Apologies in Batman 40

By Patrick Ehlers

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

Batman: This is new, but I’m trying.
Catwoman: Yes, well, try harder.

Batman 40

How do we admit our failings? The #MeToo movement is bringing a lot of stories of abuse to light, which means there have also been scores of written apologies. Some don’t use the word “sorry,” some make excuses, some try to deflect with their own surprise admissions. No matter how carefully crafted these statements are, they are all bound to fuck up and fall short. Words do no erase actions. Batman 40 sees creator and creation in similar roles, trying to explain they way they botched handling Wonder Woman. It’s messy, it’s riddled with mistakes, and it’s a genuine expression of how it feels to put your foot in your mouth.

Batman 39 presented a pretty cool sci-fi-romance gimmick, but failed to develop Wonder Woman’s perspective within that gimmick. My co-editor Drew likened Diana to a sexy lamp — a cheesecake warrior with no perceivable motivations or values of her own. When we pop back into their storyline in this issue, the fantasy is slightly recalibrated, focusing less on what’s desirable about her, and more on what’s desirable about this pairing.

Artist Joelle Jones backlights her ten-year-wearied warriors with a roaring campfire. It is Bruce and Diana against an unending horde. The two pages that follow are extremely close on Bruce and Diana’s faces as they flirt with the idea of kissing each other. It’s an intimate series of pages, both by physical necessity — their faces have to be very close to each other to both fit in every panel — and by emotional necessity. Writer Tom King puts the conflict plainly in the words of this characters: “I love her.” “I love him.” “This is ridiculous.”

It’s a little bit of a muted sin for either of these characters to have to atone for. “Almost kissing someone after being stranded with them for ten years” seems pretty understandable to me, but the time distortion keeps the audience locked into Selina’s perception of time. And it’s Catwoman’s perspective that King and Jones seem most interested in — she’s the one that has to wrestle with what it means for Bruce to have a kind of work-wife situation with Wonder Woman. Bruce is no good at dealing with it on his own — he was going to flat-out deny The Gentle Man’s future requests for a break for fear that he may be tempted again in the future. That’s not a solution, that’s just avoiding one symptom of the problem. It takes Selina offering the suggestion that they just go and face the horde together.

It’s kinda cool to see Batman fallible like this. There’s a series of scenes in The Realm that are labeled as taking place 24, 19 and 14 years into their tenure fighting demons, that are — according to King on twitter — incorrectly labeled.

They should be presented chronologically, but y’know, computer error or something. I love that this mistake is here. It’s like King and Batman were too nervous about their questionable treatment of Wonder Woman, and couldn’t help but stammer during their explanation of what happened. In the end, all Bruce knows is that he has to try to be better. This is not the last time he’ll be in an intimate crime fighting situation with another hero — next time he might be fighting alongside a Robin, or Batgirl, or Superman or The Flash, or whomever. The horde, as it were, is everlasting. Making the right choice, and deciding not to hurt the person you love is an active choice that requires emotional intelligence. That’s what King has been developing in Batman this whole time.

The conversation doesn’t stop there. What do you wanna talk about from this issue?

3 comments on “Apologies in Batman 40

    • DeConnick’s Sexy Lamp Test is a truly great concept, such a brilliant expression of a terrible phenomenon. It articulates the problem so clearly, so articulately and so precisely that it is the perfect tool for the situations it describes. Where both the Bechdel Test and Mako Mori tests have flaws where trying to use them can backfire, the Sexy Lamp Test is so perfectly done that I always keep it in the forefront of my mind. Hell, I think I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve discussed King’s Batman running failing that test in these comments. Because it is such a perfect tool.

      I love Bitch Planet and Pretty Deadly, but the Sexy Lamp Test may be DeConnick’s masterpiece

  1. So King continues his path as one of the worst creators in the current market by continuing all the bullshit. It is not just the misogyny. It is not just the misogyny that has infected this book since long before Diana turned up (even if this arc’s a new low. Especially when contrasted to the Superman story before), it is yet more narrative cheating to cheapens everything and renders the kills the drama. Patrick, you already identified the problem with the ten years issue, an awful way of rigging the deck in Batman’s favour instead of honestly confronting the supposed story, but the way it cheats the cliffhanger, giving a resolution that is only satisfying if you enjoy the smug sense of satisfaction of expecting the worst from this book and being right (King is made the same mistakes again and again that I called the bullshit, though I get no satisfaction out of this). If King wanted to do a real cliffhanger, he would have shown the immediate aftermath of the nearly kiss last issue, and have the cliffhanger be Bruce’s horror at nearly falling to temptation (that is ignoring the myriad other sins of the story). THe cliffhanger being the emotional devastation of the moment and the exact implications of what that wil mean going forward. To have the sort of pretend cliffhanger where the resolution is ‘Psyche, that didn’t actually happen’ is just garbage. The sort of garbage from old movie serials or bad episodes of Doctor WHo, where the cliffhanger exists as a cheap way to get some drama between episodes. If the start of your cliffhanger is ‘actually, it isn’t as what you thought, it is less bad than that’, that’s not a cliffhanger. It is hack writing.
    King just keeps doign it. Between Batman and Mister Miracle, is any writer a better representation of Rebirth’s commitment to misogyny, superficiality and garbage writing?

    Let’s discuss something better instead. New Telltale game, and Gotham by Gaslight (and it is a sad day when a modern DC direct to DVD animated movie is better).


    Batman: The Enemy Within – What Ails You: Fourth episodes are hard, largely because the five act structure doesn’t exactly have a lot of space for fourth act to do anything interesting. The Fourth Act is where you have to set up the final act, and so can often struggle with an identity of its own. Telltale have done some poor fourth episodes (including the first season of Batman), but they’ve also managed to do some good ones. I think the ones that worked, Tales from the Borderlands and Guardians of the Galaxy, worked because they did a Last Jedi style false climax. An episode where everything comes to the head and the characters apply all the lessons they learn, only to come up short and reach the bad ending. Leaving the fifth episode to be about correcting that mistake, so that this time, the climax happens the way it should.

    What Ails you kind of does it, in that it has one major goal. Reach the climax of the John Doe story, so that by the end of the episode, he is the Joker. But unfortunately, this means that every other character is pushed out of the spotlight. John Doe, as always, is done really well. Complex and dangerous, leaving you always uncertain about exactly what he is. The final choice, where you choose John Doe’s path, is truly fantastic. Once again, John Doe shows a staggering capacity for violence. He is surrounded by dead agents of the Agency, in what is a scary sight. On the other hand, we are suspicious of the Agency, and no that this could very easily be self defence. In fact, we expect that. And then John tries to explain what happens, and he lies. But it isn’t a simple lie. It is complex. He lies about the exact methods of killing.

    But why does he do that? Is he in shock? Dissociative amnesia would make a lot of sense. Is it shame? John’s primary attribute is a need to ingratiate himself to people, especially Bruce. Does he not want to present a vision of himself that is less monstrous than what actually happened, because he doesn’t want Bruce to reject him. All very possible. And yet, we have seen very violent sides of John Doe appear. Bursts of rage that show that there is something deeply wrong John Doe. There are so many other reasonable explanations with his lies and deceptions, but it could just be that horrific, violent side. John has essentially been leashed to either Harley or Bruce all game, controlled and managed so that those dangerous impulses never got to fully appear. But here, for the first time, he is let loose. Bruce asks John to, by himself, track down Harley, so is this merely the natural consequence of letting John go free? It is a difficult choice, because the future Joker’s psychology is so complex and so cracked that we can’t easily make any conclusions. And yet, we are asked to trust him. If we choose to trust him, he becomes an anarchist vigilante, committed to burning down Gotham to purge the villainous Agency. A heroic Joker, or, at least, as heroic as the Joker could be. Or, you could do what I did and not trust the Joker, turning into the villain everyone knows and coming in at the end to save Harley instead of stopping her, and starting a new campaign of terror.

    Harley and the Pact, naturally, come to a conclusion here. Like I said, false climax. The Pact story is resolved, but the true climax will be defeating the Joker, because regardless of the choic eyou choose and his specific motivations, he is a dangerous threat. THere isn’t too much to the Pact. After episodes being deep undercover inside them,here they exist merely as a threat to tell the John Doe story. Though there is one fantastic thing we learn, their motives. Each member of the team requires the virus because they believe they can turn it into a panacea, and everyone, from Harley’s family’s history of mental illness, to Bane’s Venom addiction to Victor Fries’ wife, have a reason to want that. Really helps give the Pact a little more depth, and makes the final stand off with Harley all more powerful. Harley’s motives are desperate, and it makes her sympathetic and complex in this very final moment.

    It is when we get to side characters that the problems become evident. I think the biggest problem is that the Telltale Games are ultimately relationship games, and the need to put Harley and John Doe off the board, and with Selina’s exact relationship with you highly dependent on the choice at the end of episode 3, the only character that can be your ‘sidekick’ this episode, following you around so you have a relationship to manage, is Agent Avesta, a character who has barely been seen since the first episode and one that we don’t have a rich relationship with. She’s boring to be around, and her story about not trusting Waller and the Agency would be a lot stronger if she’d been a constant presence ein the story and an actual character.

    Meanwhile, in the rush to make sure we get all the Pact and John Doe stuff done out of the way so it can be all wrapped up in this episode, minor characters get pushed to the wayside. Tiffany Fox should have had a much larger role this episode, coming into her own after I chose to reveal that Bruce is Batman to her. Instead, we get a small conversation where she starts the journey to be aprt of teh team, but gets trapped in orientation (were John Doe not so important here, a much better choice would be for her to prove herself by making a major discovery). The orientation is pretty great, in how it has fun with the fact that this is a new, young Batman at the start of his career. Tiffany has created a bunch of cool designs, including her costume. It is a cool costume, leaning heavily into the techno-realism of the game. Feels pulpy, but with an emphasis on practicality that creates something unique. I love a superhero costume that includes a backpack, because it tells you exactly what sort of hero Tiffany is. The one with the gadget for every situation. But the best part is Tiffany designing an assault rifle for Batman to use. It makes sense, Batman is new enough and mysterious enough in Gotham that people don’t understand him yet. It makes sense that Tiffany, a civilian with previously minimal interaction with Batman would think a gun was a good idea. People don’t know Batman. Which creates a really good springboard for the discussion about Batman not killing or using guns. Bruce isn’t lecturing, he is responding, which is great dramatics. And the gun is a great meta joke, really exploring an interesting way to look at the early period of Batman. But it really feels there should be more. As it feels like there should be more Selina, instead of disappearing as soon as possible. Or there should be more Alfred.

    That’s the problem. The main content with John DOe and Harley is strong, but everything else is too small or, int he case of Avesta, not engaging enough. A weaker episode. But so was episode 4 last time, and that had a great finale


    Gotham by Gaslight: DC used to do really good direct to DVD animated offerings, like Under the Red Hood. But lately, they have been pretty bad at best, with some real stinkers thrown in there. Generic, vapid movies. But Gotham by Gaslight is a great improvement. Not Under the Red Hood level quality, but well done.

    The best choice is breaking from the comic entirely and taking the premise in a new direction. The original comic’s strength was its originality and Mignola’s pencils, so massive changes were right. Especially as it makes the mystery of who Jack the Ripper is an actual mystery, instead of really obvious. This also lets them have fun with the greater Batman mythos, having many minor characters turn up in ways that enrich the setting.

    Honestly, fun is a good explanation for what makes this work. Not every character is transposed to Victorian times well (why did they treat Poison Ivy like that?). But most are. Hugo Strange as Gotham’s expert alienist, Leslie Thompkins as a nun helping the poor, Dick, Jason and Tim as a group of street urchins that Alfred turns into Batman’s equivalent of the Baker Street Irregulars… THe movie finds all sorts of ways to have fun transposing Batman into Victorian times and with Victorian tropes. They also have a lot of fun with the setting itself, with lots of jokes taking advantage of the cultural context (Hugo STrange ensuring us that humans can survive speeds up to 35 mph, Batman being trained by Houdini and Sherlock Holmes), or in how they take Batman tropes and apply them. The art style is generic and not like Mignola’s great art, by they are prepared to composite their shots in ways to really take advantage of the visuals. I love the gag where they film the equivalent of the Batmobile exactly like the Batmobile would be filmed, despite the obvious problems.

    But the big addition is Selina Kyle. It seems like, since Arkham City and Dark Knight Rises, it has become very popular to place Catwoman in the secondary protagonist slot of Batman stories. I think because it gives you a lead female, she requires little explanation because she doesn’t require a legacy, you get some romance AND (for the immature) it lets you avoid dealing with Robin. But she is a brilliant choice here. With misogyny being such a key part of Jack the Ripper, the fearlessly feminist Selina Kyle is the perfect ally. But she’s also, as she always does (nearly always. King’s verison is just a sexy lamp, urgh), is a character that challenges the underpinnings of Bruce through her very different approach. We are introduced to Selina trying to take done the Ripper before Batman even sees him, and the way their strategies come into conflict creates an engaging relationship. Whether it is Selina’s belief that society’s lack of care for the Ripper’s victims is misogynistic to Bruce’s insistence that it is classist, to the climax, which begins when Selina seizes initiatitive away from Bruce and states her intention to reveal that he’s Batman because she believes that is the right tactic, Selina rarely exists solely in teh orbit of other characters and is instead he rown strong character making decisions. She even pushes Bruce to evolve, calling him out of his ‘anti-suffragist’ commitment to the status quo and getting him to sneak her into the Men-only club ‘disguised’ in a suit (there is probably an interesting discussion to be had about, between the relatively recent choice by Cooke to give Selina short hair, and movies like this havign Selina dress up like a man, the fact that a degree of ambiguity to Selina’s gender expression. She is still shown as an icon of pure femininity, but also one that is more comfortable with more masculine expressions of gender than other characters). It creates a compellign character to see Bruce fight alongside and a great reminder of the Selina Kyle we used to have, before Rebirth, when she was actually allowed to be a strong character.

    While the characters, the use of setting and the sense of humnour are great, it is let down by a series of rote plot points. The plot goes exactly as expected, rarely deviating from cliche tropes. ANd while the strogn characters help mitigate this (Hugo Strange is balanced very well to give a bit of doubt to the rote direction they go, Selina is written as well as she could be while damseling her in the finale, letting her continue to be competent but unfortunate, instead of a prop), the actual storytelling is banal where the other elements aren’t. So it is nowhere near the quality of some of the older stuff like Under the Red Hood or Return of the Joker that were actually quality. But it was a fun movie that makes you smile, which is a rare feat from a DC animated movie these days. Considering how banal things like Bad Blood, Justice League v Teen Titans and Justice League Dark were, the fact that this was actually good is very refreshing.

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