***WARNING: Spoilers lay ahead!***
By Rob Siebert
Editor, Fanboy Wonder
Tom King is a great writer. Read his work on The Vision and tell me different. I dare you. But is he a great Batman writer? That’s not an easy question. I Am Gotham was a mixed bag, as is a large portion of I Am Suicide.
Then we get to issues #14 and #15, and King delivers one of the best Batman/Catwoman stories I’ve ever read. But was that a simple flash in the pan? The culmination of a well-crafted story? Something in between?
Claire Clover, a.k.a. Gotham Girl, remains perpetually terrified thanks to the Psycho-Pirate’s ability to control his victims’ emotions. But he’s been taken to the island of Santa Prisca, inside one of the most savage and inescapable prisons on the planet. To infiltrate its walls, Batman and Amanda Waller assemble a makeshift Suicide Squad. Among its members is Catwoman, who stands accused of murdering 237 people. But murder may become a common theme here, as the Psycho-Pirate is under the protection of a man who spent his unthinkable childhood years in that prison, Bane.
At it’s core, this book is about Batman and Catwoman. Bruce and Selina. One of the most intriguing romances in all of popular culture. A fairy tale romance in many ways. But King puts his own spin on it, and looks at it in a way that’s almost psychoanalytic. Letters the two have sent each other serve as the narrative backdrop for issues #10 and #12. We learn that their relationship is largely about the pain they both feel, how it brings them together, and how when they kiss it briefly goes away. I like that. It’s as if it’s an unspoken truth that’s been there the whole time, and we’re just now seeing it. That’s what so many great writers do with these characters.
I’m less a fan of what King does with Bruce’s famous childhood vow to wage war on crime. In issue #12, Bruce reveals that he almost slit his wrists at age 10, before a moment of clarity showed him his true purpose. He then makes the solemn promise that would take him down the road to becoming Batman. Bruce calls his crusade “the choice of a boy. The choice to die. I am Batman. I am suicide.” We read those words as Batman literally fights off an army of gun-wielding prison guards.
I get what King is going for. I understand the unbearable pain of loss leading to a hero’s self-sacrifice. What I’m less enthralled with is the on-the-nose nature of the wrist cutting. The scene doesn’t need that.
Bruce starts that letter talking about the inherent humor in a grown man dressing up like a bat to “punch crime in the face.” It’s very Joker-ish. We even get what may be a vague reference to Mr. J. with the line: “All of them can laugh. Mother. Father. Him. The whole world.” He brings it around to something more serious, of course. But this dialogue speaks nicely to the yin-yang dynamic between Batman and the Joker, whether King mean it that way or not.
King caps the Batman/Catwoman stuff of in an amazing fashion with the “Rooftops” story in issues #14 and #15. I’ve covered those issues in-depth, but it’s worth repeating: “Rooftops” belongs among the greatest Catwoman stories ever told. Mitch Gerads handles the pencils, inks, and colors, bathing the characters in a gorgeous moonlight. What’s more, some of the expressions he gives Selina are just perfect. Throughout the book, King also has the characters call each other “Bat” and “Cat.” That’s a great little touch.
I credit Scott Snyder with doing a lot of justice to the Riddler during his Batman run. He gave the character his balls back. King begins that same process with Bane here, casting him as something of a mad and savage king. A king who, for some odd reason, has to be naked at all times. While things don’t really pick up in this respect until we get to subsequent issues, but this is where we see flashes of early ’90s Knightfall Bane. He’s not just a monster. He’s feared. He’s respected. He’s merciless. He even breaks Batman’s back again and leaves him to drown…
That last one might have been a little more effective if our hero hadn’t simply given himself an extreme chiropractic adjustment and fixed everything. I’ve heard of comic book science, but that right there is comic book medical science. Now if only he’d known that trick in the ’90s.
Also on Batman’s team is Arnold Wesker, a.k.a. the Ventriloquist. They build up his role significantly, and the payoff involves the character being able to subvert the Psycho-Pirate’s powers by virtue of his multiple personality syndrome. Again, comic book medical science. Though I had less issues with that than seeing Wesker make his bare hand talk as if there were an invisible puppet on it (shown below). Comics are so weird.
The majority of the book is drawn and inked by Mikel Janin, and colored by June Chung. I’ve had issues in the past with Janin’s figures looking too static, but we don’t see much of that here. Static or not, Janin’s work is always interesting. His characters look and feel very real, but they have that little touch of superhero dynamism. Case in point, his Batman looks relatively natural and real. But he also gives him a distinct scowl that really walks that line of exaggeration.
Janin and Chung also create a tremendous mood for the prison. It’s suitably dark and dank. You can almost feel that cold, damp air on your skin. Less subtle is the throne of skulls that we see Bane sitting on. We’ve seen this prison before. But it’s never been quite as haunting as it is here.
Despite the greatness of “Rooftops,” I’m not quite ready to call Tom King a great Batman writer just yet. Some of his choices plucked me right out of the story. But he’s becoming a good Batman writer, and that’s better than a lot of people ever get. Perhaps he just needed some time to get comfortable in Gotham City. Either way, this is an improvement. I’ve been excited to pick Batman up again.
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