Sunday, September 23, 2012

Nobody has been killed more ways or for more reasons than Thomas and Martha Wayne

editor's note:  I had called this post something about "Batman: Court of Owls", but it's not really about that, so I went back to my original title.

Many months ago when I was thinking I'd probably continue to follow DC Comics in the wake of the Nu52, I made a decision to just read the collections of Batman comics rather than single issues.  Actually, I'd been doing that for a while as I found I really could stand to wait for the trades when it came to the often ill-paced thrills of a Batman mystery unfolding.

To that end, I am now reading the first Batman New52! trade, The Court of Owls.

Thanks to Adam West, I've been a Batman fan literally since before I could talk.   Like most kids, I was somewhat unaware of the death of Thomas and Martha Wayne as a motivating factor for Bruce until I started picking up Batman comics in middle school.

In my mind, there's a platonic ideal for Batman's origin, and it's more or less contained in the pages of Batman: Year One and Dark Knight Returns.  It goes like this:  Bruce Wayne is accompanied by his parents to a play/ movie/ event in downtown Gotham.  Exiting the show, the extremely wealthy Waynes are mugged by a small-time crook who chooses to pull the trigger and kill Thomas and Martha Wayne.  A traumatized Bruce vows revenge on all crime.

When I got into comics for reals, I landed in comics around 1986, and if you're keeping track at home, the mid-80's was a period of huge moments in the world of Batman.  I was there just after Dark Knight Returns and when it was collected as a trade.  Batman: Year One was suddenly canon.  The Killing Joke redefined The Joker and took Batgirl off the playing field.   Jason Todd's descent led to A Death in the Family, and I think I hadn't escaped 8th or 9th grade before Tim Drake was set to replace Jason Todd.

Thanks to the pages in Dark Knight Returns, the death of Thomas and Martha Wayne became an iconic moment in the mythos that it had not previously been.   Miller's work in that book and with Mazzuchelli in Year One had such a profound impact that it seemed every few issues, someone would find a way to riff on the scene, be it Scarecrow gas or what-have-you triggering the memories.  The comfy suburban readers who could not imagine anything worse than the inconvenience of dead parents and  who, as 12-20 year olds, were really looking for an excuse to be right all the time, sided in all arguments with Batman when, in his head or in arguing with Superman, he pointed out that his parents had been killed and taught him a cruel, cruel lesson that gives you moral authority on everything, apparently (we know it gives you carte blanche to beat up mental patients and anyone who looks like they're breaking the law, and it absolutely means you can break and enter into any place you damn well please).

From the beginning, the Wayne's killer has been referred to as "Joe Chill", but Joe has had all sorts of paths.  He's been a small time crook who rose to prominence and to whom Batman revealed his identity, leading indirectly to Chill's death.  He's been a bum who teamed with Batman.  He's been an anonymous figure who Bruce Wayne never tracked down.  He's been a pawn in bigger schemes, including in the Dark Knight Trilogy of movies.  He's been not-Joe-Chill in the Tim Burton Batman movies where he's a young Jack Napier (aka: The Joker.  Jackanape, GET IT?).

I'm not actually a fan of Joe Chill as much more than a down-on-his-luck crook who, senselessly, shoots the Waynes, probably because he doesn't really know who they are until the story hits the paper.

But Chill or not Chill, it seems like the past several years, including during the Grant Morrison run, writers have been looking for reasons for the Waynes to have died in some Rube Goldbergesque conspiracy contraption.  Morrison, to his credit, backed off, but there was a moment there where I was about to be severely disappointed with the ret-conning.  Other writers...  Cults.  Family histories.  Whatever was going on in that "ghost of Martha Wayne" bit in Death and the Maidens...  it all feels like a bit much.

And it's unnecessary.  It doesn't add to the conceit of the character of Batman to turn the death of the Waynes into a conspiracy, and I include Nolan's decision to make the Wayne's murder a mob hit as a point of narrative convenience.

In fact, I'd argue that the simplicity of the Wayne's death as a senseless crime, the randomness and simple cruelty of it, is a far more compelling motivator than solving some complicated puzzle of a crime.  After all, once your hero beats The Court of Owls, he's done with his narrative, isn't he?  The story becomes less one of fighting crime so nobody goes through what Bruce Wayne did, and one of revenge.  And?  Everything after solving the crime becomes a weird guy in a cape who is now just sort of screwy in the head.

I haven't read Volume 2 of The Court of Owls, and I know it has not yet been explicitly stated that The Court of Owls done the crime.  But the Alan Wayne clues and the ret-conning of Bruce's mourning and subsequent investigation of The Court all feels...  it all feels like tacked on nonsense.  It doesn't help that the anecdote feels preposterous, but after 75 years of Batman comics, I don't need anything else added on to my origin story for Batman or Dick Grayon (I mean, for god's sake).  It's looking backward rather than forward, and that's been the Batman books for more than a decade.  I don't get it.

I guess what I'm saying is, I'm not a fan of this whole "Court of Owls" business.  Especially as it's the first storyline of the Batman line in the non-rebooted Batman line of the New 52.  It's painful enough that we're supposed to buy that this is just now happening after however many years of Batman out there (and I'm not clear on why.  At all.  And I hate the art.), but if it's supposed to feel creepy, suddenly placing a layer of supposed "owl" imagery and rhymes around Gotham that we've never heard of before all feels sort of like this is all going to be forgotten in two years.

If it makes you feel better, I'm not much of a fan of turning Jor-El and Lara's final days into anything about a doomed planet that explodes because the leadership finds the idea of an exploding Krypton to be a pile of poppycock.  POPPYCOCK.  I understand that the new Superman movie will definitely expand what was happening on Krypton, so we'll see - but not so much as JJ Abram's abortive script which I tend to think is exactly why you don't mess too much with success.

One of the biggest issues for modern readers is to consider that this latest twist (and I have heard something about the ultra-twist, and I find it sad) in the Wayne's family history is that it's going to be overwritten, and in the near-term.  This isn't going to be canon.  Batman's history has been pretty set in stone.since the 40's, and as much as Scott Snyder was probably thrilled to get his shot at all this, someone else is going to come along, write a new story, that refers far less to all this Owls business, and it's all going to be lost to time.

Could this story have worked for me?  Maybe.  Maybe years ago when I didn't feel like I hadn't read this dialog before or see n this story before.  Or even if it hadn't come on the tail end of Batman and Batman, Inc. by Morrison where a secret society story that's a whole lot more compelling and less ridiculous by being way the heck MORE ridiculous is still wrapping up a 6 year run.  But apparently that's what Batman does these days.

Again, this story posits that Dick Grayson was being groomed to be a supervillain zombie-man-thing because his parents were from a long line of circus performers.  And he is told this after Batman punches him and he gets up and acts like it's normal his daddy just punched him.

Anyway, I'm sad that my Batman reading is drying up as well as so many other comics at DC, but it's time to move on and let another generation of kids have their Batman, owls and all.

But that shot of the iconic bat getting attacked by an owl?  Le sigh.


Kyle Roussel said...

I respectfully disagree. I think Snyder and Capullo's Court of Owls arc is as compelling a as has ever been told, and I too am a long time Batman reader. When the new 52 came along, I made it a point to be ready for the inevitable tap dance that would occur on some of the roots of the story. But I find Snyder's story to be as refreshing and inclusive as one could hope for considering the point of the new 52. It turned Batman's world upside down, and shook us readers up, who rely far too much on nothing changing.

Simon MacDonald said...

I agree with you. I'm getting kinda tired of writers going back into Bruce Wayne's past to retcon in some bit of history that is only now coming back to bite him in the ass. I'm going to list some examples so there are some possible spoilers if you haven't been following Batman for the past 5+ years or so:

1) Hush - Tommy Eliot apparently was Bruce's best friend and now is the villainous Hush who ran Batman through a gauntlet not unlike when Bane let all of Arkham's villains out in Knightfall.
2) Red Hood - Jason Todd is back from the dead and now he is the Red Hood. So much of this still does not make sense to me. Beyond the fact it was dumb to bring Jason back to life was it ever established why he took the Red Hood identity? I didn't think Batman knew that the Joker was once the Red Hood.
3) Dr. Hurt - still a bit sketchy about his origins but it appears he is an 18th century ancestor of Bruce Wayne's.
4) The Court of Owls - I think you've explained it all here.
5) I've also had the resolution of the Court of Owls story spoiled and me and I cry fowl on that one as well. Not going to spoil it on anyone else though.

I guess there are just to many Batman stories and they are running out of ideas and have to hook in some relative or past event. That's why I was actually pretty excited about Dick Grayson as Batman as they were trying new things.

The League said...

Kyle, if I honestly thought this whole storyline and Court of Owls business wouldn't get swept under the rug in 36 months, I'd be inclined to agree. But I am also confident that even with Didio still at DC, this is going to be erased with a whole new retcon in the next four years. Mostly, I'm tired of Batman being about the internal issues of the Waynes and Bat-family. It'd be nice if Snyder could have told a tale with some of the Court ideas and not felt the need to make it a Wayne/ Bat-family issue. It's just one more example of superhero comics turning endlessly inward. And that doesn't feel new or refreshing at all. Thus my post.

J.S. said...

Well, the problem with the whole retcon phenomenon, in general, is that it makes ALL narrative relatively meaningless. When history is constantly being written and rewritten, it takes anything currently going on and makes it meaningless because you know that someone else is going to just change what's happening- probably in the not so distant future. I know this is sort of your specific point about what you expect to see with this Court of Owls thing, but it's a borader point with comics these days in general, I think. Used to be that people took characters with a set, underlying origin story and then moved forward with them, creating new stories as their lives moved forward, but leaving the origin relativelt untouched so that there would be a foundational understanding of who/what the character was supposed to be. Nowadays the writers just seem to want to repeatedly revise events that have already occurred. That's lazy writing, and I would argue that it damages the consnesual understanding of who the characters are supposed to be.

The League said...

What you said, my man.

The League said...

By the way: KYLE DID IT RIGHT. I don't know this Kyle fellow, but on the first go he stated his case with a sound argument behind his opinion. I cannot say enough about how much I appreciate that this site does not seem to draw out the trolls and folks I don't know pipe up and give me something to think about.

horus kemwer said...

I enjoyed the first few issues of the Court of Owls storyline, finding it basically compelling and exciting. But part of that was against the dull mediocrity of the rest of the new52.

Anyway, I jumped ship when they decided a tiein with all the other Bat-titles which were receiving mediocre reviews was necessary. That sort of thing never improves story.

I do agree in principle, though, with the points about a) Joe Chill as ordinary joe makes the origin more compelling; b) adding supposedly supersecret backstory makes everything more boring; c) retcon is for losers and sucks meaning from all story elements.

Simon MacDonald said...

I would expect nothing less of a fellow Montreal Canadiens fan. If you want to talk to an internet troll then you need to find a Toronto Maple Leafs fan. Salut Kyle!