by Drew Baumgartner and Michael DeLaney
This article contains SPOILERS. If you haven’t read the issue yet, proceed at your own risk!
I don’t know.
Drew: I used to work as an Assistant Dean for an academic enrichment program — basically, high-school students would come to a college campus for a few weeks over the summer to take some classes and get a feel for dorm living. The Dean’s office was there to keep kids out of trouble, or, more accurately, to address the trouble that the kids inevitably got into. Most of the time, the motives for their infractions were clear enough — they skipped class because it was boring or they tried to sneak into the girl’s dorm to see their girlfriend — but every so often, a kid would do something so inexplicable, the first question had to be “why?” And the answer, invariably, was “I don’t know.” Sometimes, our better judgement eludes us, allowing weird impulses or emotions to lead us to actions we can neither explain nor defend. It’s a phenomenon that teens are particularly prone to, with their hormonally-charged emotions and only-partially-developed impulse control, but it happens to adults, too (even sober ones). It is one of these moments that turns out to be Bruce Wayne’s “greatest sin,” as the climax of “The War of Jokes and Riddles” leads him to a rare flash of moral weakness.
But first, let’s back up. Tom King and Mikel Janín open the issue lingering on Bruce’s pause as he steels himself to share his deepest, darkest secret with the woman he loves. It’s a disarmingly real moment in the midst of the high-flying superhero action — most readers’ emotional baggage has little to do with sprawling supervillain wars, but the fear of being open and honest with a loved one is something we can all relate to. And hopefully, many of us can also relate to the silent support Selina offers.
King isn’t interested in the animalistic lust or heart/mind tension that so many other writers lean on in Bruce and Selina’s relationship. Instead, he presents it as downright sweet, finding sides of these characters that rarely get a chance to shine. Janín makes Bruce’s emotional nakedness (almost completely) literal, but more importantly, he celebrates the utter normalcy of their intimacy — this scene would be at home in any bedroom drama.
As for the story, we learn that the Riddler’s motivation all along wasn’t to kill Batman, after all, but to simply make the Joker laugh again. Everything he had done, from killing all of those civilians to orchestrating the personal tragedy of Kite Man, was in service of that goal. This seems to shake Batman, though perhaps less because it recontextualizes the Riddler’s plan than because it makes Batman an irrelevant pawn in his game.
I mean, sure, Bruce goes on to recall the truly heartbreaking story of Charlie Brown Jr.’s last moments, but this obviously isn’t about him — the reveal doesn’t change the basic facts as Batman knew them: Riddler killed the kid in service of his elaborate machinations. Batman was fine with that before, and has obviously dealt with more despicable things before and since, so I don’t think this is about the kid at all.
But maybe it doesn’t matter. Whether it’s moral outrage or a reaction to Riddler’s taunts, Batman tries to stab Riddler in the head. In his retelling of the story, Bruce says that he wasn’t “out of control or insane,” but I’m not sure he’s a reliable narrator on that front. This is an action he deeply regrets and doesn’t offer any clear motivation for — it sure seems to me like one of those inexplicable outbursts I outlined up top. Bruce has enshrined this as a character-defining sin, but it feels more like a mistake, albeit a big one.
And ultimately, the actual content of Bruce’s big secret isn’t as important as his decision to share it, or Selina’s reaction to it.
To Selina, this is less of a bombshell as it is a given: we all have baggage, but we’re all also worthy of love. It’s the kind of attitude that is essential to any long-term relationship (though again, the average foible or hang-up probably involves less stabbing), and gives me confidence in these two as a couple. They’re approaching the thought of marriage with eyes wide open, which I think puts them ahead of the curve for most real-world marriages, even if comic book logic ultimately torpedoes the thought of long-term happiness for these two.
Michael, I’m curious to hear your thoughts on this issue. It turns out Batman’s greatest sin was both bigger and smaller than we had guessed, and strikes me more as a moment of inexplicable weakness that Bruce seems to think. Did it work for you? And does it need to? I’m so satisfied with the emotional resolution of Bruce telling his story, I almost don’t care what that story is.
Michael: Drew, I am conflicted on how I feel about Batman 32. I haven’t been shy about how I haven’t found “The War of Jokes & Riddles” emotionally effective on the whole, and I don’t really think that this finale has changed that. I think the most interesting thing about Batman’s “greatest sin” is not in the the story King and Janin tell but in its implications.
With a vast knowledge of the major points in Bat-history, it’s difficult for me to separate the effect of a new Bat-struggle without contextualizing it within The Caped Crusader’s career. For starters, “The War of Jokes & Riddles” never felt as impactful on Gotham City as “No Man’s Land” or “Zero Year.” And this isn’t the first time we’ve seen Batman come close to murder – the end of Infinite Crisis comes to mind and he’s nearly killed The Joker a bunch of times.
Given that, I don’t believe that the burden of Batman’s “greatest sin” lies in the fact that he was about to kill The Riddler, but that it was The Joker who stopped him. As many writers have explored, Batman and The Joker have a relationship based on yin and yang, order and chaos, good and evil etc. The fact that embodiment of all that is evil in Batman’s world is the one who ends up saving him from breaking his number one rule has got to weigh on his head. That I can understand affecting him more than nearly killing a man – he nearly kills people every night of the week!
It makes complete sense that this would be the “joke” that made The Joker laugh again. It’s the ultimate middle finger to Batman. For a brief moment their roles are switched: Batman is the crazed killer and Joker is the hero that won’t even let the bad guys die. This is one of the ultimate Joker victories in my opinion and I think that more than the war, more than The Riddler’s machinations, that’s the reason this point in Batman’s life still stings so much.
I’ll admit that Janin and King had me fooled – I thought Batman really had stabbed The Riddler. I didn’t believe that The Riddler was dead, but that blood spurt (from The Joker’s hand) was very convincing. Though I gotta say, if you’re gonna kill a guy why is your first instinct to stab him in the face? Are face stabbing killings fairly common? That knife kind of looks like a machete but to run someone through the brain with a knife has still gotta take a lot of force, right?
There were a couple of lines of dialogue in Batman 32 that had my brain traveling to some meta places. The first is one that Drew already mentioned, and probably the most obvious: “Not every story is your story!” This is mainly Riddler confessing that Batman is not the focus of his plan, but I couldn’t help taking it literally. While it’s true that not every Batman story is about Batman, this particular one most certainly is.
The second meta moment came near the end of the book after Bruce has finished his confession. Bruce Wayne is a man who loves anguishing over things and he has just revealed yet another defining moment in his life for him to mull over. Selina’s responds by essentially telling him to forgive himself and to move past it. But what she literally says is “who cares?”
In the bones of “The War of Jokes & Riddles” lies a debate that less-informed Batman enthusiasts have asked: what’s the difference between The Joker and The Riddler? It’s possible that Selina’s “who cares?” is advice for Bruce not to try to understand the motives of mad men.
Being the cynic that I am, my initial interpretation of the “who cares?” is the key difference in the minds of Bruce Wayne and Selina Kyle. Bruce likes to analyze and overanalyze to till his heart’s discontent. Selina on the other hand, doesn’t want to read too deeply into things.
Couples should balance each other in this kind of way but not when one of the partner is Batman. I think this is the main indicator that their marriage won’t last or might not even happen at all. Batman is methodical whereas Catwoman is footloose and fancy free. I’m more in line with Bruce’s line of thinking. After all, these pieces we write at Retcon Punch are all about divining the meaning from something.
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?