Tom King’s Batman Retrospective

Tom King's Batman Retrospective

There are very few comic books that match the high profile status of ‘Batman.’ While Detective Comics is the series that introduced the Dark Knight to the world it’s the ‘Batman’ comic book that is the main series in the franchise. As the main series in the franchise there is a lot of attention paid to whoever is writing the comic book. That was true when Grant Morrison and Scott Snyder were on the series. The same was the case for Tom King, who ended his four year run on ‘Batman’ to close out 2019.

With such a long-term run I wanted to take the time to go back and read through King’s entire run on Batman. In taking the time to read through King’s run there were a ton of things that I was reminded of, did not catch originally and confirmed feelings about the last four years on Batman. So with that said let’s take look into King’s time on Batman. 

CAN BRUCE WAYNE BE HAPPY AND BE BATMAN SIMULTANEOUSLY

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The running theme from the very beginning of Tom King’s run on ‘Batman’ was “Can Bruce Wayne be happy and be Batman at the same time?” That running thesis statement became the main emphasis of King’s run with the “I Am Bane” story arc. It is an intriguing question to base a run on any Batman comic on. 

Having that be the running theme for his run allowed King to give both Bruce Wayne and Batman character development at the same time. It brought to question if it is true that in the wake of his parents death that Bruce Wayne died and Batman was born. Many fans heavily believe this and past creators have shown that by emphasizing Bruce Wayne as a mask while Batman is the true version of the character.

Through his thesis of “Can Bruce Wayne be happy and be Batman at the same time” King was bring another way of thinking about the character. During his run King showed us how the truth may be that the real version of the character is somewhere in between Bruce Wayne and Batman. Basing this whole question on the vow that Bruce made after his parents died strengthened how King went about exploring this side of the character.

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In exploring this aspect of the character helped King’s run stand out from how Batman was presented in every other title. The majority of titles that Batman appears in focuses on him in costume. It is rare to see him not wearing the cape and cowl in all his other DC Universe appearance. That wasn’t the case with King’s ‘Batman.’ King made sure that we spent time with Bruce in normal clothes interacting with Selina Kyle, Alfred Pennyworth, Clark Kent and others. In doing so, King was able to connect you to Bruce’s struggles in and out of the cape and cowl throughout his run.

While King doesn’t fully answer the thesis question by the time his run came to a close he did build a strong foundation for James Tynion, Peter Tomasi and other future Batman writers to pick up on. There is a lot more that can be said based on what King explored throughout his run here. Which would not be surprising if Tynion and others continue since the vow is something that can give deeper character development for Bruce as a person.

THE BAT & CAT RELATIONSHIP

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Along with his grand thesis statement another big part of King’s run was exploring the relationship between Batman and Catwoman. More importantly, King dug into if these two characters can be together as Bruce Wayne and Selina Kyle. At times you could say King got obsessed with putting over Bruce and Selina relationship but there is no denying the chemistry between the two characters.

And much like how he explored his grand thesis statement, what helps this relationship be built correctly was the fact that it is about Bruce and Selina. While their history together is tied to their Batman and Catwoman persona’s at the end of the day the attraction they share goes beyond that. Bruce taking off his cowl and proposing to Selina helps define that this isn’t a relationship solely based on them as Batman and Catwoman. This was about the true connection of love that they have as people.

King dedicating time to develop Bruce and Selina’s love leading into the wedding made you invested in the relationship. Having them interact with Clark Kent, Lois Lane, Wonder Woman and Talia Al Ghul strengthened what King was doing with both characters together. The same goes for the use Batman’s villains that served to hint at how Bruce can’t give up being Batman.

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Which brings us the controversial aborted wedding that Bruce and Selina have in Batman #50. Many didn’t like the bait and switch of the wedding not actually happening. That was not honestly King’s fault as the wedding was marketed as something that was a big change for the entire Batman franchise that no one should miss. The reality is that the aborted wedding in Batman #50 served a greater purpose of examining if Bruce can be happy with Selina and still be the Dark Knight. It also served to further elevate Bane as a villain that you as the reader hate.

Through all these ups and downs King was able to put over that Bruce and Selina’s relationship is not traditional in the way Clark and Lois or Reed Richards and Sue Storm is. For Clark and Lois being married is the natural next step for their relationship. When it comes to Bruce and Selina they are characters that follow their own rules. Which is something that King emphasized during “City of Bane.” Where King leaves things allows for the narrative that they are genuinely happy being with each other no matter the ups and downs to be continued after his time on Batman.  

RISE AND FALL OF BANE

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Along with King’s big thesis statement and the examination of Bruce Wayne and Selina Kyle’s relationship the most important character for two-thirds of this run was Bane. From the beginning of Batman #9 all the way until the start of “City of Bane” in Batman #75 King slowly built Bane as the ultimate villain. Even when Batman was able to defeat Bane in both the “I Am Suicide” and “I Am Bane” arcs they did not seem like true victories. That ended up being true as we learn over time that Bane plotted everything that happened in this time period in order to break Batman.

Bane’s ultimate plot being to break Batman is a great call back to how he originally broke Batman’s back in Knightfall. Similar to Knightfall, we saw how Bane took a much more methodical approach in breaking Batman. He understood that simply beating Batman in a fight is not enough to take out the Dark Knight. To gain the final victory Bane had to break Batman mentally. Using every person that was connected to Batman, whether it was allies, like Nightwing, or villains everyone became a chess piece for Bane. It all helped to elevate Bane beyond being just a muscle head that most people know him as.

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That build up for Bane made the fact that he was not the main antagonist in King’s final story, “City of Bane,” an even greater disappointment. The way King did this came across as him throwing all of Bane’s development out the window. Because it was already tough to buy into Flashpoint Batman being the big end boss who took over responsibility for what Bruce has been through. What really made it reach a rage inducing level was how King decided that Batman just knew everything about Bane’s plot and played along with it. The way in which King went about showing this in Batman #81 made a lot of why we were so invested in Bruce overcoming being broken mentally, physically and spiritually by Bane less important.

All that made the fact that every issue of “City of Bane” featuring Bane on the cover, including Batman #85 were he appears in two pages, be a reminder of how King tossed the character aside. Whether it was part of King’s grand vision or not always the feeling that over 70 issues of Bane’s development as the ultimate villain was sacrificed is something this ending could not shake.

FOCUS SHIFT TO FLASHPOINT BATMAN

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Which brings us to the big point of contention that slowly became apparent in the final 25 issues of King’s run on Batman. That was the transition from Bane to Flashpoint Batman as the main antagonist of King’s run. One of the most poignant moments in King’s run took place in “The Button” crossover with The Flash he wrote alongside Joshua Williamson. Specifically in Batman #22 we got a heart wrenching scene of Flashpoint Thomas Wayne telling Bruce to find happiness and allow Batman to die with him. Even though they weren’t technically father and son, seeing Bruce be told this by an alternate universe version of his father was a powerful moment. It was something that added to the greater narrative of if Bruce could be happy and be Batman at the same time.

With how phenomenal that interaction during “The Button” crossover was it made the fact that Flashpoint Batman appeared along with other assembled villains behind Bane in Batman #50 be an eyebrow raising moment. There was a lot of questions and possibilities that came with Flashpoint Batman surprise appearance. What was not one of those possibilities that I thought would happen was Flashpoint Batman completely taking over the direction of King’s run.

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While I initially give Flashpoint Batman’s emphasis a chance that was a leash that became very short. The reason for this was that King had so many characters like Bruce, Selina, Alfred, Bane and Gotham Girl, to name a few, that also had a lot of interest built behind them. But as soon as King made the decision to focus on Flashpoint Batman and develop his motivation we saw a lot of characters pushed to the side. 

Flashpoint Batman’s development ended up superseding everyone else’s development, save for Bruce and Selina’s relationship. Looking back at it now that shift can be clearly seen during Batman #69 when King is having Flashpoint Thomas Wayne and Bane fighting one-on-one. When the fight ends with Flashpoint Thomas Wayne cheating and then saying “I win” it is a clear message to the reader he is now the focus over Bane. It also was a preview of how King would end up using everyone from Bane to Robin to put over Flashpoint Batman because we were late into the game for their not to be these character sacrifices.

TIME WAS KING’S GREATEST STRENGTH AND ULTIMATE KRYPTONITE

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The rise and fall of Bane and rapid ascension of Flashpoint Batman all comes down to what was key with Tom King’s run. That was the timing of everythring. One of the strengths of King’s run during the first three years was how he spaced out big story arcs with smaller personal stories. For every “I Am Bane” or “War of Jokes and Riddles” we got strong character focus stories that were one to three issues long.

The best examples of that was the“SuperFriends” arc in Batman #36 and Batman #37, featuring Bruce and Selina going on a double date with Clark Kent and Lois Lane. The first issue, Batman #36, of the story did a great job in setting up how Bruce and Clark view each other. Selina and Lois pushing their significant others to get over this way of thinking made both relationships stronger. Which led to a fun double date with both couples dressing up as the other. 

Even after “The Wedding” story in Batman #50 King continued to tell quick stories that helped flesh out the world around Bruce Wayne he was developing. It really wasn’t until the “Knightmares” arc that started in Batman #61 that things took a turn. Starting with “Knightmares” King not only started taking his time with longer story arcs but also started repeating a lot of plot points.

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The repetitive nature continued through “City of Bane” as King drove everyone telling Bruce he can’t be happy in a relationship with Selina and be Batman at the same time in the ground. There was no longer subtlety in the story that King was trying to do. Everything was in your face as King dragged stories to be much longer than they needed to be.

Not helping matters was the long monologues that King employed in special occasions for the first few years of his run started to become commonplace. There was a point were reading characters talk about where they were in their lives did not hit as it once did. These monologue heavy issues dominated both the “Knightmares” and “City of Bane” story that was once the strength of King’s run. It came to the point that you do wonder if it is Bruce Wayne or Tom King talking, which is never a good thing.

INCREDIBLE TEAM OF ARTIST ELEVATE CHARACTER DEVELOPMENT

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King’s run on Batman was filled some of the most talented artists in the industry today. Mikel Janin, Tony Daniel, David Finch, Mitch Gerard, Jason Fabok, Joelle Jones, Lee Weeks, Clay Mann and Jorge Fornes were all just a few of the many talented artists that helped bring King’s storylines to life. With King making his stories as much a Bruce Wayne story as they were about Batman every artist elevated those stories with their artwork.

Though each artist had their own style, everyone made sure to keep things grounded so we never lose our engagement in what Batman, Catwoman, Bane, Alfred and others were doing. It is hard to pick one artists that stood out from the other. Every artist had a stand out arc that they worked on. 

One of the artists that King most worked with during this time was Mikel Janin. Janin worked on a lot of notable storylines like “War of Jokes and Riddles,” “I Am Suicide,” “Everyone Loves Ivy” and “The Best Man.” Through every story he worked on Janin got across how as Batman, Bruce was placed in a lot of spots were he had to make the tough choices. The way he drew Bruce in and out of the cape and cowl helped tell the story of his struggles throughout King’s run.

Joelle Jones and Lee Weeks were others that got stand out arcs. Jones was able to get across how major of a battle that Catwoman and Talia Al Ghul had. While there was a physical fight the real battle was one that was more emotional as Selina proved why she was Bruce’s true love through her conviction. 

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Weeks also got a strong arc as he was given the job to getting over Bruce’s mental state after the failed wedding. Weeks was able to tell the struggles Bruce was facing after being left in the alter. The fight between wanting to be Batman 100% to realizing how unhealthy it was perfectly told by Weeks. It set the tone for how this period in King’s Batman would go.

There are so many other artists that added so much to King’s run that I could go on endlessly to talk about them. But what all held each artist together was how they were able to put over how the reader should be invested in King’s thesis of “Can Bruce be happy and be Batman at the same time.” Every artist delivered their A-game on one DC Comics premiere comic books.  

GOTHAM CITY’S VILLAINS IMPACT ON BATMAN

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Outside of Bane and Flashpoint Batman, King took time to showcase the wide variety of villains that Batman has in his Rogues Gallery.  Like most great Batman runs, King did this by exploring how each villain reflects a different part of the characters personality. That was best shown with the epic “War of Jokes and Riddles.” This story had very little to do with the great story around Bane breaking Batman. This was more about getting into the psyche of Bruce Wayne as Batman with how we saw him reflect on the events of “War of Jokes and Riddles” while telling his side of the story to Selina Kyle.

Choosing Joker and Riddler to lead the two sides of the war that Batman found himself in the middle of in during the beginning of his superhero career was a great choice. Both these villains represent a different part of who Bruce is as Batman. Not only that but King was able to further position Riddler at the top of Batman’s Rogues Gallery, continuing something that Scott Snyder before him did with “Zero Year.” It all gave the idea of how no matter how strong Batman believes himself to be there are times were villains like Joker and Riddler can get to him.

Along with the “War of Jokes and Riddles” another big storyline that showed King’s strong understanding of Batman’s villains is the “Everyone Loves Ivy” story arc. Through this story arc King was able to portray Poison Ivy as a much more complex character. Using events from the “War of Jokes and Riddles” to further develop Poison Ivy’s drive helped explain a lot of her actions in a way that made sense for her character evolution. It all led to build more interest in Poison Ivy, a character who had become stale in terms of her usage by DC Comics up to this point.

There are plenty of other examples of how well King wrote Batman’s villains. Even though Bane and Flashpoint Batman became the focal point of King’s run by the end there were clearly other big storylines that could’ve been told by King. Maybe that is what we will see in the Batman/Catwoman series as “City of Bane” did not make full use of all of Batman’s villains.

GOTHAM GIRL LEADS CHARACTER ENDGAME PROBLEMS

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One of the very first things that Tom King did to start his run was introduced the world to Gotham and Gotham Girl. These two Superman-like characters at started as very traditional heroes who quickly evolved to be much more. In particular, Gotham Girl became a key player in King’s run as a lot of the early motivation for Batman and Bane’s conflict was helping her overcome the effects her powers had on her. 

It was a very intriguing plot line that continued into “City of Bane” where we saw Gotham Girl become the Robin for Flashpoint Batman’s reign over Gotham City. When that happened it was a strong next step given how much time we’ve spent seeing her interact with Batman and others in his supporting cast. 

Which is what made the fact that as “City of Bane” went on Gotham Girl became a prop that King quickly forgot about until the last minute. For as much as he wanted us to care about the problems with her powers, Gotham Girl, like so many characters, was forgotten because of the battle between alternate universe father and son. Her sudden disappearance and reappearance in Batman #85 made the payoff for her character extremely weak. Rather than have her deal with consequences for her actions Batman gave her a get out of jail free card at the end of “City of Bane.”

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The problems with Gotham Girl weren’t the only problems that King had with supporting characters. There were many sub-plots that King introduced like Nightwing getting shot in the head that he did not really ever deal with. The most glaring of these was the lack of further development for Holly Robinson. As the person who was the trigger for the failed wedding between Bruce Wayne and Selina Kyle there was never any follow-up with her character. Holly Robinson could’ve been a key player in “City of Bane,” especially after Batman and Catwoman reunited. But she was just one of many forgotten characters when things mattered most in King’s run.

IMPACT OF THE BATMAN FAMILY ON BRUCE WAYNE

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As many problems as King had with following up on sub-plots one thing I greatly appreciated about his run is his focus on the Batman Family. In particular, King spent a good amount of time showing how Bruce Wayne has been able to create a family for himself. Alfred Pennyworth, Dick Grayson, Damian Wayne, Barbara Gordon and many others are people who became Bruce’s family in some way. Even when many people consider Batman as being a loner that is not really the case.

In using the Batman Family throughout his run King was able to strengthen the greater narrative of his run about Bruce finding happiness. There were many times were we saw that the Batman Family have all helped Bruce attain some sort of happiness. It then became about if Bruce can see that for himself. Which is where Selina comes in to open his eyes to all this. 

The best example of all this was Batman Annual #2. That issue gave us a brief glimpse at a possible future for Bruce as he and Selina grow old together. The most poignant part of this story was the ending with Bruce dying in his sleep with Dick Grayson, Barbara Gordon, Tim Drake, Damian Wayne, Selina Kyle and others around him. That visual showed how Bruce has truly been able to build a family for himself that would all be with him to the very end.

DEATH OF ALFRED PENNYWORTH

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Probably more important than his development of Bruce and Selina’s relationship was the death of Alfred Pennyworth that took place during the middle of “City of Bane.” This is by far the biggest status quo shake-up for the Batman franchise since Grant Morrison went ahead with “killing” Bruce Wayne during the whole Batman RIP and Final Crisis period. 

Alfred’s death is an event that shakes up the entire dynamic of the Batman Family. Afterall, not only was Alfred an important part of Bruce’s life but he was also someone every member of the Batman Family turned to when they needed someone else’s opinion on things. He was the father-figure everyone needed at important times in their lives.

For Bruce this will be the first time outside of Batman Beyond where we will see how he deals with life without his closest confidant and father-figure. All future Batman writers now have the opportunity to explore Bruce both in and out of the cowl in a very different way than he has been developed in the past. We already see hints of that with James Tynion’s first issue in Batman #86 as Bruce still calls on Alfred while out as Batman. As much as I like Alfred I hope DC sticks with keeping the character dead as there is a lot of potential in exploring the Batman Family in new ways moving forward.

FINAL THOUGHTS

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While Tom King work on the Batman franchise is not over with, as he is working on a Batman/Catwoman series with Clay Mann, he certainly left his mark on the character. I can honestly say that the first three year of King’s Batman run were some of the most fun I had reading a Batman series. King told so had many great storylines, from “I Am Suicide” to “War of Jokes and Riddles” to “Everyone Loves Ivy,” that are some of the best in Batman’s history. 

The work that King did to develop Bruce Wayne and Selina Kyle’s relationship is also something to be commended. King spent a lot of time getting us to care about this relationship being something that is long-term for both characters. The investment King built within the minds and hearts of fans was best shown with what happened in Batman #50. The disappointment in the wedding that did not happen and the happiness in their eventual reunion showed the success King had in developing Bruce and Selina’s relationship.

That all makes how often I was disappointed by the events that took place during the issues of Batman that came out in 2019 something that made me sad. I had all the hope in the world that King would be able to payoff everything he built in a satisfying way. Whether it was because his run possibly being cut short or his decision to change the main antagonist, 2019 Batman was not how I wished things ended. But through all these ups and downs King had a run on Batman that was memorable.


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