It’s never really a bad time to be a Batman fan. The character is consistently DC’s best-selling character in terms of issue sales, so acolytes of the Dark Knight—like myself—can always count on something at least moderately interesting happening in the Bat-centric corner of the DC universe, not to mention his presence in various crossover titles like Justice League and Trinity. One of the downsides to Batman’s ubiquity, however, is that the multiple stories being told about the character at any given moment—particularly in Batman and Detective Comics—can feel very similar, both in tone and subject matter.
Fortunately, that sameness is not a problem at the moment. By giving writers more freedom to tell the kinds of stories they want to tell, Rebirth seems to have kicked off something of a Batman renaissance. As I write this, DC is publishing a whopping four (though we’re gonna talk about five) different Batman-focused comics—not counting peripheral Bat Family titles like Nightwing and Batgirl—that are all taking hugely different, and consistently interesting, approaches to looking at Bruce, his allies, and his enemies. This is quite possibly one of the best times to be a Batman fan there’s ever been.
Without further ado, let’s run down the list of all the reasons it’s awesome to love Batman right now.
Tom King’s run on Batman (taking over for Scott Snyder after Rebirth) was a little inconsistent for me in the beginning; I liked Gotham and Gotham Girl conceptually, but I didn’t really care for the story King told with them, including the whole deal with Bane and the Suicide Squad. But this last run of issues, starting with the renewed courtship between Bruce and Selina, Bruce’s proposal, and then The War of Jokes and Riddles, has been great stuff.
The War of Jokes and Riddles introduced a fascinating wrinkle into Batman’s past and his relationship with the Joker. Now, King is setting up what could be the most significant long-term shake-up to Bruce’s future since Damian’s introduction back in 2006: his engagement to Selina Kyle.
While Batman has always been surrounded by a supporting cast of Robins, Batgirls, and others, one of the central conflicts of the character is the way he can’t help but keep this surrogate family at a certain emotional distance, even though he knows how important it is to maintaining his sanity. Marriage is a hugely significant commitment, binding oneself to another person in the most intimate way. How will forging such a close bond change how Bruce behaves as Batman? Is it even possible for Batman to function with that kind of external pressure in place?
The story of this engagement is just starting to take off in earnest, so it’s too early to tell if the bat and the cat will actually end up tying the knot, but already King is spinning the story in exciting, unexpected directions. In the new arc started in this week’s Batman #33—with the superb Joëlle Jones assuming artistic duties—Bruce and Selina have travelled into Khadym, a desert nation foreign superheroes are forbidden to enter according to rules Bruce himself helped write, to track down Talia al Ghul.
Why? King hasn’t yet revealed that key piece of information, but it’s not actually that hard to figure out, and it’s why this story is so exciting. While Bruce has always rejected it, Talia and her father, Ra’s, consider her and Bruce to be married. The honorable man that he is, Bruce is undoubtedly seeking Talia out to ask her to formally relinquish her claim to him, so that his marriage to Selina can be totally legitimate.
Bruce’s relationships with Selina and Talia are the most significant romantic entanglements he’s ever had, and now those relationships are colliding in the most direct way possible. The most interesting prospect raised by this story isn’t seeing Bruce and Talia together again, but seeing what Talia and Selina make of each other. I get the feeling that when these two very powerful, utterly unpredictable women come face to face Bruce is going to wind up almost an afterthought.
However it plays out, King’s storytelling engines have clearly been energized by the path down which he’s currently taking Batman, and it’s paying dividends for the reader. It remains to be seen if DC will actually go through with letting Bruce marry, but either way it’s going to force the character to take a good hard look in the mirror and ask himself what he really wants out of life.
As I mentioned, there’s frequently been a sameness over the years between the two flagship Batman titles. Coming off of Rebirth, the new writer for Detective Comics, James Tynion IV, keyed into a perfect solution to that problem: while Batman’s perspective stayed tightly focused on the Dark Knight, Detective broadened the scope, bringing Batwoman in as co-lead and making it a title about a team of various members of the Bat family working in Gotham.
It’s served as a great opportunity to spotlight some of the secondary characters in the Batman world, like Spoiler and Cassandra Cain, who—unfortunately—probably can’t sustain the sales numbers needed to front their own books in today’s market. Tynion’s also used the book to put a new spin on Clayface, giving him a redemption arc as he joins the team to try and atone for his criminal past.
Right now, however, Detective Comics is in the midst of telling a verrrry interesting story about Tim Drake. As Red Robin, Tim is, in my opinion, the best Robin there’s ever been. Dick might share Bruce’s tragic backstory, Jason might share Bruce’s rage, and Damian might share his DNA, but Tim is the Robin who comes closest to matching Bruce in intellect, and intellect is the key to Bruce’s status as a hero. It’s his superpower, the thing that makes him the World’s Greatest Detective, and worthy of standing shoulder-to-shoulder with Wonder Woman and Superman as part of the Trinity.
Tim Drake shares that almost preternatural intelligence, that ability to see the patterns in chaos, and it makes him, in my opinion the most logical choice as Bruce’s ultimate successor to the cowl. Tynion seems to share this sentiment, because in A Lonely Place of Living he’s telling a story about a Tim Drake from the future who has become Batman. In issue #966, future Tim laid out for his younger self exactly why it’s Tim’s unavoidable fate to become Batman, even though it’s the last thing present-day Tim wants: Dick is too averse to living under Bruce’s shadow to remain Batman for long, and Jason and Damian, much as they try to be good guys, just don’t have the right temperament for it.
That leaves Tim. And while this future version of Tim is obviously a much darker character than he would be if DC continuity ever actually reaches a point where he’s forced to take on the Bat mantle, the story still provides a wonderful opportunity to confront Tim with some important questions about himself, what it means to be a hero, and what it means to be Batman, specifically.
Will this brush with his future further cement his desire to step away from the hero game entirely, or will Tim accept that his becoming Batman is inevitable, and dedicate himself to becoming the best Batman he can possibly be? Only time will tell. But this is a very compelling story, and a perfect example of how Tynion is using his time on Detective Comics to tell great stories about Batman’s supporting cast, rather than just making a clone of Batman.
Dark Nights: Metal
Not content with the plethora of Bat Family books published every month, DC is currently in the midst of a Bat-focused crossover event, Dark Nights: Metal. Spearheaded by a miniseries written by Scott Snyder and drawn by Greg Capullo, Metal is a wildly ambitious story about a previously unknown Dark Multiverse, a shadowed reflection of the DC Multiverse we know and love, populated by incarnations of Bruce’s worst fears: fallen versions of himself. These Dark Batmen, led by the demon Barbatos, have invaded Earth-0 with the intention of dragging it down into the Dark Multiverse.
Metal is…interesting. Snyder’s mini has been packed to the gills with exposition about supernatural metals, Multiverses, and a lot of other dense lore pulled from decades of past DC stories, and while Capullo is drawing it all with epic flare, as a story, it’s not totally working for me. Instead, where Metal is really thriving is in its tie-in issues.
In most crossover events, the tie-in issues can feel superfluous to the main plot of the event, since the publisher knows not everyone is going to buy all of those issues. In contrast, Metal wouldn’t work at all without its tie-ins; they’re absolutely essential to understanding what’s happening in Snyder’s mini, and I would argue that they’re where the more interesting storytelling is happening, as well.
In particular, the Dark Nights one-shots have all been consistently fantastic. These are single issue stories, each detailing the origins of the seven Dark Batmen that have invaded Earth-0. The most recent issue, this week’s Batman: The Merciless, tells the story of the Wonder Woman inspired Batman. After a war with Ares where Diana was seemingly killed, Bruce put on Ares’ magic helm to gain the power to kill the god of war, which he did. Then, upon realizing that Diana wasn’t actually dead, he went truly off the deep end, murdering Diana himself and going on a one-man war against criminality in a boss suit of Francis Manapul-drawn armor, killing indiscriminately.
It’s just one of the many dark fantasies about how he could go wrong swirling through Bruce’s subconscious, made manifest by the twisted energies of the Dark Multiverse. All of the other issues have been fascinating, as well, from a story about how Bruce creating an AI to replace a dead Alfred ultimately turns him into a twisted Cyborg Batman to a look at how Bruce’s extraordinary willpower could overwhelm the safeguards of a Green Lantern ring and turn it into a weapon of singular destructive capability.
While seeing the Caped Crusader in typical heroic fashion can explore what it means to be Batman very effectively (as Scott Snyder proved consistently throughout his New 52 Batman run), it can also be constructive to approach that question from the opposite direction. By looking at the different ways in which Batman can fail, it illuminates the qualities essential to his success. This is the opportunity that Snyder and all the other writers involved in Metal have been provided, and they’re taking full advantage of it.
Batman: White Knight
Speaking of “Batman gone wrong”, this month saw the beginning of another “what if?” Batman story, this one taking place outside of current DC continuity. Writer/artist Sean Murphy’s Batman: White Knight takes a self-contained look at what might happen if Batman goes too far in his quest to take down the Joker. The first issue sets up the basic premise. While beating the tar out of the Joker on camera, while the GCPD stands by and watches, Batman forces unknown drugs down the Joker’s throat. Those drugs apparently cure Joker of his insanity, and a newly rehabilitated Jack Napier sets out to save Gotham from its true enemy: the Dark Knight.
This premise is a take on a question that gets a lot of play both in the comics and among readers: is Batman part of the solution or part of the problem? Does his self-imposed prohibition on killing bad guys set a moral example for the people of Gotham to follow, or does his costumed vigilantism actually help perpetuate the unending cycle of super-criminality Batman professes to fight against, providing continued justification for his existence?
The new spin Murphy puts on things is the role swap between Batman and the Joker, making Napier the hero and Bruce the ostensible villain. There’s always been a strong argument that Batman isn’t actually making things better, and having Joker’s intimate experience with Batman—and his undeniable intellect—in a lucid brain perfectly situates Napier to lay that case out in compelling terms.
The real question we have to ask about what Murphy’s up to with this story is the same one Bruce is asking in the book: how much can we trust Jack Napier? Is he really on the up-and-up, or are we looking at the opening stage of the most elaborate joke the Joker’s ever told? After only one issue, we don’t have nearly enough information to answer that question, but we do know that Murphy looks poised to tell a very exciting story about the nature of the roles Batman and Joker play in Gotham.
Lastly, we come to a Bat book that’s no longer actually publishing, but that we also haven’t really seen the last of: All-Star Batman. While this book—written by Scott Snyder, with a succession of top-tier artistic talent—wrapped up monthly publication under the title All-Star Batman with last month’s #14, Snyder isn’t actually finished with the stories he planned to tell in the book. Instead, those stories will be published individually in a new prestige format DC has planned for next year, which has excitingly been described as “artist-centric”.
One of those stories is Batman: Last Knight, a long-teased collaboration between Snyder and the aforementioned Sean Murphy (who have previously worked together on American Vampire and The Wake). It’s described as a Lone Wolf and Cub style post-apocalyptic adventure where Batman walks around with the living severed head of the Joker chained to his belt. No other details have been revealed, but if you need more than that to be excited about this book, I don’t know what to tell you.
So while All-Star is technically dead, the book’s remaining stories are still coming, and that gives us something to look forward to when we contemplate Batman’s future beyond the present moment. In addition to that, though, I think it’s worth commenting a little further on All-Star Batman, because while it ran it was being published concurrently with with all of the other books I’ve talked about here, and because it did the same thing that those books are doing to elevate their stories.
The difference between a decent superhero comic and a great superhero comic is easy to recognize, but difficult to execute. A decent superhero comic is your basic arc about the hero facing off against one of their various bad guys. There’s pyrotechnics, maybe a surprising twist, some good art, but there’s nothing really going on under the surface. These comics can be fun, but they aren’t particularly substantive.
Great superhero comics have all of those elements, plus one more key component: they use whatever conflict the hero’s facing to interrogate the question “what does it mean to be [INSERT HERO NAME HERE]?” The reason Scott Snyder’s five year New 52 run on Batman was so consistently great is because with every arc, whether Bruce was facing off against the Court of Owls, Joker, or Riddler—or was replaced behind the cowl by Jim Gordon—Snyder was using these stories to examine the fundamental question of “what does it mean to be Batman?” from different angles.
Snyder continued applying that critical rigor to his storytelling in All-Star Batman, whether Bruce was going on a deadly road trip with Two-Face or fighting a clone of Alfred trained by Alfred’s former special forces mentor. Every story Snyder told in All-Star was a nuanced consideration of what makes these characters tick, from Bruce and Alfred to Mr. Freeze and Poison Ivy.
That eagerness to gaze right into the hearts of the characters is on display in each of the books I’ve talked about here. While these comics vary widely in subject matter, tone, and style, they’re all asking the fundamental questions that make superhero comics truly great. It’s an all too rare pleasure to have even one comic book about a character operating at this level of quality at a given time; that there are four all being published at the same time (with a fifth recently ended and promising a dramatic return), and that they’re succeeding in such wonderfully distinct ways, is an embarrassment of riches.
Batman’s been around for over three quarters of a century, so it’s possible there may have been a better time than this to be a fan of the character. Looking at all these books, however, I find that very hard to believe.