Batman Annual #3
*EDITOR'S NOTE: Reference away! No murders will occur!*
It's a holiday in Gotham — but not the one you're thinking of — and since when does Alfred get to take a day off?
By becoming a comic-book writer, Tom Taylor absolutely missed his calling: he should have been a psychologist. The successes of his other books (most notably All-New Wolverine, the ridiculously complex Injustice series, and the magnificent, prematurely-cancelled X-Men: Red) have all sprung from the fact that not only does Tom have an almost complete understanding of the mechanics of trauma (seriously. He knows how it works. My husband broke down crying several times while reading All-New Wolverine) he also exhibits an almost clinical knowledge of the steps that people take (or, in the case of his version of Supes, absolutely miss taking) in order to heal.
He knows that, ultimately, compassion (especially the radical act of allowing oneself to have compassion for one’s enemies) is the only thing that can save us from being made into monsters by our pain.
Part of the act of compassion involves making oneself inhabit, for a time, an alien perspective. Compassion makes us live, for a while, with another person’s pain. It makes us want to ease that pain. Every time we read a book, we are practicing an act which we should carry out with us into our daily lives. Few of us do, but that’s hardly the writer’s fault. In this book, Taylor is asking us to inhabit the daily life of Alfred Pennyworth. I don’t need to rehash the history of his relationship with Batman here, or the way that it has changed its focus over the decades, but the currently accepted reading of the relationship between the two men, superhero and butler, is that of a son and his father. In many ways this canonical story mirrors the final issue of Taylor’s run on Injustice. In that series, Alfred still loved Bruce, but he had withdrawn from his life — though he still kept tabs. He was a father who was slightly disappointed in his son, still somewhat proud, but primarily exhausted.
Here, the readers are made to experience the inner life of a man who is still very much parenting his adult child. This is made all the harder, for him, by the fact that both Alfred and Bruce insist on maintaining the fiction that one is in the other’s employ.
In this story, we see which parent lent Bruce his dedication to service, and his unstoppable drive.
We are also given a glimpse into the fact that both men are fighting so hard to right the world, to keep the people they view as ‘innocent’ safe, because otherwise anxiety would eat them alive.
This is a more complex reading of The Bat’s motivations than the usual image of a man who is, secretly, still a child clutching the Dead hands of his parents and screaming into the dark.
Alfred’s compassion for a traumatised boy led him to dedicating his life to protecting that child. His anxiety over the possible death of that child (the phone call that makes him lie awake at three am, waiting for) propels him into facilitating the very risks he would rather prevent.
And as for Batman? He’s not avenging his dead parents — or, perhaps,not just avenging them — he’s walking in the footprints of the father who still lives. And they are difficult to fill.
Of course, compassion, when fused with anxiety, can also be terrible — especially when they are paired with unprocessed trauma. It can lead the person feeling it to committing terrible acts. It is no coincidence that Taylor arranged it so that the villain whose actions detonate this plot becomes a criminal because of his guilt over the horror he unknowingly wrought while working as a drone operator. This hints at a possible dark ending, for Bruce and for Alfred. But that’s the danger that comes from working in the shadows.
It’s a good thing that this issue is leavened with several instances of Taylor’s patented humor. Someone needs to draw an image of Batman, lurking on a gargoyle, slurping chicken soup from a flask.
Speaking of drawing, I cannot close this review without mentioning the art. Otto Schmidt’s pencils are sensitive and delicate when it comes to conveying the expression of the characters while remaining firm and brutal in panels which hinge on the sharp, visceral brutality of violence. Schmidt is an artist that I want to learn more of.
In short, this is a book that every Batman fan, casual or rabidly dedicated, will want to pick up.
One more note, tenuously related: after you finish reading this book, go pick up X-Men: Red. He develops this thesis on the uses and importance of compassion, masterfully, in that series. The run is only eleven issues long, and it is magnificent.
With this issue, Tom Taylor has added another, fascinating, dimension to the Bat-mythos. Parental love, and the function of compassion, are the primary themes. Oh yeah. And Alfred beats up a bunch of baddies while wearing a Halloween mask. That happens, too.
Batman Annual #3: I’m Tempted to Make a Tolstoy Reference, But My Editor Would Kill Me*
Writing - 9/109/10
Storyline - 9/109/10
Art - 9.5/109.5/10
Color - 9/109/10
Cover Art - 8/108/10
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