By Spencer Irwin and Mark Mitchell
This article contains SPOILERS. If you haven’t read the issue yet, proceed at your own risk!
Spencer: Is Bruce Wayne the mask, or is Batman? Which one is “real”? It’s a long-standing debate amongst the comic book community, and given the myriad of different interpretations of the character, probably one that will never have a definitive answer. My own feelings about this question have shifted and evolved over time, but if you asked me right this second, I’d say that both Bruce and Batman are masks of sorts — the millionaire playboy and the dark knight, respectively. We don’t see him too often, but there’s a real Bruce beneath both those facades, one with real human emotions that often get buried beneath the weight of his own mythology. The best parts of Tom King’s run on Batman have been the moments where he’s let that real Bruce shine through, and more than anything it’s been Catwoman who has allowed this Bruce to do just that. In Batman 36, King adds another tool to his storytelling arsenal that similarly cuts right to Batman’s hidden humanity: his best friend, Superman.
Of course, Superman and Batman don’t actually meet up until the final pages of the issue, but it’s the distance between them that defines their friendship as much as their closeness. With news of Batman and Catwoman’s engagement out in the open, most of the issue is spent following Selina and Lois as they try to convince Bruce and Clark to reach out to each other, while both men refuse to budge. It plays out more like a sitcom or a romantic comedy than a superhero story, despite all four characters continuing to fight crime, stop disasters, and investigate news stories the entire time. Treating being a superhero like a day job isn’t a new concept — after Fraction and Aja’s Hawkeye, it felt like Marvel’s entire line was telling stories in this vein for a while — but there’s still something novel and insightful about applying it to the two most famous superheroes of all time. Batman and Superman are icons more than anything else, but in moments like this, they feel like real, flesh and blood, honest to god people.
Catwoman still plays a vital role in getting Bruce to this point, as just the act of loving her and being in a relationship with her forces him to confront messy emotional realities he’s generally been able to avoid up to this point.
I don’t know whether Selina genuinely thinks that Bruce is embarrassed to introduce her to Lois and Clark or if she’s just trying to force him to open up, but either way, Bruce doesn’t ignore her. Being with Selina means that Bruce has chosen to be more intimate with her (physically but especially emotionally) than he’s previously been comfortable being, and I think it’s important to reiterate that, for all his reluctance, for any brief moments Selina may get stuck in the nagging wife role, this is a choice that Bruce has made, and he’s not backing down from it.
(This does seem like the right time, though, to note that if this issue has one weakness, it’s its gender portrayals. Lois and Selina both have plenty of personality, agency, and motivation of their own here, but their primary role is still to talk their men into opening up emotionally. Artist Clay Mann contributes beautiful, dynamic work to the story, but also sometimes comes across as male-gazey, especially in pages like the one I posted above, where there’s no reason to pose Catwoman like that other than for male readers to gawk at her. I’m a bit uncomfortable even including that panel, if I’m being completely honest.)
Selina and Lois’ insistence does allow King and Mann to get right down to the root of the Batman/Superman friendship, though.
There’s been as many different takes on this friendship as there has these characters in general, but I think King does a beautiful job distilling all those takes into one central thesis: despite all their differences (or, perhaps because of them), both men admire the other so much that they’re almost afraid to truly open up and embrace their friendship. If it’s Selina forcing these emotions to the surface, it’s still Superman inspiring them in the first place, and next month’s promised “double date” will no doubt provide plenty of chances for Bruce to be just a bit more human with one more person than he has before.
That’s important because, really, who else could Bruce really have an open, honest friendship with? Gordon?
This is the issue’s funniest gag, but it also speaks to a sad truth. I think Batman might legitimately consider Gordon his best friend — they’re close, have history, and share similar values — but can they really be best friends when there’s so much that has to remain hidden between them? It makes a strong argument for why Superman is uniquely suited to be Batman’s best friend, but also for why Batman has such a hard time recognizing and accepting it — does he even understand what friendship is or how it works in the first place? If Clark can help him learn, then it will help advance what I think may just be the hidden theme of King’s entire run: forcing Bruce Wayne to actually grow and develop as a human being, separate from the cape and cowl.
Mark, how does King’s dive into this iconic friendship sit with you? How about his handling of the Lois/Clark dynamic, or the two romantic relationships in general? Are you enjoying this title’s focus on romance and humanity as much as I am? I’ll admit, I’m far more intrigued by those aspects of Batman right now than I am its big epic tales and showdowns.
Mark: I’ve been praising a lot of DC titles recently for making their heroes more relatable — bringing them down a bit from the pedestal of Untouchable Super Gods where DC sometimes likes to position them to differentiate from the other guys — but it was a welcome surprise to see this dynamic make its way to Batman and Superman.
I recently wrote in my piece on Action Comics 992 that one of the reasons Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice sucks eggs is that all but the last few moments of that movie are occupied with inventing a reason for Batman and Superman to hit each other. And (shout out to Matt!) it’s not that a story where these two friends fight can’t be successful, it’s that successful stories where that happens are predicated on a knowledge that they do love each other. That’s what makes their fights so tragic.
And King very successfully captures the love Batman and Superman mutually share. Neither really knows how to express it, because neither of them wants to seem like they’re too invested. It’s a stereotypical gender response (“no homo, dude!”), but one that rings true to the way most men and boys behave out of fear of being labeled weak or, frankly, gay.
But honestly, this whole thing is super, duper turbo gay. It’s not much of a stretch to reason that two beefy dudes with a thing for Lycra and a shared passion for justice have maybe bumped uglies once or twice. And then when Batman gets engaged to a woman, he suddenly doesn’t want to tell Superman — his Best Friend — about it because he’s supposedly really worried how Superman will react? And we’re supposed to believe the reason Batman’s worried is not that he’s unsure how his dalliance with Superman will be affected by his marriage? Girl, please.
And, obviously, I’m aware this is not the reading of the issue King intended, but it does go a long way in my mind towards mitigating the archaic gender stereotypes — of both men and women — that are a bit of a bummer the whole way through. Men not opening up emotionally because they don’t want to seem like they care too much? Tired. Men not opening up emotionally because they’re banging on the side and don’t want shit to get messy? Wired!
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