Metamorphosis again.

*Catastrophic Gains Dept: It seems several members of the USS Catastrophe crew are now blogging up a collective storm. Kevin Huizenga, Ted May, Dan Zettwoch - they’ve either been on my sidebar for a while, or have just recently been added, but let me just link to them up here too. Sketches, new drawings, upcoming works, reading suggestions, consideration as to the direction independent comics are taking - it’s all to be found at these three links.

Batman: Year 100 #4 (of 4)


In which writer/artist Paul Pope’s tantalizing, somewhat teasing futuristic Bat-miniseries draws to a nominal close, though there’s plenty of room left open for sequels and the like - that’s fitting for both the never-ending Bat-saga as a whole, as well as a miniseries that draws a certain amount of its power from that very aspect of said mythos. Batman keeps on going, seemingly against the current of time and society and politics, and he can fit into almost any cultural situation - this series openly acknowledges such properties, and mixes them into its potboiling brew of government shenanigans and doomsday viruses, with a mystery Batman plunked into the world, simply because every world can sustain a Batman, even one that seems less inclined toward tolerating superheroes than usual.

Mercifully, there’s no fist-clenched ‘this cold, cynical world needs heroes!!’ pontificating here - Batman does more talking in this issue than he’s done in the rest of the series, though that’s in compliance with detective fiction trope (the great sleuth must explain the mystery’s solution to us normal folk, after all!), rather than out of any desire to make a grand statement about the world at large (or the world of comics). There’s plenty of politics in this book, yes, but they’re all neatly hooked up to smoothly-moving sci-fi/superhero genre action; memories of Pope’s wooden, preachy early work are distant now, his writing having increased in skill even as his already-skillful art reached new, culturally mutant forms. You’ll see little of the airy, easygoing weekly manga serial influence of THB in this thing; Pope is tempering his work to the expectations of a superhero audience, the action still popping but restrained to flurries of tight panels and interspersed in between gobs of dialogue. There’s still plenty of those moody Pope exteriors, and those weathered Pope characters, and those chunky Pope sound effects, still aided marvelously by colorist Jose Villarrubia (and still somewhat sidetracked by some stolid DC house fonts for the lettering).

Those drained, almost sickly hues fill in a world that doubtlessly gives the book’s writer/artist the shakes - a United States so drained of privacy that the most superhuman thing a costumed hero can do is obscure their true identity. Each issue of this series has arrived with a text piece on the inside covers, and this one’s is devoted almost entirely to detailing how exactly Batman’s big fight scene last issue failed to leave any means by which he could be identified - pretty much all of these little prose pieces, a collection of reports, dialogues, and personal impressions, have existed to shore up the legendary, untraceable, unbelievable status Batman carries among people who’ve almost forgotten him. Thus, much in the way Pope pains himself not to directly state the book’s themes via preaching, the text supplements don’t directly fill us in on the series’ world in the way that the bonus features in 100% did - here, the author wants us to stay slightly ahead of the book’s supporting cast in what’s happening, but only slightly.

Thus, we never find out who Batman is. We never discover how he met up with his aides, why they decided to fight crime, how Robin got so skilled with motorcycles, or anything like that - we do learn at the very end that this Batman too is named ‘Bruce,’ a tease that ably points to where Pope is coming from in his concept. This is a new Batman, but also an old Batman, and not only don’t the details behind Batman matter much, they can’t matter much in the context of the new crime he must fight - a prior issue saw a number of men sitting around and searching through information on Batman throughout the last 100 years, a mutable figure glimpsed cheekily through several of his most popular forms (the Adam West version, Frank Miller’s Dark Knight, etc.), and a question floats around as to how these varied forms could act and sound like the same person. There’s no answer forthcoming out of Pope, but in terms of metafiction it’s quite simple: Batman exists again because the concept of ‘Batman’ can apply to multiple states of existence, and Batman will forever be young, and vital, and fighting crime, because that’s what the icon must stand for at its core. The men of government are confused as to how Batman can exist, but they can never grasp that they’re but characters in a Batman comic, and such things cannot exist without Batman, in the same way that our contemporary understanding of ‘Batman’ adapts to fit the core concept of the character as the reading society shifts.

Pope postulates a future with no privacy. One with malignant terrorists, like Ahmbra (whom we fittingly never once glimpse in any form but name, remaining a nebulous, impossible to fully grasp threat), and ambitious government forces, the Department of Homeland Security having molded its power into the form of surveillance-happy enforcers who tromp over local authority and formulate arrogant, power-hungry plans. It’s revealed here that the two have joined forces in a way, with some particularly noxious federal specimens fully ready to cooperate with terrorism to further their own motives. In this world, Batman is local, not global. Batman has a few trusted associates, but refuses the use of any but the most simple products, preferring to develop his wonderful toys himself. Batman respects certain authority (he’s no anarchist), but is more than willing to fight official corruption, the federal-powered Gotham Wolves decked out in giggling red, white, and blue. Such banners won’t stop Batman’s fist. And Batman will never reveal who he is, not even to us trusted readers, not fully.

Of course, the real joy of this series is watching Pope build up this world for his new old Batman to romp in - one would imagine it’d be simple to craft a politically-colored world in which to plunk down a hero meant to embody certain politics, but Pope goes a bit further, happily delineating technologies and government structures, and designing colorful, memorable characters, while keeping things somewhat believable. Frankly, the individual pieces of that design aren’t always great - lead villain Pravdzka might as well be howling ‘musssst... increasssse... federalll authoooority OH GOD THE MASKS ARE CHASING ME’ whilst thrashing around in this issue’s final sequences, though Pope was careful to set up his mania back in issue #1. The ‘mystery’ kind of wound up solving itself back in issue #3, and the little twists contained here do little to assuage the sense of wheels gently spinning - this also renders Batman's big 'detective explains it all' speech sort of hollow. Batman’s final action is extremely reminiscent of the conclusion to Alfred Bester's The Stars My Destination, only with the anarchistic edges smoothed over - Batman likes likes liberty and free information, but he's not nearly extreme enough to actually hand the people the power for their own ultimate destruction - hell, he's not blowing up Parliment either, and he's not ready to bring down the state. He just wants to strike back against aggressions toward the bodies of others, and maybe agressions toward the liberty of others, if that happens to get in the way.

And, you know, there's motorcycles and fighting and stuff too. Good action. Some nice bits of wit - I utterly loved how tough-talking, bullying, golden-toothed Agent Tibble finally gets into an actual combat situation this issue, and goes down like a punk in one punch. I'm not sure how much the book as a whole will stand up to re-reading - it's very much about enjoying the scenery, and savoring details, and going somewhere, even if the destination isn't all that mind-blowing from a plotting standpoint. But there'll still be entertainment, entertaining ideas - Batman staring directly at Pravdzka, directly at us, and saying "You'll never know" when asked who he is. We know enough for this series, as its always somehow familiar title hero stalks off into the night.