Tom King’s first volume of “Batman” took a familiar concept — Batman having to work with new superpowered characters who want to work with him to help Gotham — and didn’t do anything new with it. “I Am Gotham” had some nice art from David Finch and Ivan Reis, but the storytelling never really rose above “competent.” There was the hint that things could get interesting at the end of the volume as Batman agreed to undertake a mission for Suicide Squad head Amanda Waller in order to get Gotham Girl the help she needed. The good news is that seeing Batman assemble his own “Suicide Squad” is pretty entertaining and shows that King isn’t going to be entirely beholden to convention in his run. If you’re also guessing that there’s some bad news here, you’re right as I can only hope the writer’s one big thought on why Batman does what he does is quickly forgotten.
Gotham Girl wanted to do the right thing in working alongside her brother and with Batman to make their home city a safer place. That dream quickly turned to tragedy after an encounter with the emotion-controlling Psycho Pirate led to her becoming a mental wreck and her brother turning into an out-of-control monster that she had to stop with her own hands. In order to restore Gotham Girl’s mental stability Batman needs the Psycho Pirate. The problem is that he’s currently in Santa Prisica helping its ruler out with his own problems. For the uninitiated, that would be none other than Bane, the man who broke Batman’s back.
As he’s going into a country without any formal approval, Batman can’t rely on any of his friends in the Justice League to help out. This is where Waller comes in and now he has the authority to draft his own Suicide Squad (they never call it that in the comic, but that’s basically what this is) from the ranks of the inmates at Arkham Asylum. The lucky winners: Arnold “The Ventriloquist” Wesker, martial-arts expert and (alleged/delusionally) former intelligence operative and member of the League of Assassins Bronze Tiger, crazypants-in-love couple Punch and Jewlee, and someone currently pending death by lethal injection for the 237 murders they committed. If you’re thinking it’s one of the more psychotic members of Batman’s rogues gallery like Killer Croc or Mr. Zsaz, then you’d be wrong. The final member is none other than Catwoman.
The title arc makes a good case for having King take on the “Suicide Squad” ongoing once he’s finished with “Batman.” He clearly understands the appeal of having a disparate group of villains/very-morally-flexible-heroes work together to overcome impossible odds. What’s unique about his take is that Batman’s presence leads to the plan of attack having a more rigorous structure. Instead of the chaotic but still enjoyable approach of throwing bad guys at the problem, each of Batman’s recruits here all have a specific role to play in the infiltration. Much of the fun comes from seeing each of the characters execute their specific roles in this story. Along with finding out exactly why Wesker was brought along in the first place.
Having Mikel Janin illustrate this arc also lends it some punch as well. Not one for gritty detail like his predecessor Finch, Janin is about expansive scenes that showcase action over time. Sometimes they can be as simple as Batman sparring with Bronze Tiger over a double-page spread, or intricate in showing how he traverses up one of the compound’s towers. The key thing is that all of these scenes are still relatively easy to follow despite Janin’s visual trickery and he’s great at keeping the action clear and making it appear bold on the page.
This is good because it allows you to focus on the art and hopefully tune out the one big idea that King posits about Batman in the accompanying narration. In a letter to Catwoman/Selina Kyle Batman/Bruce Wayne talks about how he came to the decision to be Batman and how it involved a moment of suicidal ideation after the death of his parents. Shortly after writing that, he specifically equates the idea of being Batman with the act of suicide.
Some might find this idea distasteful. Others might see a kind of logic in it. I think it’s terrible. The problem with that is it’s an added level of morbidity that Batman’s origin really didn’t need. His origin is pretty dark as it is and making it darker doesn’t add anything to it. It’s also really hard to separate the idea of Batman being born out of suicidal ideation from the thought that he’s doing this as a long-form version of suicide. That’s something King should’ve have spelled out explicitly.
Yet the worst of it is the fact that the writer kicks off this idea with an acknowledgement of how ridiculous the idea of a grown man fighting crime dressed as a bat is. He then proceeds to address how it isn’t funny through the above-mentioned idea. Look, if you enjoy “Batman” in any medium then you’ve either bought in completely to the concept of a grown man going around fighting crime dressed as a bat and don’t need any kind of justification for it. To try and legitimize the character in the way we see here is unnecessary, bordering on tasteless, and reeking of defensiveness. Readers will be best served during the issue in which this pops up by focusing on the impressive art from Janin where he shows Batman kicking the ass of every single guard in Santa Prisica.
With that out of the way, it’s worth mentioning that the final two issues of this volume are a dramatic departure from the title arc. One that feels appropriate too as it involves Batman and Catwoman spending a night on the town before the former takes the latter to prison. The first half is a fun, romantic romp as the characters’ romantic involvement is made explicit as they take on a host of villains and consummate their relationship on a rooftop. Thankfully, in a far less salacious manner than the last time I saw this happen (the first volume of Judd Winick’s “Catwoman” from the start of the “New 52” ear).
Their involvement makes for a more vulnerable Batman that I’ve seen in recent memory. It’s actually nice to see him let his guard down and enjoy some quality time with Catwoman. This also makes the fact that she gets away near the start of the second issue easier to believe, leading him to break out his detective skills and find out exactly why she was responsible for those 237 murders. The reveal there is well-executed and also leads to a scene which should leave no doubts that their intimacy means something to Catwoman as well. Mitch Gerads, King’s partner on “The Sheriff of Babylon,” provides the art here and he delivers some detailed, grounded work that’s great for the personal story being told here. He also gets to have some stylistic fun in a cute sequence in the second issue where the two characters playfully argue about the time that they first met, shifting between Golden Age and “Year One” styles.
While King’s first volume of “Batman” left me concerned that he’d be able to tell a story involving the character that wasn’t completely generic, “I Am Suicide” puts that fear to rest. It also raises a new fear that when he tries something new I’m also going to have to put up with a really bad idea in the process. This volume was good enough overall to make that a risk worth taking. Particularly when it sets up the next Batman/Bane rematch along the way.