Today, Drew and Patrick are discussing Batman 17 originally released February 13th, 2013. This issue is part of the Death of the Family crossover event. Click here for complete DotF coverage. If you missed any part of the crossover and want those events summarized, we’ve got a video for that.
Drew: They say a man is known by the company he keeps. For Batman, we might think of the bat-family — Alfred, Commissioner Gordon, and the various Robins and Batgirl(s) — but we also think of his rogues gallery. Indeed, Batman has long been defined by the villains that he fights, but I’ve always thought of that as “Batman,” the idea, not Batman, the character. Indeed, the fact that Bruce is perpetually locked in battles with his nemeses has always seemed more a curiosity of circumstance than of design — Batman doesn’t kill, and they keep breaking out. Batman 17 puts that assumption under the microscope, asking just what his perpetual battle with Joker might say about Bruce. Obviously, SPOILERS after the jump.
The issue finds the entire bat-family tied up in some remote part of the Gotham cave system. Joker continues to tease Bruce (and us) with just what is under those platters, first suggesting that it’s Alfred (it isn’t), then revealing it to be the faces of each character (which also turns out to be fake). The real gut-punch comes in the monologue Joker gives, where he suggests that Batman loves their eternal struggle just as much as he does, which is why he’s never been able to kill the Joker. Batman insists that if he kills, Joker wins, but Joker counters by pointing out that living to kill again isn’t exactly losing. Joker is able to knock down every defense Bruce puts up for his “no killing” rule, making a strong case that Bruce really is choosing to fight the Joker into perpetuity. It’s not enough to shake Bruce, but it seems to sink into his disciples, who are all within earshot of this exchange.
Bruce eventually breaks free, and pursues Joker further into the caves for a classic superhero detente, with Joker seemingly falling to his death. As everyone recovers, Bruce convenes a meeting, but one by one, everyone checks in to say that they won’t be coming, showing that the Joker really does get the last laugh, even in defeat.
It’s an unsettling end, one that understates just how profound its repercussions might be. I’ve seen folks poo-pooing a “Bruce is more isolated than ever” ending as unworthy of the weight Snyder et al had put into this event, but I think Snyder managed to stick this landing from an angle nobody expected. At first blush, this returns Batman to his loner status seems at odds with Grant Morrison’s recent assertion that Batman was never alone, but when you consider the nature of Bruce’s isolation at the end of this issue, these two takes fit together perfectly. Bruce doesn’t want to be alone, but his behavior has made him unknowable.
It would be hard to hold the Joker’s words against Bruce, but the end of the issue reveals a detail Bruce has always left out of the story: that he once went to see Joker as Bruce Wayne, and knows for certain that Joker simply couldn’t be bothered to know Batman’s identity. It’s this intimate, unexplainable knowledge that assured Bruce that Joker couldn’t have gotten into the Batcave — he wouldn’t want to. In the end, Bruce was right, but because he didn’t open up to his friends, they couldn’t have his confidence, which made his behavior seem totally irrational — he played right into Joker’s hand. Maybe Bruce was ready to admit this at that final meeting, but it was too little, too late, as everyone begs off from attending with impersonal text messages. Only Dick can muster a call — apparently from just outside the Manor gates — but even he can’t bring himself to talk about what happened.
That leaves Bruce with only one last puzzle piece to put into place — a trace radioisotope in the last batch of the Joker toxin. It turns out, this was Dubnium, which through a bizarre naming controversy, was at one time known as Hahnium, with the element symbol of “Ha.” That sounds too clever when I explain it, but it makes for a chilling closing image, as Joker gets his last laugh from beyond the grave (temporary as it might be).
Could this have been Joker’s plan all along? If is goal was to separate Bruce from his disciples, he has succeeded perfectly. Given that this isn’t the first time this issue where an apparently grisly plan turns out to just be set-dressing for a much subtler, cerebral ploy — we actually see the fake severed faces of the bat-family — it could be that Joker never really intended to kill them. Joker’s plans always have a way of pulling back to reveal that things are, in fact, going exactly as planned, and I’m tempted to read this as such. The lasting effects of this event remain to be seen, but it seems that, for all of Bruce’s trying, Joker hatched another plan without a hitch.
Man, Patrick, between all of the ideas in this issue, and the fact that it’s concluding a sizable crossover, there’s a lot to talk about here. I hesitate to prompt you at all, but I want to know if you’re satisfied with this ending. We’ve discussed a lot of highfalutin theories that didn’t pan out at all, so I’m curious how this smaller, subtler conclusion sits with you.
Patrick: It totally works for me – but it works in such a way that I thoroughly expect a mixed reaction to this issue. Snyder seems to understand the power he has over character and narrative in a way that fans didn’t totally grasp coming into the home stretch of this event. The key example of this is that we all debated the “who will die?” question for months. Drew and I were fairly certain that no one would die, but even with that assumption, it’s essentially impossible to shake the thought “we haven’t seen Gordon in a while” or “Harper Lee is primed to be the new Alfred” or “Tim’s origin has been so muddled by the New 52, maybe they’ll just get rid of him.” Or whatever. Pick a theory: it’s clear that fans assume the greatest impact a story can have is removing a character from play. But Snyder does one better: he articulates something we already knew about Batman, but overlooked because… well, he’s Batman. Joker’s successes here don’t come about because he’s manipulative or especially cruel, his success comes from being unsettlingly observant.
Also, man, the timing of this issue couldn’t be any better. Joker’s affections for Batman were teased back in Catwoman 14, and Joker all but ditches the King-and-his-court imagery in favor of a romantic-relationship imagery. It’s positively chilling that Joker knows that Batman’s used the “You don’t understand him” line when talking to the rest of the Bat-family, because it implies a level of intimacy that Bruce just doesn’t have with… anyone. Bruce may know all there is to know about Babs and Dick and Tim and Jason and Damian, but he’ll never understand them the way Batman understands Joker. As if playing right into the fact that tomorrow is Valentine’s Day, Greg Capullo frames the big pretend-reveal of the issue in a fucking heart.
Also, look at the variety of angles and perspectives in that one gorgeous, gruesome heart. We can see Dick’s bandaged face in the reflection of his platter, and we’re peering through the eye-holes Damian’s face-mask. Pus, there’s that two-headed lion cub from issue 13 — the original bad omen — heralding Joker’s final emotional blow. And, not to be outdone by some two-headed kitty, there are flies buzzing around Joker’s rotting face. By the end of the issue, those damn flies have essentially cemented themselves as sign of the instability Joker caused in the family. What I’m saying is that one drawing has everything that I love and fear about this crossover and will be one of the lasting images that stay with me forever.
It is interesting how much of the emotional thrust of this story has nothing to do with Joker’s recently-removed face. Back when this thing started, I was reading all sorts of fun shit into the fact that Joker seemed obsessed with his own concept of his past and his identity. I still think that reading holds up, but it’s clear that he was re-enacting his old crimes because he wanted to re-live his best adventures with Batman. That muddies the logic of basically all of the other books involved in this crossover. Sure, Batgirl was a fun, interesting story, but what does Joker stand to gain from putting Babs through that experience? The wedding doesn’t reveal the strength of his relationship with Batman, and it doesn’t reveal any of the weaknesses in her relationship with Batman.
Though, I guess Joker does need for everyone to have some singularly horrible experience that they can blame Bruce for having not prevented. It’s amazing what a relief it is to see the various members of the Bat-family taking a well-earned break.
Jason doesn’t look too happy there, but at least he’s safe. The real gut punch comes from seeing Damian on the next page.
Everyone else can cope well enough – everyone else has lives and families of their own to return to. But poor Damian… can’t even bring himself to wail on that punching bag.
Hey, did you notice that it’s not until that image I posted above (in what is essentially an epilogue) that we see Jason’s face without bandages all over it? Is that just because it’d be too weird to take his bandages off to reveal that giant red helmet, but also equally weird to see his naked face?
Drew, like you, I have so many other things I want to talk about. Like what’s up with Batman pretending to know Joker’s identity (when he really didn’t)? What was he about to whisper to Joker before taking a joy-buzzer in the face? Was he playing one last silly game with the love of his life before throwing Joker into the crevasse? Bruce seems utterly unsurprised to see that Joker’s book of names is empty. Batman claims to have changed – that he’s “not like you (Joker)… not anymore.” But he’s still sort of playing that game, right?
Ultimately, what moves me about all of this — and Snyder’s run on Batman in general — is the way Batman’s flaws come into sharp focus without robbing the character of his impossible agency. Batman still saves the day, and he still does so by just being Batman. But those fundamental imperfections are becoming harder and harder to ignore.
For a complete list of what we’re reading, head on over to our Pull List page. Whenever possible, buy your comics from your local mom and pop comic bookstore. If you want to rock digital copies, head on over to DC’s website and download issues there. There’s no need to pirate, right?