Issue #23 of Tom Kings time on Batman present’s another high point for the run as he’s joined by the writer’s Sheriff of Babylon co-creator and artist Mitch Gerads. It’s a team up issue with Swamp Thing that represents some of the duo’s best work together. It’s a comic filled with intrigue, high action, humor and profound reflection for a single issue story that grabs you by the throat without letting up.
King & Gerads have established themselves as a comics duo whose output is always worth considering based on the short amount of time they’ve been working together. Gerads has a degree of realism to his style of illustration that helps for Kings more grounded storytelling concepts. This dynamic works especially well on Batman, a superhero with no superpower who patrols a dark and dysfunctional modern cityscape. Like in the duo’s past collaboration on the title in issue’s #14 & #15, the two creators unique gifts are exemplified from a more measured story that relies heavily on dialogue. Gerads has always been a skilled comics artist, but the way his style has grown and matured in the intervening years from where he started on The Activity with Image to now is noteworthy for the refinement of his skills. There’s a lushness to his overall composition here, while his character work subtlety emotes, it’s clear in it’s intentions without announcing itself too strongly. At the same time, Gerads is still illustrating a superhero book, and his work in those moments astounds. There’s a beautiful double page spread of Swamp Thing sitting in Bruce Wayne’s study with all the vegetation wildly flowing out of his body while Alfred sweeps the floor behind him and the family dogs stares towards him with confusion. There’s an exhilarating two page sequence of Batman jumping off a sky scraper and a display of Swamp Things vegetation power being used for a horrific act of revenge. It’s visceral and visually arresting for a comic that perfectly matches the disparate characters unique sensibilities.
Much of issue #23 is a study in contrast between Batman and Swamp Thing centered on the ultimate question of life and death. Swamp Thing want’s to know who killed his father, but he doesn’t know why he does as life and death are all part of a larger whole that is all around us from his unique perspective. Batman is intrigued by this world view as his entire life has shaped around witnessing the brutal death of his own parents. The issue itself is about their separate search for answers coinciding. King’s style of writing is well established now with his innovative use of the medium’s structure, his direct and purposeful dialogue, his soft touches of humor, and his unique ability to craft overarching stories that are both wildly entertaining on the surface with deep and thoughtful questions at their core. In a lot of ways, Batman #23 feels like the writer’s tribute to Alan Moore for it’s usage of the Swamp Thing character. A lot of this is natural to King’s style, like his usage of comic grids to stretch the economy of story or his dabbling’s in esoteric philosophy. But it becomes more apparent here with the writers use of Swamp Thing, again, partially as a natural extension of Swamp Thing much in the same way as Grant Morrison & Doom Patrol, but also to a degree in style and execution. If you squint hard enough, Batman #23 can almost read like a symbol of King’s relation to Moore, the hope that the writers work gave so many readers in realizing his genius, and the disappointment in learning overtime that he’s just as human as you are I with all of it’s natural failings. Regardless of intent, it’s a brilliant piece of comics writing from one of the mediums leading modern voices.
Batman #23 is an excellent mediation on some of life’s ultimate questions. It’s equally, an enjoyable one shot superhero comic about a team up between a guy that dresses like a bat and a plant person. In that sense, it does what comics do best in pulling from best of both high and low brow to strike the perfect balance between entertainment and enlightenment. It doesn’t have the exact answer it set’s out to find, because that one doesn’t exist,but instead, it finds the truth in both world views and in that, fills in the space in between. Life and death, a dude in a bat suit and a plant person; it’s all one in the same but unique for each individual. We all share the pain, but or own is ours to keep.