Don’t Be Batman – An Analysis of Tom King’s Batman, Issues 21-24

Note: This article will contain spoilers for issues twenty-one through twenty-four of Tom King’s Batman

Welcome to the third part in a series of articles in which I’m taking a deeper look at and breaking down Tom King’s run on Batman from start to finish. King’s work on Batman is a testament to long-form storytelling and due to the nature of his work, focusing on specific issues/arcs per piece allows me more space to cover everything inside the issues in more detail. This piece is the smallest selection of issues I’ve covered so far, with only four, but within these pages are some of the most important events and themes throughout King’s run. With that said, let’s dive into part three of my analysis of Tom King’s Batman.

The Button

Story: Tom King and Joshua Williamson
Pencils & Inks: Jason Fabok
Colors: Brad Anderson
Letters: Clayton Cowles

Comprising of issues 21 & 22 of both Batman and The Flash, “The Button” presented a conundrum for me as to how I wanted to cover it in this analysis. The issues taking place in The Flash title aren’t written by King, but the overall story was plotted by King and Flash writer Joshua Williamson. Because of this I’ll look at the arc as a whole in broad strokes, but dive more deeply into the Batman issues and explore what the implications of this story mean for the run as a whole.

Batman #21 is structurally one of the best comics I’ve ever read. Tom King is joined by Jason Fabok (pencils & inks) and Brad Anderson (colors) on art duties, and the creative team put together an incredible final product. This storyline came out near the beginning of the Rebirth relaunch in DC comics and focuses on Batman and Flash investigating what we know to be the Watchmen button found in the Batcave at the end of the DC Universe: Rebirth one-shot. While fiddling with the button, Batman tosses it onto a table in the Batcave next to the Psycho-Pirate’s mask, where it has a reaction. Batman then sees Flashpoint Batman, Thomas Wayne, as sort of a ghost.

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This obviously startles him, and he calls Barry to come to the cave and investigate with him. Barry is dealing with some criminals and says he’ll be there in one minute, and the clock starts. This is where the structuring of the issue really takes center stage. From here on each panel has a timer at the bottom right, counting down from one minute, one second at a time. Most of the pages are nine-panel grids, except for a few action beats that hit even harder because of the contrast to the nine-panel grid that dominates most of the book.

Right after Batman gets through talking to Barry on comms, a flash of lightning appears behind him, and though Batman thinks it’s Barry, it turns out to be Eobard Thawne, the Reverse-Flash. From here starts one of the best fights in comics. Eobard completely outclasses Bruce in a one on one fight – he has super speed, and Batman gets beat down severely. The timer is used incredibly effectively on one page where Eobard punches Bruce in 4 different panels, all of which show the same second mark at the bottom right, showing just how fast Batman is being beaten. Batman being Batman though, manages to hold his own: though not able to fight back too much, he refuses to stay down.

Eobard ends up coming across the letter that Flashpoint Thomas Wayne gave to Barry to deliver to Bruce at the end of the Flashpoint story. Eobard taunts Bruce and speaks aloud to Thomas (who isn’t there) as he tears up the letter. This, of course, enrages Bruce, who fights back and gets in some brutal shots on Eobard. One of the most impactful moments of the issue comes whenever Eobard says to Bruce that he knows he can’t win, Bruce responds saying, “I know. But I don’t need to win. I just need eleven seconds.” On the panel with the eleven-second timer at the bottom.

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The fight rages a bit longer, and with Barry Allen being who he is, he doesn’t show up on time. The timer stops appearing on the bottom of the panels, but because of the storytelling thus far we’re accustomed to each panel being a second of time. Eobard looks down at the button and picks it up, he’s then teleported away for five panels, and when he comes back, he’s halfway disintegrated, saying he’s seen the face of God. We can infer that this is Doctor Manhattan and this slingshots into the rest of the story arc with Barry and Bruce investigating the button and what could’ve happened to Eobard.

The Flash #21 then sees Batman and Flash investigating the energy being emitted by the button, which leads them to take the cosmic treadmill into the DC timestream, where they eventually crash land in the Batcave of the Flashpoint timeline. This leads into Batman #22 and an incredible issue which features a father and son interaction that many fans, myself included, never thought we’d get to see. We learn that after Barry leaves the Flashpoint timeline in the original story, instead of the world dissolving, something held it in place. Eventually, the Amazons and Atlanteans decided to send forces to take out Thomas Wayne, and he is preparing to die fighting them right when Batman and Flash arrive in the Batcave.

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Bruce and Thomas can’t believe the other is actually there and have so many questions, but for the time being, they must fight to fend off the attacking Amazons and Atlanteans. After the fight, the two have an incredibly heartfelt conversation. Bruce says that after reading Thomas’ letter to him, he knew there was one thing he’d tell his father if he ever got the chance, and that’s that Bruce has a son, that Thomas is a grandfather. While they’re talking Flash is fixing the cosmic treadmill to get them back home, and it starts to power up on its own as the Flashpoint world begins to collapse around them. Bruce pleads for his father to come with them, but Thomas refuses. As Barry holds Bruce back on the cosmic treadmill Thomas gives one of the most emotional speeches in the run, pleading for Bruce to do one thing.

Don’t be Batman. Find happiness. Please. You don’t have to do this. Don’t do it for me. Don’t do it for your mother. Be a father for your son in a way I never could be for you. Let the Batman die with me.

All Thomas wants is for Bruce to be happy and he knows how much pain being Batman brings. He wants Bruce to hang up the cowl and hopes that him telling Bruce it’s okay to do so will lead to it. The following issue of The Flash wraps up the arc with just as much mystery surrounding the button itself as when the story began, but it leads into what is being told now in Geoff Johns Doomsday Clock.

The Button did a few key things for King’s work on Batman. It introduced Thomas Wayne, who goes on to be one of the biggest players in the story in later issues, and it establishes Thomas’ motivation. He wants Bruce to stop being Batman and will do anything to make it happen. We’ve also learned very recently via Tom King on Twitter that there will be more revelations about The Button related story threads in Batman #84, the penultimate issue of King’s run. This highlights again just how much King is playing the long game with this narrative.

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The other major standout in this arc has to be the art from Fabok and Anderson. The two are some of the best in the industry in their respective fields and the pages in both of these Batman issues are flawless. Everything has such a polished and precise comic book feel to it that it’s a marvel to look at. The characters are drawn perfectly, emotion is shown in spades, and the colors draw phenomenal contrast in just the right areas. It’s so easy to spend hours admiring just the art alone.

The Brave and The Mold

Story: Tom King
Art: Mitch Gerads
Letters: Clayton Cowles

For this one-shot tale featuring Swamp Thing, Tom King is joined by longtime collaborator Mitch Gerads. While this issue might seem the most out of place in the overall narrative King has built it’s still a great issue and explores an important aspect of Batman’s psychology, the trauma that losing a parent causes.

This issue is also the most “Tom King and Mitch Gerads” style issue in the series, which is kind of hard to explain, but if you’ve read a lot of their collaborative work before it makes sense. King and Gerads use “Chapter” panels throughout the issue to distinguish different scenes, which adds levity and a break in pace to each scene. It also serves to draw your attention to specific lines of dialogue or events in any given scene, making those moments more impactful.

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The issue opens with a man singing an old song and promptly being shot in the head, twice. We later learn that the man was Alec Holland’s (Swamp Thing) father, which is why the creature of the green gets involved. The issue then follows Batman and Swamp Thing as they investigate the murder and hunt down the killer. There are a lot of comedic moments shared between the two, born out of the sheer weirdness of characters like Swamp Thing and Batman spending time together, and the nature of both of their personalities.

On the flip side of this comedy though is the exploration of how the loss of Alec’s father is affecting him. Bruce asks Alec why he’s here (at Wayne Manor) near the beginning of the issue, to which Alec responds saying he doesn’t know, and that that’s why he’s there. He’s in a state of shock due to his loss and doesn’t quite know what to do with himself, so he seeks out help from someone who has experienced a similar loss.

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Bruce comments that Alec doesn’t seem upset though and that the loss of one’s parents can be disheartening. Alec then gives a speech about how life is a cycle and is constant change. Alluding to the idea that Alec has more or less come to terms with the loss of his father. The two then spend the issue tracking down the killer and eventually find him in a museum. The killer is staring at a painting and tells the story behind it, that the artist was on a ship and saw a storm coming, his death blowing in, and the artist thought, “I can paint that.” This is a remarkable bit of foreshadowing given that Batman and Swamp Thing have just arrived to confront the killer, and what takes place just two pages later. After the killer explains why he killed Alec’s father, simply for being the father of a superhero, Alec kills him.

Batman is naturally enraged by this, yelling at Alec that Batman helped him, and Alec just turned around and killed him. He screams asking what happened to life begetting life, and that everything changes. Alec responds that his father used to sing to him when he was scared as a boy and that Alec never opened the letters his father sent him. He says that Batman wouldn’t understand. “Your father? I don’t understand?! WHO DO YOU THINK I AM?” Batman yells, and Alec realizes that Batman is the reason he’s there, and now that he knows this, he doesn’t need to be there anymore. He dissolves into leaves, leaving Batman alone screaming that he’s a coward.

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This issue may seem like it doesn’t do much, but it does a significant amount for character study. We get to see how someone other than Batman handles the loss of their parent, and how Batman reacts to what they do. It provides levity, drama, horror, and action before one of the biggest issues in the series. And it also showcases top tier art from Mitch Gerads along the way. I’m a huge fan of Mitch and the nuance that he brings to his work and this issue is no different. His style and color palette are so unique that it’s always refreshing to see.

Every Epilogue Is A Prelude

Story: Tom King
Pencils: David Finch, Clay Mann with Seth Mann
Inks: Danny Miki, Clay Mann with Seth Mann
Colors: Jordie Bellaire
Letters: Deron Bennett

If you had to pick the most game-changing issues of King’s run (so far), #24 and #50 have to be at the top of the list. This issue is the famous proposal issue and it completely changed the direction of the run. Until this point, we’d seen the BatCat relationship in a flirtatious and wistful manner, but this issue made things real. The narrative is divided between two different timeframes, with separate artists rendering each time, giving a distinct visual cue as to when each page takes place. Clay and Seth Mann handle art for the day setting, while David Finch handles art for the night setting.

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During the day Batman is on top of a giant radio tower, overlooking Gotham, with Gotham Girl flying around him. Gotham Girl is asking him questions about what he does, whether he likes doing what he does, and what she should do. Batman’s responses are extremely telling of his emotional state. Claire (Gotham Girl) asks Batman if he likes his life, to which he says it doesn’t matter what he likes.

Well, do you like being the kind of person who says things like… ‘It doesn’t matter what I like.’?

Batman admits that he does all of this, the cape and the cowl, everything, and he doesn’t think he can stop. He’s not happy, but he does this to try to be happy, and he fails. At the start of the issue, Claire asked him why he doesn’t fly, Batman eventually answers that he doesn’t fly because he doesn’t need to, and that life is too short to do things that you don’t need to do. Claire asks him why he can’t be happy, and he says it’s because he’s scared. After everything he’s seen, if he’s not scared then he’s insane, and he doesn’t want to be insane so he must be scared. Claire then throws one of Batman’s best lines in the run back at him.

Everybody gets scared. But that, just, like, means everyone gets the opportunity to… we get to fight that fear. We have the chance to be brave.

Batman and Claire’s conversation is broken up by pages of the night setting, which sees Batman chasing Catwoman across the rooftops. It’s a silent chase, with the narration boxes of Batman and Claire’s conversation being the only dialogue on the page. It finally ends with Batman catching up to Catwoman as the narration boxes show Claire telling Bruce that for once, it’s not about what he wants to do, but rather what he needs to.

On a rooftop, Batman confronts Catwoman and recalls when they first met on the boat (it was the street, she argues). He says he kept the diamond that she stole because even in the beginning he knew that he’d need it. Batman pulls her close, tells her that he needs her and that he loves her, and then he proposes. The issue ends on the stunning shot of Batman on one knee, ring in hand, bat signal behind them, in the pouring rain.

marry me

This issue does so much for both Batman and Catwoman. It’s an incredible meditation on Batman’s mental state, that he feels like he has to keep being Batman because that’s just who he is. Finally, though he realizes that maybe it’s okay for him to want to be something more, to feel something more than pain and despair. He realizes it’s okay to love and let someone in, and he takes the biggest step he can to do that. This cliffhanger changes the course of this run because now things are wholly about the relationship between Batman and Catwoman being explored in a way it never has been before. They’re past the playful flirting and the will they/won’t they narrative. Batman has committed, but things aren’t going to be a smooth ride.

The art in this issue is top-notch, which is constant throughout King’s run. Clay and Seth Mann bring together striking pages of Batman in the daytime, with Bellaire’s colors shining on Batman in the daylight like we haven’t seen before. Clay’s Batman is one of my favorite renditions of the character and his work here is excellent. Then we have Batman icon David Finch drawing the most pivotal moment in BatCat history at the time. The chase to the proposal through the rain is stunning and there’s an incredible amount of detail in every panel. Bellaire’s cool blues wash over the pages in a calming way and pull everything together.

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While “Rooftops” and “I Am Bane” explored the dynamic between Batman, Bane, and Catwoman in spectacular ways, the four issues that span “The Button”, “The Brave and The Mold”, and “Every Epilogue Is A Prelude” serve to introduce other key elements in King’s run. These issues work as fantastic visual and narrative explorations of various elements of what makes Batman himself up to this point and puts a lens on what he could be if he chose to be different. There’s an incredible amount of storytelling and pieces being put into place in such a small amount of issues that I can’t help but be awed. Things only escalate from here as the story takes a turn into a fully-fledged exploration of what Batman and Catwoman’s relationship can be.