Regardless of your opinion of him, you know him. There are probably only a handful of places you could go where you’ll find someone who isn’t at least passingly familiar with the Caped Crusader. That’s the result of having a brand that’s spent decades soaking into pop culture. And since he’s been punching bad guys for decades means that many people have gotten to lay down their stamp on the character. They tell his story in their own unique ways, most recently by Tom King in his iteration called Batman Rebirth. His work has been simply amazing thus far. I could go on forever. For the sake of time, I’ll limit myself to talking about the first three arcs of his run, but those arcs do things that truly elevate the comic from entertainment into a genuine artform.
Spoilers Ahead. You’ve been warned.
3) The Story Structure
So, to begin on the brooding, exciting tales of the Dark Knight, I’m going to talk about a subject which I’m sure all the comics fans (casual and die hard alike) hold close to your heart; narrative structure. This run did something that I’d never seen done before, which was that basically it used the first three arcs of its run, collectively known to some as the “I am” arc because of the names of the individual stories, to tell a different, three-act-narrative of its own.
The three arcs each tell an individual story, but collectively tell a second, grander story set on a more epic scale. But then comes a third story, interwoven into the last two arcs especially, the story of Batman and Catwoman, the story of them figuring out their relationship. What it is, what it has been, and if it can ever be anything more. But even more amazingly, they tell a fourth story. The story of Bruce Wayne contemplating what Batman is, what the identity has meant to him all his life. Throughout the three arcs, we see him ruminate over his love for his city, the shadow of his parents’ death, and how he hasn’t been able to truly move on from it.
Before I can fully break down the structure, let me give you a quick summary of the plot of the three books. The first, “I am Gotham” opens with Batman jumping on top of (not into, on top of) a crashing plane and using his grappling hooks and the magnetic jet boosters he has around for precisely this eventuality, attempts to steer the plane to a safe landing in the harbour. In doing so, he realizes there’s no way for him to save the plane and live. Before he meets his fate, two costumed individuals with Superman-like powers catch the plane and set it down safely. Calling themselves Gotham and Gotham girl, a brother-sister duo that got powers and decided to become heroes.
And Batman takes them under his cape to train them.
Later, while dealing with a solo assignment, they fall victim to a supervillain known as psycho-pirate. He uses his powers to drive them insane and while Gotham goes on a rampage, his sister Gotham girl is reduced to a terrified wreck. After getting Gotham girl to safety, Batman tries to stop Gotham from destroying the city, but is eventually forced to call in the Justice league who, in trying to stop Gotham, cause him to overexert himself and burn out his powers, killing himself in the process and leaving behind a traumatised Gotham girl.
The second arc, “I am Suicide” takes place directly after the first arc, and it involves Batman having learned that Bane struck a deal to have psycho-pirate sent to his homeland of Santa Prisca, where Bane (who spends the entire arc naked for reasons no one ever explains) uses the Pirates powers to overcome his addiction to the strength-enhancing drug venom. Realizing that only Psycho-Pirate can undo what he did to the severely traumatized Gotham girl, Bruce goes to Arkham Asylum to assemble his own suicide squad for an assault on Banes stronghold, since invading sovereign countries isn’t really a Justice League approved activity. Among his new teammates is Catwoman, who has been imprisoned after allegedly killing 273 people, a crime which Batman himself brought her in for, despite still working to prove her innocence.
The final arc, “I am Bane” takes place after Batman has apprehended Psycho-Pirate and returned him to Gotham. Now back, he needs to ensure that Gotham girl can safely have the five sessions over five nights that she needs with Psycho-Pirate so he can undo the effects of his powers on her. And he must do this while Bane, now back on venom, comes to Gotham to hunt him down. And in the aftermath of that assault, Bruce finally resolves to move on from his parents’ death and propose to Catwoman, now vindicated of the murders she’d claimed responsibility for.
To reiterate, each of these arcs is their own self-contained story. But when taken together, they serve as a full three act story about the fall and rise of Gotham girl and the lengths Bruce goes to in order to help her along the path to being a hero. And it does that ingeniously, using a technique for separating the action which I myself had never realized until a few months ago, and that is focusing each act on a different unique location and theme; the first act takes place solely in Gotham, and details the origins of Gotham girl. The second act focuses on Banes island nation of Santa Prisca, and Batman pulling a heist to retrieve psycho-pirate. Then the last act returns to Gotham, focusing specifically on Arkham Asylum as Bruce tries to defend against Banes one man invasion. It’s a simple technique, but one that’s so built into the DNA of any story that uses it that most people never notice it.
The structure also manages to simultaneously build tension within each individual arc while at the same time building tension for the encompassing narrative at the same time. I am Gotham introduced the main players of the story, as well as hinting at Bane being the big bad. It made us care about the characters, then it gave us the driving problem of the story, namely restoring Gotham girls mind. I am Suicide then showed Batman facing that problem, confronting Bane for the first time and ultimately taking the pirate. That arc ended with Bane shouting for venom, showing us that the big conclusion was on its way. And finally, I am Bane was that promised conclusion, mostly consisting of Bane kicking the collective asses of a good chunk of Batman’s rogues gallery in the asylum. He spent a good chunk of time kicking Batmans ass until Batman finally managed to win the day. And to top it all off was the denouement; Batman talking to Gotham girl about whether or not she should be a hero, and her telling him that he doesn’t have to give up everything for his city, a sentiment that led him to finally propose to Catwoman.
And yet, within all of this, each story is satisfying and complete in its own way. These arcs don’t just weave themes together, hinting at a larger story building in the background; they are each firmly focused on the same wider story, making each step of it satisfying to read.
2) It re-examines what we (think) we know about Batman
I mentioned above that one of the narratives going on in this latest run of Batman is an internal one about how Bruce sees his identity as Batman, and how he views himself. Now I love that kind of deep, psycho-philosophical reflection in superheroes, but this is in my opinion, one of the best times I’ve ever seen done. We start out in the first arc constantly catching glimpses of exactly what kind of person Bruce is underneath the cowl. From the beginning, we see Bruce calmly laying out the location of letters he wrote to each member of his Bat-family as he careens on top of a crashing plane (that really cannot be overstated, he’s riding a crashing plane) towards his death. He’s stoic and calm, the classic face death with dignity deal.
But then, he asks Alfred if his parents would be proud of him, if this was a good death. And it’s at that point where the reader really starts to think; hold on, maybe this version of Batman is going to be one that does a deep dive into his psyche, because a healthy mind does not calmly ruminate on whether or not his dead parents would approve of its owners cause of death. And that’s only the tip of the iceberg. As the story unfolds, we see glimpses of a man who not only isn’t all there mentally, but he’s aware of it. He’s aware in a truly depressing way, and he’s not the only one. At one point, after Gotham dies and Gotham girl is overusing her powers to the point she’s going to burn out and die just like her brother, he asks Alfred how the butler helped him when he first lost his parents. Here’s his response;
“Each night you leave this perfectly lovely house and go leaping off buildings dressed as a giant bat. Do you really think I helped you?”
It’s sobering to see the quintessential loyal companion admit that after all these years, he doesn’t really believe he helped the man he raised like a son. This line is the first time the series really starts to think about what Bruce and those closest to him really think about Batman. Overall, you get the impression that being Batman is something akin to an addiction, one Bruce is well aware he has, but isn’t ready to deal with.
But then comes “I am suicide.”
In the middle of the arc, all dialogue is replaced by a letter Bruce wrote to Catwoman while she was in Arkham. And in it, he says outright that Batman, the whole concept of it, is ridiculous. He tells her that his parents would have found it ridiculous, and that deep down, he feels like everyone should laugh, feels like he should laugh. But he can’t, because he’s right there in the middle of it.
I can’t quite articulate how it feels to see one of the most dead-serious comic characters in existence state that his entire concept is ridiculous. In the panels he’s scaling walls, beating up goons, all classic Batman awesome, but I barely paid attention to that because I felt so much pity for Bruce, trapped in a promise he made as a child, not knowing how to move on.
He tells her that it’s exactly as absurd as it seems on its face, and that the reason it’s so absurd is because it’s not the rational choice of a man at peace with his past. It’s all the choice of a ten-year-old boy, living out a promise he made when he was too young and broken to know better. A promise he made after he, as a despairing orphan, slit his wrists with his father’s razor. And the sum total of it all is that he, underneath it all, can’t help but see himself as spiritually dead, bound to his promise. And that suddenly puts not just the proceeding issues, not just the ones that follow, but almost the entirety of Batman’s history into perspective.
Of course, he goes out at night and faces the worst of the worst; of course, he stands up to world-ending threats at the side of veritable gods; of course, he pushes himself further than any human should reasonably expect to go; he doesn’t see his life as a factor in the equation. When he asked Alfred back in the first issue if it was going to be a good death, he wasn’t talking about just the plane, he was looking for assurance that his whole war had actually amounted to something. Batman isn’t an addiction, it’s a chain, wrapped around his neck, pulling him forward when otherwise he’d just crumble to the ground.
Batman stories go to all sorts of dark places, but this felt like something special to me. It felt like a quieter darkness. Because throughout all of this, Bruce isn’t struggling against it, isn’t trying to redeem himself or move past it all. Until the end, he seems…at peace, with his life, as though he’s accepted that there’s no other way it can be. And that’s the roughest part, that he isn’t even trying to get better, not in any significant way. He seems, not happy but… accepting. Resigned to just keep leaping at death in the place of other people over and over until he doesn’t leap back.
Which is what makes the end of “I am Bane” so uplifting. He’s talking to the newly healed Gotham girl, about what being a hero means, and he admits that being Batman doesn’t make him happy, but he does it so he can try to be happy, but he knows he’s failing, stuck in old patterns and unable to move on, convinced that what he wants doesn’t matter. But in the end, Gotham girl convinces him that being happy can be about more than just what he wants, she convinces him that sometimes, the things you want are also the things you need, and it’s not selfish to go after them. And that’s the final push he needs to finally admit that one thing he needs is love, and he goes to Catwoman and asks her to marry him
One of the most prevalent messages in superhero comics is that of sacrifice, giving of yourself for the good of others and foregoing your own wants. But to see Batman, a character defined by darkness and unfulfilled need, finally break out of his old cycles and allow himself to go after what he NEEDS, that’s powerful.
1) Did I mention Kite Man!?!
Sophie is The Bat and you can find her on Twitter.
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