By Tom King, David Finch & Jordie Bellaire
After 77 years of stories, how does a writer render a character such as Batman fresh once again? One key is to strip away conventions that have built up over the decades as certain traits have fossilized into tropes. Batman is a brooding loner, obsessed with justice to the point of madness. He is a man of few words. He has a plan for everything. He never sits. While most of these examples have been the basis for classic tales, taken as gospel they become restricting. This week author Tom King fiddles with the accepted formula as he continues to breathe new life into a book that had grown stale.
At first glance, the issue opens with one of the most overused devices in Bat-lore: narration describing how degrading it is to live in Gotham City. “When you’re raised in the piss and smoke [of the city] . . . something happens to you . . . you sort of become it.” Gotham is often portrayed in the comics as a grimy, unsavory urban plight which always damns, never saves. This impression is reinforced by David Finch’s visuals depicting a young couple walking along the streets with their son. Then, as it invariably does in Gotham, crimes rears its head and an armed robbery is on the brink of turning deadly. The reader, jumping to conclusions, assumes that they are witnessing the most overused cliché of the Bat-mythos: replaying the murder of Thomas and Martha Wayne. The tone of the narration reinforces this idea with its assertions of gathering strength to resist the darkness. It would seem that once more the fans overhear Batman discuss how his anger drives his mission forward.
Yet, if the reader were to presume that, they would be wrong. Soon, Batman is leaping into the confrontation, easily knocking out the assailant before any innocent blood has been spilled. What is most striking about this opening scene is what King and Finch do not emphasize. Batman is not a creature of shadows but stands outside of them. Instead of immediately darting off leaving the would-be victims as frightened as their terrorizer, he offers consolation. He tells the family there is nothing wrong with fright; it is a universal emotion. The important part is how they react. If everyone gets scared, it also means that “Everyone gets the chance to be brave.”
This highlighting of positive responses is central to the issue, which begins to shed light on who Gotham City’s newest protectors are. Hank, the couple’s son becomes fixated with the Batman; soon his younger sister Claire joins in his passion. There is a lovely panel of the siblings nestled together beneath Hank’s wall of Batman clippings. Colorist Jordie Bellaire baths the room in dark, yet warm, twilight hues. Hank and Claire draw security from not only each other, but their hero, the Batman. His example guides them in a life of service to others. They volunteer at soup kitchens, while training their minds and their bodies. They work in war zones with the Red Cross. Then one day even that was not enough and they took a step further to become superheroes: Gotham and Gotham Girl.
This background is reflected in the personalities of the new heroes. They are enthusiastic, eager to please especially in the presence of their inspiration, Batman. King does a fantastic job of scripting their youthful determination without overplaying their naiveté. Their lack of experience does not mean that they are inept. They banter back-and-forth, easily conveying their familiar bond. Even the sound effects add a certain goofy charm, such as the “ZBOOSH” of a distant explosion. Their first full appearance last issue left them seeming rather flat; today’s installment corrects that impression. By the end of #3 they have endeared themselves to the readers.
Unfortunately also by the end of #3 the villain has appeared. Just as the reader has grown fond of the brother and sister, King hints that he is about to twist the knife. In doing so, he pulls the rug out from under the reader, revealing that all those thoughts about Gotham from the opening belong not to the city’s hero, but Batman’s antagonist, Professor Hugo Strange. Briefly glimpsed at the end of #2, Strange plays a small but intriguing role in #3. He speaks of his plans for the city, his hope for “separat[ing] the life of the mind from rot of the city.” Strange speaks with a chilling fascination as if he views the citizens of Gotham as part of a massive experiment in urban behavior. The best Hugo Strange stories, such as Prey, have always been the ones which emphasize his analytic nature, his compulsive need to prove himself superior in all ways, while at the same time believing that he is working for some greater good. This type of deluded arrogance makes him a natural fit for King’s storytelling. Strange’s variety of savage intellect would not be out of place either in the starships of The Omega Men or Humvees of The Sheriff of Babylon.
Overall, Finch does a good job with art for this issue. Some of the sequences are still a little shaky, but he has improved over the previous installments. He particularly excels at a dramatic rescue operation on a bridge. The sequence opens with a splash page focused on Gotham straining to hold up the structure after it has been damaged by a bomb. This is followed by a widescreen two-page spread anchored on Gotham Girl hovering in the air with a rescued child. The crippled bridge stretches out before her, while two panels in the bottom right depict Batman hurrying to the scene. It is a tense, striking scene, which represents Finch’s best work for the series to date.
When DC first announced that King was bringing new heroes to Gotham as “rivals” for The Caped Crusader, there was a sense of familiarity about it. Oh another story about someone encroaching on Batman’s turf; there is almost always something fishy about those types. Again the drawback of nearly eight decades of exploits is that fans of nearly any era have watched this plot play out in one way or another. What King does so well is defy those expectations by scripting an issue that feels as fresh and surprising as anything else on the stands this week. And for that reason, it is This Week’s Finest.