Reviews: myth or truth – Batman, Creature of the Night
Batman: Creature of the Night Book One,
Kurt Busiek, John Paul Leon,
“What child wouldn’t want to be Batman, after all?”
This is a bit of an unusual beast, a touch postmodern, a Batman comic about a boy who reads Batman comics… Bruce Wainwright is a young boy in a comfortable, middle-class part of Boston, with well-off parents, and an uncle (his only other blood kin), Alton Frederick, which the young Bruce contracts to “Alfred”, in deference to his favourite superhero. The story is told in two hands, one the fine, copperplate writing of a well-educated person (his uncle), the other a scratchier writing, the style of a child – Bruce writing in his journal (not a diary, that’s “for girls” he tells his mother, it is a journal he declares with that certainty the very young hold on many things). It’s a typically creative and stylish way to distinguish the two narrators here using nothing more than some clever lettering by that distinguished man of letters, Todd Klein.
At first it seems fairly harmless – a young lad who loves reading comics, especially Batman tales, spurred on by the close resemblance of his own name to Bruce Wayne’s, exactly the sort of thing a kid would love, after all. And there are even hints that his parents and uncle are all quite happy with his mini-obsession (which also includes visiting the bat enclosure at the zoo regularly with his uncle). It’s the late 1960s and what little kid doesn’t want to be a superhero when they grow up? Besides, as his uncle notes, the lad’s reading ability has moved on by leaps and bounds due to his voracious comics reading (a nice nod to the real world where we know comics can indeed be a terrific tool for encouraging reading and comprehension).
Naturally on Halloween he wants to dress up as Batman, and enjoys being taken around their old neighbourhood buildings by his parents, the older area with its shadows and historic architecture making it feel almost Gothamesque to his young mind. (Potential spoiler warnings from this point on) Until they return home to find the door broken open, and the burglars still in the apartment. And with a wretched, sickening twist the reader already knows where this is going: young boy, loves Batman tales, he and his parents surprised by violent robbers… Blood, violence and grief ensue, and suddenly young Bruce Wainwright has more in common with the fictional Bruce Wayne than he would ever truly have wanted, and his world is changed forever.
The fact that the reader can anticipate this horrible event, the violent loss of beloved parents, doesn’t lessen the impact at all, in fact it makes it more emotionally heavy, because you know in your gut what is going to happen but there’s no stopping it, no changing it. And like the fictional Bruce Wayne, young Master Wainwright is not only traumatised by the loss of his parents but by a burning anger that it could not only happen, but that those who committed the murder seem to get away with it. “It’s not fair. All of it.It’s just not fair.” Like Wayne he dreams of justice, like many of us as a child (or in times of horrible events, as adults too, if we are honest), he wonders in his despair why there aren’t real superheroes? Why isn’t there a real Batman to protect people from this, or at least to bring dark justice down on those who hurt others? Why? If Batman was read his mum and dad wouldn’t be… And soon this orphaned boy’s grief and imagination will start to combine inwards, leading to strange events, a dark, bat-like shape terrorising the criminals of the city. But is this real or the traumatised imagination of a young boy whose mind has turned in on itself?
This is a compelling read – the feeling of roaring down the train tracks to disaster is strong, and makes the inevitable loss and grief wee Bruce endures all the harder on the reader, and it plays well on the importance of role models and heroes, especially to impressionably young minds, even fictional heroes, but how easily that interest can trip over the line into unhealthy obsession. And we’re left wondering if it is truly obsession we are seeing here, a child’s mind turning inwards, seeking sense and justice in an uncaring world where often the evil-doer goes unpunished? Is this a young, grief-stricken mind trying to make sense of a violent world that has just shaken him to the core? Or is there something else, something out there, something connected to his dark need for justice? It’s not clear yet, it could be real, it could be imaginary, and it is also hard to tell which would be worse.
Leon’s art is suitably brooding in much of this, Gothic in places, even. His glimpses of the supposed Batman are not of a man in a cape and cowl but a creature summoned out of the shadows to punish evil, glowing eyes, claws, an initial appearance, hinted at with four landscape panels and then onto splash pages tinted a lurid red, seen from above the city streets, and a dark, bat-shadow. It is disturbing. Other scenes mixing those reds with dark blues, purple and blacks and the stylised, almost Gothic art all lending the air of a disturbed dream or nightmare, like something from a tale by Poe, the art, to my mind, recalling elements of Kelley Jones’ ethereal Batman in the Elseworld’s Red Rain.
Something a bit more unusual than the regular Batman reading, and yet one that should chime very much with those of us who have been reading the Dark Knight since we were Bruce’s age, and wondered why there were no real superheroes to deal with all the bad things in the world.
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