Today, Spencer and Mark are discussing Batman 10, originally released November 2nd, 2016. As always, this article contains SPOILERS.
Spencer: Most writers have certain tics and styles that come to define their work: Brian Michael Bendis, for example, is famous (infamous?) for his unique style of dialogue and pacing. Tom King has made quite a name for himself over the past two years with his critically acclaimed titles (such as Omega Men, The Vision, and Sheriff of Babylon), all of which, as different as they are, share many of the same themes, tones, and idiosyncrasies. King’s run on Batman was never meant to be part of that “Trilogy of Best Intentions,” but it’s still strange to me that Batman 10 is his first issue that really feels like a Tom King comic. Unfortunately, that’s not always a good thing — turns out that King’s techniques without his usual depth of story can sometimes end up feeling more like a parody of a Tom King comic.
Batman 10 consists of two parallel stories — one told through the art and dialogue, which depicts Batman storming Bane’s Santa Priscan fortress, and one told through the narraration, which takes the form of a letter written to Batman by Catwoman. The latter reminds me of The Vision, where King would sometimes use the narration to delve into character’s backstories, motivations, or give glimpses of what might happen next — in other words, using narration to tell stories different than the ones playing out on the page. The difference is that Selina’s letter never connects or comments on the Bane story, even unintentionally — the two tales don’t benefit from being told simultaneously. They don’t detract from one another either, of course, and I actually think this is a rather elegant way to fill in the details of last month’s cliffhanger without putting the arc’s ongoing story on hold. It just doesn’t have the depth of King’s best work.
Of the two stories, Batman’s is definitely the weaker. Batman storms Santa Prisca, is overwhelmed and captured by Bane, frees himself, and allows his operatives to enter the fortress. It’s a surprisingly impersonal take, even despite Bane’s reminiscing. Artist Mikel Janin’s expressions are the only insight we have into Batman’s state of mind throughout the sequence — Batman himself just repeats the same mantra over and over, first to Bane’s soldiers, then to Bane, then to himself, alone in his cell.
This mantra is easily the most “King-esque” element of the issue — it reminds me of the great attention King paid to precise phrasing in Vision, to Vision and Virginia’s arguments about wording or to Viv’s prayer. The mantra, though, never takes on the significance of any of those moments. Don’t get me wrong, I do understand the purpose of this mantra, or at least I think I do — it gives Bane due opportunity to just hand Psycho Pirate over and avoid this whole ordeal, and it reminds Batman of who he’s fighting for (Gotham Girl) as he struggles to escape his cell. I guess it just seems overblown for Batman to need such a repetitive phrase to do any of that. Bane’s smart and stubborn — he doesn’t need more than one warning — and despite appearances, Batman’s never in enough danger for his reliance on a mantra for strength to feel warranted.
That last aspect may be my least favorite part of this entire plot. Batman puts himself in grave danger essentially just to cause a distraction and allow his Suicide Squad to infiltrate the island. He doesn’t plan on his plane crashing and has no guarantee that Bane won’t just kill him when he’s at his mercy, but Batman pulls through anyway because he’s Batman. Batman’s competence is an intrinsic part of his character by this point, and under King’s pen he’s been especially infallible — that’s not necessarily a bad thing. It’s just that neither the reader nor Batman ever really have a reason to feel like Batman’s in real danger, thus making his mantra feel especially pointless.
I know I’m harping a lot on five simple sentences, but by repeating them over and over throughout the issue, King ascribes them a significance they never really earn. The mantra feels more like a parody of a typical Tom King technique than a legitimate use of one.
Catwoman’s letter, though, fares oh so much better. She essentially breaks down her childhood, and then her 237 murders, beat by beat, a technique I usually hate. Here, though, it sings, and I think much of that has to do with the fact that we have no visuals to go along with it. Like a great novel, the reader is immersed in Selina’s point of view and must use their imagination to bring her tale to life.
Throughout this letter King absolutely nails the dynamic between Bruce and Selina, to the point where it feels redundant for me to try to recap or dig into it here myself — everything you need to know about them is right on the page. He also somehow finds a way to make the idea of Selina as a mass-murderer palpable. Catwoman’s always been a character who’s equal parts selfish and selfless — she’ll protect people, but always looks out for number one. Her attack on the Dogs of War fits seamlessly into that morality — she’s decimating a heartless terrorist organization who killed 171 people, most of them children, but she’s also enacting brutal, personal revenge on them in the process. It’s more extreme than pretty much anything Catwoman’s ever done, but it’s still very Selina Kyle.
Mark, my mixed feelings about this issue sum up my thoughts about this run of Batman as a whole pretty accurately. Do you feel the same, or are your mixed feelings entirely different from mine? Also: what do you make of Bane being naked when he assaults Batman?
Is there a significance to this, or is just more of Janin’s signature beefcake? (Not that I’m complaining about Janin’s beefcake.)
Mark: I’m all for Janin beefcake, and I think here it’s used to emphasize just how powerful and in-control of the situation Bane is. Stripped of everything, and operating without Venom, Bane is still able to overpower a fully equipped Batman.
And I absolutely agree that Tom King is a great writer, which is why I find it interesting and frustrating that Batman continues to be the most weakly defined character in his own book. A generous reading of this phenomenon is that King just isn’t that interested in Batman/Bruce Wayne, and is choosing instead to focus where his true interests lie: on Batman‘s supporting cast. Like you mentioned, Spencer, there is great writing in this book, but it’s in the form of Catwoman’s letter to Batman. And while I’ll take King’s writing wherever I can get it, Batman’s ill-definition is a problem in a book called Batman.
Which leads me to believe that this isn’t intentional on King’s part, and ultimately underlines the niggling issue I’ve had with King and Janin’s Batman run from the beginning: they appear to have no take on who Batman is outside of “he’s the coolest.” Which he is! And if you had told me a year ago that “Batman acts cool” wouldn’t be enough to hang an entire book on I don’t know that I would have believed you. But here we are.
Love them or hate them, the last couple stewards of the Dark Knight — Grant Morrison and Scott Snyder — have each had their own unique perspective on Batman as a character and over their years of writing him they were able to explore the many different facets of their core philosophies. Their stories were driven by Batman’s wants and desires, and the external conflicts were usually just manifestations of Bruce’s own internal struggles. This fundamental drama is missing from King and Janin’s Batman. What even are the internal struggles of our main character here?
I think this is probably the last time I’ll write about Batman for a while. It’s clear that this take on the character just isn’t for me, and I feel shitty ragging on the work of creators I genuinely admire. Not every book is for every person, and much as I want to love it, maybe this is one I just need to let go.
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