The Signal is one of the most intriguing Batman supporting characters to appear in years. Duke Thomas is not just another Robin. Instead he’s his own man, a unique partner to the Bat. He has super-powers but he’s not defined by his powers. He’s a partner, but he is not a sidekick. He’s an avenger of brutal crimes, but he has his own agenda, his own approach. He is no sidekick, no new Robin. Duke Thomas is his own man, who will be shaped into his own kind of hero.
Batman and the Signal collects Duke’s first two stories from All-Star Batman as well as the miniseries Batman and the Signal. From the first pages, created by the team of Scott Snyder, Declan Shalvey and Jordie Bellaire, readers see Duke depicted as a fighter, a strong hero whom Batman tutors into growing into a more fully fledged hero. We read some lovely characterization of Duke, including a telling anecdote about his mother, a social worker: “when you weren’t sure about someone, you met them first thing in the morning, in the new light, you said. People have a harder time hiding who they are first thing in the morning.”
That anecdote illuminates Duke’s life. It shows the deep love Duke has for his mom, which renders all the more tragic his mom’s mental breakdown at the hands of the Joker. It shows why he feels compelled to fight crime. It shows why he need a father figure like the Batman to help guide his way. And that telling anecdote shows why Duke, unlike every other Batman ally, fights during the daytime. That’s classic Scott Snyder writing, using a small anecdote to illuminate character.
This collection contains several of Duke’s battles alongside Batman as the boy begins to become a man. In a battle against the serial slasher Szasz, illustrated gloriously by Shalvey, we learn more about Duke as he confronts a menace that confounds all logic. In the second tale, with wonderful art by Francesco Francavilla, we witness Duke’s intelligence and grit as he faces down a threat from the Riddler.
Those stories are both written by Scott Snyder, who shows his mastery of the bat universe by delivering a perfect balance of characterization and action, of normal human pathos and the deeply complex and deeply terrible world that Batman brings.
The next set of issues are co-written by Snyder but most of the work seems to be done by his protégé Tony Patrick. “Gotham by Day” is a compelling storyline but lacks the verve and thrills Snyder brings to his story. It does however, add to Duke’s characterization by playing up his powers in contrast with a villain who has the opposite powers. Snyder and Patrick also return Duke to his home neighborhood of the Narrows, where he faces friends turned into monsters.
This sequence of issues shines brightest when spending time on supporting characters. Duke’s guardian Jay is a brave man who overcomes his own fears to become a strong father figure to the boy – and offer a fascinating alternative to broken Bruce Wayne. The other standout character from these issues is Alex Aisi, a smart, brave and emotionally strong woman who works as a kind of Commissioner Gordon for the Signal.
It’s a perfect symbol for this book that Alex has lost an arm in the line of duty but continues to perform all her duties while wearing a prosthetic. She’s overcome her seeming disability and rose to a position of importance in the GCPD. She’s a worthy partner for Duke, who lost so much of his youth but who this book shows is growing into his deep potential.