Today, Mark and Drew are discussing Batman 52 originally released May 11th, 2016.
Mark: I have exactly zero interest DC’s upcoming animated adaptation of The Killing Joke. You will never be able to convince me that there is a version of Batman that needs to be R-rated. I don’t object inherently to the idea of a difficult Batman, I think there’s a place for one-off stories like The Killing Joke or Arkham Asylum, but to my mind these are mere diversions, thought exercises meant to explore the darker facets of the character. But while sometimes interesting, I don’t think they should even be lionized as important to the character. The best ones, including Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, are more a commentary on comics in general than they are everyone’s favorite Caped Crusader. You don’t really need any more evidence that holding The Dark Knight Returns and its ilk up as the “cool” version of Batman is a damaging exercise than Zack Snyder’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. Commentators and critics have already done a thorough job dissecting that movie’s many failings so I’ll refrain from doing so here, but I will add that even though Ben Affleck’s portrayal of Batman was praised by even some of its harshest critics, it’s not a portrayal of Batman I particularly enjoyed. Occasionally fun to look at? Sure. But like pretty much every other aspect of the movie, this is a Batman completely devoid of joy.
What is it about the idea of an “adult” Batman that seems to translate directly to “without joy?”
Luckily, the Batman of the comics hasn’t succumbed to the same fate, and the one-two punch of Batman 51 and now Batman 52 offer a hopeful take on the character. It’s rare I look forward to a filler issue like Batman 52, but I don’t really mind when it comes to Batman books. For whatever reason, being freed from furthering a story arc most writers use their one-off as an opportunity to succinctly remind readers why Batman is the best, even when he struggles with his worst.
I know James Tynion IV has his share of critics, and I don’t disagree that his writing is workmanlike, but generally it works even if it’s not very flashy. Here the setup is as standard as one can get for a Batman story: young Bruce Wayne in the aftermath of his parent’s death, intercut with moments from present day Gotham. Tied together at the end. And I don’t think there’s anyone here who didn’t see the reveal coming that Bruce’s “How To Move On” diary was the treasured possession in the security box. Still, despite being just about as by the numbers as you can get, the reveal that Alfred’s addition to the journal — NUMBER 52 GET IT? — is “Remember that your parents will always be proud of you” still worked for me emotionally. It’s Batman as comfort food.
Riley Rossmo is on pencils for this issue, and he does a good job of making Batman look cool. That’s honestly all I ask from a Batman book. I’m not hard to please! Sure, I’m not crazy about adult Bruce Wayne’s design, and there are a few moments where young Bruce’s face kind of morphs into Betty Boop at certain angles…
…but I’m never going to complain about a series of panels like this:
Straight out of “How to Make Batman Cool 101.”
Batman 52 does not blow the doors off what we expect from a Batman comic, but it’s hard for me to fault an issue for not being genre redefining. Tynion and Rossmo didn’t set out to offer a particularly hot take on Batman’s past and motivations here, and they succeeded in crafting a wholly satisfying entry. This is the Batman I prefer — a hero with love, not darkness, in his heart.
Drew, is that too treacly for you? Did you find the simplicity of the issue more problematic than I did?
Drew: I’m afraid I did, though I agree with you on all of this issue’s strengths. I, too, am a fan of boilerplate batman stories, though I think the reason this didn’t hold up for me points to our opinions on one of your opening points, Mark: that the singluar takes on the character of stories like Arkham Assylum and The Dark Knight Returns don’t deserve the recognition they’ve received. I’m 100% with you on not wanting those to be the only takes on the character (just as I’m with you on being bored as hell at the brooding-13-year-old’s-conception-of-badass approach in Batman vs. Superman), but I disagree on elevating any conception of the character some kind of platonic ideal. That is, Arkham Assylum and DKR appeal to me specifically because they’re singular, unique visions of a familiar character. I wouldn’t want Tynion to write Morrison’s Batman any more than I’d like Morrison to write Tynion’s.
Where this issue breaks down for me is that I don’t feel it presents a singular vision of Batman. It fails to present a new perspective on the character or to push the character as we know him into an unusual situation. That is, I’m feeling the workmanlike quality you identified in Tynion’s writing, and it’s genericness fails to distinguish this story in any way. Indeed, the weirdly positive note the issue ends on undercuts the perverse nature of what’s actually going on: Alfred, desperate to pull young Bruce out of his grief-fuelled tailspin, adds a note to his notebook meant to return his life to normalcy. Bruce, single-minded as ever, distorts that message to mean he has to fight crime every night in order to make his parents proud. There’s no humanizing a character who has deluded themselves into seeing vigilantism as a means of mourning — certainly not by doubling down on the delusion — which leaves this issue with a clinical sterility where it seems to be going for emotional catharsis.
Honestly, I’ve never loved the “Alfred can’t help Bruce in spite of his best efforts” take on Batman’s origin. It shifts the narrative from one about Bruce’s single-mindedness to one about Alfred’s personal failures. Perhaps those are one-in-the-same, but I tend to think a slightly emotionally distant or oblivious Alfred scans a little more believably — he is English, after all. If Alfred is fully aware of Bruce’s fixations, the fact that he never bothered to take Bruce’s grief counseling beyond an exercise that should have set off alarm bells for any trained professional is tantamount to neglect. If instead, Bruce had hidden his grief from Alfred, effectively beginning his double-life, the story becomes one that still highlights the depths of Bruce’s psychosis and desire for privacy, but also absolves Alfred of wrongdoing. As it’s written here, Alfred only seems as invested in Bruce’s well-being as is convenient for the plot, calling on Leslie Thompkins and altering Bruce’s notebook when called for, but doing nothing beyond that because it would ruin the reveal at the end of the issue.
Which is to say, my troubles with this issue may be more fundamental than that it doesn’t present a singular take on Batman — it fails to take an internally consistent one. What’s frustrating to me is that there are so many writers with unique takes on the character itching to be written. DC knows this, which is why they’ll still release the occasional anthology series, miniseries, or OGN, making the ill-conceived genericness of this issue all the more offensive. This could have been interesting, it just wasn’t.
And I looked for interesting tidbits everywhere I could; do the numbers in Bruce’s notebook correspond to this volume’s issue numbers, for example? Not that I could tell. Leslie Thompkins jokes about taking the Wayne’s grandfather clock — you know, the one that later becomes the entryway to the Batcave — but I’m not sure there’s any point to that detail beyond dim recognition. For me, it simply emphasizes how Bruce could have been spared his fate if the adults in his life had bothered to intercede with even a little more interest, though again, that undermines the happy resolution of this issue. These overt but meaningless symbols invite our scrutiny, but fail to reward it, making for a disappointing read. Or, more precisely, they suggest that there’s more to this seeming disposable Batman story, even though there isn’t, begging an active reading of a story that works best read totally passively.
Which I guess brings me back to the workmanlike nature of this issue. I like Batman enough to enjoy a generic Batman story every once in a while, but “switch your brain off” reading requires “switch your brain off” writing, and that’s where this issue falls out of alignment. It’s too smart to be dumb, but far too dumb to be smart. At the very least, it’s heightened my excitement for Tom King’s upcoming run; there’s an intelligent writer with a unique voice. I’ll take that over this, any day.
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