Batman remains my favorite character in comics much the same way the sonnet remains my favorite form in poetry: I know what to expect, what the conventions are, and I like to see an author play artistically with those expectations to produce a mixture of familiarity and surprise. Today’s review focuses on a Batman story I read recently that does both of these things by building off the familiar initial murder that shaped Bruce Wayne and offering a new look at his shifting philosophic view as it was influenced as a young man by his memories of his father’s words and by his professors at his boarding school. The comic has an intertwined textual and visual depth that is appropriate for its weighty subject matter and only through multiple readings can the comic be fully appreciated.
The story is told in single issue of the ongoing Batman monthly title The Dark Knight and is entitled, “Chill in the Air,” a title with a double meaning that I can’t explain without giving away spoilers. This current series is not one I’ve enjoyed at all this past year, but I took the time to read the #0 issue because it offers an origin story for Batman. Basically, DC rebooted all their titles in 2011 and started over with issue #1; now, a year later and 12 issues into each title, they’ve issued #0 issues as origin stories to try to invite new readers to subscribe to titles they haven’t been reading. The next issues will pick up with #13. I am a sucker for origin stories, as are most comic book fans, so this attempt on DC’s part is a clever one. I have no complaints if it leads to titles like “Chill in the Air.”
Given that one of the best Batman comics ever written is an origin story — Frank Miller’s Batman: Year One — Gregg Hurwitz, the writer of this more recent origin story, made a smart move: Other than on the cover, we never see Batman. We are led to wonder if we are being given the origin of something else: A way of looking at life, a philosophy perhaps. Or even the origin of the man behind the mask: Bruce Wayne. Even the initial narrative of the first page is vague: “We know where it starts,” we are told in the first panel, which shows the edge of an alley next to a theater where the Wayne parents are being murdered off-panel. We see only the words, “BLAM! BLAM!” which act as cues to the events most people know: Bruce Wayne’s parents were shot and died in an alley while young Bruce stood and watched. And we know by the third panel, because of the use of “my” in the context of the narration, that the narrator is Bruce. In the fourth panel of that first page, he says again with vague pronoun references, “We know where it starts . . . / . . . but do we know where it ends?” Given the philosophical depth of the comic combined with the fact that this comic ends when Bruce is 18 and not when he becomes Batman, I would argue that there’s the possibility the author wants us to think carefully about this “it.” Since the comic ends and we don’t see Bruce becoming Batman, we are led to believe the “it” that is the ending isn’t Batman, or at least not exactly. That would mean the “it” that is starting is not the origin of Batman either, or at least not exactly. I don’t mean to be vague in saying “at least not exactly.” I think the author is purposefully vague so that we think a little more about Bruce than we do about Batman. Still, I won’t offer any concrete answers in this review, but I’d like the inquisitive reader to not just bypass what might be a simplistic reference in another Batman comic.
So what makes me look closely at a vague pronoun reference in a monthly Batman comic I haven’t even liked this past year? The writing throughout seems to invite the reader to be philosophical: the writer certainly is. Young Bruce goes on a philosophic journey as he enrolls in Roxbury Fielding Academy (and boarding school) for his high school years. With this setting, the comic presents a coming-of-age story in the tradition of the Bildungsroman as we watch Bruce learn from his early academic mentors. We see him sitting in class with a professor pointing to a still image of Kennedy in the caravan right before he is shot: Here is Bruce already interested in crimes and conspiracies. A lone shooter for Kennedy? What about a lone shooter of the Wayne couple? Or was there somebody or some group behind these men? Or as Bruce says in the narrative: “Someone was behind that gun . . . / . . . and someone was behind the man who was behind that gun.” Bruce follows his father philosophically in trying to answer these questions: “My father believed the search for meaning sets us apart from animals.” And this comic is about Bruce’s search for meaning in the face of the chaos and potential meaninglessness murder often seems to imply. Bruce seeks an answer to the old, straight-forward question that has plagued many of us: “Why do bad things happened to good people?”
This comic is not just about Bruce’s search for meaning; it’s also the author’s attempt to see the character of Batman, first created in 1939, as a uniquely American character in line with the writing of representative American literary figures: In other words, this comic makes a small, but I believe reasonable, argument that the Batman mythos fits into the tradition of canonical American literary imagination. He does so by placing Batman’s character next to Poe’s philosophy in opposition to Emerson’s more optimistic one. In only two panels, Hurwitz makes this positioning clear: A teenage Bruce sits in an English class with a young professor lecturing about Emerson in the first panel, and the professor explains, “Emerson’s belief that if you looked into your private heart, you saw beauty and light — the pattern of the natural world.” This philosophy sounds like Superman’s, who is the exact opposite of Batman, who, as the DARK Knight, seems to agree more with Poe’s philosophy as described by the professor in the comic: “And Poe of course inverted this myth of America, claiming that when he looked into his heart, he saw instead chaos and darkness.” These panels are perhaps the best examples of the philosophic nature of this comic, but they serve to cue the attentive reader to go back and read the entire comic with a more philosophic mindset, realizing that the author was carefully constructing a comic with multiple layers. Though I love comics that offer just great plot-driven fun, this more contemplative comic certainly deserves attention and close reading.
The artwork, too, operates on multiple levels, showing the artist’s desire to mirror the depth of the writing. I’ve already mentioned the Kennedy reference which is solely visual but mirrors Bruce’s quest to find out if there really was just a lone gunman. A few of my other favorite images are the use of pearls from Martha Wayne’s necklace seen landing in the alleyway shown in the second panel. They splash into puddles and young Bruce’s face can be seen reflected in the largest puddle. The pearls become rain in the second panel during the funeral scene, and whenever rain is shown throughout the rest of the issue, it is always in the image of pearls, except on the last page of the comic. The last page follows the crisis point of the story, a crisis I can’t reveal without giving away spoilers, and at the top of this last page, the rain falls as pearls again in the first panel. In the second and third panels, however, the pearls give way to more realistic rain that shows young Bruce leaning against a building with a picture of a typical clown painted on the wall. This more realistic rain causes the picture of the clown to smear and drip down the wall, distorting the laughing clown into a more familiar figure from the Batman mythos. Once again, I won’t offer any of my own conclusions: I merely want to point out that the rain no longer looks like pearls at the very same moment the two images of the clown/joker appear. I would love to see interpretations in the comments below of this visual change.
The comic ends with a plane, with Bruce on it, flying out of Gotham. If you look closely, you can see the destination of that flight in the airport signs. We know that Bruce Wayne went on to get more training from various masters around the world. I highly recommend another #0 comic, also by Greg Hurwitz, which clearly is meant to be read after “Chill in the Air.” Batman: Detective Comics (2011-) #0: “The Final Lesson” tells the story of Bruce’s final stop on his long journey after he left Gotham. This story is almost is good as “Chill in the Air,” and some people may like it even better. And of course, if you’ve never read Frank Miller’s Batman: Year One and you are just getting into comics, read these two #0 individual issues first even though they are newer. They make a great entry into Miller’s comic which begins with Bruce Wayne in a plane flying back to Gotham after his travels.
Regarding “Chill in the Air,” I could go on and on in this review pointing out key images and philosophical and psychological subtleties offered by the writer and artists working on this comic, but I think I’ve met my goal: I want to encourage you not only to seek out this single issue, but also to read it carefully multiple times. It satisfies on many levels, even making several references — one textual and one visual — to Scott Snyder’s current, and brilliant, run on the main Batman title about The Court of Owls. You can track down “Chill in the Air” at your local comic book store, on ebay, or perhaps best yet, read it today on Comixology!