Batman 17

As I mentioned in a previous review, I’m a huge fan of Scott Snyder, but not of his endings. Snyder has a tendency to build up impressive narratives within the creases of Batman’s mythical fabric. While this leads to epic storytelling, enhanced by Snyder’s pitch perfect sense of tone and horror, it has often led him to let us down when he hints that things will change forever and he, rightly, leaves things in place for future stories. Death of the Family is finally over. Does Snyder break his record, or will the Joker’s last laugh fizzle? The answers and more poorly chosen metaphors await you beyond the cut.

Warning: This one’s gonna have spoilers.

Quite appropriately, this issue’s title is The Punchline, and, really, that’s what it is. As much as he’s made a big fuss of his plans, the Joker’s scheming has really all been the buildup thus far. It’s for atmosphere, you see. Was it necessary? Probably not, but it wouldn’t be the same without that sense of gravitas.

At least, that’s how the Joker thinks of it. I don’t hold it much against this issue, but, given that last month I was already complaining about the way that Batman’s rogues were introduced and then scurried off and the relative unimportance of the issue, it’s not reassuring to find out that a trade reader is picking up a book where two of five issues are largely flavor.

Still, it’s hard to complain, Snyder is on his game this month. Both he and the Joker keep up their interest in misdirection, practically mocking the audience’s (real and fictional) fears about Alfred for a quick laugh (gotta keep em warmed up, after all).

For a climax, this is a wordy issue, but that’s fine. Batman is an intellectual hero and his victories are always moral ones. That’s what makes this issue such a fine conclusion to a hit and miss arc; Snyder’s connection to Gotham and what makes a classic Bat-story.

Batman and the Joker are an epic pair. They’re like Holmes and Moriarity, Ahab and his whale, Optimus and Megatron. The Joker sees this and thinks how they’re meant to struggle for all eternity like some sexy modern day Apophis and Ra. Likewise Batman’s connection to Gotham causes him to hold the Joker up as some nearly mythical expression of Gotham’s capacity for senseless destruction. And they’re both right. I, however, take umbrage with those who place them on a spectrum of sanity to madness. I mean, in what world does a man in a cape seem like a paragon of sanity?

The fact of the matter is that, as much as people try (often awkwardly) to insist that Batman is totally sane, he isn’t. But he’s the insanity that we need. Batman tells Superman in The Dark Knight Returns, “Of course we’re criminals. We’ve always been criminals.” For all his problems, and they are myriad, Frank Millar understands the shamanic force of Batman, the ability to exceed the limits of society for its own benefit. Batman often speaks of his inability to cross a line, namely murder. This is held up, in this very issue, as a weakness on his part, that he cannot deviate from his perch. But this neglects the notion that Batman has already descended far beyond what normal people may, into madness, and violence, and all manner of moral greyness. That one line helps to tether him; it’s the depth at which his diving suit cracks.

That’s why The Dark Knight is the quintessential Batman movie for me. Batman (1989) taught us that it’s ok for this story to be serious again. Batman Begins told us that Bruce had to become more than a man. But The Dark Knight showed us how you become an unstoppable force. You don’t do it alone. Exceptionalism exists not for the individual but for the cause it serves. When the Joker waits for his explosion and it doesn’t come, Gotham asserts its identity against a man telling it that it’s ugly and broken. The Joker is a bully, and Batman is the one who stood up for Gotham. It’s not strength that stops the Joker, fists have no power against him, it’s faith.

So too here.

The Joker rants to the seated Batman, telling him who he is and why he won’t win. If you notice, Batman succeeds when he defies the Joker’s expectations. What the Joker was trying is known as a Batman Gambit. It’s a satisfying trope that makes a Xanatos Gambit all the more impressive while, seemingly, making it more realistic and one that is the natural outgrowth of the story structure Synder is using here: ‘Thesis, Antithesis, Synthesis.’ As an epic couple, Batman and the Joker, by definition, need each other, but Batman always has to come out on top, and the way that speaks loudest and deepest, at least at this moment in time is this strategy, to have the villain be right, against the hero’s protestations, but crucially missing some understanding. Only with their combined knowledge, by taking on the wisdom of the enemy can the hero achieve his apotheosis. In this case, Batman has to acknowledge the connection between he and the Joker before he can use it as his enemy has been. Batman even goes so far as to use the Joker’s sweet talk against him, threatening to “go farther with [him] than [he’s] ever gone”. We’re meant to think that he’s talking about killing him but it’s much worse than that. Any punk with a gun can murder a person, but, in a war of philosophies, Batman threatens to kill his opponent’s concept, to murder the very idea of the Joker. In short, two abysses have a staring contest and one of them, finding a man inside the other, blinks.

For all the ideas driving this issue, it’s important to remember that Snyder not only plotted it but also penned the tale. The Joker’s voice is, as ever, spot on. You can hear his joy and his frustration as the moment of completion nears and suddenly swerves away. Like some awful boy after prom, expecting sex, he lashes out, only to sweetly guilt his partner, dismissing it as a little spat. Most importantly, after four issues of near omnipotence (not to mention a slew of tie-ins), Snyder shows us that he can write the Joker losing, and just as well.

Batman is everything we expect him to be, and those who have forgotten why simple caption boxes can get Snyder’s fans engrossed need only look here to see the strength of Batman’s voice. Despite their importance, the ending ensures that the family don’t get many lines, though Snyder does display his now characteristic respect for Dick and Alfred. We manage to get a glimpse of them in the aftermath that speaks well of Snyder’s handle on them, though. Tim and Barbara text Bruce, revealing their computer-savvy and trouble getting close to people (Barbara even settles down with an e-reader, blanket pulled up over her legs as if she’s not quite used to having full use of them again). Jason doesn’t bother to get in touch, sinking down in a bar somewhere. Damian hangs onto his bravado and eloquence, handwriting a note to inform his father that he’ll be training, when, in fact, he’s sitting silent on the floor of the gym. And Dick, ever the center of the Bat-family, calls happily and reassures Bruce, even as he pulls away from the manner, clearly betrayed. And all that’s left is the Joker, taunting us with the possibility that he’d already said what he needed to say in order to win.

Greg Capullo is also doing excellent work, but, especially after last month’s truly gorgeous issue, he’s not looking his best. As he approaches the finish line, the Joker’s face is really starting to rot, and, unfortunately, Capullo’s renderings are going down with it. There are a number of panels where the Joker just looks goofy rather than horrific. That’s not to say that he doesn’t still draw an amazing Joker, he does, but it’s hard to overlook those couple of weird instances, especially when one is the first panel we see him in (a spread no less). Likewise, the Jokerized Bat-family is not Capullo’s best work. At first they all seem to have much more in common with the Creeper than with their host, but I was willing to let that go, since they are rather small in that panel. Unfortunately, I can’t overlook the next panel of Nightwing; it looks like something out of Freakazoid (man, that was a fun show). And poor Alfred (by the way, is it me, or does his facial hair change in every panel? At least slightly.)

After last month, and, in fact, the last year and a half of excellent work, it’s easy to hold Capullo to ridiculous standards, but, from a grounded point of view, he’s there when it counts. Batman’s climactic struggle with the Ace of Knaves is lovingly rendered and fabulously beautiful. Plus, as a bonus, he shows us his interpretation of a younger, more traditional Joker that I’m sad we won’t get any more of.

For a story that had such a great premise and such unsteadiness, Death of the Family ends on a very high note. Snyder knows how to pull at emotions and get one’s heart pumping. Though I wish Capullo had demonstrated a little more consistency, it’s hard to fault the man for some minor hiccups on the seventeenth issue of his run, especially when his hiccups are still this good. Snyder is a writer with flaws, but his craft and love for comics is always evident. In this sampling plate of his myriad talents, he proves that he can provide an ending that is both satisfying and ominous.

 

P.S. I know I’m a fanboy, but, given the connection the rumors about the original intent of the story, does anyone else get the feeling that Jason was intentionally drawn to look like Hush? Especially since its later revealed that he wasn’t wearing his helmet.

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