Drew: Between comics, movies, tv shows, video games, radio serials, and children’s imaginations, Batman is arguably the most prolific fictional character in history. With that long, multi-media history comes a secondary history of reinvention. I’ve seen it said that each generation redefines Batman, but in my mind, he’s revamped far more often than once a generation. Each new iteration brings changes, some more superficial than others, but what is it that actually defines Batman? What is his immutable core? The thing that would actually make him a different character if it was absent? With Zero Year, Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo have already given lie to what many people would assume were givens — grimness chief amongst them — but issue 31 finds them asserting an essential element I hadn’t expected: masochism.
It makes sense — what else could explain seeking out violence after being so profoundly changed by a violent act? — but has rarely been made so explicit. Often times, Batman will be depicted as a stoic, willing to endure harrowing mental and physical feats, but that usually is used to represent his dedication to his mission. Here, Snyder and Capullo detail just how painful the mission itself must be to poor Bruce. They articulate this pain in a flashback to a high school math class, where Bruce is asked to calculate the effect of wind resistance of a projectile before it meets its target. Any reasonable teacher might pick up on why this question could be upsetting to a student whose parents were shot to death, but instead, the teacher pushes back against Bruce’s resistance, raising the stakes of his success or failure with the question.
I’m not certain the answer is significant, but the lesson itself certainly is. It explains why Bruce would be willing to literally throw himself to the lions in hopes of saving Gotham. Oh, right: he hatches a plan with Gordon and Fox to trace Riddler’s signal back to the source. They’re in need of a distraction, so Bruce volunteers to challenge Riddler in his daily riddle-quest. He’s able to stall him for a bit, but Riddler quickly gets bored and drops Batman to the lion pit. He’s able to escape with his life — and the location of Riddler’s broadcast — but the point is that this bravado isn’t just confidence. Bruce doesn’t run from a problem, even when he knows it will be difficult to solve.
It sounds like straightforward dedication, but I think the reason why it’s difficult is important. It’s not just that Bruce was willing to stay up late solving a difficult algebra equation, but that he was willing to confront his parents death — to lean into that trauma — in order to do so. It’s clearly the rawest nerve he has (most people would allow basic shyness to keep from speaking up during math class), but he can’t let it slow him down. Indeed, the fact that he felt that pain seems to be the only reason to care about this problem in the first place. This isn’t the story of the heroic working out of a math problem, but of a kid so driven by his pain that he’s willing to reopen the wounds just to keep him going.
It’s a slightly more pathological take to his psychology, which Snyder and Capullo counterbalance by making him walk and talk like a normal guy otherwise.
Look at him picking at that bike like he isn’t in a bat mask talking for his life. Actually, given his speech here, Snyder might be asserting that masochism as a virtue — a kind of willingness to thanklessly do what needs to get done. It’s a pretty stark contrast to Riddler, who acts entitled to everyone acknowledging how smart he is — all the more ironic given that Nygma actually utterly fails to psychoanalyze Batman here. Batman is a better human riddle than Riddler will ever be, and it’s all because he suffers in silence.
Last month, I posited that the Riddler is actually a stand-in for annoying fanboys who want to challenge Snyder’s claim as writer of Batman, and this issue largely supports that reading. The Riddler is convinced that he’s the smartest guy in the room, but it’s never occurred to him that someone might just keep their smarts on the down-low. He has no idea how much behind-the-scenes work goes into actually being Batman (or writing Batman, as the case may be) because he expects everyone to wear their accomplishments (and complain about their problems) as openly as he does. He couldn’t imagine admitting (or pretending) to not know the answer. Of course, the fact that Bruce so demonstratively solves the problem allows Snyder to have his cake and eat it, too — Bruce doesn’t have to prove he knows the answer…but he’ll show you anyway.
Patrick! We haven’t gotten to talk at all about that Riddler-as-fanboy reading, so I’m curious to see if you’re seeing that as strongly as I am. It feels to me like out-and-out contempt for a certain segment of the readership — albeit a fairly contemptible segment. Also, what do you make of Bruce’s masochism? Does it make him a hero, or just a screwed up kid? Also also, if you were reinventing Batman, what oft-overlooked detail would you give newfound importance to?
Patrick: I’ve always thought that Batman would have to be an incredibly interesting person. Whenever someone explores his training from the greatest detectives, crime fighters, thieves and martial artists in the world, the focus tends to be on how disciplined Bruce was during that time (or, as an extension, how much he was driven by grief). But if you think about it, this means that Bruce Wayne has the ability to be interested in so many things, with an insatiable desire to absorb new information and new skills . He’s obviously an inspiring figure — how many costumed crusaders has Gotham spawned because of him? — but his joy of learning and acquiring new skills is also an imitable trait, and I’d like to see him inspiring people that way.
That’s probably not my favorite inherent Batman trait, but, well… you put me on the spot. Batman: Lifelong Learner.
Hey, speaking of being put on the spot, it’s fascinating to me that Batman doesn’t ask The Riddler the one question he knows for sure he can’t answer: “Who is Batman?” My favorite moment in this issue is Nygma’s totally inaccurate diagnosis. The best part is that when Batman prompts him to try again, Nygma refuses on the grounds that he doesn’t believe that he is wrong. Which implies a couple things: first is that Bruce would have to reveal his own identity in order to make this Riddle stick, and it’s not like this is Forever Evil or the Darksied Invasion, so that’s not happening. Secondly, Riddler’s insistence that he’s correct, even when he isn’t, suggests that there is no fair way out of Zero Year. The game that Nygma sets up isn’t actually designed for anyone to win — as long as Nygma can provide an answer, the power stays off.
That ties in so nicely to the flashback. The young Bruce Wayne doesn’t have to actually solve a math problem – he can’t: it’s a trick question. First of all: that teacher is such an asshole. Trick questions are, by their very nature, not intended to answered correctly except by the person asking them. What kind of lesson does anyone get out of being asked a question they logically shouldn’t be able to answer? As a result, the math question is more like a riddle, and the teacher is more like an intellectual bully. I don’t know what to make of Bruce eventually answering the question, but maybe there’s something to Drew’s assertion that he’s interested in asserting his power back, by emblazoning the answer on his teacher’s lawn. It’s not quite pride, but an unwillingness to be wrong.
I do really like how focused this issue is in terms of story. The opening scene starts with our trio of heroes planning a caper, and then we watch them execute it. For the most part, we barely leave the space in front of Riddler’s video screen. Instead of being the giant, sweeping, epic Zero Year implied by the cover, it’s a more intimate look at one specific, crucial encounter. Adding extra weight to the proceedings is a delightful little montage of Batman getting ready – shit you’d never think about like spray painting the Bat symbol on a gray t-shirt.
Plus, there’s that nice little nod to the color of Batman’s gloves: a choice which was an intentional throwback to an older, campier Batman. Riddler’s calling for Gotham to send out their champion, and the version of Batman that comes out is — like Drew mentions — not exactly the same version we’ve seen a billion times. Maybe Nygma is the angry fan boy, but like, how could anyone possibly object to Batman fending off lions by spitting fire at them?
Doesn’t matter how you feel about the changes – this is a badass Batman moment right there, right down to that cocky little “come at me, bro” finger in the first panel. I didn’t realize that I just wanted to watch Batman fight lions, but hey, Greg Capullo can probably convince me of anything.
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