This Batman article contains spoilers.
Tom King is all about reflections. He’s the most prominent formalist working in superhero comics today. For him, “how” tells as much of the story as “why” or “what.” So it’s natural that Alfred’s death in his last story arc on Batman proper is a way for King to examine Bruce’s origin. After all, it was the death of his parents that set him down his path to becoming the Bat.
“Yeah, but it was also a way to show what the difference is between Bruce losing his parents when he was young and connected to them, and Bruce losing Alfred having been raised by Alfred,” King says in an interview about this last chapter of Batman.
He tells us that there’s one key difference between those two losses: “To me that was a tribute to Alfred’s parentage of Bruce for all these years and him guiding him through that trauma [of losing his parents]. Because you expect Batman in that moment to bury himself in anger and go insane and do all the things that drove him to be Batman in the first place. But instead of that, he hears Alfred’s voice and he composes himself.”
King’s first big superhero work was on Grayson, the gone-too-soon series that turned Nightwing into a super-spy, but his big splash came later, when three of his books hit simultaneously, all to a roar of critical acclaim: the Eisner-winning The Vision, the moving The Sheriff of Babylon, and the fan beloved Omega Men. All three function as a thematic trilogy – the Trilogy of Best Intentions, as King himself calls it – about plans going horribly wrong and the planners dealing with the feeling of inadequacy that comes with that realization.
“I call it the Trauma Trilogy,” King tells us. “These three were all about, I’ve said this publicly a billion times, about this nervous breakdown I had in 2016 when I first started on Batman, and how I recovered from that. And I sort of wrote it three different ways.”
Alfred’s death is one more trauma piled onto a life full of them for Bruce, but as King says, this one comes after a lifetime of Alfred’s love and guidance.
The addition of Bruce’s actual father (or at least a version of him) came relatively late in the game, according to King. The love story between Batman and Catwoman was part of the plan from the start of the run, King tells us, “and Bane was supposed to be the main bad guy. But the stuff with Flashpoint Batman evolved as we went along. I’d say that’s the thing that’s evolved the most.” But the evolution made sense: each of the four characters – Batman, Catwoman, Bane, and Thomas Wayne – was a different way into Gotham for the reader. “I do think they all represent this idea of who’s top of the mountain in their own way. And they all sort of approach it from different aspects of … I guess you could sort of say, like, who does Gotham belong to?”
Bane, King says, sees Gotham as a prize to take; Thomas as a burden; Catwoman as a prized part of her identity; and as for Bruce, “I mean that’s what the whole question is. What does he mean to Gotham?” Spoilers: it’s shown in issue #85.
Five years of a comic series is a long time, and naturally in a Batman comic, that time is full of blockbuster action sequences: the run started with Batman surfing a plane and trying to land it by hand with two ropes; ran through the invasion of a sovereign nation, a gang war between megavillains, heists, Scarecrow fear toxins, and finally a city run by a vindictive luchador with a police force full of supervillains. But it’s the quiet moments that will stand out: Batman, Catwoman, Superman, and Lois Lane on a double date, or Bruce Wayne arguing against Batman in a jury room. King credits his artists for being a huge part of why these character pieces landed so strongly.
“There’s not a lot of people who can draw a dynamic room with just 12 people talking,” he said, praising Lee Weeks, the artist on the “Cold Days” arc (aka “12 Angry Batmen”). “Clay [Mann] doing ‘Double Date,’ just him elevating himself and becoming the best artist in comics while I was watching. And then Mikel [Janin, artist on a good chunk of this Batman run, including its final pages], I’ve been with Mikel for five years now, since Grayson. He did the first Batman I did and he’s doing the last.”
These great artists helped elevate character moments into defining events for Batman. Even still, it was the annuals that King was most pleased with. The Ace the Bathound story he did with David Finch in the first annual earned them an Eisner nomination, and was suggested by his daughter. And the Alfred story he did with Jorge Fornes in the fourth annual serves as his “thesis statement” for his entire Batman run. But it’s the second annual that will likely endure. “I liked the second annual, which has sort of the first dates and the beginning of the end of the Catwoman/Batman relationship. That annual’s the jumping off point for the whole Batman/Catwoman series. So that’s how much I like it, I’m trying to copy it.”
That said, a long run on an ongoing title isn’t necessarily King’s preferred method of storytelling.
“I just want to do something, I don’t know, big and ambitious and literary and I don’t know if that’s possible [in this format],” King says. Instead, we’re going to get another thematic trilogy – the already announced Batman/Catwoman that concludes this story; Strange Adventures, the Adam Strange comic with Gerads and Doc Shaner; and one more unannounced book. “Strange Adventures will be about, how do we fight back this pernicious [garbage] that seems to surround us. And that’s what Batman/Catwoman will be about too.”
For the full transcript of this interview, come back after December 18th and the release of Batman #85.