Today, Drew and Patrick are discussing Batman 38 originally released on January 28th, 2015.
Drew: Fiction has a complex relationship with expectations. We want fiction to meet some expectations — that it should feature the conflicts and conceits pitched on the back cover, that it meets whatever network of expectations that might make it “believable” — but we also want it to defy others. The story of a farm girl suffering a concussion during a tornado may be believable, but it doesn’t capture our imaginations in the same way as the adventures she has when she thinks she’s whisked off to the magical land over the rainbow. Exactly how a story balances meeting and subverting our expectations varies from genre to genre, writer to writer, even moment to moment, but most stories seem to get the most mileage out of meeting our expectations just long enough to really surprise us when the unexpected hits. After three epic arcs of defying expectations, Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo’s Batman has an even more complex relationship with the expected, creating a situation where the surprises may very well be the expected norm to be subverted.
This issue is very much in the “drive Bruce to new lows” vein, but this creative team knows how to navigate those waters. Indeed, this issue strongly hearkens back to the similar downward-spiral-with-a-surprising-conclusion arc of issue 4, which is obviously no coincidence. The issue ends with Bruce turning to the Court of Owls (by literally emerging from their labyrinth) in hopes of uniting against the Joker, mirroring the literal ground-falling-out-from-under-him conclusion that landed him in the labyrinth all those years ago. For all of my complaints last month about Snyder’s overuse of the Joker, he’s left the Court off of our radar for the past two years, making their return particularly impactful.
Of course, it helps that Snyder spends the preceding pages selling the ever loving snot out of the threat Joker poses. The first half of the issue is straight-ahead action, but Snyder manages to yank a series of rugs out from under us once Bruce gets a bead on Joker’s regenerative abilities. Actually, just the notion of regenerative abilities leads him straight to Paul Dekker, AKA Crazy Quilt. Regenerative science is a new field for Dekker, whose pre-New52 M.O. was all about colors, but it’s decidedly familiar territory for Snyder, who has grown this series out of the wounds of Batman’s past. Indeed, the very fact that Dekker is repurposed here speaks to the nature of Snyder’s changes to Batman history. Dekker seems more than aware:
True to form, Snyder offers a secret history of Gotham even more audacious than the Court, stretching the supernatural properties of Gotham to pre-history, tapping on ageless Batman rogues like Vandal Savage and Ra’s Al Ghul. Batman still doesn’t believe that Joker has been around quite as long, but there’s enough doubt to make him turn to the only folks who ever knew secrets about Gotham he didn’t: the Court of Owls.
I suspect that most Batman fans are equally reluctant to accept a supernatural explanation for the Joker (though at this point, what would really be the difference?), which makes Snyder’s role as the New 52 authority on Gotham’s secret history a crucial element of the meta-text. Each of his arcs have featured monumental changes to Batman mythology, all injected via flashback to some earlier moment in history. That is to say, Snyder has a habit of making this exact kind of twist canon, suggesting that this might actually be the truth. EXCEPT that there’s still a whole lot of unreliable narration going on — the back-ups continue to emphasize the Joker’s power of persuasion and ability to whip up compelling evidence — and, perhaps more importantly, Batman is still suffering the effects of Scarecrow gas, making the specifically nightmarish quality of the situation here suspect (making my Wizard of Oz example up top particularly apt). Even if some of this is happening, there’s no way to know where the hallucinations begin, which may actually be the scariest thought of all.
The art team continues to make bold choices — I’m particularly struck by the almost candy-color palette FCO Plascencia has held on to in the wake of “Zero Year” — but none support the meta-textual reading quite like the theme of panels-within-panels. From the historical photos in Julia’s computer display to the paintings in Dekker’s lab, to the quilt Dekker wears on his shoulders, the ending of this issue is full of panels-within-panels, calling our attention to the medium itself, suggesting that this is a comic book very much about comic books — perhaps even about itself.
Taken together, the art and narrative wrinkles make me wonder exactly what form the next surprise will take — will it shock us like we’ve come to expect, or would the bigger surprise be to NOT shock us? Will the Joker’s new mythology hold as the Truth as told by Snyder, or will it be revealed to be yet another clever gag? With so many possibilities, it’s not hard for any of them to be equally surprising, so I suppose the real feat is in setting up a scenario where they all feel equally likely (or unlikely, as the case may be).
Patrick, I’m not sure it’s productive to ask you about what might happen next, so I’m going to point you back to my own interpretation: do you think Snyder’s history of changing histories influences your expectations (and is that a good or bad thing)?
Patrick: The tension between whether or not Snyder would and could effect the history of Gotham and the Joker this much is absolutely at the heart of this issue. Batman’s mostly in fact-finding mode throughout, and it’s amazing how many of his clues and theories point us back to some piece of mythology that this creative team has touched on in the last three and a half years. There are the more obvious references to Joker and Court of Owls, but Snyder sneaks in a shout-out to Dr. Death — and even lets Bruce explicitly call that out as a “blast from the past.” Hell, while he’s having this conversation with Dick, Batman is doing something else to remind us of Zero Year: fighting a goddamned tank.
I kept waiting to see the phrase Tokyo Moon appear on either that gunner’s helmet or somewhere else on the tank itself. There’s nothing here that demands a literal connection between that moment in Batman’s history and this one, but the imagery — coupled with the conversation about Dr. Death — more than evokes that chapter of Zero Year. It’s like Snyder and company are going out of their way to assert their dominion over the past of Gotham City, so when the next big reveal sounds too big to swallow, we have to reconcile our disbelief with the authority they’ve so aptly demonstrated before.
But then again, this is Joker we’re talking about here. Last time we saw him, he had claimed to cut the faces off of everyone in the Bat-Family – even going so far as to present their own faces to them, chilled on ice — but that was just a trick. That same Joker-trickiness is recalled in this issue when Batman reveals to Dick that Joker absolutely knows his secret identity. We may have had a few problems with the recreation of the Wayne family murders last issue, but it certainly does suggest that whatever Joker was faking last time he’s really delivering on this time.
If it sounds like I’m ping-ponging back and forth on whether or not I believe Dekker’s explanation, that’s because this is exactly what the issue sets out to accomplish. I love this sensation of not being able to trust a narrative, while — in equal measure — not being able to distrust it either. Greg Capullo delivers what is probably the most accurate expression of that confusion in Joker’s only appearance in the issue – it’s a mostly silent page, with the only copy being Batman admitting that the doesn’t know what to do.
Before I move on to actually analyzing the page, I wanted to point out how amazing the design on Joker’s swimwear is. Even when no one’s around to be amused and horrified, he has to be a wearing custom-colored, jokey, old-timey one-piece bathing suit for men. Genius.
These images of Joker swimming toward camera achieve an awful lot. In a literal way, it reinforces the idea of Batman being in “uncharted waters,” by making his metaphor real. The page also demands that the reader sit with the very idea of the Joker without any additional context, helpful or otherwise. Where is he swimming? When did this happen? What is he smiling about? Those end up being kind of core questions about this character, some from his long history, and some introduced as questions in this very issue. My favorite thing about this page is the use of black space, which becomes less as you move down the page. I almost expect the reverse — as Joker swims deeper, you might think the that there should be more inky blackness around him. Capullo is showing us that the mysterious black of the ocean (or Gotham Harbor or whatever other body of water I’m forced to assume this is) has got nothing on the mysteries embedded in that face.
I had a blast with this issue, Drew. You and I are obviously suckers for comic book creators and characters being so aware of their own histories as to play with the specific set of expectations that follow them around. This creative team is savvy enough to stage that kind of exploration against a breathless fight through the streets of Gotham, keeping even the densest thematic material exciting, stylish and fun.
If this is what four years of build-up gets us to, then it was all worth it.
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?