Review: Batman Vol. 2: I Am Suicide (Rebirth) trade paperback (DC Comics)

Monday, April 17, 2017

Tom King wrote the complicated, wrenching classic that is DC Comics's most recent Omega Men, in addition to being one half of the team that wrote the ever-surprising Grayson and the acclaimed Vision for Marvel. So it was rather a surprise that King's first Rebirth Batman book wasn't stronger, something more than standard superheroics wrapped in fairly common comics tropes.

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]
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21 comments:

  1. I just don't get it. I loved "Sheriff of Babylon" and "Omega Men", but King's Batman run I have found to be merely okay at best and terrible at worst, with "I Am Suicide" being the latter. His Batman is the worst tactician and detective ever, the dialogue is atrocious, the insights into the characters are way off the mark and sometimes laughable, and his plots don't fit even the most rudimentary criteria for cohesiveness or logic. And yet, his run is almost universally praised. What the heck am I missing here?

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  2. Yeah, volume 1 was reasonable, yet it had its fair share of problems. King was still trying to figure out the characters and how to work his own writing into it. King gets it right with Volume 2. What went from a mixed-bag but showed potential volume 1, volume 2 is a massive step up as you pointed out clearly in your review.

    The only qualm I had here was the over excessive repeated words from characters and finishing each other's lines. It felt like Frank Miller's ALL-STAR BATMAN & ROBIN all over again. If only King had toned it down a bit with that, this volume would be perfect.

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    1. The repeated "I'm going to break your damn back" was PAINFULLY bad. It felt like a 12-year-old was writing it. And not a particularly advanced 12-year-old.

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    2. Obviously this is a "love it or hate it" one. Which is fine. A book worthy of some debate is way better than one where everything swings completely one way or the other.

      I read the repeated "I will break your damn back" speech as a mantra. Batman's repeating it over and over as he takes himself willingly further and further down into hell, including getting his own spine dislocated again and then popping it back into place. And as for the finishing each other's lines, it seems to me that was just Batman and Catwoman, meant to show their connection. I don't see a lot of difference between "It was on a boat/it was on the street" and Jeph Loeb's parallel Superman/Batman dialogue; what we've got here are dialogue tricks with purpose. That's why it didn't bother me, at least.

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    3. There's a bit more to the "It was on a boat/it was on the street" dialogue. Bruce remembers their meeting in a manner to that in the Golden Age, in which he was already a seasoned Batman. Selina remembers their Year One meeting, back before either of them had adopted their new personas. It speaks to how they view themselves and their relationship. Bruce sees it as Batman and Catwoman. Selina sees it as Bruce and Selina, two broken people who came together.

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    4. Brilliant! Is that your observation or did that come from King?

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    5. Saw someone pointed out the origins thing on Reddit, and I came to the conclusion myself.

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    6. Very cool. I'd still like to hope there's some sort of multiversal double-meaning but I find your interpretation very compelling.

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  3. Hm, I wasn't a fan of volume 1, but I was still going to try and pick vol 2 up later this week. I'll give it another shot, but I'm skeptical.

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  4. I really enjoy how each subsequent story arc is built off of something that was established in the previous arc. It makes me notice seemingly minor events or characters(such as Bronze Tiger & The Ventriloquist in this book) and imagining how they could rise to the forefront in a future storyline.

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    1. Yeah, I think King almost has to write a story with Ventriloquist at the center now. :)

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  5. Refreshing to see a review that isn't fixated on Batman and Catwoman calling each other "Bat" and "Cat". I actually didn't like I Am Suicide as much as the previous arc. I thought there were a few times when one issue doesn't quite logically lead into another. I loved "Rooftops", though, and the way that it breaks down the Batman and Catwoman relationship as a couple with genuine feelings but will always prioritize their own agendas over one another. Gerard's art really adds a nice touch, making them look human, and aged.

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    1. I definitely get what you mean about one issue not logically leading into the next, though I liked the variety -- Catwoman-narrated issue, Squad issue, then double-page-spread Batman narrated issue, etc. Clearly one is reading one story, but King goes at it from so many different angles.

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  6. Yeah. I'm going to have to side with CE here. I've been really enjoying Tom King's Batman run so far. Yet, I find it quite strange that I appear to be in the minority online (having read the comments on reviews on various sites).

    Pehaps if there had been a gap between Snyder's incredible run, and his very specific style, and King's run the reaction may have been different. If an (relatively) average writer had written a few issues before King took over? I don't know. What I do know is that, although King's Batman run hasn't quite reached the level King's other recent works, I still feel that this is a very strong run of issues that I look forward to reading every two weeks.

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    1. It is different than Snyder's run, that's for sure. If not Vol. 1, then Vol. 2. But, y'know, not discounting the Alan Grants and Chuck Dixons and Greg Ruckas, Grant Morrison's long Batman run was defining in the sense of one writer taking Batman and really making the character his own, and then Scott Snyder worked in that same model, hewing to the familiar early on and then branching way out in the middle and end. Both linearly and figuratively, Tom King's run now looks to be the next logical evolution, a run where the writer swings out and makes Batman his right from the start. Maybe this is blowback that it isn't Snyder, but I think one has to recognize how one begets the next.

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  7. "I am Gotham" will make more sense once you read "I am Bane." I of course wholeheartedly agree that "I am Suicide" is a work of genius. Any complaints (read other comments to that effect here) about King's creative choices simply don't get what he's going after. This is a Batman that makes internal sense. If he doesn't make sense to the reader, maybe he's not supposed to. I mean, a guy who dresses up as a bat and pounds bad guys into the dirt maybe shouldn't be too easy to comprehend. I would think, anyway...King is perhaps the first writer to grasp the psychology of the character. And you see that played out perfectly in "I am Suicide."

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    1. "If that grown man just punches crime hard enough, then that'll just make everything all right." I'd heard it before, I'd heard the charge leveled at Batman, but I admit I didn't fully get it until that issue. I mean, it's an issue full of two-page spreads. Batman surrounded by swirls of battle. King and Janin are both at the top of their games there.

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    2. No, I absolutely get what he's going after. I just don't like it. To me, it feels hackneyed and artificial and amateurish. Which is very odd, given how much I enjoy his other work. But hey, different strokes and all that. At least the art's pretty.

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  8. I thought the first two arcs were amazing. Definitely a thoughtful take on Batman, which I appreciated and thoroughly enjoyed. Highly
    Recommend.

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  9. Well I finally read it! And...it's better than volume 1. I will say that.The art is beautiful and I really liked the double splash pages where King just puts Batman into action all over (or catwoman through the pipes) but again there wasn't really anything in here that I could grab onto. I liked this enough that I'll once again try the next trade. I feel like King is the type of writer where I need to read a lot of his run to really appreciate it. My favorite character was the ventriloquist.

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    1. Definitely Ventriloquist for the win; I'm excited to see him back in the story some time. And don't forget Mikel Janin with those splash pages; I've been enjoying his work since Justice League Dark.

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