Wednesday, September 7, 2016

We Are Gotham: Tom King's Batman, "I Am Gotham"

As Batman #6 hits stands today, I took a look at Tom King's first full arc on DC's Batman, a series that garnered huge critical and commercial success under Scott Snyder's hand over the past five years. Now, King has the opportunity to apply his unique brand of narrative aesthetic to the Dark Knight of Gotham City.

Tom King is a superstar and he’s only seriously been in the game for 26 months. Grayson, The Omega Men, The Vision, and Sheriff of Babylon all led to DC’s confidence in the man they gave Batman. King’s operatic style lends itself to the Dark Knight, ironically juxtaposed to Scott Snyder’s more visceral run during the ‘New 52’. King’s Batman and Batman both bear a subtler tone emphasizing ethical dilemma and conflicting morality. In this first arc, “I Am Gotham”, Batman wants so badly to believe new superhumans Gotham and Gotham Girl represent everything he can’t be, everything he wishes he could be that he missteps and makes crucial mistakes. These siblings are a symbol of what Bruce hopes the future can become, and he doesn’t really know what to do.

Batman’s perfectionism works as a mentoring tool when recipients already possesses confidence in themselves; Superman knows where he stands and thus applies Batman’s logic to his own circumstance without going full-on Dark Man of Steel of the Night. Similarly, Batman’s various allies survive Bruce’s nigh-impossible training regimen because they’ve dedicated themselves to the cause and have the drive to maintain their own selves through the process. Hank and Claire Clover are fledgling heroes still discovering themselves and their powers while trying to earn Batman’s trust and protect their city; cognitive dissonance is real and only exacerbated by the presence of superpowers and stranger-than-fiction happenstance. It’s no wonder Gotham goes insane.

And this is the entire conceit of “I Am Gotham”, insight on the relationship between good and evil and what it means to be part of something bigger than yourself. To Batman, that means sacrificing desire, emotion, and sympathy to become better. To Gotham Girl, that means following her big brother who she knows is benevolent and well-meaning because they made a pact. For Gotham, it means sacrificing his soul to fix what it broken because there’s no other way.

Batman #3 brings this theme to the forefront with the origin of Gotham that bears a striking resemblance to Batman’s own – and he knows it. As Matches Malone (a fantastic return of Bruce’s scummy alter-ego), Bruce interviews the Mr. and Mrs. Clover and learns about their children’s commitment to doing good and helping those less fortunate, and as much as they don’t know how, they do know their kids are superheroes now. Henry Clover’s description of Gotham City finds hope in the darkness and sees light between shadowy dealings, not unlike Bruce’s own father. It’s this sympathy that compels Batman to want to believe in Gotham and Gotham Girl because he sees in them what could have been and lets his emotions guide his actions.

In the first few chapters, David Finch’s hyper-detailed DC house style feels at-odds with King’s more elegant and nuanced script, but as the story continues it becomes clear that Finch was purposely chosen for his style to accentuate the corrosion of good. Hank’s purpose-driven life is to see Gotham City lifted up from the putrid darkness and rise to glory. When he discovers that even with seemingly unlimited power he cannot be the savior Gotham City needs, Hank’s world shatters and no one can pick up the pieces. Batman inspired a young Hank to be a better person, but he also inspired tunnel-vision dedication to an impossible task that breaks a young man’s mind. And a god proven wrong can be disastrous.

Claire wasn’t there when Hank and their parents were mugged, so her connection to the mission is tangential; she can see the cracks forming in her brother’s psyche, but she doesn’t really know any other way besides her faith in Hank. Trauma inspired Hank which inspired Claire, yet when Gotham’s existential dread becomes overwhelming, she can’t empathize, confused by her brother’s erratic actions. Hank’s own breakdown indirectly breaks his sister, and the whole thing falls apart.

Batman doesn’t really overwhelm or over-burden these young heroes; he simply presents them with the reality of their cause, the truth of their dedication to a city that will not be tamed or made calm. In recent years, Gotham City has been slowly molded into a sort-of tertiary character in the DC universe in the way the European countryside and ruined cityscapes becomes integral to World War II films. Hank and Claire spent so much time looking for the good in their city they failed to expose themselves to the bad, and when it becomes clear the darkness has no end, Hank loses his faith.

True evil is often committed by those who believe they are right and altruistic, by individuals jaded enough by the world to believe the ends justify their horrific means. “I Am Gotham” extrapolates this classic trope to give Hank Clover more clarity as a character: this isn’t just another looney, brightly-themed villain, but rather a set of distinct and unwavering ethics distilled into a relatable hero who falls from grace. Gotham is all of us because the weight of our own lives is sometimes too much, so how could we ever hope to carry an entire city? Even in a fantastical, mystical, hyper-advanced world of heroes and villains and aliens and monsters, nihilism is one hell of a drug.


  1. Good review. I liked the arc pretty well. My major criticism is pacing. I'll just paste here what I wrote on Reddit a couple of weeks ago. I would be interested in hearing your thoughts.

    Just finished the first arc of King's Batman. It was really good. My only complaint, and this is true for many comics, is that it moves too fast. In my opinion, anyway. Basically, I would have liked the arc to be several issues longer. There really isn't breathing room or time for development. I think it's barely long enough to accomplish what it did. It would have majorly benefited from slowing down and developing characters and the plot more. For example, Psycho-Pirate is in one frame, and he's given a very brief exposition of his abilities. But he goes on to have a major impact on the plot and characters. (I was also confused by what happened in that building with the soldiers. Looked to me like they were shooting each other, but Gotham got blamed). And then Batman is talking to Wahler about Gotham and the 27 bodies, and he somehow realizes that somebody lived and is going to kill Gotham's family, and the next page just jumps there. It all happens so fast. The plot is great, honestly. And the characters are good; I like this Batman. I just think allowing things to breathe and develop more slowly would have helped significantly.

    1. I absolutely agree with this assessment. King seems to be at his best with more room to flesh out his stories, as evidenced by the 12-issue length of OMEGA MEN, VISION, and SHERIFF OF BABYLON. That said, I understand that BATMAN is a lot less flexible in terms of how quickly readers need to be grabbed. Much in the way poets write haikus to work under constraints and find inventiveness within limitations, King may have been asked to condense his story to five issues (+ the epilogue), and he sharpened the narrative into what we got.

  2. Yeah, that seems likely to me. It's presumably a DC mandate to keep arcs to graphic novel length. But even then, they could have done 6 issues, even 7. But maybe DC has decided the greatest economic benefit for page count vs price is a 5-issue book.