By Drew Baumgartner and Mark Mitchell
This article contains SPOILERS. If you haven’t read the issue yet, proceed at your own risk!
Drew: Hey, so what is fidelity? I think we all understand the general concept, but the exact borders of the definition are not entirely well defined. If your significant other dies, for example, very few people would classify moving on to another relationship as “cheating,” so we might fairly define “death” as one of the hard edges of fidelity. But what if they’re just presumed dead — say, on a desert island for years and years? Do we consider Helen Hunt’s marriage in Cast Away to be cheating on Tom Hanks? What if it had been Tom Hanks who forged the new relationship (on the island, somehow) — he knows he’s not dead (and could reasonably assume Helen Hunt isn’t), but do the rules of fidelity extend to seemingly hopeless circumstances of languishing in a remote corner of the world? These are certainly unlikely hypotheticals, but unlikely hypotheticals are what superhero comics are all about, and exactly what Batman 39 needs in order to maybe-kinda-sorta justify Batman and Wonder Woman hooking up.
They’ve both agreed to stand in for “The Gentle Man,” a figure who guards the gates of our reality, eternally fighting a never-ending army of demons attempting to enter our world. That might be enough of a hypothetical for most comics to chew on, but it’s mostly just an excuse to sequester Batman and Wonder Woman in another reality where they can’t escape and time passes by years for ever hour on Earth. That is, to drop them into the exact scenario I was asking about up top: is it cheating if they think they’re effectively dead to the world?
Writer Tom King starts planting the seeds for this early, as Wonder Woman emphasizes that Bruce is stuck there with only her, while artist Joëlle Jones emphasizes her divine beauty.
It may trip into male fantasy a bit — the premise allows Bruce to have his cake and eat it too, without ever really making either character too concerned about the morality of it — but Jones does draw Bruce just as ruggedly gorgeous as she does Diana. That is, we might understand why she’d be tempted, too, even if we never get any hint as to whether she’d be conflicted about stepping on Bruce and Selina’s monogamous arrangement.
Or maybe the conflict is just kept off-screen? If I have a criticism of this issue, it’s that its insistence on holding off that time distortion stuff to the last minute necessarily keeps us at a distance from what Bruce and Diana are experiencing. You’d think that would be the kind of thing the Gentle Man might mention up-front, along with the fact that he’s from only a year ago on Earth, and that he owes his wife a long-overdue call. I suspect that that call may wrap back around to one of those Cast Away-type reveals that the significant other has moved on (I mean, the guy did just disappear without a trace over a year ago), which might bring this thing full circle, but I still think our investment in what’s going on suffers from not knowing what Bruce and Diana are experiencing until the very end.
I mean, the little hints of flirtation we get read very differently when we understand that literal years are passing between them, with each day slowly eroding their hope of ever returning home. That’s a story that might reasonably test the limits of fidelity, but it’s not the story we understand we’re reading until the very end of the issue. Indeed, that context is so invisible, it’s hard for me to adjust to even after I know it.
Like, I get conceptually that this scene is more acceptable if these two held out for ten years and have slowly come to accept that they’re trapped forever, but because the story denies me understanding and truly feeling those things along with them (and perhaps because I know that they’ve actually only been there a few hours and will without a doubt be rescued), it can’t help but feel like they’re taking this decision lightly.
Mark, I know you were ‘shipping Bruce and Clark a bit back in issue 36, so I’m curious to hear how you feel about the burgeoning relationship here. This one is different in countless ways, but I can’t shake the fact that this is also a fan-favorite ship (ported over from the TimmVerse of animated series). I’ve never been a huge fan of that pairing, so maybe my skepticism is tied up in that. What do you think? Is this gratuitous fan-service? Hetero fantasy? Or do you think there might be an actual lesson in here for the characters and their respective relationships?
Mark: It’s difficult to say without seeing how events play out next issue, but I’m still rooting for Bruce and Clark to realize they’re perfect for each other. Truly, a Batman/Superman romance would scratch the itch of Bruce Timm’s Justice League animated series more than the Bruce and Diana hook up of Batman 39. In the series, it was Batman and Wonder Woman’s personal chemistry, the way they wittily bounced off of each other, that made their courtship so endearing. In Batman 39, male gaze-y carnal desire is what’s on sale, and without the crucial personality component, the issue’s climax is more soft-core hookup than love story.
But you hit on a larger issue about fandom, Drew, and it’s something I’ve been thinking a lot about recently with the angry reactions to The Last Jedi’s portrayal of Luke Skywalker from a small corner of the Star Wars fanbase.
It’s true that part of the buy-in when reading comic books is that outlandish scenarios are the norm — Batman and Wonder Woman agreeing to take a turn keeping demons from the gate of our reality so The Gentle Man can take a break? Awesome — but what anchors these oversized ideas are characters with identifiable motivations. And I think King, in his eagerness to put pieces in place that lead to the issue’s climactic moment of temptation, glosses over the fundamental fact that neither Bruce nor Diana would ever enter into an agreement with The Gentle Man without asking the basic question, “How long until you’ll be back?”
Or, at least, the version of the characters I carry around in my head would never do that. But my head canon is not the final word on what a characters does or says. The vocal minority’s blowback on last year’s The Last Jedi has been good for one thing, and that’s reminding all of us that not every piece of art needs to cater to our individual tastes.
Tom King was named Retcon Punch’s favorite writer of 2017 in our year-end Best Of list, but even among the staff here his Batman run is divisive. King is intent on bending Batman in new ways, and while exploring these new facets of the character he’s willing to disregard old interpretations — even his own. Put in the same situation, another, more resolute Batman would never betray the woman he loved no matter the cost. Another, more perfect Batman would never cross into a different realm before considering all of the possible outcomes of doing so. But King’s Batman is in turns smarter, dumber, more passionate, more cerebral, more jaded, and more idealistic than what he’s been before; he’s whatever he needs to be whenever he needs to be it for the story King wants to tell.
It’s not always a version of Batman that works for me, but who cares?
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