Review: Batman Vol. 5: The Rules of Engagement (Rebirth) trade paperback (DC Comics)

April 30, 2018

 ·  1 comment

Even the most seasoned comic book reader may not be satisfied after the first story in Tom King's Batman Vol. 5: Rules of Engagement, but everyone should be by this book's end. With the preliminaries aside, we've arrived at the point where Tom King's Rebirth run has started to be about what it's actually about, and the result is delightful. Through the majority of this book there's nary a supervillain in sight, and instead we're suddenly enmeshed in a story about Batman and his own identity, his friends and family, and what happens when he dares to do something contrary to anything he's ever done before. King's story here is brilliant and madcap, and I can only hope we're in for more of the same in subsequent volumes. This book will surely offend some Batman purists, but it seems to me the kick in the tights the modern Batman needed.

[Review contains spoilers]

What we can all agree on is that one day Tom King needs to write a Lois Lane series. Though not the largest part of this book, the most effective is King's two-issue Batman and Superman -- and significant others -- team-up, the first part of which compares and contrasts the two heroes and the second part of which offers the wildest double date the World's Finest have ever seen. King posits Superman and Batman -- Clark Kent and Bruce Wayne -- as two awkward and pig-headed best friends, each of whom believes the best and therefore the worst of one another -- that the other is so great that they hardly need their friendship. Lois and Catwoman Selina Kyle both see through their partner's self-doubt, and when the couples suddenly encounter one another, "Oh hi, I'm Lois. You must be Catwoman," is the lead-in to what must be one of the best Batman/Superman issues of all time.

King and Clay Mann offer a double-date that involves costume-switching, Lois and Catwoman sharing an illicit flask, and Superman trying to strike out Batman in a baseball game. In this second part, Mann leans heavily into all these characters' sex appeal, as well as Lois and Catwoman getting hilariously tipsy, and it makes for the kind of mature but respectful take on these characters that we can only hope we also find in DC's forthcoming Black Label line. Whereas King's three-part "Rules of Engagement" story wants for dialogue, "Super Friends" is packed to the gills, and it is so touching, so lovely, as to balance out the relative decompressedness of what preceded it.

"Rules of Engagement" is not actually as taciturn as all that in final tally, but the beginning especially shows many of the same marks as King's Batman Vol. 2: I Am Suicide: sparse dialogue, repeated dialogue, long pages of little dialogue. It is the stuff to make readers crazy, though to a great extent King brings to question here the sheer makeup of a comics page. Must every panel contain dialogue, such that every panel is just a frame for the writer's words, or does the process of comics happen in wordless panels, too? Is a three-panel sequence of Catwoman retrieving and drinking a flask wasteful because it spells out what the reader's imagination could otherwise fill in between panels, or is there inborn value in Joelle Jones illustrating even the unnecessary? Exceptionally often, sequences in King's Batman feel like "not what comics should do," but assuredly that's a feeling readers should run toward and not away from, because in these transgressions we see what's making King's Batman so unique.

The pitch for King's Batman, we imagine, was "Batman marries Catwoman," and now that that aspect's revealed, at least, King seems to emphasize increasingly turning these established tropes on their heads. A comics page is not a comics page in King's Batman. In part of this book, Batman is Superman and vice versa. A sequence with Dick Grayson and Damian Wayne pokes fun at such common comic book-y declarations as "He's Batman! I'm Robin." King has Catwoman take a jab at the entirety of Batman's tearful revelations about Kite Man from King's own Batman Vol. 4: War of Jokes and Riddles. There's even a joke at the expense of Batman kicking trees for training, the preeminent Year One callout from the Batman: Rebirth special. King creates this woozy space where nothing is sacred, even things King himself has set up as sacred, and it builds this aesthetic in which one feels everything about Batman breaking down, not just his bachelor status.

King's Batman is getting so loopy, as a matter of fact, that I suspect something else is going on. No change is ever permanent in comics, we know, and if King has a plan to marry Batman and Catwoman, most likely he also has a plan for setting things back how they were. If indeed this book's fiftieth issue even sees them married, then there's still a reported fifty issues or so where something else must happen. I read King and Tim Seeley's Grayson and I saw the misdirection, how they'd draw the audience's attention one direction while something was happening the other. Where, for instance, does Holly Robinson go at the end of "Rules of Engagement"? Why would Talia protect her? What really was the significance of King telling "War of Jokes and Riddles" at all? Why don't Batman and Catwoman remember their first meeting the same way? King's smaller repertoire makes it harder to know for sure, but if this were Grant Morrison writing, the fact that that World's Greatest Detective Batman doesn't remember something correctly would be a big deal, surely a sign of something. Note that Batman never solves the Riddler's riddle in the annual collected here -- "watt," as the riddle goes, are we not seeing?

Support Collected Editions -- Purchase Batman Vol. 5: The Rules of Engagement

Contrarily, perhaps, in Batman Vol. 5: Rules of Engagement, Tom King also effectively convinced me of the properness of Batman and Catwoman's relationship. On one hand, in "Super Friends," King makes the simple argument for all of this not making sense -- that vigilante Batman marrying criminal Catwoman can't be reconciled, simply that they love one another and getting married makes them happy. On the other hand, in the future-looking annual King also demonstrates two orphans who deal with traumatic childhoods by wearing costumes at night, and even if they don't have quite the same purposes, close enough. Either way, King's emotional finale of an elderly Selina watching Bruce die in his sleep surely has me rooting for the two -- even as once again, look, we know that future's not going to come to pass, so what is King doing with it? If there's sixty issues to go, surely we're only looking at mere pieces of the puzzle.

[Includes original and variant covers]

Summary
Review Date
Reviewed Item
Batman Vol. 5: The Rules of Engagement
Author Rating
4.5 (scale of 1 to 5)

Comments ( 1 )

  1. Brilliant analysis. On the surface this whole volume feels like it's filler material. But what if it helps explain everything else?

    ReplyDelete

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