Review: Batman Vol. 8: Superheavy hardcover/paperback (DC Comics)

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Monday, December 05, 2016

Batman Vol. 8: Superheavy continues the wild, twisting saga of Scott Snyder's Batman. This all began routinely enough with the exceptional but arguably traditional Night of the Owls books, followed also by the relatively traditional Death of the Family. But somewhere toward the end of Death of the Family, as perhaps the iconography of Snyder's Joker even more so than the story reached ubiquity and the notoriety of this run became something else, so did Snyder's run itself.

With Zero Year, Snyder reached escape velocity from the grim and gritty of Frank Miller's Batman that pervaded for decades, even into Grant Morrison's run. In the fourth volume Snyder's Batman achieved a new level of fluorescence and flamboyance, a Batman who operates in the sun. Snyder's Batman fights, in some respects, scarier and more real-world terrors than the Batman who fought macabre terrors in the shadows. And with Superheavy, Snyder's Batman has in some respects reached the apex and beyond of what this Batman can be -- a Batman who fought the Joker in public view, a Batman whom Gotham City believes gave his life for them, and further, a Batman they've now tried to replace with a gaudy robotic suit. In part one of Snyder's denouement, he's no doubt purposefully stretched these concepts as far as they will go.

[Review contains spoilers]

As far out as Snyder's Batman has swung, it would be easy to dismiss the book as pure silliness; within these pages, Snyder has new Batman Jim Gordon almost literally jump over a shark. But in the midst of the proceedings comes Batman #44, the fourth full chapter, with stark art by Jock and a writing assist for Snyder from Brian Azzarello. Within, Batman Bruce Wayne confronts how the Gotham police, their criminals, and even he himself as both Bruce and Batman failed a young African American teenager, who ends up dead.

The story is tied tangentially to Superheavy's villain Mr. Bloom, but moreover it brings sharp focus to what Snyder's trying to do in the other issues that might get lost in all the theatrics: introduce a Gotham made up of different people and different neighborhoods, with different cultures and different walks of life. "A Simple Case" is notably about what Batman does not know and cannot see, and in this it suggests a previously unknown Gotham just outside the reader's sight, waiting to be explored. Snyder simultaneously grounds Superheavy in this even as the story even impatiently reaches for the stars; for instance, we first see Gordon-as-Batman in action fighting a giant electrical monster, but the real bad guy, more realistically, is a gang member torturing a retired Cuban baseball player for money.

What Snyder offers here in "A Simple Case" is surely important, suggesting that the roots of the almost everyday violence in American culture is people not caring about people, especially disaffected or disenfranchised youth (in the present story, Snyder shows an amnesic Bruce Wayne now working in a rec center for the same troubled kids he once overlooked). At the same time, I did appreciate that Snyder complicates the argument, in that Bruce "overlooks" Peter Duggio in the sense that Peter tries and fails to get Bruce's attention by shouting at him at a rally rather than sending him a letter or making an appointment with him. Indeed, Batman fails Peter by choosing to exude fear rather than understanding, but Bruce and Peter's conflict is more nuanced; it's not necessarily that Bruce would have ignored Peter so much as Bruce and Peter's worlds are so different that Peter lacks the agency to enter Bruce's world on Bruce's world's terms, speaking to a larger systemic failure that keeps Peter and Bruce from ever talking to one another.

Admittedly I tend to approach stories like these cynically. A real change in a mainstream superhero character is glacially hard to accomplish, from costumes to power sets letting alone political shifts. I had the same objections to Gail Simone's The Movement: a character like Batman is no more or less cognizant of the plight of "regular people" than the writer of the day makes him to be and that change is no more lasting than when the next writer decides otherwise (and this is a tide that has crested and ebbed before, no less with books like Batman: The Hill and Orpheus Rising, no longer referenced).

Snyder can argue that Batman has ignored Gotham's working class just as easily as a long-time reader can find examples of where he hasn't. I applaud Snyder's focus here, but what's really happening is Snyder is creating arbitrary flaws in Batman's outlook to explicate what Snyder feels his own storytelling hasn't or should be dealing with. Again, I don't disagree, but it's a point where writer and character overlap too much when I'd as soon be reading a story that more faithfully extends from the character's own history; I tend to think five years down the road we'll no more still be hearing about the Corner, the Narrows, and Little Cuba in the Bat-titles than we do now about the Hill.

Positing Jim Gordon as Batman was no doubt a purposefully controversial choice on Snyder's part. Gordon's transformation from slovenly cop to muscled Batman is hard to believe even when presented on the page as intentionally hard to believe. What Snyder illustrates well here, however, is the inevitability of Batman. It's been asked plenty of times why Bruce Wayne didn't just work for good inside the law, but as Geri Powers convinces Gordon to be Batman in the first issues, we get a palpable sense of what's been suggested before, that Bruce Wayne (and those who came after) didn't choose Batman, but rather that Batman chose them -- that Gordon is indeed the only choice for the job, pressed into service by some ineffable sense of this.

Further, I think we get the best sense of the crossroads that the entirety of Snyder's run has found Batman Bruce Wayne at when Gordon and Julia "Perry" Pennyworth discuss that Bruce didn't care about what Batman "meant," but rather he was just a man living by his own code. As Batman Bruce Wayne's public profile has grown in these books -- even retroactively by way of Zero Year -- Bruce has had to struggle with what he means, and meaning something in general, to his family, to the Joker, to Gotham. Again, with Batman corporatized and Gordon taking on the cowl as a public symbol, we see Snyder stretching this balloon even past breaking, with the tension for the finale being how Bruce will subsume all of this when he inevitably takes back the cowl.

In the final pages of Batman Vol. 8: Superheavy, Scott Snyder introduces Batmanium 206, an element so heavy it can't be lifted. It is this book in a nutshell, as the element's weight suggests -- an element beyond the known elements, something based in the real but taken to the nth degree, absurdity squared. Snyder is hitting all of his marks with this unlikely Batman arc; it is ridiculousness tightly plotted, tough to do, and I'm excited to see how it all wraps up.

[Includes original and variant covers, Greg Capullo sketches, a Bat-suit schematic]
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4 comments:

  1. Snyder's entire Batman run has left me cold. I haven't like much of it at all, with all the coincidences required for the Court of Owls to have existed in Gotham all these years (such as Dick "Gray Son" Grayson being chosen to be a Talon, with that thing in his tooth all his dentists missed over the last 20+ years), and especially the over the top rift in the fabric of the Batman Family after Death of the Family, an entirely overwrought reaction from the fam against something that was really silly in the first place.

    I get that Snyder is an accomplished writer. I love American Vampire. I love the Black Mirror story pre-New52. His New 52 Batman material, however, lost my interest very quickly, and I'm very reticent to pick up the All-Star Batman trade when it comes out.

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    1. That's fair. The "death of the family" aspect of DOTF is problematic because it's not, in my opinion, solved thematically in the Batman run itself; we do see the family come back together in Endgame, but the resolution is more nuanced IIRC in Batman and Robin than here. Some of that I attribute to the push and pull of telling stories in a shared universe and don't fault Snyder for necessarily. I will say that if you jettison most of Court of Owls and Death of the Family and consider Snyder's Batman run starting with Zero Year, there's some fine bombastic-but-sensible storytelling that runs through Zero Year and into Endgame and now Superheavy. I suggest this somewhat in my review, that Snyder's run doesn't really find its raison d'etre until Zero Year, buoyed by Death of the Family's accidental popularity.

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  2. I enjoyed This version of Batman, but I'm glad it didn't stay to long.

    The only problem I had is that suddenly the sentiment of there must be a "real" Batman is gone. I know Dick Grayson couldn't do it this time, but still it was strange. I know it would have been partially reusing older plotlines, but it just felt a bit wrong that the people around Batman didn't fill the hole he left behind.

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    1. I didn't know if this would be covered in one of the Bat-family titles. Also, as I understood it, the Bat-family spent some time looking for Bruce Wayne and then found him, and Alfred made the conscious decision for him not to become Batman again, so maybe that forestalled another Bat-family member's effort to step in, and then Gotham introduced their own Batman, etc.

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