Today, Michael and Spencer are discussing All-Star Batman 4, originally released November 9th, 2016. As always, this article contains SPOILERS.
Michael: One of the tenets of Batman story is perception: the difference of worldview between Batman, his allies, and his villains. There’s the more popular battling ideologies of vigilantism vs traditional legitimate law enforcement or Joker’s anarchy vs Batman’s order, but All-Star Batman’s battle of ideologies is based on the age-old question of “is man inherently good or inherently evil?”
All-Star Batman 4 continues to see Batman being thrown through the goddamn ringer, as he is blinded, nearly drowned, and knocked unconscious yet again by KG Beast. I think one of Scott Snyder’s favorite tricks is thinking of all sorts of new bat gadgets that come through for the caped crusader at the very last minute. This time around Batman uses a powerful set of “chest speakers” to first create an echo-location in his blind state then to render the hyper-sensitive Talons unconscious underwater. His echo-location definitely has some shades of Daredevil’s radar sense but, so what? I love witnessing Batman’s ingenuity in action no matter what, despite all odds.
Two-Face’s blackmail scheme is all based on that argument of “man is good” vs “man is evil.” Two-Face’s plan is very similar to the Joker’s plan in The Dark Knight: “When the chips are down these, uh, civilized people? They’ll eat each other.” Batman explains to Duke how they need to believe in the potential good that every person can achieve in their lives. This makes the end of All-Star Batman 4 that much more heartbreaking: Batman is still blinded and assumes/hopes that the commotion outside are more Gotham villains, when in reality it’s an angry mob of civilians.
I’m a bit confused by Batman’s true stance on man’s inherent goodness or evil – but that confusion isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The modern age Batman could be categorized as a pessimist or a pragmatist, someone who “hopes for the best but prepares for the worst.” When he tells Duke about his childhood friendship with Harvey, he relates how he couldn’t understand Harvey’s “force of will” to see the world as he made it. As he grew into adulthood I think he learned to understand that philosophy but not completely adopt it. I mention that because Batman explains this all to Duke with the caveat that “it’s not how I see things.” Batman is not a textbook optimist but he doesn’t believe in the worst in people either. Batman lives in that area between optimism and pessimism, but one thing he doesn’t subscribe to is defeatist negativity. He jumps to the assumption that a mob of villains await them because he believes that they will triumph. His sheer force of will depends on rejecting that defeatism, in this case that the people he’s fighting for are not simultaneously trying to tear him down.
Snyder crafts this boyhood backstory between Bruce and Harvey – Two A and Two B – that provides interesting context on where their viewpoints end up as adults. Bruce and Harvey made a pact to kill each other’s “targets” (Joe Chill and Harvey’s father), but Bruce gets mad at Harvey when he backs out. In a way Bruce was the original flipside of Harvey’s coin – another part of himself – making Bruce an integral part of the the Two-Face/Harvey dynamic.
Throughout the four issues of All-Star Batman we’ve gotten there have been a lot of new ideas and interpretations of Two-Face’s psyche and motivations. Different writers might introduce the idea of Two-Face and Harvey “switching places” as plot-centric but instead Snyder simply teases these kinds of elements. Near the end of All-Star Batman 4 we get another one of these teases: Harvey believes he’s the stronger personality because Two-Face has never been able to kill their father, while Two-Face attests that he hasn’t killed him because he likes fucking with Harvey. I admire this kind of “tease storytelling” but at the same time they really excite me and I’d love to see those ideas concretely fleshed out.
Spencer! Do you think that Batman’s ideology is a little murky here as I suggest? What’s your take on the latest chapter of the Duke backup “The Cursed Wheel”? I don’t know if I’m loving that as much as other people are – there’s some interesting Gotham philosophy in there as well I didn’t speak on. Finally, would you like to see a mini-series where KG Beast hunts men on his private island?
Spencer: I wouldn’t mind seeing the Beast hunt down Batman, as he suggests, if only because I think Batman vs. the Beast would actually be a fair fight (but one Batman would no doubt win), unlike ol’ KG vs. just about anyone else. KG Beast is an absolutely frightening force of nature under Snyder and Romita’s pen, the ultimate roadblock, which is why he’s such an effective antagonist for Batman’s “road trip” and why he would make a worthwhile central villain if Snyder sticks to this kind of storytelling in future arcs.
Anyway Michael, I enjoyed this month’s “Cursed Wheel” installment. Duke’s really coming into his own as a hero, developing a keen detective’s intuition like his mentor yet also honing his own individual perspective, which I imagine is exactly the point of Batman’s new training method. I don’t think Duke’s thesis that the Joker “attacks what he loves” can be applied to all Joker attacks, but it absolutely applies to Joker’s “Endgame” plot, which was basically Joker as a jilted lover lashing out at Batman after he “broke his heart” in “Death Of The Family” — and was also the attack that poisoned Duke’s parents in the first place, further justifying his conclusion.
Snyder also ties this backup to the main story in two important ways. One is more plot-oriented — we learn that “The Cursed Wheel” directly precedes “My Own Worst Enemy,” and that Two-Face’s upcoming attack is a key bit of motivation for Diana Boone — but the more interesting connection is definitely the thematic one. Michael talks about how Two-Face’s plan in the main story is meant to decide whether people are inherently good or inherently evil, and Boone, sadly, casts her vote for the latter. Like the citizens who attack Batman to protect their secrets, Boone is putting her own safety above the safety of others, in this case by essentially sacrificing others to Zsasz in order to get him off her trail.
(This story also does a lot to sell me on Zsasz being a terror to Gotham’s citizens — he’s smart, unpredictable, and absolutely relentless — but not on him being a match for Batman. Thankfully, Snyder doesn’t even pretend that Zsasz can give the tricked-out Batman of All-Star a worthy fight.)
When it comes to Batman and Harvey’s philosophies, Michael, I think you misread a key moment: when Bruce says “it’s not how I see things,” he’s not referring to Harvey’s “force of will” perspective, but to the current scarred form of Harvey’s coin and the philosophy it presents.
This reading is supported by the fact that Batman next attempts to throw the coin off of his plane, thereby rejecting its philosophy, just as he did long ago with Harvey’s two-headed coin by throwing it into the ocean.
What I get out of this, then, is that Batman has actually adapted Harvey’s force of will philosophy — it’s something he needs in order to believe in the innate goodness of Gotham’s citizens, in his own ability to save Gotham from itself, or even in the possibility of his friend Harvey someday being rehabilitated. I’m not exactly sure when or why Bruce started thinking this way, but I think it’s important that he first saw this idea exemplified in Harvey. Since their childhood days as Two-A and Two-B they’ve practically swapped stances completely, which is indicative of the way Bruce, Harvey, Batman, and Two-Face continue to swirl around each other in this haze of friendship and antagonism, hope and despair, good and evil.
I continue to have somewhat mixed feelings about All-Star Batman‘s art. I’ve never been the biggest fan of Romita’s style, but I do like the way he, inker Danny Miki, and colorist Dean White switch up their approach throughout the issue — the claustrophobic close-ups of the battle sequences, the more distant, straight-forward approach to quieter scenes, and the way panels fade away around the edges during flashbacks (or even as a scene transitions into a flashback) are all distinct and inventive techniques, and I appreciate the variety.
“Extreme close-up” seems to be Romita’s shot of choice throughout All-Star Batman 4. This emphasizes the purpose and action of each individual panel, but it also means that the overall choreography of a page is often lost in the process. The above excerpt is the perfect example: each individual hit lands hard, yet it’s impossible to follow Batman or Duke’s attack from panel to panel. I’m not even sure if they’re attacking the same Talon in each panel, or entirely different ones! And what’s going on with Duke’s arm in panel four?
Yet, despite my quibbles with the details, I genuinely appreciate the thought put into the overall layout. Batman and Duke’s attacks are identical, and while I’m not sure whether this indicates that the two are in sync, or that Duke’s imitating and learning from Batman, both options carry a lot of meaning.
This sequence, meanwhile, finds Romita using these techniques to their fullest potential. Each panel focuses on one essential piece of information — that Batman and Duke are underwater, that their feet are tied together, and that their feet are tied to a pipe, keeping them underwater — yet the action tracks far better. This, again, comes down to the layout — though we’re missing their torsos, Batman and Duke basically stay in the same position across the page, with Batman’s feet in panel 2 beneath his head in panel 1, and Duke’s feet in panel 3 doing likewise. This keeps these three panels feeling more whole and consistent, while also allowing each individual panel to do their job.
I was frustrated by this sequence, though. Duke’s dialogue comes from Two-Face’s right, yet in the second panel Duke is swinging his nun-chucks from Two-Face’s left. Romita and letterer Steve Wands aren’t in sync here at all. It’s a small mistake, sure, but it shows how much readers rely on intuitive lettering to immerse us in a story — it’s immediately noticeable when details don’t add up.
Michael spent a good portion of his lead talking about Batman’s new gadgets, but I want to spend just a little more time on them. Batman’s constant cavalcade of previously-unseen weapons could be frustrating, but they’re not because they don’t make Batman untouchable. Bruce is at perhaps his most powerful in All-Star Batman, yet he’s struggling just as much, if not more than usual because his opponents are just that smart, powerful, and numerous. That’s my favorite kind of superhero action storytelling — neither the heroes nor the villains are holding back an inch, giving each other the fight of their lives.
Two final thoughts to conclude this piece: 1) Can we please get Duke a codename already? 90s Batman would never permit this much use of first names in the field. Half the state should know their secret identities by now! 2) What’s the deal with Duke’s helmet? It covers his entire face in the main story, yet is open around his mouth in the back-up. I’m sure it can probably alternate between the two, but I’m not seeing how. Either way, I prefer the latter choice — Declan Shalvey’s open-mouth design (which also includes Duke’s eyes in some shots) allows Duke to be more expressive while still protecting his head and hiding his identity. Handy!
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