Review: BATMAN ANNUAL #4
[Editor’s Note: This review may contain spoilers]
Writer: Tom King
Colours: Dave Stewart
Letters: Clayton Cowles
Reviewed By: Derek McNeil
Batman Annual #4: What’s it like to be Batman from day to day? What are the challenges that the Dark Knight Detective faces? From thieves to marauding monsters, writer Tom King takes us across the gamut of experience to show the vast scope of what it takes to fill the Batman’s boots…and then what it means when he goes back home.
The cover boldy proclaims that the story in this Annual will be “A Batman tale like no other!” Typically, cover blurbs are hyperbolic, making exaggerated claims about the story inside. You have to take these claims with a grain of salt, as even the best stories don’t quite live up to the hype on the cover.
But for once the story delivers on the promise made on the cover. In this annual, Tom King delivers a story that is truly unlike any other Batman story to date, and probably unlike any other story before it.
How does he manage this? Well first off, he throws off the constraints of a normal story. One might argue that it isn’t really a ‘story’ in the technical sense. It doesn’t have a plot that follows the standard format of a story.
There is no introductory exposition. We are thrust into the middle of the action. An there is no sense that there is rising action. There is plenty of action, but it is continuous from cover to cover. There is also no real conclusion. The action continues until the last panel of the final page.
It’s as if there is no real beginning or end to the action, as if King is just showing us a seemingly random chunk of an eternal sequence of adventures. Which is just what he intends to convey. Batman’s adventures are timeless and eternal. His adventures have been going on for decades and will continue on. It doesn’t matter which Batman story was your first: a specific comic, movie, or cartoon. The legend of Batman existed before that and will continue on long after the last one you read.
And the same is true of creators. Though different writers come and go, Batman remains. This is demonstrated in the different tones and genres of the adventures we get a peek at in this story. Batman sometimes might be on horseback, piloting a spaceship, or riding on the shoulder of a giant anime robot; he might be fighting common thugs, dragons, or supervillains – but his eternal struggle against evil will continue.
And the same is true of artists. Jorge and Fornes do a masterful job of evoking different moods and artistic styles. I was especially impressed with the adventure that serves as the centrepiece of the story, which had a masterful emulation of Steve Ditko’s cosmic imagery. The contrast of styles and tone between adventures deftly illustrates the how Batman’s mythos continues through an ever-changing array of artists through the years.
The first half of this special issue gives us short adventures of 4 or 5 pages each, narrated by Alfred. Each story briefly demonstrates a facet of Bruce Wayne’s character. In the first, Alfred tells us of a young Bruce demonstrating his ability to overcome his fears – specifically his fear of horses. Alfred relates this as we see Batman pursues a criminal on horseback, showing how far Bruce has come since conquering that fear.
In the next adventure, Batman fights a dragon as Alfred tells us how Bruce manages his compulsion to be prepared for every eventuality. Often, immediate action is necessary, even if when you’re not fully prepared for it. Batman does not let this compulsion hold him back when action is needed. “Preparation is purpose… But preparation can also be paralysis. And while this city burns… I will not hold still.”
The next tale gives us an insight to Batman’s motivations. Bruce isn’t tempted by glory, adulation, or even the thrill of tackling a challenge. But he doesn’t hesitate when tackling the challenge will right an injustice.
This story demonstrates Batman’s skills as a fighter, followed immediately by a mystery that showcases his detective skills. Then we get a story that puts the focus on the human side of Batman, Bruce Wayne. In this adventure, he must bring his first love to justice. And he does so as Bruce, not Batman. And he does this with kindness and compassion, not fists and Batarangs.
The next story returns to the subject of how Batman deals with fear. Alfred surmises that Bruce is not so much fearless as he resolutely refuses to give in to it. “I firmly believe he is in fact horribly terrified a great majority of the time. However, what makes him Batman… is his ability to overcome this terror. To never let that terror dictate his actions. Or stand in the way of helping those in need.”
The following adventure is the centrepiece of the whole story. On Saturday, March 13th, Batman finds himself in a bizarre realm, which Alfred describes as “the very limits of the universe. Or perhaps the very limits of the mind.” Jorge Fornes channels Steve Ditko in his beautiful rendering of this mind-bending cosmic setting.
Here, an unnamed omnipotent cosmic entity challenges Batman to give a reason that he and the entirety of the DCU should exist. With no hesitation, Batman stands tall in the presence of this entity warning it, “If you try to hurt my universe, my world, my family. Like so may before you, you will fight, you will fail, and you will fall. You are Judgment. Power. Glory… Fine… I’m Batman.”
Thus, this central story demonstrates Batman as the ultimate badass. He manages to face down an omnipotent other-dimensional alien with those two words that instill fear in the bravest of souls: “I’m Batman.”
And then the being returns Batman home to the Batcave where Alfred offers him tea. This page stands out amongst all the others. This is the only point where we see Batman getting a moment of rest. However, he only pauses briefly to enjoy it before asking, “What’s next?”
This is also the only page of the story in which Alfred appears physically. His narration throughout the story indicates that Alfred is always with Bruce in spirit, if not in body. But he is always waiting at home for Bruce to return, to help him recuperate from his last adventure – and to prepare for the next one. And he always will be there… or will he. Given Alfred’s apparent death in Batman #77, that may be in doubt. Unfortunately, King gives us no hints about Alfred’s ultimate fate here.
From this point, the tale takes us through several more adventures. This is done at a rapidly accelerating pace. Each panel shows us a single image from that adventure. The first such panel dominates the next page, while the next page contains two panels, with each page adding another panel, culminating in a final page that utilizes a Giffen-esque nine panel layout.
As the pages progress and the panels shrink, Alfred’s narration shrinks from a few sentences describing the situation, to a couple, to a single statement, and finally disappears except for a single caption indicating the date. And importantly, no days are skipped. We see every single day from March 7th to April 24th.
This device skillfully indicates that Batman’s adventures continue and will continue incessantly from day to day, every day. Which is why the title of the story, revealed on the final page, is so fitting: “Everyday.”
It’s also worth noting that it’s only in these last few pages that we see any recognizable DC characters outside of Batman and Alfred. We see Kalibak in a panel, and we see a touching moment between Batman and Tim Drake on the anniversary of Tim’s father’s death. And it’s not until the final page that we see Catwoman, Harley Quinn, and the Joker, each only getting to share a single panel with the Dark Knight.
I also love some of the nods to Batman’s long history, even some of the weirder bits. Such as Batman’s zebra-striped costume. And the final panel features Batman punching the Joker, punctuated with a large “Pow!” visible in the air, reminiscent of the 1966 Batman TV show’s notorious effects.
King has taken on the challenge of creating a story that expresses the entire essence of Batman. And he has succeeded in this story. He gives us a story which shows many of the varied facets of Batman that many creators have shown us. Plus he has demonstrated the eternality of the mythos. Batman’s adventures will continue on, although creators and readers will come and go. Through different genres and media, Batman will continue to fight against injustice every single day.
Where the hell is Kite-Man?! How can King give us such an epic Batman story without Batman’s foremost enemy? Just kidding! While sneaking Kite-Man into a panel would have been fun, his absence doesn’t detract from the story. However, this is the closest I could come to finding any fault in the story.
Tom King gives an astounding tale that lives up to the cover’s claim that it’s “A Batman tale like no other!” No other tale has quite captured the totality of Batman’s multi-faceted essence or so clearly demonstrated that Batman’s fight against evil and injustice is truly never-ending.