Following up on the post from a couple weeks ago, my friend James wrote up a discussion of Batman #37 by Tom King and Clay Mann. It is delightful.
Masks, costumes, and hidden identities have a long tradition in humanity’s art. They let performers on stage and page become someone else. They let the audience engage in figuring out who a masked person might be, or heighten dramatic tensions when they know about identities but certain characters do not. There’s just something about it that we all understand at an intuitive level. I think our collective cultural baggage surrounding masks and costumes and hidden identities is one reason superheroes are such an enduring presence in pop culture. Something about the tension between who we show the world, who we are to ourselves, and who we can be when we hide both those things is deeply resonant.
When our super couples arrive at the “Gotham County Fair” and a person dressed as a Wonder Twin informs them that it’s super hero night and all attendees have to wear costumes, I was wearing a very wide grin. Of course costumes have to play a role here. And, when our super couples realize they can’t just show up as their super-alter-egos, I’m making a bit of a squee noise. From the third page on, Clark Kent is wearing Batman’s actual costume. Bruce Wayne is wearing Superman’s blue tights and cape. Lois dons Catwoman’s costume and Selina wears Lois’ dress. After swapping costumes, our super couples emerge into the County Fair surrounded by people also wearing superhero costumes. I’m just floored by this point – even rereading makes me giggle. I’d imagine long-time fans of DC comics could find a lot to enjoy in the actions of the various other “heroes” running around the County Fair.
Okay, enough with the entertainment value of the costume-swap. The real meat of the issue, like the previous #36, is in the dialogue between pairs. Last time we had the couples negotiating over who should call who when their investigations forced them into the same hallway. We learned a lot about how much both Superman and Batman respected each other but that both also felt the other didn’t need them. My take is, that’s a dangerous place for two people to be in. Feeling like someone you respect doesn’t need you leads to darker and more vengeful feelings. Put those feelings in the hands of a superhero and it’s a world of trouble. Beneath all the farce and fun of the setup is a potentially explosive situation.
After the couples do some typical County Fair stuff (tunnel of love, eat some corn-dogs, etc.) they split into male and female pairs. While Super-Bruce Wayne-man and Clark “the batman” Kent are talking and hitting balls in a batting cage, ace reporter Selina and catwoman Lois have a chance to talk to each other. Both Lois and Clark begin their respective conversations by expressing disbelief at the prospect of Bruce and Selina being a couple, but then the couples diverge. Lois using introspection about her father’s wishes as a way to connect with Selina. Clark, on the other hand, changes the subject quickly to one of competition: he challenges Bruce to hit a ball he throws. This challenge becomes a bit of a preoccupation for both men. Later we find them not engaging in conversation with their partners but, instead, thinking about the challenge.
Just like in #36, the ongoing conversations between pairs are visually situated in different ways at different points of the issue. Toward the end, as Bruce talks to Clark and Lois talks to Selina, the frames alternate between both pairs and both conversants. Taken together, pages 19 and 20 present a 3 x 6 grid of frame that offers a bunch of really interesting ways to read. Like the elevator “silos” of the prior issue, changing up the order of the conversations yields interesting results. The similarities between all of the points in the conversation lead to a really crucial frame in which Clark realizes that the biggest reason Bruce and Selina are getting married is because they’re lonely and their status as hero and reformed villain means they can be there for each other across the trick hidden identity / alternate life territory that goes with being Batman and Catwoman. Because that loneliness was rooted in Bruce’s loss of his parents as a child and Selina’s absentee father, Clark was able to relate to that feeling. Lois, though she has her family, also expresses some distance from her father, the general who wanted her to become a professional soldier. They close out the conversations with Lois reassuring Selina that right and wrong are a bit blurrier than she was raised to believe and Clark reassuring Batman that he’s going to be able to navigate this new and tricky relationship because he “does alright in the dark.”
Also, they are all eating ice cream cones the whole time. I can’t even. It’s ridiculous. I love it.
Our heroes leave the Gotham County Fair and change back into their standard costumes (but not street clothes). Having reached an understanding, Lois and Clark are officially invited to Bruce and Selina’s wedding. Still somewhat preoccupied by Clark’s challenge, Bruce agrees to try and hit a pitch thrown by Superman. They depart the Fair to a baseball stadium somewhere. I won’t spoil the ending.
Some stuff I loved:
- Obviously the whole costume swap was endlessly entertaining to me. Adding the layer that our heroes are walking around this fair surrounded by other people in hero costumes is just icing. It also makes almost every frame super detailed and interesting. There are probably easter-eggs I’m not aware of embedded in the background.
- At one point, a guy dressed as Rorschach swipes Lois’ purse and runs away quoting Ayn Rand. No, really! Superman uses his x-ray vision to provide Batman with some coordinates for a precision baseball toss to the back of this guy’s head. It’s later revealed that Selina pick-pocketed the thief at the same time. There is probably something to say here about objectivist moral philosophy and relationships. There is also probably something to say here about Alan Moore. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
- Bruce and Selina are more into PDA than Clark and Lois.
- There’s costume commentary sprinkled throughout. Bruce thinks the Supersuit is itchy and Lois blames it on not getting the suit washed enough. When they’re changing costumes, Clark informs Bruce that the “S” stands for hope. Bruce’s bat, meanwhile, stands for “bat.” Selina’s Catwoman get-up is stretchy.
- Clark is Superman. While he is going incognito as intrepid reporter, Clark Kent, he wears glasses. The glasses are, traditionally, the only thing that he really does to be in disguise. He doesn’t need the glasses but when he dresses up in Batman’s outfit, he keeps wearing the glasses. It’s a real treat to see a guy wearing the full Batman regalia, mask and everything, and he wears glasses over the top. I chalk this up to one key difference between Batman and Superman. Batman is intuitive. Superman is not – he doesn’t have to be because his powers negate the need to be intuitive. Why do detective work when you can see through walls and hear things miles away? So any time Superman is in disguise, he wears glasses.
- At some point Selina obtains a gigantic pink stuffed cat and she keeps it the rest of the evening. This is never explained.
- Lois brings a flask. But. Like. She didn’t know they were going on a double date when they set out to solve a mystery in #36, right? Lois brings a flask everywhere?
- Without spoiling the ending, the frame showing Superman’s fingers as he prepares to throw a pitch to Batman indicate he is throwing a curveball. I’m telling you, these guys are way preoccupied with this whole pitching/hitting challenge to the point that they’re getting in each other’s heads.