Out of all of the New 52 launch titles, the only one to get close to its issue 52 without cancelation or new creative teams coming in was Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo’s Batman (the final issue would be taken over by frequent collaborator, James Tynion IV). This 51 issue epic exploring the Dark Knight, the history of Gotham, and the inexplicability of the Joker ran the gambit of genres from post-apocalyptic nightmare to detective story. But at its heart was the story of Bruce Wayne and his impact on Gotham City. What follows is a retrospective of the run that highlights what it was, for good and ill.
“Something bad has come back to Gotham, Bruce.”
We begin, as we must, with “The Court of Owls.” All things considered, the arc is what you’d expect from a modern Batman story: a mystery at the heart of Gotham, a shocking reveal that could tear the Bat Family apart, a villain with a direct relationship to Batman, lots of danger, lots of explosions. It’s a tried and tested story. That isn’t to say the story being told is a bad one, but it’s one we’ve heard before in the Batman lexicon and will hear again.
And yet, there’s something different about what’s going on this time. Not simply in terms of the introduction of a new antagonist. Typically with Batman stories, there is a degree of distance from the Dark Knight. A sense that we are not so much seeing his thoughts as much as his journals (the obvious comparison point would be that of Grant Morrison’s seminal run).
It is easy, often cliche when talking about Snyder’s Batman to say that it’s essentially a blockbuster adaptation of the Morrison run on the character. Where Morrison has debauched rich people out to psychologically destroy Batman led by a man who may or may not be the Devil or a distant relative of Bruce Wayne, Snyder has an army of Owl Zombies systematically destroy the various powers that be in Gotham to reinstate the control of the Court, a major member of whom may or may not be a distant relative of Bruce Wayne’s. Snyder and Morrison have Batman lose his memory and be replaced by a long time supporting cast member (Gordon/Dick). The Joker is something that’s not quite the typical supervillain. I could go on.
But the difference lies in how these stories are told. Let us look specifically at “The Court of Owls” in relation to “RIP.” Morrison, by and large, has a more objective take on the events of the story. Not that they aren’t unwilling to have moments in Batman’s head. Rather, Morrison and artist Tony Daniel will depict the narrative from a number of perspectives. We see the world from the Black Glove as much as we do Bruce Wayne, Dick Grayson, or the Joker. What we are seeing is what the characters see.
Conversely, Snyder is willing to go in more subjective directions. Take, for example, Issue 6. Here, we are presented with the Dark Knight at the mercy of The Court of Owls. Throughout this sequence, we see the Owls shift from monstrous Owl-Human Hybrids to normal rich people in Owl Masks. At first, one might expect this to be a by-product of Bruce’s perspective: hallucinating the Court as literal monsters from a monster movie.
But then, Bruce himself escapes by becoming monstrous. He overpowers them by becoming a hulking monster of a man who can break his way out of anything. This is not literally what has happened. Bruce didn’t become some sort of monster or even see himself as a monster. This is a subjective change of Bruce on Capullo’s part to highlight the emotive feelings Bruce is having in this moment. The feeling of being able to overcome the odds against this cult.
This subjectivity is likewise witnessed in Snyder’s writing. It is well noted (and mocked) that Snyder loves a good monologue. And yet, less discussed is how Bruce’s narration functions. Where previous runs would take things from a more retrospective perspective, the noir detective looking back at how things led to him with a bullet in the belly staring at a dame with a smoking gun, Snyder’s Batman narration opts for more in the moment thought processes. There are moments of Batman looking back in retrospect, but for the most part we remain in Bruce’s current thought process.
But a consequence of this, and something that differs heavily from Morrison’s RIP, is that… we don’t know the motivation of the Court of Owls. Sure, they’re rich, powerful people with the aim to have Gotham in their talons, but to what end? The Black Glove is provided an ideological motivation for their deconstruction of the Dark Knight: they do it for the art of it as if they’re a criminal artist commune. A Cygnet Committee for the 21st century.
But Snyder eschews motivation. They do what they do simply because they can. Simply because they want to hurt Batman. We will never know the full extent of the conspiracy. The depths are staggering, but we are left to wonder if they go deeper still. If the Court revealed themselves not as a mere power grab, but to highlight their presence in the story. The arc time and time again talks about people taking control of the narrative of Bruce Wayne, of Gotham, of Batman. And this is a very precarious time for the Dark Knight. The universe had just been rebooted into something new, something dangerous, something… horrifying.
“…He told a…joke. Oh God, Batman. He told a joke.”
It is perhaps fitting then that Snyder was selected as the writer to bring Batman into this brave new world of jeans-wearing Supermen and Wonder Women born from Zeus’ loins. He is, after all, one of comics’ great Horror writers. And nowhere is this more apparent in the “Death of the Family” arc. The Joker within Scott Snyder’s time is a bit… contentious. On the one hand, he is utilized as a slasher monster akin to Freddy Kruger or, perhaps more accurately, Hannibal Lecter. His murder tableaus in “Death of the Family” are some of the most gruesome, hard to look at imagery Capullo offers within the run, and there are moments where Snyder writes some horrifyingly funny lines. On the other hand, “The Batman Who Laughs.”
But within the context of “Death of the Family,” the Joker is a creature of sheer terror. Snyder utilizes the skills he honed in American Vampire to highlight some truly horrifying moments with Capullo’s art and FCO Plascencia’s colors being up to task to match the ambition. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the opening moments of the arc. We follow a van across the outskirts of Gotham on a dark and stormy night. Everything is grey and bleak, save for the moments where the sky shines in lighting blue. The colors of the lightning feel wrong. They’re too clean, too neon. We cut to a short scene of Gordon and Bullock talking about the strangeness of the recent days. It’s normal colors befitting the bad weather. They return inside the police station just as the van we have been following pulls up.
And then, we see a foot come out of the van, and the world turns neon.
The lights in the police station are warmer than the bad day outside. There’s an air of comradery in the two panels before the lights go out. A lived-in sense of who these people are, even if they only talk about work related stuff. And when the lights do go out, and the backup generator turns on, the sense of dread starts to pick up. The colors aren’t the miserable grey or unnatural neon the outside world provides. They remain a cool indigo. It could all work out.
Except there’s a man in the doorway.
He is dripping wet.
We cannot see his face, but we know who he is.
We can’t even see his eyes.
He is dressed like a custodian.
He is wearing gloves.
There are only two distinguishing features about the man:
He has pale, white arms.
His chin is red and it looks almost like a smile.
Gordon instantly recognizes the man before us. Capullo closes in on his terrified eye as he pleads with the universe for it not to be him.
And then, the lights go out and he starts telling a joke.
For two panels, there is nothing save the words of the terrified.
When visuals return, it is only in what Gordon can see with his flashlight.
Everything else is pitch black.
The color is even greyer and bleaker than the outside world.
There’s no hope of the neon lightning showing us the whole of the situation.
Likewise, we only get glimpses of the Joker.
Afterimages of dead bodies left hanging in the dark.
Not even a tail on the word balloons to show where the voice is coming from.
The images are tight on Gordon.
Even panels from a perspective above Gordon show little that he can’t see.
It merely shows how small he is against the Joker.
And when the lights turn on, there’s a sense of relief for the reader. But Gordon is still terrified, the dread can be seen in every wrinkle on his face. The horror of the moment has ended, even as there is still horror to come. There are many other moments like this from the family dinner to the dream sequence that highlight where Snyder really shines within his Batman run.
“They had to break out of the rigidity of the contemporary mindsets…”
It is perhaps a good time to turn the clock back at Scott Snyder’s career at the time he got Batman. It’s hard to think of it now, but when Snyder began his Batman run with Capullo, he hadn’t written a lot of comics. This isn’t to say he was a complete novice in the field. Rather, in comparison to his direct predecessors, he was a rather fresh face within the comic book scene. At the time he had begun writing Batman in 2011, he had 29 full solo issues of a comic over the course of roughly three years. Contrast that with Morrison’s decades long career, including multiple runs on comics with more than 50 issues in their length, and you’ll see what I mean when I say Snyder is fresh faced.
In many regards, the decision for his successor to be Tom King could be read as an attempt at capturing lightning in a bottle. Like Snyder, King was a well-liked comics writer who had done work on a non-main Batman title featuring Dick Grayson in the lead. He had written roughly 37 single issues on his own before being given the reins to write the main title. (James Tynion IV, arguably the heir apparent to Snyder’s run given he wrote and co-wrote with Snyder various backups and spin offs to the run, had, at the time, written 38 issues of comics on his own and, at the time King was doing his Batman run, wrote Detective Comics. Since taking over the Batman title from King, Tynion has a significantly larger back catalogue of experience.)
Like Snyder before him, King had never written something as big of scale as his Batman run would end up being. Projected at 100 issues, telling a single story about Batman healing, it would end up being King’s most problematic work, a text that, in retrospect, ended the imperial phase King was riding on with works like The Vision, The Omega Men, and Mister Miracle. (Tynion, for his part, had written the 36 issue The Woods as well as worked as an architect on the weekly series Batman Eternal and Batman and Robin Eternal, two texts that are parallel to Snyder’s Batman run, but aren’t covered in this retrospective because I don’t have time to read 104 issues of a comic in addition to the 52 Snyder’s main run asks of me.)
Perhaps most interestingly about King’s run, in contrast to Snyder’s, is how he begins it by directly paralleling the run that came before. The first arc, “I am Gotham,” feels as if it’s an answer to the question of “What is Gotham” that “Gotham is…” implies. King would then follow it up with a fight-heavy arc that parallels and mirrors the back half of “The Court of Owls.” Replace Zombie Owl Soldiers trying to attack with Bane Goons trying to defend. After, there’s “I am Bane,” where a classic villain returns to rain havoc upon Batman and his family, culminating with Batman asserting his role in the world. (There’s even a visual parallel between Bane and Bruce entering Arkham Asylum in both stories.)
But perhaps the most interesting parallel (and final, as King would diverge from Snyder’s narrative trajectory towards something else entirely) comes between “The War of Jokes and Riddles” and “Zero Year.” Both “Zero Year” and “The War of Jokes and Riddles” mark a turning point within their respective creators’ time on the Bat title. A mid-point epic for Snyder and an act one climax for King. Both tell stories set at the beginning of Batman’s career involving the Joker and the Riddler. And both involve interludes with obscure characters who are key to the main baddies’ plans (Doctor Death and Kite Man respectively).
Where they differ is in intent. For King, “The War of Jokes and Riddles” is a story. Specifically, it’s a story Bruce is telling Selina Kyle about a shameful moment in his past. A moment where he decided the right thing to do was murder someone. Every detail we are shown is what Batman focuses on. Not the carnage, the destruction, or any of that stuff. But the lives destroyed by this pointless war. The people like Charlie Brown who were broken by the war. This is a war story using the material of a superhero event comic to argue that war is pointless, cruel, and will always end with even the most righteous compromised by what they’ve done. Even if you think you were fighting for the goodies, the war will corrupt you. Because that’s what war does. That’s the joke.
Conversely, we are presented “Zero Year” not as a flashback, but as events occurring within the narrative. That is to say the story is what is happening much in the same way as its obvious predecessor, “Year One.” We know who Batman and Jim Gordon and The Riddler all become. This is the story of how this happened told as it’s happening. As such, Snyder forgoes something he’s been using throughout his run that “The War of Jokes and Riddles” (and, also, “Year One”) utilize: narration. We are kept at a remove from Batman as these events occur. We do not know what he’s thinking as he fights the Red Hood Gang for the first time or what he was thinking as Doctor Death died.
This has the side effect of revealing something about Snyder’s take on Batman: Batman… is not Ok. This isn’t a unique take on the character, as it’s been basically the base take on him since arguably Paul Dini and Bruce Timm. But the way Snyder’s Batman isn’t ok differs from other takes like, say, Chuck Dixon’s is that Snyder seems keenly aware of this. Throughout his run, Snyder puts Bruce into situations that twist his sanity, break his relationships, and destroy his body. And yet, Snyder doesn’t seem to argue there’s a way out of this madness. For Snyder’s Batman, being a miserable bastard who punches his allies just for show, who routinely pushes aside his mental health for the city, is all part of the job. Batman can never be happy and be Batman.
This is in stark contrast to Tom King’s take on the character. For King, like Snyder, is aware that Batman is not Ok. But unlike Snyder, King questions that base assumption of Batman’s happiness. He puts Batman into a position where he can be happy and be Batman and goes from there. One could argue that Morrison’s run argued the same thing, but where they sidestepped the issue (and immediately rejected the possibility), King initially dives deep into the long unstated subtext of Batman: all of this is a suicide attempt on the part of Bruce Wayne. Over the course of the arc, Bruce grows and changes before coming to the realization that, maybe, Batman doesn’t have to be a Good Death. He can be a Good Life. A choice to be better.
“Doesn’t feel like a Batman story anymore, does it?”
That isn’t to say that Snyder’s run is bad, per say. Just that its interests are considerably different from King’s. Where King is an introspective writer, often prickly with how he goes about his introspection in ways that don’t necessarily gel well with the reader (this is the guy who wrote Heroes in Crisis after all), Snyder is a crowd pleaser. Someone who will write massive, blockbuster events that go from one showpiece to the next (this is the guy who wrote Dark Nights: Metal after all). And nowhere is this more apparent than in “Endgame.”
“Endgame,” in many respects, is a precursor to what Snyder would do in his Justice League run: a massive, earth shattering story where the worst case scenario occurs. Heroes teaming up with villains against a larger, existential threat. Batman cracking jokes when he’s not seen by the public. It even has Batman’s worst nightmares come true and a Barbatos nod. Also, chainsaws. It’s certainly at a smaller scale: the entirety of Gotham systematically killing everyone and everything around itself is inherently smaller than the Sixth Dimension.
But there’s something to this smallness that keeps “Endgame” from exploding into the hot mess that Snyder’s Justice League ended up being. By keeping the scale to just Gotham, Scott Snyder allows for the emphasis of his dumb blockbuster event to not consume itself in sheer excess. The limitations put onto the scope force Snyder not to go further than his reach can grasp, even as he’s begun imagining it.
The problem with writing about “Endgame” in the format I have for this retrospective look at Snyder’s Batman run is that it’s quite difficult to write about blockbuster events unless you’re dunking on them. And “Endgame” is quite good at being a blockbuster story in ways that make dunking on it feel wrong. With something like, say, Geoff Johns and Gary Frank’s “Three Jokers,” you can dive into the well of Johns’ relationship with Alan Moore, Tom King, and the existential dread of a comic no one wants existing. With Final Crisis, you can explore the limits of elevating the Blockbuster to something bigger, how expectations of what these events ultimately are hamper what the creators behind them are reaching for. Hell, with Snyder’s own Justice League run, there’s a lot to explore with regards to his limits as a writer, the ticks he returns to that hamper his work.
But “Endgame” is a good comic that utilizes what Snyder and Capullo and all their various collaborators on coloring, lettering, editing, inking, all of them have been working with for the entirety of his time on Batman up to this point. This is the peak of the run. And yet, reading it again, for the first time since I initially read it as a kid… I can’t help but feel hollow. The empty calories do nothing for me. And… another thought is coming to mind. One I don’t want to admit to, as much as I feel it’s honest. But, at the end of the day, I have to be honest.
“It’s been burned so many times, you can practically feel the embers everywhere.”
I started reading comics in single issues around the age of sixteen. The closest comic book shop to where I lived was right next to a porn store and fifteen minutes driving, so there was no way I was going to get them from there. I had been into comics all my life, often reading them while my mom was shopping at the grocery store (for as long as they were in the grocery store). I’d read the trades my library would get, hooked on Sandman, Animal Man, Watchmen, V for Vendetta, and The Dark Knight Strikes Again. But I didn’t start reading single issues on my own until I heard of an app called Comixology that sold comics digitally.
Among the first series I followed on the app was Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo’s Batman. It wasn’t a “I must read every issue of this run” sort of situation. I was mostly reading his stuff in trade format or reading recaps on Gotham Spoilers. But I did follow Death of the Family issue by issue because it sounded interesting to my teenage sensibilities. And like Snyder’s work outside of Batman, American Vampire was among the first comics to get me back into the medium. I still love “The Black Mirror,” “The Grim Knight” is absolutely brilliant, and I have a soft spot for “Project Superman” that I really can’t justify.
So understand that it pains me to admit… I don’t like his Batman run. Not all of it is bad, some of it is still quite effective. But the overall feeling I get when reading the run is just… indifference. It feels like the same events repeat again and again. Bruce pushes away his family and friends to go after something horrifyingly huge, realizes that it’s too big for him, and has to ask for help. Not helping matters is its views on Batman, which argue that Batman can’t be happy. Batman must end with the man dying horribly with no chance of beating the odds. And that’s just not an interesting take on Batman to me. Just Chuck Dixon regurgitated for twenty years past its sell by date. “Superheavy” is an overstuffed mess that gestures towards more interesting themes than it feels interested in exploring (not to mention Snyder’s tendency to DM critics who write reviews that aren’t glowing with praise and softly telling them off).
But perhaps the thing that kills it for me… there’s no room in the comic to explore. Everything, from the subtext to the themes to the implications, all of it is laid bare on the page, explained in-depth by the characters. When reading fiction, I like doing some of the work. Having to put together aspects of the text that aren’t necessarily all the way there. Part of the reason I like to go to bat for stuff like Heroes in Crisis or Spider-Man: Reign is because they’re the kind of hot messes that practically beg for an archeological approach to see what they’re doing. They may not be necessarily good (though I will fight you in a Denny’s parking lot if you say something bad about Spider-Man: Reign), but they’re worth exploring and allowing the reader to explore their depths.
Conversely, Snyder/Capullo’s Batman has the Joker lay out the symbolic implications over every single member of the Batman rogue’s gallery in-depth. And it’s extremely painful to read, like someone who saw Alan Moore’s lecture issues of Promethea and thought that they could pull it off. That’s the moment that killed this run for me on this read. Where I realized that this wasn’t for me anymore, if it was ever for me.
“And it was a horror show.”
And yet, I love the ending. There are, in fact, four endings to Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo’s Batman run. There’s the quiet Batman #51, a stand-alone epilogue that returns to what came before; the bombastic Dark Nights: Metal, which leads directly into Snyder’s Justice League with all the aplomb you’d expect from a story involving Batman using Baby Darkseid to fight the Justice League; there’s the Rebirth one-shot where Snyder and King set up some of the themes King would explore as the story went on, for good and ill. And then there’s my favorite ending: “Last Knight on Earth.”
“Last Knight” on Earth is a rather odd story to end a Batman run on. In many respects, it’s a spin-off of what Snyder was doing at the time in his Justice League run: an argument between Justice and Doom. And yet, it fits with the themes Snyder has been working with throughout his run on Batman. Or, rather, the theme that has been bubbling under the surface of the run for quite some time. The first inklings of the theme appear in the back third of Zero Year, but don’t feel fully formed yet. It starts to get more of a shape to itself with Bloom’s rant about the failures of the system in “Superheavy.” But it’s not until All-Star Batman when the theme starts to shine:
What if, deep down, we’re monsters?
What if we want the annihilation?
To be the bastards who stomp down on other people’s necks?
To see the immigrant kicked out of the country by leaving the European Union?
To have the Mexican horde repelled by a wall that Mexico pays for?
What if we, or at least more of us than we’d like to admit, want the cruelty of the world?
It’s certainly easy to see the case for this bleak outlook. Nearly half of the country voted for a racist, sexist gangster with no experience, who locked children in cages, claimed there are Good Nazis even as they murder protestors, church goers, and other such things. Not to mention how these systemic issues were there even before Donald Trump became president. Police Brutality, #Gamergate, Donald Trump didn’t create these things. He was just loud enough to make us look.
And now that he’s beaten, now that we have a man like Joe Biden in the White House, people are starting to look away. People who claimed to be allies have turned their backs on the cruelty of the world in favor of yelling at an artist for daring to say the artwork of an issue of Venom where we see Eddie Brock’s face repeat again and again over four pages was boring. Or how people are willing to toss aside Alan Dean Foster’s legal issues with the Disney Corporation because he had a bad take on The Last Jedi. Or any number of things we’re going to focus on between me writing this article and you reading it instead of the sheer horror that is the Military Industrial Complex.
So it’s any wonder why someone would assume that we are fucked. In Snyder’s case, he presents a future where everyone has fallen. The people have murdered Superman, Wonder Woman is in exile, and, perhaps most fitting of all, Batman broke. He saw the world turn to horror and shit and decided the best course of action was to become one of the bastards. To take over the world with an iron fist and destroy anyone who got in his way. Because might makes right and Batman is stronger than anything that can come in his way. Because Batman is suffering, Batman is pain, Batman endures and controls.
But Snyder doesn’t conclude “therefore let the bastards fuck us.” That’s not the right answer. It’s telling that “Last Knight on Earth” opens with the possibility of the most uninteresting take on Batman being true (before being swiftly discarded): that Batman was a patient in an insane asylum all along and all his baddies were his doctors. This is not a story that is going to give the most obvious of responses. One where being good at Batman is going to be enough to stop the cruel world.
What it ultimately goes for is not the isolation of the Dark Knight, one who shuns his allies and family. But one who allows others into his world. It starts with just one person, a friend and ally who has been by Bruce’s side for his whole life. It expands to more and more people. The fatal flaw of Snyder’s Batman has always been his isolation, his unwillingness to have other people help him in times of need. Even when he learns to do so, he’s always quick to forget. But here, at the end of the story, Batman finally learns to accept a helping hand. And Snyder allows the readers to see this without the anxiety inherent to his Joker monologues.
I still don’t like Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo’s run on Batman. But I can respect it. I can understand it. I can accept that it happened. And maybe… maybe that’s enough.