There is a moment early on in Batman: Universe #1 in which the titular Caped Crusader chases the Riddler through a crowded building filled with henchmen (who are also dressed in Edward Nygma's signature green costume). The Dark Knight fights his way through the stand-in army to get to his target, and the stolen loot -- an extremely valuable Fabergé egg. As Batman closes in, the real Riddler brandishes a pistol. The next panel cuts to a tight shot of Batman's furrowed, masked brow as he literally stares down the barrel of the gun. It's the final panel on the page and begs the reader to turn it to see what happens next.
Surely Riddler isn't going to gun down the Batman. We've read enough comics to know Bruce Wayne has contingency plans for his contingency plans. A frightened villain with a single pistol isn't going to cut down the Dark Knight. None have so far. And of course, we're right. Riddler doesn't even get a chance to use his gun. The next page begins with Batman tackling Riddler through a restaurant window, ruining a fine-dining experience for a few dozen or so Gotham citizens.
There is a breathlessness to the scene. Despite some of the sillier aspects, like a flash mob of Riddlers or the fact the loot is basically a knickknack with a ridiculously steep price tag, there is a moment of fleeting fear when Nygma pulls that pistol. And while the fear is quelled instantly, it's still enthralling. Even after all this time, there is always a moment of doubt. One day, maybe not in our lifetimes, readers will see the true end of Batman. Maybe not. But capturing these tiny moments of doubt by focusing on the character's reactions and interactions is what makes Batman and his Rogues Gallery timeless. And that's exactly how Batman: Universe #1 feels: timeless.
Brian Michael Bendis' script walks a fine line between thrilling and hokey, which is probably the line most Batman writers strive for, at least based on the past eight years of output. The action, pacing and the ever expanding mystery play to Bendis' strengths as a comic scribe. He honors what came before him while always looking to the future. Batman: Universe #1 feels like a lost story pitch from the last Silver Age, early Bronze Age or possibly the 1966 Batman television show that Bendis and artist Nick Derington scooped up and decided to integrate into the current DC Comics oeuvre.
This Batman is tough, but he looks like a guy wearing pajamas and combat books. He's brooding, but he's back in the classic blue and grey getup. The mystery is silly and again, focusing on a Fabergé egg at first, but it evolves into something larger and more sinister. The villains are goofy, until they're not, particularly Deathstroke.
It's these shifts in dramatic tone, themes and plotting and how they are presented in one consistent aesthetic that makes Batman Universe #1 so compelling. The cohesion, however, sits heavily on the shoulders of Derington, who never wavers. He has crafted the perfect Batman for the story he and Bendis are trying to tell, and it's instantly iconic. Derington has been doing amazing work for DC Comics the year or so. His work on Doom Patrol has been second to none, and seeing him draw a Batman title straddling the line between eras of the character feels like it's a gig he was born to take.
Batman: Universe #1 is more than just a reprint of material originally published in Walmart exclusives Batman Giant #3 and #4. It is version of the character we do not get to see terribly often these days. With Batman being psychologically tortured in Tom King's current run and getting blasted off into space in the pages of Justice League and dealing with massive global conspiracies in Event Leviathan, it's just nice to see the Caped Crusader dealing with costumed goons and stolen goods again. Batman has seen and done everything, which is probably why getting back to basics feels so novel.