Did DC’s Lost Batman Cyberpunk Story Predict the Future?

Batman: Dark Justice took a peek at the Dark Knight in a future world, but how well did the cutting edge story describe what was yet to come?

Science fiction exists in a temporal paradox. Yesterday’s dreams, so full of the impossible and unattainable, become obsolete as the present advances into the future. It’s a mixture of futurism and retrofuturism because anticipations of what’s to come are inherently dated based on the available technology of the time. It is the principles of the advancements that matter more than the specific physical technology behind them.

Batman: Digital Justice (by Doug Murray and Pepe Moreno) is a shining example of retrofuturism and speculative fiction. Published in 1990, it presents a world composed entirely of numerical integration. The boundary between the analog and digital worlds is thin and blurred; it depicts a future of fantastic scientific advances plagued by dystopian nightmares.

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The premise of Batman: Digital Justice Is simple. Sergeant Jim Gordon, Commissioner Gordon’s grandson, is disappointed with his job and the world at large. Automated sentry robots kill criminals and innocents without repercussions, and information released to the public is doctored and distorted. Stumbling upon information so sensitive that his partner is murdered after it is discovered, Gordon finds himself trapped in Gotham City with nowhere to hide and no one to turn to for help. All seems lost until he discovers the remains of Batman’s original costume and gear, a figure most believed to be an urban legend.

With the help of two computer AIs inspired by Bruce Wayne and his butler Alfred, Gordon begins to fight the corruption that pervades Gotham alongside a young boy named Bobby Chang who takes over the mantle of Robin. His targets are those who pull the strings behind the scenes: Lawman, Mediaman, Moblord, and Madame X. As Gotham’s liberation seems imminent, the real evil plaguing the city turns out to be caused by Batman’s nemesis, the Joker. Embodied as a virus created by the original Clown Prince of Crime, the Joker virus controls everything and everyone in Gotham, intent on keeping the masses docile and in control.

The story culminates with the Joker virus battling Batman’s AI. The two digital constructions are unable to kill each other and merge in turn, disappearing forever into the digital void. Gotham is free from the machinations of the Joker Virus, and the individuals responsible for perpetuating the Joker’s schemes are deposed. With the city once again in the hands of flesh-and-blood humans, Gordon and Robin swear to continue their vigilance over the city.

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Batman: Digital Justice boasts of being on par with the works of Philip K. Dick, Aldous Huxley and George Orwell, the respective authors of Do androids dream of electric sheep?, The best of worldsand 1984. The themes that make up their stories center around identity, free will, information regulation and syndication, and the perils of fascist governments. The sci-fi subgenre known as cyberpunk was born from the fusion of these themes and concepts in the early 80s.

More than the popular designs of rain-soaked streets and neon lights, the heart of cyberpunk exists in the spirit of rebellion. Batman: Digital Justice, despite its brevity and occasional country character, respects the spirit of cyberpunk well. Gordon’s nihilism and disdain for the world around him, coupled with his desire for justice, place him in the same realm as the works of William Gibson. Computers, body augmentations, and a focus on future technology are all aesthetics that complement the heart of the story.

The technology featured in the story is a surprisingly accurate representation of what is available over thirty years later. The characters use cards with universal credits accessible at once on a computer station; apartments are equipped with AI programs that talk to residents and can provide services with nothing more than voice commands; phones can be used wirelessly and act as mobile computers. The very existence of today’s cell phone technology is the root of nearly all future technology featured in the comic. This is somewhat similar to the depiction of Internet 3.0, Batman’s proprietary internet service in 2011. Batman: Incorporated and the rise of virtual and augmented reality through services such as Meta.

But at the same time Batman: Digital Justice might seem authoritative in its retrofuturism and social commentary, it succeeded as a cautionary tale of the pitfalls of technology. The story references current issues including the spread of falsified information, the rise of neo-fascist organizations, the masses’ reliance on digital entertainment, and the ability to live connected to the world at all times. Batman: Digital Justice awesome predicts all of these things.

Despite some flaws with its dialogue and pacing, Batman: Digital Justice is still a fascinating piece of science fiction. While he may not have had the stamina of the science fiction masters he stood next to, Batman: Digital Justice exists as a necessary experience in the production of digital art and should be considered as such. Without radical ideas like this, there would be no progress in what is considered modern and cutting-edge. It may not be Batman’s most famous story, but it’s certainly one of his most unique.

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