Comics Ate My Brain

September 29, 2004

New Comics 9/29/04

Pretty good week this week.

Green Lantern #181 (of 181): Written by Ron Marz, pencilled by Luke Ross, inked by Rodney Ramos. All things considered, it could have been worse. Marz gives his creation a decent way to exit center stage. There’s a little bit of suspense involving whether Kyle would actually give up the power ring; Major Force reveals himself to be unkillable; and Kyle gets some good news about his mother.

Batman #632: “War Games” Act 2, Part 8. Written by Bill Willingham, pencilled by Kinsun, inked by Aaron Sowd. Batman fights Zeiss as Black Mask continues to plot. Turns out Orpheus had some weird super-spraying machine thing ready to go. The macro-plot has gotten more intriguing, but the execution in this issue is a bit flat. Kinsun looks like Paul Gulacy Lite, and Willingham actually has Batman tell Oracle to “grow up.” Nice. At least he treats Alfred well.

Superman/Batman #12: Written by Jeph Loeb, pencilled by Michael Turner, inked by Peter Steigerwald. The penultimate part of the Supergirl story wraps things up on Apokolips, but ach! that dueling narration! Painful to read. As for the art, in the movie Kara will apparently be played by Calista Flockhart. The super-cousins fight each other, Batman stares down Darkseid, there are teary farewells on Themyscira and in Kansas, and while this is the book of Big Widescreen Events, I can’t decide if they’re presented with too much fanfare or just too matter-of-factly. Needless to say, the narration doesn’t help.

JLA #106: Written by Chuck Austen, drawn by Ron Garney. Thank goodness this issue didn’t involve Batman dealing with his inner failures. He actually gets some funny bits here, mostly interacting with the other children of the dad with super-powers who got killed ‘way back in #101. To his credit, Austen ties the other issues together with this one, and the ending isn’t entirely happy — but I’m still excited about Kurt Busiek bringing the Crime Syndicate back next month.

Superman #209: Written by Brian Azzarello, pencilled by Jim Lee, inked by Scott Williams. Superman fights four elemental creatures, apparently sent by Aquaman (…huh?), including one which forms itself out of Mount Rushmore and makes me nostalgic for that old Justice League of America with “The Fiend With Five Faces!” (Either that or the “Dexter’s Laboratory” where Dexter uses a George Washington giant robot to stop an Abe Lincoln giant robot. But I digress.) It’s a well-done issue, and Superman defeats the giant elementals in a clever way. Next up, Wonder Woman.

Wonder Woman #208: Written by Greg Rucka, pencilled by Drew Johnson, inked by Ray Snyder.

(No, I meant next month in Superman…. Oh, forget it.)

An all-around winner of an issue, as Diana, Artemis, and Phillipus attend a state dinner at the White House. (FYI, the President is now somebody named Horne.) Veronica Cale arranges for Medousa and her pop-culture-loving assistants to be there too. Rucka gives us an excellent blend of politics, mythology, and monster-fightin’, not to mention the return of an old friend. The book’s been very good under his guidance; I hope this means it’s going to be great.

Adam Strange #1 (of 8): Written by Andy Diggle, drawn by Pascal Ferry. So, Adam’s in Gotham City collecting his things to move to Rann permanently, but then Superman shows up to tell him Rann’s gone, and then he gets arrested, and then some big aliens show up to kill him, but he fights ’em off, and to be continued. I’m there for #2, all the way, baby!

DC: The New Frontier #6 (of 6): Written and drawn by Darwyn Cooke. The Best Wife Ever looked at this and said “What’s that? Looks kind of ’60s.” I explained it was a period piece about the Justice League in the early ’60s. I’m glad I didn’t weep openly at the end of the issue like I wanted to, because that would have taken even longer to explain. It almost goes without saying that I loved this series. Cooke’s art is cartoony, but it reminds us that superhero comics are aimed at the “kid inside.” He also uses patriotic speeches a lot more effectively than Jeph Loeb. My only quibble is that there wasn’t enough Batman in this one.

Bat Attitude

Filed under: batman — Tom Bondurant @ 11:23 pm
Dave has offered a few good suggestions on scaling back the Batman line in order to eliminate mega-crossovers like the current “War Games.” However, the more I think about it, the more it seems like the mega-crossovers are just a symptom. Larger changes are needed to the Bat-line, starting with the approach to the character himself.

For almost the past 20 years, the conventional wisdom has held that Batman was the “real person” and Bruce Wayne the “mask.” In other words, the foppish “Bruce Wayne” persona was a creation of Batman, much like the nerdy “Clark Kent” attempted to cast suspicion away from him being Superman.

However, I’m not sure that this holds up under scrutiny. We are told that Bruce Wayne’s childhood trauma forever altered his personality, causing him to become grim and driven, and compelling him to embark on a lifelong crusade to fight crime. This new direction later found its ultimate expression as The Batman.

Still, it appears indisputable that Bruce himself created the Batman. Bruce is consistently portrayed as merely inspired by the bats, with their influence going no further. (Certainly he’s not “summoned” by them or otherwise bound to them in any quasi-mystical way.) Simply put, Bruce wants his adventuring persona to be scary, and bats are scary; therefore, Bruce becomes a bat-man.

“The Batman” therefore allows Bruce to express his revenge on the mysterious forces which took his parents. It assumes the worst about the criminal element (“a superstitious, cowardly lot”) and looks to do to crooks what the crooks did to him as a child. Such an attitude is very much a kid’s answer to a problem. It is not a solution — and Bruce should realize that he can do an equal amount of good through the Wayne companies. Accordingly, the Batman persona must only be one tool in Bruce’s crimefighting arsenal.

Speaking of tools, it’s never really explored in the comics, but the Bat-Signal and the unique, stylized looks of the Bat-equipment all form a sort of “brand identification.” Taken as a whole, this “brand” reinforces the sense that Batman is a police force unto himself, equally important to Gotham society. It is, in effect, another element of Batman’s psychological warfare. Since Bruce is a businessman, there’s a darkly funny juxtaposition — he basically “markets” the Batman to the Gotham underworld, so that it cannot help but be aware of his presence.

To me, such calculation argues against the vengeful Batman being in control of Bruce. The chronicles instead point to Bruce having used his talents, skills, and education to make “Batman” a scary, separate persona. This is not to say that Bruce can’t also adopt the public guise of a foppish, shallow playboy. Obviously, to the extent that Playboy Bruce is a cover for Batman, Batman is “more real.” Nevertheless, because “Batman” was conceived after Bruce vowed to fight evil, it is hard to see how “Batman” was always there. Indeed, Batman is almost an elaborate joke, or prank, which Bruce plays on criminals. (“Playboy Bruce” is a similar act for the benefit of daylight society.) Assuming that Bruce is in on this particular joke, he would have to be pretty far gone to let the joke consume him.

Mark Waid examined Bruce/Batman’s duality in a JLA arc, “Divided We Fall,” where the Leaguers were literally split into their “civilian” and heroic selves. When confronted with violence, the separated Bruce Wayne boiled with rage, but had no way to channel it or defend himself. The separated Batman was practically an automaton, possessing fantastic skills but featureless and lacking any kind of drive. While Waid acknowledged that Bruce needed Batman as a sort of therapeutic outlet, he still ascribed the emotional components of Batman’s crusade to Bruce. Thus, Bruce was the “real person” and Batman the fiction. If it were the other way around, as the Bat-books argue, then Batman would have held all the critical cards, and Bruce would have been an ineffectual wimp, helpless without Batman’s anger.

Unfortunately, the current Bat-books have continued to present Batman as a rude, distant figure, awash in personal demons, who alienates his colleagues as much as he helps them. Ironically, this was also reinforced by a Mark Waid JLA arc — “Tower of Babel,” which preceded “Divided.” In “Babel,” the notion that “Batman always has a plan” led to Waid’s supposition that Batman would develop protocols for disabling each of his League teammates. Batman’s needs for secrecy and self-reliance naturally prohibited him from sharing even the existence of these plans with them, and the League kicked him out when they learned the truth.

“Batman Can Only Rely Upon Himself” didn’t originate with “Tower of Babel.” It stretches at least as far back as 1993’s “Knightfall,” in which the manipulative Bane ran our hero ragged to weaken him for their ultimate confrontation. In 1999’s “No Man’s Land,” efforts to reclaim quake-ravaged Gotham began and ended with Batman (notably using a new Batgirl for “marketing”). In 2001’s “Bruce Wayne: Murderer?” arc, the possibility that Bruce could have killed a lover who discovered his secret was entertained, if only briefly, because the other Bat-colleagues weren’t sure how far Bruce would go to protect his other identity. The current “War Games” centers around yet another Bat-plan gone wrong. After 11 years of Batman perpetually pushing his friends and associates away, it is long past time for his attitude to change.

However, the distance between Batman and his proteges is important in at least one respect — it allows them to maintain their own separate comics. Nightwing, Catwoman, Robin, and Batgirl can’t be about the eponymous characters’ relationships to Batman, or there would be no point in their existence. Still, each periodic line-spanning crossover tends to create anew the same dynamic:

— a solo character grows and develops in his/her own book;

— he/she is treated as a subordinate by Batman for no good reason; and

— at the end Batman recognizes his/her value.

It’s a vicious cycle — the characters are at once dependent on the Batman imprimatur and striving to be independent of it; and periodically they interact with Batman himself but are never quite treated as equals. Again, Batman’s perpetual “I need you”/”I’m better than you” attitudes contribute to this cycle. Warming up relations between Batman and his associates would justify a reduction in the number of Bat-titles and would help integrate Nightwing, Robin, Catwoman, and Batgirl more fully into Batman’s adventures. Such integration would enrich the Bat-books across the board and would force creators to examine new character dynamics, instead of simply uniting the associates in their frustration with Batman.

Given the current conventional wisdom, I would expect a large number of fans to see this as a step back, dulling the fine edge which Batman has cultivated over the years. My response is that this merely acknowledges Batman’s need to correct what has become a self-destructive behavior. When it comes to the small band of people you’ve allowed to join your inner circle, trust works a whole lot better than intimidation.

Besides, despite Batman’s self-described solitary existence, he has always tended to surround himself with confidants, even in this post-Crisis, post-Dark Knight era. As described above, his impersonal attitude towards them facilitates their solo adventures (and creates bizarre, almost codependent relationships); but such an attitude is becoming increasingly unrealistic given the characters’ various histories.

It would serve Batman better in the long haul for him to drop the pretense that he will be forever alone on his solitary quest, and let his associates “in on the joke.” The Batman persona is at its heart nothing more than another elaborate strategy for fighting crime. It shouldn’t be the Alpha and Omega of Bruce Wayne’s life. His longtime friends like Alfred Pennyworth, Leslie Thompkins, Dick Grayson, and Barbara Gordon all recognize this. The sooner Bruce realizes that “Batman” is as much a fiction as “Playboy Bruce” is, the sooner he can start forming healthy relationships with his associates, and the better the Bat-books will be.

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