[23 January 2012]
PopMatters Associate Comics Editor
Among the many highlights of Batman #5, there is a point where the writer-to-reader paradigm shifts. The paradigm flips and twists so much that everyone from postmodern art enthusiasts to William Burroughs would be stunningly reflective of its effect. Walls are broken, metaphorically as the labyrinth of the Court of Owls closes around Batman, but it’s not the traditional wall breaking so often seen. Here we are presented with a technique that defies the conventions of comic storytelling and stretches the medium’s boundaries. To say the issue is ambitious feels almost insulting, yet that is the best way to describe it.
Literary critical instinct and our constant bombardment of postmodern sensibilities would lead us to believe that Batman #5 breaks the fourth wall. This could be true, but it could also be true that this issue breaks the fifth wall – a relatively new concept that erases the membrane between reader and writer/artist. In “Face the Court”, in breaking the fifth wall we see beyond the traditional four walls of a room—we share the creative experience. Breaking the fourth wall acknowledges the audience; breaking the fifth wall allows the audience to partake in the action.
This is notable in that Batman #5 works against reader expectations in its execution of the story. The narrative developed thus far by writer Scott Snyder, particularly for this comic, demands it. Everything he has built with penciler Greg Capullo is on display. Layers of character flaws, existential duality and horror iconography wrap themselves around the panels and pages to an almost suffocating degree, beautifully choking us until we admit that the creative execution has surpassed our wildest expectations.
It’s uncomfortable, it’s awkward and in that it is a parallel to Bruce Wayne’s state of mind as he attempts to escape the maze he’s been forced into by the Court. This is as clear a visual representation of Bruce’s mental faculties as is possible.
Where the script ends and the design begins is debatable. Snyder has frequently spoken of the collaborative relationship he’s developed with Capullo, so somewhere between the writing of the script and the formation of the design layout is where these two meet. While as much credit could be given to Snyder, it’s Capullo’s panels that actually get the job done.
Capullo’s normally bombastic style shifts to a place where only by necessity does it appear. His pencils are dynamic, disturbing, tattering, yet fluid when they needed. He frames each scene like a photo-journal of someone’s decent into madness. But it’s the choice in page layouts, the shifting of readability from left to right, up to down and right to left that is truly inspiring. This is not a gimmick. It is a genuine reaction to a script and narrative that demands a treatment rarely (if ever) seen in mainstream superhero comics.
We are not just breaking the fourth wall. We are breaking into the experience. While the dialogue by Snyder presents the fraying of Bruce’s mind, it is the movement of pages from what we expect to what confuses the mechanics of the book that pulls us through. We, as readers, are acknowledged, but we are more intensely immersed into the physical experience as best as the medium will allow. There is no standing on the edge of the reality in this comicbook. There is only immersion.
The elements that Snyder has been playing with since Batman #1 – and even before that – fundamentally inform this issue. The wall between the identities of Batman and Bruce Wayne are being broken down. The Court of Owls and their Talon act as both antagonists and as metaphorical cuts to the heart of the character. The duality so often ascribed to Batman is being reworked, and the mystery and horror of the Court is the catalyst to this dramatic change. Batman has a legacy, but so too does Bruce Wayne.
Batman #5 feels like the halfway point of Snyder and Capullo’s story; it may very well be its zenith. That’s not to say this is the best they will ever accomplish, rather it is something of a baseline as to the type of presentation they can develop within the confines of the narrative structure. Early on, there was a foundation established by this series’ second issue. That foundation has been shaken to its core, but still stands as the base on which this story is planted. Getting back to issue five, what we have is arguably the best example of contemporary comic storytelling from the perspective of complimentary story and design, particularly in this New 52 period. Refrain from saying the bar has been raised. The bar has been taken out of existence.