Review: I Am Batman Vol. 1 hardcover/paperback (DC Comics)

With the body of work and accolades under his belt, to say that John Ridley’s I Am Batman Vol. 1 doesn’t quite come together perhaps says more about the reviewer than the reviewed.

But, though I like the general premise of the book and new Batman Jace Fox in particular, it still feels like I Am Batman is trying to find its footing. Ridley’s narration often sounds like what a new comics writer might imagine comics should sound like, instead of something more realistic. An overuse of splash pages, too, suggests less content available than pages to fill. And though I’m very much in favor of I Am Batman’s ambitions, they don’t totally feel earned on the page.

As well, among six issues, we’ve got almost as many artists. Though the book is set among the Batman “Fear State” event, the details are fuzzy, as if no one did the work of making sure I Am Batman and the event itself actually lined up. All of this speaks to a lack of commitment to I Am Batman on DC’s part, even though the right path if they’re going to publish this title is to put all their resources behind it.

I Am Batman Vol. 1 ends with a shift in the status quo; I can’t be sure, but one imagines this was where Ridley was headed all along. If that’s the case, I’m hopeful that perhaps freedom from the day-to-day of the Bat-titles might help I Am Batman forge a better, clearer path.

[Review contains spoilers]

Around the edges, Ridley’s I Am Batman reminds of Dennis O’Neil’s Question, not only in its grassroots, street-level vigilante, but also the cadre of wisened mentors the protagonist has, each of which hints at a slew of other adventures. It’s early yet, so perhaps I’m just impatient, that at this point we don’t know that much about Vesey or Vol despite their constant reappearance. Then again, given four issues of The Next Batman: Second Son before this, and Future State and Future State: Gotham issues besides, it does feel as though we’ve spend a lot of time with Jace Fox and some seemingly pressing details still remain a mystery.

[See the latest DC trade solicitations.]

Ridley’s Jace opines about “tusslin' with roughnecks,” which puts a voice much older than Jace into the character’s head. I also counted close to a dozen splash pages — or mostly silent action pages, or both — among the six issues, which strikes me as an indication I Am Batman lacks for content.

Late in the book, Vol praises Jace that “your Batman’s come to symbolize hope”; ironically, we do see a couple of regular Gothamites stand up for Jace a few pages later, but Ridley hasn’t demonstrated on the page what he’s claiming up to that point. Earlier, we’re shown Jace — kidnapped? in training? — supposedly learning to withstand torture, but it’s depicted by Stephen Segovia and Christian Duce simply with a figure standing menacingly over him — the scene is bloodless and lacks any visceral emotion. Writing and art don’t feel like they’re working together; the art is approximating images of what Ridley is writing, instead of Ridley using the art to transform the story from narrative to experiential.

It does not help that I Am Batman’s story feels like “Fear State” translated through a game of “Telephone.” There is little to no presence of the Scarecrow here, but rather Jace’s conflict is with the “anti-Oracle” Seer character who barely factors in to Batman Vol. 5: Fear State proper, and further with the Seer’s “Special People” who battle the government’s so-called “Hidden Agenda” (a clear metaphor for real-world anti-government movements), a threat not at all seen outside I Am Batman. On one hand, what choice does an ancillary Bat-title have but to carve out its own corner of “Fear State,” even one that seems clearly “made up”; on the other hand, what a wasted opportunity on all sides not to bring I Am Batman more legitimately into the fold.

Given all that, it’s all the more shocking that not only is I Am Batman given to be the site where major “Fear State” character Simon Saint dies (outside even Batman: Fear State: Omega), but also that it’s suggested that other forces were at work pulling Saint’s strings. Charitably, we might see this as a boon for I Am Batman, offering the next steps in a major Batman storyline, but it comes off as muddled, an ancillary Bat-title suggesting everything we knew to be true in Batman, the flagship Bat-title, actually wasn’t true at all. That’s not additive so much as confusing.

And yet, it must be recognized that it is no small thing for DC to put a Black man in the Bat-suit — not Batwing, or Robin, but as (a) Batman himself. Other things I like about the Jace Fox character, that he’s a “bad” rich kid trying to atone (in contrast to “good” rich kid Bruce Wayne trying to avenge), are more in the background than in Second Son, but — now in the Bat-suit — how the title negotiates Jace’s race is emphasized.

He wears a full faceplate for much of the book, awkwardly trying to appear as Batman even as Jace avows to conduct his war on crime differently. He removes the faceplate once for dramatic effect, a surprise demonstration of his “difference” from the classic Batman. I believe we’re meant to read this as Jace suggesting, “I’m not who you think I am,” but it’s also an uncomfortable weaponizing of his Blackness, as if the fact that he’s Black should in some way scare the criminal more than if he were the "white Batman."

All the better — going to the “I am Batman” theme — that Jace should resolve to show the lower half of his face going forward; again, this rather feels like where the book actually meant to start, and circumvents the strange space of Jace trying to be and not be the original Batman simultaneously. A Batman who’s Black but whose race isn’t apparent on comics covers, T-shirts, and lunchboxes isn’t the “next Batman” we need. (The faceplate is present in Future State: Gotham, but I don’t take that as any indication of the future of this title.)



An interesting Reddit thread the other day wondered at the loss of supporting casts among superhero comics, a valid criticism. Another boon of I Am Batman Vol. 1 is a nascent supporting cast with their own storylines that I hope we’ll see continue to develop — Tanya Fox, Jace’s mother, a lawyer seemingly caught in a cycle of anger and violence, and Chubb, a Gotham detective suspicious of vigilantes. Again, if I Am Batman can spread its wings now with Jace’s move to New York, I hope additional emphasis on the supporting cast can go along with it.

A consistent art team, less constraint from the Bat-titles (but perhaps more interaction with the Bat-family), and maybe an improvement to the storytelling along with that — these are the things I hope for I Am Batman.

[Includes original and variant covers, character sketches]


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