Batman as a character was lighthearted and jovial during the Silver Age, a tone intensified by Adam West’s portrayal in the 1966 Batman TV show. However, through the ’80s and ’90s, Batman became an increasingly dark character, with explorations of the character addressing increasingly “negative” elements of the hero.
A common conception of Batman is that he’s addicted to being Batman, and that he’s an antisocial loner who hurts anyone he brings into his circle. Spend enough time exploring this angle, and one could conclude that Batman is not a hero, but just another villain stalking the streets of Gotham City. It’s a bleak, harsh look at the character that frankly doesn’t lend itself to long-term superhero stories, especially in the greater DC Universe.
Thankfully, the mid-2000s started to turn against this perspective of Batman, beginning with Grant Morrison’s run. Morrison turned Batman into an idea — a system developed to prevent any child from suffering as Bruce Wayne once had. Batman was more than the man, but rather an ideal, this pillar that anyone could strive to become, from an orphaned trapeze artist to a child raised by the League of Assassins. Batman was the light shining in the darkness, with his first truth existing from the very start, “I was never alone.”
This new take on Batman continued through the 2010s, with Scott Snyder giving Bruce the option to give up the cowl — a choice whose conclusion was never in doubt. Batman’s role as a force for good has been proven time and time again, as Gotham has tangibly become a better place for his role in the city.
Tom King’s ongoing run has taken a new approach to look at Batman. While Morrison and Snyder focused on the positive impact that Batman has had on others, King’s run has been far more introspective. Accepting the premise that Batman is good for the world, King began his run asking an equally important question: What makes Bruce Wayne Batman? Throughout the run, there have been many characters giving their own takes on the answer — Gotham Girl says that Batman exists to inspire hope in others, Joker claims that Batman is born of pain and happiness will destroy him, and Catwoman left him at the altar because she believed that he could never be happy. Bruce himself gives several answers of his own volition, including the idea that Batman is a child’s pain over the loss of his parents, or his own way of trying to earn a “good death,” although each time these claims have been refuted. In Batman #74, Batman weighs in, but it’s not Bruce this time. It’s Thomas Wayne, Bruce’s father.
Thomas had made comments about his feelings on Bruce being Batman before in The Button, a crossover with the Flash two years ago that featured Bruce and Thomas’ first meeting after their families were killed. In this crossover, Thomas explicitly tells Bruce to not be Batman and to instead enjoy his life outside of being a superhero, as being Batman will cause him nothing but pain. The conversation between the two today is built upon their prior conversation, as Thomas discusses how he sees Batman and Bruce’s relationship with the mantle. Thomas Wayne’s take on what makes Bruce Batman calls back to the childhood fairy tale that both Bruce and KGBeast were shown to love in issue #57, The Animals in the Pit (by Nikolaevich Afanasyev). The folktale is gruesome, with five animals falling into a pit and eating each other until one is left.
When the folktale was first introduced in issue #57, it was confusing how exactly it fit in — clearly it represented something, but it was still unclear exactly what. Thomas Wayne provided his own answer at last in issue #74: Bruce was obsessed with darkness, and delighted in seeing the horror. Bruce Wayne is an addict, focused to a maddenign degree with morbidity and darkness, and Batman is just his adult self’s way of diving into that darkness. While Martha believed that Bruce was able to see the darkness and the horrors but still dream of a better world, Thomas claims that his son needs Batman to exist, and the only way to break this addiction was to break Bruce.
The idea of a vigilante addicted to their vigilantism is an inherently dark one, and has been explored in the past, notably in Brian Michael Bendis’s Daredevil, where Matt Murdock reacts to a mental breakdown by becoming more and more addicted to being Daredevil. It’s also a take that has been used to look at Batman in the past, in story arcs such as Bruce Wayne: Murderer? and Bruce Wayne: Fugitive. But what makes Thomas’s proclamation in this issue unique is that it’s not made by Bruce’s peers or children. It’s the conclusion that a parent is drawing about his child, coming from a place of love — a messed up, broken kind of love, but love nonetheless.
Bruce, after listening to his father tell him all of this, after descending with Thomas into the pit that could bring his mother back to life, responds emphatically. It wasn’t an obsession with the darkness; he didn’t love looking at the horrors, staring into the macabre. It was far different — Bruce cried for the book every night because of the horrors, because no one escapes. But every time he heard the story, he would hope that it might change. He would hope that this time, someone would escape the pit. Bruce spent every night listening to that story waiting for someone to come out of the pit, because no matter how impossible it was, he couldn’t give up. And upon revealing this, and truly opening up to his father, Bruce punches Thomas to begin a fight that lasts the rest of the issue.
The fight is silent for its first half, overlaid by the story that Bruce and Thomas had discussed. The narration ends as Bruce throws Thomas into Martha’s coffin, which breaks to expose rocks inside. Bruce reveals that he buried his mother in the desert while Thomas slept, ensuring that he would never find her and would never desecrate her memory by trying to bring her back. He only went along with Thomas into the pit because he wasn’t sure at all if he could defeat him in a fight, but knew that he could hurt him enough to keep either of them from escaping. And as Bruce and Thomas tumble further into the pit, fighting endlessly, Bruce revealed the truth of Bruce Wayne: “My mother is dead. My father is dead. And I’m still here.”
The callback to the folktale in this issue serves multiple purposes. Thomas Wayne uses it to explain his own view of Batman as an addiction for Bruce, connecting the darkness that Bruce sees nightly as Batman with the darkness he sought out nightly as a child. Bruce himself draws a direct parallel to it during his fight with Thomas, choosing to trick Thomas into staying inside the pit, even at the cost of his own freedom. Just as the fox was left in the pit all alone, Bruce fought his hardest to prevent Thomas from escaping before ensuring his own safety.
The issue ends with someone climbing out of the pit, as a single gloved hand reaches the ground above. This serves as a contrast to the folktale, as Thomas points out that no one knows if the fox escapes the pit, while this issue makes it clear that someone did.
The most important purpose the folktale served was to explain exactly why Bruce Wayne chose to be Batman. Unlike what Thomas claimed, it was not an addiction to the horrors, or an obsession with the darkness. It was just as Martha Wayne herself claimed — Bruce would look at the darkness and the horrors, and hope and dream that something would change. Batman became the instrument of this change, the vehicle for Bruce’s hopes. The fairy tale is representative of exactly what Batman does every night. The pit is Gotham — everyone inside eats and kills each other, and no one seems able to escape the cycle. Yet every night, Bruce goes into the city, into the darkness, and stares it directly in the face, hoping for a different outcome.
What’s more, what makes this unique look at Bruce so poignant is that it actually works. Batman inspires people to be better from the very beginning. From the start of King’s run, Batman fostered hope and courage by admitting that it’s OK to feel fear. Gotham isn’t an inescapable pit anymore. Gotham is Batman, and Batman is Gotham.
The other major character beat in this issue is the One Truth that Bruce reveals at the end. It’s a motif that has popped up time and time again throughout King’s run, in various forms: “I’m still here.” Bruce first says it to Bane during their fight in “I am Bane,” and it’s repeated more and more leading into this current arc, “The Fall and the Fallen.” It’s a message of resilience, of fighting against any and all opposition, of standing resolute in the face of total annihilation. In short, it’s the three words that sum up what Batman is, and what Batman will always be: Here.
Throughout this run, King has questioned what Batman is to Bruce Wayne. From the very beginning, as Bruce stood on top of an airplane, he delved deep into his origins and motivations. Was it Bruce’s attempt to earn a good death to satisfy his parents? Was it a way to hurt himself and atone for being weak? Was it a childish cry to the heavens, or an obstacle towards Bruce’s happiness? Could Batman ever be happy? As revealed at the start of this arc, everything from the very first issue — all of Bruce’s creeping doubts that had been building, the questions about his own potential for happiness, and near everything that caused him to lose confidence — had been engineered by Bane to systematically take Batman apart mentally.
Being left at the altar in #50 shattered Bruce’s confidence near entirely, causing him to brutalize Mr. Freeze. Whatever shard of man was left broke completely when Dick was shot in #55. “Knightmares,” which was designed to break Bruce even further, allowed him to confront his own fears and begin to compose himself again. This conversation with his father to conclude “The Fall and the Fallen” has allowed Bruce to regain his confidence and composure leading into “City of Bane.”
Through this brutal deconstruction and reconstruction, King has successfully explored a new facet of Batman, one that had not been traversed to this extent ever before. With that, he could make a statement about the iconic character that is as poignant as it is simple: Batman is a being of infinite hope, and he’s still here.