Monday, April 17, 2017
But, wow. King's Batman Vol. 2: I Am Suicide is good. Astonishingly good. The kind of thing one has come to expect from a Tom King comic, and even then, what a book. I Am Suicide marks the true opening salvo of Tom King's run, the point in which King's run begins to distinguish itself, the point in which King's Batman begins to define the Rebirth era instead of the Rebirth era defining it, the point in which we begin to wonder whether we have another Scott Snyder-level hit on our hands here. It's one of these books that when you begin to suspect everything that could ever be said about Batman has already been said, here comes a volume that decimates that idea completely.
I Am Suicide bills itself as a Bane story, or a story of Batman's makeshift Suicide Squad, but make no mistake: this is a Catwoman story. It's almost a shame that Bane is even here because of his tendency to overwhelm the proceedings, sitting center stage in a story that turns out not to be his. King and artists Mikel Janin and Mitch Gerads evoke the best of Catwoman's "East End" portrayals, but King takes it further, suggesting a Catwoman deadlier and more formidable than she's ever been portrayed before, able to stand toe-to-toe with Batman's most psychotic enemies. Equally King offers one of the most cogent explanations for the Batman/Catwoman relationship in a while, one that clearly defines King's take on Batman even if it doesn't quite jibe with what's going on elsewhere. With I Am Suicide, the Batman series once again stakes its claim as DC Comic's preeminent superhero series.
[Review contains spoilers]
There's certainly something to be said for King's maniacal Punch and Jewelee, Suicide Squad stalwarts; his murderous, affable Bronze Tiger; and his ground-breaking work with Ventriloquist, who deserves his own face-off with Batman under King. But that all becomes background noise when King riffs on Killing Joke as he introduces Catwoman, suggesting her as a Joker-level villain, one that's killed over two hundred people. The truth mitigates this, but Catwoman masked in Hannibal Lecter fashion is a powerful image, one that immediately suggests that no Catwoman story so far has quite approached everything that could be done with this character.
To even a greater degree than Grayson -- approaching, perhaps, Omega Men -- I Am Suicide is a puzzle box, a web that holds you tighter the further in you go. The first issue is almost lopsided, suggesting a focus on Bane that doesn't manifest, but the final Catwoman sequence leads into the second issue, narrated as a letter from Catwoman to Batman; the fourth, told entirely by Janin in two-page spreads, is Batman's letter in reply; and then the sixth and seventh explore their relationship from sundown to sunrise. To read one issue is to see Catwoman, psychopath; two more is Catwoman, betrayer; another is to get the starkest explanation for why Batman loves Catwoman yet; and by the end we finally understand the motivations behind Catwoman's "crime." The value of Batman's twice-monthly shipping is wholly apparent here -- I'm not sure the market would tolerate an entire issue of splashes otherwise -- but even so this book's swift recasting of each previous chapter by the next rewards close-quarters trade reading.
Of late the meta-dialogue between Rebirth and the New 52 has grown ever louder, and never more so than when King and Gerads revisit Judd Winick and Gulliem March's infamous sequence from Catwoman Vol. 1: The Game as Batman and Catwoman have sex on a rooftop. But whereas Winick and March had Catwoman oversexualized from the cover on through, King, Janin, and Gerads understand Catwoman's allure is in her actions, not having her costume artificially unzipped. And whereas in March's almost pained depiction, "most of the costumes," as the issue said, "stay on," King and Gerads's "Rooftops" is the opposite, Batman and Catwoman artfully stripped down, with as much emphasis on Bruce Wayne's scarred body as anything else. That King and Gerads get it right is evidence that the sentiment wasn't the problem in the New 52, but the depiction, and as I alluded to in my review of the Rebirth Detective Comics, I believe the audience is finally ready for mature depictions of these characters as long as those depictions are handled maturely.
What is likely to be controversial in I Am Suicide is the literal meaning of the title, alluding not to the Suicide Squad but to King's suggestion that Bruce Wayne is Batman specifically with the goal of causing his own death -- a death by supervillain, as it were. This is where Bane comes in, that Bane and Batman and Catwoman all share in common this inability to make their own pain go away, even by their own hand, and so they relentlessly pursue their heroic or villainous activities until someone else puts a stop to it. It's a workable theory, especially in the view of Batman and Bane trading off visits to Gotham and Santa Prisca, and we see this distinctly right at the start of King's Batman Vol. 1: I Am Gotham with Bruce almost giving up his life to stop a crashing plane.
At the same time, this is very nearly nonsense when set against Batman's recent life-affirming, rather than life-ending, decision to bring his apprentices into the fold in Detective and train them better, letting alone that a Batman-with-a-death-wish taking on Robins at all is a concept truly horrific. Recall as well Bruce Wayne's recent hopeful rebirth in Scott Snyder's latter pages (and without the scars shown in the aforementioned scene, too) and King's intimations truly fall apart. Taken on its own, however, we begin to see a shape of King's Batman title that's dark and psychologically complex, with Batman and his allies and enemies drifting damaged past one another (see also King's funny but equally dark two nine-panel-grid pages with Commissioner Gordon). King's Batman comes off stripped down versus James Tynion's more expansive Detective, when I'd venture the opposite was true in the New 52, and it's a good new look for both titles.
Honestly, Tom King's Batman Vol. 2: I Am Suicide emerges mostly as sad, likely by design, but it's the wistful sadness I think we want from King's work. There's a good mix here of a title that seems strongly off on its own, but then also distinctly tied unobtrusively to continuity, whether that other inmate at Arkham, Amanda Waller's cameo, or the fact that Batman and Catwoman seem to remember their first meeting differently, a moment played off romantically but that I think holds deeper significance. I was unenthused about starting this book, admittedly, but I Am Suicide changed my tune quickly; I will say that I believe a dearth of King's creation Gotham Girl was probably a large factor in this.
[Includes original and variant covers]