Past and Present Trauma Collapse into One in Batman 54

by Patrick Ehlers

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

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More than any other medium, comics have a rigidly prescriptive relationship with scenic transitions. Settings change on a page turn. Not every turn of the page will give the reader a new scene, but every new scene requires a new page. There are exceptions, of course. Creators can cut away to a quick one- or two-panel scene to provide context to a page. It’s also pretty common to run two scenes simultaneously on alternating panels on a page, like in Watchmen. But even in these cases, the scene or scenes at play are allowed to end at a page turn. With Batman 54, writer Tom King and artist Matt Wagner toss that conventional wisdom out the window, transitioning into and out of extended flashbacks part-way through the page. The result is a conflation of past with present, and of suffering with healing.

The structure of the issue is actually very tidy: a flashback to Dick dealing with the death of his parents segues into Dick helping Bruce through his current trauma; repeat. The transition between past and present always happens within a page and always hinges on Dick Grayson’s face.

Wagner morphs Dick’s scowls into carefree smiles. The emotional dynamic between Bruce and Dick obviously shifts from the past to the present, but Wagner focuses on Dick’s emotional journey, rather than Bruce’s. What this assures is that every single scenic transition is driven by emotion, rather than by formal best-practices.

King further cements the transitions in rhetorically interesting ways — in the first example above, present-Dick appears to be responding to past-Bruce, and in the second example, Dick’s language pivots from “toy” to “game”, staying firmly in the realm of playful. And that playfulness is an important part of this issue’s calculus. There is no life-or-death obstacle to overcome in this issue, and even the villains that King and Wagner toss our heroes’ way are more joke than threat. Condiment King? Quilt Man?

These are day-to-day tasks for Batman, not dramatic enough to fully distract him from his own feelings, but also not harmless enough to totally ignore. That ends up being the perfect setting for emotional healing, which is not the result of any singular revelatory moment. Real healing is incremental, habitual, and wholly non-dramatic. The final page brings both the collapsing of time and the unremarkable nature of emotional healing to bear at the same time.

Lessons from both Bruce’s childhood and Dick’s childhood merge together to teach the same lesson — again — to adult-Bruce. The moment only means something because it means something to these characters.

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