about_faces (about_faces) wrote,

The frustrating, unsatisfying, intriguing mess that is "Flashpoint: Batman--Knight of Vengeance"

While DC's current Flashpoint event is apparently being met with complete apathy now that it's been entirely overshadowed by the impending don't-call-it-a-reboot-reboot of DCnU, there's one thing that's caught the attention of the whole comics community. It's one thing that everyone--from the biggest news and gossip sites to fan communities to even the critical folks at scans_daily--can agree upon.

And that is that Brian Azzarello and Eduardo Risso's Flashpoint: Batman--Knight of Vengeance is great.

No, not just great. Google reviews for the third issue, and every single one you'll find save for maybe one is glowing. Flashpoint: Batman is universally considered to not just be the best of the Flashpoint tie-ins by a *wide* margin, but legitimately, A+, best-of-2011 "instant classic" great great GREAT.

I understand where they're coming from, and y'know, I can almost agree.

But something holds me back, and I'm getting increasingly annoyed that it's something that no one else seems to notice or care about. They seem to be focusing less on the story and more on the twist, which has now been plastered so many places by now that I'm hoping I won't be spoiling any of you by posting it right here. Because for me, the moment I actually became interested in the potential of F:B-KoV wasn't when the twist happened in the story itself. No, it was when I saw Dave Johnson's cover art for the final issue:

Hoshit. When I saw that cover last month, a dozen ideas and possibilities popped around in my fan-brain. That image alone tells a whole story without a single word. In this reality, Bruce was the one who died, and so Thomas became the Batman while Martha became the Joker.

It inverts and plays with the idea of Batman and the Joker being mirrors and/or polar ends and/or two sides of the same coin and/or whatever their dynamic represents, depending on the fan and writer. How would that grief turn the noble Martha Wayne into the Joker, and more importantly, what kind of Joker would she be? How would Dr. Thomas Wayne, a full-grown adult without any of Bruce's years of rigorous training and childhood trauma, become a vigilante himself? Even in this alternate reality, why is it so tragically inevitable that there be a Batman and a Joker?

I think that these kinds of questions were what so intrigued everybody who loved F:B-KoV. Perhaps all the more so because they go completely unanswered. I suppose that, for many, that open-endedness is brilliance. For me, it's a half-baked non-story of pretension, posturing, and bullshit. And it's made all the worse by the three or four useless, boring subplots that go nowhere, add nothing to the story as a whole, and take up space that could be better used looking expressly at the Thomas/Martha story, which is all anyone cares about anyway. And even still... it doesn't work for me. Not like it should.

So in a rare case of striking while the iron is only-recently-cool, let's take a look at Flashpoint: Batman--Knight of Vengeance and see if maybe I'm not missing something.

I think it's important to start with what happened to Martha Wayne (from the little we know) before going into Thomas. In the robbery, Bruce was the one who was shot, not Thomas and Martha. What went differently? Well, from the silent flashbacks we see, it looks like Thomas actually jumped Chill, who in turn opened fire.

That panel is from a brief flashback scene in the first part, intended to misdirect the reader into thinking that Martha was killed alongside Bruce. It isn't until the third and final issue that we see what happened next, after Chill fleed the scene. So for the sake of linear storytelling, here's the rest of that flashback from Issue #3:

It might be worth noting that Martha went into a state of shock, and was rendered pretty much useless while Thomas scrambled to save Bruce. But his words got through to her and she ran off while he tried to give Bruce mouth-to-mouth while Martha ran off to find a help. When she returned with a cop, she found Thomas still kneeling over Bruce.

In the next flashback, which takes place several months later, we learn (learn, not actually see) that Martha hasn't been responding to therapy. She says that she misses Bruce, and Thomas responds, "He's gone. You have to accept that. And I miss him too. Along with your smile." That's when a dark thought dawns on Thomas, "What if..." And she asks, "What, Thomas?"

We don't actually hear his proposal, nor do we see her reaction. It's unknown whether she agreed or disagreed with what he intended to do, or if she struggled with any morality or compunctions, or if she merely remained stunned. Was Thomas' next action the result of an agreement between the Waynes, or was it the act of desperation on his part, to try and shake his wife out of her near-catatonic state?

We never know. Instead, the narrative snaps forward to an incognito Thomas Wayne in a particularly seedy area of Gotham, paying off informants in his search for a certain somebody, whom he finds. For a second, he considers using the syringe in his pocket, but as his eyes narrow, he decides to drop the intended weapon of choice. And then he says:

Y'know, after several decades of seeing Chill either get away with it or finding justice many years later through poetically ironic ways, it's kind of bluntly refreshing to see him just get beaten to death like this.

And yet, I feel like this isn't as powerful as it should be, as it is literally coming from the hands of a gentle healer like Thomas Wayne. Throughout the series, this Thomas Wayne seems more like the grizzled old Bruce of Batman Beyond than the kindly mustache-man we know from flashbacks. It would have been far more powerful to see that Thomas Wayne choose to kill Chill, especially in such a personal and brutal fashion. And that's not to mention the power this story should have from what Martha does next, considering that the Martha we know and love is... is... um...

... well, unfortunately, we almost never get to see anything of what Martha Kane/Wayne was like in regular continuity, don't we? Bruce's memories are so often DADDYDADDYDADDY-centric that it's easy to forget he actually had a mother attached to that precious string of pearls.

Thomas returns to Wayne Manor and tells her that it's done, Chill's dead. With a knife in hand, Martha says, "I understand, Thomas. See?..."

Well, that was shocking. Also rushed, simplistic, and inexplicable. Maybe it's just that years of reading bad Two-Face stories have made me sick of seeing characters snap into full-blown insanity, but I strongly feel like there needed to be a much stronger build-up.

I'll hold off on the details of what I mean until the end, but for now, it occurs to me, you know what the model for this story should be? Todd Field's 2002 film In the Bedroom, which starred Carmine Falcone and Carrie White Tom Wilkinson and Sissy Spacek. That was a movie which dealt with the ugly, angry side of grief after a couple's son is murdered, and what happens when the father decides to take matters into his own hands. Personally, I hated that film (but I may feel differently about it now that I'm a parent myself), but in this context, it'd provide an ideal base for the Thomas/Martha version to build upon. A story like that deserves to be told in a way that focuses on the characters, not on the events.

Instead, F:B-KoV devotes the bulk of its time to depicting Thomas Wayne as Batman by way of the Punisher. Oh yes, in a shocking, shocking twist, this Batman is a Batman... who kills! Because surely THAT'S never been done before! Bloody hell, why not go one step further and have him using guns?

I mean, as a character, he's more than just a tights-wearing criminal-killer. When we're introduced to him, we learn that Thomas has abandoned his medical practice to... start up a line of casinos? Wait, what? Why casinos? Where did that come from?

And also, his assistant at the casino is Oswald Cobblepot, whose presence here is another subplot which goes nowhere and serves no purpose to the story other than to make you go, "Oh hey, look, it's the Penguin, that's nice."

The only explanation we get about why Wayne owns and operates casinos is that he wants to control crime by bringing the criminal money to him. When Oswald asks how that was going, Wayne just grumbles again (the grumble being a recurring theme to establish Thomas' anger issues, which lead to a genuinely moving payoff in the last part). This right away kneecaps any credibility to the idea of Wayne Casinos as an interesting twist, because we learn right away that this idea just plain doesn't work. It's clearly a Geoff Johns idea, and it's one which Azzarello pretty much ignores for the rest of the mini, but the fact that it's there at all only serves to make this story feel even more muddled and half-baked.

Now, if we'd actually seen Thomas Wayne come to that decision on his own, and based it around his character development, then it might have worked better. WHY YES I AM GOING TO KEEP HARPING ON THIS BECAUSE THE MAJORITY OF THE STORY IS SO DAMNED TEDIOUS. Really, it just makes Thomas look like an aggressive dick who doesn't quite know that the hell he's doing. He's all the grizzled of Bruce Wayne from Batman Beyond without any of that character's smarts or awesomeness.

That said, the casinos aren't the only way he fights crime. After convincing Judge Harvey Dent to privatize the police force (a Judge has that kind of power?), Thomas Wayne establishes "Gotham Security" to enforce the law, headed up by his best friend Jim Gordon. Because of course Jim Gordon is his best friend in this reality. We just accept those kind of coincidences. Fronting Gotham Security proves to be somewhat more effective, even with the unsettling Robocop style implications of a corporate police force. But as we all know, in the Gotham of any reality, the police force's effectiveness is greatly limited, thus relying on Batman to bring criminals like Scarecrow, Poison Ivy, and Hush to justice.

By which I mean, Batman killed the hell out of them.

How the hell is there a Hush in a world without Bruce Wayne? On second thought, I don't care so long as it means that Hush is fucking dead. I guess even this shitty reality isn't all bad!

But we only hear about those deaths. To make it abundantly clear that Batman's Father Is Not Your Father's Batman, we get to see that badassery in action as he confronts a machete-wielding Killer Croc who's so mindlessly cannibalistic that he belongs in a 70's hicksploitation slasher film. After devoting nine fucking pages to near-wordless fight scene in the sewers, we finally get to the point (so to speak):

At this point, I'd like to point out that this fight scene serves absolutely no purpose, and frankly, it's boring as hell. And again, it takes up nine pages. That's almost half of the first issue's length, and 1/6th of the entire mini-series. It's just so typical of how wasteful comics storytelling is today, and what's worse, it's time that should have better spent on the anemic Thomas/Martha dynamic.

Anyway, so yes, Batman is a totally badass killer... except when it comes to the Joker. It's a nice twist on the idea of Batman's refusal to kill the Joker, one of the most hotly-debated topics in comics fandom. While Thomas' reasons are more directly personal than Bruce's unimpeachable idealism, Batman's refusal weighs on all of those around him whose lives have been affected by the Joker, such as this world's "Oracle":

Tangent Rant: Yes, it's Selina Kyle, who--it's alluded to--was crippled by the Joker. Because as we all know, the essence of Oracle is the wheelchair. Clearly, a wheelchair is is to Oracle what a power ring is to a Green Lantern! Jesus Fucking Christ, man, really? This is the laziest kind of alternate reality storytelling, where you transplant one character into another's role, but it doesn't change the character at all. How is Selina!Oracle different from Babs? We don't know, and Azzarello doesn't show us. It's a meaningless twist, and one that misses the point of who and what Oracle really is as a character. /Tangent Rant

We don't really know what exactly Martha!Joker did to Selina, much less that her Joker is like as a whole. We only get hints and allusions as to just what kind on monster Martha Wayne has become (somehow, apparently), such as when she decided to drive a man irreversibly insane. For no reason, just shits and giggles. Because she's the Joker, right?

We see the aftermath of her actions after Batman is shown the man, who is being kept in the basement of a bar run by Renee Montoya:

I should note that this is the only moment where Thomas Wayne being a Batman willing to use lethal force actually has any meaning. The Batman we know would never kill, not even to commit an act of mercy, as seems to be the case here. It's a glimpse of the medical professional that Thomas Wayne used to be, although the act of putting someone down makes him seem less like a surgeon and more like a vet. Even still, it's better than anything we see.

So Batman refuses to kill the Joker, and as such, people like Selina have suffered, people like the guy above continue to suffer, and now, Judge Harvey Dent's twin children are next in line. With that knowledge, is it any wonder that Dent acts like a hostile prick towards Thomas Wayne?

Why has Martha kidnapped the Dent twins? In a sorta hint that came shortly before this scene, the Joker tells the twin children, "You don't know anything but joy, do you, children? Besides fear. Joy and fear. Little ones... they're all that matter. You lose one... you'll be crazy. You lose both? Can you--should you--imagine life without those anchors? Of course not... you'll go mad."

I took this as foreshadowing that the loss of one of Harvey's twins would therefore drive him to becoming this universe's version of Two-Face. There's potential in a Two-Face created by the loss of one or both of his children, each of which would also play with the themes of grief and madness in a whole new way. But that doesn't happen. In fact, Judge Harvey Dent never reappears, nor do we learn his reaction to what ultimately happened to his kids. Another subplot wasted.

But before I show you the fate of the Dent twins, there's something I should mention. In the panel just before this page, Harvey's wife (Gilda?) refers to the Joker as a "child-killer." If this is true, then we're faced with the idea that Martha Wayne, driven insane by the murder of her child, went on to become a child-murderer herself. Now, there are other details to consider, but think about that hard fact for a second. Does that work for you? Does that fit?

I suppose it all depends on just how much she hates Thomas, because that hatred seems to be a motivating factor. We're never told and nor do we see just WHAT Martha's motivations are, so I'm forced to take a guess that she hates Thomas for failing to save Bruce's life. Or, just as likely, that she blamed Thomas for Bruce's death because Thomas attacked Chill (as seems to be the case from what we see in the flashbacks), and thus provoked Chill to shoot. That would make perfect sense, except that she never once expresses any blame towards Thomas, only hatred.

Her motivation seems to be less rooted in anything logical, and more in the idea that she's just now cra-ZAY-zay. Because she's the Joker, and the Joker's just nuts like that, right? Or more specifically, she's Heath Ledger Joker:

The Ledgerness of her Joker comes through more than just in her design. Azzarello explicitly references The Dark Knight in the scene where Jim Gordon arrives at the Joker's hideout (in the ruins of old abandoned Wayne Manor, naturally), whereupon he sees what he thinks is the Joker standing over the Dent boy, guns aimed and ready to fire. So thinking quickly--too damn quickly, old man--Gordon shoots the "Joker":

And before he can react, his throat is slashed open by the real Joker, and he falls to the ground alongside the perforated child in a scene of grotesquely horrifying violence.


That said, this awful scene gives way to one of the only moments I really liked. After screaming his wife's name in the page above, Batman bursts in to find Gordon's body and the Dent boy holding his sister, and his immediate reaction is in keeping with his anger issues throughout the story, which happens to be titled Knight of Frickin' VENGEANCE. Until...

In this quietly poignant moment, all of the "Batman" leaves him, and he instantly switches to caregiver mode, reassuring the boy that he's there to help while attending to the girl's wounds.

And in case it's not abundantly clear (since I did switch the order of pages around to make it linear from flashbacks onward), that's a mirror to the moment when Bruce was shot. Hopefully, Thomas will have better skill/luck when it comes to helping Harvey's daughter, although Martha attacks right after this and we never see if the daughter pulls through. Yet another subplot to fall to the wayside in favor of (what little we get of) Thomas/Martha's story.

But I still like the above scene. I think that this is the ***sole moment*** in all of Flashpoint where this version of Thomas Wayne is actually recognizable as Thomas Fucking Wayne.

That's what bothers me. You have Thomas and Martha Wayne being twists on Batman and the Joker, but there's little to nothing about the way they're written that gives you any indication that they're anything other than Elseworlds takes on the character rather than alternate versions of preexisting ones. Part of this, it occurs to me, has to do with the fact that we almost never have any idea of what Thomas and Martha Wayne were actually like outside of Bruce's memories. What were their flaws? How were they human? How much of their goodness was really them, and how much was just in Bruce's mythologizing? These are questions which should be asked in regular continuity if this Elseworlds take is to have any real emotional impact.

Except that this isn't exactly an Elseworld. At first, I thought that this story would have served much better as a stand-alone Elseworlds graphic novel rather than as a watered-down tie-in to a bombastic and inherently-empty event storyline. But by the ending, I realized that this doesn't actually work an an Elseworld, since the book's emotional climax hinges on Thomas Wayne being aware, thanks to Barry Allen, that he's living in an alternate reality. We already got some foreshadowing early on in those preview pages I posted earlier, with Thomas asking Jim Gordon "This world, it's a bad place. If you could change it, would you?"

Only now, at the end, can Thomas find the answer he really needs, as he forces her to listen to him describe a familiar scenario: a happy family, a robber, and a shooting. Just as Martha lets loose another huge Darth Vader "NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!1!!DONOTWAAAANT!!!", Thomas gets to the twist:

I do believe that's the first time we've ever seen Batman and the Joker make out. I mean, in a published DC Comic.

The realization drives Martha completely over the edge into insanity. She runs away in blind madness, laughing and crying maniacally, only to hit a soft patch of soil on the Wayne Manor grounds. It gives way under her feet, sucking her in as a cloud of bats flies out. Thomas looks down into the cave, finding the twisted body of Martha on the stalactites. She wheezes, "It's a baaaaaa..." before dying. And thus their story ends, with Thomas to go back to helping Barry Allen undo everything and thus ultimately usher in the rebooted DCnU continuity.

I see what they're going for here, I really do. And I can understand why that's enough for many fans, who find it powerful and poetic. But for me, it's not enough. It's an interesting concept that feels malnourished as a story, barely scratching the surface of its potential before rushing off to its conclusion. I wanted more of that and less of GrimDark!Batman on a mystery, by way of glances at where the other characters are. Penguin helps run Thomas' casino! Harvey Bullock is a drunken bum! Selina is Oracle! So what? I mean, really, so fucking what?

... Y'know what? At this point, I'm exhausted and Henchgirl is itching to throw in her two cents. As I still have such a massive crush on her fan-brain, I'm more than happy to let her take over.

Henchgirl (bitemetechie/dr_von_fangirl): A few things about this story seriously bother me, strictly from a narrative standpoint. We never actually see any of the immediate aftermath of Bruce's death that led to Thomas becoming Batman and Martha becoming the Joker. We're just left to fill in the blanks. Yes, Martha isn't responding to therapy (therapy sessions we never see), yes Thomas is clearly becoming exasperated with missing the woman he married (again, which we never see); the audience is just left to assume that Thomas and Martha kind of fell apart mentally and degraded to this point--we never SEE any of it.

If I were writing this story, I would have taken a look at the life of Thomas and Martha in the months following Bruce's death, interspersing those flashbacks with the main story in the present day. Imagine, Thomas starts to recover--or he
tries to recover--only to have a wife at home who can't make that journey with him. Or refuses to. How did he convince her to go to therapy? What were those sessions like? Did they sit in silence during their meals? Did Martha slip into catatonia, or sob hysterically or just...shut down, sliding into a depression that had her in bed for days on end? How did Thomas deal with this?

What was it like the first time Thomas tried to kiss or touch his wife after the funeral?
What happened to their marriage because of this? Did either of them try to deaden their pain, or remind themselves they were alive, with an extramarital affair?

Have they pointed fingers at each other for Bruce's death? Or have they avoided the topic entirely? Does Martha blame her husband for attacking the mugger? Does she blame him, a doctor, for failing to save their son when he's saved so many others throughout his career? Does she blame herself for being so deeply in shock that she failed to get help in time? Does Thomas blame her?

Is Bruce's room left untouched? A shrine? Or did Alfred pack everything up? For that matter, where
is Alfred?

What about the first time after Bruce's death that Thomas lost a child on the operating table? Not only would that bring painful flashbacks to his own son's demise, but he would be fully aware of the kind of pain he caused another set of parents, having experienced that kind of loss himself. It would have weighed on him terribly.

There is so much collateral damage to be explored, beyond 'The Waynes went nuts: Thomas became Batman, Martha became the Joker' and THAT is what interests me...but don't get to see
any of it. We're just left to believe that people go from zero to crazy the second they experience any kind of loss. It robs the characters of depth that they, as already undeveloped characters within the regular DCU (remember, we only ever see them as the idealized, almost Sainted figures of Bruce's memory, never as real, three dimensional, flawed people), really need in order to make me care.

Statistically speaking, when parents lose a child, it does things to them as individuals
and as a couple. Most relationships fall apart under that kind of emotional stress and strain. But as with all things, it doesn't happen overnight. BUT HEY, MAYBE I'M BEING TOO HIGH CONCEPT WITH ALL THESE WISHY WASHY WHAT-IFS, RIGHT?

Okay, how about the most pressing,
immediate questions that the story itself leaves dangling? Like, for example:

Thomas asks Martha, presumably (again, since we never SEE it), if killing Joe Chill would actually help with her grief. After he offs Chill with his bare hands--You have NO idea how hard it was not to say 'after he ices Chill' because heh, I love bad puns, ohgodkillmenow)--he comes home to find that Martha has sliced her face in a Glasgow smile.

Okay...um...why? She was obviously behind the 'kill Chill' thing, or else Thomas wouldn't have gone through with it in the first place, so why?

And what possessed Thomas to become Batman? In the panels where he's beating Chill to death, he's not in costume. What was the catalyst to make a grown man dress up like a Bat to fight crime? It can't be the direct result of Martha becoming the Joker after cutting her face open, can it? The last we see of her, she's being carted off by the men in white coats, laughing hysterically. And unlike the regular DCU Joker, she doesn't exactly have the means to escape an institution. Let's keep in mind that this is a mentally fragile, physically fragile socialite with no training when it comes to fighting, no Joker toxin at her disposal and no criminal network to free her.

(Which brings up the question of how the hell she escaped for this storyline, but I digress...)

So, what causes Thomas to take up the mantel of the Bat? Does another family get gunned down? Does he decide, AT BLOODY RANDOM, to start beating the crap out of criminals in Gotham? It makes perfect sense for Bruce Wayne to become Batman--he vows, as a child, to avenge his parents and he gets nearly twenty years to prepare for his career as a vigilante--Thomas doesn't have that. Or at least we...drumroll NEVER SEE IT.

And okay, you can say that all of this is kept very vague to let you, the reader, decide how all this went down using your own imaaaginaaation, but you know what I say? I say this is poorly thought out storytelling lacking in character depth.
Flashpoint: Batman: Knight of Vengeance isn't a story, it's an idea. It's a GREAT idea! A fascinating idea! But it is not explored to the extent that such an idea rightfully deserves and I don't know about you, but I find that VERY frustrating.



Have I mentioned how much I love her? Seriously, I want to be all like, "HAVE MAH BAYBEHS NAO" until I realize, oh right, she did! Well, one of them, anyway! ... Hmmm... maybe this isn't the sort of story we should be reading now that we have a son of our own, is it?

And yet, I say again, this story has stayed with me. I'm STILL thinking about it, and I'm still thinking about Martha most of all. I just read another comic that mentioned Martha Wayne, and I found myself still thinking about Joker!Martha, as if that's now her defining appearance. I wonder and worry that I'm not alone. Let's face it, this story is probably the most prominence that Martha Wayne has achieved in comics history as a character since her creation, just by default of the fact that no one ever does anything with her. I just hope that this doesn't stain the character in anyone's minds, not even my own.

And so to cleanse the palate, I offer up both Ming Doyle's Martha-centric fancomic Lady Gotham, as well as this wonderful piece by Yasmin Liang entitled, "Trinity Mothers":

Ahhh, that's the stuff.

Oh, wait, aren't they killing off Martha Kent in the DCnU? Well, fuck. Thanks, DC!
Tags: brian azzarello, catwoman, croc, elseworlds, geoff johns, jim gordon, joker, penguin

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