“And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards [Gotham] to be born?”
— William Butler Yeats, ‘The Second Coming’
The death of Jason Todd, the disfiguring of Harvey Dent, the crippling of Barbara Gordon–these moments are crucial events in the history and development of Batman. Just as the death of his parents gave birth to the Dark Knight, these subsequent tragedies helped define and explore the psychological landscape of one of the most iconic cultural figures ever constructed. Filmmaker and comicbook writer Kevin Smith has attempted to add his own mark on this long-standing legacy with his ambitious mini-series: Batman: Widening Gyre. This story, not your typical Batman-defeats-random-villain yarn, is a bold, and risky, attempt to add another level of depth to the Dark Knight mythos by exploring a time in Batman’s life where he risked letting love into his world and even considered giving up the mantle.
The story, which Smith freely admits he wrote while high, is a twelve part series broken up into two six issue books. The first book which takes place in what appears to be a pre-Hush period, rests on two primary narrative planks. The first involves the return of Silver St. James, a former love interest, and the renewing of her relationship with Bruce Wayne. The second storyline focuses on the entrance of a new hero into Gotham City, Baphomet, whom Batman slowly begins to trust and consider as a possible replacement as Gotham’s guardian.
Structurally the story is well organized. Each issue jumps between Bruce and Silver’s passionate relationship, and Batman and Baphomet’s battles with various villains. Smith, who already handled the Joker his in previous series Batman: Cacophony, shows that he is equal to the task of writing the various rogues from Batman’s gallery. Walter Flanagan, the artist of Gyre and Cacophony and a recurring figure in Smith’s various films, has definitely improved his style since the pair’s last creative collaboration. While there are still a few rough panels here and there, there are also a lot of well-illustrated sequences that would belay any charges of nepotism that harsher critics might make.
Fans of Smith’s movies and comics will definitely recognize the creator’s sense of style and humor. The story hovers between the extremes of Batman’s various incarnations. One second the narrative is all camp, and the next dark and brooding–similar to the seamless transition from humor to seriousness that can be seen in Smith’s films Dogma and Chasing Amy.
There are a few moments where it appears that the creator couldn’t help but indulge in his irreverent style of humor; anyone who challenges Christianity and the Catholic Church probably isn’t afraid of poking fun at Batman. Some of these moments include Batman’s confession to Baphomet that on one mission he lost control of his bladder and another in which Silver discusses Bruce’s sexual prowess with an obviously uncomfortable Alfred. While Smith runs the risk of alienating his readers–who in many cases consider themselves equal partners in the stewardship of the character’s integrity and longstanding legacy–with these temporary comedic digressions, he doesn’t overindulge in a way that is ultimately distracting or harming to the story.
Qualitatively it is difficult to gauge this book. While the first six issues were not unpleasant to read, it was clear from the structure of the story that they were all building towards a very specific climax and the success of the series was intrinsically tried to a specific finale. Yet, the success of the first book, is subsequently linked to the success of the second series, which has yet to be released. In a way, book one of Batman: Widening Gyre can be seen as a long prelude to the real story: how will Bruce react to the dramatic finale of the first volume. Consequently, I feel that I must hold my own final judgment–both as critic and fan–until the entire series is completed.
Ultimately, the success or failure of Widening Gyre is going to depend on the strength of the final issues and, most importantly, their ability to convince the community of fans and creators that this storyline should be included in the mythology. This is not just a story about Batman fighting a villain, this is a story that seeks to have as much of an impact on the Dark Knight as some of the most seminal events in the character’s history. This finale, this cliffhanger ending to the first volume is a highly ambitious goal by the creator, and it runs the risk of being rejected by the fans. If concluded properly, Smith’s story could be integrated into the mythology and its impact felt on the psychology of the character; much in the same way that the murder of Jason Todd (even though he later came back) became a crucial component of Batman’s identity, his death ever-present as his uniform hung in silent memorial in the Batcave. If Smith fails, the story can be dismissed by readers and ultimately ignored, like other attempts by various creators who have tried to make large changes to series and characters, only to have their work rejected.
With six issues left, it remains to be seen where Smith’s series will stand. Will it’s impact be limited and its attempted addition to Batman’s story thematically redundant, retreading well-traveled concepts of the dangers of trust and love for the superhero? Or will it be a fascinating addition to the Batman cannon that adds a new level of depth to the character? As a critic, I am wary; as a Batman fan, I am anxious; and as a Kevin Smith fan I am hopeful. We’ll see what happens…