By Javier E. Trujillo

After trying to sway Batgirl to his side in issue #3, Deathstroke sets his sights on Tim Drake! It’s weird having to get used to thinking this character is Tim Drake again. When initially conceived in the cartoon, he was Tim more in name only, taking many characteristics from the second Robin, Jason Todd, who didn’t make the leap to the animated series. With the passage of time, it’s easy to see some of Damian Wayne’s traits in him as well.

This leads him to Deathstroke and the return of Garfield Lynns, Firefly! Burnett and Dini establish roots to the old series once again, providing a flashback to when we last saw the arsonist. Templeton does his part by modifying and enhancing his look, upgraded to once again take on The Batman. The design adds more detail to the once-simplistic costume, and comes with upgraded threats.

Lest you think the fourth chapter is all about the adventures of Deathstroke & Robin, Batman makes an appearance, too, busting up the Mad Hatter and the Wonderland Gang. It’s a bit of a superfluous fight, seemingly there for the mysterious stalker to follow Batman.

Overall, while the art and writing are great, this fourth chapter wound up feeling unsatisfying. I can’t say there was anything specific that was terribly wrong with it, nor do I have many accolades. It’s just kinda…there. At 99¢, that’s not a crime, though. Burnett and Dini know these characters and are building to something. It’s just hard to feel satisfied at times with these shorter installments.

After a somewhat lackluster last installment, Burnett and Dini turn things up a notch in chapter 5! Picking up from the last chapter’s cliffhanger, Deathstroke and Robin find themselves in a heated engagement with Firefly. Tim’s bravado starts to wane as the heat gets too much for him, which not only humbles our young hero, but indebts him to Deathstroke when he comes to the rescue. Slade is still in wanna-be mentor mode, trying to woo himself into the Bat-Family’s good graces.

Kubina’s colors really pop off the digital page, particularly the bright glow from fire and the inky blood red of the Gotham skyline. Templeton, never a slouch, has some fantastic renditions of the usual Gotham denizens. His Batman is on point, looking bold and dynamic, yet retaining the simplicity of his animated aesthetic. Did anyone else start to get an Ultron vibe from Firefly’s new mask?

Batman comes to the rescue, which of course gets Tim sent home as Deathstroke tries to tell Batman to go easy on him. Once everyone regroups at their hideouts, I was quite excited by the revelations Dini and Burnett drop, tying things in with the first arc and providing answers to Firefly. It took the sting off the last installment.

Chapter 6 sees the close of the “Mentors” arc as Batman teams with Deathstroke to foil Firefly’s plan. Or is it Firefly? Burnett and Dini bring Batman’s observational skills to the forefront as the Dark Knight puts the pieces together.

With the truth behind Deathstroke revealed, the climax rushes to a fiery conclusion as Batgirl and Robin come to the Caped Crusader’s aid, tipped off by our mystery man. The ending feels satisfying, although those looking for more gratuitous violence in a Batman/Deathstroke match will have to turn to a more adult-oriented book.

With Deathstroke defeated, the Bat-Family’s attentions are now more focused than ever on the shadowy figure from the first issue. The tension is firmly set now that it’s been established how proficiently he gets around Gotham, how aware he is of the criminal goings-on, and the most stunning fact-he knows their secrets!

“The Darker Knight” part 1 is probably my most anticipated chapter yet, as we finally get Burnett and Dini’s take on Azrael! While Bane got his animated adaptation in an episode that aired September 10th, 1994, Azrael, as Batman, made his debut the year prior in the comics, but remained absent in the animated continuity until now.

Chapter 7 opens with a familiar sight-Batman chasing Catwoman across the Gotham rooftops! Dini and Burnett take a moment to have Bruce reflect on their relationship dynamic, adding some depth to the proceedings.They are not the Bat/Cat of the King run, but there is some spark there, and Bruce clearly cares about her, despite her being on the wrong side of the law.

It’s during this chase that Azrael makes his fiery debut! Visually, he’s already very close to his first Batman look, but his face mask recalls more of The Phantasm than an avenging angel from the Order of St. Dumas. Hinting at his potential villany perhaps?

Batman recognizes something familiar about his new sparring partner, ruling him out as the stalker of the last 6 chapters. Azrael seems to know his opponent as well, adding an intriguing wrinkle to this version of the character.

It doesn’t take long for Azrael to strike again, aiming a little closer to home as he goes after Alfred at Wayne Manor. I love the expression Templeton gives Alfred as he is threatened by the flaming sword! He comes off as totally bored, just another day of being butler to the World’s Greatest Detective.

After getting the information he needs from Catwoman and turning her over to Gordon, Bruce rushes home. Instead of a rematch, the scene quickly cuts to Batman and a now unmasked Jean-Paul in the Bat Cave, with Jean-Paul explaining why he has come to Gotham and appeared the way he has.

Giving Bruce and Jean-Paul this instant hidden back story allows Bruce to accept Azrael into his circle far easier and explains why he and Alfred modify the costume more in keeping with the Gotham aesthetic. Given the amount of time we have for this limited series, I wasn’t expecting them to stick with the Knightfall storyline verbatim, especially as that whole arc is far more than the 19 chapters it was initially presented as.

The story quickly moves to the two Batmen following the trail Catwoman has set them on as Azrael is trying to retrieve the stolen Shawl of Magdalene. As Batman says, “All roads lead to the Iceberg Lounge.” This lets Azrael give us a hint of how dangerous he is as the new Dynamic Duo confront the Penguin…and friend. I appreciate how Templeton initially keeps Azrael more in shadow than Batman, allowing his red eyes to glow with menace.

Some chapters are better than others, but we’re just over halfway through the story now and it’s really taking off! The art and coloring perfectly capture the look of the show and with Dini and Burnett at the helm, the story beats feel authentic to the characters. Despite some changes to his backstory, I’m already really enjoying their take on Azrael and can’t wait to see where they go with it! Javier E. Trujillo

 GRADES: C+, A, A, A+