Each week, Big Issues focuses on a newly released comic book of significance. This week, it’s Batman #44. Written by Scott Snyder (Wytches, American Vampire) and Brian Azzarello (100 Bullets, Wonder Woman) with art by Jock (Wytches, Detective Comics) and colorist Lee Loughridge (Black Canary, Catwoman), this flashback issue delves into the complications of Bruce Wayne’s crime-fighting mission, setting him on the path that leads to his present-day status quo. (This review reveals major plot points.)
After becoming a victim of a random act of violence as a child, Bruce Wayne trained himself to become a master fighter and detective in hopes of saving others from his cruel fate. He puts on a costume and a mask and beats up bad guys as Batman, but is he healing Gotham City or keeping the cycle of violence in motion? This week’s Batman #44 forces Bruce to consider the institutional problems at the root of his city’s crime epidemic, and he ultimately realizes that the true villains are a lot harder to identity than the costumed rogues that are sprouting up across Gotham. As he investigates the death of 15-year-old Peter Duggio, Bruce thinks about the political corruption, gentrification, and unjust police behavior that have created a deadly environment in The Corner, a low-income neighborhood being redeveloped after the city-wide “Zero Year” catastrophe, and it brings a strong political perspective to a standard murder case.
Writer Scott Snyder takes a break from his hugely entertaining “Jim Gordon as mecha-Batman” storyline for this flashback issue, but the story has significant ties to Bruce Wayne’s current role as an employee of a Gotham City recreation center. Bruce died during the conclusion of Snyder’s “Endgame” storyline, and with his inevitable revival came a complete loss of memory, leaving him a completely blank slate. Alfred told Bruce about the death of his parents, but he has no knowledge of his time as Batman, setting him on a very different course. Stripped of his wealth and the responsibility of being Batman, Bruce has committed himself to helping the city’s underprivileged youth on a personal level, and the seeds of that future mission are planted in this week’s flashback to a revelatory investigation for the Dark Knight.
It’s very interesting to see how Action Comics and Batman address similar political issues, with the two series looking at political corruption and police brutality from two very different angles. Action Comics has a more fanciful, metaphorical approach by making government officials and police officers unwilling agents of a supernatural force that feeds on anger, but Batman’s take is much more grounded and challenging. Action Comics takes an easier route that distances these human pawns from their malicious behavior, but Batman doesn’t let anyone off the hook. It fingers corrupt lobbyists, segregated housing laws, trigger-happy cops, selfish developers, and misguided gang members as major players in The Corner’s ongoing problems, and ends with Bruce overwhelmed by helplessness as he struggles to assign blame for Peter’s death.
Brian Azzarello joins Snyder for the scripting of this issue, and Azzarello’s examination of muddy morality in 100 Bullets makes him a great fit for a story about the different socio-political factors that drive people to violence. The issue is more hard-boiled than Snyder’s current work on the series, which has embraced a bombastic, action blockbuster style since Jim Gordon became Batman, but that’s largely due to the artwork by Snyder’s Wytches collaborator Jock and colorist Lee Loughridge. Jock’s scratchy inks and heavy shadows accentuate the gritty, street-level perspective of the script, and his bold composition adds a layer of spectacle to a case that isn’t especially exciting compared to the majority of Batman’s adventures. There are some thrilling fight sequences that showcase Jock’s talent for dynamic action staging, but on the whole, this is a smaller-scale challenge for Bruce that makes him consider the macro issues that contribute to Peter’s death.
Colorist Matt Hollingsworth has done exceptional work giving Jock’s art on Wytches a nasty, putrid quality by covering pages in messy splatters of color, but it does pull attention from the detail in Jock’s intensely evocative inking. Loughridge’s minimalist rendering places the focus on the texture and atmosphere of Jock’s linework, and he’s very selective about where he places color. Shades of gray are the governing palette for the issue, reinforcing the overall theme that Gotham’s problems aren’t as black and white as Batman would like them to be, and this dominant gray makes splashes of color all the more important.
When Batman attacks The Penguin and his goons, bright orange and blue accentuate the action beats. The bodega owned by Peter’s father is colored with a bright yellow that highlights its importance in narrative and foreshadows the fire that will destroy it. The only use of red comes when the unarmed Peter is shot by a cop, establishing that Officer Howler is the person with the most blood on his hands because he fired the shots that fatally wound the victim. There’s a rush of green when the setting shifts to the literal urban jungle of Blossom Row, but Loughridge’s earlier use of the color for a shot of Peter’s ailing father connects green with illness, bringing a sickly quality to the otherwise lush, vibrant environment.
It’s a fitting tonal dynamic for the scene introducing current Batman big bad Mr. Bloom as the person who leads Peter to his doom by giving him a drug that grants him superpowers, setting Peter on a path that ends with the boy sprouting wings and crashing to his death when he tries to escape the city that won’t stop hurting him. That brief moment of liberation is accompanied by a gentle gradient of the morning sky above Gotham, a flicker of optimism that comes with the sun’s rise just before Peter’s fall. That specificity is a big reason why Loughridge is one of the industry’s most sought-after colorists, and DC is taking advantage of his talent to elevate the visuals on books like Black Canary, Catwoman, and Doctor Fate.
Letterers always play an essential part in comic-book storytelling because they put the words on the page, but Deron Bennett has extra responsibility in this issue as the lettering is a key element in depicting Bruce’s train of thought over the course of his investigation. Whenever Bruce thinks about one of the broader problems at play in The Corner, a news item appears behind him elaborating on that specific issue, and all of these clippings are presented in the same font to show that they are being pulled directly from Bruce’s memory. He’s done his research and he knows the history of unfortunate events that spread the blame in multiple directions, but that doesn’t stop him from sticking to the idea that he’ll be able to catch the single person directly responsible. But then there’s the bombshell: Peter tried to reach out to Bruce Wayne during a press conference promoting the development of The Corner’s new Wayne Apartments, and his cries were ignored.
This is a major blow to Bruce that forces him to reconsider his course of action, and that moment of realization is given immense impact by a two-page spread showing Bruce staring out at a cityscape that has all the aforementioned new items superimposed over it. Unlike the previous appearances of these clippings, Bennett’s fonts for each story are now different, adding an element of chaos that reflects Batman’s frustrated, conflicted mindset. He’s done the research, but instead of helping him, it has just made him more lost. Knowing about these systemic issues has made it all the more difficult for Batman to stop villains with confidence that he’s actually solving any problems, so he decides to take a different approach to help The Corner. Bennett’s lettering fully captures this mental whirlwind to add emotional depth to Jock’s striking black-and-white image of Batman overlooking the city, a visual readers have seen many times before, but rarely with this kind of gravitas.
As Batman dives down from a gargoyle to the Gotham streets below, he puts the final pieces of this mystery together, but he can’t pin down the one person he could catch to make things right. That’s when he realizes that the person he should have caught is Peter. It’s hard to identify the villains, but it’s easy to identify the victims, so Bruce stops his manhunt and returns to The Corner and the three boys he saw earlier on the street. The trio immediately makes a run for it, but Batman tells them to wait and talk to him, dropping his usual air of threatening aggression in hopes that he can make some actual change in the lives of these boys.
The issue ends with a close-up shot of Batman’s gloved forefinger pressing against cement, motioning to the boys that he wants them to sit down and tell him about the things that are troubling them and their neighborhood. This simple gesture shows Bruce’s growing interest in community outreach, suggesting that even if he didn’t suffer from complete memory loss, his path would have eventually led him away from the Batcave and to a Gotham City recreation center, where he can provide the assistance and guidance needed to counteract the decades of damage caused by institutional problems that Batman can’t solve by himself. It’s a turning point for the character, and embracing this element of Bruce’s personality in Batman’s present-day events has made him an intriguing hero that doesn’t need to put on a costume to help his city.