Coming off his acclaimed work on series such as Marvel’s The Vision and Vertigo’s The Sheriff of Babylon, writer Tom King takes on the reigns of the flagship Batman title post DC’s Rebirth. Collaborating with longtime Batman writer Scott Snyder, King sets a new stage and tone for Batman and Gotham. While most aspects of this new world of Batman feel characteristic and welcome, a few of the other creative decisions prove more questionable.
The comic opens with the beginning of a new era in the Batman mythos: the introduction of Duke Thomas, star of DC’s series We Are Robin into the Bat Family. With the knowledge of Batman’s true identity, Thomas arrives at the front door of Wayne Manor, telling Alfred he’s there to take Bruce up on his “offer”.
The story then jumps to the middle of a typical Bat-scenario: saving Gotham from an elaborate and bizarre criminal scheme. This time, it involves Calendar Man attacking Gotham with poison spores and wielding twin oversized grenade launchers, in an apparent attempt to become his own action figure.
Trying to radically accelerate Gotham’s seasons, Calendar Man has set up devices around the city to cause rapid changes in the weather, causing it to feel like summer one day, spring the next, and winter the next. Seemingly upset by mankind’s alteration of the seasonal wheel through climate change, Calendar Man intends to punish Gotham by further altering the weather and bringing on a Spring filled with poisonous spores. Batman manages to thwart this scheme by capturing Calendar Man and destroying the spores through the Batsuit’s latest feature: what might be called the full-body Bat-taser, which electrocuted the spores.
The next day, it’s a blisteringly hot Summer in Gotham. Lucius Fox and Bruce Wayne discuss business on the roof of the Wayne Industries building, while Bruce does pull-ups over the edge of the building on the rim of the helicopter pad. Because what’s a workout without the imminent risk of death.
Lucius says he has managed to secure a way to get Bruce’s fortune back into his hands and away from the government. Bruce mentions it’s only about the umpteenth time Lucius has saved a fortune Bruce has lost, and that it’s become a regular part of their relationship, deeming it “like a calendar”. Lucius is reminded of Thomas Wayne’s own lack of taste for business.
I once tried to talk your father into coming into the business. Being a doctor drives you crazy. Whatever you do, people just get sick again. You make no progress. He looked at me for a bit, got real quiet, stern almost. It’s a look I’ve only ever seen once again. And it was in the face of a masked man. Finally, in a dark voice, he said, ‘you’re right Lucius. I am crazy. But the sick need someone crazy enough to believe they can be better.’
Lucius and Bruce’s discussion, especially Lucius’ final comments, is a clever overview of decades of the Batman mythos, particularly their cyclical nature and narrative. Just as Bruce and Lucius’ relationship is “like a calendar”, so is Batman’s relationship to Gotham and his villains: Gotham finds itself in peril by one of Batman’s Rogues Gallery, and Batman has to save the city and catch the villain. Then one of them gets out, and it starts over again. One of the regular comments on Batman’s actions (and superhero actions in general) is if whether he’s actually changing anything or just maintaining (perhaps even inspiring) the regular chaos of Gotham.
The comparison, then, to Thomas Wayne’s work is an especially insightful connection, given Thomas’ work as a surgeon is an equally repetitive, exhaustive, and unchanging line of work: dealing with the same scenarios over and over. Like Thomas, Bruce’s line of work is about inspiration: the hope that while the cycle and repetition may continue, and sickness of all kinds may come again, when it comes, it can be dealt with. While people (or Gotham) may get sick again and again, they can always be made better, again and again, and there are people willing to do it. For a city like Gotham, where so much bad happens so often, even a little glimpse of good is an inspiring symbol.
Taken another way, Batman may even be an inspiration to the “sick” villains he regularly battles. If the new, post-Rebirth series of Detective Comics, in which Clayface is part of the Bat team, is anything to go on, perhaps some of Batman’s villains are looking to be better.
The following day it’s Fall in Gotham, and Bruce is showing Duke the ropes. Bruce shows Duke several pictures of an elderly-looking Calendar Man, explaining that Julian Day ages with the seasons and is then reborn, literally molting his skin at the end of each cycle. Bruce explains they’ll need to destroy the devices causing the disturbances, and offers for Duke to stay at Wayne Manor until his parents, who were poisoned by Joker toxin in the Endgame storyline, can be cured. Duke assures Bruce he’s well cared for with the other Robins.
“I’m not training you to be Robin,” Bruce says. “I’m trying something new.”
He then shows Duke his new costume… which, looks roughly like the Yellow Ranger’s suit that someone spray-painted the Bat symbol on.
The reveal of Duke’s new costume is one of the issue’s weakest points, as the suit lacks any of the distinguishing flair or theatricality that has come to define the Bat Family’s attire. Instead, the suit looks like a bland, paint-by-numbers sidekick costume that could have had any DC hero’s symbol branded on it. The Bat Family has been defined by their unique imagery and symbolism, even in a design as simple as Nightwing’s. Thus, to see such an unremarkable costume for a character as unique as Duke is disappointing. With any luck the design will change into something more distinguishable in the future, otherwise Duke will be doomed with a sidekick moniker something along the lines of “Bat-Person”.
The comic ends with Bruce and Duke training on the grounds of Wayne manor by taking turns kicking a tree, in a scene that invokes a similar image from Batman: Year One (begging the question of whether Bruce has grown this tree all these years just so he can kick it). Duke comments that he’s read Julian Day’s files, and learned that every time Day is “reborn”, he’s stronger and smarter than before.
“He comes back better every time” Duke says. “How do we combat that?”
“Easy,” Bruce comments. “We come back better each time, as well.”
With Batman Rebirth #1, King and Snyder show their grasp of the psyche and world of Batman, setting up an intriguing new partnership between Bruce and Duke and a Batman who’s as strong-willed and relentless as ever. However, the issue also shows signs of the weaker aspects of Snyder’s Batman run, such as extreme revisionism of characters (a la the Joker).
The issue’s most troubling aspect by far is the redesign of the Calendar Man. For a villain who proved so conniving and menacing simply on his own, soft-spoken merits in stories such as Batman: The Long Halloween and Batman: Dark Victory, this new version of Calendar Man is excessively bizarre. Given Calendar Man’s origins as one of the goofiest Batman villains ever conceived, his redesign for Halloween and Dark Victory proved an ingenious move in demonstrating the realist capacity of Batman’s villains, making him into a kind of Hannibal Lecter parallel.
Given this wealth of material, it’s a wonder why King and Snyder felt the need to remake him all, especially into an over-the top faux Bond villain complete with giant, ambiguously funded weather machines. While Mikel Janin’s artwork is a beauty to look at throughout the book, it can’t quite overshadow the inherent absurdity of this odd creative decision.
Batman Rebirth #1 sets up a new status quo for Batman that is both promising in many areas and concerning in others. But whatever becomes of this Gotham and its denizens, this Batman is, at least, still one that we can recognize.