From The New 52 to Rebirth: Examining Batman’s Humanity

If there is one thing, I think everyone in comic fandom can agree on it is that Batman is a popular character. He is by far one of the most beloved characters in the DC roster of characters based on the dozens of films, TV, shows and video games he’s starred in. Why do people love him though? In my opinion, I think there’s two reasons, two schools of thought that exist when discussing this character. Everyone falls into one of them. One school of thought argues that it is his humanity. He is someone that we’ve seen fall to great lows with iconic events like Batman: Venom or Knightfall. He never stays down though. He does get back up, which makes him relatable to a lot of us. The other focuses more on the idea that Bruce is all powerful and can take on anything. This is a human being with no powers that is capability of standing side by with literal gods and also be able to take them. In a way it can be seen as an argument for humanity’s potential to be bigger and better. They are conflicting answers to an important question. For writer Tom King, it was important to address both those viewpoints as other writers portrayed them and what conclusion he has made in his efforts.

For King, he felt it was best to humanize Batman and shine a light on him that we seldom see. A light where he isn’t always some indestructible man. However, before we can dive into King’s humanization of Batman, we have to first remember what came before him during the New 52. During that era, there were plenty of writers who helmed the character, but none did more to define the New 52 iteration for readers than Scott Snyder and Geoff Johns. In some ways, they helped set the stage for Tom King by reinforcing the character’s mysticism. Scott Snyder’s run on Batman continuously teased a magical element with The Joker that climaxed with both of them coming face-to-face for one final battle that saw them die and then come back to life. More importantly, his run heavily emphasized Gotham’s history and its dark otherworldly past which was best highlighted during Batman Eternal, Night of the Owls, and Court of Owls. This created for an environment that would harbor all sorts of mystical secrets that had been boiling beneath the surface.

For Justice League, Geoff Johns would take a more upfront approach to this mysticism by making him a literal god. During Johns’ Darkseid War storyline, Bruce was able to become the god of knowledge after gaining access to Metron’s Mobius Chair. For readers, this was a meta plot element for how they may have perceived him up to that point and always have. He demonstrates this godlike knowledge to identify all possible future outcomes and prepare for them before they could even happen, which leads him to ask the one burning question that has haunted him for years: “Who is The Joker?” The response is something that has yet to be shared, but it clearly surprised Batman, who is known for rarely ever being surprised and is prepared for anything.

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BATMAN’S LIMITATIONS

After seeing Batman ascend to godhood and come back to life, Tom King saw an opportunity to restore the character back to basics and embrace his human roots. This would not be the man who could challenge the gods, but rather stand arm-in-arm with them because of his humanity and courage. In King’s Batman #1, he does a brilliant job of throwing a seemingly impossible challenge at Bruce by having him confront something that a normal human couldn’t just stop. When a passenger plane is shot down over Gotham, he quickly moves to save the day and minimize casualties the best he can. He does this by getting on to the roof of the plane and changing its course for Gotham Bay, which he does successfully. Nobody has really died. More importantly though accomplished this daunting task without the support of the Justice League, whose help he did request as he was trying to navigate through what was about to become a major tragedy in Gotham.  He did it while both him and Alfred acknowledged that even if he saved the plane by doing something no normal man could do it, he shouldn’t have survived that landing. That’s what makes this moment so outstanding. If Superman were to do this, it wouldn’t really be special for obvious reasons, but to see an ordinary man with no powers do it is inspiring. Particularly when his own life is at risk while Superman would be able to just pull it off with one hand behind his back. The moment is superhuman in nature, but it doesn’t disregard Bruce’s mortality. What Superman can do every day and live to tell the tale is inverse for him. There will always be that possibility that one day he could make a misstep and die. That’s the reality he faces every night in Gotham.

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Luckily, he did not accomplish this heroic act on his own. He was soon after saved by two proxies for Superman called Gotham and Gotham Girl who had a unique twist to them. These were characters who were inspired by Batman after he saved their parents from being shot in alleyway. Yes, it is a bit on the nose and a reference to the very tragedy that inspired this character but inspiring the people of Gotham to take action and protect their city has always been a narrative mainstay in a lot of Batman stories such as The Dark Knight Returns. In a way, they also inspire him and this superpowered duo isn’t any different. Almost immediately Bruce sees them as the heroes that Gotham deserves and will need should much bigger crises like the plane crash happen again. He recognizes the alternative of not having them around. He recognizes that upon his death Nightwing would take the mantle and then die and then Damian who likewise would die. It would give way to a vicious cycle that would likely never cease. From Bruce’s point of view, it is necessary for Batman to exist as a persistent guardian who would have to sacrifice his own sons. That frightens him and it’s something he wants to avoid after the ordeal he had endured with Jason years ago. Sadly, he wasn’t successful at this with Gotham being probed by Psycho Pirate who unleashes him on the city. This leads Bruce to call upon the Justice League for help, which isn’t exactly the norm. For years, fans and writers have argued that Batman has never needed the League’s help. If anything, the belief is more that they need him, but King doesn’t agree with that. By having Bruce request the League’s back-up, he is providing a rebuttal for this attitude. He lets the character be humble by having him continuously acknowledge his limitations, his humanity. Something that he in one way or another has always had.

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After beating the Justice League, we have a final stand-off between Batman and Gotham. It’s the second most important moment in King’s run that defines it and what he has strived to accomplish with the character. In any other comic by any other writer we usually see Batman follow the classic trope of asserting his superiority over the Leaguers that were defeated by Gotham by whipping something out of belt. That’s the typical solution, but not one that King has Batman do. That is something I have to commend as a strong subscriber to the belief that Batman’s humanity is his superpower. A superpower that he shows right in front of Gotham by inviting him to try and kill him. That’s who he sees himself as. He is the living, breathing, and physical representation of Gotham City and its hope and if you want to destroy that then you’ll have to through him. It was a reiteration of his commitment to saving his city even if it means dying to protect it while also acknowledging that he is just a man and men have limits. He can’t do everything on his own and he never has. He needs the Justice League because some threats are just far too big for him to physically comprehend and face by himself. He won’t always have plan at every moment either and on the day he doesn’t he knows that will be the day he dies.

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Conclusion: BATMAN’S HUMANITY IS HIS SUPERPOWER

As I wrap this up, I can’t help but think that Tom King has a profound and in-depth appreciation and understanding of who Batman is as a character. He understands that Batman is not just some superhero. He is a hero that a lot of people can see themselves. He understands his limitations and sacrifices like the heroes that exist in real life. From policemen, firefighters, soldiers and many other people who protect and serve us on a daily basis. Yes, you could say Batman is a little over the top and suicidal here, but it makes sense. What would you call a US Army paratrooper who jumps out of a plane to defend us from terrorists? What about a police officer who storms into a bank when it’s being robbed? What about the firefighters who charge into your apartment when it is burning down? That’s something they do every day. That is something Bruce does every time he puts on the cowl, which we see here as he almost dies twice in the first arc. We see that he is mortal like soldiers, police, and firefighters. Him being on the precipice of death isn’t going to make him weak though or a lesser hero compared to his counterparts in the League. At best, it just shows how Batman is a hero because he’s willing to live on that precipice every day and every night. It’s a sobering lesson for readers and a way to encourage them to consider some of the sacrifices people are currently making for us right now every day. It’s not something we always appreciate because we’re so absorbed into other things.

In conclusion, Tom King didn’t make Batman a superhero. He made him a hero by showing that powers do not define someone. He may not have super speed, flight, a Lantern ring, or anything like the rest of the Justice League. He is just a mere man who dreams of making Gotham City a better place instead of it staying the city that took his parents from him and created someone like Gotham. It’s a vision that he is ready to guard and die believing in. That’s the power of King’s Batman run and it hasn’t changed in later issues. It’s why I think his run will go down in history as one of the strongest runs in the character’s 80 years.

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