Originally Published January 20, 2012
DC Comics recently relaunched their entire series, giving curious but uninitiated nerds a convenient entry point. Fellow blogger Patrick Ehlers and I are two such nerds, and we’ve decided to jump in with a handful of monthly titles. We really wanted to pull out all the nerd stops, so we’re also going to be writing about them here and on Patrick’s Blog (which you should all be reading anyway) every Friday. This week, I’m hosting the discussion of Batman, while Patrick is hosting the discussion of Wonder Woman.
Drew: I recently made a claim on my blog that, for me anyway, it is impossible to “spoil” a work of art by giving away the narrative. Part of this claim comes from the general predictability in the plotting of most stories, and part of this comes from the fact that I’m much more interested in how the story is told than the details of the story itself. What I hadn’t considered is that there could be benefit in not knowing how a story is going to be told; that the methods of the storytelling could be spoiled. It’s understandable that this hadn’t occurred to me — very few art forms feature methods that could have the kind of surprise visceral impact I’m talking about here — but after reading Batman #5, I’m going to be much wearier of spoilers in comics.
[SPOILER ALERT! I realize this is probably unnecessary for these in-depth discussions we do here, but I want to give everyone a fair warning. DO NOT READ ANY FURTHER if you haven't read this issue, preferably in print. Seriously.]
You see, I follow a number of comic writers, artists, and reviewers on twitter. It’s fun to see a little of the personalities of artists you admire, and the reviews keep me cued in to any good titles I may be missing. I’ll also see reviews for comics I’m already planning on reading, which is usually fine, since I already know those are good. Today, however, I read a tweet from @comictwits that stated that Greg Capullo’s art this issue “sends the reading experience head over heels (literally),” which immediately suggested to me that we’d be seeing some play in the up-down schema of the book. This seemed corroborated by the frustration Capullo had expressed earlier this week with ad placement in the issue — I right-side-up ad would be kind of jarring next to a upside-down page. This kind of outside-the-box layout work has been one of the things that has excited me so much about this title, and this specific device was something I hadn’t seen since Rose’s dream towards the end of The Sandman: The Doll’s House. I was excited to see how and why we’d be using this devise in Batman.
The issue didn’t disappoint — delivering a solid story that perfectly justified the device — but my excitement over anticipating rotating the book in my hands soured when I realized how much more of an impact that sequence would have had if I hadn’t known it was coming. It’s hard to say if I would have appreciated this more if I hadn’t been tipped off by those tweets, but the fact is, I was so caught up in being aware of the methods being used that I wasn’t able to appreciate their visceral qualities. Postmodernism is a bitch. The point is, this is a fantastic issue, but I’m kind of upset that I missed something by knowing about it ahead of time.
It really is a fantastic issue. It opens with Bullock confronting Gordon about running the Bat Signal on end for over a week. Bullock’s first line is meant to make us think he’s talking about Batman’s pending mortality, but it’s a little too on-the-nose, and forces him to keep referring to the Bat Signal as a “he” throughout the rest of the scene. That awkwardness aside, the opening sequence fills us in that Bruce has been AWOL for eight days, and gives us glimpses of all of the bat family that’s out looking for him. We then plunge into the Court of Owls’ subterranean labyrinth, where Bruce has been quietly wending since he was dropped there over a week ago. That amount of time on edge would be enough to push the limits of Bruce’s mind, but he knows that they’ve also drugged the water he’s been sustaining himself on.
What follows is one hell of a dream sequence, where Bruce’s internal monologue runs in circles as often as his path does. He returns at regular intervals to a room filled with sequential portraits of past victims of the labyrinth as they slowly waste away. That sequential portraits are a perfect device for conveying the passage of time within a comic just further tightens the thematic coil as Batman returns to this room again and again. Bruce’s cracks start showing when he attacks a hallucination of The Court of Owls. It’s here that Bruce shows he’s really starting to lose it — his monologue turns to petty posturing about how nobody can hide from him, and about how Gotham is his city. It’s here that the issue requires it’s first quarter rotation, a well-placed meta-textual indicator that Bruce has started to lose it. It’s difficult to tell what Bruce is actually experiencing as he continues to hallucinate, culminating in a reunion with his elderly parents. Another quarter turn (for those keping score, the book is now upside-down). His elation is cut short, however, as owl’s grotesquely climb out of his parents’ mouths and begin to attack him. He’s apparently able to get ahold of himself, and seems to make progress in his escape, only to find himself back in the portrait room. At this moment, the Talon (who had been ominously trailing him for much of the issue, runs Bruce through with his knife. Cut to the Bat Signal finally “dying.” The symbolism is not lost on Damian, who is there to insist that Gordon fix it; first petulantly, then desperately.
It’s a testament to how well the rotating page effect works that I’m so upset about knowing about them ahead of time. The direction of the art on the page is an obvious indicator of Bruce’s grasp on reality, but it’s one that is quite effective. Last month’s issue got me questioning Bruce’s reliability as a narrator, and this issue drives that point home as even Bruce can’t trust his own eyes. If nothing else, the rotating pages gives Capullo some room for some breathtaking landscape layouts, and Bruce’s mental state give him some room to craft some truly bizarre images (not to mention some crazy cape effects). The effect of the rotation is most apparent when we snap back to reality for the final sequence on top of GCPD, where everything is right-side-up again, forcing us to remember that we had turned the whole book over.
So what do we think? Was Bruce really stabbed? I hate predicting these things, but there are so many juicy clues here, it’s hard to not want to hash it out a bit. We’re still firmly in upside-down world when that happens, suggesting that it isn’t real. Moreover, Bruce is still depicted as having owl talon hands when he is stabbed, making it clear that Bruce is still hallucinating. Does that mean he wasn’t stabbed? Hardly. It’s hard to tell how much reality is showing up in Bruce’s hallucinations, but it’s entirely possible that he can experience real things even while maintaining his delusions. Plus, “it was all a dream” is a cheap trick, even when you make it apparent that it’s a dream — especially if you’re going to pin a cliffhanger on it.
Here’s the thing, though: I don’t even think the Talon is down there with Bruce. He doesn’t make his first appearance until after Bruce drinks the water, and is almost always seen indirectly, either as a reflection, or a silhouette, or even just out of focus. In fact, the splash page where he stabs Bruce is the only time we see him illustrated normally, and he’s directly interacting with Bruce’s talon hands, suggesting that he too is a hallucination. I could very well be wrong about this; the glimpses we get of the Talon throughout the issue may be glimpses of reality in spite of Bruce’s madness. He typically only appears in what we could consider Bruce’s lucid moments.
One of the things I’m loving so much about this title is just how much it rewards this level of scrutiny. Scott Snyder has crafted a beautiful issue here, putting on a compelling descent into madness that is only enhanced by the showcase of Capullo’s talents. None of the other title’s we’re reading are this rich with literary details and artistry. I love Batman for mysteries, and Snyder has managed to take the mystery beyond the physical world of the story and into the mind. He’s turned the clues from linseed oil and DNA into meta-textual details like photograph scratches and page rotation. In doing so, he’s made the mystery something I feel equipped to solve, something that excites me like no other comic I’ve ever read. When all is said and done, this may be one of my favorite comic arcs of all time.
Anyway, do you think Batman was stabbed or what?
Patrick: Whoa. I mean: holy shit. I follow many of the same comic book people you do on twitter, but I’m such a terrible tweeter I didn’t see this one coming. That is, until comixology issues the following warning: “This book contains upside-down and sideways pages. To maximize the reading experience you may want to lock the orientation of your device.” My device, by the way, is my laptop computer. I had to rotate my computer around to read this issue. And when my girlfriend asked why I was holding my computer upside-down, all I could do stare back at her, mouth agape, unable to articulate what was happening to me as I read this issue.
It’s a gimmick, for sure. But it’s a gimmick deployed with deft certainty of purpose. With the exception of the short prologue and that excellent epilogue you mentioned, Batman appears in every panel of this issue, in various states of duress. The amount of non-stop exposure we have to the character would have a binding effect, even if it weren’t for perspective-fuck throughout. We are so clearly placed in Batman’s head-space by issue’s end that there’s almost a gut-reaction to Bruce taking a knife to the back.
But there’s content in here that is so easy not to talk about. So overwhelmed with the method of the storytelling, I’ve had to read through this issue 3 or 4 times before I calmed down enough to really take in the trap set by the Court of Owls. I mean, if they wanted to kill him, they wold have just killed him, right? Something that’s very interesting to me is that it appears that the whole point of the labyrinth is impose a new narrative of Gotham’s history on Bruce Wayne. The implication that the Court’s primary objective is convincing Batman that he is not important to Gotham is fascinating to me. Obviously, Bats is a huge part of what makes Gotham Gotham. The issue very specifically shows us images of Nightwing, Robin, Batgirl, Batwing, Catwoman, Bullock and Gordon, all of whom would argue with the Court of Owls’ assertion that Batman doesn’t matter. So they’re rewriting the history, from the unsettling standpoint that their rewritten history has always been accurate. It’s the terrifying claim that we don’t even know the-world-as-we-know it. Correct me if I’m wrong, or jumping to unfounded/unfoundable conclusions, but isn’t that sort of what the New 52 is all about? We’ve talked at great length in this space about the struggles associated with introducing a new history to established characters, cities and concepts. Snyder is happy to drop his audience into the maze with Batman, so we can be reeducated together. Whether this is the intent or not, Batman #5 is a trip like few others I’ve experienced.
Now, this is Batman we’re talking about. So we should be careful about any hyperbolic statements we might apply to this issue. Think about how many love letters to Batman you’ve read over the years. Heavy-hitters in the industry have a real soft-spot for Batman – I guess we all do. Why else would we see stories like Gaiman’s Whatever Happened to the Capped Crusader? and Morrison’s The Return of Bruce Wayne? Which is to say, there is a wealth of stories that delve into the essential Batmanness of Batman while exploring… let’s call it “less obvious” narrative ground. Even going so far as to let the stories crumble around the much stronger thematic material. I like Whatever Happened… well enough, and I basically hated Return of Bruce Wayne. Both of them stray a little too far from reality and engage in too much post modern wankery for my liking. I’m not unilaterally decrying high-concept bullshit for the sake of being weird, I’m just saying I like it an awful lot more when it’s compellingly contextualized in a story I’m already invested in — as it was with this arc. This issue really works in a way all those other things didn’t.
But I totally think that Talon was down there and I absolutely believe that Bruce was stabbed by him. Upside-down-time be damned! Remember the cliff hanger at the end of last month’s issue, when I was all like “what? an actual maze?” This is just like that. Or just like the issue previous when the cliff hanger has a bomb explode in Batman’s face. These things are happening to Bruce — the danger is not solely psychological. Talon is shaping up to be one of the great Batman villains, and breaking the Bat’s mind and then stabbing him at his most vulnerable moment is a grade: A impossibly cool move for the character.
Oh, just out of curiosity, I flipped through this issue on my phone. You know, to see how the rotation-thing plays on a device I routinely rotate to read comics. Reading it this way creates the infuriating situation of being locked into reading it sideways or upside. No matter how you turn your phone, it auto-”corrects” display the panel as it was printed. I know the description of the issue suggested I turn that feature off, but I couldn’t get my phone to adhere to that instruction. It basically didn’t work. Which sucks. Luckily, I had already read this like 5 times…
I loved this. Why anyone would be reading anything in this line-up and not reading this series is beyond me. I have high hopes now. High. Hopes.
Here’s a list of what we’re reading. The list is Batman heavy, and we’re not going to write about everything. That being said, feedback and suggestions on what to read and discuss are welcome. Overlapping books in bold:
Animal Man, Batgirl, Batman, Batwoman, the Flash, Green Lantern, Justice League, Nightwing, Swamp Thing, Wonder Woman, Batman and Robin