We like to think we know Batman, and to some extent, we do. He’s Bruce Wayne—not the other way around, an important distinction—and he lives in Gotham City, where he fights criminals like the Joker and Two-Face. Details of his training, his gadgets, his loves, change with every generation, with every seismic shift in comics continuity, but the basic details of our collective Batman remain the same.
This is the movie Batman, the TV Batman, the Batman little kids dress up as for Halloween, the Batman in the oversized comic crumbling in your grandmother’s attic. But there are others.
Batman has changed dramatically in his monthly comics incarnation in his 70-plus years, and those changes keep rolling with DC Comics’ recent “new 52” project. The Batman Files is the kind of book which accompanies a major outside-of-comics event, like the release of a film or a milestone anniversary. Given the amount of mainstream coverage it received, the relaunch is the obvious tie-in, but the book’s usefulness escapes me.
The purpose of the relaunch was to erase continuity and give elusive and desirable new readers a starting point so they can avoid musty back issues and decades of confusing and contradictory plot points. In that sense it’s worth a look; it’s the kind of book someone might open up on the floor and spend the afternoon reading while lying on their belly. But this book is $100, a price point so outrageous it seems like a ransom, a taunt to those readers curious about Batmobile schematics and Arkham Asylum dossiers on the Dark Knight’s Rogues Gallery.
It’s presented as a scrapbook, beginning with a letter from Batman in which he expresses his desire for the Dark Knight to continue after Bruce Wayne is gone. It’s part autobiography, part case study, a collection of “photographs” from Wayne’s childhood, profiles of his many enemies and allies, and schematics of all the wonderful gadgets and gear Batman employs in his war on crime.
Though much of the book is written in Batman’s own “handwriting”, his voice never comes through. The journal entries read like a series of press releases about future DC projects, light, getting-to-know-you pieces which are little more than synopses of past adventures and origin stories and we learn nothing new about Batman by seeing Bruce Wayne’s eerie childhood drawings of bats.
The Batman Files succeeds in its use of archival art, from Brian Bolland’s Joker circa-The Killing Joke to work by Tim Sale from The Long Halloween. The most important event in the Batman’s life, the death of Bruce Wayne’s parents, is captured in a newspaper clipping. The year is obscured, though a 9—as in 1939—is visible at the end, a nod to the timelessness of the character. Other headlines in the spread, like one about a gas crisis, root the Waynes’ murder in a real time, creating the kind of fuzzy chronology comics demand.
There’s an obvious demand for the rehearsed and rehashed, a generational churning and tweaking of a character to keep them relevant to readers, new and old. But it’s not the character that’s irrelevant, here. To attract new readers, creators, and the powers that be, apparently ask themselves, “Why should readers care about something as silly as a man in tights beating up criminals when the world is full of terror and evil?” Their answer is to make attempts at realism, to produce a “file” in which Batman plans for his eventual demise.
This answer is wrong. Why should readers care? You know the answer already: because it’s Batman!