Review: ALL STAR BATMAN #9

ALL STAR BATMAN #9
Written by Scott Snyder
Art by Jock, Lee Loughridge, Francesco Francavilla
Published by DC Comics
Release Date: April 19, 2017

“The future of regulation is demonology.”

There’s a rich sense of poetic justice to an arc all about fitting new lenses onto classic villains ending with the statement that the new lenses don’t always fit, that not everyone is adaptable to new circumstances.

That’s the predicament that Ra’s Al Ghul finds himself in after Bruce hands him a shockingly swift and simple defeat in the heart of the nation’s capital. In an unexpected reversal, longtime collaborators Snyder and Jock invert the visually driven formula for the series so far to deliver a story that takes place almost entirely between the lines of dialogue.

Far from the complex and fundamentally sympathetic takes that Snyder spun for Two Face and Poison Ivy in early issues, Ra’s Al Ghul comes off as someone’s vastly overconfident grandfather unboxing his first smartphone. He’s an analog villain who thinks he’s leapfrogged into the digital age because he’s found a piece of software that gives him the opportunity to rhapsodize about the age of darkness and superstition that he emerged from.

He’s fascinated by daemons, background processes that, when exploited properly, could trigger cataclysmic events. It’s something he relates to on a deep level because he calls himself “the demon’s head” and lurks in the shadows to direct world events. Of course he belatedly realizes that Bruce is the true “daemon” in this scenario when it’s revealed that what he thought was his master plan of the world’s infrastructure crumbling simultaneously thanks to thousands of individual exploits being triggered at once was a harmless fantasy projected by Bruce’s repurposing of The Mad Hatter’s technology from last issue.

Ra’s Al Ghul is far more than just a very wrinkly, bearded child who’s found his father’s gun though, he’s become a true believer in all the ways that technology can enable his monstrous worldview. One of the sneakiest tricks that Snyder and Jock pull off this issue is in the implied confluence between how Bruce defeated him by showing him a convenient fiction of getting everything he wanted and the way that he bellows about how “the data” backs up his conclusion that a massive culling of humanity, a genocide of some description, has to occur in order to secure the continued survival of the human race.

What Ra’s is referring to, especially in his coded language of thinking that emerged “a century ago” is the ideological and pseudo scientific underpinnings of Hitler’s “Lebensraum.” An ideology that grew out of a bigoted extrapolation on Darwin’s Origins of Species, as did much of eugenics, coined by Darwin’s own half cousin Francis Galton. He was also the first to apply statistical methods to human difference, providing a very early lesson in how data presented to be empirical is not only corruptible, but liable to be subject to bigoted biases.

Ra’s claims to be both a seeker and purveyor of “hard truths” when in reality he’s never done more than shop for a data set that fits the narrative he wants to push at any given moment. It’s a mentality in urgent need of unpacking at a time when data is being pushed as both the foundation of ideology and more incontrovertible than perhaps ever before due to sophisticated analysis tools. Data can be many things, but what experts in statistics, computing, and artificial intelligence are finding to be truer than ever before is that it cannot be neutral no matter how many times we’re told that it is.

The consequences of that ideology can clearly be seen in the wake of the 2016 US presidential election, in which data mining was both the core strategy in conducting it as well as puzzling out the meaning of the results. As laid out in excruciating and sometimes terrifying detail by journalist Jonathan Albright, the Trump campaign had a very powerful daemon at work for it in the form of Cambridge Analytica, a firm described as “half ad agency and half hackathon” that, among other things, attempted to build a psychographic profile of the entire American voter base.

The motivations and intended usage of CA’s technology, based around the OCEAN personality model were neatly summed up by a Bloomberg reporter who had an assessment done on him by the company’s parent office in London:

“Of all the microtargeting profiles of myself I had seen, none had flattered my self-concept like this one.”

CA isn’t modest about what they viewed as its potential for use by the Trump campaign either:

“The firm says it can predict how most people will vote by using up to 5,000 pieces of data about every American adult, combined with the result of hundreds of thousands of personality and behavioral surveys, to identify millions of voters who are most open to being persuaded to support Trump.“

The purpose, in Albright’s view at least, of CA’s involvement in the Trump campaign was to gather together all the data they could to target their messaging to the exact people they needed to win:

“As the the Trump electoral win clearly demonstrates, the topics people discuss with their closest connections and the viewpoints they share in confidential circles trump even the biggest data sets. Especially when the result involves a clear outcome: an election win from a single behavioral tactic: finding people who can be influenced enough to actually go out and vote.

Stack this strategy on top of an electoral college-based system, and you’ll find the exact voters in the exact states you need to spend time influencing — forget the rest. Well, actually, you’ll want make the ones who you know aren’t going to vote for you angry — this way you can extract more data from the people who might potentially vote for you.”

Albright’s conclusion is more or less that Trump’s campaign staff leveraged military grade data mining techniques to laser in on the votes they needed to min-max the electoral college. CA’s role in the campaign was in far more of a position of control than a polling or analytics group had ever been on a campaign, according to Brad Parscale, Trump’s self styled digital guru who told Megyn Kelly “For the first time in history a data operation ran everything from TV buying to where we were on the ground, to all the different operations and so in having all that data right there, we could start to see where persuadable targets are… everything we needed to know.”

Numerous variables had to line up for that strategy to be as effective as it clearly was, but the net result was a deeply concerning undermining of the spirit of American democracy, specifically the need to secure a mandate to rule that reflects the will of the people. That wasn’t the conclusion drawn by much of the mainstream, however. Reuters, for instance, praised the frugality of the Trump campaign’s decision to contract out to CA under a headline of “At under $5, Trump’s votes came cheap.”

“Trump’s cost-effective win has upended prevailing concepts about the influence of money in American politics and raised the question of whether a lean, media-savvy campaign can become the new model for winning office in the United States.”

At the same time, the narrative that Hillary Clinton lost the election, despite a three million ballot lead in the popular vote, because she had invested too much in identity politics too much proliferated despite the clearly and proudly articulated messaging from Trump’s data team that they’d tailored their campaign to the people they believed were the most susceptible to their candidate’s divisive, racially charged rhetoric.

Trump’s purported $5 million dollar investment was the beginning, rather than the end of the intense focus on the emotions and anxieties of the “white working class” as the floodgates opened on the notion that Clinton alienated them. Despite the fact that even her rival for the Democratic nomination, Vermont senator Bernie Sanders, echoed that rhetoric, it simply isn’t true. The reality is that the average household income of Trump voters outstripped that of Clinton and Sanders supporters by over $10 000.

Where the discriminatory nature of this data collection and analysis becomes evident is that all of the measuring of emotional responses and susceptibility to influence that goes into seeking election and crafting policy is focused entirely on white demographics. As Flavia Dzodan notes,

“[…] whenever these marginalized groups express their own emotional concerns, they are usually dismissed as a “statistical anomaly” and not a valid data point to be considered for policy or platform making. This data collection, to be considered valid, must always originate from the dominant culture […] However, if people of color express fear of being unjustly killed in police interventions or of being discriminated in the job market, their emotions are not coded as part of a structural problem. Instead, they are considered the realm of individual perception and dismissed as such.”

While Trump handed control of his campaign to a data team that dedicated themselves to a deep dive into the psychology of their ideal white voter, the left remained content to uphold the ancient mythology of their being a singular bloc of black voters summed up by South Carolina primary turnout, when the reality is that black voters are considerably more divided in their voting habits by geography and other factors than they’re given credit for. In an election framed as “Big Data versus Big Data” with the more efficient, cheaper model having apparently won out, it reveals a great deal about the prejudices of those directing the efforts on both sides when the focus is so obviously skewed by race.

These aren’t fanciful extrapolations on pedantic details in a single story, they’re a map of the biggest working example of the real world forces that have animated Snyder’s work on Batman since 2011. Examining how villainous figures employ populist tactics to manipulate the disenfranchised and marginalized has been a key facet of Snyder’s work, coming into sharp focus with the rise of Mr. Bloom at the apex of his Batman run and Two Face’s scheming in the opening issues of this series.

“They say you can do well here, but you’re poor as hell. Aren’t you?” Bloom mocked the populace of Gotham’s most depressed neighbourhood, The Narrows, in the same moment that Trump seized the lead in the race for the GOP primary. Bloom spent years in isolation, reading the room to find the right pressure points in the general population that would elevate him to the voice of the people, much like Nixon did between presidential bids, the same work that Trump delegated to Parscale and his team.

He seized on the mob’s insecurities and offered them false empowerment in the form of a seed that twisted them into gruesome monsters before eventually killing them, much like Trump rose to the highest office in the land on populist anger in order to begin shredding the government programs needed to free his electorate from the economic stagnation that stoked their resentment.

Two Face, for his part, was presented as an apolitical, pragmatic blackmailer who used the the carrot of a cash reward and the stick of compromising information on a bevy of the city’s most powerful figures but the dynamic of a cruel opportunist in search of the perfect psychological pressure point to goad a population into bending to his will remains.

This is the methodology and the cycle of defeat at the hands of Batman that Ra’s Al Ghul has grown weary of to the point of forcing himself into a radical transformation when we find him in the current issue. Exasperated at Bruce’s seemingly unstoppable ability to appeal to and draw out humanity’s better nature when presented with his violent ideology, Ra’s Al Ghul attempts to circumvent the people entirely and trigger a cataclysm by compromising critical infrastructure across the planet.

When Bruce remarks on how unlike Ra’s Al Ghul this methodology is, he agrees, lashing out at Bruce with the admission that it’s his attempt to emulate his greatest enemy. Where he miscalculates, beyond being a dilettante at this kind of sabotage, he’s attempting to emulate a version of Bruce of which only a flickering shadow remains. At one point, Bruce truly was ruthlessly dedicated to being the kind of daemon that Ra’s Al Ghul describes, cataloguing and sometimes even manufacturing exploits in everything around him, even his friends and allies.

The fantasy of a pervasive surveillance state as an altruistic goal dominated Batman for the majority of the twenty years leading up to Flashpoint, either in the guise of Barbara Gordon as Oracle or Bruce himself. That fantasy has been dismantled into a dangerous temptation that Bruce struggles to resist since the collapse of Bruce’s original project to rebuild the city following The Riddler’s devastating Zero Year attack.

Gazing at the holographic model of Bruce’s vision for the city in the midst of his struggle with The Court of Owls, Bruce told Alfred he was abandoning his original plans, revealing that he’d initially planned it out primarily to expand his reach as Batman within the city, littering his designs with satellite bases and surveillance equipment. It was his realization that he was unknowingly mimicking what the Court had been up to for decades, quietly compromising the city right down to its architecture to twist to their own purposes.

The supreme irony of the road left largely untraveled in this version of Bruce’s history is that his mania for cataloguing and manufacturing weaknesses and countermeasures to everything around him was the direct cause of his most brutal and humiliating defeat at the hands of Ra’s Al Ghul. In JLA: Tower of Babel, Ra’s Al Ghul gets ahold of a very different kind of daemon: Bruce’s methods of defeating the rest of the Justice League. Snyder and Jock tie their story back to that one with Ra’s sharing his realization that the Washington monument can be used as a beacon to project the signal triggering his daemon, much like he did in Tower of Babel, sending out a signal scrambling the language centers of the world’s population. The implication of the parallel seems to be that he’s unable to enact the same scheme he did in Tower of Babel because of Bruce’s change in tactics.

What’s most frightening of all about this issue is that the vulnerabilities that Ra’s describes are absolutely real. While Bruce may have curbed his own tendencies towards creating and exploiting backdoors, governments and the private sector have, and continue, to recklessly pursue it. Whether it’s the latest revelations about NSA hacking tools, Uber’s Greyball program, Volkswagen programming their cars to lie to regulators about emissions, or the general sloppiness that lead to smart fridges and other household appliances being hijacked in a gigantic DDoS attack, the increasingly connected world we live in is populated by an exponential number of daemons, exploits, and vulnerabilities, Snyder and Jock remind us with the closing image of a single cellphone, drawn as if it’s being held by the reader shuts off as if it’s been compromised.

The fundamental genius of this issue isn’t in all of the quiet allegory dispersed throughout what appears at first blush to be a banal story of the forces of good prevailing over evil once again. It’s that Snyder and Jock turn the concept of the Batman story around the reader, taking on the role of the classic villain presenting Batman with a puzzle to unravel, hiding clues and references just specific enough to spend Bruce spiralling into a maze of potential meanings that could ultimately unravel into nothing more than apophenia.

The meaning prised out of this particular issue will be highly individual and subjective, but the arresting imagery of Batman with a shredded American flag draped over his shoulder paired with the setting of the nation’s capital narrow the likely range of reasonable conclusions just enough to ensure that they’re explicitly political in nature. But just like Bruce’s rogues who litter their puzzles with clues because they want Bruce to solve them, Snyder and Jock leave this issue for us to piece together, confident in our ability as readers to draw the intended conclusions.

The Verdict: 10/10

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