What does it take to become Batman? It’s one thing to put on a costume, talk like a hungover Christian Bale, and declare a war on criminals. Any dedicated cos-player or kid on Halloween can do that. The actual process of becoming Batman, a Dark Knight of vengeance, is a lot more difficult. As the Val Kilmer’s and George Clooney’s of the world have shown, not just anybody can step into that role.
This is exactly the challenge that Kirk Langstrom faces in Justice League Gods and Monsters: Batman #1. The vision established by Bruce Timm is pretty bold. He seeks to completely revamp DC’s big three heroes, including Batman. But he’s not just looking to recast Bruce Wayne with Ben Affleck while Christian Bale retires.
Bruce Timm wants to build a Batman up from scratch and he’s using Kirk Langstrom, who has only ever been a poor man’s Killer Croc as Man-Bat. If he hadn’t been the visionary behind the acclaimed Batman: The Animated Series, he’d be laughed out of the room for pitching such an idea. But his credentials and legacy have earned him the right to pursue crazy ideas. We give Elon Musk that same luxury so why not Bruce Timm? But even with his impeccable legacy, can he build a new Batman out of Kirk Langstrom?
That’s a difficult question to answer, but that’s actually a good thing because Justice League Gods and Monsters: Batman #1 makes a genuine case that Kirk Langstrom can carry that title. The narrative doesn’t try to make him too much like Bruce Wayne. He’s not a rich kid who suffered tragedy. He didn’t get bitten by some radioactive creature or anything like that. Timm makes a genuine effort to do something different that still puts him on the same path. Just doing it without the aid of aliens and radioactive animals is an accomplishment.
There are still some similarities. Like Bruce Wayne, Kirk Langstrom became Batman through a tragedy. The main difference, however, is that this tragedy was self-inflicted. And that’s a problem right off the bat because a self-inflicted tragedy is like a self-fulfilling prophecy in that it undermines the definition. Langstrom became Batman because he tried to cure his cancer with a crazy, untested treatment using bat venom. Like taking speech lessons from Ozzy Osborne, it didn’t turn out well.
It’s a shaky foundation, but it doesn’t keep Langstrom from being a compelling character who can believably carry himself like Batman. In the same way Bruce Wayne became more detached from the world, Langstrom does the same. The early parts of the story show how he’s cut ties with every friend, relative, and associate he’s ever known. And he does it without the aid of a cave or a mansion. In many respects, that makes his loneliness more tragic and more compelling.
But like Bruce Wayne, becoming detached allows Kirk Langstrom to focus all his energy on fighting crime. For Langstrom, he doesn’t need criminals killing his parents to make him do this. In many respects, it’s how he makes the best of a bad situation. His cancer is cured, but now he has to feed like a vampire and there’s no True Blood in this world. So if he’s going to survive by hurting people, he might as well hurt criminals. It makes sense. It also makes him more like Marvel’s Michael Morbius than Bruce Wayne, but he does manage to set himself apart.
Vampire or not, Langstrom is still a brilliant man with a brilliant mind. He’s able to use this in the same way Bruce Wayne uses his mind to solve crimes. He carries himself like a detective in how he hunts down criminals like Lew Moxon and Rupert Thorn, names that have appeared in Batman stories before. He also uses cunning and disguises in a way any believable Batman would. Langstrom is just much less hesitant to slaughter criminals rather than trusting the Gotham police to keep them locked up. Given how the Joker seems to escape every other week, it could be argued that his method is more efficient.
While this method of doing business is richly detailed and beautifully visceral, it does take away from another key component of being Batman. He fights criminals and he uses detective skills to get the job done. But one of Batman’s defining qualities is that he works with the law and tries to arrest criminals. Kirk Langstrom does none of that. These criminals are basically just walking TV dinners to him.
That’s not to say it doesn’t make for a good story and meaningful character development. In fact, very few parts of the story actually involve Langstrom fighting criminals. Most of the story is spent with him investigating the criminal underworld. At one point, he actually makes a personal connection with son of one of the criminals he kills. This connection helps flesh out the best parts of Kirk Langstrom’s personality. It’s a personality that keeps him from becoming too much Man-Bat and not enough Batman. It’s also this connection that helps flesh out the dark world that Langstrom is a part of, which is wholly consistent with the dark world that Batman has always occupied.
This dark world is full of tragedy and despair, revealing the ugliest parts of humanity. This is what Batman confronts and this is what he represents. He’s the guy that runs into this terrible corner of the human condition while most ordinary, sane people will sprint marathons barefoot to avoid it. That’s the key theme of Batman as a character and Kirk Langstrom, with all the “Twilight” and True Blood connotations that come with it, is able to capture this theme.
The biggest challenge of Justice League Gods and Monsters: Batman #1 was making Kirk Langstrom a believable Batman. By the end of the story, he makes a case that would at the very least generate debate. While he does capture the main themes of Batman, the deficiencies in the way he operates are hard to work around. If he were a pro football team, he could qualify for the playoffs as a wild card. He’s not championship caliber, but this story firmly establishes that he’s a solid contender.