[24 April 2014]
Once they’d established themselves as a formidable creative force with almost five years of excellent work on 100 Bullets, Brian Azzarello and Eduardo Risso got to take a crack at one of the biggest comicbook characters ever: Batman. Not only that, but they did it in the hero’s own title, a six-issue Batman arc from 2003-04 titled “Broken City.” And even though 100 Bullets was in full gear at that point, “Broken City” really has more in common with Jonny Double. Both are homages to the pulp detective genre, and both involve the protagonists getting fooled by characters they think they’re fighting to protect. But Batman is more capable a detective than Johnny Double, so his story progresses and resolves quite differently.
“Broken City” begins with Batman already in the midst of a murder investigation, interrogating his prime suspect, Killer Croc. In short order, Batman confirms that Croc is the killer, but also determines that he was hired by someone else to do it, and this realization is what opens up the narrative that follows. The victim is a young woman named Elizabeth Lupo, and her brother Angel is the likeliest candidate to be the money behind her murder. Angel’s already quite familiar with Gotham’s criminal world, and he hasn’t been seen since his sister’s demise. So Batman heads off to find Angel, but instead meets his girlfriend, Margo Farr. She attempts to throw Batman off the scent, only to unwittingly lead him straight to Angel, who immediately flees in a panic. While pursuing Angel, Batman hears gunshots, and arrives in an alleyway to see a disturbingly familiar scene—two parents gunned down in front of their distraught young son. Assuming Angel is responsible for these deaths, too, Batman goes after him with an obsessive, reckless intensity, his rage fueled by the nearly catatonic young boy who reminds him so much of his own horrific past.
It turns out, though, that Angel is no killer, neither in the case of his sister’s murder nor that of the child’s parents. It just takes Batman a frustratingly long time to come to that conclusion, long enough that it’s too late for Angel when he does. Unfortunately for everyone involved, Elizabeth Lupo had a romantic relationship with Arnold Wesker, a.k.a. The Ventriloquist, an old foe of Batman’s who is extremely mentally unstable, possessing two distinct personalities: his mild-mannered self and Scarface, the vicious mobster represented by Wesker’s dummy. Though Scarface typically calls the shots, it is Wesker who falls for Elizabeth, and eventually he impregnates her. This pregnancy is what gets her killed, not by her brother or even by Wesker’s nasty alter-ego, but by Margo Farr, in a terribly misguided attempt to keep Angel safe. Margo feared that if Angel had learned his sister was having Wesker’s baby, he’d react badly and get himself killed by Wesker/Scarface or one of their many goons. So she offed Elizabeth before that could happen, not banking on Batman getting involved. In the end, Wesker shoots Angel to pieces anyway, believing him to be the man behind Elizabeth’s death, mostly because Batman believed it first. So Margo causes exactly what she wanted to avoid, and Batman inadvertently gets a man killed over something he didn’t do.
Like in Jonny Double and 100 Bullets both, there are no clear victors at the end of this story. Batman solves both murders, but not in time to save Angel. Wesker gets revenge, but loses his love and his child. Margo flat out loses everything. As for the little boy whose parents were killed in front of him, in the end Batman uncovers that the kid is not merely a witness but the actual shooter, a painful truth for the Dark Knight to face after empathizing with the young man so completely. We never learn the details of the boy’s past or why he would murder his own family, because he never speaks, but the mere fact that he did it is enough to twist the knife in Batman’s heart and the reader’s. This nameless, voiceless child is who Batman thinks he’s avenging throughout the story, when in reality he is the cause of Batman’s fury and agony.
Though “Broken City” is a dark and depressing narrative, the Azzarello-Risso interpretation of Batman is not nearly as brooding, serious, or gritty as many versions of the character tend to be. He’s still an imposing, terrifying figure, standing tall and firm, his muscles bulging against his costume, always moving in shadow. Yet he also possesses a certain playfulness that I like to see in the character, because it keeps him from feeling one-note or overly dreary. For one thing, Risso lets Batman smile. Kind of a lot, actually. They’re not warm, indulgent, or particularly vulnerable smiles, mind you, but more like wicked grins, usually with an underlying smugness to them. Nevertheless, they break Batman’s stony exterior, revealing the human underneath, and it makes him a more endearing lead and adds some energy to the comic as a whole.
Along the same lines, Azzarello’s fondness for wordplay comes out strongly in this story, particularly from Batman himself. There are a lot of puns and verbal jabs exchanged between him and the various villains he encounters, again allowing some of his inner humanity to seep out. He takes his job as Gotham’s #1 vigilante quite seriously, hence his tireless efforts to solve these relatively low-level homicides, but that doesn’t mean he can’t enjoy himself while he’s at it. Sometimes this fact seems to be forgotten in Batman stories, and other creators make the character a total downer or stick-in-the-mud, unbending in his mission to rid the world of evil and unwilling to be distracted from or amused by it for even a second. Though still by no means a perfect protagonist, I much prefer to see Batman having even a modicum of fun like he does here, because it deepens him as a character and creates new possibilities for the shape of the narratives constructed around him.
Except for the frequency of his puns, Azzarello’s Batman sounds not unlike Johnny Double, a tough guy narrator telling his story in the style of oh so many noir mysteries that came before. Both Batman and Double are self-confident to the point of being a little too cocky, hardened to the point of cynicism, and always a little bit pissed off about one thing or another. And they both screw up their respective cases by believing other people to be more decent and innocent than they really are. These usually observant men keep missing the most important details in front of them, focusing on the wrong bits and operating on false assumptions. It is their shared tragic flaw, and though Batman makes up for it more quickly and competently than Double is able to do, he still has to pay a pretty steep price for his mistakes.
Paying for one’s mistakes is in many ways the core of this arc, and perhaps of the entire Azzrello-Risso joint bibliography. As I mentioned in discussing Jonny Double, Risso and Azzarello like to tell stories about the darkest, most dangerous places and people, the liars and cheats and thieves and murderers of the world. The action is always bloody, brutal, and intimate. The lies people tell are enormous, often steering the entire narrative. No one in the cast can be trusted fully, as everyone keeps at least some cards close to their chests. A logical extension of this is exploring the consequences of living that way, the long-term effects that a life of dishonesty, crime, and/or violence can and will bring. Nobody makes a decision in an Azzarello-Risso book without it eventually coming back in the end, either to bite them in the ass or save them, depending on the situation. Every move made has weight and importance. At the start of “Broken City,” several characters make bad calls based on incomplete information, and then the whole rest of the arc is the fallout from those choices. This is essentially the same structure as Jonny Double, and it fits perfectly with the larger common theme of consequences that can be found in any collaboration from these two creators.
I don’t mean to paint a picture of “Broken City” as a tale about hopelessness, because it’s not exactly that. Certainly it’s not uplifting, either, but the good guys still win in the end, even if it’s a tainted victory. I would describe this more as a story designed to temper hope, to remind the audience that nothing is ever simple or clean, and that even when the villains get what they deserve, the heroes might screw up along the way. We are all human, and will therefore unavoidably make mistakes. To try and prevent anything bad from happening is a futile cause that will only lead to bigger, more drastic problems. That is the lesson of Margo. Instead, we need to accept our own inadequacies and try to make up for it when we do drop the ball, knowing we’ll never be perfect but doing our best to be our best anyway. That is the lesson of Batman, and it’s why he’s very much the hero of this story, despite the number of wrong turns he takes from start to finish.
None of the protagonists in an Azzarello-Risso narrative are spotless, and most of them are morally repulsive in one way or another. Batman may actually be the most bona fide hero they’ve ever handled, and even he has plenty of weaknesses and missteps. That’s ok, though, because the point isn’t to provide a flawless and therefore flavorless superhero, but someone real and full and relatable, trying his hardest to be truly good even when he knows it’s impossible. This kind of damaged, angry hero is a favorite of this creative team, which is why they’re such a smart choice for Batman. They make him deeply messed up without losing perspective or overdoing it, maintaining his good intentions and fundamental humanity while at the same time highlighting his rage, arrogance, obsessive personality, and other less desirable attributes.