Batman: Secrets

Recently, my niece took some coins from the change cup in my car. It was only a few cents, but she lied and said she didn’t take it, then, several minutes later, said she was only kidding and put it back in the cup. No big deal.

But sometimes I’m kind of a mean uncle. Not really mean — more like self-righteous. Like a latter-day Uncle Jesse, I try to impart object lessons on right and wrong whenever the opportunity presents itself. (Like her ol’ Uncle Jeremy, my niece is a Full House fan.)

On this day our lesson was Why Stealing is Wrong. “If you kept that money it would haunt you forever, and one day you would finally crack and tell me you took it,” I said. I proceeded to tell her how I would’ve been so upset, that I could’ve used that money to feed the meter or give to a homeless person, instead of her using it to put toward the purchase of American Girl accesories.

My wife played along, and we laid it on thick, exaggerating the direness of her deed to illustrate the point, trying to make it obvious that I was as serious as much as I was fooling around. Finally, with my 37 cents restored and my lesson at an end, we drove home to watch cartoons.

It was this slice of family life that weighed on my mind reading Secrets, Sam Kieth’s latest entry into the Bat-mythos. The story begins as the Joker is let out of prison. He’s renounced his criminal ways and is hitting the talk show circuit to spill his guts and promote his book, Laugh, Monkey Boy, Laugh. If this sounds familiar, it is: Frank Miller uses a similar plot element in The Dark Knight Returns. But Kieth can be forgiven for borrowing from Miller — if you’re going to steal, why not steal from the best? — because he was born to draw the Joker. His lines are liquid on the page, and each time we see the villain his smile is stretched just a little further, his teeth a little more jagged. The set up is a little ridiculous, but it’s done in the spirit of the “old school” and is easily forgiven because it’s fun and it works.

From the beginning, Kieth sticks to the series’ mantra: everyone has secrets. They alter lives and destroy them. One could argue, of course, that Batman’s secret (or is it Bruch Wayne’s?) has done both, but Kieth makes Batman’s secret not about identity, but about a childhood trauma. To this Kieth adds a childhood friend of Bruce’s named Mooley — now a respected journalist — and the secret he’s been keeping for years.

Adding another layer to this tale is a satire of modern media that is biting and spot on. Through a series of staged photos, the Joker turns the media against Batman, leading the public to think he is the victim of Batman’s vigilantism. Kieth frames many of these sequences with banks of television sets, depicting the information overload in a blur of talking heads and shampoo commercials.

Kieth’s art keeps getting better — and crazier — with each issue of the series. Panels melt into one another and stray lines come together to form maniacal grins and teeth on the Joker and Batman. Again, his Joker is frightening and fun, all teeth and green hair, with echoes of Dave McKean’s Arkham Asylum work. The weak point is his Batman. He looks odd and distorted like the other characters, but it doesn’t fit. Kieth’s Batman looks like a schlub, an over the hill hero with Bat-stubble and a Bat-beer belly.

Kieth struggles to find balance between his two big themes. To find some equilibirum, Kieth explores the relationship between Batman and the Joker in a series of interludes. These interludes reference other classic Batman stories (specifically Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke), the media frenzy surrounding the characters’ arch rivalry and the secrets they share.

To close the series, Kieth turns to a cliche — the truth shall set you free. Naturally, this works in reverse for the Joker, which creates a palatable balance between the bitterness of his return to prison and the sweetness of the moral.

The Batman-mythos is filled with stories like this, with secrets and hidden things plaguing any one of the characters’ supporting players. Most superhero stories involve secrets of some kind, whether they be of identity or origin. What Kieth has done is take a typical story and made it anything but, creating a unique piece of work that is as interesting as it is fun to read. So save your pennies — or steal change from your uncle — and get a copy of this series. I promise I won’t tell.