Alex Maleeve, Andy Kubert, Batman, Blackgate, Bruce Wayne, Damien Wayne, DC Comics, FCO Plascencia, Gotham City, Greg Capullo, Harper Row, James Tynion IV, Sandra Hope, Scott Snyder, The New 52, Zero Year
Review by Paul Bowler
If the psychological damage inflicted upon the Bat-Family by the Joker in Death of the Family wasn’t enough to contend with, tragedy struck again when Damien, the ten year old son of Bruce Wayne and Talia Al Ghull, was brutally slaughtered in Batman Incorporated #8. The requiem for Robin continues across all the Bat-Titles this March as everyone close to Batman has to come to terms with the shocking news of Damien’s death.
Overwhelmed with grief, Batman’s life starts to spiral out of control. It falls to Harper Row, the young electrical engineer who once helped Batman in the past, to try and make the Dark Knight see reason before his reckless crime-fighting spree gets him killed.
Scott Snyder handles the aftermath of Damien’s death in Batman #18 by crafting an incredibly moving tale, albeit one with two distinctly different creative teams. The first part of Batman #18 is by Scott Snyder, Kubert and Sandra Hope, while the closing half of the story is handled by Snyder and James Tynion IV, and Alex Maleeve.
This issue features the return of Harper Row, who assisted Batman after he helped her deal with a gang that was bullying her brother. Harper and her brother, Cullen, are still living together in the Narrows of Gotham City with the hope that the Wayne Foundation will soon honour its promise to redevelop the area. Batman #18 opens with Harper and Cullen as they set out to visit their father in Blackgate Penitentiary. The visit doesn’t go well, their father upsets Cullen, and then blames Harper’s “special friend” for getting him sent to jail.
After the unpleasant visit to Blackgate, they return home, where Harper decides to go out looking for Batman. She is deeply concerned about the changes she has noticed in him recently. Even though he told her to end her activities, Harper has continued to monitor Batman’s movements, and over the last week she has been shocked by the level of ferocity she’s witnessed Batman using to apprehend ordinary street criminals – even operating during the daytime – almost as if he is consumed by a pain that feels strangely familiar to Harper.
Harper’s fears that Batman’s relentless crusade against crime is wearing him down, to the point where he is actually beginning to make dangerous mistakes, are realized when Batman is caught off guard by a surprise attack from a thug involved in Ultra-Dog fights. However, when Harper takes it upon herself to intervene, the Dark Knight is far from pleased, and the ensuing war of words inadvertently leaves them both with more than a few home truths to dwell on.
Unperturbed by Batman’s violent outburst, Harper visits Wayne Tower the next day and has a meeting with Bruce Wayne – where she asks him to help her send a message to Batman. That night Batman meets Harper on a rooftop overlooking Wayne Enterprises. Batman apologises for lashing out at her before and Harper explains how she recognised his pain, comparing it with how badly she felt after her mother was murdered. Those dark days would’ve destroyed Harper were it not for the memory of her mother’s advice that helped Harper to find the light in her life again. It is this one word that Harper shares with Batman, a silent message glowing in the night, a light which she hopes will help Batman find the strength he needs to overcome the pain of his loss.
Batman #18 is a remarkable issue by Snyder and Tynion that sensitively deals with Bruce’s reaction to Damien’s tragic death. Both aspects of this story are well handled by Snyder and Tynion, they work extremely well together, and the transition between their scripts is almost seamless. It would have been easy for Snyder to have had Batman go off the rails like he did after Jason Todd was murdered by the Joker in Death of the Family (1988/89), however by utilising the return of Harper Row in Batman #18 Snyder and Tynion have the opportunity to explore Batman’s grief from an entirely new perspective. The way Harper pushes Batman to confront the grief she herself once faced is truly inspired, as is the way they both unwittingly discover an inner catharsis that neither of them were expecting to find as a result.
There has been a lot of speculation about whether Harper will be the next Robin. While this is a distinct possibility, the similarities between Harper’s story and Tim Drake’s origin could just be a red herring to keep readers guessing, I believe Harper’s real potential lies more with her operating on the fringes of Batman’s twilight realm. Harper isn’t interested in finding out Batman’s secret identity, neither does she want the right to fight by his side, all she wants is to make Batman realize how much Gotham needs him – and that she is not prepared to watch him die while he is consumed by a pointless vendetta against his own pain.
Batman #18 also offers readers a very striking mix of artistic styles. Adam Kubert’s art is inked by Sandra Hope, and portrays the Dark Knight as a muscle bound engine of vengeance who goes all out to vent his pent up fury on Gotham’s petty criminals. The final pages by Alex Maleev offer a more refined interpretation of the Dark Knight, one which I feel gives an even greater emotional resonance to the stories closing moments. The different styles don’t really detract from the overall effect of the story, in some ways it actually enhances it, although of the two I preferred Maleev’s take on the Dark Knight as it seemed more in keeping with the overall tone of the issue. Greg Capullo and FCO Plascencia’s cover for Batman #18 features Robin’s empty red laced books; it’s a powerfully understated image, and one that instantly surmises the emptiness of Robin’s death.
Snyder and Capullo’s next big story arc, Zero Year, begins in June with issue #21 and will explore the secret history of Bruce Wayne’s transformation into Batman. The death of Damien Wayne will no doubt seem even more poignant as we look back at Bruce Wayne’s early years in the months ahead. Batman #18 not only provides a fitting coda to Robin’s demise, it also brings Harper Row closer to the legacy of the Bat, and gives Batman a chance to openly face up to his loss and look to the future with a newfound resolve to be the strength that Gotham needs to survive.