I usually try to pitch my reviews to a broad audience. I know I’ve got veterans who’ll occasionally throw an eyeball to my ramblings, and I know plenty of newbies who are looking for recommendations and entry points. Besides, limiting your audience spread on a site like this is akin to deciding you’re only going to breathe half of the oxygen you need for the day, or that joining Scientology is a good life choice.
But this time, I feel I need to split focus. Though nowhere near the level of other DC controversies from the past decade, the new Batman series seems to be drawing boatloads of ire nonetheless. A cursory glance at its Goodreads page shows a number of…let’s call them discontented readers, to be charitable. A disproportionate number of the fanbase seem down on the new run by Tom King, now creeping into its third story arc and, according to some of the more vocal critics, showing no signs of becoming good anytime soon.
The thing is, though, I liked I Am Gotham quite a lot. Though everyone is entitled to their own criticisms, and I would certainly not go out of my way to try and Scientology someone into believing something they don’t, I feel a few unfair criticisms need to be specifically addressed. At the same time, I need to convince new folk that King’s story – while not necessarily the best or easiest entry point for the character – is a beginning worth picking up.
With that in mind, this review is a bifurcated one. I’ll speak a bit to the newbies first, then I’ll have a rant at the old guard. Well, I’ll try less to rant and more to persuade some critics to slide off their high horses when it comes to some specific points.
Actually, that does make me sound like I’m trying to Scientology you. Sorry.
FOR THE NEWBIES
Batman’s got a bit of a death wish.
After nearly dying while trying to save a crashing plane, Batman is rescued by new superheroes Gotham and Gotham Girl, a brother and sister with Superman-level abilities who claim they want to help the city they’re named after. Going through something of a depressive phase, Batman takes them on as quasi-sidekicks. Then it turns out they got their superpowers illicitly, then two Batman villains get involved, and it all goes downhill from there.
As entry points go, I Am Gotham is a decent start. It’s by no means the worst, nor does it reach the heights of other first volumes. It’s quite an interesting exploration of Batman’s psychology; we’ve had it suggested for a while that Bruce is depressed and/or suicidal when he puts on the Batsuit, so to see it play out quite literally here was something I don’t think many other writers have done, or at least done well. It’s also intriguing to see the theme of legacy in play here – a theme quite well-worn in the Bat-titles – but by not involving any of the Robins. There’s an initial suggestion that Batman views Gotham and Gotham Girl as his potential successors, seeing as they can fly, shoot lasers from their eyes and have Kryptonian-level strength. After all, there’s only so much a dude with a sweet car and a grappling hook can do against collapsing bridges and suicide blimps (that said, though, I don’t see why Bruce doesn’t offer Superman a retainer sometimes). But that nice little legacy theme takes a hard right into Problemville halfway through the book, when things get a bit juicier. Without spoiling, the ending had a somewhat unpredictable resolution and the suggestion that things were about to get loopier. So consider me on board for that.
I would recommend I Am Gotham to new readers. If they were able to get some of the other first volumes like The Court of Owls or Hush, I’d go for those first, and I’d definitely offer it to those who’ve maybe read a few books but aren’t yet fully immerse in the canon. David Finch does excellent work on illustrations, the script is solid, if at times a little stodgy, and it’s an overall decent beginning to what will hopefully be a great run.
Now, for the rest of you, keep in mind there will some mild spoilers beyond this point.
FOR THE VETERANS
Tom King was never going to be Scott Snyder.
This might be the most obvious thing I could say, particularly since both men have completely different names, faces and social security numbers. It might also be hypocritical for me to talk about dropping expectations in the wake of a beloved run, which is exactly what I railed against for both Rick Remender’s Captain America and Robert Venditti’s Green Lantern. I stand by my criticisms there, but I do acknowledge the folly in slamming a work mainly because it’s not as good as what came before it.
I Am Gotham is not an immediately classic like The Court of Owls was, and it seems unlikely that King and his rotating artists will necessarily shake themselves from the shadow of Snyder and Capullo anytime soon. But openly slagging the book off for that fact alone is in and of itself a lacking criticism. From the moment King was named for the book, I knew it’d be a very different flavour; Snyder’s more into the slightly pulpy character stuff with an ultimately optimistic tone, whilst King’s got a background in grimmer fare which goes to dark places, as in The Vision and Sheriff of Babylon. Not that Snyder’s story wasn’t dark (look no further than stories like The Black Mirror and Endgame), but I feel there was a threshold to his work which prevented it from slipping into something more nihilistic, a threshold King gleefully steps over from issue #1.
The biggest criticism I’ve read is that the book is boring. Really? A little dry here and there, with a couple of things that might pay off later, sure. But boring? If you want a Bat-book guilty of that sin then you should check out Knight Terrors, when David Finch somehow got it into his head that a Playboy bunny could work as a villain.
Part of that alleged boringness is Batman’s ineffectual nature, ceding the floor mainly to the Gotham siblings and fostering their character development. One review I read had some colourful things to say about that turn – synonyms for excrement were employed in that critique – because nobody cared about the Gothams. Well, we don’t care yet, because we’re still getting to know them (though I fully acknowledge that Gotham and Gotham Girl are terrible superhero names). King does a decent job giving each sibling enough character that they’re separate from one another, and by the end of the book it’s quite clear why Batman gave them so much more space in his own book. Part of that is because, for once, we really don’t know what he’s thinking.
What’s most surprising – and, for my money, enjoyable – about I Am Gotham is its immediate moves to alienate the reader from the main character. Though Bruce Wayne isn’t the most open book of a person, what King does here feels like a polar opposite to what Snyder and Capullo did with Court of Owls and its subsequent willingness to explore the more humanising sides of Bruce as a character. From the outset with King, though, both Bruce and Batman are unknowable, or at least not as knowable as supporting characters Alfred, Duke Thomas and the Gothams. We have little to help us work out what’s going on in his head when he nearly flies himself to his death, his mental space coming across as somewhat inscrutable. Even when he introduces the Gothams to Commissioner Gordon, it’s hard to know if he really thinks they can help the city, or if he’s just stringing them along as part of a tough love thing to show them they suck at crimefighting. Things do clear up by the end, but I actually enjoyed having to try and work out where Batman’s head was at, rather than have such motivation handed to me through blatant telegraphing or internal monologues.
The legacy theme I mentioned earlier is part of why Batman takes somewhat of a backseat here. Between his implied suicidal mindset and a few spoilery comments made near the end of the book, it’s clear that Bruce is looking at giving up the cape and cowl, probably via his death. Duke Thomas is already on his way to becoming a more integral part of the Bat-family, and it appears Batman legitimately views the Gothams as the next step forward in the war on crime. In the opening, Bruce gives a speech to Alfred on the inevitable mortality of Batman, noting that even his successors, like Dick Grayson, will eventually die and need replacing themselves. Bruce seems to have accepted that his time is nigh, and that what’s more important is Gotham City’s future – hence the greater focus on the two kids coming after him. It’s certainly a grim note to start on, and if King’s work is any past indication, it’ll only get grimmer.
The Gothams themselves have a somewhat interesting backstory, even though it reads as something which needs to be further unpacked as King’s run unfurls. Hank and Claire Clover make an immediate impression as Gotham and Gotham Girl (though their highly bland costumes need work), with the latter in particular offering potential for some richer character stories down the line. I could easily see these characters as part of the larger Bat-family, kicking ass with Nightwing and Cassandra Cain or battling Joker goons. They may not be the most immediately fleshed-out sidekicks Batman’s ever had, but at least they’re not the pair of flying logs that reviews have accused them of being.
Another albatross hung around I Am Gotham‘s neck is its place in Tom King’s body of work, particularly his prior run on The Vision. The latter was a short, self-contained and tightly-written superhero android domestic drama with a significant Phillip K. Dick/William Gibson flavour. The former is the start of what promises to be a much longer, explorative work which also has to make way for crossovers and franchise responsibilities here and there (see for example the upcoming Night of the Monster Men story). Comparing King’s Batman to his superlative work on The Vision is like comparing Mark Waid’s swashbuckling stint on Daredevil to his shorter, grander magnum opus Kingdom Come; yes, they’re written by the same author, but they’re quite different in terms of tone, themes, setting, characters and motivations. I adored King’s Vision duology, and was still able to enjoy how he got the ball rolling on Batman. Given the presence of some of King’s previous material regarding themes about progeny, the implication is that we might get the same kind of character unpacking for Bats which we got for Vision – it’ll just roll out over a longer period and with different purpose.
Now, despite the preceding 1500-ish words of proselytising, I’m not trying to get those who don’t like it to switch their opinions over; dislike it all you want. I’m also not trying to say the book is a flawless gem found at the bottom of a collapsed coal mine. I Am Gotham does have problems, as the dialogue can be somewhat wooden, a few of the art splashes don’t work, the Gothams’ costumes are fairly bland and their names even worse, and the final issue has a few spoilery issues with its pacing and structure. But it’s an ultimately harmless book. It’s not the herald of Bat-Ragnarok that a lot of reviews are spewing it is, nor is it a sign that Tom King signing an exclusivity deal with DC Comics was a bad idea. What it is a fine, solid start to a hopefully good run, with a novel premise that I hope King and his team see to fruition.
Either that or I’ll be proven completely wrong, and you can feel free to stick me in a pillory.
PUBLISHER: DC COMICS
GENERAL LANE: “[Batman’s] not going to connect this… incident with us. And even if he did, this site isn’t on any books. He can’t find us. And even if – through a miracle – he did, we’re a mile below Gotham. A mile of concrete, steel vauls, and the best security the U.S. can buy or blackmail. I got six Blockbuster-level guys guarding that door alone. The damn Bat-Man isn’t going to touch us.”
AMANDA WALLER: “Lane… the damn Bat-Man is behind you.”