Today, Drew and Patrick are discussing Batman 48 originally released January 20th, 2016.
Drew: There’s a concept in biology of “synapomorphy” which is, essentially, a trait that’s unique to one biological group (which can then be used to distinguish that group from all others). Milk production would be a synapomorphy of mammals, for example. What’s interesting is that these synapomorphies can pile up such that a given biological group might have many distinguishing characteristics — to expand on our mammal example, hair, inner ear bones, and a unique type of teeth are all synapomorphies. Each of these traits developed separately, but all have come to define mammals as a whole.
A similar thing can happen with the defining characteristics of fictional characters — particularly characters who exist in multiple media in stories told by multiple people. Batman is a prime example of this, with countless defining characteristics that range from costuming to gadgets to locations to supporting cast to overarching themes. Some were there more-or-less from the beginning, but others have become essential more recently as new stories are told. A few years ago, Patrick suggested that deconstructions of the Batman mythos have become so common as to become a defining characteristic of the character itself. I was initially skeptical — I can certainly think of plenty of great examples of Batman stories that are as straightforward as can be — but the more I think about it, the more convinced I am that we’re living through the time when meta-commentary is becoming a defining characteristic of Batman storytelling. Or, at least, it’s a defining characteristic of Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo’s Batman, but when they do it so well, it’s hard to argue that it should be any other way.
Of course, the commentary on the importance of Batman, the eternal nature of his struggle, and the legacy of his creators is so densely layered it approaches impenetrability. The conversation that opens the issue, between Bruce Wayne and the butcher (formerly known as Joker) acts as a kind of microcosm of those layered meanings. On the surface, they’re talking about the futility of life — two men who forgot their past lives wondering what life can mean if it can be so simply erased. That this is a veiled metaphor for their own struggles as Batman and Joker is clear as day, with Snyder heaping on references to jokes and smiles; but as the conversation plays out, it also becomes a kind of meditation on the legacy of Snyder and Capullo’s Batman.
It’s a touching eulogy, if a tad insulting to those who came immediately before and those who will follow — a point that becomes particularly uncomfortable given that Snyder will be collaborating with different artists upon Capullo’s departure. I want to respect the sentiment for what it is — that this moment may be enough (and leave reconciling the past and the future to the historians) — but articulating the fear of Batman going “back to something ugly” elevates the present by stepping on the past and future.
This becomes doubly interesting when you consider that this kind of meta-commentary might very well represent Snyder’s legacy on the title. It’s that very attention to detail that begs similarly close readings on Mr. Bloom’s speech, but I’m afraid the underlying philosophy is just as ugly. Or, rather, it’s not that Bloom’s philosophy is ugly that I object to — villains are meant to have horrifying world-views — but the way the rest of Gotham reacts to it.
Maybe I’m hopelessly detached from reality, but I tend to think that, when presented with the opportunity to turn into rampaging, murderous monsters, most people wouldn’t leap at that opportunity. I know its easy to get the opposite impression, given the way certain abhorrent opinions have gained apparent traction in the run-up to the Republican primaries, but I maintain that those opinions are ultimately held by a tiny minority of individuals, no matter how much the media (social or otherwise) may suggest the opposite. Point is, I have faith in my neighbors to be generally decent people. Sure, Bloom’s plan relies on only a thousand of presumably millions of Gothamites to seek out and use his seeds, but even if we accept they represent a tiny minority, what does their choice mean? That there’s so much hate in the world that people are just waiting for a maniac to give them the opportunity to become monsters?
The effect is the opposite of the empowering message that falls out of Batman’s detente with Joker in The Dark Knight, where the citizens of Gotham chose not to kill each other. Even the way that decision is undercut with one person going against the grain — Harvey opting for vengeance in The Dark Knight, Bruce opting for sacrifice here — feels off. I’d rather see the maniacs as the outliers, and I’d rather see Batman as leading a crusade of good people, instead of standing as the last bastion of sanity in a mad world. But like I said, maybe I’m a hopeless optimist.
Or maybe my reading is just way off. Patrick, even I have to admit to having my emotions stirred as Bruce kicks in Alfred’s door, demanding to be Batman again, but I can’t help but see a whole lot of unpleasantness in the subtext. Am I making mountains out of molehills (or at least misinterpreting what the mountains mean)?
Patrick: I think your read of the people of Gotham is definitely valid, but I think Bloom does a better job of articulating why they might feel so powerless to begin with than your giving him credit for. I agree with you that the thought of thousands of Gothamites seeking out superpowers to the certain detriment of their neighbors is depressing as fuck. But I don’t think we’re witnessing the trolls coming out of the woodwork, I think we’re seeing the victims. Bloom’s monologue — which is equal parts dense and inflammatory — focuses on the slights the citizens of Gotham have faced under the shadow of this imposter-Batman. Snyder packs the monologue with references to real life tensions between cops and the poor and disenfranchised, between the powerful and the powerless. He’s sort of articulating the background narrative of Gotham since the New 52 started up four years ago: economic disparity, gentrification, a bureaucracy that’s lost touch with the people its meant to serve. Jim-Bats can’t help but embody all of those negative qualities — he is, after all, a former GCPD Commissioner and currently working for the Powers Corporation. Bloom says:
“See, this Batman, their Batman, he’s not what the real Batman was about. The real Batman was about doing it for himself. He was about taking power into his own hands.”
That line of thinking pushes the idea of Batman as a hero of the populace. Arguably, that’s what Snyder and Capullo have been selling ever since they put him at odds with the affluent-but-disconnected Court of Owls.
Maybe that’s another synapomorphy for Batman: he’s the peoples’ hero. I’m trying to decide whether that’s always been a part of Batman’s character, and it’s taken nearly four years of careful exploration of Bruce’s character by Snyder and Capullo to express that, or if that’s a quality Snyder and Capullo have mapped on to Batman. I’m starting to think that it’s the later, which may actually shed more light on the sorta ugly message Drew identified in Bruce and the butcher’s conversation at the start of the issue. It doesn’t take a lot of twisting to turn classic Batman into a fascist figure, imposing a brand of justice on Gotham City determined by his values alone. That’s a powerful Batman — the Batman of Frank Miller and Grant Morrison and Christopher Nolan (and I expect Zack Snyder). In that way, I can sympathize with Snyder and Capullo’s fear that what happens to this character outside of their care has to potential to turn ugly again.
Goodness! I don’t usually spend so much time addressing the lead, but Drew raised a bunch of interesting questions… or at least, he did a good job of pointing out the questions raised in the issue itself. It’s a surprisingly chatty affair, even for a Scott Snyder joint. But I think it’d be short sighted not to credit Capullo’s masterfully atmospheric storytelling which serves as an appropriate backdrop for all of this thematic exploration. I’m dumbfounded by the simple, perfect composition of the panel that sets the scene between Bruce and the butcher.
There’s a dark beauty here than I don’t think I could oversell the importance of. The conversation is so heady, and so meta, and arguably tied up in perspectives that don’t so much belong to the characters as their creators, that Capullo’s ability to ground it in something so relatably beautiful, while also so achingly sad, helps crystallize the scene. But that’s not the only time he’s selling the themes harder than the copy — I don’t think there’s anything that sells fear of Batman’s returning fascism better than the misty march of the bat bots.
It’s an almost like RoboCop or Terminator — and colorist Francisco Perez makes sure to remind us of the connection between these Bat-suits and the police with their simple red and blue headlights. It’s a chilling economy of visual language.
If there’s one thing in this book I’m not quite tracking, it’s the material from the cold opening of the issue. It appears to be some kind of experiment, akin to the large hadron collider (or some other large physics-based project just beyond the ridge of my understanding). It’s not at all clear what’s happening here, or how it plays into the issue as a whole, but it sets up a repetitive clicking, which turns into the banging on Alfred’s study door at the close of the issue. I think we don’t have all the pieces to this puzzle yet, but it’s a tantalizing promise of… something, I’m just not sure what. Anyone got any theories?
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