A nice mix of characters and ideas I am familiar with but not following and things completely new to me in this week’s picks. Any week where I get to read a book with Phil Noto art is a good week.
I am enjoying the big events at Marvel and DC right now, but it is nice to jump into these one-off issues and free myself from the compulsion to read every chapter to enjoy a comic book.
The Variants #3
Gail Simone, Phil Noto, Cory Petit
I appreciate that Marvel provides the summary pages for their comics. Even when I am reading a book month-to-month I often refer to the summary page as a quick refresher. I think it is a great practice that doesn’t really steal away anything from the issue in total. That said, the intro here doesn’t provide a full picture of just what is going on.
And I think that’s a good thing! Jessica Jones has just encountered alternate universe versions of herself and has reason to believe her mind control by the Purple Man is going to come back to haunt her and hurt her family. Sheis disoriented and confused.
I think Jessica Jones is a great character that hasn’t had a lot of chances to shine within the Marvel Universe proper. Bendis had her as a pretty big supporting player in his Avengers run but after he left she didn’t get as much play as she deserved, despite a Netflix show whose first season was a critical darling. Gail Simone (who we really don’t see enough of anymore) channels what made the character special under Bendis’s pen, making Jess feel both gruff and compassionate. Her reaction to seeing a younger version of herself untouched by the Purple Man’s evil was a particularly powerful moment.
I know we are going all-in on multiverse stuff in pop culture right now for some reason (existential dread of planetary collapse and a desire to imagine a different world maybe?) and it is occasionally groan-worthy when we get, particularly at Marvel, so many “What if this character had another character’s powers?” This book manages to make it work, however, because there is a real desire to explore how different choices color Jessica’s already complicated opinion of herself. How does seeing herself as the hopeful, optimistic hero she envisioned herself to be when she was younger impact her in the present? How does seeing herself as the leader of the Avengers make her feel about her choices to step away from superheroics? All of that is compelling, even if it is not fully dug into in this issue. The threads are there, though, and they work as a character study.
One thing that is often missing in modern superhero stories, particularly with the glut of them in various media, is how they can be used to powerfully grapple with real, personal issues on an exaggerated scale. Creators who do not really get superheroes often reduce them to action smashemups without much under the surface. Really, it’s the source of the “Superman isn’t an interesting character” argument. If you only view superhero stories in terms of power level and who is stronger, then you miss a key element of what made them so enduring and culturally powerful.
“The first thing you need to understand is that it’s going to come at you fast, and you’re gonna freeze. You’re gonna feel fear–real fear, the kind that rattles your bones. Because there will be nothing else standing between it and all that you know. When that happens, I want you to remember this: You are the wall.”
This monologue opens Vault Comics’ We Ride Titans. With a disorienting cacophony of monster and mech, we are introduced to Dej Hobbs–the single protector of New Hyperion city against mindless kaiju monsters.
He is the wall.
He is also drunk.
– – – – – – – – – – – – –
I love my family but I have to confess I am a terrible sibling and child. I rarely check in on my loved ones or express that love. I don’t even do a good job having casual conversations. I never figured out how to tear down the walls I put up as a kid when the world was tough on me.
Family is at the heart of We Ride Titans. Somehow, writer Tres Dean manages something nearly impossible, making a story about giant robots fighting giant monsters where the main draw is its characters and their relationships, with the spectacle in service of their personal story.
What must it be like to be Batman? To take on inhuman problems and battle the very idea of violence, to take on the darkness of an entire city, an entire world? A lonely thing, no doubt. Is it any wonder he has built an extended foster family for himself to share the load? But even an extended family of children and acolytes never truly fills the void. The hole at the center of Batman, the lonely boy who lost his family in a single moment of evil, is never filled. There is always another crime, another dark corner.
In writer Tom King’s sometimes controversial run on Batman, he posited that the only thing that comes close to filling that empty, dark hole, is the kindred spirit he finds in Selina Kyle, Catwoman. The two have had nearly a century of back and forth tension, as enemies and lovers and everywhere in between. If there is a partner that can help Batman repair that hole at his center, Tom King argues, it is Catwoman. Like Batman, she lives between the shadow and the light, a stray who grew up on the streets of Gotham. Like Batman, Gotham is more than just a home, it is an extension of her identity and she will do anything to protect it and its people.
King brings Batman to the realization that the hole at the center is most filled with Catwoman at his side. Her cunning, her passion for her city, her wit and intelligence, these things make him better. Batman might study criminals, but Selina has been among them and knows what drives people to that life. Daring, for one of the first times, to embrace the happiness he feels beside her, they are engaged. But on the wedding day, coerced by the complex machinations of Bane, she leaves Batman jilted at the altar. For the first time, Batman allowed himself to dream of a full life, a real future of growing old with a loved one, of compromising on the fight and embracing the idea that more is possible for him and for Gotham.
When Catwoman leaves him, he crashes back into the depths, hopeless and empty once again.
This is the context where Cold Days begins. Having tracked down Mr. Freeze for the death of three women, he brutally beats the villain and coerces a confession from him. The story begins with Freeze on trial and Bruce Wayne on the jury. Eleven of them believe Freeze to be guilty, cut and dry. With his history of crimes and violence, the evidence of this specific case is largely irrelevant to them. But there is a single hold out—Bruce Wayne himself. He has bribed his way onto the jury after realizing that Batman might have been wrong. Driven by fear and anger and sorrow, he let his emotions take over in a violent outburst that left Freeze traumatized and fearing for his life. When Bruce realizes it, he cannot let the doubt he feels about the case go unaddressed.
What must it be like to be Batman?
A perfect, impossibly competent, and flawless human being. Not super-powered, but a superhero still. Can you imagine what it could mean to never fail?
What is it about Batman that has made him so appealing to not just comic book fans but to mainstream movie audiences? He is a violent vigilante, a broken and lonely soul who takes justice into his own hands.
Is it an aspiration? That with the commitment someone can become strong-willed enough, capable enough, to fight against injustice and criminality without being corrupted? Is it the escapist power fantasy of taking your fists to every injustice that has befallen you?
Perhaps it is the dream that a single person can attain the pinnacle of perfection. Batman, in the popular imagination, is not just a man, no mere mortal. He might not have super powers but he is Perfect. There is no mystery he can’t solve. No crime he can’t stop. No situation that he cannot plan or account for.
Over time Batman has become more than just a man. This idea of the perfect, unbeatable Batman has been affectionately referred to by comic fans and creators alike the Batgod. With prep time and a contingency for every possibility, Batman can solve everything.
Tom King’s Cold Days is a counter to that limited and limiting conception of Batman as perfect and infallible. For King, Batman’s strength is not in his perfection but his flawed humanity. He fails, he loses, but he never gives up.
Grant Morrison’s seminal run on Batman is the apotheosis of the Batgod, the purest example of Batman as myth, an archetypal good set against the archetypal evil in a metafictional conflict of living symbols. That Batman is prepared for everything, is unkillable, is incorruptible, and needs no support system, no love, nothing but the mission.
Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, arguably the defining take on Batman in pop culture for the 21st century, straddles the line between man and myth. Bruce Wayne might be human, but the symbol of Batman becomes a myth, his justice selfless and mission morally forthright. He might lose an individual battle but the war is an inevitable victory. As Bruce explains in Batman Begins, “As a man, I’m flesh and blood. I can be ignored. I can be destroyed. But as a symbol, as a symbol I can be incorruptible, I can be everlasting.”
Zack Snyder’s Batman is the extreme end of the Batman as power fantasy, a one-man judge, jury, and executioner who is self-righteous enough to consider himself humanity’s protector against the incursion of alien forces. A brutal, vindictive executioner without remorse. It is a level of masculine power fantasy at a level beyond parody.
But Tom King’s Batman is painfully mortal, sunk to the depths of defeat and despair not purely physically but emotionally and mentally. Like Knightfall, it is a calculated effort by Bane to break the Bat at his very foundation. As Batman’s world gets swept out from under his feet, King deconstructs the Batgod concept reminding readers what truly makes Batman endure: his humanity.
Perhaps Batman has over time bought into his own myth—believed in his perfection. Indeed, Bruce Wayne admits as much. Toward the end of Cold Days, Bruce asks a fellow juror if she believes in God. In doing so he challenges the rest of the jury’s summary acceptance of Batman’s infallible judgment that citizens of Gotham take for granted.
It is logical the people of Gotham would accept Batman as perfect. Wouldn’t that be easier than to consider that he might just be a broken human being, like you and me, dressed up like a bat? If Batman can be wrong, then the entire enterprise cannot be trusted.
But Bruce is painfully aware of the truth, of the hole deep inside that keeps him moving forward. Gotham City needs Batman to be perfect and infallible because then there is no need to question his actions. In doing so, they have deified a mere mortal and placed him above themselves. Bruce Wayne needs Batman to be perfect to fill the hole inside.
Biblically speaking, perfection is an attribute. A teleological end toward which humanity can only strive toward with God’s example. That is, perfection is the thing for which humans were created to achieve.
It is ultimately unobtainable, however. God is the model of perfection, the completion of human potential for which we should ever strive.
In Batman, the people of Gotham have created a perfect man.
What putting Batman on a pedestal and deifying him does is ultimately leave him burdened with expectations he cannot fulfill. As Bruce tries to express his reasonable doubt, it requires convincing the rest of the jury to put aside the question of super-competency and their assumption, taken for granted, that Batman is inherently just “better.”
It is a horrifying notion that Batman himself has had to grapple with as the heartbreak sinks him deeper into the darkness, stranded and alone again in the night. Bruce came to see Batman as the super-competent, infallible god who could save not just Gotham and the world but himself from the depths. As he saw the future he imagined crumble before him, there was nothing that the Batgod could do.
Trying in vain to control his reality, he coerces Mr. Freeze into confessing to a crime by beating him brutally, unhinged, and without a clear case.
Bruce knows there is no perfect Batgod. No super-competence or iron-clad deduction. Just an angry man and a beating.
He challenges the rest of the jury to try and see what placing a man in the place of God gets you, inevitably. The disappointment of being failed by the idol.
In his heartfelt speech, Bruce speaks not only to his fellow jurors but to readers an earnest plea to see Batman not as something other, but as a human being like the rest of us. It does not take away from his accomplishments or the escapism. Rather, it is the heart of what makes him so enduring. The failures, the pain, the breakings, they don’t bounce off of him but he is able to overcome them and carry on.
The incomparable Lee Weeks provides the art for this three issue story, and his subtle work is critical to the success of this story and the emotional punch. The way the imagery of Batman’s brutality smashes across the page in the quiet jury room scenes, the palpable rage emphasized by subtle lines of motion and spreads of blood, it is clear these are flashes of memories that haunt Bruce, that intrude on his day-to-day life.
Weeks’ work contrasts the reserved and stoic Bruce Wayne with a Batman who screams in rage, his emotions unchecked. It’s a reversal for Batman, who is so often portrayed as unflappable and cold.
By having Bruce admit his reliance on Batman as his higher power, King defies readers to challenge their presumptions of what they expect out of a Batman story and how they relate to the character. Bruce allowed himself to live in the fantasy that he was beyond human restraints, buying into the mythology he sold to the people of Gotham. In being willing to admit his own hubris and vulnerability, by challenging his fellow jurors to examine their assumptions of Batman’s perfection, he elevates their humanity in the process.
Batman endures not because he is better than you or me but because he is like us. Cold Days celebrates that fundamental humanity at the heart of the character and in doing so it reminds us of what we are capable of as normal people. If Batman is not set apart from us, then he can inspire us to push our own limits and believe in what we could accomplish.
What must it be like to be Batman?
We already know. Because to be Batman is to be human, to fail and fall and break and continue on.
Cold Days is a 3 issue story originally printed in Batman vol. 3 51-53. It is collected in a trade paperback of the same name. Written by Tom King with art by Lee Weeks, colors by Elizabeth Breitweiser, and letters by Clayton Cowles.
Like every child of the 1990s who ended up reading comics, my path was forged by Saturday Morning Cartoons. I discovered X-Men and Spider-Man through FOX Kids and still remember watching the premiere episode of the former, riveted by the high drama and mournful screams of Wolverine as he watched his funny little friend Morph fry by Sentinel fire.
I have less vivid recollections of my first experience with Batman: The Animated Series but Batman was the show that defined my childhood, the ultimate appointment viewing above all other shows, animated or otherwise. X-Men might have arrived with bombast and melodrama but Batman etched itself into my consciousness, becoming a part of my very sense of self in a way very few pieces of media could compare. Batman has been a part of my life from before my memory even begins. I wish I could say there was a lightning rod moment where the character etched itself into my life. But, really, Batman has just always been a part of it.
I can’t say that I remember the first comic book I ever read.
In 2020, in the first couple months of this Urbane Turtle experiment, I posted a Year in Review of some of the various forms of media that got me through a difficult year. I was very explicit that it wasn’t a “Best-Of,” and I did not limit it to any medium.
But after a full year as a semi-professional comic critic, I want to share with you my Top 10 comics from the year that was. There is not much in the way of ground rules for how books qualify for this list. They had to release new issues in 2021. I’ve spent the last 2 weeks catching up on a backlog of releases and am happy to finally share this with you all.
One thing my recent Nightwing project accomplished was reigniting my love for DC Comics–particularly the stories and universe of the 90s, which, ironically, I have ready very little of. While I initially planned to cancel my DCU Infinite subscription once I finished that Nightwing read, I instead decided to dive into the stories I was always intrigued by but never had the opportunity to read.
As a kid I spent countless hours online following the stories of DC characters I had never heard of before, written by fans who chronicled the various adventures in compelling narratives. The DC Universe was boundless; there were always new characters and new stories to discover. In particular the fall of Hal Jordan seemed especially captivating. Reading about his sacrifice in The Final Night was such a moving memory even in the form of synopsis that when I found the story on DC Infinite those heady days of research came flooding back. Imagine my surprise to find that an event series from the mid 90s, an era that has a reputation for excess and convoluted plots, was in fact one of the most compelling, reserved, and moving superhero stories I’ve ever read.
The Final Night was a 4-issue, weekly event series written by Karl Kesel with art by Stuart Immonen, inks by Jose Marzan Jr. and colors by Patricia Mulvihill. It begins with the death of a world, as a mysterious power extinguishes the planet Tamaran’s sun. The alien Dusk, a messenger from another world, races from the dying Tamaran to warn the next planet of the coming of the Sun Eater, as she has done countless times before. The Sun Eater is coming to Earth, and there is no hope. Her goal is not that the next planet will defeat the Sun Eater but that they somehow save a few from certain death.
Between last year’s mega Bat-crossover in Joker War, the Oscar award winning film, and an abundance of appearances in various DC media including Zack Snyder’s Justice League, the Joker’s notoriety has never been higher. It is no surprise to see DC capitalize on that cultural cache with a new solo series. The premiere issue is a surprisingly chilling exploration of the Joker as an idea.
Written by James Tynion IV with art by Guillem March and Arif Prianto, the Joker #1 finds the title character the most wanted man in the world following one of his deadliest attacks, shown in the Infinite Frontier one-shot. This new series establishes Joker on the run while his shadow looms large over Gotham City. The villain is physically absent from most of the issue which instead focuses on Jim Gordon looking back on his career in the police force and the way the Joker has haunted his family. Tynion establishes Gordon’s place in the new Infinite Frontier status quo and positions the newly-retired commissioner as worthy of an adversary to the Joker as Batman.
Tynion admirably weaves a staggering amount of history into the issue without bogging down the narrative. Building from stories in other books is a tricky proposition but he captures the horror of Joker’s attack on Gotham that feels both like an evergreen Batman story and a uniquely horrific escalation.
The physical absence of Joker from the story is a surprising choice that allows the character’s reputation to imbue the entire issue with a genuine sense of dread. By focusing on Jim Gordon, the most human of Batman’s supporting cast, the stakes and mental toll of Joker’s evil stings in a way that feels fresh despite the character’s exposure.
March’s art effectively channels the suspense of Tynion’s script, with deep shadows and erratic line work that feels as if Joker’s psychosis is seeping in around the edges of every panel. Joker appears as a specter taunting Gordon throughout the issue. Joker is not just a clown or a killer here—he is an all-consuming madness. March is aided by Arif Prianto’s colors which are a mix of gaudy pinks and greens that pointedly clash with the dark tone of the narration and add to the off-kilter feeling the Joker provokes.
The issue is rounded out with a Punchline back-up story by Sam Johns and Mirka Andolfo that is far less effective and mostly impenetrable for new readers unfamiliar with Tynion’s Batman. It is especially disappointing after the strength of the lead feature.
Overall, the premiere issue of the Joker is a moody and cerebral look into the impact and force of the character’s reputation. It remains to be seen whether the series can run with these same themes, with Joker at the center even as other characters propel the story. On its own this is a strong issue that provides a compelling view of Jim Gordon as a man and proves Joker has become a powerful icon in his own right.
I read every issue of Nightwing, every Dick Grayson solo series (including his time as Batman and a super spy) and 100+ issues of Titans and Justice League over the last two months, in search of the answer to one question.
My gateway into superheroes were Saturday morning cartoons: the Batman, Superman, Spider-Man, and X-Men animated series from the 90s. These sparked an interest in the characters at a young age, and while I watched them religiously it was not until my late teens that I started picking up comics regularly. Until then I would occasionally pick up a random issue here and there, but these books were always somewhat impenetrable, either old back issues or random recent releases out of context from surrounding issues. They hinted at stories that preceded a given issue, or ended on a cliffhanger to which I never got to see the resolution.
This being a pre-blog and pre-Wiki internet, to learn more I spent hours on character and team-devoted web pages like Titans Tower and a now-defunct Encyclopedia of the DC Universe, which meticulously documented the publishing history and important plot points for big event books, individual characters and teams. I knew the differences between the Pre and Post Crisis Superman before ever picking up a single Superman comic.