Each week, Big Issues focuses on a newly released comic-book issue of significance. This week, it’s Batman #15. Written by Tom King (The Vision, The Sheriff Of Babylon) with art by Mitch Gerads (The Punisher, The Sheriff Of Babylon), this issue features a major turning point for Batman and Catwoman’s relationship that gives the series new emotional heft. (This review reveals major plot points.)

Batman #15 cover by Stephanie Hans

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Why are superhero comics so afraid of sex? There’s plenty of sexualization in superhero books, but the actual sex lives of superheroes often goes unexplored. This makes sense given the genre’s beginnings as all-ages entertainment, but while superhero comics have grown up over the years and ventured into more mature subject matter, positive sexual experiences are still a rarity. Batman is one of the most sexually repressed characters in the superhero comics canon, so much so that there’s an entire Image Comics series, the bluntly titled Sex, which explores sexuality in the superhero genre through a Batman analogue. Bruce Wayne keeps himself at a distance from pretty much everyone in his life, and he could desperately use the personal connection of physical and emotional intimacy with someone he deeply cares about.

Batman and Catwoman are one of the great romances in superhero comics, and this week’s Batman #15 pays tribute to their history while paving a new path for the couple. Tom King’s run on Batman has been fascinating; part action blockbuster, part psychological thriller, and part tragic romance. That last element is at the forefront of “Rooftops,” a two-parter that reunites King with his The Sheriff Of Babylon collaborator Mitch Gerads to bring major emotional weight to Batman and Catwoman’s relationship. This is a beautifully tender story, one that is a stark contrast to the painful intensity of King and Gerads’ Vertigo series. It’s also been a lot of fun, with Batman #14 taking the lovers on a crime-fighting escapade that has them taking out a slew of unexpected Gotham villains like Gorilla Boss, Amygdala, and, most delightfully, Condiment King. Beating up bad guys is foreplay for Batman and Catwoman, and the last issue ended with them giving in to their feverish desire as they strip naked and get down on a rooftop while the Bat-signal shines in the sky above them.

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It’s important to note that the sex in Batman isn’t between Batman and Catwoman, but Bruce Wayne and Selina Kyle. (They still call each other “Bat” and “Cat,” but those feel like cute nicknames more than anything else.) The costumes and the masks come off, fully exposing themselves to each other as they give in to their vulnerability instead of running from it. Vulnerability has become a major theme of King’s Batman run, notably in the reveal that Bruce Wayne chose to become Batman after contemplating suicide in the wake of his parents’ murders, and his experience with Selina in “Rooftops” continues to bring that vulnerability to the forefront.

There’s no explicit internal conflict on Bruce’s part when it comes to having sex with a criminal he is delivering to prison in a few hours; despite the complicated circumstances, he genuinely loves Selina and wants to be with her, even if just for the night. The vulnerability comes in admitting that love. After Selina professes her love for Bruce, there’s a silent panel showing his face contorting into a pained expression, a moment of reluctance before he confesses that he loves her too. That pained expression is actually amplified when Bruce says these words, and you can sense how difficult it is for him to open himself up to another person this way. When was the last time he told a person he loved them? It’s easy to believe that he hasn’t said these words since his parents died, and this page feels like a huge revelation for the character.

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The rest of the page consists of three silent panels, each one strengthening the bond between the characters: The first has Selina opening her eyes to look at Bruce, telling him that she sees him and acknowledges his words. The pain begins to fade from his face, but there are still remnants there. The second has Selina smiling while Bruce continues to look glum, and in the final panel, Bruce cracks a tiny smile as Selina opens her hand to gently touch his face. There’s so much affection in this sequence, and in six panels this creative team gives Bruce and Selina’s relationship a gravitas that dramatically changes the dynamic of these characters.

Batman and Catwoman’s rooftop coitus is even more impressive when compared to a similar scene that unfolds in the first issues of the New 52 Catwoman series. There are major differences in the way Catwoman writer Judd Winick and artist Guillem March approach the event, which focuses much more on titillating readers than creating an honest connection between the characters. To start, the characters keep most of their costumes on during the act in Catwoman, which is highly impractical and diminishes the sense of intimacy between the two of them. These aren’t two characters that care about each other, and that’s reinforced by Selina’s narration: “I’m not trying to be crude, but it plays out a lot like a bar fight. Bodies get hurled around. Things get broken. Some pretty filthy language is uttered. Some very misplaced anger is present.”

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Catwoman #2 (L) and Batman #15 (R)

This narration is paired with close-up panels that shift from clenched teeth to moaning mouths to hands that are forcefully pushed to the ground when they’re not grazing naked flesh. It’s an embarrassing way to reintroduce Batman and Catwoman’s romance in the New 52 continuity, and while a good hate-fuck can be effective in a story, the scene falls flat because there isn’t a firm foundation to their relationship yet. King establishes that foundation in Batman with the “I Am Suicide” arc, delving into why these characters find comfort in each other despite their differences. They are united by their individual trauma, and while the specifics of those experiences aren’t the same, they can both sense the other’s wounded soul. When they do make that physical connection, it is earned.

Catwoman #1 (L) and Batman #14 (R)

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The last image of Batman #14 feels like a deliberate response to the final page of Catwoman #1, a full-page spread of Catwoman sitting in Batman’s lap as she runs her fingers along his abs. Catwoman’s image has the two of them taking up the majority of the space on the page, but Batman zooms out to make the couple a tiny part of a larger image. King and Gerads aren’t interested in the eroticism of this moment, but the romance. The ambiance of the night and the lovers’ surroundings play an important part in that, and the setting is tightly tied to the final moments of Batman #15 as Bruce realizes what Selina has accomplished during their time together.

Gerads did phenomenal work bringing grit and severity to the drama in The Sheriff Of Babylon, but his work on Batman is a major departure in terms of tone and style. The opening sequence of this week’s issue is especially remarkable for the stylistic shifts as Bruce and Selina compare their different accounts of how they first met. Bruce’s version has the look of a Golden Age Batman comic, with simple, clean inks and flat, bright colors that bleed outside the linework. Selina’s interpretation evokes the look of David Mazzucchelli and Richmond Lewis’ textured artwork for Batman: Year One, and these very different visual styles reinforce Bruce’s and Selina’s individual perspectives of their past and how it ties into their present.

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Batman #15 also features the return of a sorely missed DC character: Selina Kyle’s best friend Holly Robinson. Holly played an integral role in the Catwoman series that ran before the New 52 relaunch (Ed Brubaker and Javier Pulido’s three-part “No Easy Way Down” is an extremely powerful exploration of addiction and the challenges of recovery), and she enters DC’s Rebirth continuity with a whole lot of baggage. Holly is responsible for the bombing that Selina Kyle is being blamed for, and even though it means the world considers Catwoman a mass murderer, Selina refuses to let her friend suffer for an act that she considers to be justified. It’s a complex friendship, and it adds another layer to an already multi-faceted issue. King and Gerads set up many compelling plot points in “Rooftops,” and they are all rooted in personal relationships that are begging for more attention in the future.