Rich Johnston reviews Batman/Catwoman #1 by Tom King, Clay Mann and Tomeu Morey, published this Tuesday by DC Comics.
Once upon a time, Tom King wrote the comic book series Vision for Marvel Comics. Winning all the awards going, and fast tracked to be adapted into the TV series WandaVision. This kind of response saw DC Comics headhunt him to be an exclusive writer for them, and to justify the added expense, put him on their best-selling ongoing title for its relaunch, Batman. With a variety of artists including David Finch, Mikel Janin, Mitch Gerads, Tony Daniel and Lee Weeks, he told one story planned for over a hundred issues. It began with Batman's death, being claimed by new character Gotham Girl, it gave the young Bruce Wayne greater psychological issues dealing with his parents' death including attempted suicide, mapping that to Batman's entire career. It took the classic cheesy Bane-breaking-Batman moment from Knightfall and turned it into a fifty issue meta-story. Hell yeah, it revived Kite Man from a joke into a much-loved character. It celebrated the Batman '66 sound effects, it rolled out Batman's rogues gallery repeatedly in the same order and it gave Batman and Catwoman a marriage mired in contradicting continuity, that they walked away from. It was a very stylised story that tacked against the usual direction for Batman even as it fetishised many of its surface elements. And as a result, I bloody well loved it, even if that put me in conflict with many other Batman fans. Tom King's Batman was ambitious, clever, multi-layered but never forgetting that one of those layers was a very silly idea about a man dressing up as a bat to fight crime.
It was incredibly unpopular within wider DC Comics editorial, but while it remained selling over a hundred thousand copies an issue, it was hard to argue with. However, during an intended pause in the series intensity, an arc called Knightmares where Batman battled his own psychological inner dream demons, sales dropped and EIC Bob Harras took the opportunity to dropkick Tom King in favour of a fill-in arc by James Tynion IV, before everything got relaunched for 5G with 12 Years A Slave writer John Ridley. That was the plan anyway.
Of course, Tom King's final arc, City Of Bane was a sales smash including killing off Alfred, but, finishing with #85, there were still fourteen issues worth of story that were dropped. Tom King's big ending before a major continuity shift were sent to the cornfield, but have now returned, shorter, sharper, drawn by Clay Mann and now known as Batman/Catwoman. That continuity shift is no more, James Tynion IV has moved from a fill-in writer to its main deal, leaving Batman/Catwoman strangely adrift, tacking to navigational maps of continuity that have since been redrawn in the manner of Doomsday Clock.
And so this week, the first issue. Delayed a year so that Clay Mann – who also drew Tom King's Heroes In Crisis – could draw the whole damn thing. And from the start, with Tomeu Morey, this is a beautiful comic book, Vistas, cities, houses, drawn and coloured in a most attractive, vivacious and detailed manner, showing period, climate and place effortlessly for the reader- albeit it a huge amount of effort for the creative time. You want to live in Clay and Tomeu's worlds, even if Tom King forcing them to draw such horrible things.
And because this is Tom King, we are presented with the worlds the different characters see, in different parts of their lives, and something hidden which we as the audience are tasked with putting together. We have Bruce Wayne and Andrea Beaumont, the Phantasm, and a relationship other than the central Batman/Catwoman relationship. Selina seems okay with her ex, especially when Bruce is wanting to put all his efforts into locating her son, lost in Gotham. Which instantly suggests that this could be Bruce's son as well, something which no character gets close to stating textually, but hangs over the head of the issue. Or could it be the Joker's son, someone also involved with Andrea in the days of the Mask Of The Phantasm. Or could it be someone else entirely? Could this have been the big change he had to have signed off, before the previously planned big relaunch? It is the big question asked by the reader, but one that no one in the comic seems to address. In weaker hands, this would seem like sloppy writing, but Tom King hides the character's internal narratives and doesn't allow any gaps, leaving an audience up in the air a deliberate and recognisable choice. Will it be answered? Will it even be asked? Because this first issue is also the first steps in what appears to be a well-disguised horror story. Some very bad things happen, how much the characters know is undecided, but it will absolutely determine what happens in subsequent chapters.
Especially when you throw onto this three time zones, the early days of Batman and Catwoman, a later day closer to the present of the DC Universe and then the future, following his Batman Annual stories, in a world where Bruce Wayne has died of cancer, leaving Selina Kyle as a widow, mopping up their affairs, accomplices and acquaintances. And having to deal with all they have done.
Tom King, as ever, creates a deft puzzle box, with pieces made up of people, those who you were, are now and will be again. Whether people care now that this story is playing out, away from the main Batman title and continuity is another issue. But these are my Batman and Catwoman now, and it's a real pleasure to see that their story is still to be told. Oh, and it's a Christmas story too… sing with me…
Batman/Catwoman #1 is published this Tuesday by DC Comics.