In the last issue of Batman, Bruce Wayne lost his faith in Bat-God. And although that doesn’t make him an atheist, it’s about as close as we’re gonna get to Batman losing his soul. “I’m lost,” Batman tells Alfred on the final page of Batman #53. “I need to remember who I am.” And who better to help Batman remember himself than the original Boy Wonder turned Nightwing, Dick Grayson?
In my first impression tweet of Batman #54 I said, “We all thought Batman Annual #2 would be the most sentimental Tom King issue we’d ever read. [We were] wrong.” Yes, somehow, King has managed to outdo himself; this is an issue of Batman that, much like Batman Annual #2, will have you in your feelings as it adroitly examines the relationship between Bruce Wayne and Dick Grayson from the moment the Flying Graysons took their tragic last flight at Haley’s Circus to the present day.
If you’ve been closely following King’s Batman run, you know a narrative device he makes poignant use of is the flashback — which is exemplified to perhaps its finest degree in Batman #54. In Batman #14 (“Rooftops”), Batman Annual #2 and Batman #44, King utilized flashbacks of how Batman and Catwoman first met and their crucial encounters throughout the years to accentuate the intensity of their bond; in the “I Am Suicide” arc he used flashbacks to compare and contrast Batman and Bane’s similar but ultimately divergent circumstances; in Batman #54, “The Better Man,” flashbacks from Dick Grayson’s upbringing in Wayne Manor are linked to slice-of-life-scenes in the present day with utmost precision (credit to the art team as well, but more on that later). By the time you’re done, the giant penny in the Bat-Cave, a bag of potato chips, cucumber sandwiches, and even Crazy Quilt will have taken on profound new meaning in Batman mythos.
What’s most impressive about the flashbacks in the issue however, besides the fact they’re polished blends of humor, pathos and sentiment — is how indicative of a role reversal they are. In the flashbacks, Dick is the obstreperous child who wants nothing to do with his life in Wayne Manor and Bruce is the patient, committed father figure. In the present day, it’s clear that Bruce’s paternal diligence has paid off — Dick has grown up into the lighthearted, nonchalant joke-cracker there for Bruce in his time of need. Life has come full circle.
“You’re going through it. Lots of people have gone through it. I’ve gone through it. We can talk about it,” Nightwing says of Batman’s recent relationship woes as he and the Dark Knight battle Condiment King among teetering grocery store aisles of ketchup bottles, mayo jars and BBQ sauce containers. Later, a comical scene in the Bat-Cave involving Nightwing’s signature Eskrima stick turns touching when Batman nearly breaks down during a fit of laughter.
“I can’t… why can’t I… damn it!” Batman says, clutching his cowled face, teeth gritted.
“Bruce, man. It’s cool,” Dick says, hand on Batman’s shoulder. “I know you’re fine. Just know I’m here if you don’t want to be fine.”
Batman is oftentimes idealized as the perfect loner but yet again King has managed to peel back the layers and show us that’s not true. More proof that one of King’s greatest strengths in this run has been humanizing Batman while at the same time staying true to the character’s core. Batman’s former bride-to-be Catwoman was a foil to Batman in the sense that she made him happy; in the sense that she could be brutally honest with him, scrutinize him and make him better. Grayson too is a foil to Batman. He is one of the few people who can whittle away at the man’s glacial, stoic demeanor with a gesture as simple as offering him a bowl full of potato chips while they watch the big Gotham Knights football game on TV together. Dick is the only dude that can get Bruce to kick back and chill, you might say.
Of course, a comic narrative can only be as sentimental as the art team allows. Luckily, Matt Wagner (art) and Tomeu Morey (colors) combine for the perfect complement to King’s script; from the first page’s vintage, crinkle-edged “Flying Graysons” poster depicting the trapeze artist family in their glory days to Crazy Quilt’s iridescent “quilt of colors” leaping from the page to Nightwing’s eskrima stick trick — Wagner and Morey deliver. The flashback scenes transition seamlessly because of Wagner’s impeccable panel structure and side-by-side scene shifts and the emotion present in every facial expression is nothing short of impressive. In contrast to last arc’s dark, gritty art by Lee Weeks, Wagner’s lines are simpler and more cartoony — but completely fit the more lighthearted tone that Grayson brings to the table.
All in all, Batman #54 is an engaging, emotional ride from start to finish. Much like Grayson himself, this issue, especially after last arc’s melancholy, is like best friend that comes to kick it with you after a bad break-up to cheer you up — one to be grateful for.