Today, Shelby and Greg are discussing Batman: The Dark Knight 26, originally released December 31st, 2013.
Shelby: Whenever I think of a “silent episode” of something, my first thought is the Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode Hush from season 4. The Gentlemen come to Sunnydale and steal everyone’s voices, then proceed to cut people’s hearts out and no one can scream. It’s delightfully scary. Anyway, even as a dumbass high schooler, I was really impressed by that episode, and not just because it scared the bejesus out of me. I was impressed by how much the actors could convey without dialogue, by how much tension could be built in the silence. Silent comics can do the same, can show the same range and build the same tension, and that’s what Greg Hurwitz and Alberto Ponticelli give us in this issue appropriately titled, “Voiceless.”
Get ready for the saddest fucking story you’ll ever read. An unnamed young woman is trying to make ends meet for her two children and mother when she gets fired from the angel-making factory. Then, when she can’t get the medicine she needs, her baby dies. When her daughter gets sick, it’s the last straw; she gets a guy who can sneak her family across the border to affluent Gotham City, where all their dreams will come true. Except they get hijacked by the Penguin’s men, who sell the young girl and her grandma to a factory that makes Christmas decorations. The old woman tries to escape, and gets herself knifed in the process. The grandma crawling, bleeding, through Gotham’s alleys is what catches Batman’s eye, and he breaks into the factory to free everyone. Unfortunately, he is overwhelmed by goons, and is captured and taken to the Penguin’s lair.
Man, Hurwitz really wants us to know this is a terrible story. In fact, he might want us to know too badly; every ironically terrible thing possible happens to this poor young woman. “Too bad you got fired from the angel factory, because your baby is dead,”sounds like a punchline to an over-the-top tasteless joke, not the reality a character should be facing.
The whole gimmick of the issue is that it is silent, a voiceless issue for the voiceless masses. Even keeping that in mind, I think Hurwitz may have gone a little heavy-handed with his message. We’ve got a group of kidnapped immigrant children being forced to make Christmas decorations in a factory named “Lil Elf Workshop”; hell, Grandma is given away when she steps on a jingle bell. I feel like I’m being slapped in the face with the message of the story.
Like any silent issue, a lot of pressure falls on the artist’s shoulders, and I think Ponticelli handled it beautifully. He’s got this loose, sketchy quality to his lines that fits perfectly with the chaotic and gritty rawness of this story.
I love what Ponticelli is doing here, the sheer power he has imbued Batman with in this panel. The extreme foreshortening between his two fists, the aggression in the lines, the way the cape extends outside the panel, showing he can’t be contained: it’s amazing. Batman is actually not in this issue very much, but in every panel he appears in, Ponticelli perfectly depicts him as the terrifying creature of the night he strives to be. Whenever we encounter a Batman story that’s told from the viewpoint of someone outside the Bat family, I always look for that extra edge in the artwork. Batman crafted his image to strike fear in people’s hearts, and if I’m reading a story told from a civilian’s perspective then I want to see that fear. Ponticelli captures that fear beautifully, even when Batman is doing something as wonderful as rescuing a child from a sweatshop.
This little girl is praying for a Jesus angel to come rescue her, and she seemingly gets a devil instead. I love the juxtaposition of the religious iconography with Batman seemingly as its opposing force. I love that Ponticelli renders him as this dark, avenging angel. I love that there’s no dialogue to spoil the effect Batman has when he appears. Hurwitz may have been a little heavy handed with the tragedy of his message for my taste, but if that’s the price of admission for Ponticelli’s powerful and kinetic style, then so be it. Greg, what did you think? Was the story a little too on the nose for you as well? Did you appreciate the “voiceless issue for a voiceless populace” approach?
Greg: For my money, your take on Hurwitz’s lack of narrative restraint in depicting all-caps bold and underlined MISERY is subtle and tasteful by comparison. I think this issue suffers immensely by how much shit Hurwitz piles on this poor woman; Fantine would look at her and think, “At least my life ain’t that bad.”
You pointed out the choice of the sweatshop being a Christmas shop, which to me feels like a clumsy bit of ham-fisted political commentary, oblivious to the somber tone Hurwitz and Ponticelli cultivate in the rest of the issue. Yes, it is apparent that the juxtaposition between the colorfully cheerful holiday chotchkies being made and the criminally exploited underprivileged people making them results in all-caps bold and underlined SATIRE, but does it really add anything to the experience of the issue? For me, it was highly distracting, a bit of business that makes me shout at the issue, “Okay, I get it, but why?” when this issue, built around a delicious structural gambit, should be as absorbing as possible.
Having said that, I absolutely agree with your assessment of Ponticelli’s beautifully brutal (brutiful?) artwork. It took me some getting used to; each panel feels viscerally dirty and muddied, and for an issue where the visuals are also doing the narrative heavy lifting, I sometimes yearned for a more accessible, cleaner, and more focused aesthetic. But when Batman makes his grandiose appearance, even though it coincides with a particularly ham-fisted stabbing of an old woman (do you get that these people are all-caps bold and underlined EVIL?), it absolutely astonishes.
You touched on an interesting hypothesis for why this issue might be silent, beyond the fun gimmick. A “voiceless issue for a voiceless populace” is a potentially ideologically fascinating premise, and the premise does result in some surprisingly interesting moments (I love the idea that in this world, Gotham City is where underprivileged non-Americans dream of escape). Yet for this idea to resonate, the issue must succeed in establishing some kind of voice, even if its not literally depicted in verbiage. To bluntly throw the phone book of “shitty things that can happen to a human being” at a specific socioeconomic group and watch Batman do his damnedest to save them feels crass and hollow. It feels as though Hurwitz isn’t particularly interested in providing a voice for the voiceless; it feels as though he’s content to burn them under the sun with a magnifying glass, then play superhero at the last minute.
I wanted so badly to enjoy this issue. As it stands, its silence is far from golden. Now, if you excuse me, I’m going to add Buffy to my Netflix queue.
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