Batman/Deathblow: After the Fire
by Brian Azarello, Lee
Bermejo, Tim Bradstreet
(DC/Wildstorm, 2003)

The art is fantastic. Unfortunately, that's about all this story has to recommend it.

Deathblow, a.k.a. Michael Cray, is such a minor character in the DC Universe that many Batman fans will have no idea who he is, which makes it a bit hard to create a believable "team." The fact that this Wildstorm character, a CIA black-ops assassin, has been dead for several years doesn't help.

After the Fire is yet another political intrigue story wrapped around two protagonists who never actually meet but whose methods and very strict morals are similar enough to create a plausible foundation for comparison. It might have worked had the story been in any way coherent, but the plot makes too many confusing leaps back and forth through time, all the while trying to draw rather obvious parallels between the undercover operations like the CIA, and the undercover operations of vigilantes like Batman, in a black and white and somewhere-in-between morality play.

ATF gets credit where credit is due: namely, for tackling the well-worn theme of covert agency corruption, where cat-and-mouse style chess games pit one agent against another. There's little that's shocking about a topic that's been played out in so many spy novels and star-studded, lightweight movies based on Tom Clancy and John Le Carre novels. Trying to find its voice through the character/narrator of Batman, a hero whose mission could not be further removed from that of an assassin's, is a twist that's unique enough to get the reader's attention. So is moving the story back and forth across the space of a decade, as Batman tries to stop an X-Files-type pyromaniac villain, a Vietnamese boy known as Firebug, whom Deathblow was investigating before his death.

It seems that 10 years ago, Deathblow was involved in a dangerous mission in which his life was saved by an agent who was an associate of Bruce Wayne's. The mission is scratched and the agent in question later dies under mysterious circumstances, a plot twist that results in the involvement of the Batman, who wants to know how his friend met such an end.

While the opening reads well and is highly engaging, the middle and end quickly become incoherent. The story wants to take a moral stand and manages to do that very well in the character of Batman, whose strict morality plays like a child's vision of the world against the corruption of the highly compromised CIA. In the process of tracking the same metahuman assassin from Deathblow's botched mission, Batman discovers that he's a bit player in a scheme spawned by an agency whose morality is one huge shade of gray. That's OK, though: in spite of his black-and-white view of right and wrong, Batman can handle this kind of shadowboxing quite easily, navigating the sea of corruption and compromised agents by using the agency's own rule-bending tricks against them. Azarello, who has a good feel for the internal nature of heroes, keeps Batman's focused passion at the forefront of the action, allowing it to propel him from one plot twist to another. All the characters, from Batman's father figure Alfred to Firebug, are allowed defining moments of insight that almost triumph over the twisted plot and jumping timelines.

What sinks the story is the confusing way it's presented. That's the inherent danger of parallel narrative: it splits the reader's focus and creates too many expectations in terms of what needs to be resolved. The story isn't helped by piling on so many intricate plot twists. The finely tuned complexity of the beginning devolves into incomprehensibility toward the end.

The amazing artwork almost but doesn't quite rescue ATF. As grim, gritty and realistic as it comes, the artwork, while completely appropriate for the dark nature of the story, almost makes the story more coherent, especially in the neat use of different colors to highlight different timelines. But in the end, the story is too unfocused and too confusing to follow.

Lovers of great art will appreciate ATF; lovers of good spy novels may wonder how the plot got away from the author so quickly. Somewhat recommended.

- Rambles
written by Mary Harvey
published 10 May 2003

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