Scott Snyder’s new Batman series begins quietly enough, over breakfast at a roadside diner in the midst of morning conversation fueled by a second cup of coffee and the rising sun. A line is thrown out, casually, as a joke about the weather and the bugs. “It’s like the end of times,” a waitress named Bea tells a trucker named Auggie.
Then all hell breaks loose.
In this first issue of All-Star Batman #1, Snyder and Romita, Jr. give us a Batman on the run, the first installment of a road adventure in which Batman and Two-Face flee from both good guys and bad and face betrayal and greed at every turn. These guys are no Hope and Crosby, and the landscape they traverse is truly like the end of times. The bugs here are third-rate villains Firefly and Killer Moth, with Black Spider thrown in for good measure. They’re driven by a bribe and a threat from Two-Face, the first-rate villain whose scarred visage is a none-too-subtle metaphor for the divide between the good and evil, or the madness and sanity, that divides us all.
Two-Face is most often driven by the evil side, of course. The soul of district attorney Harvey Dent hardly ever gets a chance to show its face. It does here, briefly, in a message to Batman that begs for his help and that pleads for one last bit of trust, one remaining flicker of hope. Then the fiend strikes again and Gotham burns in an acid rain like the acid that burned Harvey Dent’s face, that left the scar, inside and out, that made the villain.
It’s like the end of times.
Batman has spent a lot of his career living in the end of times. Frank Miller put him there in 1986’s The Dark Knight Returns and he can’t seem to stay away. In these stories, Gotham’s gone to hell. Crime runs rampant. The streets are overrun with threats. Villains burn terror into the hearts of the citizens, into the soul of the city.
So Batman ups the ante; he fights fire with fire. Time and again he relives the death of his parents. He sees the gun gleam in the dark alley. He sees his mother’s pearls, torn from her neck, splash into pools of dirty water. He sees the blood and feels the pain. In these stories, Batman is the spirit of pure vengeance, shaped by the evil that took his parents and by the evil that he encounters every time he goes out into the dark night to face the evil heart of the city.
This world is like the dark hellscape described by craven politicians who seek to build fear and mistrust in lieu of courage and hope, where terror lurks at every corner, where every stranger is a threat, and where the spirit of vengeance is the spirit of the times.
This Batman is not a superhero; he’s a vigilante. The violent death of his parents has made him as twisted as those he battles. He’s a brother to the Joker. His soul is as divided as Harvey Dent’s.
Then there’s this story by Snyder and Romita which shows us something different, something older, something purer, something truer to who Batman has always been — a Batman driven not by vengeance and fear but by hope and faith. Snyder has walked the line with Batman masterfully in his long tenure on the character, giving us the dark Batman that we deserve while providing the glimmers of hope that we so desperately need. This story is no exception. This Batman believes the Two-Face can be saved, just like he’s always believed he could be saved. He believes in his friend Harvey Dent past the time where that belief makes sense. He has hope when hope seems foolish and naïve.
Two-Face calls for Batman’s help but then works to make sure that Batman fails. Like both Wikileaks and the national security state, he has the goods on everybody and he is willing to ruin lives to get people to bend to his will, to toe the line, to betray their friends. In Snyder’s story they do bend, they do toe the line, they do betray. They lose hope.
But not Batman. With all the villains of Gotham hot on his trail, with friends willing to shoot him in the back, with the man who he is trying to save working against him, Batman carries on.
One must think that there is more that motivates Batman than the tragic death of his parents. In order for him to be human, there would have to be. Tragedy, after all, transforms into promise. Loss becomes gain. We pick ourselves up and we carry on, and, at our best, we honor those who have fallen to evil by continually choosing the good.
Batman fingers the coin that Two-Face uses to choose good or evil, a game of chance that is as immoral as one of its potential outcome. He fingers the coin, then he flings it away, committed to hope and to faith.
Snyder and Romita have produced a riveting first issue and given us, here, at the so-called end of times, the Batman we so desperately need.