DC seems to go through massive shakeups to their entire line every 18 months or so, with Convergence being the most recent inducement to line-wide change. And no family of comics has benefited as much from the changes since Convergence as the Batman titles: between new story arcs, a new status quo for Batman, and a couple of series that were already good being brought closer in because of these new stories, the Batman family is as solid as it has ever been in my lifetime.
When you look at the elevator pitches for many of these series, they sound like stories that would set fandom aflame. They are either dramatic departures from what might be perceived as the core of the characters, or completely new stories and characters and settings that have never before been examined in Batman comics.
So what is it about the execution of these stories that makes them not just good, but some of the best Batman stories ever written? Let’s take a look…
The Pitch: Ripped vaping marine Jim Gordon patrols Gotham in a Bat-mech created by Powers Corp, while Bruce “Hot Ryu” Wayne, suffering from amnesia, fights child poverty by installing playgrounds in low income neighborhoods.
What the hell factor: Infinite. If you asked a random 12 year old to free associate about Batman and you didn’t get arrested, “Regular person” “no powers” and “Bruce Wayne” would be three of the first ten phrases she gave you. None of those things are associated with the main character in the book right now.
Why it works: Because it’s about something bigger than who Bruce Wayne punches.
The key to understanding what Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo are trying to do with the whole “Gordon as Appleseed Batman” is, oddly enough, the one issue of the story arc that’s got Bruce Wayne in the cape and cowl. Batman #44 takes readers back to just after Zero Year, showing us a systemic failure in a broken, barely recovering city; a failure that led to the death of a kid from the Narrows. It used a host of real world problems – gentrification, gang violence, gun violence, police brutality and corruption – mixing them in with the superhero elements that needed to be there.
But it was the real world problems that in the end gave away the whole game. There is a real criticism of Batman as a concept, that it’s a comic about a rich white guy who beats on poor kids from the bad part of town, that makes the book more delicate and sometimes uncomfortable than the icon should be.
So what the creative team did is they split out all of those systemic problems, and chopped the Batman mythology into pieces to address all of them. Because at its core, what is Batman? It’s a story about Bruce Wayne working with unimpeachable cop Jim Gordon and a team of people to make a city safe to walk around in. So Bruce Wayne and his sexy beard are rebuilding the city, this time taking into account the displacement that a rush of money might cause. Jim Gordon is taking on the mantle of the Bat as a symbol of rehabilitating the police’s image in Gotham.
The whole city is on board with helping this Batman work, distributing the idea through the entirety of Gotham, making him the city’s, instead of one guy. There is a real, conscious wink to We Are Robin (which we’ll get to) that, in the 45 issues plus Annuals of Batman that I’ve bought since the reboot, has never been there. That’s another nod to the team element: the Bat-mythos flipping the structure of gangs around to something positive (and, historically, not dissimilar to how some gangs began).
Bruce has given the costume to other people, but it was always to someone from within his story: Dick Grayson, because it always made sense; Damian Wayne because it was the future; Jean Paul Valley because the audience was taking him for granted and he needed someone with a punchable face for when he came back. Gordon is the most out of left field who’s ever taken over as Batman, but he’s also the best examination of why Batman works.
The Pitch: Jim Gordon in a mech suit joins the Justice League.
What the Hell Factor: I know “Infinity + 1” isn’t a thing (until it is, cough cough brandnewInfinityIncpitchcallmeDC cough), but if it’s infinite for Jim Gordon in a mech suit as Batman, then putting Commissioner Gordon on the Justice League is certainly one step crazier.
Why It Works: Because it leans into the absurdity.
Mecha Batman or not, Gordon is never going to fit in with the Justice League. He’s Snapper Carr in a power loader. Pre-Identity Crisis Max Lord in an Autobot exosuit. Trying to have him hang with Superman (even jeans and a t-shirt Superman) or Wonder Woman is futile.
So that’s why “Flash and Commissioner Gordon do an autopsy on a murdered giant” is a great idea. It’s a reasonable excuse for him to be there, even if having Barry there negates the need for all the expository dialogue. But as a comic, CSI: Justice League is a ton of fun – and it earns Gordon the respect of the League
The Pitch: Dick Grayson fakes his own death and goes undercover as a superspy to bring down a clandestine agency run by maybe Batman’s ex-girlfriend.
What the Hell Factor: Moderate to severe.
Dick Grayson, in addition to being the DC Universe’s ultimate glue guy, the one who no shit everybody (even some villains) really likes, is also the guy who saw Batman – an obsessive, jacked, goth weirdo working out his abandonment issues with his fists – and thought “You know what this guy needs? Someone to dress up like a pack of Fruit Stripe and jump around with him.”
So of course, the next logical step in his story is to “kill” him, make him wear all grey and black, and have everyone forget what all his front stuff looks like.
Why it works: He may not be dressed up like a high-value target-slash-candy anymore, but Grayson is nothing if not fun. Grant Morrison’s post-“Return of Bruce Wayne” Batman stuff was largely an exercise in him trying to figure out how much bonkers ‘60s camp he could jam back into the Bat universe, and like just about everything else he’s written, was intensely difficult to build off of for other writers.
So naturally, Tim Seeley and Tom King are running wild with it, planting Dick in the middle of the nonsensical spy agency Spyral, run by Huntress and the two daughters of World War 2 Nazi super scientist, Otto Netz, one of whom is the original, 1950s Batwoman. They’re building a tight, classic spy story about Dick trying to get a handle on this organization from within, all while wallowing in the ridiculous aspects of that super spy universe, like the facial disruption software that makes it so no one remembers what you look like, or the finishing school for teen girl assassins. Coupled with Mikel Janin, an artist who thrives drawing complicated, acrobatic action sequences, and you have maybe the best book in the entire line.
ROBIN: SON OF BATMAN
The Pitch: Damian Wayne (who is exactly like Bruce Wayne in ninjaness, grumpiness, and curtness, but is also a 10 year old boy) rides a Man Bat luckdragon around the world reverse-Indiana Jonesing precious artifacts: taking them from his grandfather (Ra’s al Ghul)’s museum of mystical murdertoys and putting them back with the indigenous people he stole them from.
What the Hell Factor: Roughly equivalent to the amount your parents paid for dental work you needed because you thought you were a little Rock Biter too. …I can’t possibly be the only one who did that.
Why it Works: It’s a redemption story for someone who, quite honestly, I never realized needed redemption. Damian Wayne’s major redemptive arc took place in two phases: first, when he was initially introduced, then partnered with Dick Grayson in Morrison’s Batman/Batman & Robin, then again when he had problems dialing back the violence in Pete Tomasi and Patrick Gleason’s Batman & Robin. This time, he’s using his father’s “death” as his impetus to put a bunch of stuff right from when he was training with the League of Assassins.
The book is great in no small part because Gleason and his inker, Mick Gray, are one of my favorite Batman art teams of all time. On Batman & Robin, they mixed magnificently choreographed and blocked fight scenes with noir, Batman: The Animated Series inspired shadows that were so distinctive and informed the entire tone of the book. Here, with no Batman to shade, the art is immaculate and simple, but with incredibly vibrant, dynamic colors, almost to the point of psychedelia.
As a central conceit, I’m not entirely sold on Robin digging deep into his past to find reasons to redeem himself, but Gleason (who’s also writing this) has such a great handle on Damian’s voice and makes the book look so good that I’m fine with it as an excuse to get him drawing so many different locales.
WE ARE ROBIN
The Pitch: Following the events of “Endgame,” where all of Gotham was infected with Joker gas, Anonymous decides to become actual, punching superheroes.
What the Hell Factor: On its face, as ridiculous as dressing up as 4chan Man for Halloween.
Why it Works: This is really what Robin is about, isn’t it? The addition of Robin to Batman’s crusade made it less a crusade and more an opportunity for growth. This is applying that growth to the entire city of Gotham – vigilantism as a hybrid civic activism/social movement.
I’m sure that there’s a chance we might look back at this comic in 5 years as a relic of a different time, but this is very much in line with what Snyder and Capullo are doing in examining the value and applicability of the Batman story in the world we live in today – taking the social unrest that’s out in the world and running it through a superhero comics filter to see if we can understand it better.
Lee Bermejo, Jorge Corona, Khary Randolph and the rest of the creators on We Are Robin aren’t shying away from the problems inherent with the concept – it looks like Robin War, the upcoming crossover, is at least instigated by the mistakes Duke and Riko and the rest make. But the incredible art (particularly from James Harvey on issue 4) and a perfect Pete Rock & CL Smooth reference help make this one of the most interesting and different Batman comics published in a long time.
BATMAN & ROBIN ETERNAL
The Pitch: Some mystery villain from Batman and Dick Grayson’s early years on the job returns now, with a plan to take out Dick, Jason Todd, Tim Drake, and Harper Row.
What the Hell Factor: A New 52 continuity ouroboros made of precious metals.
The….hurriedness…of the Flashpoint reboot worked well for some books, and has given us some of the best Batman comics of all time, but it did so despite how little thought was put into managing the continuity of the reboot. Compressing Batman’s entire history down to 5 years completely screws up his timeline. I guess Batman went through a Robin every 9 months or so? I dunno. But calling attention to that time period, which B&R Eternal is doing, is a sketchy proposition.
Why it Works: Because who cares about that shit, this is (as the iFanboy gang put it in a podcast a few weeks back) “…all the Robin kids teaming up to solve a mystery.”
Once you set aside your qualms about the mucked up time periods and just settle into all the Robins ever bouncing around the globe, this comic gets really good. From a purely fan perspective, any book that brings back Cassandra Cain and Stephanie Brown in the first issue is a hit. The fact that the writers also use Cassandra perfectly, and have her point out that they know exactly what makes each Robin great (Jason’s the fist, Tim’s the brains, and Dick is the heart) makes it even better.
The Pitch: Barbara Gordon moves to Williamsburg, trades her Bat-cycle for a Vespa and starts preaching about bespoke cowls and “gently loved utility belts.”
What the Hell Factor: Honestly, not that much.
This isn’t a change that’s at odds with the core of the character or a dubious creative decision as much as it is a different setting and art style. But hipsters are kinda annoying, so there’s that.
Why it Works: There’s nothing annoying about Babs Tarr’s art. She and Cam Stewart, one of the series’ writers, designed maybe the most cosplayable getup in all of comics right now (only Spider-Gwen comes close). It’s so pragmatic yet cool looking that I’ve seen people wearing the Batgirl jacket just to go out, not as part of a full cosplay getup.
It’s not exclusively her design work, though. She’s exceptionally versatile: the quiet, roommates-talking-about-life moments are cartoonish and expressive, funny when the script calls for it, but generally just entertaining and a little exaggerated. And her action scenes are impeccable. This might be a comic that has the trappings of hipsterism, but it revels in her acrobatic fight scenes. Tarr conveys movement and gives her fights a sense of place as well as the best Spider-Man artists do.
The Pitch: Wildstorm’s gay Batman analogue starts kicking the everloving shit out of the DCU superspy world to try and track down superhero enhancements that have been robbed from the people who created him.
What the Hell Factor: Light and firm, like dat ass. It’s less surprising that Midnighter is good, and much, much more surprising that Midnighter, an unabashedly capital-P Proud (in the gay rights sense of the word), gleefully violent comic, is so deeply entwined in the Batman universe.
Why it Works: Because the creative team, Steve Orlando and Aco, love everything about making this book. It’s honest and confident about Lucas and how he recovers from his breakup with Apollo – there’s a scene in the first issue where we find out that he talks about superheroing on his Grindr profile.
Also, did I mention gleefully violent? There’s an issue where Midnighter punches himself deaf so his opponent can’t use her killing words on him. Related: I LOVE WRITING ABOUT COMICS.
The Pitch: Selina Kyle, Mob Boss.
What the Hell Factor: Four fishes wrapped in bulletproof vests out of a possible five.
Catwoman’s core is a thief, someone who swipes a priceless gem from an inordinately complicated security system, then flirts with Batman as she gets away with it. Her comic is most certainly not that – instead of whimsy and flirting, there’s murder and intrigue. And some flirting.
Why it Works: Genevieve Valentine has weaved a story that’s every bit as complex and twisting as something by Jonathan Hickman, but it’s based entirely in interpersonal relationships. Valentine’s run on Catwoman is a classic because of how much depth it added to Batman’s villains: Penguin, Black Mask, and the various Catwomen certainly benefitted from all the attention they got, but even Spoiler and Killer Croc came out as better, more interesting characters than they were when Valentine took over.