Review: Batman Vol. 13: City of Bane Part 2 hardcover/paperback (DC Comics)

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Sunday, August 09, 2020

Batman Vol. 13: City of Bane Part 2 is a strong conclusion to Tom King’s experimental Batman magnum opus. It has been a story about, as much as anything else, the never-changing landscape of superhero comics, the amount of effort it takes to make a dent in that four-colored wall (on purpose or accidentally), and even — one can extrapolate — the human struggle to take control and make a difference in one’s own life.

We see in this finale many Batmans — Batman the planner, who epitomized Grant Morrison’s Batman run, and Batman the capable but imperfect, whom in Scott Snyder’s run we often saw didn’t know as much as he thought, and also Batman the child becoming Batman the adult. This last part is important — whether wittingly or not, King identifies an incongruity in the Batman mythos and excises it, though whether that resection will last remains to be seen. History is against King — the legacy of unchanging Batman is much longer than these 80-plus issues — but perhaps the four-colored wall has been damaged at least slightly.

[Review contains spoilers]

We have seen within King’s story a Batman who plans, in the Morrison-ian sense — a Batman who seems defeated but who is one step ahead of his enemies, as early as the Catwoman fake-out in Santa Prisca, way back at the beginning. As King’s epic continued, however, his Batman became more Snyder-esque — no less heroic (Snyder writes perhaps the epitome of heroic Batman), but certainly less all-knowing. We saw this from Snyder as early as when Batman was blindsided by the Court of Owls, and in King’s story Batman seemed less in control the more Bane’s power grew, as his allies left him and his credibility declined until it seemed Batman was distinctly outmatched.

But in this book’s masterful second chapter (Batman #81), we find the allies didn’t so much leave and the credibility didn’t so much decline. Rather, what seemed an unartful choice by King (having Batman be so angry he punched Robin Tim Drake) was actually a secret “go dark” message since Batman knew Bane’s Gotham Girl was listening. Everything that followed — including Robin Damian Wayne’s capture and Batman seemingly “breaking” at the hands of the alt-dimension Thomas Wayne — was a ruse to get Batman within striking distance of Bane. And so what seemed like the imperfect Batman of Snyder’s run morphed back into the omniscient Batman of Morrison’s, the seemingly broken Batman instead ahead of his opponent.

(As an aside, that the audience could accept so easily that Batman had actually hit one of his apprentices, given that other writers have had him do so honestly, is a problem in and of itself worthy of a whole other conversation. Also, while I’m quick to use Morrison’s and Snyder’s Batman as easy archetypes, Snyder’s at least has plenty of precedent, including the Batman easily framed in Murderer/Fugitive and the Batman who miscalculated both Bane and Azrael in the Knightfall saga.)

And yet, in some of the lovely nuance of King’s story, Batman didn’t plan for every contingency either — we have in this story a Batman who’s both omniscient and imperfect. Alfred’s murder in the previous volume still seems grotesque for a character as long-lived as he, but King mitigates much of the hurt in the fourth chapter (Batman #83) by recasting Alfred’s death  as an intentional sacrifice. Alfred knew that Batman retaking Gotham, enacting the contingencies that would result in Damian’s capture and so on, depended on Alfred escaping Bane and Thomas Wayne, and finding no way to do so, Alfred lied to Batman and let the plans be put into motion, knowing he might be killed.

Again, here Batman is both omniscient and imperfect, though what we learn is neither he nor his son Damian were careless or are implicated in Alfred’s death. Instead, they were both tricked by the one person who rightfully ought be able to trick them, their “father” and “grandfather” respectively, Alfred Pennyworth. Alfred as Bruce’s “father,” I’ll venture, feels like something more recently emphasized, less prominent in Morrison (where the emphasis was on Batman himself as father figure) but certainly front and center in Snyder, and alluded to in King’s run (not in the least in the Tom Taylor-penned “Father’s Day” story). In a story where one of Batman’s primary enemies is the specter of his late father Thomas, clearly the counterpoint is the man who stood up with him at the wedding altar, Alfred.

There is much that I find impressive about what I know has been a controversial run by King — see this very volume, which includes a “silent” issue narrated by Alfred, a chapter told backward, the final regular issue wholly unstuck from time, not to mention the annual that tells almost 50 Batman stories in 38 pages. But most impressive, reading between the lines, is the way King has spun two elements that apparently weren’t part of his original plan, the inclusion of the Flashpoint Thomas Wayne and the death of Alfred, into the most major of thematic linchpins to this run. Based on the conclusion, one could as easily believe all of this was planned for the start — the return of Batman’s actual father, whom he knowingly rejects, and the death of his adoptive father, who recognizes his son’s ascent to adulthood and understands that he can die and his son will be all right.

King’s Batman has been from the outset a meta-commentary on comics' litany of relaunches, no less than the run starting with the Batman title’s second new first issue in five years (the last most recent Batman #1 before that was 71 years earlier). We saw this theme in Batman: Rebirth with the ever-regenerating Calendar Man and the poor, poor Year One tree and, in counterpoint, Batman’s claim to Signal Duke Thomas that he was “trying something new.” This culminated with King’s intentionally repetitive battle between Batman and Bane in Batman Vol. 3: I Am Bane that persuaded Batman to break the cycles of his life and propose to Catwoman. And though they do not by the end marry, that they have agreed to seriously be in each other’s lives, and that Bruce has to figuratively “leave the nest” with Alfred’s death all show a successful escape from orbit, that Kite Man Chuck Brown is wrong in the end when he says, “It’s always the same story” and that Bruce is right when he affirms, “Stories change. People change.”

Had King’s run gone another way, it would be hard to square Batman’s apparent growth — not to mention his occasional leadership of the world’s preeminent super-team — with a man who still lives at home and whose father effectively still does his laundry and makes all of his meals. Again, I can’t conjecture that King identified this incongruity in Batman from the outset since Alfred’s death appears to have been a late-story decision, but the result is very interesting. Over the course of this run (as perhaps, admittedly, we’ve seen before), Batman has recognized himself as not being the loner he’s often cast as, and as he tells Thomas in the finale, he’s actively choosing his relationship with Catwoman, happiness, and family. “I am no longer a child,” he says. “Life is not a trap you make when you’re ten.” If we’re to see a Batman who’s legitimately changing here, if we’re to see a Batman who has loosed the chains of every Batman story that’s come before and is charting a new self-actualized direction, then probably Alfred has to die to get him there.

The irony, of course, is that King’s run has been plagued by the same kinds of comics problems that always plague long runs — editorial interjections at least in bringing one character in and taking another character out, plus that King’s rumored 100-plus-issue storyline ended up being cut to 85. King was supposed to finish the story in a Batman/Catwoman miniseries, but that’s as yet nowhere to be found, and the new hotness of James Tynion’s run up to issue #100 has not only largely bumped King from the conversation, but has also raised doubts whether Batman/Catwoman will even remain in continuity. This is not a surprise, and King is not the first writer to fall victim to this, but King’s Batman run emerges as the exception that proves the rule. “Nothing ends, nothing begins,” Kite Man says. “It all just keeps going,” and in the long view, it’s probably Kite Man that’ll be right after all.

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4.5

Rating

I am hopeful that Batman/Catwoman will someday follow Batman Vol. 13: City of Bane Part 2; I can’t say for certain whether it will or won’t, but knowing comics, I have more faith at least that Tom King will get another shot at Batman someday. So I’m hesitant to pick on what we didn’t get from this finale — no explanation of Gotham Girl’s future-speech from Batman Vol. 1: I Am Gotham, for instance — in hopes some of that was meant for the latter parts of King’s run and may yet still be. For what it did tackle, for at least how it tied up the later half of King’s run, City of Bane Part 2 is more than satisfactory. And I’ll say again, for all the valid disagreements with this or that aspect of King’s Batman run, nearly never have we seen a prolonged DC series so experimental as this, especially not for one of DC’s Big Three; every writer should be taking narrative risks of the kind we’ve seen over the past 80 issues, irrespective whether each one works out or not.

[Includes original and variant covers]

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1 comment:

  1. I'm really glad you enjoyed this. I loved the entirety of Tom King's Batman run, not only for the experimental elements but also because he actually made me invest in Bruce as a character for the first time in a long time. It seems to me a lot of the time, Batman is written as a largely static character, things happen to him but he doesn't change very much or he becomes more intense and pushes people away. It was such a breath of fresh air to have him openly acknowledge his faults and then to have him make decisions that might actually improve his life.

    While I did have some issues with the City of Bane arc, overall I found the conclusion very satisfying. It's frustrating to me that King's run, largely after issue 50, is viewed generally pretty negatively. Tynion's run so far hasn't done anything for me (outside of Jorge Jimenez's art) which is disappointing because I really enjoyed his Detective run.

    My understanding with Batman/Catwoman is that they're working ahead on it so Clay Mann can draw all 12 issues and that it's supposed to start releasing at the end of this year or early next year.

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