Today, Drew and Spencer are discussing Batman 51, originally released April 27th, 2016.
Drew: Nostalgia is a complicated force in superhero comics. On the one hand, a 75-year history is a unique and powerful tool, one that can be mined to celebrate past achievements and reward loyal readers; on the other hand, an audience’s fondness for that history may be exploited, used in lieu of actual quality to assure sales of a given title. These ends may not be mutually exclusive, but parsing the value of nostalgia becomes even more complicated when we consider our own relationship to the material. I don’t bring this up to spark a discussion of critical theory and the fallacy of objectivity (though that’s a conversation I’m always willing to have), but to acknowledge just how important Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo’s Batman run has been to me, personally, and to Retcon Punch as a website.
Four years, five months, and 15 days ago (as of publication of this post), Patrick and I published a discussion of Batman 1-3 on my now-defunct personal blog. This was two months before Retcon Punch existed, and the decision to create this very site stems directly from our experiences with those early reviews. Moreover, Batman 1 was one of the first books I read as I was getting into monthly comics in 2011, so it absolutely holds a special place in my heart. So: why bring this up? “Liking a series” doesn’t usually warrant this kind of subjective hedge-betting (least of all around here, where the notion of an objective critique is roundly dismissed). Indeed, whatever fondness I have for the idea of this series hasn’t prevented me from disliking parts of it — I don’t think my enjoyment of this series has biased me unfairly. The difference is twofold: 1) this is Snyder and Capullo’s final issue on this series and 2) this issue represents one hell of a nostalgia trip.
The issue opens with a callback to the “Gotham is…” device Snyder used in issue 1 to introduce his version of Gotham (and Bruce’s attitude towards it) — a characterization that contrasted the grungy, hyper-corrupt pastiche of ’70s New York that had become prototype for the city. In issue 51, Snyder suggests that Gotham is “the first line of the last story you’ll ever write,” a line so dense with meaning — both literal and symbolic — it’s almost impenetrable. On the surface, “Gotham” is literally the first line of this, the last Batman story Snyder intends to write (though not the last Batman story he intends to write; his new All-Star Batman series launches in August). But we can also understand Gotham as “the first line” of this stage in Scott Snyder’s career, a fact emphasized by the explicit callback to Snyder’s first issue on the title. He was a rising star at that point, but a headlining role on a flagship title undoubtedly vaulted him to superstar status.
But the callbacks don’t stop there. Batman’s investigation into a mysterious tremor sends him on a veritable tour of Snyder and Capullo’s run, starting with a trip to Arkham that almost recreates the cover and opening scene of Batman 1.
Instead, we get a false start; Gotham can take care of itself — it doesn’t need the caretaker(s) its relied on for the last five years. (I love the way Capullo emphasizes the goodbye in having Batman’s receding figure reflected in the visors of those guards.)
The tour continues as Batman visits the Court of Owls and even the Joker, eventually culminating in a reunion with a decidedly less-iconic figure from Snyder’s run: an anonymous gangbanger Batman dispatched way back in issue 3. Since that encounter, the kid has turned his life around; he’s now the writer of the “Gotham is…” column. That is to say, Batman changed the life of a writer who defines what Gotham is to countless readers. Remember that “first line” business from the beginning of the issue?
The issue concludes with an extended excerpt from that column, assuring us that Gotham is safe, and that its sworn protector can rest easy, but here again, the density of meaning is daunting. Is Snyder the writer, who has defined Gotham, or is he Batman, who can now take a night off? These questions are complicated further as the closing line assures us that “Gotham is you. Always.” Is “you” us, the reader, or is it Batman, the character? The writer assures us that the column isn’t written by one person, but by “everyone out there” — something that’s perhaps more true of a column that relies on reader submissions, but I think we can understand as a celebration of the role of the reader in making a story “happen.”
To me, readings were the audience is Gotham, is Batman, and is the writer are all equally valid, as are readings where Snyder is all of those things, creating a kind of interpretive singularity: Everything in this story is Snyder, everything in this story is us, both of which speak to the nature of comics narrative. Everything in Gotham is its creative team — there’s nothing on the page that wasn’t crafted by Snyder, Capullo, inker Danny Miki or colorist FCO Plascencia. By the same token, everything in Gotham is the audience, who brings the stories to life through the act of reading. The comic itself are where these forces interact and co-mingle — co-mix if you will.
Oh boy. Maybe the more important disclaimer was that I’ve just finished the coursework for my Comics Studies degree, so may devolve into broad, abstract statements about the power and value of the medium. But I kind of think it’s warranted here: Snyder mixes his metaphors so elegantly in the end there to make distinguishing the artist and the audience particularly difficult.
Spencer, I’m curious to hear if you enjoyed the ambiguities of that symbolism as much as I did. Also, there’s a TON of symbolism I didn’t touch on, from Alfred remarking on Bruce’s lack of scars to the fact that all of the artifacts from the Batcave have been put back in their rightful place, which I’d also love to hear your thoughts on. Does this issue get you thinking as abstractly as it does me, or is that just my two disclaimers piling on top of one another?
Spencer: Nah Drew, this is definitely an issue that encourages abstract thinking, even as it provides plenty of in-narrative points to ruminate over as well. No matter what direction you approach Batman 51 from, you’ll find something worthwhile within its pages.
So let’s start with the question of those Batcave artifacts (the t-rex, the giant penny, the Joker card, etc.). My first thought when I saw the cave reassembled was that there must be a very empty playground (accompanied by a pack of either very sad or very relieved children) out there in Gotham, but even that joke speaks to a deeper truth: reassembling Batman’s HQ requires disassembling one of the few remaining reminders of the previous Bruce Wayne, the one who had to sacrifice his life to make Batman’s return possible. It’s a grim, if subtle, reminder of the cost of creating a Batman.
That cost, though, has paid rich dividends to everyone whose lives Batman has touched, be they the fictional citizens of Gotham City or the real-life readers of his comics. Snyder and Capullo illustrate Batman’s beneficial influence on Gotham in a multitude of ways throughout this issue: one of the more unique ways is through the idea of Alfred’s severed hand being sown back on via Crazy Quilt’s technology. There’s been a running theme in some Batman comics (that I’ve never been a fan of) that Batman creates his own villains, or attracts chaos to Gotham City; true or not, it’s satisfying to see that Batman can twist even this to Gotham’s advantage by using his opponent’s technology for their benefit (you know Wayne Tech is gonna be giving these stitches to every hospital in Gotham soon enough).
That said, nowhere is Batman’s status as an inspiration to Gotham more apparent than on this page:
Thanks to the power outage Gotham is pitch-black, devoid of light entirely except for the Bat-Signal. Never mind trying to figure out how it’s still running in a power outage — this is all about metaphor, baby, and this one is pretty clear. Batman is a beacon, a light the people of Gotham can look to in their darkest hour, a symbol to lead them out of the darkness. That’s pretty powerful symbolism, especially for a figure so often referred to as a Dark Knight.
And that’s something I’ve always loved about Snyder and Capullo’s run — no matter how dark they got, they never forgot about the beating heart deep within. Their Batman truly cares about Gotham and every person living within, even in those phases where he works like hell to push them away — it’s apparent throughout every moment of Batman 51, as he desperately searches for the criminal behind the blackout before people start getting hurt. Most importantly, Batman’s victory comes, not from punching an arch-criminal in the teeth, but from the city he’s worked so hard for finally rewarding him with a night of peace, and from the people he’s saved and inspired showing exactly how much they’ve learned from him.
Batman’s faith has been rewarded, and that’s a pretty fantastic way to close out a run.
I’m fond of the moment I just posted for another reason, as well; it’s a scene explicitly set-up to make you expect the worst, but which then completely subverts that expectation. That’s kind of a running theme throughout Batman 51, and while, in context, it applies largely to Batman’s fear of someone attacking Gotham, it works on a meta-textual level as well. There are probably many readers who are fearful about Snyder and Capullo leaving the title they’ve so thoroughly made their own; even with the tremendously talented Tom King taking the book over, I know that I’m still going to miss Snyder and Capullo like hell. So I can’t help but to read moments like this one as Snyder reassuring the audience that their fears are unfounded. Batman is in good hands, and will no doubt be for many years to come.
In that respect, as much as Batman 51 touches upon the past (both of the character and of this run in particular), it also looks towards the future. Batman’s investigations hint at several possible upcoming threats: Penguin and Black Mask’s plans against the city, the “return” of the Joker, the Court of Owl’s “mantling” operation. Are these perhaps plots Snyder hopes to revisit someday, either on All-Star or when he eventually reunites with Capullo? Or they simply ideas to show that Batman will always have new threats to tackle, from now through all of eternity?
Either way, the idea that Batman will continue on is a central tenant of this issue, emphasized in even the subtlest of moments. For example, one of my favorite scenes of the issue is Bruce and Alfred’s tongue-in-cheek banter about the “justice” flavored beverage.
Alfred, in his droll way, is calling Bruce’s quest for justice — and, in particular, how he goes about carrying it out — bananas. He’s not wrong; Batman is a character who can only work in comic books, but it’s exactly that that makes him such an enduring, aspirational character. Batman does what we’d like to do in ways we never could, but in the process, inspires his readers to do what they can. On the next page Bruce turns Alfred’s own words back on him, expressing how unwise it is to believe that Batman can ever be stopped. That’s not just true in-universe; the character’s existed for 75 years, and will no doubt be around for at least 75 more.
No matter how long Batman lasts, though, I have a feeling that Snyder and Capullo’s run will be remembered as a high-point for the character for just as long, if not longer. I’m honored, not only to have read through the run as it was released, but to have been able to discuss it with the intelligent, enthusiastic, and talented writers and readers of Retcon Punch. To Snyder, Capullo, Miki, Plascencia, and the rest of the Batman crew, I say “thank you,” and I can’t wait to see what you all do next.
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 Comixology and download issues there. There’s no need to pirate, right?