Doomsday Clock #7, or, That Sinking Feeling

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“Chaaaaaaapstick…”

At long last, on the outset of the back half of Geoff Johns and Gary Frank’s Doomsday Clock, Doctor Manhattan has been revealed, as has the site of his intrusion into the DC Universe. In Doomsday Clock #7 we learn that in 1950, Manhattan moves a magical green lantern six inches, causing the death of the otherwise would-be original, mystical Green Lantern, Alan Scott and creating untold temporal ripples (a.k.a. The New 52) from there on out, to include some mysterious involvement with actor Carver Coleman.

The long awaited arrival of Doctor Manhattan did not disappoint, but I found the most fascinating aspect of Doomsday Clock #7 to be the exploration of Manhattan’s influence on the DCU (and thus the metatextual influence of Watchmen on DC Comics), through the juxtaposition of his effects on Batman and Superman. It’s an exploration that proves fascinating for Doomsday Clock, and conjures thematic tendrils between this DC Comics event and other recent and concurrent DC Comics events, namely Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo’s Dark Nights: Metal and Tom King and Clay Mann’s Heroes in Crisis.

Throughout Doomsday Clock #7 we’re barraged by news footage from across the globe. Metahumans breaching international borders. Metahumans engaged in political espionage. Metahumans being called to task for the political implications of the actions of their peers. The real world, our world, has come to roost in the DCU as we’re given examples of superpowers being used not in the fantastic and colorful ways we might expect in a comic book, but in the calculating and cynical ways they might be applied here and now. Much like the multiverse being weighed down and sinking into the dark multiverse in Metal, here we’re shown what should be a resplendent comic book world sinking down to our level, as if Manhattan’s passage from his world to this one left a hole for the grit and grime of Watchmen to seep through and weigh down the fantastic, the spectacular, the astonishing.

Our heroes are being forced to grapple with issues not of their world, but of ours, not unlike the basis for the recently debuted Heroes in Crisis, in which the heroes of the DCU come face to face with the psychological effects a decades-long war on crime and villain might have on an individual.

As eluded to in previous issues, with the riots in Gotham and the familiar effigies burned in protest of the Supermen Theory, Batman is perhaps the most susceptible to Manhattan’s presence, just as the character within literature is one of the most susceptible to gritty aesthetics. It’s no coincidence that the first title released in DC’s new “mature-reader” line, Black Label, is a Batman book. Colorful as his 60s exploits may be, few characters can be counted on to slip into darkness and despair quite as reliably as Batman, and within his own universe he proves no different. As the ever-perceptive Ozymandias asserts, Batman is “the cornerstone of the ever-growing problem your world is being swallowed up by.”

Inversely, as that aforementioned barrage of news reports illustrates, Superman fares far better against Manhattan’s influence. Despite an increasingly-insular world closing its borders he still crosses them freely, his selfless actions speaking for themselves. He is globally trusted, that “S” still meaning something beyond any one flag. Where Batman is a character who almost insists on being dragged into the muck and filth of crime-infested allies, Superman is one who resists it without effort, simply by virtue of being a colorful boy scout. But, as Doctor Manhattan explains, “I saw a vision of the most hopeful among them. Heading toward me. Now hopeless.”

It appears there will come a time in the near future where even Superman falls to the imposing dread, fear and cynicism Manhattan and his source material represent.

Doomsday Clock #7 sets up the end game. A knock-down-drag-out brawl between an omnipotent infection that has influenced the DCU and DC Comics for decades and the original, septuagenarian Man of Tomorrow. And if Manhattan’s visions, or lack thereof, of the future are any indication, it will be a bout with wide-reaching effects on the DCU.

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Communication Skills for Multiversal Salvation, or, Dark Nights: Metal

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(C) The Devil

Dark Nights: Metal is at once a Batman story and a Justice League story, a mystery and an adventure, a fragile, intimate drama and a sprawling, cosmic epic, and the mission of writer Scott Snyder and artist Greg Capullo’s latest collaboration (with Jonathan Glapion on inks and FCO Plascencia on colors) seems to be bridging those very sorts of fictional polarities. Metal is a story that posits that perhaps detectives and swashbucklers are one and the same, that perhaps the barrier distinguishing cosmic infinity from the sprawling expanses of any single individual’s imagination is far thinner than we might think.

Metal concerns the invasion of the DC Universe by the Dark Multiverse, a realm of raw imagination, comprised of the dreams and nightmares that on the rarest of occasions are forged into existence within the living, breathing DCU proper. Essentially, the world of Batman and the Justice League is an ark of existence, of reality, adrift on an unimaginably vast sea of could-have-been and should-never-be. Someone or something has breached the hull of that ark, which is now taking on sick water in the form of nightmare Batmen conjured from Bruce Wayne’s worst fears and insecurities. What follows is a desperate attempt to plug the leak in the DCU before the entire existing multiverse sinks into the Dark Multiverse.

It’s a mystery and an adventure, at once terrifying and exciting, a sentiment captured in the narrative’s dual focus on Batman the Detective and Carter Hall, the missing adventurer Hawkman.

Questions and clues abound: why is a covert ops team surveilling Batman? Why are strange metal artifacts around the globe reacting strangely to some unknown force? What secretes lie within the secret journal of Carter Hall?

Spectacle and bombast abound: the Justice League battles interlocking mechs in an alien gladiatorial arena. A demonic Bat-God clings to the apex of a dizzying spire that punctures a stormy sky, flanked by dual Joker-dragons.

And yet, whether it’s an army of villainous Justice League doppelgangers or a furrow in Wonder Woman’s brow as she prepares for battle, Capullo, Glapion and Plascencia never miss a beat, the attention afforded both to the smallest detail and the loudest spectacle alike indicative of Metal’s continued interplay between the intimate and the immense, the mysterious and the adventurous.

But the disparity between those two seeming opposites never feels jarring or disorienting, as Metal is, at its heart, largely concerned with that which unites them: communication.

Sound is a fascinating and prominent motif throughout DN:M, be it battle cries, devilish bellows, power chords, or good old-fashioned banging two pieces of metal together. Again and again importance is placed on sound, the difference between the life and death of all existence hanging on one character’s willingness or ability to create it and another’s ability to hear and comprehend it. It’s telling then that just before it hits the fan in the story’s opening issues, Batman refuses to communicate with his peers. His failure to communicate, his decision to withhold information, reaps dire consequences and the rest of this epic is largely concerned with not only discovery in the face of the unknown malevolence brought forth, but the communication of those discoveries with others.

Across the galaxy, in the depths of the sea and deep within the distorted bowels of the Dark Multiverse itself, the Justice League find themselves investigating any thread that might lead them to a plug for that leak in the ol’ aforementioned reality ark that is their entire known multiverse, but separated as they are those answers mean nothing without the willingness and ability to communicate that information, to share it, to come to a common understanding through detection and adventure.

For all its mystery and all its spectacle, Dark Nights: Metal ultimately revolves around communication, that which links the dreams and nightmares of our minds with the vastness of the universe. It’s a story about coming together, about living and experiencing and sharing those experiences to the betterment of all involved.

It is one hell of a comic book.

CW Years, or, Black Lightning

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ZAP ATTACK

If the CW’s stable of DC Comics-based television shows are good for one thing (they’re good for many but bear with me) it’s gaggles of attractive young Canadians wadding through seas of dead parents and betrayal towards inevitable mac-attacks with other attractive young Canadians, undoubtedly breaking the heart of a third gaggle of attractive young Canadians.

So imagine my surprise when I saw that the protagonist in the CW’s latest superhero show, Black Lightning, is played with instant gravitas by Cress Williams, who is a 47-year-old man, which basically makes him 1,000,000 in CW years. At 47 years old, Williams’ Jefferson Pierce is the DCW’s equivalent of Frank Miller’s aging, crotchety, Dark Knight Returns Bruce Wayne. Which actually turns out to be a pretty apt comparison when considering the show’s pilot.

At the onset of Black Lightning, Pierce has hung up the titular moniker for some time, opting instead to improve his community, Freeland, as a high school principal. But a rise in gang violence perpetuated by the growing threat of The 100 Gang. It’s a problem that effects the entire community, to the chagrin of both Jefferson and his two daughters.

Kind of like how in The Dark Knight Returns Bruce Wayne isn’t Batman anymore and instead he improves Gotham by driving race cars while contemplating suicide, but a gang called the mutants is wreaking havoc on Gotham and it pisses Bruce Wayne off, much as it annoys young Cary Kelly, daughter of two local deadbeats.

The Dark Knight Returns is a worthwhile point of comparison when considering Black Lightning as the disparities between the former, a staple of 1986, and the latter, a show that is ever so 2018, reflect a changing attitude towards heroism.

Frank Miller’s Batman is a dick. Always has been, always will be. He is essentially and old, rich, white guy who disagrees with the direction the world around him is taking and in response uses his economic resources to beat the culture around him to death with his personal ideology. Cary Kelly, the kindling of a youthful, feminine power in TDKR, does not have opinions of her own in the narrative. She’s an acolyte. The culture around her is more her own to inherit than Batman’s to cling to, but despite the fact that she actually lives in Gotham, rather than in a mansion, she’s indoctrinated rather than consulted.

While Jefferson Pierce certainly wouldn’t shirk the opportunity to align his daughters’ worldviews with his own, that isn’t the cards he’s dealt. Black Lightning is less a show about deciding to engage in heroism and standing up to villainy than it is a show about deciding how to stand up to that villainy.

Enter a white guy blogging about race.

Jefferson Pierce and his family are confronted with everyday evils, little treacheries like being pulled over by the cops based on the color of their skin. In many ways, they don’t have a choice as to whether or not they react to the world’s ills because more than Barry Allen or Kara Danvers, the world’s ills seek Pierce and his family out. But how to go about reacting and combating those ills is a topic of open debate in the show. Vigilantism? Protest? Social media? Education?

Spoilers, Black Lightning becomes Black Lightning again in Black Lightning. And when he does so, he doesn’t saunter down the middle of the stage to the bowed heads of a subdued, formerly directionless youth. Black Lightning takes a trope we’ve seen before, the grizzled, retired hero called back into action, and confronts it with a youthful eye that is not worshipful, but skeptical.

He might be 1,000 CW years older than the likes of The Flash, Supergirl, or the Green Arrow (who himself is getting into his CW 80s) but make no mistake, Williams is just as charming and engaging as CW’s established superhero protagonists, and the world around him has the potential to provide a show that is just as philosophically engaging as it is ludicrously-costumed.

Doomsday Clock #3, or, Rampant Speculation: Totally Cool and Totally Normal

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When it’s not Blanton’s, AMIRIGHT BOYS!?

Spoilers ahead for Doomsday Clock #3…

If Doomsday Clock #1 is an exercise in evoking powerlessness and Doomsday Clock #2 is a primer in a spectrum of reality and fiction, the third issue of Geoff Johns and Gary Franks’ Watchmen/DC crossover series is a marriage of the two. This third chapter bounces back and forth between a number of narratives, calling back to the intermittent Tales of the Black Freighter portions of the original Watchmen. But where those interludes represented a single work of fiction within a fictional “real world” the traversal of fiction within Doomsday Clock is less a game of pong between two works and more a frenzied exploration of a densely layered onion of narratives.

Piggybacking off of my writing on Doomsday Clock #2, there’s a penetration of the fictional spectrum in this issue that brings with it at least the implication of an increased ability to harness and exert power over the world the more fictional a character gets.

The outer most layer of the onion in question is the world. Our world. Us. The readers. Holding a comic book. We are so often the masses portrayed in Doomsday Clock’s first issue. Inundated with dreadful headlines we are so often powerless to effect. We are not fiction. We are reality.

The Watchmen Universe, while a fiction, is only truly separated from our own world by one aspect: Doctor Manhattan. That’s that grit I mentioned in my first Doomsday Clock post. That grit implies realism, or invokes a sense that something fiction is at least “more real” than other less gritty works. The surrounding dystopia is obviously a fiction but the element of fantasy separating the Watchmen Universe from our own is just one big blue dude. In this sense the Watchmen are more fictional than us, but more realistic than…

The DC Universe: where fiction runs rampant, where some things are gritty but others actually smile once in awhile. Super powered aliens, space cops, metahumans, multiverses, one inter-dimensional Crisis after another. You can’t pinpoint just one fantastical element responsible for the divergence between us and the world of Batman and Superman. Even to the characters of the Watchmen Universe the DCU appears fictional, with Ozymandias stating last issue that certain heroes within the DCU are characters in he and Rorschach’s world.

Ozymandias, Rorschach, the Marionette and the Mime travel deeper into fiction, and with that traversal there appear to be side effects. Last issue we saw the Mime use a pantomimed lock pick to escape his bonds. This issue, we see him actually use the pantomimed gun we’ve only ever seen him brandish in the Watchmen Universe. It fires and a head explodes. It works. And not only that, Frank’s depiction of the gun in the DC Universe lends it a hint of shape and form, the presumably make-believe gun now becoming real when brought in to a comparatively make-believe universe. Similarly we see possible side-effects of the aforementioned traversal of fiction in our new Rorschach, who we learn in this issue is in all likelihood basically just some guy. He talks of having blood on his hands and then, as he showers, we see that blood appear as he clutches his head. Now, is he clawing his head open and making it bleed? Like, a lot? Maybe. Or perhaps the metaphors, the make-believe, in which he speaks are given more power, more potency in the DCU.

With that wild speculation in mind, I can’t help but feel the text implying an increased power, and increased ability to affect change, the more “fictional” an entity becomes.

We, the readers, have no superheroes or caped crusaders. The Watchmen Universe has a smattering heroes but only one is truly super-powered. In the DC Universe everyone and their mother is a superhero, even, perhaps, the formally less remarkable refugees of the Watchmen Universe.

But there’s a hiccup in that theory because the DC Universe is not the farthest Doomsday Clock penetrates into fiction. Within the DCU we’re given continued allusions to an actor, Carver Coleman, and the grizzled gumshoe he’s most famous for portraying, Nathaniel Dusk. Coleman is of the same fictional stock as Batman and the lot, a denizen of the DCU, but Nathaniel Dusk, a character in a movie within the DCU, is a layer deeper.

Throughout Doomsday Clock #3, we’re show scenes from the final Nathaniel Dusk film, The Adjournment. It’s as deep as the fiction goes in this issue and yet it’s the most realistic story in the book so far. It’s a detective, a cop and a murder mystery. No powers, no vigilantes, no nothing. Nothing but the characteristic grit of noir. So where has that power gone? That power that seems to grow and grow the more fictional it becomes?

If nothing else, it certainly rebounds and penetrates back out toward reality, as we see some old-timers in a retirement home hailing Carver Coleman as a hero, presumably because he was Nathaniel Dusk. Perhaps there’s a law of diminishing returns in regards to this perceived increase in power. Perhaps that power can only penetrate so far into fiction. Perhaps the power is not affected by how many layers of fiction it is bundled in, but by the amount of excessive grit it is saddled with.

Whatever the case, there is some shit going on with this Coleman fella, and there is most definitely some shit going on with Nathaniel Dusk.

(Reveals bulletin board of color-coded thumb tacks and torn up portions of comic books)

 

No, you’re “a bit much!”

What’s more, is Rorschach’s journal, as an artifact from a “realer” universe, now imbued with a yet unseen power? It’s already been revealed that after the events of Watchman the original Rorschach’s journal became a powerful document in its own universe.

All this, and Doctor Manhattan still hasn’t even shown up yet! Or has he? I’m just saying, is Batman Doctor Manhattan? He previously spent time on the Mobius Chair, an object that got Manhattan’s attention once before, shortly after Batman relinquished it. And the button showed up in Batman’s cave. And it makes little sense that Batman would walk a man who know’s his secret identity into Arkham Asylum and lock him up. So, you know… what is going on?

Home for the Holidays, or, The Court of Owls

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BAM! BIFF! POW! OWL!

The recent Batman: Noir release (a format presenting seminal Batman stories in black and white inks without any color) of writer Scott Snyder, artist Greg Capullo and inker Jonathan Glapion’s The Court of  Owls has proven an excellent opportunity to revisit a story that has cemented its place as a Batman classic despite being less than a decade old.

The new Noir formatting of the story is not exactly the second format I’ve encountered this story in. I read it first as individual comic books, then as a nicer pair of hardcover trades. There’s an excellent version that is just Capullo’s original pencils and, of course, the academic, oversized Absolute Edition. Anytime the opportunity arises I find myself eager to reencounter Snyder and Capullo’s first Batman collaboration in a different light, as I consistently find myself drifting back to the tale once or twice a year. With the exception of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight, which I saw a dozen times in the theater because I was a high schooler on summer vacation and the world was my oyster and time had no meaning, Court of Owls is the Batman story I interact with the most.

But why?

There are plenty of Batman stories I love, but none that I inevitably meander back to with such frequency.

DC Comics already regularly markets The Court of Owls as a Batman essential alongside the likes of Frank Miller’s Year One and The Dark Knight Returns, and Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale’s The Long Halloween, but more than perhaps any other Batman story, Court of Owls has the mythological backbone of a near-universal rite of passage.

For those unfamiliar with The Court of Owls, the story concerns a Batman at the height of his prowess discovering an illuminati-like organization that has haunted Gotham’s past and is pulling the strings to manipulate the city’s future. Readers are introduced to a Bruce Wayne who can and does readily wax philosophic about Gotham. It is his city. He knows it to the marrow. He informs the reader of Gotham’s history, of Gotham’s architecture, of its heights and depths, and he does it with the sort of offhanded virtuosity one would provide an oral history of their closest friends and family.

And then he discovers that that knowledge is at best incomplete, and at worst an elaborate façade.

In The Court of Owls, Batman undergoes a rite of passage most, if not all, of us will confront at some point in our lives: the subversion of his perception of home.

Court of Owls challenge Batman by calling into question the structural integrity of what he believe Gotham to be. The worst part? Nothing about Gotham City has actually changed. The threat Bruce Wayne stumbles upon is one that dates back centuries. The adversary he faces is ingrained in Gotham and has been for longer than he ever can be. In grand, mythological fashion, Batman’s undertaking in Court of Owls mirrors the sort of realization that comes with hearing the unabridged, adult version of the history of the town you grew up in, or with returning home after that first semester away from college to find everything so different and so eerily similar. It’s a story about our relationships with home, about how home can define us, betray us and strengthen us, about how even when everything  we think we know about our home suddenly feels false the inherent truths we hold about our home can still ring true.

In Court of Owls, Batman, like each of us, has to contend with those aspects of his relationship with Gotham that are concrete and those that are fluid and the fact that what makes those aspects concrete or fluid may be entirely out of his control. It’s a struggle that is gorgeously rendered by Capullo in the story’s unforgettable middle chapters (originally published as Batman #5 and #6) in which Batman is stalked through his new nemesis’ stalking grounds.

I find myself returning to the Court of Owls time and time again because it so beautifully articulates and examines our relationships with home. It is Batman punching and kicking his way through the internal monologues we have when we return home for the holidays and wander through neighborhoods that suddenly seem so much smaller. It’s a batarang to that weird sensation of finding out some grown-up you knew as a kid is actually an utter jackass, or some mean old lady you rolled your eyes at was a saint. More than an excellent Batman story, the Court of Owls is an excellent human story, one that deals with the horrifying sensation of tectonic plates beneath our parents’ house shifting that we all find ourselves experiencing at one point or another.

Justice League, or, Has Anyone Made a “League of Their Own” Joke Yet? There’s No Crime in Bat’s Hall? Something Like That? I Don’t Know.

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Batman v. All Kinds of Folks: Noon of Justice

“You’re not brave. Men are brave,” Batfleck told the Man of Steel in director Zack Snyder’s cumbersome Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice. I hated that line. To me it had seemed the epitome of the over-the-top, macho bullshit Batman is always in danger of succumbing to in the wrong hands.

“You’re not brave. You’re a little boy. I’m a big strong man, because I’m tough and grim and that’s what a man is, and by the way I just discovered the work of Frank Miller.”
I walked out of Batman v. Superman angry. Not disappointed. Angry. But it stuck with me. It stuck with me and despite myself my mind would return time and time again to various moments throughout the film. I found myself considering it. Digesting it.

“You’re not brave. Men are brave.”

Macho bullshit, or theological outrage?

“You’re not brave. You’re a god. You don’t know fear and you don’t know bravery because you don’t know what it is to be human. You don’t know what it is to be fragile living in a world that can kill you by accident. You cannot save us from ourselves because you will never know what it is to be us. You’re doomed to frustration and failure. And what then?”

Zack Snyder’s superhero films have no interest in being the Marvelous “world outside your window.” They’re more attempts at reflecting Joseph Campbell’s monomyth against a battle of minds and souls and ideologies. Hefty stuff. A reach that neither Man of Steel or Dawn of Justice were able to close fingers around. But they were each a helluva reach.
Justice League doesn’t feel that way. Very much an empty bath tub, Justice League feels like a panicked response to the backlash against Dawn of Justice in which all of the tropes of a Snyder film were numbed, rather than just the problematic ones.

I often found myself frustrated with Snyder’s previous films because of the contrast between their best and worst moments, between their potential and their actuality, between the leap taken and the distance traveled. But Justice League feels like less of a leap than a hop, like Zack Snyder’s ambitions have finally started to bear the weight of critical reception.

A lot has been made of the possibility that Justice League would feel like a battle between two voices, Snyder’s and Joss Whedon’s, who was brought in to complete the film when Snyder dropped out for personal reasons. But the only tug of war I felt in the film was between the lofty, operatic vision of Snyder and a very corporate, frugal sense of uncertainty holding that vision back.

There’s the slimmest thread of Snyder’s ambitious storytelling here, a messianic thread that casts the five marketed Justice Leaguers as sort of apostles, with Ben Affleck’s Batman playing the role of a repentant betrayer trying to make good. At times the film very much feels like Man of Steel 3, a third act following that familiar but fascinating template of life, death and rebirth. But the scope of that narrative, which reigned unshackled in the two previous acts, is downplayed in Justice League.

There are also hints of Snyder’s more problematic tendencies. The film opens with a laughably bleak montage of a world without Superman, and it’s hard to shake the feeling that Snyder’s camera has less respect for Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman than Patty Jenkins’ did. But even these more irritating quirks are toned down. Peaks and valleys alike are buffered and filled in so that unchecked ambition is replaced by a sense of noncommittal, corporate safety.

Writing about Justice League I feel myself warming up to it, coming to terms with what it is rather than mourning what is isn’t. But I can’t shake the feeling (and it is just that, a feeling) that Snyder was reined in on this film because of the lackluster response to Dawn of Justice, and because of that it’s follow-up is, if not outright worse, at least exponentially less interesting.

Batman v Supermen (and Women), or, I Am Gotham

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A bunch of friends having a great time.

The world will disappoint you. On particularly heinous days it can be almost impossible to keep that disappointment from lapsing into loathing. It’s a battle for our own outlook that we wage with ourselves every time we read a headline and it’s the conflict at the heart of writer Tom King’s first arc on the newest volume of Batman (issues #1-5).

When Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo ended their run on Batman I thought there was a chance my compulsive need to analyze Batman might’ve taken an arrow to the knee, but King, and artist David Finch have crafted a fantastic, timely Batman story that won me over entirely by the end of the first issue. This is a story I’ll be wearing down the spine of when it comes out in paperback.

I Am Gotham finds Batman confronted with the prospect of two new super-powered allies, Gotham and Gotham Girl, who’ve been inspired by the Dark Knight to defend their city. It presents Batman with a question that’s been lobbied against him since his first meeting with Superman decades ago: in a world of superheroes with godlike powers what heroic relevance can one ordinary man really have? It’s a point that is beautifully illustrated in that aforementioned first issue in which nearly the entire contents of the book are dedicated to Batman figuring out how to solve a problem that takes Gotham and Gotham Girl all of a panel to solve.

But by the end of the arc King makes it clear that Batman’s power doesn’t lie in his money or gadgets or training. If Batman does have a superpower it’s his relentless belief in his city.

Batman’s disappointment in the world around him never lapses into loathing. He does not hate Gotham, he does not give up on Gotham and he never will. No matter how atrocious the headlines it produces are, Batman will never give up on his world’s potential to be better, and that requires an internal fortitude beyond flight or super strength.

Tom King’s Batman is as much a pillar of perseverance as he is a pillar or fearlessness and bravery and after the conclusion of “I Am Gotham” I couldn’t be more excited to see where he’ll take the character next.