There’s a bit of a tradition with superhero comics. More often than not, if the character is able, they’ll be introduced by saving a crashing plane. This trope goes about as far back as comics themselves, but the idea is universal. An airplane is going to crash. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, will die. The pilots, for whatever reason, are unable to stop this. And just when you think all is lost, the impossible happens.
Superman swoops out of the sky, catches the plane, and lands it safely with no loss of life. He waves, he flies away, and the day is saved. It doesn’t take very long, a page or two perhaps. But Superman isn’t always around, so maybe one of the six (technically five since Kyle Rayner is a White Lantern) Green Lanterns fills the role. Maybe Wonder Woman. Shazam. Superwoman. Apollo. Supergirl.
There are quite a few options, but in that moment, the message is clear:
No ordinary person could ever accomplish such a feat. You need someone with superhuman abilities.
Tom King — former CIA Anti-Terrorism Analyst, recent Harvey Award winner for Most Promising New Talent, New York Times Bestselling Author for a paperback of a cancelled comic, and newest writer of Batman — asks a compelling question right out of the gate for his first arc, entitled “I am Gotham”. So, major spoilers ahead for Batman Rebirth #1-6.
If that same plane flies over Gotham City, who, if anyone, will be there to catch it?
Rebirth is King
The answer is not Batman. Batman can’t catch the plane. He goes down with it. He can’t be that kind of safety net, so to speak. Batman can guide it to a safe landing, but he will die in the process. And he absolutely would have, if not for timely intervention by Gotham City’s newest heroes: Gotham and Gotham Girl, aka Hank and Claire Clover. They’re basically Superman and Supergirl without the freeze breath. Except they’re in Gotham City.
And that can only end in disaster.
After around five years of Scott Snyder running the show on all things Batman, it’s an absolute delight to watch King take the reins on the main title and bring everything that he is to the table. His signature style of almost unnervingly simple repetition in dialogue, each instance conjuring a new meaning, gels wonderfully with Batman.
Coming off the heels of his phenomenal work on Grayson with Tim Seeley, it should serve as no surprise that King’s way of writing Batman is just a bit more towards the Dick Grayson spectrum of “people who were also Batman”.
Dick has always been a more supportive, thoughtful and understanding person. He’s better with people, always has been. So it’s really quite fitting that, for Rebirth (we’ll get to that, but you can probably guess the gist of it), Batman is making a conscious effort to be more like his first adoptive son.
It opens up Batman’s narrative potential exponentially, despite it being a rather small change in behavior.
But that’s not the only thing that’s changed. Greg Capullo, the last primary artist on Batman, is off doing other things, and while his work will forever be cemented in the minds of Batman fans, King couldn’t have asked for a better artistic collaborator than David Finch for the first five issues. Plus his team of inkers — Matt Banning, Danny Miki, Sandra Hope, and Scott Hanna — along with colorist Jordie Bellaire and letterer John Workman.
Finch’s sharp shadows and gritty detailing gives the book a distinct visual style that is very, for lack of a better term, Batman. There’s little favoritism from panel to panel, allowing the story to speak for itself rather than drawing the reader’s eye to the “important” bits.
This mentality starkly contrasts the lighter moments, which only enhances the levity to degrees of honest-to-goodness gut-busting laughter. And, reinforcing the ideals of Rebirth, even in the darkest parts of the story, there exists a layer of hope that always manages to make itself known. Reminding us that, even in Gotham City, nothing is as bleak as it seems to be.
It’s not just the art itself, though. For the most part, King and Finch stick to a simple page layout — slight variations on the Nine-Panel Standard, and sometimes just plain using it — and the book is all the better for it.
This kind of story, despite it being the “opening shot” for a new run on Batman as well as one of the “poster children” for a company-wide soft relaunch, has no need for absurdly complex layouts and double-page spread after double-page spread.
Finch, wisely, keeps it basic.
Unlike, y’know, this:
And that’s one of the simpler examples!
Anyway, that kind of thing, no matter how gorgeous it may be, would only detract from the rather intimate scope of I am Gotham. I’m making a point of this because of the stakes involved for King and Finch. I love King’s work (Vision, The Omega Men, Grayson with Tim Seeley) but he’s still the new guy here. He literally won an award for that, remember? DC is taking a huge risk by giving him the main Batman title from the get-go.
It’s one hell of a responsibility, and tons of pressure, which is why it’s awesome to see that neither King nor Finch were tempted to try way too hard to set themselves apart in the art department. Even though they managed to do it anyway.
And it’s really great, because Finch’s simplicity allows King’s storytelling to shine that much brighter! You only have so many pages to an issue to work with, but Finch is able to give King the chance to focus on character moments that are far too rare these days. Because King is funny. He is very funny, and you need that extra wiggle room for the comedic moments to land. For such a dark and layered narrative, it’s just downright impressive how much humor he manages to squeeze in.
There are all these little inherently ridiculous Batman things, and they’re just…they’re just funny.
What is Batman, beyond just a Man in a Mask?
To address this head on, yes, the title is referring to everyone. I am Gotham isn’t just the new heroes. It’s not just Batman, or Alfred, or Gordon. Gotham City is everyone who calls it home. But it goes so much deeper than that. DC’s Rebirth initiative (which deserves its own article, frankly) is designed to bring their characters, and universe, back to their core. Back to what made them great in the first place, and what continues to make them great.
Restoring a sense of legacy, hope, love and optimism that had been absent from DC Comics since 2011.
So, what is Batman, besides a man in a mask? Besides a symbol, I mean. Talking about the person, not the idea. King could have gone the easy route, and reinforce that Batman is the damn Batman and that’s why he’s Batman, but thankfully he doesn’t. Batman is just a man in a mask, and often that simply isn’t enough. Batman is Bruce Wayne, and Bruce Wayne is…human. The peak of human potential, sure, but at the end of the day, he can’t save everyone like Superman can. He can’t punch an asteroid into pieces or catch planes out of the sky.
…but he can aim them.
Even still, he’s just Batman, and sometimes that’s not enough. Focusing on what Batman can’t do, and what he isn’t, was an inspired choice for King to make, as too often we’re presented with tales of Batman being, well, Batman. Goes without saying. The most sobering thing here, though, is not necessarily that Batman can’t be Superman. It’s that, when he needs that kind of help; his friends won’t always be there.
And let’s be honest, some part of Bruce assumed they’d answer that call every single time. Because if he’s calling for help, they understand the severity. So, what if he had that kind of power in Gotham City, right beside him. Working with him. Not a guest or somebody who moved to town, but a native. Somebody who was born there, raised there, and lives and breathes everything that is Gotham City.
There’s a trope called Superman Stays Out Of Gotham. The basic premise is that superpowered individuals have no place in Gotham City, because they make Batman unnecessary. What use is the man in the mask when you have a demigod hanging around?
King subverts this entirely by having Batman embrace these two new heroes, since again there are things that Batman cannot do and why shouldn’t he at least try to take them under his wing? The amount of good they could do, with the right guidance, would be astounding.
But I am Gotham doesn’t just explore what Batman can’t do. It also delves deep into two of the most important foundations of his entire mythos: Can you save Gotham City, and why do people live there?
And it accomplishes this through the trials of Gotham and Gotham Girl; through Bruce’s failure to save them both.
What is Gotham?
Gotham City is widely regarded to be a character in its own right, and is often considered to be more developed than New York in terms of fictional media. King takes this just short of the literal extreme —he named the new characters Gotham and Gotham Girl, after all — by bringing back a very old supervillain by the name of the Psycho-Pirate and his handler, Hugo Strange. Now, Psycho-Pirate may sound harmless, but he possesses a very unique and terrifying ability.
He can infect anyone, or anything, with an overwhelming sense of emotion. Anger, hatred, fear, love, happiness; anything. And it never goes away unless he cures it himself.
As the Gotham siblings team up with Batman to take down a seemingly random string of suicide bombers, they fall into a trap. The Psycho-Pirate infects Gotham with anger; endless rage that he cannot shake. Gotham Girl is infected with fear, which is presumably even more debilitating than Scarecrow’s fear toxin.
And here lies the key to what Gotham City is. Why all of this pain exists, and why it just keeps perpetuating itself in an endless cycle for many…but not all.
Gotham City is the grand crucible. It beats you up against the wall, day after day, cornering you like an animal, and forces you to make a choice. Go feral, losing yourself in the darkness, or prove that you’re stronger. That you possess the unyielding will to soldier on through even the bloodiest of nights. That you can, and will, become more than you ever believed you could be.
It is transformative, and it stares you dead in the eye, seeing all of your faults and all of your fears; everything that you pray isn’t true. And then it dares you. It dares you to be better. Dares you to try.
That’s always been my favorite interpretation of Gotham City, as it adds so much more weight to the choices of the average citizen, and King takes it a step further by personifying it. Not just the idea, but the trial itself. The entire process by which Gotham City either makes you or shatters you.
Hank Clover, Gotham, is tested in the same way Batman was, all those years ago. He is pushed to the brink of his sanity, and falls over the edge. He slaughters soldiers in anger, and inadvertently causes the murder of his own parents. No matter what he does, no matter how hard he tries, no matter how hard he fights, he believes, completely, that he cannot save Gotham City. That no one can. And no one should. That the only thing he can do, if he can do anything at all, is to make it worse. To burn the whole place down.
He becomes a pure distillation of what Gotham City is on the worst of nights. Chaotic, enraged, cruel and insane. The power he wields is stronger than the entire Justice League combined, as that is just how pervasive Gotham City can be. It adapts. Just like Gotham City, the harder you hit him, the harder he hits back. And just like the Psycho-Pirate, Gotham City can corrupt anyone and anything. But only if you let it happen. Only if you give up and allow it to consume you.
It happened to Two-Face, Scarecrow and Mister Freeze. It happened to Harely Quinn, and Poison Ivy.
It even happened to Renee Montoya.
Gotham City broke them just as it did Hank Clover.
Claire Clover, Gotham Girl, is crippled with fear. She is given the exact same test as Hank. Her parents have been murdered and she can’t shake the Psycho-Pirate’s infection. Forced to the edge, but she does not fall. She does not allow her fear to control her. She pushes through, becoming the best of Gotham City. Bravery, ingenuity, selflessness, and willpower. She chooses to be brave, to fight that fear. To believe, completely, that she can, in that moment, save Gotham City. No matter the personal sacrifice.
Because Gotham City doesn’t just corrupt you. It also emboldens you. Gives you the strength of character to take those risks, those insane leaps of faith. To be better. To become your best self.
Hank and Claire may have gone through the same trial, but only Claire managed to come out the other side. She was tested by the absolute worst Gotham City could ever throw at her — being forced to murder her own brother with her bare hands — and survived. In those final moments, Hank and Claire Clover are the antithesis of one another. Claire becomes an avatar of good, while Hank falls into the dark.
Thus, Gotham Girl kills Gotham to save Gotham City.
Can you save Gotham City?
Gotham City is not just a landmass, or person, or a community. It is, however, man-made. It is a construct. It is an idea, and as I’ve said it is part of all who reside there. But the question remains: can you save Gotham City? And the answer — see, this is funny. It really is, because, if I had to write about this six months ago, I’d have to dig really deep into a different question: should you save Gotham City? And that’s a big one. It’s a really big question.
I mean, Gotham’s hell. It’s the crime capital of the world, but also the leader in basically every form of industry. Medicine, weapons, crazy science stuff, and everything else. The harder you fight for it, the more brutal it pushes back. The stronger Batman gets, the more deadly his enemies become. So, should you save Gotham City, or just get everyone the hell out of there and let the land rot? Again, six months ago, this would require a freaking term paper.
But now, thanks to Rebirth? It’s not nearly as complicated.
No. No, you can’t. You can’t save the city, but only because Gotham City is the only thing that can save itself. Again, the harder you fight to save it, the more violent it becomes. That’s not to say it’s impossible, because it’s not.
I mean we just saw it happen, right above this section. Like, that’s Claire Clover. Saving Gotham City. Proving that you can absolutely do that.
Except it’s not quite that simple. You can’t force Gotham City to save itself.
But you can guide it into a safe landing. Even if it kills you.
This arc isn’t perfect, and by that I mean, the imperfections aren’t overly-personal nitpicking. They are pretty legitimate flaws, if you get my meaning. Still, It’s funny, it’s charming, it’s hopeful, it’s poignant and sometimes downright terrifying. The twist of how Gotham and Gotham Girl’s superpowers work is selflessly insane. A slow suicide for the sake of their city. Waller and Batman butt heads, just like old times, and the levity just keeps popping up when you’d least expect it. Seriously, I didn’t show you the best jokes. Some of them are inspired.
So there’s a ton of great stuff here, and most of it’s fantastic. I mean, it really is. But it’s not perfect. Even more than that, though, is that the imperfections drag I am Gotham down from grasping distance of Scott Snyder’s opening Batman arc, Court of Owls. They’re completely different tales, but it’s unfortunate that these missteps cut King and Finch’s work just shy of equal footing.
Narratively, the biggest issue I am Gotham suffers from is what minimal development we get from Claire Clover, as this is revealed to be her origin story in the final page of the arc. And that’s a really cool idea, to be honest. Focusing on this big, buff manly “Super Everyman” when the real hero was the one in the background. It doesn’t quite land, though, as Gotham Girl is only able to be strong after suffering through extreme trauma, which is a trope that’s been overplayed to death. It’s the same idea as Sigourney Weaver surviving the horrors in Alien, only to become an action hero in Aliens.
Sure, she used Bruce’s advice for herself, when Hank had abandoned it, and that was a touching thing, but watching her murder her brother wasn’t nearly as emotionally engaging as it should have been. Plus there’s this odd narration from Claire in the final two pages, speaking from the future, alluding that she may have “killed” Batman — the longest he’s been actually dead was about four seconds — and how killing her brother was where it all began. Also she’s married to Duke, I guess.
This really wouldn’t have seemed strange if Claire, again, had been given more things to do. If she wasn’t defined almost entirely by her relationship to her brother, which sort of no longer exists. I’ll admit that Batman #6, the one-shot epilogue of this arc that focuses almost entirely on how Gotham Girl deals with her grief, is truly beautiful…but it still doesn’t characterize her nearly enough to retroactively fix the problems above.
That being said, I’m hooked. Problems aside, King’s first step into the greater Batman mythos was a fantastic one, and I’m excited to see where he takes it. I highly recommend picking it up in paperback, once those are published, or digitally. Or physically, if you feel like supporting your local comic book store.
Since, well, the journey is far more interesting than the destination. Even if you know how it ends, that doesn’t make it less great. Especially when it comes to comics. Oh, and to sweeten the deal: this arc is part of a trilogy, and Batman’s next mission is to bring the Psycho-Pirate back to cure Claire.
I am Gotham, I am Suicide and I am Bane.
One down, two to go.
All images courtesy of DC Comics.