To talk about all the amazing things in Batman #83, written by Tom King, with art by Mikel Janín, colors by Jordie Bellaire and letters by Clayton Cowles, we first need to talk about something in recent comics that is frustrating. Let’s touch on this briefly to show how King has consistently been rising above these pitfalls despite controversy and backlash, and how Batman #83 is just another brilliant chapter in King’s masterwork of subtext.
In the past couple of years, comics seem to be telling readers everything they need to know. From the opening pages of issue #7, they tell readers every single thing that happened in the last six issues and how it has affected all of the characters. Then a huge life-changing event occurs in issue #7, and often the characters take a moment to effectively sit down and debrief. Of course, this doesn’t always happen in a sit-down, sometimes it’s hidden in quips and asides. Regardless of the packaging, one never wonders, “How are these characters feeling?” The story is spoon-fed to us. It feels more like listening to a sermon, with readers acting more like a sounding-board than active participants.
King rarely tells readers in his story how his characters feel, and characters often say things that they don’t truly mean. It’s King’s understanding of subtext that allows us to feel like a player in the story. What remains unexplained or unsaid is as much a part of a story as what is explained or said. When things are left up to interpretation, we bring our own life experiences into the mix to solve the puzzle. We think, “Oh, I went through something like this, I know how angry he must be,” or “Why doesn’t he just say ‘I need you,’ we know that’s what he’s thinking!”
One of the most striking moments of King’s Batman run is in issue #49. The Joker and Catwoman have a showdown at a church. They both seem to mortally wound each other and then spend the rest of the issue lying on the church floor, bleeding out, and chatting. No big fights, no world-threatening events, very little talks of feelings. Just jokes and nostalgia. As Joker talks about the “good old days” of fighting Batman and how they would all laugh, he says to Selina, “You were there. But you never laughed.” Selina’s response isn’t an explanation. She says, “Yeah, you’re right. That is odd.”
The fact that Selina almost seems to avoid the question speaks louder than any answer could. They talk about everything but their feelings, deflecting and rabbit-trailing like they have something to hide. They ask why Penguin has an umbrella, and talk about how underrated they think Two-Face is. Of course, as the issue progresses and Joker and Selina lie side-by-side, trying to stop their bleeding, Joker comes back to the original question. “I only laugh when I win,” Selina finally says.
But it’s the initial deflection that leads us to wonder if she’s telling the truth or just finding a new way to stop the line of questioning. Either way, Joker is destined to get under her skin. He says to Selina of her and Batman’s wedding plans, “He can’t be happy. And also be Batman.” It’s after Joker lets go of his wound to try and finally shoot Selina, and he collapses in her arms that something odd happens. Selina laughs. Is it because she won? Or did Joker’s words get to her? It doesn’t feel like she won.
So, it’s not that King doesn’t explain everything, so much as what is explained can’t be trusted. These characters can’t voice their feelings because their feelings are more profound than they can express. The very fact that characters find some things too difficult to say means more than if they said them. A dozen or so issues later, King digs his heels into this approach with the “Knightmares” arc, essentially six issues of nothing but Batman’s bad dreams. A lot of the dialogue is minimal. A lot of the actions are metaphorical. All of it is deeply subtextual.
This drove people crazy. It’s fair to get impatient, not many things happened in these issues. But King has dramatically rejected the format and pacing of an average comic book. He doesn’t create an event for every issue, and sometimes he doesn’t even mind if nothing happens to advance the plot at all. King focuses on his characters while pulling back his exposition so we can still question if we even understand the characters in the first place. King doesn’t connect all the dots for the readers; he lets the readers do some of the work.
Batman #83 is another slow and straightforward issue that merely describes Batman breaking out of a room. It’s somewhere on page three that it becomes clear: “Oh, so this IS the issue.” There is no point in waiting for the action to begin because King takes his time. Batman barely speaks. Instead, we get the art of Mikel Janín and the colors by Jordie Bellaire, creating volumes out of silence. Batman never says, “I’m in pain.” His silence does. His mouth never speaks, “I’m afraid to lose,” his eyes do.
The work King is putting into his run on Batman is something different. It’s slow, methodical, and its best moments are as painful as they are enjoyable. But the result is like doing open-heart surgery on the character beneath the cowl. We see Bruce Wayne’s heart laid bare, one pregnant pause at a time. It’s not so much King’s pen that has created his masterwork as it is his extreme restraint. He invites us into the story to be equal parts in figuring out what is going on, and he allows us to come alongside him and diagnose Bruce Wayne. Because in the end, Bruce Wayne is me, Bruce Wayne is you, and Bruce Wayne is most definitely Tom King.