Batman 32: Discussion

by Drew Baumgartner and Michael DeLaney

Batman 32

This article contains SPOILERS. If you haven’t read the issue yet, proceed at your own risk!

I don’t know.

Teenager, Traditional

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.

Selina comforts Bruce

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.

Somebody should tell DC that not every story has to be a Batman story.

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.

Selina

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?

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2 comments on “Batman 32: Discussion

  1. I really liked how this moment of vulnerability made Bruce and Selina switch from using their abbreviated code names of “Bat” and “Cat” to using their real names. The Bat and Cat stuff always felt stilted to me, but it’s worth it for the release that comes from them acknowledging eachother as human beings in this scene.

  2. Sigh. I called it. Kind of sad that I worked out exactly what the big secret was by asking myself what the most banal, stupid and cliche answer would be. But yeah, Bruce’s big secret is that he did that thing that has happened so much in big Batman stories it is its own Batcliche. Top of my head, Infinite Crisis and Hush both did this. And I remember a couple of other examples. I can’t wait until Tom King stops writing like a bad impression of Tom King.

    It is a shame that this book is such a massive disaster, because other than Deathstroke, this is the only Rebirth book that is actually trying. It would be such a shame that such a story as big an historic as what King is doing with Bruce and Selina is so horrible (by the way, Selina is not a character that doesn’t read too into things. I actually buy her dialogue there, in a rare well written moment. But literally every well written version of Selina Kyle has been all about agonising over impossible moral decisions. She only pretends not to care. That’s her mask). But this could have been a great and major story. What makes the romance between these two characters so great was how complex both their psychologies are, and the fact that the great challenges both of them have to face for any progress. Instead, Bruce is written terribly, and Selina has all the important stuff thrown out to become Manic Pixie Dream Catwoman. Urgh. Let’s talk about what I actually want to talk about

    _______________________________________________

    Telltale’s Batman: The Enemy Within’s second episode, the Pact, came out. And this really helped fix many of my issues around the first episode.

    First thing I want to praise is a new addition to the ending credit stuff. Telltale games have always had a screen after the game comparing the choices you made to both your friend’s choice and the choices of every player. But they’ve added a new thing, looking at each major supporting character individually and how your interactions affected your relationship with them. All of this stuff was likely already being tracked, but making it clear actually works really well. In a three hour episode with a strict need to focus every scene on Bruce/Batman and only has very limited space for Alfred scenes, it is great to be able to use that stuff at the end, seeing how you are impacting Alfred. And it makes me kind of proud that I have consistently done a great job supporting him during his own little crisis of confidence.

    Though Alfred is just a tiny part of this episode. There is so much else to talk about. I discussed last time how the first episode abandoned the political technothriller elements for crime and espionage, and you can really see how they have embraced that here. This episode really goes all in on the espionage stuff. The premise is simple. As last season successfully reconciled the Bruce and Batman identities, Bruce is now a much bigger part of the Batman crusade. Last episode, he was infiltrating elite gambling dens as Bruce etc, but here, he takes things the next step further (with Amanda Waller pushing him along, of course). Bruce Wayne infiltrates the Pact as Bruce Wayne. It is a story that could only be done in Telltales’ universe, after last season’s finale, but Bruce Wayne, using his own identity, goes undercover as a supervillain. It really is interesting, seeing Bruce push himself in this way. Putting everything on the line. Feels like a logical extension of what Batman is, while being entirely brand new. What happens when you really throw espionage into the Batmythos

    Amanda Waller is the perfect example of Telltale’s approach done perfectly. Usually, Amanda Waller is written as, essentially, superhuman. More Force of Nature than person. Ambiguous morality incarnate. This often works, but it wouldn’t in Telltale’s Batman. So they give her humanity. And it is shocking how well it works. She is still a ruthless, morally ambiguous and all of that good stuff. But she is written as a human. She is not someone that lives and breathes this stuff. Instead, she chooses to. Consistently. Every time it is a decision, but every time she is willing to make the call. It ends up being powerful. It creates a woman who is consistently choosing to compromise herself. Pure drama. And it helps that she has the ability to be nice. That isn’t to say she’s a good person. But the fact that she knows the right time to be nice makes it more meaningful every time she consistently chooses to be the Amanda Waller we know.

    And then there is the Pact. Last time, I didn’t reveal the villain in charge of the Pact,a s it was an end of episode spoiler. But unlike last season, where I managed not to reveal the villain to keep the reveal hidden, I can’t avoid it here. You can’t talk about this season without talking about the villain, and the leader of the Pact is Harley Quinn.

    This is a fascinating idea. Notably, this game takes place pre Joker. We have John Doe, a pale faced, green haired unstable figure who will become the Joker, but he isn’t the Joker. Not yet. He is merely a chrysalis that Gotham’s great evil will erupt from. So the fact that Harley Quinn is walking around is a big deal.
    It works fantastically. Instead of being a metaphor for an abusive relationship, Harley as the power here. She isn’t the woman consistently disempowered by the Joker’s abuse, but her own person. And she is a great villain. They use some subtlety, but they lean into her psychology roots through her ways of interacting. She’s casually manipulative, consistently playing you and John Doe against each other in an attempt to control John Doe. And her actions with Bruce consistently test boundaries, put him in positions where he is forced to make decisions, possibly cut lifelines, until he is so deep that he can’t escape. She’s intelligent. Whenever I had Bruce make decisions that tried not to cut those lines, Harley noticed.

    Meanwhile, John Doe is consistently strong. There was only one real problem I had. In the Pact’s HQ, they had him in a little house doing the classic Hacienda pun. Which doesn’t feel right for John Doe. They are generally really careful not to be too clownish with John Doe. He isn’t the Joker yet, and therefore the avoid anything to overtly Jokery. That felt like a misstep.
    Otherwise, they get him perfect. They get his instability handled so well, that every conversation is a gauntlet. Before, there was a great fear of what he would do if he was unhappy. With the love of his life, Harley, on stage, the stakes increase. Keeping him happy feels more and more important, because Harley’s manipulations create new problems to deal with. But the best part is that despite the great danger in every covnersation, he isn’t evil yet. He is a crook, he is a problem, but he very clearly isn’t evil. That is what makes him work. He is so close to being the bad guy, but the fact that he isn’t yet means you are invested in trying to do right for him. It honestly feels like there is hope for him, a chance to save him. That’s what will make his fall all the more impactful

    The other two members were less inspiring. Mr Freeze was good, if minor. Thankfully, Nora Fries, as always, creates a really easy way to humanise him and make him perfectly suited for the Telltale style game. He gets to be complex and human in his obsession, and the way his different motivations interact with everyone else. But he is a minor part.
    The real problem is Bane. While I have praised how characters like Waller, Harley etc have been humanised, I’m not entirely sure that is possible with Bane. I don’t think Bane can be realistic. He is supposed to be the ultimate villain, the guy so villain it hurts. I think you have to embrace that. There is a reason that Nolan’s conception of Bane was ‘Bond Villain’. Trying to humanise Bane, but keeping him Bane just doesn’t work. I thought he was a good choice for this game, initially (ah well. The two villains I am really holding out hope for down the line are Poison Ivy and Ra’s al Ghul. I think both will be fascinating done in this style). But it becomes clear in playing that it doesn’t. There are some moments that emphasize Bane’s pragmatic, ruthless side that almost work, but he feels like a weak point. Shallow where everyone else is deep. An interesting attempt, but by far the weakest link.

    But the rest is strong. And it combines that with the sense of supervillains meaning something. I discussed last time how supervillains were down as the ultiamte bad guy. And ti continues. Part terrorist, part FBI’s most wanted, these are the ultimate threats and the story is designed to make them feel like uniquely a bog deal. By taking advantage of the realistic aspects, clever use of Amanda Waller to make their mere presence feel like something that requires an over the top response and a careful approach to their actual schemes, it feels massive. Without going into the bombast of a superhero movie, the climax of episode two feels like a terrorist attack, in some ways. Everythign is designed to make the appearance of supervillains feel like the board has changed. I described last time that Bruce had won the easy war, only to find a bigger, nastier one below. And that is what this feels like. It is always great to have this sense of impactfulness. Like things aren’t routine. And Telltale have consistently done a great job at writing a Batman where nothing feels routine. Where everything feels like an escalation of what went before. THis isn’t the comics ‘perpetual second act’, but a world that is never perpetual. I love that.

    And then we have minor roles from other characters. I liked Tiffany Fox’s scene, which is really getting me invested in where they take her. She had a smaller role, but a good one where we got to see her make a real choice. Can’t wait to see where she ends up, because the idea of taking a character that minor and placing her so close to the centre of the Batmythos appeals to me. Gordon also gets a couple of good scenes, as he tries to deal with Waller. I mentioned Alfred above, and then there is smaller characters like Regina. Very interested to see where things go for all of them.

    But that isn’t the most interesting part. The real interesting part is the cliffhanger. SOmething so simple, but so effective. Would work better if the silouetted title screen for episode three didn’t spoil it slightly, but the episode ends with the perfect reveal. After all your time getting inside the Pact,a single reveal complicates the situation immeasurably. How do you handle this new information? Is it a good thing or a bad thing? I have no idea. But it was rooted in one of my favourite parts of Seaosn One, so I can’t wait to see where they go with this. I really think episode 3 is going to be something special.

    First episode was a slight disappointment, but this is the sort of thing I wanted. Thank god for Enemy Within

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