Today, Spencer and Michael are discussing Batman 49, originally released February 10th, 2016.
Spencer: One of the concepts that’s made Batman such a popular hero for the past 75 years is the idea that anybody could become Batman. None of us are alien refugees or Amazon princesses, none of us can expect to be struck by Speed Force lightning or bitten by a radioactive spider (and survive, at least), but with the right training, resources, and determination, anyone could become Batman; and sure, most of us don’t have access to the seemingly unlimited wealth, technology, or training Bruce Wayne had, but they’re at least goals that someone living in our real world could feasibly aspire to achieve. In Batman 49, though, Scott Snyder and Yanick Paquette make all those qualifications — and, indeed, the very possibility of anyone besides Bruce Wayne ever truly becoming Batman — moot. Being Batman is about more than gear or training or money. Becoming Batman requires great, tragic sacrifice; it involves dying, whether figuratively or literally.
That’s what our blank-slate Bruce Wayne discovers as he attempts to reclaim his mantle. First, though, he has to convince Alfred to take him down to the cave and to help him fire up the “Batman-making machine” (a device meant to create new Batmen by cloning Bruce Wayne and implanting them with his memories), which is easier said than done. Alfred is desperate to save his son from returning to his previous life, but as always, it’s a futile endeavor. No matter what form he takes, when faced with people in danger, Bruce is compelled to help them out.
If Bruce had never lost his parents in that alley perhaps his heroism would have taken on a different form, but as it is, if Bruce has the capability of protecting people as Batman, it’s not something he can turn away from. Bruce Wayne has to be Batman.
Having established that, Snyder next works on establishing why Batman has to be Bruce Wayne — and, again, it all comes down to that moment in the alley. Blank-Bruce and Alfred attempt to make the machine work, to implant Bruce’s old memories into this new form, but despite repeated attempts, it keeps failing — and the process is essentially killing Bruce. Paquette breaks from his more typical layouts throughout the rest of the issue to depict these attempts (which take the form of far-out fantasies within Bruce’s mind), placing them all within circular panels.
This sequence might be the clearest example, contrasting the background noise of Alfred and Bruce’s attempts with Bruce’s circular fantasies. Beyond simply separating fiction from “reality,” though, those circles seem to have several meanings. They represent Alfred and Bruce’s repeated, never-ending attempts to make the process work — Bruce is not giving up. They also represent the fates of Bruce, Alfred, and Julie finally coming full circle once the process succeeds, but with a much more tragic outcome than the one Alfred originally envisioned when this circle was first mentioned in Batman 46. Most importantly, they may represent the circular nature of Batman as a character. We’ve seen Batman rebooted and reinterpreted time and time again, whether in the main continuity or in alternate universes, Elseworlds, and “what if’s,” but for all the various forms Batman has taken, that idea of Bruce Wayne — orphaned in an alley, vowing to avenge his parents — has always remained the quintessential Batman, and any attempts to move away from that concept will always end up circling back around to this ideal Batman.
In a sense, that’s exactly what Snyder has done in the “Superheavy” arc, instituting Jim Gordon as Batman only to remind us all why it’s a role only Bruce Wayne can truly fill in the first place. Blank-Bruce and Alfred’s attempts are doomed because Bruce won’t kill, but to become Batman, someone has to die.
Back in Crime Alley, Bruce Wayne died in a figurative sense — the child that was Bruce Wayne “died”, replaced with the creature of justice who would one day take on the name “Batman.” This time around it’s a more literal death, as Blank-Bruce has to die in order to be reborn with his old memories. For all his resources and tech, that’s something Jim Gordon can’t do. It’s why neither he nor Dick Grayson can be Batman in the same way Bruce is — they haven’t lost themselves to their crusade as he has.
It’s an interesting contrast. Batman’s sidekicks have always been defined as much by their differences from Bruce as they have been by their own strengths. Dick was praised for becoming a “lighter” Batman who could take on the job without losing himself. Yet, none of those characters could have become the heroes they did without Bruce first becoming Batman. Batman’s purpose has always been to make sure nobody else has to go through what he went through in Crime Alley as a child, but by definition, that can’t happen unless he first “dies” there to begin with. Bruce Wayne will always be the one who makes that sacrifice, because he can’t bear to see anyone else do it in his behalf.
That’s a powerful take, one which Snyder’s been building up to for a while (Bruce’s machine harkens back to the Futures End issue of Batman and Detective Comics 27), but it does feel a bit removed from the “Batman of the state”/”Batman of the people” narrative Snyder’s been telling throughout the rest of this arc. Michael, do you have any thoughts about that disparity, or about Snyder’s theory in this issue in general? Also, what do you think happened to Blank-Bruce’s beard? Did the machine burn it up, or did it just vanish as a result of Bruce becoming Batman again, as if it was some sort of Sailor Moon transformation sequence? That I would love to see.
Michael: Spencer, you have no idea how happy I am for that beard setup. No matter what kind of lead you provided, I KNEW that I couldn’t leave the “de-bearding” unmentioned — so let’s dive in! Scott Snyder is a writer who loves grounding Batman in the real world with history and science. No one wants to read a pseudo-scientific explanation of why a man loses his beard when he gets printed with powerful painful memories; so I think Snyder trusts us to make that leap of faith on our own. But why doesn’t the process burn the hair on his head off too? Touché. Snyder is also a writer who firmly buys into the power and the mythos of Batman, so he knows that we need that larger-than-life Bat-moments. At the end of the issue Bruce emerges from the Bat-brain machine ready to suit up and fight crime. Given that, there’d be very little time to shave and then we’d have Bat-beard; which is not a very epic image. Upon witnessing Mr. Bloom’s destruction last issue, Bruce made a mad dash home so he could become Batman once again — there wasn’t a lot of time for him to shave then either. Basically what I’m saying is that I really thought through how Bruce’s beard magically disappeared and logistically Snyder provided us with the best option for that necessary move.
I keep saying this in write-ups, but I don’t think that Jim Gordon got a fair chance at playing the role of Batman. I’ve read Snyder talk about his process to the Batman title and he often relates how “the best laid plans” it all is. Ostensibly “Superheavy” was Jim Gordon’s story, but I think that Batman as an idea — specifically Bruce Wayne as Batman — is one that is too powerful to suppress. Bruce himself tries to actively fight that internal Batman and suppress it, but the need is too strong. I like the idea that Snyder might have had greater plans for Gordon under the cowl but Bruce was still clawing his way out of the grave. Though he’s mentioned, Jim Gordon isn’t even present in Batman 49; Bruce is once again taking control of the narrative.
That idea that Bruce is relieving Gordon of that Bat-responsibility is present in his machine-fueled dreams. Paquette provides us with two distinct “dream bubbles” that establishes the world where Gordon is Batman and Bruce is the commissioner and potentially Bat-Gordon’s death. I’m still trying to wrap my head around the dream bubbles that we have witnessed thus far. In this issue they clearly work as Paquette expressing Bruce’s mental journey back to himself, but in issues past that wasn’t the case. In Batman 43, Alfred explained “Batman’s final invention” to Superman, imploring him to imagine the legion of future Batmen, drawn by Capullo. Something about this sort of rubs me the wrong way: are Capullo’s drawings the imaginations of Alfred and Superman while Paquette’s are the actual inner workings of Bruce’s mind? I guess it could be both, but this whole device was established on theoretical speculation; so interpreting the “Mayor Wayne scenes” was a little jarring for me. If Snyder was going for equal parts subconscious, Elseworld and meta it didn’t really land for me.
Despite any criticisms, I definitely bought into ideas of self-sacrifice that Snyder was putting out there. Is Scott Snyder Catholic? I’m thinking he’s a Christian of some sort because the Bat-Christ imagery is waaaay too strong for him not to be. Batman taking on the burden of pain — even death — so that his loved ones and city might live? Jesus wept — that’s pure Batman right there, baby.
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