[18 March 2014]
PopMatters Associate Comics Editor
One word that describes Batman #29 is cinematic. You can feel the influence of Christopher Nolan’s Batman films as the issue tries to move with the same refined and subdued bravado, complete with momentary time period shifts. You might also hear some of Hans Zimmer’s score as Batman tries to stop the Riddler’s plot against the city and her inhabitants. But much of that gets submerged, weighed down by exposition under a wistful (Tokyo) moon. This Batman is drowning even before the retaining walls are breached.
The hurricane is upon blackened Gotham City, and Batman is racing to prevent the power from being turned on or else the next phase of Edward Nygma’s maniacal plan goes into effect. For a villain who likes to be the smartest person in the room, the Riddler has no problem clearing said room. He also has help in the form of Dr. Death, the former Dr. Helfern, yet another villain with a propensity to speak in monologues about his family’s backgrounds and his dastardly motivations.
Helfren comes from a long line of warriors, and starting with his World War II ancestors, they all write the title to a melancholy standard on their army helmets, “Tokyo Moon.” If only Dr. Death had sung us a few bars – he certainly had the time to explain everything else – we might have had a better understanding of the lyrical quality to this family tradition. But what we have is Helfern connecting the dots of his motivations and the meaning behind a few panels from several issues prior – his son was killed looking for wayward Bruce Wayne. Helfren’s love wasn’t enough to protect him from booby traps. So now he’s a bone monster working with Nygma and trying to kill Batman.
Villains need layers; they need to be more than one note. We need to identify with them almost as much as the heroes. But too many errant layers have a way of suffocating narratives just as Helfren’s impetus to push the boundaries of science do here. It’s especially harmful when the villain is verbose. The two aspects work in tandem to stall the pacing and up end whatever progression the story has achieved to that point. You then have to start over. Build the pace again. Explosions can do that, but they are a rather cheap way out of the stagnation.
Storytellers Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo certainly advance the plot and get us out of this chapter of Zero Year, even throwing in a few clever, if uninspired, references to other Batman works. But it’s as if this issue is symbolic of the entire Dark City portion—Batman #27, a similarly stalled narrative issue, was hallmarked by the story behind Jim Gordon’s camel colored shame coat and Alfred accusing Bruce of being akin to a masochist, making others watch as he gets beat up saving the city they couldn’t. Thankfully there was no fallout from that similarly errant thematic layer. Dark City needed to be in the trenches, but instead we’re high above in a ludicrous oxygen blimp, following an impatient and arrogant Bruce Wayne play hero with a bunch of toys. There is a wondrous cinematography to Capullo’s panels as he moves the airship above the Gotham skyline, but for all the dynamic composition it’s still a dirigible paired with a tired joke about its color.
Batman #29 does have its moments as Snyder and Capullo give Thomas and Martha Wayne some personality in the flickers of flashback scenes. They emphasize that Bruce’s parents were more than just faces in a portrait above the fireplace mantel, and they remind us this is still an origin story that’s unfolding on a grand (maybe too grand) scale.
Part of that origin is relationships and understanding why certain ones are formed. We’ve seen Jim Gordon’s reasons for forging a relationship with Batman, and similarly we are seeing Bruce’s reasons, love of his parents and the city (two things that symbolize home the most), for putting his earlier grudge against Gordon aside. The flashback scenes in this issue are in reality more important than what is happening in real time. But to be effective in a narrative sense, they two time periods must be cohesive, they must work together. You can’t stall and stall until something blows up, just as you can’t exposit excessively about family and 40s era standards on top of flashbacks. The whole thing then has a way of drowning under the weight of ever expanding word balloons.
The full wrath of Superstorm Rene hits Gotham just as Batman fails to stop the Riddler from bursting the retaining walls (something he didn’t even know he was trying to prevent), but from the beginning of Batman #29 the entire issue is held underwater by the weight of too much exposition, too many character layers and too much grand scale action. You can definitely feel the desire for a cinematic quality to this issue, and it’s an admirable attempt, but it’s far too unevenly paced to rise above the coming tide.