52/1: The Bat
One year into DC’s reboot of their primary continuity, known as the New 52, Idler comics writer Matt Santori-Griffith and co-editor Gavin Craig are taking stock of some of the high points. This week, at Gavin’s insistence, they’re starting things off by talking about Batman and Batman and Robin.
Matt: Jumping right in, have you noticed that both books start with Bruce being really sure of himself and his plan of attack (be it investigation into murder or raising a son) and both end the year with him not just realizing his own fallibility, but acknowledging the greater need for the family around him?
Gavin: I think that making Bruce a bit more vulnerable, a bit more human, has been a really great move since the reboot. Even before the New 52, putting Dick Grayson in the cowl had already given us a Batman who struggled with his limitations, but it’s a big move to carry that over to Bruce.
Matt: It’s certainly part of the larger mission at DC this past year to humanize, not just youthen, its heroes.
Gavin: It’s tempting to treat Batman as a section of the DC universe where not much has changed, but Scott Snyder in particular has shifted a lot of the assumptions that Batman operated under — even Dick’s history with the circus wasn’t what he thought it was.
Matt: But what’s interesting about that is it’s not that the readers are getting a retrofitted history. We AND the characters are finding out new facts about the past that NEITHER of us knew before. Batman is as much in the dark as we are. Sure, the timeline is compressed, and minor details have been streamlined (*cough* Red Robin *cough*), but most of the assumptions we have had to date seem to bear out.
Gavin: And I think DC has done that pretty well. Compared to the various Crises, which were about streamlining or “fixing” continuity, I think the relaunch approach of preserving the core of what works, and shaking up the details has been really successful for storytelling. And the pacing has been magnificent. I remember “spoiling” the fact that Snyder was bringing Owlman into continuity in issue #10 of Batman, but that doesn’t even begin to sum up what Snyder did. It’s not just about re-introducing a somewhat obscure character, he really re-told Bruce’s family story (and Alfred’s) in a way that left everyone a bit shaken. Including me!
Matt: I actually think what Snyder did to Alfred’s history was even more shocking than what he did to Bruce’s. In both books, Alfred is incredibly important, but that final story in Batman #11, where we get the truth about Jarvis Pennyworth’s demise, is so potent and makes Alfred much less of a caricature that he can sometimes become with less careful writers.
Gavin: Yeah, and to bring it back to your point about family, Alfred’s role as grandfather (of sorts) seems to be really important in both Batman and Batman and Robin. At times he seems to understand Damian Wayne a great deal better than Bruce does. I love the bit where he leaves two trackers on Damian so that Damian will think that he caught Alfred’s bit of sleight-of-hand.
Matt: That was brilliant. Bruce speaks of learning from 6 (not 4) mentors. I wonder if one of them is meant to be Alfred. But honestly, it makes sense that Alfred would understand Damian. He is his father’s son, and Alfred has already dealt with one hurt, scared 10 year-old Wayne son. Alfred has already done with Bruce exactly what Bruce needs to do with Damian, if Bruce can bring himself to realize it.
Matt: Coming back to the Court of Owls, the general presumption Bruce makes of his own infallibility isn’t just a character play (although it’s certainly interesting enough to be simply that). It also signals exactly how great a departure the New 52 is going to be for Batman moving forward. I feel like it’s easily been since the early 80s, maybe even the 70s, that we’ve had a Batman not just willing to admit he’s wrong, but most of the time, actually wrong. Even at his worst moments, say Tower of Babel, where he betrays all his friends, there’s still a moral high ground behind his mistake that makes it understandable. Here, though, he’s just plain wrong. It’s delightful, really.
Gavin: I agree that it’s a great move, and long overdue. A Batman who wins every fight, who already knows everything is fundamentally uninteresting. There’s really just no way to tell stories about him. A Batman who finds himself having to look at his place in his city in an entirely new way, fighting an enemy who’d always been under his nose? That’s fascinating stuff. I love that Bruce actually has to return to the same house where he was trapped as a child to find the Court of Owls. It wasn’t that he was looking in the wrong place, it’s that he wasn’t ready to find them, and they weren’t ready to be found.
And I also think that Damian Wayne finally carving out his own place in the Bat-family has been really well done. Before the New 52, I wasn’t a big Damian fan. He just seemed like a bit of wish-fulfillment on Grant Morrison’s part, a cranky, violent Robin who allowed Morrison to flash-forward to his own take on who Batman should be. I think Tomasi in Batman and Robin has really given Damian room to both be the damaged angry person he is, but also found the insecure, vulnerable child that was always intended to be there, but that a lot of writers didn’t do a good job of conveying.
Matt: I think we saw flashes of that in Morrison’s Batman and Robin, but it never would have come out in the big brother/little brother dynamic that was Dick and Damian. Damian finally being confronted with having a relationship with his father, and vice versa, is a very distinctive premise upon which to set a book. It’s truly not Robin’s book any more than it is Batman’s. The “and” is really the star.
I know I’ve said this before, but one of the things I most appreciate about Damian’s characterization is that he’s a ten year old kid who acts like a ten year old kid. Sure, he’s been trained by the best assassins in the world and has genes that could make Alexander look unambitious, but at his root, he doesn’t act the way an adult would. I find that very unusual for teen (or tween as the case may be) heroes. I can barely think of any that don’t just seem like mini-adults.
Gavin: Indeed! I know you and I don’t always agree on Tim Drake, and he’s always been a wildly different character than Damian, in ways both good and bad. I think we’re starting to get some really interesting tracing of the differences between the various Robins, and Bruce’s different successes and failures with each.
Matt: Absolutely. Tim Drake, for example, is also the one who had a father and wanted a second one, when Damian never even got a chance at one until now. I can see how to a ten-year-old, that might seem greedy. And that’s what I think so many people who deride Damian are missing. He’s not a jerk for no reason. He’s a fucked up little kid with a crazy mother, a grandfather who wanted to steal his body, and a missing dad who dies the minute they meet. Duh.
Gavin: The art on both titles has also just been outstanding. I really love the way that Batman and Robin gives its artwork space to do a lot of the storytelling. You have some really great or even iconic moments that are just images. I’m thinking of Damian killing the bat in #2.
Matt: Gleason’s art in Batman and Robin definitely has a more open feel to it than Capullo’s in Batman, although the latter certainly reflects the tightly wound existence that Bruce lives out.
Gavin: Batman is SO text-heavy. It almost always works (I think #11 pushes it), but Snyder’s doing a lot of heavy lifting with the narration and dialogue.
Matt: The monologue in Batman is strong. I don’t mind it so much because the art is crisp and every line just so well chosen. And honestly, I like a book that takes me more than 3 minutes to read. I spend a ton of money every month on these things. Breezing through a stack in 30 minutes is somewhat of a rip-off.
Matt: So, what about Harper Row? Where does she fit in? And what about Batman #12?
Gavin: Batman #12 is just extraordinary. Art, story, everything.
Matt: Here’s where my head was the day Batman #12 was released: I’m not sure I can even explain why I’ve been so especially sensitive to the news lately. It may have started with the midnight shooting at The Dark Knight Rises. Maybe it’s just the election cycle, but I’ve found myself getting tension headaches every time I read another hyper-conservative twist on either gay marriage or civil liberties or the lack of acknowledgement of the role race plays in media reportage. . . whatever. The final straw was the spokesperson for the American Family Association advocating that its members kidnap children from gay parented families in an act of liberty that would mirror the “Underground Railroad.” I was so angry and hurt I truly don’t know how I drove home from work without getting in an accident.
And then I read Batman #12.
At the most basic level, reading a comic where Batman kicks the ass of a bunch of gay bashers. It was moving. Telling the story in DC’s absolute top-selling book? Made me a little teary-eyed. That it wasn’t a media event (intended or not) that could be accused of cashing in? Got a little more emotional. But the part that finally made me actually shed tears was the portrayal of a sister so devoted to her brother, and so determined to stand proud for him, that she’d shave the word FAG in the back of her own head. And then she wanted to help Batman too. If she’s not a fricking hero already with one single issue, I don’t know who is.
Gavin: I know you’ve done some writing about Alan Scott in Earth 2 (and you constantly make me feel bad for not reading that title. I’m still trying to figure out what I can give up to increase my comics budget), and there’s something about having both a headline-grabbing, totally visible mainstream gay character AND having a story like Harper and Cullen Row in Batman #12. USA Today isn’t going to cover it, but it’s every bit as visible, and it’s about the fact that DC does both, not one or the other.
Matt: That’s a really good point about their commitment to this area. DC gets a lot of shit for a lot of stuff, and I acknowledge that 30 years of reading them every week has made me into somewhat of an apologist when things go south for them in the PR department. But I can see how hard they’re trying, especially to reflect gay and lesbian issues in their comics. And it feels like it’s being handled very differently. I don’t know if it just seems more organic, but Cullen’s introduction seems far more natural than Terry Berg’s in Green Lantern all those years ago. I particularly enjoyed Cullen’s almost fanboy fawning over Tim Drake (and not even Red Robin in this case). It was cute, and how could that have been in a book 5 years ago?
Gavin: Yes! I became Cullen’s biggest fan when he started talking about Tim. FINALLY someone understands. I think there’s a real role for Harper Row to fill, especially if part of Snyder’s take is that Batman is more estranged from his city than he realizes. She’s literally on (and under) the ground. And the active Bat-family NEEDS some estrogen. Barbara Gordon and Kate Kane are doing great things, but the Batcave itself is starting to smell a bit like dude.
Matt: That’s an excellent point. I love the idea too that not every hero has to wear a costume in Gotham. And yes, that’s part of the reason, though, that I am surprised about her overwhelmingly positive fan reaction. I mostly expected the response to be, “But she’s not Cass or Stephanie.” Why do you think she resonated despite that?
Gavin: Harper didn’t really make an impression on me until #12 (she really just has a brief cameo or two previously), but I’m not sure that Cassandra Cain and Stephanie Brown’s fan base necessarily overlaps with the general Bat fan base. That is, there are some vocal people who miss Cass and Steph, but there are a whole lot of Bat fans who don’t. And looking back, even in her cameo, Harper is self-possessed in a way that Steph in particular never was. Steph is a fuck-up who was just starting to find herself in Bryan Q. Miller’s Batgirl series. Harper has a sort of self-deprecation, but she also used a car battery and jumper cables as a defibrillator. You have to admit, that’s kind of cool. I love Cass and Steph, but Cass is stunted, and Steph, at her worst, is a loser. Harper is neither, which makes her something of a rarity as a possible female member of the Bat family.
Matt: That. Is an excellent way to put that — self-possessed. She doesn’t seem to have much self-doubt or self-consciousness, which makes her very attractive to me as a character. Now here’s a curious question: why do I find Harper so compelling, but other teen characters who act older than their natural age I find unrealistic? Is it because she’s female?
Gavin: Well, exactly how old is Harper? She’s in high school but works for the city electric department
Matt: She seemed about 16-17 to me.
Gavin: She falls a bit into that mini-adult category, but an awesome story covers many flaws.
Matt: I find it fascinating that Snyder seems as interested in reincorporating past elements long left behind in the Batman legend as Morrison is.
Gavin: It’s a great move. So much was just left in the dustbin after the mid-1980s.
Matt: And maybe that’s a good thought to end on. Does the New 52 enable this type of retro-history more than a continuity that seemingly tries to rationalize or retro-remove anything that doesn’t fit perfectly?
Gavin: The DC universe is a rather uniquely cobbled-together thing, and probably not particularly suited to a totally smooth, consistent history (if such a thing is even possible for mass serial storytelling). I think it’s not an accident that we’re not seeing much effort within the new continuity to smooth all the edges. Rather than worrying about continuity in and of itself, it’s really useful to just free your writers every now and then, and I think that’s the big thing the New 52 has done.
Matt: It’s certainly paid off for Batman. While historical details may not have changed that much, the tenor of the books in this family has. We’re not seeing a god-like Batman anymore. Bruce is very much human, even in his most arrogant moments, and that has never been executed as well to date as Snyder and Tomasi are.
Gavin: Bruce needed some reinvigorating, and even before the New 52, I think that’s what Morrison in particular tried to do. But Snyder and Tomasi have really pulled the best of what was good, and brought in some great new ideas of their own. I’m a big Batman fanatic regardless, but he’s worth reading now as a character with desires and failings. He’s someone you can tell stories about and not just around. Bruce, after all, is a bit of a jerk, and when you can acknowledge that, then things can really get cooking.
Gavin Craig is co-editor of The Idler. You can follow him on Twitter at @craiggav.
Matt Santori-Griffith owns one business suit, three pairs of shoes, and over 15,000 comic books. He works a day job as an art director for several non-profit organizations, but spends his dark nights and weekends fighting the good fight on Twitter.com in the guise of @FotoCub. He has not yet saved the world, but isn’t giving up quite yet.