“Digital is the wave of the future and guess what? The future is now!”
I’ve got a fondness for Elseworlds-type stories – particularly anything involving Batman. Seeing these iconic characters in different settings, free from the constraints of their labyrinthine canon and backstory, is a lot of fun. But the problem with these tales is that they’re so often hit and miss. The quality varies greatly. And that brings me to Batman: Digital Justice, a 90s Batman story that takes place in the Gotham of the future; a city consumed by technology and computers. It’s all very 90s. But is there anything of merit here?
I first discovered Digital Justice while I was reading the Grant Morrison Batman Incorporated story ‘Batman and Oracle in: Nightmares in Numberland’ – which is perhaps the ugliest comic book story I’ve seen, with some really atrocious 3D art. That led me down a rabbit hole of online comic book criticism that ended at Digital Justice, the supposed first completely computer generated Batman story that was probably also the inspiration for that awful Morrison issue. I found a copy of eBay for £3.50 – which struck me as a little low for a 30-year-old hardback comic. But it soon made sense. Because Batman: Digital Justice is unlikely to become a collector’s item.
First, the elephant in the room; the art style. Pepe Moreno is an artist and sometimes comic book writer that works in the digital realm. The intro to this book makes him sound like Morpheus or something, a man with a special connection to the scary new technology known as “computers”. It was 1990, so I understand that this was a big deal back then. But I can’t imagine anyone at the time looked at the blocky, low-res art style and though it looked better than traditional comic book art. There are moments where the art doesn’t look awful, moments where there is a glimpse of an interesting idea. And I’d be lying if I said that it didn’t create a warm feeling of nostalgia at times, and the trippy glitch art usually lands on the right side of weird. Sadly, it’s just ugly. I had a headache after finishing it. For every interesting shot of the new Gotham skyline, there’s an awful facial expression, or a repeated sprite (which is a lot), or the godawful Lawnmower Man Joker.
But there is a story in here. And that’s actually pretty good, for the most part. Gotham of the 21st Century has become a digital police state, thanks to the army of robots policing the streets. There are still flesh and blood cops, but they’re only still around for appearances. The story follows the grandson of the original Commissioner Gordon, Sergeant James Gordon. He’s a grizzled, noir-y stereotype for the most part, clearly a riff on Rick Deckard from Blade Runner. He’s fighting a corrupt system, but things seem to be getting worse, with the robotic security seemingly gunning people down without reason. When him and his partner get close to discovering a conspiracy, she is killed. In his despair, he delves into his Grandfather’s belongings and discovers a note from Bruce Wayne to Gordon, revealing himself to be Batman. Along with it, there’s an old Batsuit. Gordon decides that the people once again need a symbol and begins working outside the law as the new Batman.
From there, things get a bit more familiar, as Gordon patrols the neon-drenched streets of Gotham Megatropolis. His crime-fighting upsets the wrong people, namely the strange mix of villains running the city under the watchful digital eyes of the Joker Virus. Gordon soon gets aid from the Batcom, an AI created by Bruce Wayne back in the early days to combat what he saw as the next threat to Gotham; the digital world. This brings with a flying Batmobile and a little android named Alfred. On top of this, there’s a young kid named Tommy Chang who is part of some weird hover-board gang who becomes the new Robin. And there’s a superstar named Gata who becomes the new Catwoman. So all of the familiar pieces do eventually fall into place and the story becomes a lot better for it. It moves away from being some paranoid early-90s noir parable about the dangers of technology and becomes more of a Batman-infused version of William Gibson’s Neuromancer. Though maybe not quite as good as that sounds.
By the third issue of this four-issue story, I was enjoying it a hell of a lot more than I thought I was. As it went into the fourth issue, I was disgusted with the idea that I might actually rate it four out of five on Goodreads, despite the ugliness of the art and my subsequent pounding headache. But like a lot of stories that exist in this cyberpunk realm, it collapses under the weight of it’s own techno-babble in the home stretch. The Joker Virus and the Batcom have a digital duel for the fate of the city and it’s a mess. It highlights the shortcomings of the art even more and the plot becomes nearly impossible to discern. Also, this story began as Gordon’s story, so it’s a shame he needed the original Batman (or an AI version of him) to save the day. I feel like it undermines the rest of the story, of the idea of Batman as a physical symbol of hope.
I joked about how gross the art is, but I could have given it more of a pass if the story had stuck the landing. As it stands, it’s not actually the embarrassing relic of the early-90s that you might think. The art is very dated, but there is a cool retro element to a lot of the panels (and it looks miles better than ‘Nightmares in Numberland’). The story is a familiar one at its core, but the cyberpunk trappings offer a really interesting look at a new version of Batman and the Bat-mythos.
It’s a shame that it’s been somewhat forgotten, but not really a surprise. There’s not really enough here to recommend. But if, like me, you enjoy the weird and wonderful in Batman’s back catalogue, there are worse ways to spend £3.50.