Written by Scott Snyder
Art by Greg Capullo, Danny Miki, and FCO Plascencia
Published by DC Comics
Release Date: January 20, 2016
Batman #48 primarily concerns itself with a question that, ironically, was asked and answered in the pages of a Superman comic. “What happens when the unstoppable force meets the immovable object?” was the question posed to Clark with Lois’ life on the line, presented as the ultimate riddle. For Bruce Wayne, it’s a rhetorical question. He knows that surrender is the only answer to his predicament, now that he knows for certain that he was Batman and that he will have to put the cowl back on.
Waiting for him at the park bench near where he was recovered by Julia Pennyworth is none other than the similarly amnesiac Joker, who has built himself a mundane existence following Endgame. They’ve both been gravitating towards the same place, he tells Bruce, describing it as the same kind of island of stability that Geri Powers presented to Jim Gordon when showing him the collider she built. The collider that has mysteriously powered on beneath their feet and will soon be evacuated. Their island of calm is coming to an end and they’ve come one last time to contemplate it. As Bruce rages against the impermanence of anything he does and the pull of returning to who he was, The Joker suggests they give up while they’re ahead. He lifts the gun he’d been bringing to the park to kill himself with, but he’s spared by an explosion in the distance, the beginning of Bloom’s rampage. Gotham City, it appears, isn’t finished with either one of them.
As the events of the arc have seemed to imply, there are forces outside themselves that drew the pair into the cycle of violence that they’ve been trapped in for decades. As Bruce and The Joker are drawn back towards their inevitable roles, Jim Gordon is punished for trying to break the cycle. It becomes more apparent than ever that Gordon was standing between Bloom and Powers, who were eagerly trying to fill the void left behind. It’s a goal they continue to pursue as Bloom unveils his endgame and Powers throws everything she has at him while Gordon bleeds to death between them.
Bloom, as hinted by his involvement with the Devil Pigs, has been assembling a group of gang leaders that Gordon put away at various times in his career. By doing so, Bloom hopes to sow the same hopelessness at the impermanence of change into the general populace that Bruce and The Joker felt in their last trip to the park bench. With Gordon safely in hand, Bloom begins his speech to the people of the Narrows by telling them how the police will shoot them unarmed, politicians will take their money, and businesses will poison them, bringing the fate of Peter Duggio — as spelled out in Batman #44 — back to the forefront. Bloom describes the city as being like a garden, built to thrive on division and uplift only the privileged, who he describes as dumb, hungry roses.
They’re powerful, sharp words to be spoken in the midst of a deeply divisive Presidential election campaign but draw even more attention to how Snyder and Capullo’s Gotham has narrowed in focus over the course of the Superheavy arc to resemble Chicago more than any other city in the country. Police shootings of unarmed civilians, especially black teenagers, have been a flashpoint across the country since the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, but the protests in Chicago have built into a grassroots movement to unseat the mayor. The shooting has brought long-simmering issues around poverty, violence, and access to public services to a boil, with both Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Anita Alvarez, the State’s Attorney for Cook County, in the hot seat with issues that range far beyond the year long delay in making public the video footage of McDonald’s shooting and subsequent charges being filed against the officer who shot him.
The case for the Narrows embodying a fictional lens for Chicago is disturbingly strong, especially so in light of Bloom’s speech and the unveiling of his allies. When the CPD jailed the equivalent of the gang leaders Bloom assembled — namely the central figures of the Black Gangster Disciples and their rivals — it decentralized the city’s gangs, leading to the formation of dozens of smaller groups. Parallel to the fragmentation of the city’s gangs was a transformation of public housing triggered by then Mayor Richard M. Daley seeking approval to demolish the city’s high rise housing projects, built while his father was mayor, five years after they were condemned. Among them was Robert Taylor Homes, at one time the largest public housing project in the country, named after an African-American activist who resigned from the Chicago Housing Authority in 1950 when city council refused to endorse plans that would desegregate housing in the city.
The exodus of sixteen thousand families when the towers were demolished combined with the rapidly fragmenting gangs lead to the formation of areas of entrenched violence and poverty in Chicago’s South and West Sides that has driven the murder rate into the nation’s highest several times over the last decade. Emanuel, the current mayor, is hardly new to the situation either. He was the vice chair of CHA when Daley’s transformation plan was originally formed and enacted in the 1990s.
It’s easy and seductive to see the truth in Bloom’s words that cities are gardens that are mapped out according to privilege and made to foster division when given the example of Chicago’s public housing situation over the last fifteen to twenty years. “They say you can do well here, but you’re poor as hell. Aren’t you?” Bloom tells the residents of The Narrows sarcastically. The City of Chicago responded to a 1995 lawsuit alleging discriminatory practices in relocating families from the condemned towers in part by enacting a voucher program that would allow families to rent from the private market at a subsidized rate. The vouchers only cover 40% of fair market value, which has had the effect of funneling those families right back into the same poverty and violence stricken areas they were already being relocated to. Bloom could be speaking directly to those families.
Of course Bloom is no reformer. He’s a predator in his own right who advocates a form of surrender. Instead of a destruction or transformation of the system that has created and sustained the deplorable conditions in The Narrows, Bloom has littered the area with the seeds that gave him his powers — and claimed the life of Peter Duggio — in a bid to urge the residents to tear each other apart and see who comes out on top. Bloom claims to be a great admirer of Bruce as Batman, declaring that he was driven by self-interest.
As more or less expected, Bloom reveals himself to be a disaster capitalist who fetishizes the myth of rugged individualism. What Bloom either doesn’t know or isn’t saying is that Bruce was, and still is, one of the dumb, hungry roses. Bloom is at least partially presented as a meta-fictional commentary on people who misinterpret what Batman is, or at least, can be. It’s reminiscent of the Thanos and Darkseid carpool buddies strip where Doctor Doom expounds on the “wrong” interpretation of Breaking Bad protagonist Walter White and Darkseid counters with the “right” interpretation of The Wire. Both play into their natural biases: Doom is looking for affirmation of his outlook and belief that he is the epitome of rugged individualism in White, while Darkseid is seeking affirmation in his belief that entropy is the most powerful force in the universe by invoking David Simon’s intent to portray Baltimore’s institutions as the petty gods of the Greek tragedies.
It’s possible to read all kinds of things into the fiction we consume, and many of them will find credible support in the text irrespective of authorial intent, but the real question is what we’re seeking when we forward those interpretations. We see the things that Bloom has read into Batman presented in a different context in Gail Simone and Jim Calafiore’s Surviving Megapolis as a critique levied against a certain kind of superhero, clarifying the subjectivity of it. Simone and Snyder have come to this same conclusion, as well have many readers, but it resolves nothing. In recognizing how these heroes can be seen, and are sometimes intended to be, the choice is to surrender to it or to strive to project a different light on them. By the final page of Batman #50, we will have Snyder’s final word, and it will likely skew towards the latter.
Depicting a villain attempting to divide the population between rich and poor, immigrant and natural born citizen is particularly chilling for an issue hitting the stands less than a week following the latest GOP leadership debate featuring precisely this kind of rhetoric from current front runner Donald Trump. Bloom stomping through The Narrows on his tirade highlights the specifics of how and why Snyder and Capullo combine to become such a potent team at horror storytelling beyond the superficial visual elements.
The visceral elements of that horror like Bloom’s twisted body and the tentacle like vines sprouting from his back are Capullo’s bread and butter, they speak to him as being what draws a kid to want to buy a comic book, as he told Comicosity last week, and on a superficial level it can easily drive a reader’s engagement with the arc. As gruesome as it is, there remains an eerie sensuousness to Capullo’s Bloom and the odd tenderness that his spindly chitinous fingers evoke in their handling of the bloodied Jim Gordon that ties into the seductiveness of his logic. Give in, he tells Jim, slipping a tendril into his mouth. Bloom plays off the same impulse that drove the Joker to put the gun under his chin earlier in the issue, to quit while you’re ahead. Give in to your worst impulses by masking them as something noble.
The horrible truth of it is that his logic only really needs to take hold on the most vulnerable people in the most precarious positions, which comes to fruition in the worst way possible when Bruce makes his way back to the community center. Liv, the little girl who Bruce tried to comfort by turning the wreckage of the Endgame attack into a playground, has found one of the seeds and followed the instructions. Like Peter Duggio before her, Liv is driven to try to use the seed for good. “I’ll be Batman!” she declares as the seed twists and contorts her into a monster. The difference is that this time Bruce is there to witness it instead of piecing it together long after the fact.
Snyder has expressed the desire for Superheavy to put a cap on his run, and more specifically his collaboration with Capullo, and that’s what we’re seeing as Liv transforms into a monster. There’s a great deal of subtext here in terms of how an impulse to protect, to do good, can twist a person into a monster. It’s certainly true of Bruce at various times in his career as Batman, but something much powerful is happening. Duke may have forced Bruce into the revelation that he’s Batman last issue, but watching what happens to Liv is what pushes Bruce into becoming Batman again. As we saw in the James Tynion IV-penned annual, the trauma of the murder of Thomas and Martha Wayne no longer has any hold over him and the rogues’ attempt to re-traumatize him in a similar way failed.
Liv’s horrible transformation has taken the place of Joe Chill shooting Thomas and Martha Wayne. In the culmination of Grant Morrison’s Batman work, the penultimate issue of The Return of Bruce Wayne, he returned to the choice that Bruce made to ring the bell and summon Alfred as a means of dismantling the idea of Batman as an expression of rugged individualism. With Batman #48, it’s Snyder’s turn to lift the hammer and bring it down on Bruce’s becoming as a selfish act of revenge. Bruce, of course, really did begin his first run as Batman in this continuity driven by the murder of his parents. That much will always be true. But the net effect of his amnesia and the events of Superheavy have provided a brand new context for him to return to the costume in.
And so we close out the issue with Alfred, sitting in the chair where Bruce once rang the bell to summon him, crying as Bruce pounds the door down. It’s an incredible testament to Frank Miller’s conception of that moment that both Morrison and Snyder have returned to it in redefining Bruce, but Batman: Year One’s influence on Superheavy runs much deeper than that. Year One always implied what Morrison codified, with that implication coming not from how the act of ringing the bell was presented, but in the fact that Miller and Mazzucchelli presented three concurrent protagonists in Jim Gordon, Bruce Wayne, and Selina Kyle.
In the same way that Gordon makes up the bulk of the action in Year One, the same could be said of Superheavy, but just as Selina’s contributions cannot be overlooked, neither can Duke Thomas’ as he discovers the final fate of his parents towards a revelation of his own about the role of Robin. There’s a very strong argument to be made for Superheavy constituting a contemporary Year One and the splitting of the narrative between the three characters is just as critical to its success as the choice was for Miller and Mazzucchelli.
When Superheavy concludes with issue #50, it will have spanned nearly an entire calendar year, but the massively decompressed storytelling has allowed it to move with breathtaking urgency for far longer than it ought to have. On finishing #48, I was left with the same kind of bewilderment I felt at the intensity of the six minute tracking shot in True Detective. In the moment, it didn’t register that there weren’t any cuts, I was distracted by the overwhelming sense of claustrophobia and tension the longer it went on. The same is largely true of how Snyder and Capullo use the shifting viewpoints to achieve an almost manga level of decompression to prolong the suspense around Bloom’s endgame. Without Bruce and Duke’s segments, Bloom’s climactic battle with Gordon would have played out over a single issue instead of the three we’re getting, which will make a tremendous amount of impact on how it’s received.
Two issues remain, but it can already pretty easily be said that Superheavy is an astounding achievement and a powerful lesson in superhero storytelling. At Marvel, Jonathan Hickman pinballed across multiple titles over several years to cobble together a personal epic that ended up being co-opted into a bloated, confusing, and poorly scheduled event. I can keenly recall the adrenaline rush I felt at the close of the first Secret Wars issue, it was great stuff but later issues lagged, then ultimately fell months behind the new status quo they were meant to usher in.
Secret Wars, which is meant to represent the culmination of Hickman’s Marvel work, will never hold up on its own as something you can hand to a casual reader, which does massive harm to what should be a grand legacy. DC isn’t historically immune to this criticism, Morrison’s work on Batman, for instance, is somewhat tangled and confused around Final Crisis, but resisting meddling with the penultimate arc of their top selling title shows a lot of much needed restraint.
A year from now, five years from now I’ll be able to hand someone the Superheavy trade on its own as an example of one of the most important Batman stories ever told. If these stories are something that the publishers truly value and want a legacy for, then the room to breathe that Superheavy has been given is absolutely vital to the future of the medium.
The Verdict: 10/10