My friend James, who occasionally shares his thoughts on all things education at his blog Forms of Inquiry, has written up a post for me about a Batman story that’s very much about the barriers that men often have to overcome to build and maintain friendships with one another, which is totally not subtext for anything personal at all. This is probably the kindest thing James could have done for me in the last month, and on top of that it makes me want to track down and read this issue if not Tom King’s whole run on Batman.
I have this tendency to read comics when they refer to important events in the storylines of various heroes. It’s probably not the best habit as I’ve never read a full series from beginning to end unless it’s later been put together into a collection. So, when I heard a little while back that Batman and Catwoman had gotten engaged, I filed it away to be sought out later. Some free credits at Amazon gave me a chance to pick up some issues from Comixology and I wanted to write about a deeply entertaining two-issue storyline beginning in Batman #36. Mea culpa.
So, Batman #36 opens with Lois Lane asking Superman to call Batman and Superman objects because, obviously, it should be Batman who calls because he’s the one getting engaged. Besides, he’s busy. Meanwhile, Batman is having the exact same conversation with Catwoman. She wants him to reach out. He doesn’t feel like he needs to make the call. Besides, he’s busy. This parallelism runs through the issue and is one of the big reasons I love it so much. At the heart of it, Tom King is really showing how two very different men handle roughly the same situation – only, it’s not some crisis or villain. It’s friendship.
All the while, both couples are actively engaged in some typical crime fighting. Lois and Clark are investigating why chemicals keep going missing from derailed trains. Bruce and Selina are chasing down some plutonium working its way through the underworld. I find it all somewhat hilarious to see heroes discussing their respective relationships while doing heroism as any of the rest of us might multitask work and personal life.
While they chase down leads, Lois and Selina are pressing their partners to make an effort, any effort. The women finally make some headway as each man breaks down exactly why he won’t call the other. Batman respects Clark’s ability to be an alien from a dead world and yet take the pain of loss and alienation and turn it into a symbol of hope. That Superman choses to be the hero is remarkable to Batman. On the other hand, Superman is super impressed that Bruce transformed his loss and grief into, you guessed it, a symbol of hope. Likewise, Superman thinks Batman is remarkable because he has no powers, only his wits and will. Both heroes tell their partners that they believe the other man is the better man. Both men assume the other doesn’t really care them. Both assume the other person doesn’t need them. And then both couples exit the elevator and come face to face.
As the conversations progressed, the layout of the comic was such that you could read it in two ways: the typical right to left then down of an eight frame page or you could read them vertically as two columns on each page. Either way provides an interesting parallelism in conversation and shows the super-couples working their way into a building. The same building, it turns out. Then, as they make their final points about not reaching out, they find themselves exiting parallel elevators and parallel frames. Now the heroes are shown in a “wide shot” with 5 wide frames cascading down the page. I especially like the way the men are almost motionless for the whole page but Catwoman is peeking around from behind Batman and then Lois juts her hand out and introduces herself. When an immovable object meets an unstoppable force, it appears their respective partners are the ones who can resolve the situation. The moment is interrupted by the bad guy they’ve been chasing – the same one, it turns out – but he is dispatched quickly.
Unable to avoid talking to each other anymore, our super-couples are about to go on a super double-date. There is probably a lot more at stake here than a double-date might imply. Although Selina’s criminal past is something barely mentioned, the audience knows about it and we also know that Superman tends to operate in a bit more of a binary view of morality. If Batman does his work in a grey area, Superman is doing his in black & white (yes, that is also a newspaper pun, I know). Both heroes are integral to the wellbeing of the world and are founding members of the Justice League. Both respect each other, clearly, but that respect hides a kind of insecurity that could prove really dangerous. It’s easy to go from “he doesn’t need me or care about me” to indignation and hatred. I think this issue does a good job showing us what kind of head-space these men are in. I’m sure many people have experienced friends beginning new relationships, marriages, etc. Some may have friends who’ve entered relationships that aren’t good for them and seen it cause strife within their group of friends. People take sides, they stop hanging out – it can all go pretty badly. What Batman #36 asks us is, what happens if that group of friends includes peer superheroes, especially someone like Superman?
Some stuff I loved:
- The parallelism made manifest in the layout’s “elevator shafts” dialogue frames.
- Lois’ messy desk and sticky notes all over her computer. When she is handed another one, you can see her looking at her monitor and then she turns and puts the sticky note on the filing cabinet behind her. I am that person all the time. I know she felt her monitor was a better place but it’s already full!
- Selina knows Superman’s identity and it shocks Bruce. Lois knows Catwoman’s identity and it shocks Clark.
- Catwoman is rarely standing upright and is often climbing on things. Like a cat. She’s a cat. Woman.
- Superman’s super sight apparently couldn’t see Batman and Catwoman sneaking into the building and it really seems to bother him.
- The heroes enter a fight saying each other’s taglines.