We’re now a few solid months into Rebirth, the relaunch of DC Comics‘ superhero universe titles. This is not a reboot, but rather a rebranding. Everything that happened in comics last year still happened. We’re still in the “New 52” universe that DC introduced in 2011. But there are changes here and there. The Rebirth relaunch of Batman is not about revising his origin story yet again but instead a new story emphasizing his human, idealistic, and compassionate side, and exploring what it means to be a hero. The first story “I am Gotham,” which just concluded with issue #5, is an excellent tale produced by writer Tom King, artists David Finch, Matt Banning, Danny Miki and Jordie Bellaire, and letterer John Workman. Spoilers follow.
While the relaunched Detective Comics is an ensemble series (and a very good one, by the way), the new Batman series is for folks more interested in seeing the hero’s solo missions rather than when he works with a group. Setting things up, the special Batman Rebirth issue has the Dark Knight bring a new apprentice into the fold: Duke Thomas, a young man who helped Bruce during his first year as Batman (in the story Zero Year) and who has emulated Robin since then (in We Are Robin). The Batman on-going series then relaunched with a new issue #1 a month later and started things off with a commercial airplane about to crash into Gotham City.
As a longtime comic book fan, I found this issue fascinating. Saving a plane full of people from crashing is something normally given to Superman (in fact, it repeatedly happens in his live-action interpretations). Along with that, so many Batman stories or new series will begin with showing how good he is at hurting bad people. An alley fight, an attack on mobsters, a rooftop duel with an assassin. Here, the first thing we see is him leaping into action not to hurt but to rescue.
It’s a lovely reintroduction to the character and there seems to be an intended parallel/subversion of the opening to the famous 1986 story The Dark Knight Returns. In DKR, the first scene shows its version of Bruce Wayne losing control of his race car and crashing, thinking darkly that dying in such a fashion would be “a good death.” He later wonders the same thing while going into battle, implying heavily that the DKR version of Bruce needs the thrill of physical danger to feel alive and would appreciate dying while pushing himself past his limits.
In King’s Batman #1 however, we have a very different use of the same phrase. Bruce is on the plane, reassured that he’s saved everyone on board but convinced he will die in the process. Rather than give a speech about how he has no regrets, he instead asks Alfred, his trusted friend and foster father, “Would they – Mother and father, would they have been proud? Is this a good death?”
It’s a beautiful and touching moment, reminding us of Batman’s humanity even while he does something seemingly superhuman, and showing what impossible standards he holds himself too if he even questions that this noble act might not warrant “a good death” in the eyes of his lost parents. This Batman is more concerned with saving people than hurting them, and when facing his likely end he only wonders if he’s done enough.
But obviously the series doesn’t end with Batman’s death. Instead, he is saved by Gotham and Gotham Girl, two new sibling superheroes whose powers rival Superman’s. I can easily think of a few creative writers who would have taken this premise and turned it into a story of Batman’s distrust for superhumans, resulting in either his acceptance of the two new heroes just before they either die or leave Gotham City so they don’t cramp his style, or with the revelation that they are evil and it was right to distrust them. Instead, Batman challenges Gotham and Gotham Girl to be better and I can’t help but feel like this is a challenge to how recent Warner Bros. films have dealt with Superman.
It is clear in the film Man of Steel that Superman causes a lot of death and destruction while fighting a villain. Fans of the film, as well as its creators, have argued that this is unavoidable collateral damage and should be forgiven to a degree because that version of Clark Kent has never been in a real fight before and acts on instinct rather than considering all the factors of his battle and how his powers can help him minimize the damage. Whether you agree with that or not, the new Batman series seems to address it with Bruce’s reactions to the heroics of Gotham and Gotham Girl. The duo means well but their actions lead to property destruction and lives being endangered. Batman does not accept that the new heroes’ inexperience means that some loss of life and property are simply inevitable. Instead, he remarks: “You’re good. You’re doing good. Do better.” Because innocent people need to be protected. Because when you choose to be a superhero, a first responder to threats that average people cannot handle, you must make sure you’re the best you can be.
Throughout the story, we see other scenes where Gotham and Gotham Girl reflect and subvert situations associated with Superman in comics and films. There is a scene in which an evil person has their neck lethally snapped. “I am Gotham” paints this act as a sign of a person acting in the wrong, even if who they killed seems deserving of such action. The story, and Batman, do not excuse this action.
There’s also a scene that parallels the now famous All-Star Superman page where Clark reaches out to a person about to commit suicide. While Superman says, “You’re much stronger than you think you are,” the would-be hero Gotham starts off in a similar vein but then repeatedly insists, “I can fix this.” It’s an important distinction, one hero helping a person realize their own strength while the other makes it about himself.
Of course, Gotham and Gotham Girl aren’t just stand-ins for Superman and Supergirl. They have their own backstory and origins. Without giving too much away, Batman first encounters Gotham as a child, reaching out to the scared boy with compassion. But Gotham, now a young adult, has made the mistake of looking at the Dark Knight as infallible, rather than a person trying to do their best. It’s a form of hero worship without self-reflection that leads to bad decisions later. Likewise, Gotham Girl parallels this by worshipping her brother and following his steps, not taking the time to consider what she wants for herself or what started her brother on this path.
All of this makes Batman not just a series about beating up criminals and facing unending assembly lines of increasingly generic serial killers. It’s a book about what it means to be a heroic person, one who recognizes the need for compassion and reflection rather than believing they are some god-like being who are obligated to fix everything. Following certain stories such as The Dark Knight Returns and Batman: Year One, some writers starting in the mid-t0-late 90s have portrayed Batman as a dark loner who barely acknowledges a need for help from others, doesn’t trust even his friends and family not to fail him, and believes he is obligated to fix everything by himself. I recall fans in the ’90s referring to this incarnation in comic shops and message boards as “Bat-Dick,” a little too removed from the humanity and compassion apparent in many other stories and brilliantly realized in Batman: The Animated Series.
King’s Batman is a more human hero. He offers compassion and understanding to those who are afraid and asks Duke Thomas for help in the very first issue. He does not hesitate to put out a distress call to the Justice League when he sees a situation that Superman or Wonder Woman might be able to handle better and faster. It’s a great note to start on. Batman asks for help. He needs to. He would already be dead if he were truly a lone wolf who never relied on others and never questioned himself. He wants Gotham and Gotham Girl to realize that they need help too. Having Superman’s powers does not automatically make you a hero.
I highly recommend it the new Batman series and the five-part “I am Gotham” story. The one-shot Batman Rebirth comic is also good but not necessary if you just want to jump into the main story. If you’ve been away from Batman for a while or if you haven’t really delved into comics before, this is a great series for you.
Alan Sizzler Kistler (@SizzlerKistler) is a pop culture historian and the NYT Best Selling author of Doctor Who: A History. He is still thankful to the late Jack Burnley for personally introducing him to the history of Batman.