Ryan: Batman has been happening for quite some time, both in the real world and in the oft rebooted DC Universe. Fans of the series remember his numerous encounters with his rogues gallery throughout the years, as villains escape time after time from the doldrums of Arkham Asylum to once again terrorize the city of Gotham. The formula for Batman may even be seen as a little tiresome: villain arrives, terrorizes Batman, Batman wins, villain returns again, eventually — maybe teaming with another foe, something messed up happens to Bruce Wayne’s personal life, his family rescues him, rinse, repeat. So what is it that draws us back into Batman narratives when the conceit can seem formulaic? Much of its appeal, I would argue, comes from the long-standing history which the reader shares with the character, one which can make jumping into a title so compounded with spin-offs and mini-series and event tie-ins intimidating for some. Batman Annual 4 offers an easy jumping-in point as Bruce Wayne undergoes yet another identity crisis, catching a casual or first-time reader up while showing the audience why a protagonist mired in the past can be so fascinating.
Batman Annual 4, following the banger of a one-off #44, begins at Wayne Manor with the memory-less Bruce Wayne confronting the haunted relic of his own home. This issue very successfully welcomes the casual reader — who may have picked up this issue due to the gripping cover art of Sean Murphy — and catches them up to the major status-quo shifts of late: Bruce cannot remember anything, is no longer the Batman, and the Manor very recently served as the new Arkham Asylum. Bruce, along with his new (old?) belle, Julie Madison, the stalwart Alfred, and his new landlord Geri Powers, is accosted by a past that is no longer his own as they go to sign the deed that will again make him the owner of this storied mansion. Soon, however, three of Gotham’s most notorious make this trip down memory lane a forced affair, and the plot begins in earnest.
The rogues gallery choices here make perfect sense and really make this a fun read. The Riddler, Clayface, and Mr. Freeze — still rocking the same suit debuted in Batman Annual 1 during “Night of the Owls” by our current writer, James Tynion IV — all sport origin stories inextricably tied to Batman/Bruce Wayne, and in their quest for collective vindication on Bruce make some well-reasoned and difficult to argue points about how much damage the legacy of the Bat did, playing into one of the persevering questions in the Bat-Verse: would Gotham have been better off without the World’s Greatest Detective?
Though comic readers may be somewhat numb to villain diatribes, these antagonists do feel unjustly wronged for the larger part of the issue, predominately thanks to Tynion’s spot-on dialogue from The Riddler. While this argument from the antagonists is not exactly novel, just look at the moment when E. Nigma opens his shirt to display a jagged grid of scars:
Batman constantly receives accolades for being a mortal man living off skills and aptitude in a universe of colorful gods in capes, so why does not The Riddler? Standing flanked by a guy who can freeze with a touch and another who can shapeshift, The Riddler is merely a tortured, obsessive-compulsive genius, inventor, and engineer who our public school system failed. Each of his scars both reminds us of the breadth of the storied past of these villains and that every punch and Bat-arang thrown throughout the years had a consequence, for better or for worse.
Lastly, Bruce Wayne’s coda since his dark descent into amnesia (bad video game joke) has reminds us of a fundamental Bat-truth: without memory of the tragic death of his parents, there is no Batman, wonderfully illustrated in a classic webcomic.
Alfred seems set on single-handedly maintaining the dance of deception around the old Bruce Wayne’s extracurricular activities while simultaneously being none-too-subtle about possibilities of marriage between New Bruce and Julie Madison. Without the Wayne double-homicide, Bruce can go on to live the full life of a buff, handsome one-percenter of which Mr. Pennyworth always dreamed. While the chance exists that Bruce can make a clean break from the Cowl, his latent shooting skills when using the hunting rifle makes me think that things will not resolve so easily for Gotham’s most fortunate son; because even if the brain forgets, the muscles remember.
So Bruce claims that the events of his past “isn’t his history.” For this current plot device, he is correct; however, this history still belongs to Gotham and all of the readers who have followed the Caped Crusader over the years. Batman Annual 4 accomplishes the monumental task of staying connected to the vast — albeit heavily retconned — past of the Bat-Verse while staying accessible to first-time readers, reminding everyone why we pick up the title in the first place and offering an entry point for those who would like to see the fallout of the “Superheavy” arc. Taylor! Aside from some clumsiness in the action scenes (featuring the one of the cheesiest of tropes), I really enjoyed this read. How did you find it? Do you mind this issue taking one more stab at the oft-questioned sanity of Bruce Wayne, which goes way back to Alan Moore’s Killing Joke? And do you also think that Bruce sounded a tad hypocritical with his closing statements to the baddies, re: fixing one’s life?
Taylor: Oh for sure, Bruce’s one-liner definitely is hypocritical to the nth degree. But that’s okay, actually. The reason? Batman really has become an exploration of madness and the fact that Bruce doesn’t understand he’s mad just adds strength to the notion that he’s as crazy as the villains he battles. Ultimately this is a question I never get tired of, even if it has been repeated time and time again. We live in a world where the actions of the so-called “good guys” are frequently just as bad or worse than those of the so called “bad guys.” This makes it hard to determine if those who attempt to stop evil are just as malicious as those who would precipitate it in the first place. The questions of Batman and his madness, and whether he is more problem or solution to evil, obviously echoes our world in more ways than one. Because of this, I never tire of this question.
This question of madness speaks to the strengths of this issue. The best scenes in this issue come when this topic is broached by the primary players. My favorite comment on madness comes at the hand of the three villains who precipitate the events in this issue. As Bruce notes, it’s insane to think that any of these three men would choose torturing him over their own freedom. However, earlier in the issue the three antagonists explain each of their reasoning extremely clearly.
Bruce is right of course. Most people would choose freedom over revenge any day. Making this conceit even more perplexing is the fact that these three are taking out their frustrations not on the man who they think actually hurt them, but on the man who they think simply funded them. It’s this thought alone which I think truly shows us how insane these supervillains are. Sure, Bruce Wayne has ties to Batman, but why go to such elaborate lengths to try and torture the man who isn’t their primary foe? Reasonably, this doesn’t make sense, but of course reason has no place in the minds of these men. Of course this “grudge” they hold isn’t necessarily any worse than Bruce’s, just different, and that’s a fascinating thing to consider.
It’s clear to me that Tynion places the question of madness foremost in this issue. However, this focus on one subject sometimes acts to the detriment of issue in other areas. Chiefly, a lot of what should be explained in the issue narratively simply isn’t there. Take, for example, the explanation of how the Riddler, Mr. Freeze, and Clayface escaped their transfer away from Wayne Manor.
So all it took to slip numerous Arkham guards, special holding cells, and even Bat-Bot was a couple of fake doubles? This comes after Geri explained in great detail the special pains she took to make sure these three didn’t escape. Heck, Tynion and Antonio devote an entire two page spread to the idea. Then, in explanation for how they escaped everything is reduced down to one speech bubble? I understand that the escape of these villains isn’t the primary story being told here, but why build it up and then have no payoff? The only explanation I can come up with is that the creative effort of Tynion was focused elsewhere when writing this issue.
Still, I really enjoyed this issue despite the fact that I’m not usually much of a Batman fan. But maybe that is the very reason I do like this issue. There is no Batman here, just villains, Bruce Wayne, and madness.
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