, but Derington and Ridley put him in a future in which architectural and technological change has come slowly.
Despite that, the comic emits an almost neon glow that remind readers that the new Gotham is no longer the hunting ground of Bruce Wayne’s Batman. It seems to demand a new Batman take to patroling its streets. It adds to the comic’s sense of discovery and strangeness. This Gotham doesn’t belong to the New Batman yet. It has to be tamed. As a result, this turns the caped crusader into a candidate for the title of city protector. As of yet, he’s merely in the running for the position.
Fans of Batman Universe, written by Brian Michael Bendis, will have a lot to look forward to in Future State: The Next Batman series as well given Derington’s already impressive interpretation of Batman and his world in that book. In Batman Universe, colored by Dave Stewart, Derington goes for a more Brave and the Bold vibe that highlights Batman’s visual versatility. He gets to play with more fantasy elements here than in Next Batman, but the sense that he’s talented enough to make Batman his own is already present there.
The visual quality of Future State: The Next Batman #1 guides Batman’s character development down less conventional paths. That the city is so new as well means we as readers are also testing this Batman out. He has to win our hearts and our hard-earned money come new comics Wednesday. So far, Derington and Bonvillain are making a strong case for it on visuals alone.