Batman 51

Alternating Currents: Batman 51, Drew and Patrick

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.

False Start

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:

the darkness and the light

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.

purse returner

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.

bananas

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?

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7 comments on “Batman 51

  1. Snyder was preceded by Grant Morrison and will be followed by Tom King, and yet I can’t see the peaks of Snyder’s Batman being matched soon. And this issue makes a great explanation of why.

    It is easy to go really meta about this, and discuss it as a story about ending instead of being an ending in itself, but I prefer to avoid that sort of analysis, no offence to Drew’s Comic Studies degree. To me, ultimately, that sort of discussion ends up being a bunch of sound and fury signifying nothing, and that turning this into a story about Snyder’s career reduces the story to a bunch of references instead of actual meaning.

    Because I’m more interested in the idea of a quiet night in Gotham. Snyder’s Batman has long been about the idea of fighting for what’s right, about standing up to the darkness. Looking into the face of oblivion, and keep going, because that is what a hero was. Snyder has ignored all that shit about Batman being just as bad as the supervillains, or something like that, and instead quite simply believing what makes Batman extraordinary is the insane level of drive to make the world a better place and the ability to inspire others to do the same (in fact, stretching this idea from just the Batfamily to the entire city of Gotham was a genius idea). And here, we get the fruits of the labour. Peace in Gotham is an impossibility, but every time Batman suits up, things get a little better. And it is honestly important to recognize that.

    And that’s what happens. Snyderand Capullo shows the natural result of his vision of Batman. Things get better. The Mantling is still coming, as are Penguin’s plans. Joker will return. And no one doubts that Arkham’s new security what fail soon. But 50 issues of hard fighting and perpetual vigilance has led to tonight. A time where Gotham can know, for some small amount of the time, peace. A time where people don’t get mugged in an alley, but have their purses returned instead. A time where the Gotham Is column doesn’t tell stories of horror, but stories of heroism. And, most importantly, a Gotham where people, even someone as bad as one of the gangbangers from issue 3, can become a better person. Everything Snyder ever wished to express about Batman is elegantly expressed in a single issue, and yet expressed in such a way that requires 50 previous issues.

    My only real problem with it is that I feel the Court of Owls stuff was referenced a bit too often, and I would have loved to have seen things from throughout the run. Maybe someone finding one of Mr Bloom’s seeds, and crushing it? Maybe a scene of the Riddler coming up with an amazing plan, only to realize some flaw and returning to the drawing board. A bit more acknowledgement of the content of Snyder’s stories outside the Owls, instead of just acknowledgement of their thematics.

    But Snyder and Capullo have made something truly special with their Batman run. This will go down as a legendary run, and I can’t see how it won’t forever define how I see Batman. This is my Batman. This is everything I want Batman to be. And even as the amazing Tom King will tell the next part of Batman’s adventures, I will miss them. But I also can’t argue with the fact that this is a perfect time to leave. A strong ending while they are still at their best, instead of continuing on until no one can bare it. At least we have All-Star Batman (and Snyder has suggested teamng up with Capullo at some point again to tell another Court of Owls story)

    Goodbye, and thank you, Scott Snyder and Grey Capullo

    • I’ll bite. Was the Court of Owls referenced that much within this series after the Night of Owls? They were definitely explored too much in the greater DCU, including like a dozen tie-ins and some Dick Grayson re-defining mythology in Nightwing, but I think Snyder and Capullo were pretty reserved when it came to deploying owls. It’s sorta hard to fault DC editorial – it’s a good fucking idea and a lot of interesting characters spun out of there – Calvin Rose, Stryx, those might be the only two…

      Whatever happened to Stryx? I stopped reading Birds of Prey shortly after Christy Marx took it over (which is like two years ago now), and the character hasn’t been in Batgirl since Simone gave up the title. I suppose she could be floating around in a more obscure DC series and I’d never know it.

      • Strix is in the Secret Six right now. I actually just caught up on the series, and this most recent (and final) storyline has been a Strix spotlight, with her being forcibly recruited into the League of Assassins by Lady Shiva, who is pretty much the most deadly killer in the DCU and kicks the asses of the entire Secret Six + Batgirl when they attempt to intervene, and Strix goes along willingly in order to save her friends’ lives. This month’s upcoming final issues looks to be a rescue mission to save Strix from the League.

      • Sorry I wasn’t clear. The Court of Owls story was referenced too much in Batman 51 relative to the rest of Snyder’s run. Between the Court, Arkham, Gotham Is and the reveal of Batman Is writer, there are a lot of references to the very first story Snyder wrote for his run. While looking back to the beginning is the right choice (and I believe that Gotham Is and the reveal of the writer are the perfect way of doing it), I would love to see Snyder and Capullo reference Zero Year, the Joker stories and Superheavy (which is why I suggested the Riddler coming up with a big doomsday plan like the Zero Year before throwing it away, or someone finding one of Mr Bloom’s seeds and crushing it).

        This issue was all about looking at the entire Gotham of Snyder and Capullo, so the emphasis on the very first story felt wrong when Snyder and Capullo were more than just the Court of Owls. They were about Zero Year and Death in the Family and Endgame and Superheavy. So I wanted to see more of that, instead of referencing the same part of their run again and again

  2. Actually, one question. Who was the woman with the Court of Owls, who contacted Alfred? I wasn’t able to work out if that was anyone particular. Just a turncoat secretly working for Batman, or someone specific?

    • I’m pretty sure that was Batman himself, in disguise (which I’m thinking might be a reference to Batman’s “old lady disguise” in the grocery store in Dark Knight Returns?).

      I love that take for two reasons: One, because it’s just an amusing mental picture, and two, because it means Batman has a HUGE upper-hand over the Court of Owls right now — he knows exactly how to get into their HQ, which buttons to press to activate their systems, he’s aware of “The Mantling” (whatever it is), and he can sneak in and out entirely under the Owls’ noses. That’s a far cry from the Batman who first faced the Owls at the beginning of Snyder’s run, and it’s such a cool sign of growth.

      • I actually love that interpretation. With no evidence of any other character, you kind of have to default, and I love the idea of Batman disguising himself like that to go undercover. Not only is it an amusing mental picture, but it feels right that Batman is totally prepared to disguise himself like that.

        And yeah, that sign of growth is also awesome. As I said in my other comment, Batman 51 is about the idea that things have got better. That standing up and fighting actually leads to things, ever so slightly, improving. So the idea that Batman having that upper hand is a great example of that idea

        You know, there is a wonderfully honesty, now that I think about it, in Batman 51. It is committed to the idea that things have gotten better, yet also acknowledges that dark things are coming. There is a real honesty in saying that fighting for what’s right won’t fix everything, just make things better than they were before

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