Wednesday, 23 July 2014

Batman 75 Special Review: The Autobiography of Bruce Wayne

Title: The Brave and the Bold #197
Story: The Autobiography of Bruce Wayne
Characters: Batman, Catwoman, Robin (Dick Grayson), Batwoman (Kathy Kane)
Creators: Alan Brennert (writer), Joe Staton (artist), George Freeman (artist)
Publication Date: April 1983
Available In: Print | Digital

Summary: The story begins with an elderly Bruce Wayne sitting behind a typewriter reflecting on his early career as Batman, his adventures with his friends in the Justice Society, and his guardianship of Dick Grayson. He states that all of these individuals have been very important people in his life, but admits that the person who changed his life the most was his one-time adversary and later wife: Selina Kyle, the Catwoman. Bruce then takes us to the moment in his life that forever redefined his life's meaning.

In 1955, Commissioner Gordon is seen waiting for Batman nearby the Bat-signal. Batman arrives as expected, but before he has a chance to find out why the commissioner needs him, a gas starts seeping out of the box Gordon is holding, causing him to hallucinate. This tips Batman off that the criminal they're after is Jonathan Crane, the Scarecrow. Batman takes the box from Gordon, telling him he'll check it out in the Batcave, and asks his old friend to get some rest. 

On his way back to the Batcave, Batman reflects on the fact that since the disbanding of the Justice Society, it's just been himself, Robin, Superman, and Wonder Woman who have been keeping things together. He also admits that fighting crime hasn't been getting any easier compared to fifteen years ago when he first started. He then thinks about the fact that one of his former girlfriends, Linda Paige, is getting married the next day, an idea that frightens him more than capturing the Scarecrow himself. 

The next day, Bruce pays a visit to Linda, who is very happy to see him. She comments on how difficult it was being with him ten years ago, and even laments the fact that she tried to change him. Nonetheless, she tells him that she still feels something is holding him back from living his life as a full human being. Bruce admits to himself that she is right, thinking that at some point he had to establish that Bruce Wayne and Batman were two separate individuals to evade suspicion from others. As a consequence, Bruce Wayne became 'frozen' into a caricature of a billionaire playboy. While the people in his life were moving forward with their lives, he was stuck in an internal gridlock. He also acknowledges that this has cost him some of his more significant relationships like Julie Madison and Linda Paige herself.

At the wedding, Bruce thinks about how shallow and hypocritical his elite group of friends are and that is real friends know him as Batman. He then thinks about what his future will look like once Dick grows up and starts living his own life, once Alfred retires from his duties at Wayne Manor, and once Kathy Kane moves on from being Batwoman. He asks himself what he will do once he is finally alone?

The Scarecrow crashes the wedding with a gas attack that has everyone hallucinating and running in fear. Bruce and Dick quickly get into costume and they are soon accompanied by Batwoman who was also nearby. Together they take on the Scarecrow, but Batman himself starts hallucinating the people in his life disappearing, which scares him. Batman starts acting weird and Batwoman and Robin try to reassure him that they are still with him, and that are not going anywhere. Batman can't see or hear them and goes after the Scarecrow alone. It isn't long before Batwoman and Robin realise that the Scarecrow's gas attack triggered Batman's deepest fear of being alone.

Thinking that he is truly alone, Batman desperately tries to get in contact with any remaining allies to help him find his friends again. He looks for Commissioner Gordon, Alfred, and even calls Lois and Clark in Metropolis, but is unable to hear Lois on the other end of the phone. Fearing he has no one else left to turn to, he goes to his one remaining ally who was also once his foe, Selina Kyle, who was now in prison for all the crimes she committed as Catwoman. Batman offers to get her out on parole if she agrees to help him out on his current case. He explains to her that his world feels like it is shrinking and she admits that she knows the feeling. She agrees to put on her Catwoman costume one last time and help him out.

Together, they track the Scarecrow down to Gotham University where they are attacked by a Lion that's been coated in white paint. Catwoman incapacitates the lion with tranquilliser powder, and removes the greasepaint to keep him from suffocating. Batman and Catwoman then continue their pursuit of the Scarecrow. Batman thinks about how Selina seems to vividly remember her life as Catwoman despite claiming amnesia, and wonders if he can trust her. Catwoman similarly thinks to herself how good it feels to be back in action, seemingly validating Batman's thoughts. She also thinks about the fact that Batman is acting strange and obsessed and wonders if her feelings for him are making her worry too much. 

The stumble upon the main hall where they find a recording of Scarecrow's voice 'lecturing' about all of the various fears and phobias known to science. They are also ambushed by various booby traps that present 'examples' of the types of phobias Scarecrow is discussing in his recorded lecture. One of those causes Batman's cape to catch fire, which Catwoman puts out. She then destroys the recording of Scarecrow's lecture, and both she and Batman head for the university's medical centre to treat his burns. 

Upon treating his burns, Catwoman notices for the first time just how many scars Batman has on his back from years of fighting crime and reacts to them. At first, Batman thinks he was burnt pretty badly, but Catwoman confirms this isn't the case drawing attention to his older scars. He confirms that they were all occupational hazards. She asks him if it ever hurts him and he replies that he learns to deal with it. She then comments that no one should ever live with this much hurt and asks him why he does what he does. Without really knowing why, he trusts Catwoman with the knowledge that his crime-fighting career began with his parents' murder when he was only ten years old and used Batman as an outlet for an anger he never learnt to live with. Catwoman comments that anger makes people do strange things and asks him if he has spent all of these years avenging their deaths. He admits that he has, which is why he won't let the Scarecrow take away the people he has left.

They continue their pursuit of the Scarecrow he keeps attacking them from afar. Catwoman by this point figures out what's really going on with Batman, and suggests to him that maybe his friends didn't disappear on him at all, and that he may actually be hallucinating their disappearance. Batman dismisses those concerns believing that he knows firmly reality from hallucination. This confirms to Catwoman that he is, in fact, drugged and that she needs to find a way to make him realise that. 

Before long, she too falls victim to Scarecrow's hallucinogenic drugs and starts hallucinating that she ground is getting further and further away from her. She lets go of her rope and starts to fall, but Batman catches her. Catwoman realises for the first time her fear of heights and Batman asks her if she too feels a darkness closing in on her. She says that she doesn't, but points out that they are way out in the open, leaving them vulnerable to attack. Batman acknowledges this and suggests that they both take cover.

In the university library, Catwoman comments to herself that she hates feeling helpless, and for the first time admits the real reason she became Catwoman: to empower herself and never be at the mercy of anyone ever again. Batman admits that he didn't believe her amnesia story and this puts Catwoman in an uncomfortable situation. She then begins to admit that she made up the amnesia story because she didn't see any other way out of her situation, especially since he first knew her as a jewel thief known as 'The Cat.' 

Catwoman then reveals her true origin story, stating that she had been functioning as the Cat for two years since the dissolution of her first marriage to a man who abused her. She acknowledged the thrill that she got out of stealing from her ex-husband, especially after he tried to use his resources and network to ruin her as 'punishment' for her filing for divorce. Batman then asks why she made up the amnesia story and Catwoman admits that she felt trapped. After functioning as Catwoman for well over ten years, she didn't feel as though she was still Selina Kyle anymore. 

By the time she was thirty, she realised she didn't want to spend the rest of her life as Catwoman, and that she did want love and children eventually. As such, she found a way to start over and asks Batman if there is something wrong with that. He says no, and instead acknowledges the parallels between the two, particularly the loss of identity. Catwoman lost Selina Kyle, and Batman lost Bruce Wayne. The difference being that Catwoman eventually found a way out whereas Batman still hasn't been able to figure out how to get out. Catwoman asks if he thinks that's really true. The two share a kiss.

Batman admits to himself how badly he wanted to hold on to Selina, but decides to get back on track with taking down the Scarecrow and finding his friends again. Catwoman tries to point out that if his friends were truly missing, there would be news reports about it and the police would already be present. Batman is at this point not listening, having gone over the edge, which Catwoman acknowledges. He attacks a (literal) scarecrow demanding to know where his friends are. 

At this point, the hallucinogenic drugs start taking their toll on Batman and start affecting Catwoman again, but she is better able to control her fears, which are minor compared to Batman's. She then tries to make him realise that real fear Scarecrow is exploiting is his fear of loss. She then points out that he had already spent fifteen years of his life fighting and capturing the enemy, and that it was now time for him to come to terms with his own personal demons, something he cannot solve through punches or solving fancy puzzles. 

Catwoman then starts to fade from him as well, and she feels that the only way Batman will snap out of it, is if she takes off her mask and present herself as Selina Kyle. She then asks Batman to do the same, and remove her fear. Batman hesitates at first, but eventually summons the courage to remove his mask and reveal Bruce Wayne under the cowl to Selina Kyle. The two openly acknowledge their feelings for one another and share a passionate kiss. 

The story concludes with the elderly Bruce acknowledging that while he eventually found the Scarecrow, he also found someone much more important that night: he once again found Bruce Wayne. Additionally, he found the woman he wanted to spend the rest of his life with, the woman who understood him the most: Selina Kyle. After twenty years of marriage, Selina eventually met her tragic end, but Bruce has since stopped finding meaning in death. Rather than dwell on the fact that he lost his best friend and partner, he instead acknowledged that his wife lived a good life that was meaningful, full of love, courage, and spirit. He closes this chapter with the hope that when he does join his wife in death that others will remember positive things about him as well.

Review: This is undoubtedly one of those stories that always leaves me in tears by the time I get to the final page, which is a good thing. It's honestly hard to imagine that this story was written in 1983, and we're not getting anything nearly this good in the year 2014. The fact that this story was written with so much human experience and emotion woven into it, it makes even the most critically acclaimed Scott Snyder Batman story look shallow by comparison, and I'm saying this as someone who likes Snyder's Batman.

Here's the thing that the New 52 keeps getting wrong in terms of quality storytelling and meaningful character development: the current leadership doesn't want to make their characters human. Or rather, they don't want these characters to be in any way attached to their humanity, which in many cases, makes them feel less accessible to me. I actually like reading about characters that feel human, are in touch with their humanity, embrace their strengths and weaknesses as individuals, and strive to be better people. That is the reason these characters have endured all of these years, and why they feel so unrecognisable in their current incarnations: they no longer possess the qualities that made them relatable as human beings. 

Additionally, the current leadership feels that the only way I will find these characters compelling and interesting, is if they are somehow 'broken' and find new ways to shock me. But this story--a story that was written three years before I was even born--quickly dispels that argument. Instead, I always find myself completely moved by this 31-year-old classic in ways that DC's current New 52 line of books fail to do. Rather than delivering us an ultra-violent narrative that results in pointless deaths for pure shock value, The Autobiography of Bruce Wayne instead delivers us a heartfelt story about the loss of a loved one, and coming to terms with that loss in a manner that's more in touch with real life than what you would typically expect from a comic book, much less, a superhero comic!

Let's first address the main development that makes this classic story timeless: the characterisation of an elderly Bruce Wayne. This isn't Frank Miller's Batman who reads like a raging beast who responds to everything with violence followed by the iconic Milleresque 'I'm the goddamn Batman' line. No, this is the Golden Age Batman, the very first version of Batman to appear in comics in 1939, which makes this story all the more interesting. 

As you may recall, the Golden Age Batman wasn't known as the hero we know him for today. In contrast with the version of Batman who hates guns and refuses to kill, this version of him was famous for doing exactly that. Since his debut in comics, the Golden Age Batman has thrown mobsters into vats of acid, has watched criminals get caught in a fire and left them to die, he has even kicked them off of skyscrapers, has snapped a few necks, has legitimately gunned people down from the Batplane, and my personal favourite, lynching a criminal from the Batplane and later cutting the rope. This Batman was definitely not very crook-friendly at the start of his career. But to think that this version of Batman is the one who eventually marries Catwoman and fathers Helena Wayne (who later becomes the Huntress), I can't help but to feel mystified by that, and that is a concept this story explores and develops really well.

Throughout this narrative, we see a much older, calmer Bruce Wayne who is very much in touch with his own humanity. We see a Bruce Wayne who has reclaimed his identity as a man, and is in a place in his life where he no longer needs the monster he created, the Batman. This is a major contrast to that earlier, younger version of the character who was noticeably angrier and more withdrawn from the people in his life. Yet, it works really well in this case because that is exactly the point being made: he isn't the same man at age 64 that he was at age 24, and the story fills in this gap quite beautifully. 

The story briefly explores who Bruce Wayne was at the start of his Batman career, and it focuses the remainder of the story on the point in his life where he realised this isn't what he wanted to be for the rest of his life. The story establishes how many years have passed since he first took on the mantle of Batman, and how much he has personally grown since that time. He started thinking about how his behaviour in the last 15 years has pushed some of the most important people in his life away, and has especially come to the realisation that--despite what he has believed for years--he does value human relationships. In particular, he acknowledges that doesn't want to spend the rest of his life alone and without any love. That is a very powerful message that acknowledges it's perfectly okay for a man to desire other things in life than his one 'hobby,' including love. What's more is that it is a message that's presented in a way that doesn't demonise emotion as an exclusively feminine trait that takes a way a man's masculinity. Quite the contrary! It acknowledges men as human beings, something that's nearly unheard of in this modern age of superhero comics.

Another development I really enjoyed about this narrative is the presentation of Selina Kyle as Bruce Wayne's equal, not just within the context of the story but also in how she is valued by the writer. In contrast with the modern age that consistently marginalises women in male-centred narratives, and reduces their importance to how they are valued by the men in their life, this story does no such thing. Instead, Selina Kyle is presented with respect and shares equal part of the narrative. Bruce Wayne isn't just giving out the orders and controlling every aspect of the situation as he's usually presented doing. Instead, he is still presented as the skilled and meticulous crime-fighter we know him for, but he's also presented as vulnerable. Selina Kyle is also presented as vulnerable, but she also demonstrates that she is equally intelligent and methodological as Bruce. At no point in the story is she presented with a sexualised body, in cheesecake poses, or in any other way that distracts from the main story. She is, in fact presented as a person.

Another thing this narrative does really well is establish parallels between her origin story and that of Bruce Wayne. Like Bruce, she too became the Catwoman as a way of dealing with her own personal demons, in this case a need to feel empowered in a society where she is constantly devalued on the basis of her gender. The experiences and losses she endured very early on in her life were in many ways reflective of other women of the time period, but none of these negative experiences are presented in ways that are exploitive of her character, nor designed to induce shock. She is, once again, presented with respect and class. I also like that Selina as well as the other women in this narrative (like Linda Paige and Kathy Kane) are presented as important people in Bruce Wayne's life in some major way. Linda Paige was the former girlfriend who made him think about where he was going with his life, and Selina Kyle was the woman who helped him find the man he really was beneath the monster. Similarly, despite the fact that Batwoman was originally created as a love interest for Batman to divert accusations of homosexuality, she was nonetheless written as a valued friend by Batman. 

Lastly, there is Joe Staton's art to discuss for delivering many of these heart-wrenching scenes in Alan Brennert's script. Staton is an artist I have talked about in the past and even has a place in my Top Ten Favourite Huntress Artists list from last year. One thing I have always loved about Staton's art is his ability to successfully capture human emotion and make it look real. He excels really well in his use of body language, and successfully captures the personalities and unique energies of these characters. Staton once again delivers on all of these fronts, bringing full circle the depth of Brennert's script and making this story one of the most memorable--if not the best--Batman story ever told.

★★★★★

2 comments:

  1. Probably my all time favourite Batman stories. It has many layers to it and makes the characters of Bruce and Selina equally as important as Batman and Catwoman. I love that as Bruce/Batman falls for Selina/Catwoman he begins to lose her and must face perhaps his ultimate fear (or certainly his largest secret) - his identity being revealed. Peeling back the mask which had trapped him in the dual roles of Batman and Bruce Wayne to leave only a single soul living a full life rather than two half lives. Just an amazing story and so much story is told in just a few panels, the reaction to the scars for example. Just incredible and one of the criminally under rated stories. I wish there were more like this but the fact there aren't makes this all the more special. A genuine classic!

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    1. Definitely agree with everything you said here! I'm glad this story was collected in the Alan Brennert: Tales of the Batman trade that recently came out. A genuine classic indeed! :)

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