A couple years ago, I decided to spend a birthday reading and writing about comics that shared an issue number with my new age. Some people like to celebrate with “cake” and “parties” with “friends,” but obviously I choose comics. So, for Big Daddy Dave’s birthday 34, I’m picking another issue #34, surprisingly off the beaten path, picked because I’ll soon be watching The Batman on HBO Max and I’m in the mood for Dark Knights.
If you ask a Batman fan who was behind the celebrated New 52 series, familiar comics readers will tell you writer Scott Snyder and artist Greg Capullo (and if they’re really nerdy – hey friends! – they’ll throw in names like Danny Miki and Jonathan Glapion). That’s because DC’s linewide reboot started in 2011 with Snyder and Capullo on Batman #1, and the duo produced over 80% of the series that ended in 2016 with Batman #52.
What I’m guessing virtually no one remembers – and I count myself among this group – is that for a single issue of this run, it was Batman by Gerry Duggan and Matteo Scalera (Snyder is still credited for the story, hence the streak remains technically unbroken). Batman #34 is an absolute oddity in the run, a stop gap one and done inhale between the massive Batman: Zero Year, Batman Eternal, and Batman: Endgame. As a pause between attempting the biggest Riddler story of all time and Joker vs the Justice League, a narrative about Batman hunting down a serial killer targeting Gotham’s homeless is almost quaint.
Since it’s such an isolated oddity in the run, I’d hoped to find a hidden gem upon the revisit, but that’s simply not the case. It’s easy to forget in the month-in-month-out grind of analyzing individual issues of comics, but sometimes these floppy mags are forgotten for a reason. We plow through the mundane so that the sublime truly shines. Batman hunts the serial killer whose quirk is that he doesn’t want any notoriety for his gruesome deeds, and then punishes him by placing him in the Joker’s cell in Arkham so he’ll get everyone’s attention. If the issue has anything to say about anything, it’s lost on me.
Of course, part of loving this medium is identifying and celebrating what works even among the forgotten, and Batman #34 makes that pretty easy: Matteo Scalera, along with Lee Loughridge colors drops some stunning pages into the story. I particularly love Scalera’s ability to turn a page of exposition recapping Batman Eternal into a visual spectacle. When you’re familiar with the continuity, exposition drops are regularly some of the most skimmable pages in comics, but Scalera turns it into his chance to depict Batman navigating the Gotham skyline, using slanted billboard panels atop the buildings to play catch-up for lost readers.
When this issue was released in August 2014, Comic Book Herald was on the way to turning three years old, and likewise, I was three years removed from collecting my first ongoing comics alongside DC’s New 52 (Batman among them!). So by this point, I wasn’t entirely new to the medium, but I wouldn’t have known much about these creators, beyond Gerry Duggan’s work on Deadpool, and beginning to understand Scalera’s abilities via creator owned work with Rick Remender on Black Science.
It’s funny considering that looking back because 8 years later Duggan’s work on X-Men is a huge part of this rejuvenated era of Marvel’s mutants, and he’s one of the more talked about creators at the publisher. And strangely enough, I have a similar reaction to Batman #34 as Duggan’s X-Men. Even 8 years ago, Duggan has a great sense of comics pacing, and understanding when it’s his role as storyteller to stand back and let the artist drive. How many comics writers would look at their single issue of Batman and have the confidence to leave pages devoid of writing! It’s a really impressive instinct, and the comic is better for it.
Then again, I have a lot of the same criticisms too! There’s a hollowness to the proceedings, a sense that little significance will come of this. Everything feels a little too familiar for comics fans, watching Batman solve a crime with minimal twists, turns, or even surprising detective work. There’s a lot that can be done with the classic story of the world’s greatest Detective, and this book doesn’t really tap into ways that can feel fresh or exciting again. The issue’s final page even hints at a tone and story closer to NBC’s Hannibal, but Batman #34 never embraces that hunt for artistry.
The clearest thing Batman #34 isolates is how ongoing comics are best judged in collected groups, and not on an individual chapter basis. Aside from Scalera ending the story by going full Junji Ito, if you handed a new reader this issue, they’d likely come away fairly non-plussed, and certainly not with the understanding that they were reading something smack in the middle of an instant classic run on the franchise.
At the same time, any perceived emptiness is ultimately irrelevant for that same reason: Nobody remembers! Snyder and Capullo’s run is still feverishly celebrated, and stories like “Zero Year” are easy, popular recommendations alongside The Batman in theaters. I think there’s a healthy lesson in Batman #34 to not swing too far in either direction based on a single comic book. Comics is a medium defined by density and constant output meaning there are going to be significantly more misfires and unimpressive attempts than there are gems. Again, it’s part of what makes the truly excellent work call to us.
Simultaneously, reading New 52 Batman #34 makes me appreciate those creators who treat nearly every issue as a chance to try something different, something exciting. Creators much like… Tom King, who wrote the next Batman #34 during his DC Rebirth era run on the title that followed the New 52.
King’s Batman #34 (with Joelle Jones and Jordie Bellaire) is the second part of the “Rules of Engagement” arc, following Batman and Catwoman’s engagement. Like the New 52 version, this issue also falls in between more discussed arcs, “The War of Jokes and Riddles,” Batman Annual #2, and the excellent “Super Friends” double date issues that followed in Batman #36 and #37. Simply, it’s not as good as the great issues that were immediately on the horizon, although again, King was working on a biweekly release schedule, a frantic pace of output that does a lot to mitigate the wild swings in quality throughout this lengthy run. Nonetheless, this story is far from the list of issues that went down as instant classics or the best of the controversial run.
Unlike its predecessor, though, this Batman #34 features some transcendence. King’s run on the title is ultimately a romance, the story of Batman and Catwoman’s love, and here the recently engaged couple runs into a classic couples dilemma: The ex, the mother of his children, the head of the League of Assassins. While the “Bat/Cat” back-and-forth dialogue can get nauseatingly repetitive as the run progresses, here the bickering between fisticuffs with ninja assassins is earnest, biting, and charming.
Batman’s ability to fight assassins and determine they don’t have tongues based on the way their jaw feels when he punches it highlights the superhero prowess we all know and love; but at the same time, he can’t stop saying the wrong thing with Selina! It’s a great microcosm of Batman the fiancé, accidentally praising Talia Al Ghul to Selina (“she’s the most dangerous woman” here used a praise!), even as Talia tries to have them both killed or captured. Batman’s supposed to be the most human of the heroes, but none of his actions here actually feel particularly human (it’s been ages since I battled a league of assassins in the desert). His humanity comes through instead when he’s trying to escape the trap of angry fiancé by telling her how pretty she looks.
And then there’s an almost tossed aside moment of bliss between Dick Grayson and Damian Wayne, with Grayson sitting with an increasingly frustrated Damian – a Damian who just threatened Superman mind you – and calling back to their time together as Batman and Robin during Grant Morrison’s run. A lot is made of King’s relative mis/understanding of certain characters in Batman, but it’s moments like this for me that showcase a unique grasp of the Batman family.
Ultimately, this Batman #34 is a stepping stone, a middle chapter in a three part narrative before more memorable narratives begin. The issue ends with Talia Al Ghul reprising her father’s role as Swordsmaster fighting to the death, easily upping Batman before turning to Selina. King uses the last panel for his badly overplayed Catwoman “meeow”, a combination of hamfisted and cheesy that never works for me.
And yet… this remains a comic that tried things! We have seen Batman and Catwoman fight together before, and we have seen Talia Al Ghul scheme against Batman since learning of their shared son, Damian Wayne. But to see it while Bruce Wayne and Selina Kyle navigate their engagment and pending nuptials is unique to the mythos, and of a piece with the purpose of the whole run. Jones and Bellaire are some of my favorite artists throughout a run full of great art, and revisiting this issue – while far from a classic – was a far more enjoyable overall experience. I’ll always celebrate a comic with ambition, even when it stumbles.
Since I’m now a Dad in his 30’s, every birthday is ostensibly about the existential creeping dread of my own mortality (or at least it would be if I wasn’t actually so young and hip), which is a fancy way of saying, I think about the time I spend consuming media a lot. We, all of us, only have so much time, so why read comics that aren’t good / listen to music that doesn’t slap / watch TV that isn’t Abbott Elementary? An exercise like this helps center that line of thinking a bit. Not every comic is my favorite, not every song goes on my playlist for the best of the year, and not literally every single joke in Abbott Elementary has me guffawing.
It is easy, when you are thinking about life being too short to waste time on triviality, to sink into the trap of expecting/demanding perfection, excellence, or art-altering innovation from everything. And I think it’s great to want those things, and to criticize media that falls short. I’m also trying to be more open to letting things go and moving on from media when I have enough evidence that I’m just not going to enjoy it, completionism be damned (what’s up certain X-Men comics!).
But there is value in finding footing, in pausing, and even in stumbling. It may not feel that way in the moment, but in the long run it almost always will. The excellence trap is the enemy of enjoying what is merely good, and there’s too much of the bad to let the good slip away.