This article was originally published at Comics Bulletin on September 17, 2015.
Batman #44 is a unique addition to Scott Snyder’s wide array of Batman stories. The writer and his work on these series have become synonymous with grandiose epics that examine the nature of Gotham City, the Dark Knight, and his many allies and enemies. This issue, while serving as a tie-in to the current “Superheavy” story arc, is designed to stand alone as well. Despite being only 30 pages in length, it is perhaps Snyder’s most thematically ambitious story over more than five years of working with the DC Comics icon.
Snyder re-teams with artist Jock, his collaborator on both Detective Comics and Wytches, and shares writing duties with Brian Azzarello, who is acclaimed for comics noir work like 100 Bullets and Joker. Together, they tell a story titled “A Simple Case”. It’s an ironic title considering the disparity between the basic plot and broader themes of this story. Batman is tasked with solving the relatively uncomplex murder of Peter Duggio, a young black man found dead in the marshes on Gotham’s city limit. This investigation draws Batman to some of the most complex and fundamental problems affecting Gotham City and American society today.
The mystery doesn’t unfold much like a mystery, though. Batman spends most of his time moving between different suspects who tell him what happened and where to go next. There’s a mention of checking some camera footage and Alfred matching a bullet, but the detective work on display is deeply underwhelming. Jock includes one notable action sequence that depicts Batman having to beat on some nondescript gang members. But these two pages are disappointing as well, composed of a collage of actions that fail to excite or evoke emotions. Individually each action appears compelling, but when merged together they do not flow or connect to one another. It might make for a good looking poster, but is incompetent storytelling.
The mystery and action-oriented elements are really garnishment to Batman #44, though. This comic is not about Batman being the world’s greatest detective or the most accomplished martial artist in Gotham. The core of this comic lies in its examination of social failings in an urban environment, filtered through the lense of a Batman story.
Much of the action in the issue revolves around a location known simply as The Corner, which shares its name with David Simon’s non-fiction study of a similar location in Baltimore later adapted into an HBO mini-series. Whether this name is a purposeful allusion to Simon’s work or not, it makes for an interesting point of comparison because these two stories cover so much similar thematic territory. They are both about failings in modern urban environments, how these failings affect communities, and the complex systems and players that both create and continue all of these failings.
Each step of Batman’s journey through Gotham City and toward the truth about what caused Peter’s death reflects a different perspective and potential theory about who is at fault. Taken together all of these encounters form the thesis of Batman #44, but it’s worthwhile to examine them as individual components first.
Batman begins his search for answers with Penguin (having crossed other notables like Mr. Freeze, Killer Croc, and Poison Ivy off of a grocery list of super villains). Threatening to drop the criminal a thousand feet to his death, just like Peter, leads Batman to Tano Canacoo, another gang leader. In both instances Batman uses his typical tactics of fear and violence in order to elicit answers. These methods are called into question later, but not within the context of these scenes, only when Batman shouts at some passing teenagers to scare them away. The brutality he inflicts on young men identified as being gang members here is still glorified as just retribution for them being gang members who would attack Batman. Jock draws Batman as the hero in these scenes and his fast, efficient form of violence provides an exciting, almost admirable, effect. This is perfectly reasonable given the nature of the superhero genre, until it is placed within the context of Batman’s next meeting.
After leaving Tano behind, Batman goes to meet the person who shot Peter before his fatal fall, police officer Ned Howler. Howler and his actions are an amalgamation of recent events, combining figures like Daniel Pantaleo and Darren Wilson into a single frightened police officer who shot a young black man out of fear. What’s disturbing is the difference in how Batman approaches this criminal compared to those before. He confronts him with the facts of the crime, but then leaves Howler alone because “it’s not what he’s after.” Since Howler didn’t ultimately kill Peter, only shot him multiple times, he is left to continue his career in policing unabated. This illegal shooting of a young man by police is shown to be beneath Batman’s notice. Even when Howler pulls his gun again, Batman does not respond violently.
Snyder and Azzarello are prepared to raise the spectre of police violence, but unwilling to actually address it here. Batman’s treatment of Howler creates a clear separation between his crimes and those of gang members on the streets, one in which the police appear to be more deserving of understanding and respect. While Howler is characterized villainously, his exchange with Batman mitigates his actions to some extent. The narrator of the issue states that Batman already knows the reasons Howler is giving for having shot Peter, “about how many cops have been shot in the area… about guns… firepower on the streets… lack of training… no acclimation to the neighborhood… And Batman knows all this.” That last line is important because it implies all of these excuses may be true and understandable. The narrator continues to recount that Batman is also aware of “how many young black men have ben shot by cops, unarmed” and “how many cops have gone unpunished.” Given the clear connection to recent events, the previous excuses must also be viewed as having a connection to reality. Yet the reality is that fatal shootings of police have been moving in a downward trend for the past several decades. The codependent relationship between unjustified shootings and violence against police gives the appearance of fairness, but fails to actually reflect any real sense of this trend.
This sort of police criticism in superhero comics has been seen in Greg Pak and Aaron Kuder’s current Action Comicsstory “Hard Truth” as well. Here Superman is forced to confront police looking to brutalize civilians involved involved in a peaceful protest. The connection found between DC Comics and reality with police forces attacking unarmed civilians is lost once it is revealed that the police leading the charge are in fact a monstrous shadow entity. Kuder and Pak make it clear that all of the human police were blameless in the situation. In both instances, creators are attempting to have it both ways, criticizing the crimes of police without calling police criminals. There is a double standard within these presentations and one that fails to communicate the disapproval these stories aspire to.
Before finally discovering the true cause of Peter’s death, Batman discovers that he also played a role in this story. Peter was scared to lose his father’s store due to increased land values from gentrification and sought out Bruce Wayne for help. He shouts Mr. Wayne’s name at a press conference concerning the development of low-income housing before becoming dispirited. Once again the story attempts to move in two different directions. While on the surface it appears to support a criticism of Batman’s actions in his alter-ego, the text does little to back this up. Not only are Peter’s efforts to get help ridiculous, but Bruce’s noble cause isn’t made to seem much less noble.
After having stumbled across his own part in the story, Batman finally discovers the real cause of death. Peter, feeling rejected, sought out an alternative to fight back, like Batman. He was given a drug meant to empower him by a mysterious man in an alley (clearly Mr. Bloom, the villain of the current “Superheavy” story arc). The gunshot triggered further changes allowing him to fly away briefly before it failed and allowed him to fall to his death. It is a seemingly tragic conclusion, but one that reads more like the newspaper clippings scattered throughout the issue. While the facts of Peter’s final days and his murder are now clear, he and the people he interacted with never cohere as characters. They are a chalk outline on the cement, clear and cold.
Batman walks through his list of suspects, including Penguin, Tano, Harper, himself, and the man in the alley, questioning who should he have caught. Then in a bit of wordplay he decides upon the solution: “Above all, the one to catch was the boy.” This narration strikes upon a simple and oft repeated concept of children slipping through the cracks, being failed on multiple levels. Peter’s legs are shown dangling above the city on the second to last page, far out of Batman or anyone else’s reach, impossible to help with reactionary tactics.This is the crux ofBatman #44, and it’s not wrong. But is it saying anything of value?
In Simon’s work on The Corner, as well as his many other books and television series (like the recent HBO mini-series Show Me A Hero that focuses on low income housing), he provides a nuanced take on these critical issues. His work is defined by a dedication to research and detail. Batman #44 raises many of the same topics, but does not have the patience, insight, or depth required to do them justice. Instead it scrapes along the surface of these subjects, taking a survey of what is newsworthy, but failing to say anything of value. It raises topics like gentrification, police violence, and urban decay, but never actually addresses them. A 30 page comic lacks the depth of a novel or TV series, but that does not reduce the enormity of what this work strives to discuss. What can be discerned about these topics within the issue is more often troubling or confusing than progressive or compelling.
The final scene of the issue shows Batman walking up to a set of teenagers he had attempted to scare away from crime earlier and asking to talk with them, with the final panel alluding to the hopeful conclusion of The Dark Knight Returns. This is presented as equal parts practical solution and happy ending, when it is in fact neither. It is an after-school special conclusion that reduces large-scale problems to absurdity. Placed within the larger context of Snyder’s Batman comics, where the character continues to rely upon violence and fear to obtain results, this ending becomes even sillier.
Batman #44 is a comic that desires to be important, to raise important questions and address important subject matter. It should not receive credit for simply trying though; this is not little league teeball. Rather than providing any insight or evoking a significant reaction, the story breezes past complexity and arrives at a ridiculous conclusion. It is pablum, given the appearance of something significant, but hollow of insight or meaning.