TOM King’s Batman, to be precise…
Batman: Rebirth 1
by Tom King, Scott Snyder, and Mikel Janin
by Tom King and David Finch
As discussed last week, I’ve recently become rather fond of the work of writer Tom King. And as discussed at some length on any number of occasions in the past, I have always loved me some Batman. So Tom King writing Batman would seem to be a match made in heaven. The only sticking point to this equation, honestly, is the book’s new bi-weekly schedule. Because that’s got to be some mighty fine funnybooks for me to shell out six bucks a month to follow a single title. But it’s King, and it’s Batman, so I decided to take the plunge. And we’re technically two issues into the bi-weekly experiment now, so that begs the question… Is it good enough to make it worth the money?
Honestly… The jury’s still out. King’s first issue, the Batman Rebirth one-shot, was co-written with exiting Batman writer Scott Snyder. I’m not sure how much input Snyder had on the issue; though I can see his fingerprints on it, the issue reads very much like a Tom King book. Plus, I know that these torch-passing co-writer things are sometimes just the old guy giving the new guy notes on what he can and can’t get away with when handling the corporate toys. So I’m going to assume this is mostly King. Either way, Batman Rebirth is solid work, sort of a classic Batman super-detective story with a pleasingly-grotesque twist on the villain.
That’s the Calendar Man, traditionally a villain with kind of a silly schtick: all his crimes are, as the name might imply, calendar-based. In a simpler time, he offered an opportunity for Batman to show off his knowledge of scheduling and esoteric holiday traditions. Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale gave the character a Hannibal Lector style make-over in one of their Batman Halloween comics, turning him into some kind of insane mastermind with roman numerals tattooed around his scalp. Here, King and Snyder have taken him even further from the original concept, remaking him into a homicidal madman with a plan to wreak season-based destruction on Gotham City.
That part, I’m not so hot on. I mean… You don’t always have to threaten widespread havoc and murder-death. Sometimes, it’s better to have a bad guy whose motivation is simply to get rich through crime. You know. Just for the sake of variety. This idea smacks of both writers, honestly. It’s just like Snyder to make a villain psychotic for no apparent reason, and it’s just like King to come up with an inventive scheme for that villain to carry out. Here, the Calendar Man is speeding up the passing of the seasons in Gotham by means of [somethingsomethingBullshitSuperScience], which will kill everything in town because of [reasons that, honestly, weren’t explained that well]. It’s a neat idea, but not very well-developed. As I said… I didn’t care for it.
But that weird-ass rebirthing scene, on the other hand… That, I’m a prety huge fan of. The idea here is that the Calendar Man goes through an entire life cycle in a year, deteriorating into old age every winter, only to shed that skin and crawl out of his own mouth with a fresh young body every spring. That’s weird and cool and gross, and I dig it. The only thing that could make it better would be if he was reborn every time as an evil tattooed baby with his full adult intelligence. But the full-grown man fighting his way out of the old skin is probably a weirder, more visceral image, so I’m cool with it.
Anyway. Beyond what it does to the villain, Batman Rebirth is a satisfyingly old-school Batman story, with a lot of focus on the Bat-Infrastructure. Our Hero touches base with Lucius Fox on the state of the Wayne fortune (Batman being maybe the only billionaire who’s gone bankrupt more times than Donald Trump), and starts training a new sidekick to fill a role that will be different from the traditional Robin slot…
…albeit in an as-yet-ill-defined sort of way (currently, it seems to involve feeding Batman intel while he’s out doing his bat-thing).
But I’m also pleased that Rebirth features Batman being written as an intelligent, hyper-competent hero who’s neither crazy nor an asshole. That’s the bad part of the Dark Knight Returns legacy: writers and editors more ham-fisted than Frank Miller (which, I know, is a difficult thing to wrap your head around) looking at Miller’s seminal bat-work and somehow deciding that Batman should be grim and joyless, completely ignoring the soaring, dark joy at the heart of that book. But I digress.
Rebirth is also written like a Tom King comic, dropping readers into the deep end of the story and trusting us to catch up along the way. I appreciate that even more than I do this refreshingly balanced take on Batman himself. Unfortunately, that approach didn’t make its way into Batman #1.
No, King’s first true solo bat-tale is aggressively straightforward stuff, with the plot going from point A to point B to point C, with little to distinguish it. There is a minor mystery introduced via the stereotypical shadowy figure saying shadowy things…
…but from a narrative perspective, this thing’s not much more complex than a 1970s Gerry Conway Spider-Man comic. And that’s disappointing.
I am enjoying King’s fascination with how Batman works, however, especially the way he’s embracing communications technology. Batman’s got support staff in his ear constantly in these stories, Duke Thomas (the new Not-Robin) feeding him intel and Alfred on-hand to issue commands from the Bat-Computer. Batman’s always had support staff, and it’s nice to see a writer embracing that aspect of the character so completely. Grant Morrison’s take on that in Batman Inc. was more fun, embracing as it did the character’s psychedelic history, but King’s military-fiction take is a nice realistic alternative.
The situation the character’s facing in this issue is a bit less realistic, however, and that didn’t entirely sit right with me. Without spoiling too much, this issue is concerned with a crashing jet liner, and what Batman does to save it.
It’s an audacious situation that might have worked with Morrison’s slightly tongue-in-cheek, heightened reality sci-fi Batman, but the more realistic tone King’s striking doesn’t serve the situation well. There’s all this emphasis on fine changes in the plane’s course, and on how little time Batman has to do all this, and that attention to realistic details just makes the whole thing seem impossible. The tone breaks my willing suspension of disbelief, and makes everything else in the story fail.
That’s especially true of the issue’s key emotional moment. As Batman gets the plane situated properly, it becomes apparent that he’s almost certainly going to die. And as he talks that over with Alfred (the clock that King’s started in my head ticking very, VERY loudly) it gets just a little… schmaltzy.
Now, don’t get me wrong. Artist David Finch sells the complete hell out of it with that pained look on Alfred’s face. That almost gets me, all by itself. And I do like the idea of a vulnerable Batman, facing up to his own mortality. I’m even fine with a moment of self-doubt at the end. If you’re not going to do Miller’s dark and glorious soul, this is a fine, very human, take on the character. But there’s just something a little too… I dunno… on the nose? …about that conversation. Maybe it’s because we’ve heard these sentiments before, or because we’ve seen Batman survive worse, but… much like the plane scenario that leads to this moment… I just don’t buy it. I don’t believe the moment, so its impact is lost on me.
All that said, I do understand why King might have gone for this plane-rescuing thing. In most modern versions of the Superman story, saving a plane is how he gets introduced to the world. So King is giving us a Batman who’s willing to die to accomplish the same feat. And he’s doing that as an introduction to his first big story arc: Gotham, in which a super-powered hero shows up and challenges Batman’s role as Gotham City’s protector.
It’s an idea that’s never been explored in any great depth, I don’t think. Outside of a couple-three half-serious eight-pagers from old issues of World’s Finest, in fact, I’m not sure I’ve ever seen it explored at all. But it doesn’t hold much appeal for me. I mean, the Golden Age Green Lantern operated out of Gotham for decades, so to my personal sense of long-range comics history, it’s not even an issue.
I’m not real keen on the guy calling himself “Gotham,” either. I could maybe live with just the name by itself, but putting the chest emblem in GOTHIC TYPEFACE just takes the whole thing too far. It is kind of a crappy hero name, though. I mean, why couldn’t he have gone for something cool, like “Nightman”?
Really, though, I think what doesn’t appeal to me about this story the most is the thought of reading yet another existential threat to the Bat-Status-Quo. The most radical thing they could do at this point would be to spend three or four years just telling solid, entertaining Batman stories. Seriously. You can still have Calendar Man fighting his way out of his own worn-out skin all you want. In fact, you need that kind of awesome grotesquerie in a Batman story. But, you know… Let somebody rob a bank or something. Or maybe commit a murder. A murder that’s NOT related to Batman or anyone in the supporting cast. Then you could, I dunno, have Batman solve the mystery and be all cool and Batmanny, and remind us all of why we love Batman so much in the first place. That might be good.
So… Yeah. Not really feeling “Gotham.” To be honest, I probably wouldn’t have picked the book up at all if it weren’t being written by Tom King. I’ve come to trust his work enough, however, that I’m willing to give it a shot. See where he’s going with it. Because, hey. He could rapidly build this lackluster beginning into something great, like he did with Omega Men, and I’d find myself playing catch-up again a year from now.
At least, with two issues coming out every month, I won’t have to wait very long to decide if it’s worth the six bucks or not. So the jury’s still out. But for now, KING BATMAN gets…