Originally Published December 23, 2011
DC Comics recently relaunched their entire series, giving curious but uninitiated nerds a convenient entry point. Fellow blogger Drew Baumgartner 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 Drew’s blog (which you should all be reading anyway) every Friday. This week, I’m hosting the discussion of Batman while Drew is hosting the discussion of Justice League.
Patrick: I was having a conversation with my friend Taylor the other day. He had been watching someone play Batman: Arkham City and he was excited by how much detective work the player has to do. I think the modern popular perception of Batman has a tendency to forget the detective aspects of Batman’s character. Sure, we all know that the character was born out of Detective Comics and bears the title “World’s Greatest Detective,” but the more marketable characteristics of the Batman mythos tend to overshadow this. Check out Nolan’s Batman – he’s badass, driven to obsession by revenge, an instrument of justice that inadvertently creates super villains. It’s a compelling way to characterize a super hero but it lacks this single element so fundamental to Batman’s being.
I once read a book that said that every character on television is a detective. Which is kind of an assholeish way of stating that there’s no more obvious motivator for a character that solving a mystery. You don’t need to tell me why the cardboard cut-outs on NCIS want to discover the identity of a killer. Protagonists want to solve mysteries – it’s a foregone conclusion. Oh sure, you explore what motivates them to select this mystery of the millions of others life offers, but very little fiction deals in why someone might be driven to solve mysteries at all. Batman 4 does just that.
As just about everything in Bruce’s life, his passion for detective work can be traced back to his parents’ murder. He grew up hearing the nursery rhyme about the Court of Owls, and as such, he refused to believe that a random act of violence killed his parents. Young Bruce was convinced a great conspiracy, enacted by the Court of Owls, was to blame so he spent months investigating the most powerful people in Gotham. Every time he encountered anything that could generously be considered a clue, he followed it. There had to be some meaning behind his loss. So when he discovers a hidden room in a building that housed a social club that used owls on its emblem, Bruce expects to blow the lid off the Court of Owls conspiracy. But all he finds there?The whole of this flashback sequence is done up in these similarly sized and shaped panels, and the color palette is minimal. The images are scratched and old, brushstrokes are thick and crude. The whole thing does a really admirable job of lending some gravity to what is essentially an origin story. But rather than explaining the origin of super powers, we’re exploring Bruce’s skepticism.
The opening of the issue finds Batman enduring the explosion at Talon’s hideout. His voice over claims that he’s fine – a tripwire explosion like that is really meant to scare, and the Bat doesn’t scare easily. The scare, which Bats claims wasn’t working on him, is based on the idea that your enemy knows the land better than you do. And it’s that fear that’s at the center of this series: Bruce knows and loves Gotham City and is afraid that there’s a force that knows the city better than he. Dick says Gotham is over 400 years old, so there could be dark corners untouched by the Wayne dynasty. I really like this as the thematic glue that holds this series together.
It’s nice that we get to see Dick in this issue – even if he’s just around to be Bruce’s audience for the flashback. He’s been making the rounds, huh? Between this and his cameo in Batgirl, he’s in almost as many series as Batman. Okay, that’s an exaggeration, but only because there are like 5 series with “Batman” in the title.
I continue to love this series. The situation Batman finds himself in at the end of the issue seems maybe a little goofy to me, but I trust Snyder to make it work next month. Oh, and is it just me or does Capullo draw everyone with enormous chins? Bruce looks like Jay Leno in a few of these panels.
Drew: Whew, is that flashback sequence ballsy. It’s one thing to insert the Court of Owls into the character histories of Bruce’s long-dead ancestors; it’s quite another to assert that it played an important part of Bruce’s own life. I was initially skeptical that Bruce would be so convinced that his parents’ murder couldn’t have been just a random act of violence — frankly, I think the acceptance that it was is of vital importance to Batman’s psyche — but this sequence plays perfectly into the Bruce we know. Moreover, young Bruce’s investigation suggests that there was no big conspiracy surrounding his parents’ slaying, convincing him that the world is a brutal place, creating Batman as we know him. In fact, that this lesson was so hard won seems to be the very reason he’s unwilling to entertain the notion that it isn’t true.
As the evidence continues to suggest that there may have been a conspiracy to kill his parents after all, Bruce becomes withdrawn, shrugging off Dick, and avoiding a rendezvous with Commissioner Gordon. Bruce says he built his detective skills on the lesson to “never let your emotions guide you on a case,” but this investigation has shaken the very foundations of that lesson. Could the young Bruce have been played by the Court of Owls? The panel just below the one you cited, featuring an owl inches away from snatching a bat out of the air suggests that he may have been. That he may have been manipulated during such a formative moment is powerful, both for Bruce and the reader.
It helps that the art in that sequence is fantastic. You mention the muted colors and the scratch effects, but those combined with the very subtle detail of rounding the panel corners make this sequence feel not just like a series of old photographs, but of an actual scrapbook. As the sequence goes on, the “photos” partially obscure a map of Gotham, and Bruce’s notes from his investigation. Intriguingly, they also partially obscure that image of the owl and the bat, suggesting that Bruce may have thought then (or is starting to think now) that the attic door closing behind him was not an accident, but an assassination attempt. If that sounds like an impressive amount of subtext for a comic book, it’s because it is; I’ve never before had doubts as to the subjective meaning of art in a comic book in this way, so bravo to Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo for expanding what I know comics to be capable of.
Honestly, though, this flashback is quite a bombshell. Bruce seemed to be well on the way to psychopathy before he was locked in the closet — he killed an owl and smashed its eggs as an act of vengeance — so the suggestion that that was the correct line of thinking is actually pretty scary. Villains that “promise to change everything” are a dime a dozen in the comic book world, and they invariably never deliver on that promise, but Snyder has found a way to challenge Batman’s very moral fabric, a threat that I find much more compelling than any hulking bruiser. In the end, I’m not sure much will change (and I’m not sure I want it to), but this promises to be an exciting emotional journey.
I don’t really have any complaints about Capullo’s chins (I did grow up on Batman: The Animated Series, after all), though I will say that the slightly cartoony style he’s using doesn’t make for easy distinctions of characters. If it weren’t for Bruce’s stubble, I’d be hard pressed to tell the difference between him and Dick during their conversation (reminding me of the panel in the first issue that featured Bruce, Dick, Tim, and Damian all in tuxes, looking pretty much like different sized versions of the same character). It’s not exactly bothering me, since I understand that it’s kind of inherent with a cartoony style (which I’m loving), and since Capullo seems happy to oblige with distinguishing details (like stubble) when necessary, but it is kind of a funny quirk of this title.
You’re right, the idea of a secret labyrinth beneath the sewers of Gotham is a little silly (that’s a pen and paper style maze, not a byzantine series of tunnels, mind you), but at this point, I trust this creative team to deliver. I’m very much looking forward to next months issue. Each one seems to be better than the last, which is saying a lot for a title that started as strongly as this one has.
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:
Action Comics, Aquaman, Animal Man, Batgirl, Batman, the Flash, Green Lantern, Justice League, Nightwing, Wonder Woman, Batman and Robin, Swamp Thing