Detective comics: 'Batman Eternal' finally reveals mystery villain

I'm a big fan of weekly comics in general, and DC's experiments with the format over the past decade in particular. Some of those weeklies have been among the best DC comics I've ever read (Wednesday Comics, 52), some have been so bad I checked out after after the first few issues (Countdown, Earth 2: World's End), and some have fallen in between (I enjoyed Trinity, and have never hated The New 52: Futures End enough to drop it).

Batman Eternal, which published its 50th issue Wednesday, has been a great example of what's so enjoyable about weekly comics (there's something for you at the shop every Wednesday, they offer space for a large cast and sprawling story), in addition to providing a good blueprint for future weeklies (co-plotters, a small group of rotating scripters who also serve as consulting writers, and a focus on a single franchise), even while representing the main weakness of the format (without massive amounts of lead time, super-speedy artists or a carefully assembled roster of artists with compatible styles, the books will necessarily feature sub-par, often disjointed artwork that will only read worse in trade).

I've actually gotten more and more excited about Batman Eternal the longer it's run, as there's been a mystery to the storyline regarding the identity of the villain. On more than one occasion a villain appears who seems to fit the bill, only to be dismissed later, revealing that he's either working for someone else, or was invited to take part in a conspiracy to destroy Batman and Gotham City by a person unknown to him.

This week's issue, barring any last-minute swerves in the final two installments of the story, finally reveals that villain. It's a hell of a surprise, something of a relief (I was starting to fear co-plotters Scott Snyder and James Tynion IV were going to break some rules of mystery writing and reveal someone who hadn't yet appeared in the series) and also a perfect choice.

Spoilers follow, so don't continue if you haven't read Batman Eternal #50.

The basic story has involved someone framing Commissioner Gordon and landing him in Blackgate Penitentiary, and then gradually attacking Batman and the city on all fronts. By the time the book neared its climax, both Batman and Gotham were in about as bad of shape as they've ever been -- and remember, the epic "Zero Year" just wrapped.

Snyder and company have taken a sort of greatest-hits approach, reminiscent of Jeph Loeb and Jim Lee's "Hush" arc, in which pretty much every major Batman character appears. It's also been comparable, to a lesser extent, to the "Knightfall" mega-arc, in which Batman and his allies fought almost his entire rogues gallery as part of Bane's plan to wear out the Caped Crusader.

So many Batman villains have appeared in the past 50 issues, it's almost easier to name those who haven't than those who have (The Joker, Killer Moth, Crazy Quilt, Egghead, Cornelius Stirk, and, um, I guess I'd have to consult Wikipedia to keep thinking of villains who haven't reared their heads).

Now book-less Batman allies like Batwing, Batwoman and members of Batman Inc. have appeared throughout. Many villains made their New 52 debuts, including adversaries small (Maxie Zeus, Professor Milo, Cluemaster, Ratcatcher, Lock-Up) and huge (Carmine "The Roman" Falcone, Batman: The Cult's Deacon Blackfire, Hush). There have been new supporting characters added to the mix, like Jason Bard, Vicki Vale, Julia Pennyworth and The Spoiler. And there have been dramatic changes in the status quos of many characters, including Batman himself, like Catwoman giving up her costume to become a Falcone-like boss of Gotham City's organized crime, and Harper Row adopting the superheroic identity of Bluebird.

But the hook of series has long been just who the hell it was pulling all the villains' strings, and the writers took an almost perverse delight in introducing a character that appears to be the final boss, only to reveal he was working for a mysterious someone else all along. At times Falcone, Bard, Hush and The Riddler each looked like the real villain. Just recently, Snyder, Tynion and company even had Batman going out of his way just to eliminate a popular guess who hadn't played a role in the series up until that point, Ra's al Ghul.

And in Issue 50, an exhausted and injured Batman climbs to the top of Beacon Tower while much of the city is in flames and and falling apart, and the villain shows himself.







That's right, it was Cluemaster all along!

That was ... unexpected. And that, of course, is a large part of what makes it such an interesting choice. Cluemaster is, of course, a villain so small and insignificant that Batman never even considered him capable enough to pull all of this off (and how exactly he did so will apparently be the focus of the next issue, note the words in the lower-right corner of the panel above).

Cluemaster has been in the book from the very start, first appearing while holding a meeting with some similarly low-level villains in his kitchen in Issue 3, when his daughter Stephanie walks in, kicking off her origin as The Spoiler.

That same issues seems to eliminate Cluemaster as a suspect, however, as there's a mysterious voice coming from the shadows, the apparent boss of Cluemaster and the others. The voice apparently belongs to Hush ... or maybe Bard ... but Hush is eliminated as a suspect (or rather, revealed to be a part of the conspiracy, but not its head), months later in Issue 34.

Cluemaster's origin is revealed in Issue 11 (that's the issue Ian Bertram drew, and therefore the weirdest and best-looking issue of the series), and he appears on and off throughout, but mostly as an antagonist to Stephanie/Spoiler. It's only around Issue 49 that he actually seems to be a suspect (mainly because he's still there while most of the other villains have been dealt with), and, of course, this week, he reveals himself.

He's a smart choice for a lot of reasons. Chief among them is he rather retroactively justifies The Spoiler's heavy involvement in the series, and elevates her importance in the Batman family almost immediately, if she's the archenemy of the guy who has come as close to destroying Gotham City and killing Batman as The Joker ("Death of The Family" and "Endgame") or The Riddler ("Zero Year") ever have.

He's also a genuine shock of a reveal, in that, like Batman, he would seem beneath consideration to most readers, and his connection to The Spoiler masked his presence in the series as anything more than her father, part of her origin.

The character has always been a sort of knock-off Riddler, as well, so it's a fascinating choice in that here he basically repeats The Riddler's feat from "Zero Year," which was wrapping up in the pages of Snyder's Batman just as Batman Eternal was kicking off.

And, most importantly, it's the sort of reveal that makes one want to start re-reading the series almost immediately. Cluemaster boasts the clues were there all along. I'm not positive they were, but that could be on account of various narrative tricks and the occasionally poorly visually communicated page of the script, just like finding out that Brad Pitt was just Edward Norton's imaginary friend, or that Bruce Willis was dead the whole time transforms those popular movies with twist endings as soon as the twist is revealed.

There are certainly worse ways for Batman fans to spend the next few months, as they await the next big Batman mystery—how he goes from here to being a big, bunny-eared blue robot in June's Batman #41:

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