Batman #495: “Strange Deadfellows,” Written by Doug Moench, Pencils by Jim Aparo, Colors by Adrienne Roy
Edited by Jordan B. Gorfinkel and Denny O’Neil
By John A. Butz
“It’s not Bruce Wayne…It’s HIM.”
“You…you mean…the Batman? But…how can you be so sure, Bane?”
“I know him intimately now, Bird…he cannot hide from me simply by removing his mask!”
Masks are an important part of the mythos of the comic book superhero. They protect the hero from the villains he or she fights. No one can be on point all the time; eventually the villains will strike and take from our hero everything that truly matters – friends, family, lovers, children, a life separate from the unceasing war on evil. The only way to preserve that life is to hide it, and the person who lives it, behind a mask.
The mask provides freedom, allows the hero to become a different person. Peter Parker, for example, is someone else entirely once he dons the mask of Spiderman and is transformed from an awkward but brilliant young teen into a wise-cracking, high-flying hero. Peter is no less super-powerful in his normal persona than he is as everyone’s Friendly Neighborhood Spiderman, but the mask allows him to take refuge in a different identity for a few hours each night. And like most superheroes, Spiderman is constantly on guard for those who manage to lift the mask and see what lies beneath it.
The majority of superheroes with secret identities follow a similar formula. Sometimes they take up the alternate identity because using their powers literally makes them someone different (like early Thor, trapped in the body of Donald Blake). Other times, their position in society would be damaged were their true identity and powers to be known, impeding their ability to fight crime (like Matt Murdock, who’s fight against injustice would be harmed if he could no longer use what he learned in criminal court to prowl the streets as Daredevil and bring justice to those who escape the workings of the system).
Still others have a public persona that is well known, and yet they wear a mask to become a symbol, an inspiration, something more than merely human (Steve Rodgers takes up the mantel of Captain America, because he is a true patriot who understands the need for symbols and is willing to put his own life on the line to give those symbols meaning).
The astute reader will notice that all of my examples are from the pages of Marvel comics. Given as how this is a column about Batman, you might ask, why am I not discussing the work of the Distinguished Competition?
The two characters most closely identified with DC comics are Superman and Batman. While both characters seem to be the stereotypical examples of the classic secret identity, a deeper look shows that nothing could be farther than the truth. While most of the early DC heroes can be neatly placed in the “has secret identity, will fight crime” box, there is something unique about these two. In each case, the mask is actually the secret identity.
There is a wonderful moment in Kill Bill, Volume 2 wherein Bill explains to the Bride that Clark Kent is the mask, and Superman the real person.
“Superman didn’t become Superman. Superman was born Superman. When Superman wakes up in the morning, he’s Superman. His alter ego is Clark Kent. His outfit with the big red “S”, that’s the blanket he was wrapped in as a baby when the Kents found him. Those are his clothes. What Kent wears – the glasses, the business suit – that’s the costume. That’s the costume Superman wears to blend in with us.”
While there have been other characters since then who are, like Supes, naturally something more than human, the Big Blue Boy Scout was the first of his kind- a hero who was naturally a hero and who had to hide who he was from the world. Superman understands that, as Frank Miller puts it in the Dark Knight Returns, “We must not remind them that giants walk the earth.” So he makes himself small every day, and only becomes who he truly is when someone is in danger.
So, this brings us to Batman and Bruce Wayne, and along the way to a theme of KnightFall, that being “What exactly does it mean to be Batman?” Like Superman, Batman is the real person, and Bruce Wayne is the fiction. Bruce Wayne is the mask behind which the terrible will of Batman sits and waits for the night winds to rise. While Superman always was remarkable, Batman had to become remarkable. Bruce Wayne was eight years old when Batman was born on the dirty sidewalk of a Gotham City alley. It would be another decade or more before the cape and the cowl, the moment of decision, the moment where the terrible will that would drive Bruce to do whatever was necessary to allow him to fight his one-man war on crime would transform completely into the Dark Knight. But the birth began on a dark city street as a man and a woman died while a broken string of pearls fell to the asphalt and a murderer fled from his sin into the darkness, leaving a mere boy to face the unmasked evils of the world.
So it doesn’t matter if Bruce Wayne is wearing the cape and cowl or not, if he is laughing and smiling at a party, sitting in a board room making corporate deals, or smashing thugs in the face on a Gotham rooftop. He is always Batman. Others may try to take the role, as Jean Paul Valley will do soon. Still others may someday inherit the role, as Dick Grayson will in Prodigal, a wonderful series that follows the events of KnightsEnd, the third collection in the KnightFall saga. But no one else will ever truly be Batman.
Batman is the manifestation of the sheer, unmitigated will of an eight-year-old boy, watching his parents die in an alley and trying to force meaning onto the event.
I always thought that the reason the Superman and Batman are always depicted as friends, for all their differences of opinion and philosophy, is that they understand each other in a fundamental way. Batman, with a will to do whatever he must to achieve his dream of justice and vengeance in equal measure, is no more human than The Last Son of Krypton, empowered by the yellow sun of his adopted home world and transformed into something faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, and able to leap tall buildings in a single bound.
The issue of masks is an important part of Strange Deadfellows, the next installment of a three-part story arc in KnightFall. The Aparo/Moench team returns and they are in rare form. Following on the heels of their two excellent capstone pages in Night Terrors, Moench and Aparo finally show that they can write a good Joker, and set the foundation for the team of Chuck Dixon and Graham Nolan to finish off the Firefly arc that they started in City on Fire. For the rest of the KnightFall saga, these two teams will pass the red-hot story back and forth between them, building it up into the final confrontation between a weak and weary Batman and the unstoppable force that is Bane.
Moench is back to writing the fast paced action story that he excels at. He manages to include some scenes focusing on Jean Paul Valley, once known as Azrael, as well as some really good scenes with the Joker and Scarecrow. I finally get the joke, and it is as twisted as the Joker himself. Using Scarecrow’s potent fear gas, the evil duo has Mayor Krol send Gotham’s police force on a wild goose chase that culminates in an explosive trap.
Meanwhile, Bruce Wayne is attending a charity dinner, only to have it interrupted by Poison Ivy. Ivy seeks to use her plant-based pheromone powers to control the rich and wealthy men of Gotham City. Only Bruce Wayne, weakened and exhausted even further after a narrow escape from death at the Firefly’s hand, can stop her.
We meet Jean Paul Valley again, and watch as he ventures out into Gotham’s streets, desiring to prove his worthiness. He mercilessly beats a handful of thugs into unconsciousness, and we once again glimpse the hard edge to this young man, a glittering bright thing that is as dangerous to Jean Paul as it is to those who he opposes.
We also meet Shondra Kinsolving, the doctor and healer who will help Bruce Wayne come back from a crippling injury. Like Bane, she knows Bruce much better than he thinks she does. His deepest secret, the fact that he is Batman, is still hidden from her, but he will often wonder if he should lay his burden down at last and tell her everything.
The story is very tight. Moench manages to combine his talent for action writing with the ability to create good character interactions and layered meaning that has evaded him up until this point. I suspect that he is at the top of his game because he is working with Chuck Dixon. I see them writing frantically, thinking “Ok, try and top THIS!” as their pens flash along the page laying down the latest death-defying deeds of Batman. The competition and the camaraderie of such a situation would allow each man to reach new heights of skill. I don’t know if that is how it happened, but I like to think it is.
Aparo is excellent, except where he is not. His Joker still only has one real expression. His action scenes are great, and I love watching Batman fight his way through Poison Ivy’s plant-zombie-minions or Jean Paul Valley laying some serious hurt on a group of burglars. I love the way he draws Bruce Wayne, freshly washed and clean shaven, in a well pressed suit, hiding his bone-numbing exhaustion behind a ragged mask of good humor that is obviously not fooling anybody.
Aparo is hampered by Roy’s occasional outrageous colors. While her police lights and fire remain wonderful, she continues to makes choices for clothing and interior walls that are just jarring.
Masks are a strong theme in this story. From Bane’s ability to recognize Batman even in the persona of Bruce Wayne, to the Joker whose very face is the mask he presents to the world, to Bane himself, who spends as much time with his distinctive BDSM-style mask on as off. Most obvious is Jean Paul Valley, a man in search of a mask and an identity, conditioned from birth to be something as inhuman in some ways as the Batman. The earliest signs of his distinct insanity begin to show in this episode. They will only get worse once he has the mantle of the Batman sitting on his shoulders.
This story feels like it has serious weight. A lot of important foundational elements are put into play. Though I am not super excited by the use of Poison Ivy, a villain I consider just a little too fantastic to be a good Batman foe, Moench finally nails a Joker that I like. And I really like his Batman, throwing himself into combat even though he has nothing left to give. I like the well-constructed meanings and undertones to this story. It is an excellent bridging episode, stretching events without feeling like filler. It ends on a significant note of failure, with the death of many Gotham City police officers at the hands of the Joker. The KnightFall saga has finally crested the hill and is headed at a breakneck speed towards a conclusion. Nothing can stop it now. It is inevitable.
“But why, Bane? If the Joker can take Batman out, why not?”
“Because he is mine Trog. Mine to Crack. Mine to break.”
There are nine and sixty ways of constructing a Batman story, and every single one of them is right.
Next Time: Riddles, a final fiery conflagration, and the Huntress. Tune in!