Batman 20

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:

Possibility no one else sees

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.

For a complete list of what we’re reading, head on over to our Pull List page. Whenever possible, buy your comics from your local mom and pop comic bookstore. If you want to rock digital copies, head on over to Comixology and download issues there. There’s no need to pirate, right?

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12 comments on “Batman 20

  1. One thing I noticed on the reread, was Bruce’s conversation with Martha harkened back to the epilogue of “I Am Gotham”, where he confessed to Claire that while it was hard for him to talk to his father, his mother was the one he could always talk to

  2. How does issue contextualize every issue of Batman before hand? Could you explain, since i see it as throwing every issue out the window so King can write Bruce as an idiotic generic brainless brawler instead of the master strategist, martial artist, tactician, and detective that Batman has always been. His roots are from detective fiction. He should be a detective or else what is the point of not writing flash or green arrow instead if Batman. Comic batman’s primary traits are as stated by Wikipedia, : wealth; physical prowess; deductive abilities and obsession. I would also add to that driven by tragedy and dressed like a bat. If the character doesn’t fit that without good in story reasoning, then the writer is writing comic Batman against character. I’m dropping the title, since Tom King doesn’t write Batman well except for select issues which are contained in bad arcs. Also, the annual is great. The annual shows a man trying to be more than the tragedy that created him, which is the opposite of what the rest of King’s run does.

    • This issue makes it very clear that he is a master tactician, and the moments in previous issues where it seemed like he wasn’t being a master strategist, martial artist, tactician, and detective were all part of a much larger plan. He wasn’t making unforced errors, he was making strategic feints in order to accomplish every one of his goals. I genuinely think King is hitting all of the “primary traits” you listed — his wealth affords him insane resources, his physical prowess allows him to defeat a much larger and stronger opponent, his deductive abilities allow him to anticipate every move Bane would make, and the entire plan is motivated by his obsession to help Gotham Girl. He nailed it.

      • Batman isn’t a master tactician here. He could have used Superman or the bat-family to help stop Bane, but he decides to use a bunch of mentally ill asylum patients to get hurt for no reason. Also, during the fight, Batman decides to just fight like Bane like a drunken brawler and not use his gadgets or environment to his weakness. And the idea that Batman planned fro Bane to have a moment of weakness, once Batman was near death makes no sense. That is such an unnecessary risk., that wouldn’t work if Bane here wasn’t a mustache twirling villain.

        • If the bar for master tactician is “call in Superman,” then the only way a Batman book could ever qualify is by becoming a Superman book. That a superhero has to fight their own battles is one of the most basic conceits of superhero comics. And it has to be one we accept. Otherwise, anyone who fails to call Superman and tries instead to solve problems with arrows or whatever isn’t being heroic at all, choosing to recklessly risk their lives and others.

        • You know what I mean. Superman was shown in thsi story and it makes no sense why Superman is here, yet Batman doesn’t get him or the batfamily to help, but instead allows a bunch of asylum inmates to get beat up

  3. It is tragic that DC have torpedoed their line so bad that ‘Batman does what he does because people need help’ is now treated as a legitimate insight. It shows such a complete lack of understanding of what a superhero is, if you think that is an insight that even needs to be made. Were it not for the fact that King aced Kyle Rayner in Omega Men, it almost makes you wonder if King can actually write superhero comics.

    Rebirth is continuously awful, but when I saw that final page of Batman, there was a deep wrongness that goes beyond Rebirth’s other sins. Because the very DNA of superhero comics is a discussion of HOW to be heroic. Quite simply, when we discuss how Spiderman negotiates the most responsible way to use his powers, or how Wonder Woman’s great strength is her ability to love, everything that gives a superhero meat is built on the very principal.

    Your grand take on superheroes is that Superheroes are heroes because they want to help people in need? That’s certainly true. And yet, it is the most meaningless take ever. It is an immaterial result. To triumph that as your meaningful take is to surrender the idea that superheroes can be meaningful.

    When is DC relaunching their line again? Because it isn’t happening fast enough

    • I think this is a profoundly myopic view of superhero comics — especially Batman comics, where “helping people” is often way down the list of motivations (if it’s there at all). Sure, I guess Batman’s battle with the Court of Owls might have ultimately helped some people, but the immediate stakes were much more personal for Bruce. Batman absolutely can be a street-level hero, rescuing individual people from muggers or whatever, but he can also be a figure battling corruption in a much more top-down way, where “helping people” is several degrees removed from his actions. Or maybe he’s running into Arkham to battle all of his supervillains at once — again I guess he’s helping people indirectly, but the immediate concern is punching bad guys. The reason this issue’s reveal is meaningful is that it had heretofore felt very much like King’s take was one of those “punching bad guys” approaches, but it turns out that Batman’s most pressing motivation has been helping one person in particular.

      • Of course the motivations are much more complex, but the point is the seed of that is always ‘helping people’ (this is of course discussing traditional books, and not books like the Vision that are designed specifically to break with convention). ‘Helping others’ isn’t down the list of Batman motivations. It is the a fundamental principle of nearly every motivation he has.

        Batman’s motivations when he fights the Court of Owls are many. But a major element of many of them involve helping people. Hell, the entire reason they want him, specifically, dead, is because they wish to stop his rebuilding of neighbourhoods and modernisation of public transport, and therefore weaken the Court’s power. AKA, Bruce Wayne wants to help people. And that’s ignoring the fact that a key part of this is the fact that Batman disapproves of a shadow government ruling in secret, enacting tyrannical force on the people of Gotham. Batman wants to help Gotham, and bring down shadow governments is part of helping.
        There are other, personal motivations, but to ignore that it this started because of Bruce Wayne was motivated to help the people of Gotham through rebuilding neighbourhoods and modernising public transport, and that bringing down secret, tyrannical shadow government is the exact sort of thing that he does to help.
        Why does Batman go into Arkham when all of his supervillains escape? You can discuss many reasons, including his utter hatred of the Joker. But the seed of those reasons is that stopping the supervillains from escaping is the way to help people. Even his hatred of the Joker is rooted in the fact that the Joker’s very philosophy is the exact opposite of Batman’s own philosophy, where helping others is valuable.
        Everything a superhero does is rooted in the basic idea of ‘Helps others’. Whether he is fighting corruption, stopping mugging or fighting supervillains, that is the fundamental seed. Even ‘Punching Bad Guys’, because they are bad guys specifically because they are a threat that people need help from. What makes superheroes interesting, what makes superheroes meaningful, is the way you develop that idea.

        So when you make a grand thesis of Batman, you should have more than ‘Someone needed help’. Look at what Scott Snyder did, multiple times throughout his run. Or the Dark Knight’s ending. Or (and I’ll stick with movies because they act as a great universal reference) the first Spider-man movie’s ending, giving up Mary Jane because ‘With Great Power…’. Or Guardians of the Galaxy, all about finding a healthy balance between their hedonistic impulses and their sense of responsibility. Or Iron Man Three’s ‘You can take away my house, all my tricks and toys, but one thing you can’t take away – I am Iron Man’. Even Batman v Superman final scene was an attempt at a deeper thesis.

        Here, you have a massive diagnosis about Batman’s war, about how every action Batman has made, and not just in King’s Batman (remember, Martha’s diagnosis stated that Gotham Girl was his way to win. If she’s victory, the war is much larger than just the events of King’s run, that begun with introducing Gotham Girl). A grand thesis made, to specifically be rejected. And the real answer? ‘The girl needed help. So I helped her. That’s all it is. That’s all it’s ever been’.
        It’s the final line that is a problem. That is what turns this from a statement about the events of King’s run in particular into King’s grand thesis of the character. When presented with a diagnosis of his entire life as Batman, he emphasises that everything is as simple as ‘Someone needed help. That’s all it’s ever been’. A take so simple, it is meaningless.

        Can’t we get something a bit deeper than that? As I said, every superhero comic says ‘helping people = good’. We should expect deeper. Otherwise, we’re just giving up

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