by Drew Baumgartner
This article contains SPOILERS. If you haven’t read the issue yet, proceed at your own risk!
There are lots of reasons to love superhero comics. Maybe you’re in it for the high-wire action or the sci-fi worlds. Maybe you’re in it for the superhuman feats or the super human morals. There are as many reasons to love superheroes as there are superhero fans, but I think at some level, every fan must share some real affection for these characters, and perhaps even a childlike desire to be them. Those aspirations usually exist off the page, taking shape in our minds as we read, but Tom King and Clay Mann have found an elegant way to address the phenomenon in-universe: making Batman and Superman fans of one another.
“Fan” is probably not quite right — it’s more of a profound mutual respect — but that doesn’t mean there’s not something inherently relatable when these guys don each others’ costumes. Like us, they’re dressing up like their favorite superhero.
Oh, did I mention this issue is hilarious? Less the kind of grim self-seriousness we’ve come to expect of Batman stories, this issue manages to capture the irreverent fun of a night out with friends. And there are plenty of jokes for fans, too, from Batman mentioning kicking trees (to everyone’s confusion) to King highlighting the difference in the origins of their costumes.
There’s plenty of meaningful character work, as both Bruce and Selina are given the opportunity to talk to someone about their relationship, broadening our understanding of what it is that they love about one another. There aren’t any big surprises there, but King manages to reframe them in ways that make innate sense to Clark and Lois, eventually earning their approval.
But, as if to remind us that this issue is ultimately about the fun of throwing Batman and Superman together, we end on a much more fanciful note, as Bruce challenges Clark to try and strike him out. It’s silly nonsense, but that’s the point. Indeed, Superman emphasizes that it’s impossible before his first pitch. Batman hits it, anyway, reminding us that doing the impossible is another one of those things we love about superheroes.
The conversation doesn’t stop there. What do you wanna talk about from this issue?
My only regret is I have but one piece to write on this issue. I didn’t get to spend nearly enough time talking about Lois and Selina’s burgeoning friendship, or my favorite detail: Clark wearing his glasses over the Batman cowl. Every page of this issue was pure gold.
Superman: “You know, what you’re trying? It’s impossible.”
Batman: “I know.”
Clark’s referring to Bruce hitting his pitch, but there’s clearly a double meaning here: it also refers to Batman getting married at all. To Catwoman or not, it should be impossible. Bruce knows this.
Then he knocks the ball out of the park anyway.
Batman does the impossible. Goddamn.
DC will never let a Bat/Cat marriage stick long-term, but it’s nice to know that King himself has the utmost faith in it.
Maybe I’m being naive, but I could see the marriage as being accepted through attrition, much the same way Lois and Clark’s has been. Mostly, I just think it opens up a whole new set of stories — stories where Catwoman is a more fully deputized partner than flirty sometimes-foe. Her hanging out in the Batcave already amuses me a ton. I have no idea if it could work long-term (of if DC would ever let it), but I’d like to see them get in some good stories with it (possibly with other creative teams) before they pull the plug.
I remember just before the New 52 begun, Dini’s work with Selina really felt like you
could pull off a marriage and make it permanent. The love between them was done incredibly well, and the way Dini was writing things, marriage seemed like the logical next step. It felt like a natural progression, and one that I think could have stuck because of how naturally it was done.
But I think the problem with a long term Bruce/Selina marriage comes down to quality. Kieron Gillen worked his arse off to write Journey into Mystery and Young Avengers, creating some of the best comics of the time and creating character arcs so strong that Loki’s current status as a morally ambiguous anti hero was the only possible continuation. You couldn’t go back to the obviously evil Loki of before, because of Gillen’s hard work (Ewing’s Agent of Asgard helped, as well). And because of that, Loki’s now front and centre in Legacy’s metaplot and Doctor Strange as a well intentioned hero, even as he plays antagonist.
Thats how you do long term change. And the problem with King’s Batman is that it is fucking terrible. King has taken every chance to ignore the dramatic questions of the story to instead provide base indulgence (I still can’t believe I am saying that about the writer of the Trilogy of Good Intentions, but that’s his entire output these days). And that hurts.
If Bruce and Selina are going to have a marriage that works, you need to answer some important questions. What will it mean for an unrepentant supervillain to marry a superhero? What will the supervillain to do alter her actions because she’s now married to a superhero? Why is she willing to do it? While the supervillain has been known to have heroic turns, those turns have generally been characterised as incompatible with the superhero’s missions*. How can the supervillain be part of the superhero’s heroics? How does the superhero and the supervillain’s different senses of justice affect a serious relationship?
These questions can all be answered, but you actually have to answer them. THe most important thing King could have done, the first thing he should have done, instead of a crappy flashback arc or a double date with Superman, is a story about Selina and what this means for her. And how her life is going to be changed and who she is going to be, after such a major life change.
Instead, she’s treated like a generic sidekick. She fights alongside Bruce as a superhero like this is Green Arrow and Black Canary or something. Which is not how you write an unrepentant supervillain. But apparently, the way to stop Selina Kyle’s 77 year long crime spree was a marriage proposal. Then, instantly, she turned into a saint. If only someone had thought to put a ring on her finger sooner. Selina Kyle isn’t a character here. She’s Kelly Sue DeConnick’s sexy lamp
And the problem with this, going forward, is that King’s failure to answer these dramatic questions makes the fact that these questions were left unanswered the richest dramatic potential. And that’s the makings of a tragedy. If I had to pitch a story to follow King’s, it would break the characters up. And I say this as a Bruce/Selina shipper.
Because quite simply, the story would be about how, no matter how much you love each, marriage is a bad idea if you haven’t ensured you will also be happy. I’d tell a story about Selina suffocating in Wayne Manor. She’s loves Bruce, but she’s given up her identity for him, and that’s too painful. She doesn’t fit in, because, as an unrepentant thief, she’ll never feel like a true superhero. She’s robbed herself of the great joy of her life, thievery, because of her husband, and her vision of justice and morality is so different from the people she suits up to fight crime with that she feels like a compromised version of herself. From there, I’d tell a story where Selina tries to reclaim her identity while still being a hero, and creates an impossible rift. She won’t go back to theivery, but she’ll come up with some sort of revolutionary sort of heroism that is so extreme that Bruce can’t abide. Maybe she wages war on the entire police department (including Gordon) because the GCPD’s systemic issues allow rampant levels of both corruption and poice brutality. Maybe she takes control of the East End, Daredevil as Kingpin style, and from there basically secede from Gotham to protect it from GOtham’s evils. Maybe she rejoins the Calabreses to ‘control’ crime, becoming a major crime boss again. Still trying to be a hero, but reaffirming her identity to such an extent that the Bat/Cat marriage is instantly fractured. And the climax is, ultimately, that if Bruce can’t accept Selina doing this, love isn’t enough to save the relationship. And that the fact that they entered the marriage without properly taking into account Selina’s identity and needs is exactly the problem (insert metaphor about people who marry, only to discover they can’t reconcile the different opinions on, say, children).
It is hard to think of a better story as a follow up to King’s. A story that better engages with King’s depiction of the relationship and the next step, taking it as it is instead of trying to fix/correct it. Unless someone else comes alogn and writes a story to fix King’s stoey (in which case, it will all be about the second writer’s work that everyone draws their influence from), this isn’t going to last. WHich is a shame, as it is something I want to last.
But I honestly can’t see this sticking. King has fucked up this run so royally that he won’t pull off a permanent relationship
*Selina made major compromises and used a very different set of rules compared to Batman when she was the defender of the East End in Brubaker’s run, and Valentine’s run had Selina be heroic by running the mob, complete with ordering executions of good people. Heroic Catwoman and Batman do not easily fit together
Matt, I always love reading your thoughts, but I couldn’t disagree with you more on this run and this issue. Yes, I will admit that this outing read like the BEST Batman fanfic I’ve ever encountered, but my thought is that King is giving us lovely characterization of Bruce and giving him plenty of narrative potential for places that the character might go.
I see what you mean about underdeveloping Catwoman’s motives, but I can, personally and anecdotally, happily chalk this up to the old “opposites attract” dynamic, and I feel like King has done his work laying the foundation for this past what could be seen as a passing attraction in the past issues by solidifying the relationship between the two as one which goes back so far as to pre-dating the naming of the Batmobile.
This issue got me emotional while reading it on the train, and I know that might be more of a comment of my own personal emotional state, but man, what a welcome break from the average Batman arc. I’m excited to see what happens next, because it’ll be impactful, no matter what.
My problem has never been about the love, as that is simply a fact. Whether it is ‘opposites attract’, ‘surprisingly similar’ or however you want to describe their relationship (my interpretation has always been that their love comes from the fact that they are ultimately alike), their love has been fact for… let’s be conservative and say it truly started with Hush, fifteen years ago (most liberal interpretation would be Batman 1, all the way back in 1940). It has been essential context for several of my favourite Bruce/Selina scenes. Hell, it has led to some of my favourite Catwoman issues ever. Catwoman 19, where a drunk Selina decides to rob a museum and kiss Bruce because she sees self destruction by indulgence as preferable to dealing with the fallout of the previous arc, and Catwoman 32, where, upon learning just what Bruce would do in his love to her and needing a break, gets Bruce to go on a real date for just one night)
My problem is that there is more to a romance than just love. When giving my pitch, I mentioned a metaphor about arguing over children. These sorts of discussions are central to any relationship. Especially when marriage enters the equation. What am I willing to put the chance of love over?
Can this relationship work if we disagree about kids? Am I prepared to leave my home city/country to follow my love? Am I willing to sabotage my career prospects/lose my dream job for my partner?
Some relationships avoid these questions, others don’t. Some people are willing to make the sacrifice, and the relationship continues. In other cases, love is not enough and the relationship has to end. And I don’t think it is possible for a superhero romance to not face one of these questions before marriage. Usually, that’s phrased as ‘Am I willing to marry Clark/Peter, when he secretly risks his life every day as Superman/Spiderman?’ Time was dedicated to exploring Lois/Mary Jane having to deal with questions. Because it is key to a relationship. And it shouldn’t be too much to ask the same from Selina. She knows Bruce is Batman, but there are other questions as well. Look at that third one. ‘Am I willing to sabotage my career prospects/lose my dream job for my partner?’ That feels like an important question to ask, from a famously free-spirited thief who is about the marry the goddamn Batman. I’m pretty sure the last time that Selina and a non-amnesiac Bruce talked before Rebirth had Selina lecture about how Bruce had no right to dictate who she was or what she does. Selina should be actively asking these questions, a key part of the dramatic arc of the story. It is essential for romances.
Did you watch the Big Sick? One of the best movies of the year. And it was hailed as a saviour of Romcoms. And I understand why. Romcoms’ died because they became entirely indulgence, entirely built upon creating a superficial fantasy where the characters were underwritten, and a soulless product replaced the romance. And while I don’t want to ascribe too much intent to the Big Sick (ultimately, the Big Sick’s intent is for the screenwriters to reproduce their very own real life romance as a movie), the result is deconstructive. Not only does the movie have two, well realised leads who are fully written and actual characters, the movie assaults the idea of a grand, dramatic gesture of love (like taking care of the woman you love, even after she rejected you, or kneeling on the ground, removing you Batmask and dramatically saying marry me) being a magic solution to relationship problems. When Emily wakes up from her coma, the fact that Kumail spent every day by her side, looking after her parents etc doesn’t matter. To Emily, Kumail is still the man who lied to her seemingly only yesterday. The final act is all about how no matter what Kumail did, Emily has to make the decisions for herself. In the end, all Kumail gets is a new beginning. A chance to start again, to have the relationship without the mistakes of last time. Kumail and Emily both make the commitment, as characters with their own agency who don’t exist as an underwritten prop for the other.
Because that’s how you write a romance. Not with props, or sexy lamps, or Manic Pixie Dream Girls. With characters. If one of your love itnerests is underwritten, you’ve made a grievous error.
Honestly, I can’t think of a better criticism of King’s work than describing it as like fanfic. Because fanficy isn’t praise. It is a shield to deflect criticism. Because no great piece of fanfic needs to be called fanficy. Whether it is an epic crossover of fandoms or a slice of life coffee shop story, any fanfic worth talking about doesn’t need to be called fanficy. You call it a precision deconstruction, or intimate slice of life, or visceral rollercoaster or intelligent recontextualisation or any other term you would use to describe any other piece of art.
If King’s work actually worked, we wouldn’t be saying it is fanficy. But instead, King is writing an indulgent ‘romance’ that can’t treat one of its romantic leads as anything other than a prop. A ‘romance’ that sacrifices love, sacrifices the soul of the story, for emptiness. If Selina is a mere background detail, an underwritten part not worthy of proper exploration, can this story have a heart? And what is a romance without heart?
I love the idea of a Batman story doing something difference and being a romance. But that’s what I’m critiquing on. Its complete failure as a romance. The fact that King is failing to attempt something different makes him much better than every current DC writer not named Priest. Still bad, though.
Oh, and the characterisation of Bruce is pretty poor as well. Reminds me too much of Glen Weldon’s THe Caped Drusade: Batman and the Rise of Nerd Culture. Namely, the part around the cycle of Batman depictions. Mindless indulgence for the bad half of fan culture, a fetishization of toxic masculinity.
It is honestly sad how Tom King has so quickly fallen. He used to be one of comics’ most exciting voices…
Best single issue of Batman I have read. It was just a delight the whole way through. Felt like an episode of the Justice League cartoon.