As conservative interests look set to capture its Supreme Court, cities convulse in class and racial conflict and the skies burn along the west coast, the American horizon has never looked darker. Should we Seek an American hero to save US? According to Tom King’s recent tale on the the ever-popular Batman, probably best if we didn’t.
At the climax of Tom King’s Batman: The Rebirth, the politicians, public servants and people of the fictional Gotham city suffer in the vice-grip of the steroid-pumped supervillain Bane. In his looking-glass autocracy ordinary cops are replaced with lobotomised versions of the costumed supervillains familiar to the Batman stories – The Joker, the Mad Hatter, Riddler, Two-Face and Killer Croc among them. These ‘police’ enact the same lethal justice against speeding motorists, dog walkers and shoplifters. Murderers stalk hospitals and arsonists ride fire trucks. And yet, despite its overt cruelty and twisted nature, the control Bane’s regime exerts over a designated ‘problem city’ means both national governments and public opinion embrace Bane’s ‘solution’.
Superheroes are an inherently absurd premise, but as with the clean inked lines and bold colours of the comics page, absurdity is an excellent clarifier of incident, of character and ideas. Pick up a Batman from the 50s, and then one from the 80s and it will not take you long to make many useful inferences as to the then state of the Union (not to mention the comics medium itself) and by extension, of the readers themselves. To deploy a greatly overused aphorism from Walter Benjamin – ‘There is no document of culture which is not at the same time a document of barbarism’. Perhaps this is even more the case when that document – the comic book – is itself seen as rather barbarous.
In harnessing this self-identification between reader and story the superhero comic functions in a fashion similar to, but not synonymous with Benjamin’s utilitarian definition of kitsch. We use it to escape, but also, crucially, as a different mode of looking. We look into art, try to decode it, whereas kitsch is a display, a plumage that also offers a vantage point, mask slits through which we can peer out at the world. The emotionally charged stories and instantly identifiable iconography of comics conforms to the defining criteria offered in Tomas Kulka’s Kitsch and Art; but just as Kulka ‘rescues’ certain items of modern and contemporary art from the kitsch corner, a comic such as Batman: The Rebirth sits uncomfortably with paintings of dogs playing pool or the dux porcelain shepherdesses manufactured in Kulka’s native Bohemia. For one, Kulka insists that the consumer of kitsch has no interest in its formal or technical features. This is a poor description of even the most escapist of comic readers.
Born from the anxieties of the Great Depression and the first rumblings of world war, the masked Batman swoops and grapples through decades of American urban malaise and socio-economic breakdown. His colourful opponents represented the barbarisms that thrived in the canyons of New York or Chicago, or festered in the suburbs of LA. In the heightened atmosphere of fictional Gotham prohibition, war, gender inequality, prejudice and political corruption – every ill the system struggled to correct – gave birth to the likes of Joker, Catwoman, Two-Face. As with the Batman himself, the ‘rogues’ proved to be highly flexible proxies – or to be more accurate, ‘masks’ – that have shouldered endless reinterpretation.
All of these characters are present in the City of Bane ‘arc’ (the ‘chapters’ of a given creative team’s ‘run’ on a comics title) and we could be forgiven if we were to see the story as a clever if somewhat tasteless cartooning of the horrors of Minnesota, Portland, New York and Kenosha. Except ‘City of Bane’ first appeared in late 2019, Batman issues 75-85. So if this does speak to our current barbarism it is as prophesy, not parody. And is it not likely that more contemporary Americans know of the exact circumstances behind the shooting of Thomas and Martha Wayne, parents to Batman/Bruce Wayne than they do of Breonna Taylor or Joseph Blake? Re-enacted countless times over the course of some 80 years, their killing is integral to Batman’s ‘origin story’, an act that makes his world ‘sensible’. The deceased Waynes were also wealthy, they were also white, and as the central trauma that motivates Batman, their deaths were necessary.
And to say ‘countless’ is not much of an exaggeration. Adapted into almost every possible medium since his creation in 1939, Batman currently anchors the DC comics line. Since 1940 Batman headlines at least two best-selling comic books; Detective Comics and the eponymous Batman. Every month brings at least two new Batman stories, but in truth many more once we count the special issues, bi-monthly runs and ‘crossovers’ with other superheroes, most typically Superman or Wonder-Woman. With over 18,000 stories (many more if we include cameos) published thus far, is it any wonder Thomas and Martha Wayne are for the ages? How could actual victims of gun crime – especially those killed by visored, armoured police, the masked ‘good guys’ –possibly compete?
Superhero comics have been compared to a contemporary mythology (Grant Morrison in his Supergods, for example, an attempt to turn superheroes into a guiding philosophy) or folklore, as power fantasies or, for Marxist critic Ariel Dorfman, outright Imperialist propaganda. They are indeed all of these things, but as Morrison noted, the comics page can be turned forwards and backwards, be curled in on itself and even at the level of the single page, offers a number of possibilities in how we choose to read it. We can uphold the narrative or subvert it. It can be simultaneously there and not there.
In form, content and the sheer messiness of his/her antecedents, the superhero is nothing if not a mass of contradictions, the lawbreaker who is willing to bodily defend the system that would break him or her were they to ever be exposed. Robin Hood, another blueblood who gets down and dirty with the common folk is a fictional trope that can effortlessly move from popular balladry to literature to film, theatre and television. Similarly, there seems to be no end of reinterpretation possible with Batman, who proves as compelling when placed in a computer game as he is in a film, a TV series, or the original comics. And note how easily he interlopes between genres, as noir, science fiction, western, thriller, conspiracy, detective fiction and horror prove to be equally at home in Gotham’s filthy streets.
Equally important however, is a dimension that successful superheroes such as Batman, Superman (DC Comics) or Marvel’s Spider-Man share and Robin Hood, does not: Robin Hood is public domain, whereas they are public equity. The endlessness of the superhero story lies partly in demand, but above all market need. Reprints and ‘trade paperbacks’ rake in the cash quite nicely but the bottom line says these stories must never stop. It is capitalist logic at its purest; the stock we put into consuming the comics page determines how stocks rise and fall behind it.
So if the superhero is folklore, then it is folklore industrialised, floated and incorporated, a truth directly parodied by Grant Morrison in 2010’s Batman Incorporated, in which Bruce Wayne turns his vigilante persona into a global crime-fighting franchise. Writing for either the Batman or Detective Comics title is thus to take control of a sizeable machine, stewardship of which confers both great prestige and pressure. Already experienced in producing work for DC, when King took on the relaunched Batman in the summer of 2016, he promised – and largely delivered – a cerebral, highly deconstructive take on the character. The strong critical and fan response to previous works such as The Omega Men (2016), Grayson (2014), Vision (2015, for Marvel) and the non-superhero story Sheriff of Babylon (2015) boded well. And yet, Batman: Rebirth proved to be one of the more controversial runs in the whole of Batman’s 80 years.
As King has noted in interview, to write Batman is to finesse decades worth of storyline, character and lore (which many fans will know as well as he) within the many external editorial constraints entailed in such an established ‘property’. Comics are carnival. Its stock characters are there to be worn, interpreted- they are, to quote Mikhail Bakhtin, the ‘generic mask that […] serve to define the position through which [the author] views life, as well as the position from which he makes that view public.’ But there are rules and limits. Like Robin Hood, there is an essential Batman blueprint from which the creator must not deviate: Batman wears his disguise to frighten criminals, who are a ‘cowardly, superstitious lot’. Batman is always an orphan, Batman possess no superpowers beyond his finely-honed skills, Batman wars against crime but Batman does not use guns and Batman does not kill. And Batman broods; he is a loner, cut off by the primacy of his vow and the purity of his trauma from love or happiness.
But King treats this as contemporary fiction of the highest importance. His dialogue, like his plotting, is spare and elliptical, often gnomic, constructed of callbacks and symmetries that satisfy formally, if not always narratively. And comics such as Batman are themselves, historical commentaries. The 80-year old characters, decades of plot lines and complex legacies left by the creative teams that went before form the essential contours of narrative potential. Gotham itself , the totally imagined city pitched between dystopia and dream, is an accumulation of such histories and even memorialises former writers and artists by melting them into its ever shifting topographies- Sprang Avenue, Port Adams, Robinson park and Kane County, the administrative district where it can(not) be found.
As with more conventional histories, the writer-cum historian varies in scope from quotidian adherence to ‘continuity’ to more sophisticated, deconstructive takes on the medium itself. The inherent historicism of comics can thus be very literal, as in the endless recursion of the Wayne shootings or the re-interpretation by multiple creative teams of the first Batman story ‘The Case of the Chemical Syndicate’. Similarly, King culls from famous scenes and moments throughout the last 80 years, in particular Frank Miller’s Batman: Year One and Kane and Finger’s debut of Catwoman and reworks, to then rework and re-present them.
King revels in the stylistic excess guiding such a huge creative machine offers, marshalling the fearsome list of visual artists in closer than usual concord with his scripts. Multiple artists on a title is a given of major comics characters – to list all the names who have worked on Batman since 1939 alone would fill pages. The rigours of comics production mean issues are often drawn alternately by different pencillers/inkers. This disruption can enrich the narrative with its dissonance or just as often hamstring it (as it with the latter half of Ed Brubaker’s tenure on Catwoman (2002-8). As a result, even relatively short-lived DC or marvel characters accrue a rich art history all of their own.
But in Batman: Rebirth King attempts to compress said literary and visual histories and weaponise them within the narrative itself. The dissonance between Gerads and Janin, Jones and Weeks activates – even alienates – the reader through an aspect they are nevertheless, wholly familiar with. Whatever readers have thought of King – and his ‘run’ is controversial – his story is supported by artwork is of the highest quality. Mikel Janin’s sculptural yet highly kinetic style forms its core visual architecture, and the story begins and ends with his panels. On our journey between these two points Janin’s clean forensic line jars fruitfully with the scraped and bleeding marks and eloquent colours of Mitch Gerads, or the sinuous, art-nouveau tinged layouts of Joelle Jones. Add to this the Todd Haynes palette and almost excessive elegance of Clay Mann, the heightened graphics of Jorge Fornes and consistently superb colour work by June Ching and Jordie Belaire (to name but a fraction of the hands at work here), the whole coalesces into an aesthetic display every bit as opulent as Wayne manor. Industrial expediency (a 4-year programme of work such as this, released bi-weekly needs many hands) becomes hybrid vigour.
From the very first issue it is evident that King’s Batman is caught in a cycle from which he secretly wishes to escape. No matter how good his military grade equipment, how bottomless his financial resources, the crime persists and his colourful opponents treat jail as a dormitory. Not even two new superheroes (‘Gotham’ and ‘Gotham Girl’) can break the cycle. In issue 15 of the series, during the ‘I am Suicide’ arc, the character basically admits his activities as a masked vigilante to be a long, slow, grinding act of suicide, born out of his inability to recover from the death of his parents.
This confession is to Catwoman, Batman’s on-again-off-again-off-again-rinse-and-repeat-for-the-next-80-years love interest, and will lead the story to question whether Batman could embrace those aspects of life that ameliorate our traumas – loving relationships, usually stoically rejected by the character. And it is here, in his choice of genre, that King proved most transgressive and intriguing. His story will not be a noirish crime thriller as with Loeb’s The Long Halloween, a bitter political satire in the mode of Dark Knight Returns or the sci-fi horror of immediate predecessor Scott Snyder. It will be a romance.
Intermission: Carnival in an imagined city
‘Ever since you arrived, Gotham has been on fire. This is America. We don’t stand idly by while our cities burn.’(Batman: The Rebirth Issue 1)
A rich man cloaked in blacks and greys darts through the streets of his city, its name is a byword for theft and corruption. His face obscured by a terrifying mask, his cloak swooshes over flagstones, his trajectory definite, assured. Every alley, square, sharp corner is known to him – some are named for his family, whose wealth built so much of it. In daylight hours this wealth gives him considerable power, but masked here in twilight, he adds to it the benefit of licence. It gives him freedom to disrupt, to altercate up and down the social hierarchy – even to altercate with villeins. Later, after a long night on the town he may retreat into some secluded spot to fraternise with various women, masked just like he is, none of them his wife. A kiss might be stolen, but ultimately he stalks homewards alone. At this time, just before dawn breaks few people see him. But those who do, know they have glimpsed-
The virile, chin-snouted Bauta was the stock character traditionally favoured by the wealthier Venetian nobles during carnival. To dress as Bauta permitted the otherwise circumspect rulers of this maritime kleptocracy even further licence to transgress against social convention. The excess at the core of what Bakhtin called the ‘carnival sense of the world’, its bright masks and ritualised deception was funded by the city state’s rapacious modus operandi. In time, the raiments of Venetian carnival became those of circus and fairground, which in good time, became the raiments of superheroes such as Batman or Scott Free, the Mister Miracle of King’s acclaimed 2018 mini-series, who combines his vigilanteism with a career as a showbiz escapologist.
= Enter BOOTH, Stage Right =
In 1865, John Wilkes Booth, who styled himself as a ‘Knight of the Golden Circle’ crept into a theatre box, shot Abraham Lincoln above the left ear, stabbed an army officer, then attempted to leap to the stage. His bright and shiny spurs tangled in the curtains and he botched the landing, breaking his ankle. Limping, he brandished his bloodied knife and gasped ‘sic temper tyrannis’. This one liner became common folklore, as coded into the popular imagination as Washington’s axe strokes. Less clear is what the actor said next; ‘the south is avenged’, ‘revenge for the south’, ‘the south shall be free’ are all posited.
In 1865, the superhero was yet to be invented – or, if we prefer – escape the assassin’s imagination. But there is no question that Booth would see himself in the ‘Dark Knight’, or any of his antecedents. He was after all, the loyal southerner taking action in the heart of enemy territory.
= Enter ADAM STRANGE, Stage Right =
In Strange Adventures #1 (2020), Adam Strange sits with his wife on the steps of the Lincoln Monument. He enters a reverie over his past accomplishments, and idly uses his fingers as a ray gun. The angle of the scene makes it look, momentarily, as if he is firing into Lincoln’s left temple.
We never meet, hear and barely see ‘Chris Campbell’, an American footballer who plays for the fictional ‘Gotham Knights’, yet his disembodied presence suffuses the entire plot of Batman: The Rebirth. Mentioned only in conversation or through overheard televisions and radios we piece together his story as a player of great promise who perpetually seems to lose his resolve at the crucial moment- always, as the carnival barker said to the ages ‘close, but no cigar’. He is a failure who exasperates everyone who follows him. He even fails to achieve the status of minor character, being mere ambience, a running joke at best.
And yet, joke though he is, Campbell nevertheless, persists; there/not there in the story’s early chapters, and there/not there at its very last page.
Seasoned readers of Batman know full well that the ‘Gotham Knights’ refers to Dark Knight, which is of course, a sobriquet often given to the titular character, the idea being to indicate the impact such a figure may have on the popular culture of his home city. The identification of Batman with serial failure – for is it not the case that despite decades of crusading, Gotham remains hopelessly crime ridden? – is an important clue to King’s view of the character and his path to redemption.
He must, like Chris Campbell, get his act together.
Superhero comics are action adventures where romantic love is rarely more than utilitarian to the plot; the term ‘fridging’ for when a female character is killed to give the protagonist his (almost always) motivation was after all, derived from comics writer Gail Simone’s observations on a murder featured in Green Lantern #54 (1994). Romance – where coupling is the ultimate goal, rather than a temporary condition of the protagonists – seems antithetical to the superhero. How does Batman save Gotham and remember to pick up baby milk? (answer – the Butler stops off at the shops..)
Such long-term relationships represent to a certain (teenaged) mind, the happily ever after that can only represent the cessation of the narrative (instead of where our trouble truly begin). That is, the death of adventure, what the pop-culture analyst Philip Sandifer terms ‘narrative collapse’ in which a diegetic development disrupts the core premises of a fictional work to the extent that no further stories are possible.
(Easily the most popular ‘arc’ of King’s run was his ‘Superfriends double hander, where Superman, Lois Lane, Batman and Catwoman swap costumes and go on a double date to the fair.)
Therefore the authors need to arrest the development of the situation – be it the characters, or the setting – just enough to ensure it will continue. They need to keep their characters jailed in Aristotle’s second act. But King comes to Batman with the express intention of having his principle characters escape it.
This is audacious, as Batman’s perpetual second act (replete with endless replays of his parents’ death) is better known and more visible than in any other comic‘ property. But then King is out to rescue Batman from his kitschy nature by encouraging richer, more complex associations in the reader‘s mind. He writes a superhero that can learn and grow, because such a figure might also prove able to contend with the murky legacies from which he/she developed. He may also by the by, be trying to destroy capitalism itself, or at least within very specific bounds, question the endlessness of resource and expansion it assumes.
Whatever the deep motive, the more overt radicalism in King’s ‘woke Batman’ did not escape the notice of certain sections of the Batman readership – especially those with alt-right or QAnon leaning. Even King’s past as a CIA Counter-terrorism officer counts against him here, the ‘deep state’ being the very monster that ‘draining the swamp’ will expose. And one could say that with Donald Trump elevated to ‘real superhero’ status by the true believers of QAnon, The King Batman could hardly compete. He felt, introspected, doubted and, unlike many past iterations, fell to pieces when his relationship with Catwoman hit the rocks. In the Cold Days arc his Bruce Wayne alter-ego even argues against Batman’s vigilante tactics while serving on a jury. His fellow jurors – and if we are honest, the readership – oppose him, grateful for Batman’s many years of illegal, unilateral intervention. But instead of a triumph, this moment is explicitly framed as a defeat.
King explicitly disagrees with his own readership. His disagreement stems from his own acute self-identification with the Batman character. When compared to The Sheriff of Babylon’s Chris Henry, Omega Men’s Kyle Rayner, Mr Miracle’s Scott Free or Strange Adventures’ Adam Strange, this Batman-mask has been reshaped into a very ‘Kingly’ protagonist, appropriated into his most persistent narrative pathology: the man of good intentions, finds himself depressed, doubtful, hopelessly out of their depth and overtaken by darkness. They try to find a way out. But no-body really leaves the Agency.
Suffice to say, the Kingly hero is somewhat Freudian in that their character is revealed through their response to the ‘treatment’ offered them – that is, how they react to the healing insights the real world – as relayed through their romantic relationships – offers them. Chris, the ‘sheriff’ protagonist in Sheriff of Babylon spends much of ‘his’ story waiting to become its heroic centre, only to find he is both Vladimir and Estragon (and none too Lucky). His climactic moment is to sit in a plastic chair outside a room somewhere in Baghdad’s Green zone, as people he does not know monitor an operation against the ‘insurgents’ they claim are the cause of all his problems. He comes to realise he is no active agent against ‘evil’, but at best, a bystander, at worst an enabler of the very worst aspects of America’s neo-colonial presence in the world.
King, as a once-participant in that presence, is a fearless, often discomfiting investigator of how we manufacture heroes from our bloodiest and murkiest episodes. Strange Adventures freely acknowledges the colonialism that pulses within superheroic chromosomes, it’s lead Adam Strange a parody of the Buck Rodgers-esque white saviour hero of early 20th century serial fiction. The creative team of King, Mitch Gerads and Evan ‘Doc’ Shaner explode the premise through the stylistic-excess approach played with in Rebirth. Alternating panel by panel, Gerads gives us the present day middle-age Strange in his signature blotchy, coloured over the lines ambiguity, while Shaner recalls the ‘heroic’ past in a suitably clean, reassuringly ‘Platonic’ line. As King said in a PR interview, the Shaner style is the comics aesthetic the ‘person on the street’ imagines when they close their eyes. He goes on;
Adam Strange is one of a long line of characters – like Tarzan and Flash Gordon, stolid men with dimpled chins who thrive in ‘foreign lands who thrive in ‘foreign lands’ – who stand in as a metaphor for a 19th century dream of colonialism. Of course colonialism was nothing like this dream, and it’s that contrast that interests me: the bloody gap between the myth and the reality.
Batman has at times, been this stolid man. The question for King’s jury is whether he can step over the bloody gap and be anything else. Late in the Rebirth story a comatose and drugged Batman finds himself spectating on his own actions and history with an eye that is less than kind. Batman’s nihilistic conclusion is that his vow leaves him unable to love and thus, there is no real hope of countering the twisted parody of civic America that now possesses Gotham. It comes to Catwoman/Selina Kyle, the orphan who did not have a butler, to school the stolid man with the dimple chin in the problems of his own narrative, pull his act together, and truly face what Gotham/America is.
The Superhero acts unilaterally. Their brand of justice is at root, free market, hard libertarian. With his gadgets, vehicles and cutting edge R and D, Batman is an especially American vigilante. And whether cloaked in cowboy chaps or spandex, the American vigilante is nothing if not volatile. They might join the neighbourhood watch or they may instigate a lynching. They might take to the internet as a ‘citizen detective’ who doggedly pursues a cold case or they might take a weapon to a Washington takeaway and demand access to their imaginary torture chamber. They might use leaf blowers to disperse tear gas in Portland or shoot three BLM protestors dead in Kenosha. Which narrative did Kyle Rittenhouse see himself within? To say for sure would exceed the available evidence, (we will leave that to Trump) but the deeper ferment of ideas and sentiment that makes the superhero so appealing are grammar and syntax to the same right wing propaganda that seeks to absolve Rittenhouse and other angry boys in MAGA hats. It is as present as Nietzsche and Heidegger Kristalnacht, carried in the tang of blood and whiffs of cordite. There/Not There.
And yet the chimeric nature of the superhero holds now, as it did in 1939, when Bob Kane and Bill Finger pitted their fledgling superhero against a corporate man killing his way into ownership of a chemicals conglomerate. And in the very last panel of ‘The Case of the Chemical Syndicate’, we discover that Batman is in fact feckless playboy Bruce Wayne. It is impossible to take in this first impression as anything but a punchline, the joke being that anyone of Wayne’s breeding and privilege would give a damn about crime on the streets. And yet he does.
This twist ending once drawn, became enshrined. To explain it, the Wayne parents were invented and slaughtered at the end of a Saturday night special, while the inheritance they left to 10-year old Bruce Wayne was something with which each of the successive creative teams contended. His motive, and then dedication needed to be strong enough to bear endless stories. Bruce Wayne the CEO of Wayne Industries, an amorphous company whose interests range from urban landscaping to military grade weapons was just another alter ego, cast and recast over the years by successive writers as a quasi-Randian ubermensch, a pseudo James Bond or (Franklin D.) Rooseveltian patrician-progressive. But whatever flesh was put on it, the premise of Bruce Wayne as Batman remains nevertheless a long-running joke in popular culture.
The notion of lost innocence lies at the heart of every single instalment of Batman, a trope King acknowledges as yet another gap between myth and reality, readily filled by a flegethon of problematic politics. Frank Miller’s Dark Knight Returns (1986) and Alan Moore’s Watchmen (1986) are the most famous dissections of the fascistic potential within the superhero, but these writers were hardly the first to notice. Their examples were also fatally misread, as the comics of the 90s lurched into a largely cosmetic seriousness that often retained the fascistic elements without the criticism. Cross-media transfusions such as the many screen adaptations often preserve this ‘glitch’; the faux, pasty-faced class consciousness of last year’s Joker, or the icy conservatism at the core of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy (2005-12, the final film being a Dunkirk of cops against a caricatured Occupy movement) might lead us to conclude that those fascist fanboys on Reddit and Twitter who nip at King’s heels are right. Batman really IS just for them.
And perhaps readers such as myself (and King) are simply enthralled to an enduring bad habit we desperately want to justify. I could argue that instead of wasting time with Philips and Nolan, you could watch instead the joyously silly 1960s Batman TV series or the superb Batman The Animated Series of the 1990s, both effortlessly counterculture and aimed of course, at children rather than over-entitled adults. I could – and hopefully have -pointed to the far richer veins of thought and counter-currents in the comics – as per the Grant Morrison page curl.
TBut whatever conclusions we may reach about Batman’s political DNA, we must consider a bloody gap that seems particularly egregious. Where, in the Tom King Batman, the Batman that runs concurrent with Donald Trump’s first term, is the 45th POTUS? The easy answer is that he is the star turn in the ongoing QAnon fantasy that dominates ‘real life’, ready at any moment, to swoop in and act against all those closet communists and paedophiles. But the Donald’s presence haunts Batman: The Rebirth. There/not there.
Charivari: Still masked in a Carnival City
…great novelistic images continue to grow even after the moment of their creation; they are capable of being creatively transformed in different eras, far distant from the day and hour of their original birth.(Mikhail Bakhtin, ‘Discourse in the Novel’, 1935)
Twitter provides many opportunities for unearned erudition of which we are all somewhat guilty of partaking; the tactical retweets of articles from New Scientist, New Yorker or Slate, or the musings of major thinkers or leader of opinion signal (we hope) a keen curatory eye and strong moral constitution. As common is the ‘hot take’ on some aspect of pop culture that purports to unveil flaws or shonky premises tantamount to an original sin. Very few of these are particularly original. With Batman it is that question that every 14 year old already asked and got over; why doesn’t blillionaire Bruce Wayne invest his resources in improving the city, instead of dressing up as an animal to accost the poor, desparate and mentally ill?
An armada of such hot takes set sail in the wake of the George Floyd protest and the trailer for the 2021 Batman film. The simple answer to them is that Gotham is a fictional city purpose-built as endemically horrific, so it can support an endless stream of stories where social horror is confronted. Fixing it is never truly an option. It would be bad business for it to get its act together.
Since the legendary tenure of Batman writer/editor Denny O’Neill in the 70s and 80s, the moral questions raised by Bruce Wayne’s masquerade have provided countless plot lines and a rolling dissensus – very much writer dependent – on what we can draw from it (and I do not mean just in styles of artwork). In, Sean Murphy’s recent White Knight (2017-18) Batman’s vast material resources are invested into the Police Department and Community Policing initiatives, giving the city Batmobiles, state of the art weapons and body armour. The fictional ‘GCPD’ becomes what the actual NYPD is today. This is framed in the story as a positive outcome, and has aged poorly.
Bruce Wayne has headed various fictional foundations, charities and private-public initiatives to rebuild his city (which is necessary, given the powerful psychotics who wreak havoc there every couple of weeks, which means that like Bauta, Batman is the author of his own suffering. True philanthropist that he is, Batman spends decades unilaterally decrying the very world that enriches him – and the almost entirely white, male succession of writers, King included, who frame these stories. And as the decades pass without any resolution, that famous garb comes to resemble armour over costume, as spandex gives way to kevlar. How else could a billionaire philanthropist survive an endless war, in the foreign lands of the contemporary American city, for so long a time?
The philosopher Rob Reich has noted of philanthropy and the disproportionate role it plays in American public life that its intentions are always secondary in impact to the systemic disruption it brings:
‘What a large foundation represents is the exercise of the power of a wealthy person to direct private assets for some public influence. It’s a plutocratic element in a democratic setting.’
Robert Caro, the great biographer of Robert Moses and Lyndon Johnson observes that power does not corrupt so much as reveal. And in the power of the philanthropist, and the consistent hold over the imagination he and the superhero exercises, the revelation is of abject failure. American plutocracy masks itself in heroic garb but subverts everything it claims to defend. The superhero/philanthropist does not in truth, fly between American skyscrapers. He floats on the international markets for his own gain. He is in truth, the villain of the piece.
= Enter BATMAN, Stage Right =
Roosevelt (Teddy) once acidly remarked of Rockefeller that ‘No amount of charities in spending such fortunes can compensate in any way for the misconduct in acquiring them.” King’s depiction of the philanthropist superhero keeps this very much in mind. It is there/not there in the figure of Thomas Wayne (resurrected from a parallel universe and displeased over his son’s life choices). Appearing as a murderous version of the Batman, Thomas Wayne is an unrepentant man of privilege who expects reality to bend to his needs, and who kills when it will not. Interestingly, Thomas Wayne’s means of subverting the city is through the supervillain Psycho Pirate, who uses a mask to exert control over its more powerful occupants. This is again, silly, but… the casting of Wayne’s father as ultimate antagonist also puts Batman’s social status firmly in the reader’s attention in a way seldom seen since 1939. King recovers the original class warfare at the character’s heart, and he plays it out, interestingly enough, through romantic love.
= Enter CATWOMAN, Stage Left =
Whenever Selina Kyle (Catwoman) backflips into a Batman story, she sends sends the poor chump into a right state. Sex or it’s promise will do that to any story, but it is the challenge to his founding mission that is truly confounds Batman. Because Catwoman reminds us that not all orphans are created equal. When Bruce loses his innocence in a single, explosive act, he returns with his Butler to an empty mansion and unlimited cash flow. Cloaked like Queen Vic in perpetual grief, he spends every night attempting to commit suicide through seeking out the most violent and dangerous criminal elements and fighting them.
Catwoman, the criminal element turned anti-hero turned love interest turned fiancé, turned ex-fiancé turned common law wife (as of the time of writing) is a working-class child orphaned through a slow, gradual grind of violence and neglect. Her innocence asphyxiates beneath an abusive, alcoholic father, suicidal mother, decrepit orphanages (formerly supported by the Wayne Foundation) and shambolic social services. As a teenager she runs alone to the streets and learns to steal, initially to fend off a world that is out to kill her, but ultimately, because it is the perfect vocation for life on a hot tin roof.
Inevitably, Cat and the Bat meet, fight and chase. As the only criminal who is not superstitious, cowardly or remotely afraid of him (and who he is of course, fatally attracted to) she disrupts, confounds and complicates the purity of the mission. This is in part due to Catwoman’s unique diegetic ability to flow in and out of antithetical physical, conceptual social and psychological spaces -the Batcave and the Bank vault, the hero and the villain, the victim and the perpetrator, the enemy and the lover. As with the ‘rogue’ stock character Bakhtin finds in European folk tradition, she has the right to be ‘other’, to see the underside or falseness in everything- and through this, make spaces of her own. It mirrors the licence Batman takes for himself, except that unlike her romantic foil, Selina Kyle rose from the Gotham streets and in her ‘something from nothing’ trajectory her success is paradoxically, much closer to how America would like to see itself than the alleged hero.
Constitutionally, Catwoman serves as proof that innocence is the ultimate privilege. She might respect that Batman fights to preserve it on the behalf of others, but King’s version of Selina Kyle questions whether we should uphold innocence at all. Because even if innocence does exist, it is costly. How many Americans have claimed, in the year two thousand and twenty, to be ‘innocent’ to the issues raised by Black Lives Matter? How many on September 12th 2001 were bewildered as to the causes of the previous day’s events – the very catalyst that led to Tom King joining the CIA? How many continue to make levels of ‘innocence’ a factor in whether a policeman can legitimately press a knee to your throat and choke you?
Even if we can take meaning and insight from such well-crafted industrial folklores as Batman: The Rebirth, it must be acknowledged that this is also carnival. It is masquerade, mummery and performance, a temporary, bounded disruption of business as usual. (This is after all, the medium that cartooned Depression era America into good and evil in the first place.) We might – as noted in Zachary J.A Rondinelli’s excellent essay on the ‘Knightmares’ arc – have spent some time as ‘witnesses to the complex formal communicative power that comics possess’- but will be given little time to pursue that meaning. As Bakhtin noted ‘carnival […] crowns and un crowns, inverts ranks, exchanges roles…’ but is not itself, revolution or even true resolution. Nevertheless, King’s memorable run makes a strong, heartfelt case for the continued value of comics such as Batman, with all its Bakhtinian dialogic potential, but only if we can treat is as more than a habit we have to excuse.
= Exeunt KING, Stage Right =
But without the capactiy to change the system he works within, King was indeed un crowned at Batman issue 85 rather than the planned #100. It remains unclear whether it was his attempt to resolve the second act, move onto the third (and perhaps even ditch Aristotle altogether?) that caused his Batman run to be ended prematurely. What is clear is that a fecund period of experiment and exploration in this corner of mainstream comics is firmly at an end, as King’s innovations to the Batman continuum are being hastily dismantled. Taking over in issue 86, James Tynion IV’s storyline emphasises action set pieces, 90s style ‘grimdark’ and all but erases the romantic elements of the previous storyline. His far more standard treatment has efficiently pulled Batman back into second act mode – in a fashion very similar to the appropriation of Alan Moore’s detournement of superhero tropes by his corporate employers (and scores of lesser talents) following Watchmen. Here though, there is a greater sense of instrumentalism, as the editors play deliberately to those readers unnerved by King’s experiments. I’m response, they give us an echo-chambered Batman that plays to the perceived core base over the more diverse and reflective readership King explicitly reached out to.
And here our missing POTUS pops his bleached and tanned head into view – because as we hurtle towards a terrifying American election, is there anything more Trumpian?
Campbell once again fumbles the play, all the way out of the narrative. Not There. And thank goodness, say us readers. Because how can the plutocrats play dress up if there is progress in Gotham?
A rich man crosses the floor of his private chambers. He unfolds various garments and pulls them on, dressing, piece by piece, for carnival. With each item the man of note obscures himself – sheds his plumage and takes on another.The final garment is a long black – or is it dark blue? – cloak which he wraps around himself, changing his shape and form. He lowers a grotesque, distorted visage over his face and together with his pronged headgear, his profile is unmistakable. Leaving his manor by a secret door, he steals into the city – his city, cloak billowing behind him. So he glides, suspending all law as he masquerades tragedies with other costumed revellers who play the part of sidekicks, villains and victims. But whether acting out tragedy or farce, the story always arcs around himself. He is indulged in every play, by other personae – a demented harlequin, a short, beaked, bird-like fat man and a woman in a sleek, black domino mask. For he defines this city, it’s mystique, it’s power, it’s wealth. And he defines them. For he is-
Batman: The Rebirth Vols. 1-7, by Tom King with (main artists) Tony S. Daniel, David Finch, Mitch Gerads, Mikel Janin, Joelle Jones, Clay Mann, Ivan Reis, Riley Rossmo, Lee Weeks, (Colorists) Jordie Bellaire, Elizabeth Breitweisser and June Chung (letterers) Deron Bennett Clayton Cowles and John Workman. D.C. Comics, 2016-19. 2,580 pages.