Today, Patrick and Mark are discussing All-Star Batman 5, originally released December 28th, 2016. As always, this article contains SPOILERS!
Patrick: From the outset, Batman seems like a pretty simple concept: an orphaned billionaire who grew with a grudge against the criminal element that took his childhood away from him. Plus, y’know – gadgets and punching dudes. But nearly 80 years of publishing history have done a number on what the character “means.” A holistic view of Batman is nearly impossible, and it usually takes a savant like Grant Morrison to synthesize it all into one character. With their “My Own Worst Enemy” story arc, Scott Snyder and John Romita, Jr. make a case for the existence of multiple takes on Batman, and by extension multiple takes on heroes, villains, and humanity in general. It’s an exercise in not pinning anything down, which makes for a genuinely exciting, if often unsettling, narrative.
Right from the jump, the language of the issue is at odds with itself.
There are two things happening here that we’ve seen in the four previous issues. First is the series’ penchant for starting in black and white before quickly shifting into full color. In our discussion of issue one, I attributed this shift to the importance Snyder and colorists Dean White and Jordie Bellaire were placing on color, but I’m starting to think it’s the opposite. The issue is largely about the simultaneous existence of good and evil – of black and white. The other thing that’s happening is that Snyder is orienting us in the story’s chronology – a handy bit of direction as so many of these issues skip around in time. With the exception of two microscopic flashbacks, this issue stays fixed in the present, so the supertitle that reads “RIGHT NOW” is oddly unnecessary. I mean – it would be unnecessary if Batman didn’t immediately contradict it.
I’m honestly not even sure what Batman’s trying to communicate here. It almost seems like the contradiction is there for contradiction’s sake. That’s going to be important for the climax of the issue which is the big reveal that Harvey doesn’t so much have a cure to Two-Face-ism, but rather a solution that will permanently eliminate either his darkness or his light. Batman’s counter to this is a solution that allows for both good and evil in Harvey – again, also permanently.
So, okay – what’s the takeaway from that? Batman’s victory keeps the Two-Face status quo – so it feels almost like a hollow victory, right? If you try to trace this metaphor back to the throngs of torch and pitchfork wielding villagers that are trying to collect the Bat Bounty, you find that Snyder never really follows through on making this point. The crowd is there and they demand that
KGBeast hand Batman over to them because “Now. He’s ours.” More obtuse language! “He’s ours” can mean either “he’s our champion” or “the reward for catching him is ours.” Snyder is so fucking careful in his language here – notice the re-use of “Now,” a word we saw contradicted on the very first page.
Of course, Beast is able to pick up on the ambiguity of the angry mob’s ambitions, and it’s that distraction that allows Batman to get the upper hand. Again, I don’t really know what to make of that. Are men’s actions good? Evil? Necessarily both? Necessarily neither? And what does it mean that Batman’s able to take advantage of all those question marks?
I think the message Snyder is selling is that morality is complicated, and everyone needs the right to muddle through it in their own time. We see a couple examples in this issue of people momentarily failing in their moral choices – Alfred admits to putting a hit out on the Joker and Gordon presses on the secret passage in Wayne Manor even though he knows better than to expose the connection between Bruce and Batman. It seem like certainty is the enemy in this story, which is why little Bruce trusts the double-headed coin just as much as he trusts the double-tailed coin. Duke asks Batman if he’s prepared to administer Two-Face’s cure, and Batman’s response is telling:
Of course he’s not “sure.” Sure-ity is damning.
Which, I gotta say, makes this a sorta tough issue to write about. Mark, I could just as well make that your prompt for this issue, but let’s see if we can steer away from what the issue “means,” shall we? It’s nice to see Tweedles Dee and Dum – gotta keep trotting out the D-List villains and relishing in the delightfully crummy quality of some of Batman’s rogues right? Also, for as much as Romita’s MO seems to be obscuring the action, I loved that sequence of Batman, Duke and Two-Face going over the falls, if only for this panel.
And what’s wrong with Two-Face? You die in that group hug with honor and dignity!
Mark: The black-and-white panel that opens the issue smashing to vibrant color is like the blinders being pulled off of the reader. The world is not black-and-white, it’s messy and complex, and even Batman can’t escape that messiness. Certainty that you’re doing the right thing is a conflict inherent in Batman himself. Batman’s self-imposed objective is capital J Justice, but justice is always imperfect.
At the end of the issue Batman achieves “victory” by maintaining Two-Face’s status quo, and while that may temporarily resolve the issue it’s hardly a truly just solution. I’d argue that Bruce is not being objective here — can’t be objective — because of his emotional entanglements. Alfred’s “failure” in putting a hit on the Joker is at least a completely logical and correct action viewed through a binary filter (Joker threatens peace, ergo Joker must be removed), but Bruce takes the coward’s way out here by refusing to administer Harvey’s “cure.”
Lord help me for bringing a real-life issue as serious as assisted suicide into this discussion, but, look, Harvey made his decision and Batman completely ignored it because he’s the one that decides what’s right and wrong. Again, that’s the inherent conflict in any sort of vigilante justice. But normally it’s easy to root for Batman since he’s up against such colorful villains. Here things get a little more murky (or, I guess, colorful, to carry that metaphor through).
The overall contradictory nature of the issue leads me to believe Snyder is aware of the hollowness of Batman’s decision, but I also feel like it’s couched as the Tough But Necessary Choice when, to my mind, it’s anything but. Two-Face is ultimately a terrible victim of circumstance, and Batman has now denied him any opportunity for peace. I suppose we’re left with the hope that Harvey will ultimately overpower Two-Face, but that’s too close to telling someone with mental illness to “toughen up” for me to be comfortable accepting it as hopeful.
As one of DC’s prestige titles, All-Star Batman 5 is, of course, tight on a technical level. Romita’s general mise-en-scène is messy, and when he overindulges — like he did during his Superman run — it can lean a bit too far into incoherence, but All-Star Batman finds him at his best. So even if I don’t love every choice — I’m not crazy about the Mr. Fantastic plastic punches thrown at Dee and Dum — there are visual flourishes this issue I really enjoy like the bullet hell Penguin finds himself in early on.
And with color playing such an important role in the issue’s overall theme, Dean White does a great job keeping things vibrant.
Let me end by quickly echoing Spencer’s bewilderment that Duke still isn’t going by some kind of call sign. You’re telling me that Batman, the paranoid man who’s just waiting for life to kick him in the dick, is going to run around calling his partner by his real name?
No way do I buy that.
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