[6 November 2013]
PopMatters Comics Editor
There’s a categorical difference between “all ages” books, and “children’s” books. Categorical in both senses of the word; both “marked” and “being of different kinds.” Books of the former category are remarkably rare, and perhaps it’s easy to be cynical about their very existence. Most “all ages” books are thinly-veiled “children’s” books, presented as “all ages” simply in that they’re structured to be a shared experience between adult and child—with the adult doing the reading, and the child doing the imagining. Jaded by the structural deficit apparent in most “all ages” offerings, it becomes hard to credibly hope for much when an “all ages” label is place on the cover of a comicbook (a medium still dealing with the fallout of its ‘40s industrial-era branding as primarily being kids’ entertainment). But writer Ivan Cohen’s Beware the Batman #1 delivers on that promise of “all ages,” and then some. And it does this by taking a radically different approach to the one taken by Batman writer Scott Snyder in the current “Zero Year” storyarc.
In the pages of “Law and (Dis)Order,” the debut issue of Beware the Batman, Cohen unfolds a world laced with preexistent real-world damage from 2008, 2011 and after. There’s more than enough animosity towards vast institutions like the economy (and its inherent structural failure which resulted in the 2008 financial collapse), but also a sense of social movements being able to cause wide-scale change. “Fightback” is an Occupy Movement analog that appears in Beware.
And on that point, it might be worth taking just a moment to admire the enormity of the risk and the bravery involved in placing that idea front and center in a “children’s” book. Beware the Batman is the first of generations of “children’s” books that acknowledges the psychosocial context of damage and wide-scale societal change that swept the globe between 2008 and 2012. So it might be entirely possible that future issues of the comicbook would deal with issues like social democracy, or hacktivism, or even governmental gridlock. It’s in this way that Cohen is really able to fire up a sense of promise for the book. There’s a kind of deep hopefulness that comes with reading “Law and (Dis)Order,” hopefulness for the medium as a whole, but also for the book and for Cohen in particular.
But Beware the Batman isn’t only an “all ages” book because it allows older readers to cheerlead for younger readers as they learn about the world’s social complexity. (Although that is powerful in itself, imagine old episodes of The Lone Ranger being epimythic of the Iran-Contra scandal). With Beware, Cohen also takes readers down the murky, difficult rabbit hole of perpetual fiction, continuity and individuated artistic definition of a now seemingly timeless character.
The finale of the issue sees Batman confront Anarky’s plans for backsliding Gotham’s citizenry into a kind of barbarism. In short, and similar to Heath Ledger’s arresting Joker in The Dark Knight, Anarky hopes that disabling all locks in Gotham will resulting in an unstoppable wave of looting and rioting. Just the mechanics of the social complexity depicted in this book is astounding. Younger readers are being offered an understanding of how Anarky (a supervillain attempting to hijack a social movement) is conceptually different to Fightback, the social movement itself. Moreover, the Batman is only able to engineer a defeat of Anarky’s plan by taking mass control of the media in the same way Anarky does.
But the story isn’t left there. On the concluding page calls into question the morality of Batman’s action of wresting control of and domination of public media. Was Gotham relatively calm because Gothamites are essentially good, or because Batman frightened them into being good? A few pages earlier, Batman’s warning was chilling; “People of Gotham. This is Batman. A madman named Anarky has unlocked every door in Gotham. Anarky thinks that all this city needs are unlocked doors to turn Gotham into the Jungle. But we know better. I’m counting on all of you to stay home and stay calm until the crisis passes. And to those of you who won’t, who think this is the opportunity you’ve been waiting for, just remember… I’ll be watching.” Just framing the non-looting as being a question of either inherent goodness or external motivation is a huge check-mark in the “all ages” column for Beware the Batman. It seems to tread similar academic ground to recent research conducted by behavioral economist Dan Ariely.
But with the tone of the story in “Law and (Dis)Order,” Beware the Batman attempts to weave itself into the ongoing narrative of the Batman similar to Snyder’s project in the pages of Batman. Snyder’s writing style, which centers around creating epic visual moments for artists, offers a sort of meta-meditation on the visually evocative moments from Batman’s past as they segue into visually iconic moments in the present story. In this way, Snyder and artist Greg Capullo offer the character’s past as a kind of Tarot Deck—that the moments themselves will appear time and again, but it’s up to you personally to decide what those iconic moments mean at each point you encounter them. Cohen focuses on a more classic approach. He attempts a complete retrofitting of the Batman mythos, specifically tailoring it to the current era. It’s true that in time the sociocultural relevance of Cohen’s Batman will fade, but it’s also true that this Batman will always and correctly be identified with the early 21st century.
It would be the worst kind of backhanded compliment to suggest a personal sense of eagerness at the prospect of Cohen getting a crack at for a real adult Batman in the pages of Detective say, or maybe Batman & Robin or even Batman. But that would be to disavow the great work done by Cohen on this title. Beware the Batman comes with the highest praise.