Bruce Wayne Confronts His Assumptions (and Our Own) in Batman 52

by Drew Baumgartner

Batman 52

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

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We’ve written a lot over the years about how the disparate tones of various incarnations of Batman have created a kind of range that the character operates in. Maybe he’s light and campy, maybe he’s dark and serious. Maybe he’s a high-tech wizard, maybe he’s a low-tech sleuth. Maybe he’s a bitter loner, maybe he’s cultivating an ever-growing family of friends and allies. That range applies just as much to the look of Batman, as different character designs emphasize different aspects of his character. Is his costume scary, or silly? Is humanity obscured by his costume, or made more obvious by it? In practice, the platonic image of Batman we keep in our minds might be just as diffuse as his mood — a kind of pastiche of the designs from, say, our favorite comics runs, Batman: The Animated Series, and maybe even a few movies. High in the mix for most modern comics fans, though, must be David Mazzucchelli’s distinctively line-smart Batman: Year One, which distilled Batman down to as few brush strokes and dabs of color as possible, creating a kind of shorthand iconography for the character that perfectly suited the early-days nature of that story. It’s a style that Lee Weeks and colorist Elizabeth Breitweiser evoke in Batman 52, though rather than celebrating that iconography, they’re interrogating it.

The 12 Angry Men framing of this story is approached in a much more neutral modern style — I don’t mean to suggest that Weeks and Breitweiser don’t have their own styles, just that they aren’t affecting or adopting the styles of others. But the flashbacks, which depict Batman “solving” the crime and apprehending Mr. Freeze, are drawn and colored in a distinctively Mazzucchellian way. Take a look at the economy of both detail and color palette here, for example:

Batman in the Morgue

Importantly, these moments are accompanied by Bruce summarizing the case as both the prosecution and the rest of the jury understand it. It’s not entirely clear why Bruce is starting to question his initial conclusions — is it that he fears a world where any man, including himself, is trusted implicitly? Or is it that “beyond a reasonable doubt” is a more rigorous standard than he applies on the street? Or maybe it’s just that he knows more than they do, including something exculpatory that he can’t share. Whatever the case is, it seems everyone is invested in the mythology of Batman as an infallible do-gooder, making the simpler, stripped-down style so appropriate for their mind’s eye.

Although, that “mind’s eye” is a bit more complicated than I’m letting on. The jurors certainly lionize Batman, but the flashbacks also feature dialogue nobody but Bruce could possibly know, suggesting that these are indeed his own memories of those events (albeit as narrated by the evidence in the case). That is, I suspect we’re seeing these events filtered through Bruce’s own rose-tinted glasses, which recall his efforts as inherently noble. And those glasses are a real thing for everyone, especially for folks in law enforcement, and especially for people whose actions have been called into question. Bruce happens to be introspective and compassionate enough to indict himself (figuratively), but not everyone does, and not even society at large can when given the opportunity, giving police officers virtual immunity for even their worst actions. Like Batman, police are often seen as heroes, so they’re given the benefit of the doubt in the same way, perhaps at the expense of justice.

To be clear, this issue isn’t calling out police corruption, but it does find Bruce Wayne insisting on a standard beyond simply trusting law enforcement. He wants to look beyond the myth of Batman — a myth he has had to believe himself a times — to find the actual truth. The irony, of course, is that we give credence to Bruce’s doubts precisely because we trust him. He’s still the infallible detective, he’s just not done with the case yet. It leaves the issue in an interesting place, challenging us to question our own assumptions about Batman, even as it seemingly reinforces them.

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

3 comments on “Bruce Wayne Confronts His Assumptions (and Our Own) in Batman 52

  1. I think an important part of understanding this storyline is remembering the context surrounding it. It comes IMMEDIATELY after Bruce was left at the alter by Catwoman. I’ve been reading Batman’s actions with Freeze as similar to his actions when Jason Todd died — reckless behavior driven by grief and loss. Except Bruce came to his sense much sooner and realized what he’d done. I get the impression that he legitimately thought Freeze was guilty, essentially beat a confession out of him, then realized he was wrong, too lost in his grief to consider the possibility that he was fallible until now.

    Which is why he joins the jury. It’s the only way to ensure that Batman is held accountable, that Freeze receives justice, because nobody else is willing to point out his own flaws or give Freeze the benefit of the doubt. Bruce convincing the jury of Freeze’s innocence is Batman owning up to his own mistakes and grief.

    • I mean, that’s not entirely how juries work, right? Unless he was relying on Gotham being so corrupt that he could buy his way onto a jury, this was random chance. And if he was committed to the notion of criminal justice, he could have assisted in Freeze’s defense (perhaps hiring the best lawyers money can buy). Hoping to singlehandedly win over the jury by more or less making up a new defense for Freeze seems both coincidental, reckless, and antithetical to the notion of a trial by jury. Batman should be clearing Freeze’s name by catching the guy who actually did it.

    • The fact that this takes place immediately after Batman 50 is a big reason why, once again, King has completely screwed up the dramatic narrative and has given another nonfucntioning narrative for his Batman run, like all the rest…

      Riffing on Lonely Place of Dying is the correct choice to follow Batman 50. And a court case is an interesting thing to put in the Tim Drake role. But there is a reason that Lonely Place of Dying doesn’t start with Tim settling into his role as Robin. It begins with a far too brutal Batman. The present is the problem. Something so bad that Tim has to go on a quest that ends up with him as Robin.

      King just skips that, starting the story with Bruce having realised the problem and addressing it. Which means… there is no brutal Batman. Not in a real way. He exists as a purely theoretical figure. A present that never was. In issue 50, Selina leaves him. In issue 51, Bruce deals with his rage issues. There is no 50.5 where there is an actual problem Batman. King has written a payoff to a story that didn’t happen. The flashbacks don’t count as they flashback to a Batman that never existed. If the true Batman is one that is in the present, if the true Batman is the arc made of the sum of presents from every previous issue, there is no present for the flashbacks to fit into because there is no issue that exists that has a present that fits this.

      To put it more simply, there is a reason you start the story at the inciting incident, not at the climax. King has started his story at the climax, and therefore has a vapid, empty story because all the build up is existing. All the character development that is supposed to lead him to this point. Again, compare to Lonely Day of Dying. Where we follow the emotional arc of Bruce as we see the problem and see the characters work to resolve it, instead of beginning the story with Bruce saying there was a problem but it is solved now.
      There really needed to be an arc in between 50 and this for this to have any chance of working.

      Though, of course, if there was, Bane still would have screwed this up. Let’s look at the story merely through actions. Not what people say but what they do. Because action is the essence of storytelling. Character is action. Because, as the line goes, “Its not who you are, but what you do that defines you”.
      And what, in truth, is the big dramatic mistake in this story? What is the true flaw in the Mr Freeze story that needs to be corrected? Batman got tricked. Got manipulated. The fundamental injustice is that Mr Freeze is innocent. And considering that Bane has been manipulating literally every event in this run without being noticed, including, in every probability, Mr Freeze’s framing. And that a key part of King’s Batman is that he isn’t smart enough/aware enough to deal with these manipulations (this isn’t a good thing or a bad thing. I’m not saying Batman should be able to see through Bane’s plans or anything. I’m just identifying the drama). The dramatic problem of this story is Bruce’s susceptibility to Bane’s manipulations. Not with rage or his brutality. According to the narrative chain of events, his actions aren’t at fault. His mistake is getting played. Even worse, this isn’t even a new character flaw that existed in the fallout of Batman 50, because Bruce has apparently been played by Bane since issue 1. Bane’s presence in the narrative screws any attempt of making any attempt at confronting assumptions laughable because Bane’s presence makes clear that the real problem is Bane is manipulating him. Everything is fundamentally hollow because Batman’s true problem is the fact that Bane is playing him like a harp from hell.

      And, because it wouldn’t be an issue of Tom King’s Batman if it all didn’t add up to something truly toxic and ugly instead of just incompetent, if the problem faced here is that Freeze is innocent, then this story fundamentally has the view that Batman being brutal is only a problem against innocent people. Again, there is nothing wrong with brutalising the bad guy to get him in jail. The problem was that Batman directed that brutality on someone who didn’t deserve it. Which means that there are people who deserve it. There’s the Rebirth spirit we know so well. Some people deserve to be brutalised. Police brutality is fine. Insert Trump speech where he tellsthe police to commit police brutality here.

      There is a reason that Lonely Place of Dying focused and real bad guys. Bad guys who were guilty. Bad guys that needed to be brought to justice. Because the whole point of Lonely Place of Dying is that bad guys deserve justice, while brutality is not justice.

      Here, the ‘wrong’ kind of people don’t deserve justice. THe ‘wrong’ kind of people deserve brutality. That don’t get to have what everyone else does.

      The fact that the villain is Mister Freeze, a character associated with ice and snow and, most importantly, the colour white, is now setting a very disturbing, if accidental, semiotic message

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