Today, Michael and Drew are discussing Batman 20, originally released April 5th, 2017. As always, this article contains SPOILERS.
Michael: I have been beyond impressed with Tom King and David Finch’s “I Am Bane” — an arc that contextualizes every issue of Batman that can before it. Previously I wasn’t won over with King’s take on the Dark Knight but “I Am Bane” makes me ready and willing to see where he takes the character next.
Superhero fist fights are a dime a dozen, but King and Finch have managed to make Bane smashing his way through Gotham for the past three issues surprisingly compelling. Each chapter of “I Am Bane” has had a unique narrative approach, and in Batman 20, the final Bane/Batman showdown is juxtaposed against a conversation with Bruce’s mother.
Along with Death and the Maidens and Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader?, this marks one of the few modern Batman stories that highlights Martha Wayne. Martha recounts the major beats of King’s Batman run thus far and frames it as Batman’s quest to preserve the future of Gotham through Gotham Girl, who will never die.
After a loved one dies they only exist in our memory. We can’t truly know how they would react to a situation or what they would do, but we can hypothesize based on what we remember about them. Bruce’s whole mission is an interpretation of what he believed would satisfactorily honor his parents’ memory. But there’s no real way he can know, making “Martha” his approximation of what she might say in this scenario.
There’s a weird bait, switch, and reverse that goes along with the narration of Batman 20. Initially it seems that Batman is maintaining a typical internal monologue about everything he’s been facing while fighting Bane. Then we realize that the voice belongs to Martha Wayne, which is hinted at with phrases like “little boy.” Of course, upon further inspection, we realize that of course that voice doesn’t actually belong to Martha Wayne, meaning that it WAS Batman’s internal monologue all along.
After Bane is defeated we see Martha and Bruce sitting together in his mind’s eye, where he denies Martha’s entire narration. In the end it’s a refusal of what “Martha” stipulates. It’s Batman convincing himself that he’s over-complicating matters. This whole thing with Gotham Girl, Psycho Pirate and Bane, it’s not about his legacy or the future, it’s about what Batman does — helping someone who’s in trouble. Those other notions that “Martha” puts forward might also be true, but this is a willful denial on his part, making it solely about Gotham Girl’s well-being. He’s reassuring himself that he did what he did for noble and heroic reasons.
In a lot of other circumstances the “Martha reveal” might induce eye rolls on my part, but King makes this stealth insert work. He laid the groundwork for this conclusion in Batman 18, which focuses on both Bane and Bruce’s relationships with their mothers. King depicted Bruce (and Bane) has having an ongoing conversation with his mother as a means of coping with his parents’ deaths. Returning to that device as a bookend to “I Am Bane” seems like a fitting conclusion.
King and Finch have made Batman an unflappable, unimpressed powerhouse in his fight with Bane throughout the arc. Bane lays down threat after threat as he trades blows with Batman, who merely quips back at him essentially saying “do you think I haven’t heard this before?” It’s a self-aware moment of gusto that bolsters Batman’s experience and determination.
It feels like Finch has added a couple of pounds to Batman this time around, depicting him as this girthy brawler, short and stout like your garden variety Wolverine. After running the gauntlet through Arkham’s villains, Bane’s mask has been ripped in half, providing him with a Two-Face-like visage. When Bane is laying down his more epic threats, Finch casts his bare face in shadow, leaving only Bane’s glowing red evil eye visible. Martha notes that Batman defeats Bane when he left himself “vulnerable,” which Finch highlights by showing us a Batman Begins headbutt to Bane’s bare and vulnerable face.
What did you think Drew? Did Martha’s analysis have any effect on your view of King’s Batman run thus far? Does Batman’s ongoing conversation with his dead mother make him more human or even crazier than we believed him to be? And not to be a stickler, but is Bane implying that the Robins didn’t die when he hung them because he didn’t pull on their legs? That death-defying escape still baffles me.
Drew: You know, so much of this issue is about explaining earlier moments in King’s run, I half expected there to be a more detailed explanation of that whole hanging the Robins thing. But “explaining earlier moments” is more about the nature of Martha’s motherly perspective, so is only limited to moments where that perspective matters. Offering an explanation for their son’s questionable actions is a mother’s prerogative, but offering an explanation for a questionable cliffhanger is not.
But man, do those explanations help a lot. Some of the most persistent criticisms of King’s run are addressed here: Batman formed a kind of Suicide Squad because his definitely-illegal mission wasn’t appropriate for the Justice League; he lost his fight against Bane as a feint to buy his team more time; he brought the Psycho Pirate to Gotham knowing that Bane would follow, but he felt he had no other choice. He’s making these decisions because he has to, because they’re the only way of saving Gotham Girl.
For my money, Michael, I think it makes the most sense to read Martha’s narration as Martha’s — even if it is technically coming from Bruce, it’s compartmentalized enough that Bruce can disagree with it. That is, he doesn’t have immediate access to it. Whether we want to call that the ghost of his mother or some kind of dissociative identity disorder ultimately doesn’t matter: she holds views that are explicitly distinct from Bruce’s own. And to that end, I think she’s actually only wrong about Bruce’s motivations for saving Gotham Girl — everything else not only scans, but holds valuable explanatory power. That Bruce just wants to help people in need is one heck of an ending, but I don’t think it means we need to throw out the rest of her read as useless. Indeed, I’m particularly enamored of her recounting of King’s first issue:
It’s a monster spread, but the line that gets me is “You don’t see the impossible — you see the possibility no one else sees,” which reminds me for all the world of that famous Sherlock Holmes quote, “When you have eliminated all which is impossible, then whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.” Obviously, Batman was looking for a way to save a passenger plane, rather than solve a mystery, but the sentiment is remarkably similar. Effectively, King’s Batman opened with the climax of a Sherlock Holmes story, where we see his unique brand deductive reasoning dramatically saving the day — we skipped the part where he makes remarkable deductions about people based on their shoes or whatever.
As a longtime Holmes fan, that kind of shorthand works brilliantly for me, but I can see how it might also come across a weakness for a lot of readers. As in any great Holmes story, the explanation for the hero’s bizarre behavior is reserved for the end, which may come just a bit too late for some. I think that stings a bit more because there doesn’t seem to be a compelling reason to hold back these details — I think this arc would almost certainly have been better served if all of the explanations for Bruce’s behavior had been given up front. This series always needed a forthcoming narrator, which is why this issue works so well. That it turns out to not be Bruce’s conscious train of thought is an interesting choice, but I hope that doesn’t preclude more standard narration in the future.
And I am excited for the future of this series. Between Joker’s appearance in this issue and the Riddler’s in the last, I’m cultivating some real excitement for the War of Jokes and Riddles. And he mention of Catwoman makes me excited for the resolution of her story. And it’s clear that Gotham Girl’s story isn’t over, either. It may have taken King some time to find his footing on this series, but there’s an open field of fun possibilities ahead of him, and I think he’s now in a position to really make them sing.
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