Review: Batman Vol. 1: I Am Gotham (Rebirth) trade paperback (DC Comics)

Thursday, January 12, 2017

As an early foray into the DC Comics "Rebirth" universe, Tom King's Batman Vol. 1: I Am Gotham delights and disappoints. The flair for smart action King showed on Grayson is in full force here, and this is a pulse-pounding Batman story well-drawn by David Finch. But the story unfolds along predictable lines, and for a story published twice-monthly and told in fairly decompressed manner, it stops short of delving into its material as deeply as it could. Further, the seams of this latest DC relaunch are already showing, with confusion abounding as to who's who and who knows who and how.

[Review contains spoilers]

Heading off Batman's Rebirth relaunch -- DC Comics's most successful title coming out of the New 52 -- Tom King's foremost job is keep up the momentum right away. This, King accomplishes, with his Rebirth special co-written with Scott Snyder and then his Batman #1. The former, buoyed significantly by artist Mikel Janin, sees a dizzying scene of Bruce Wayne hanging off a building by one hand and later nearly dying in Gotham's frozen watery depths. Batman #1's issue-long caper, with volume artist David Finch, has Batman launching himself atop a plane crash-landing into the middle of Gotham, where against all odds he manages to right the plane, but at almost certain cost of his own life. That's where I Am Gotham begins, with Batman cheating death by luck alone, and King's tongue-in-cheek use of a "fasten seatbelts" sign in the beginning is pretty accurate. In gripping, expertly choreographed action, King is bar none. King also uses the extra space of shipping twice monthly for some wry, amusing sequences, especially with Batman and Commissioner Gordon.

But I Am Gotham introduces the super-powered heroes Gotham and Gotham Girl in its second issue, with their genuine intention to train with and learn from Batman, and by the fourth issue Gotham has already gone bad. King barely even gives the audience time to care about Gotham before the Psycho Pirate changes him, and given that the book is twice monthly, Gotham became villain less than a month after he was introduced. That Gotham City's new heroes should be the villains of the piece is predictable in the extreme, a plot we've seen hundreds of times even as recently as Superman/Wonder Woman Vol. 3: Casualties of War. As a story to launch a brand-new era of Batman, I expected something much more complex.

The difficulties with the story abound. There's a suggestion that Batman agrees to train Gotham and Gotham Girl because he sees himself and his allies outmatched in Gotham City and believes super-powered heroes might be the answer, a gigantic admission on Batman's part (upheld later on when he calls in the Justice League). We never, however, get the flip side of that, what Batman thinks about super-powered heroes in his city after Gotham is mind-controlled; Batman's arc in this volume doesn't feel finished. Nor is the hero Gotham being named "Gotham" used to its full potential; metaphorically, the city Gotham rejects Batman and Batman bids it farewell, but there's no real tie to Gotham City and its people to give this full relevance. Also, Batman appears to blame Gotham for the mayhem and death he causes, but it's clear to all parties that Gotham isn't in control; if Batman held against Superman the number of times he's been mind-controlled, and even killed during those times as in Trinity War, the World's Finest wouldn't be speaking today.

As well, the book's conclusion puts a lot of weight on Gotham's sister, Gotham Girl Claire Clover. In some respects, as Batman reveals his identity to Claire and seems to take her under his wing, it seems King wants the audience to see Claire as akin to Batman, even as Claire wasn't even present at her parents and brother's Crime Alley-esque mugging and that she only fights crime because it was her brother's idea. As well, Batman's new partner Duke Thomas appears to fall in love with Claire on sight, ludicrously while she's half out of her mind, and the audience is supposed to believe this even so far as, in future-peering dialogue, that Duke and Claire will be married some day. As with the hero Gotham, King hasn't done enough to make the readers feel the emotion that the characters do, and so both Batman and Duke come off hopelessly overwrought.

I will acknowledge that perhaps my expectations are too high, but again for a book meant to launch DC Comics's bold new era, and following Snyder's Batman run no less, I expect I Am Gotham to be pretty close to flawless. But a lot of details feel off; King has a scene where Alfred chides Thomas Wayne aloud for being "absurd" enough to walk through Crime Alley, for instance. Though King's Batman directly references Snyder's before him, Batman has stopped calling Alfred "Penny-One" for some reason, and equally problematic is Batman's insistence on calling Duke "Mr. Thomas" when he's called all his other sidekicks by their first names previously. One of Amanda Waller's well-trained soldiers is apparently so poorly trained that in answer to Gotham having killed the other members of his unit that he tracks down and kills Gotham's parents in revenge, even despite that the unit knows about the Psycho Pirate's machinations. Around the edges, the fact that David Finch draws this Batman story that also utilizes the Justice League and has Bane at its center is slightly too evocative of Finch's previous Batman: The Dark Knight Vol. 1: Knight Terrors.

In the present volume, Finch depicts Batman stopping the Clover mugging supposedly 5-10 years ago in a costume almost exactly like his current one, which seems not only an error but also an indication of continuity issues afoot. The same as with the New 52 relaunch (and really every post-event relaunch up to this point), it takes a while for the characters' histories to solidify (and especially in Rebirth where the characters' histories are purposefully up in the air). Solomon Grundy appears here, a villain supposedly endemic to Earth 2; also a super-powered Calendar Man, who'd been a non-powered gangster as recently as Detective Comics Vol. 7: Anarky; Psycho Pirate Roger Hayden, the pre-Flashpoint version, even though post-Flashpoint he's appeared as a Brainiac-possessed individual in the Superman titles; and an evil Hugo Strange, whom Red Hood and the Outlaws had established as being perceived as a good, normal man. The New 52 titles could change things as they pleased given the apparent establishment of a new continuity, but when Rebirth is supposed to continue from before, these mis-fits are hard to figure.

Tom King populates Batman Vol. 1: I Am Gotham with enough cool moments to bring me back for another, admittedly some of the same things that gave me pause here -- Batman versus Bane, Batman working with Amanda Waller, what mild hints we get of ties to the larger DC Rebirth story, even the enthusiasm for the material that King professes in his interviews. The story is multi-layered, despite that some of those layers are troubled, and I don't want to understate that King gets the action right and the dialogue as well, for the most part. Hopefully the difficulties here are growing pains and the next volume demonstrates an upward trend.

[Includes original and twenty-seven variant covers, character sketches and David Finch pencils]
Collected Editions 2017 Comic Book Gift Guide
Get the Collected Editions scoop before anyone else -- on Facebook!

12 comments:

  1. As ever, you raise many salient points, and I am tempted to dig out my floppies and have another go at this arc.

    First, to your question of "who knows what," I believe REBIRTH isn't a reboot so much as a touching-up, which the Snyder/King one-shot literalizes beautifully. Like Calendar Man, who regenerates again and again, always the same but also slightly different, the DC Universe has molted its New 52 mantle, kept what worked, and augmented ever so slightly. I don't think there's been anything on the order of a retcon (though this week's floppies saw both classless/classic Lobo and "Twilight" Lobo in the same continuity, when I thought one had killed the other), but we've seen Black Canary (re)unite with Green Arrow and restored the Superman/Lois relationship through some wobbly-wobbly continuity. So I think Batman, as was the case in 2011, has had very little of his backstory changed.

    I do agree that this arc is somewhat middling fare taken on its own, especially after we just had a new golden era with Snyder & Morrison writing the character AT THE SAME TIME. (One day I'll tell my children we never had it so good!) However, Tom King has proven time and again that all his stuff is connected, and it all pays off in the end. Throwaway lines like Viv Vision's "It just passes through me" or the resemblance between the Omega symbol and the GL logo... these show us that King is always already playing the long game. He's a treasure, and I trust where he's going with this, especially as the arcs are showing even more points of contact. I've heard that Rebirth has its two years plotted out in advance, and I've little doubt that King will stick the landing. (Disclaimer: I think Vision was the greatest comic of 2016. It moved me emotionally nearly every issue, and it reminded me of what the comics medium can do in a way that I haven't noticed since Watchmen.)

    Maybe it's just that I'm getting older, or that CW's Flash has solidified the idea of parallel worlds in my mind, or perhaps it's a major lesson learned from Disney's "EU Purge" of Star Wars canon, but I am less and less concerned about continuity. So the Hugo Strange reveal - that this is apparently the first time this Batman has met Strange - didn't faze me much. Everything old might be new again, but I see Rebirth as in part designed to remind us what we love about these characters. If that entails a quiet reset button, that's fine - does anyone really remember what Strange was up to in the New 52, anyway? (Something involving a son, I think? I can't recall those back-up features well.)

    Long way of saying, keep up the good work, kind sir. You've given me pause to reflect, remember, and re-engage with my favorite fictional character. I was just remarking in my LCS yesterday how much I'm enjoying DC's line so far (I'm a lapsed trade-waiter, hooked on floppies), and your reviews let me relive it all over again. "Batman and Robin will never die!"

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Appreciate the comment. I'm clear too on Rebirth not being a continuity "reboot," but then rather I think King's playing a bit too fast and loose -- things like the classic Psycho Pirate and evil Hugo Strange, when those don't mesh with New 52 continuity, are cases of not respecting the audience's time and effort given that Rebirth isn't a reboot. A writer's going to do what they're going to do within the covers of their own book, but I thought it was sloppy out of the Rebirth gate.

      That said, both Grayson and Omega Men give me, too, immense trust for King, so I'm willing to go along for the ride. Say, how much Marvel trivia do you need to know to enjoy Vision? Everyone raves about it but if I'm going to miss a big emotional moment because I don't get that this dialogue refers to Scarlet Witch or something, then I might as well stick with the universe I know.

      Quiet reset button is fine. I'm not nearly so concerned as these reviews might make it out. And surely I believe we're going to see some grafting of post-Crisis continuity on New 52 continuity at some point anyway; I figured this was an opening salvo.

      Delete
  2. Also, Strange was a "good professor" in the Gotham Academy title. This was pretty etablished.

    Well, we can agree that at some point, Strange lost his mind... And we'll surely never know how.

    I can't decide yet if I like what Tom King is building or not... But as ever, I like your reviews who bring up some relevant points to the continuity discussion !

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Ha! Are there any "good professors" in Gotham Academy? I always assumed all of them have their own insidious agendas. Except Simon Trent. That guy seems cool

      Delete
  3. Sadly, your hope that these are growing pains and the next arc would show improvement is the same hope I had and it was in no way fulfilled. The "I Am Suicide" story makes even less sense than this one and features horrible character assassination of Selina Kyle. I'm forced to admit that, while he has written great books (like the excellent "Sheriff of Babylon"), Tom King simply does not understand Batman or his world in the least. Oh, well. At least the pictures are pretty.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hmm ... curious to see what happens.

      Delete
    2. Have you read the full arc? Selina's arc makes a lot of sense. It just doesn't go with the most comfortable portrayal, because people are used to her being a lovey Dover love interest instead of a clever femme fatale. Everything falls into place, it's just not spelled out in black and white.

      Delete
  4. I got a completely different feeling about this. I agree, the good guy turned bad is a plot line that has been used before. That doesn't mean I can't enjoy it.

    I disagree on a few points, but let me first say that I agree that the story could have been fleshed out a bit more.

    Firstly, I know it's semantics, it wasn't mind control but emotions gone in overdrive and as we can see in Gotham Girl there is a degree of control although the effect don't wear off because of it.

    Secondly, I disagree that Batman lays the blame on Gotham even though he was mind controlled as you said. He only did it before he completely knew what happened. After he learns about the Psycho-Pirate he clearly tries to explain to Gotham that he can overcome this.

    The 28th soldier part seems a bit under explained, just like a few other things, but this can be explained by him also being under effect of the Psycho-Pirate.

    Batman doesn't relate to Gotham Girl because of the similarities to things that happened to their parents. But because he wants to show her that there is a light at the end of the tunnel, even though things look bleak now. I think it's wrong to say: she wasn't even with her parents when they got robbed. It was an event that clearly had an impact and I can completely understand the fear of losing someone at any time, not knowing if your last words to them would be the last you spoke to them. It is explained that this pushed her closer and closer to her brother who wanted to become like the person who saved him. It was her fear of the possibility of losing him if she wasn't with him that drove her to join him. It was a good thing to do this, just like it was with Tim Drake back when he first appeared. Parental tragedy might be a big part of the origin of many Batman characters, but this shouldn't mean it's what is required.

    On Duke and Gotham Girl, they don't seem to fall in love. You clearly see the first hints of an emotional connection on the pages, but nothing more. I know they mention they will get married down the line and although I personally thought this was completely unnecessary info at the time and didn't fit that page, I understand that it fits the new Rebirth way of showing people that even in tragedy there can be happiness.

    But mainly this books seems to be about Batman growing in a positive way, this isn't unprecedented. We've had this before after Infinite Crisis, remember Batman apologizing to the cop in Batman: Face the Face? Him seeking outside help from Jason Bard back then. We see a small spark from this in the Rebirth issue, were Bruce tells Duke: "We come back better too".

    I don't worry about Solomon Grundy, since this is still Earth-0 just like New Earth was Earth-0 a combination of previous multiple worlds. It is completely possible that a version of him exists here, certainly since DC Universe: Rebirth showed that the JSA existed even though we've only seen them on Earth-2 so far.

    I must admit, I'm not up to date with Hugo Strange his previous activities, I'll have to reread a bit for that.

    Ok, I've reread Red Hood and the Outlaws. They clearly make him a person with alternative motives in issue #16 and the other issues he seems to do the opposite of helping Roy. Some more work looking things up showed that was also in early Detective Comics, he clearly wasn't a good guy there. He's also recruited into the Crime Syndicate in Forever Evil. I don't know about the Gotham Academy title since I don't own any yet. I also looked up his single appearance in the Batman: The Dark Knight books and that was just his head when Batman envisions multiple enemies under Scarecrow his feargas and that's probably a continuity error.

    On a separate note, I can't seem to post here using Firefox.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks for these good thoughts. Comparing Claire Clover to a young Tim Drake is an interesting point, and that does mitigate or set precedent somewhat for Batman bringing her into the fold. I might just say I don't think King sold it enough -- we never had a scene where Claire reacts emotionally to her parents' mugging (even her bad dream is nonspecific) and all along I had the sense she was just into crimefighting because of her brother. Would it really have lessened the parallel effect for Claire to have also been present for the mugging scene? For me she came off more as someone King wanted us to like than someone we actually did. Just my two cents.

      (Sorry about the Firefox problem. I tried with Firefox myself and didn't have any trouble.)

      Delete
    2. I agree, this was one of the parts that could have fleshed out better. It seems most issues had scenes cut because of limited pages.

      But crime fighting only for her brother was the whole point, because she wasn't there she bonded harder with her brother. She never had the feeling/calling her brother had, maybe because of the missed Batman part or age or personality (we just don't know). It shows that different circumstances have different effects on people. That's part of why it hit her so hard, the decision she made to stop him (even under the influence of the Psycho-Pirate) was one that she felt her brother wanted her to make. She never had the feeling: I have to do it because it was the right thing. She did all the crime fighting so she would never be alone and always be with her brother and it all ended with a decision she herself made (because she knew what he would have wanted).

      Btw, it came to me after posting the previous post that it wouldn't be beneath Amanda Waller to send the soldier after the parents to gain influence over Batman. There's multiple possible explanations, but we just don't know.

      (on the firefox part) Ok, then it's probably an add-on that messes with the captcha here.

      Delete
  5. After Snyder's run on Batman through the New 52 I admit that his writing has put a negative effect on me liking Batman in the comics, not because Snyder wasn't writing it well, but because it felt tedious at times and too grand for Batman, so I as very excited to experience a new writer to the title.

    Sadly, I did not like this at all. Every issue felt off some how, and I heard that King never did no wrong before so I was surprised at how unimpressed I was after every issue. I'm not sure if I've been so disinterested in a comic before, and dropped this title at issue 5. Thankfully Detective Comics is great.

    ReplyDelete
  6. Regarding Rebirth continuity, DC as a whole is technically keeping the New 52 timeline, but they're applying subtle retcons here and there to bring the universe a bit closer to the post-Crisis timeline, so there are going to be some discrepancies with some New 52 stories.

    That said, King's Batman might be one of the more underrated books of Rebirth, oddly enough. It goes against the grain of Rebirth, where many other books are trying to get back to a more familiar setting, Batman is pushing the reader out of a comfort zone. Regarding Gotham (the character), I don't think the readers are supposed to follow his development closely, but rather just see how Batman views him. In the final battle, Batman isn't laying the blame on Gotham, but rather trying to direct Gotham's anger towards him.

    ReplyDelete