Realism in superhero comics is a tricky thing. Injecting real-world logic and consequences has led to successes like Watchmen or the Ultimate Marvel stories of the early 2000’s. (It’s led to plenty of bad stories too, but how and ever…)
But superhero comics are action adventure stories that generally end with the protagonist punching the antagonist in the face. So it’s hard to see real life social problems like racism, drug addcition, income inequality, or domestic violence be treated seriously and dealt with in a nuanced way in a superhero comic, when ultimately the constraints of the superhero form mean that entrenched, long-lasting, and insidious social trends are cartoonised and reduced to something the hero can punch. Superhero comics are just not made to tackle these issues head on.
Which brings me to last week’s Batman 34, a single-issue story where Batman follows the trail of a nameless killer who haunts the poorest part of Gotham, killing homeless and marginalised people in the dead of night and burying them in unmarked graves in the Potter’s Field, a graveyard filled with unidentified and unclaimed bodies.
Looking at the villains we’ve seen so far in Scott Snyder’s Bat-run: an ancient court of the mega-rich who rule the city from the shadows and send owl-themed assassins to kill for them. A horror-movie slasher who stalks the Bat-family while wearing his own severed face as a mask. A scientist mutated by his own experiments. And a puzzle-obsessed genius who hacks into and overtakes an entire city.
All fine, well-written, pulpy stuff… but the villain of this month’s issue is a man introduced in a scene where he sneaks into an isolated young woman’s apartment, strangles her to death, and buries her in an unmarked grave. That’s an altogether darker story, and something that has happened before, in the real world, and will almost definitely happen again.
I’d like my Batman mysteries to be more Sherlock Holmes-style culprit-chases than True Detective-style gazes into the darkest corners of society’s subconscious, ya know?
Which isn’t to say that comics writers shouldn’t try to address real world issues, or that fiction shouldn’t provide a safe space for us to process our fears and darker impulses.
But when a story addresses a real-world situation like this, it should provide a model for how we should cope or deal with it. Batman #34 says we should deal with the possibility of violent home intrusion by putting on our digital facemask disguises, punching the bad guy out, sneaking him into a cell in the local insane asylum, and wait for a supervillain to deal with him.
All of which isn’t to say I didn’t enjoy the issue: in writing, theme, and production values it maintains the very high standards of the rest of Snyder’s time on the title. Guest writer Gerry Duggan, visiting from Marvel’s Deadpool, works from a story plotted by Snyder and maintains the voice and tone of Snyder’s larger story well.
A lot of this is because Duggan incorporates a few of the depth-building writerly touches that Snyder has brought to the rest of his run: Paralleled dialogue links and contrasts Batman’s paternalistic and authoritative protection of the city (“I see everyone”) with Leslie Thompkin’s role as a supportive, maternal, and healing force in her community (“I worry about everyone”).
Detective Bullock compliments Bats on his lurking skills” in nature and in the city”. And Duggan uses the now-familiar Snyder-style intro: beginning the opening scene with some little historic, literary, or scientific fact that hints at the story’s theme (here it’s the recent discovery of a new colour “vantablack” – “something that’s blacker than black”).
Another depth-adding detail is the way the killer is visually positioned as a stand-in for the Joker – he has a thin, gangly build, his most visible expressive feature is his grin, which is highlighted in more than one close-up panel. He wears overalls and a peaked cap, and often has flies buzzing around him – all of which call to mind the redesigned Joker who appeared in Snyder’s “Death of the Family” story last year. These visual cues suggest that the killer represents what a man who had the Joker’s lack of empathy and compulsion to kill would be like in real life. This, as mentioned above, makes me a little uncomfortable because there are men like that in the real world, and we can’t rely on Batman to beat them up.
After the “Zero Year” storyline, a year-long delve into the rebooted Batman’s origins, it’s nice to check back in with the present day, confident and established Bats. It’s only a quick drop in on present-day Batman however, as next month another guest writer will flash forward five years as part of DC’s Future’s End event.
Since it’s been over a year since we checked in with the modern-day status quo in Gotham, Duggan an artist Matteo Scalera wisely include a double-page spread that shows Bruce mulling over the ongoing plot threads: the police force has largely turned against him, Commissioner Gordon has been wrongly imprisoned due to the staged murder playing out in the Batman: Eternal companion series, Selina Kyle has set herself up as the city’s newest crime lord, and the Joker is still missing after the events of “Death of the Family”.
I enjoyed Snyder’s reworking of Batman’s early career in Zero Year, even if the year-long story started to drag slightly in its final few months, and I’m a sucker for “X years later…” style flash-forward stories, but it will be nice to settle back into a rhythm of present day Bruce patrolling Gotham after Future’s End wraps up.
- Between the extended flashback to Batman’s beginning in Zero Year and the drawn out weirdness of the Justice League’s Forever Evil event, the momentum and consequences of Damian Wayne’s death have been largely skipped over. It’s been over a year for us readers, but in the story world the guy just lot his son a month ago, and it really hasn’t been touched on that much. And yes, I know that Bruce’s grief is being dealt with in the Batman and Robin series, but it seems like it would also inform his psychology and portrayal in the other bat-books aswell, right? Or at least be mentioned?
- I realise my rant against the overuse of realism might read like I think real world problems and concerns shouldn’t be addressed in superhero fiction. I’d say rather that I think real world problems shouldn’t be presented as the villain of a superhero story. Good work can and is being done in comics in reflecting positive models of social change, not as the core problem to be solved in a story, but arising naturally from the characters: in Snyder’s run we have Harper Row’s proud but victimised gay brother Cullen, and Marvel has taken steps recently to make better use of their female and minority characters, with their most publicised moved being the announcement of upcoming series featuring a black Captain America and a female Thor. Baby steps, but baby steps in the right direction.
About the author: A lifelong TV addict since his first episode of Sesame Street, Cian Sheppard works as an English teacher in Germany and thinks you look very nice today.