Warning: I’m pretty much spoiling the latest issue of the Batman comic book here. I do recommend getting it and reading it if you haven’t already, even if you read this first.
Comic books have been tackling social issues for decades, from racism to homophobia to drugs to the plight of the poor. The latest issue of the Batman comic book does this again in an issue that is both another chapter to the current story arc and a standalone, ‘very special issue’ of sorts. The issue starts with a dead teenager being looked over by Batman and Jim Gordon, not yet commissioner of the Gotham City Police Department. The kid has been shot, and Gordon thinks that’s how he got killed but Batman thinks he was dropped from the air. The only problem is that no aircraft are legally allowed to fly over that part of the city (the story takes place shortly after the ‘Zero Year’ arc when the Riddler was using blimps to attack the city). So Batman has to go look among those who wouldn’t let the law stop them from flying over that area.
What transpires from there is a trek through various parts of the city and Dark Knight style interrogations, from the Penguin to a the Four Fives (a Gotham street gang) to the dead boy’s brother. And it’s here that a history lesson, about both Gotham and real life American cities, is taught. The dead boy lived in a Gotham City ghetto (which was the product of housing discrimination), and was in conflict with the Four Fives (who’d started out as a neighborhood protection force before falling into the drug dealing business). The Four Fives wanted to take over a vacant building that belonged to the boys’ hospitalized father, and to get protection from them he went to the Penguin, who working his way to the top of the Gotham crime ladder. The building had become a hot target because the neighborhood had become the target of an urban renewal effort and spaces to do illegal business were about to become scarce. He offers the building to Penguin to use in exchange for protection from the Four Fives.
And then it gets worse. Penguin double crosses the boy and lets the Four Fives have the building in an effort to co opt them into his own organization. And with nowhere else to go, the boy seeks out a mysterious figure (and the villain of current story arc) who is giving people drugs that give them temporary super powers. He goes to confront the gang and in the process the vacant building gets burned down. He stumbles across a policeman, who in fear shoots him and runs off. When he comes back the boy is gone. We find out later that the drugs caused the boy to grow wings, but wore off while he was in flight leading to his fatal fall to earth.
Through all of this, there are fictional newspaper excerpts that read like they were ripped from real life American newspapers. The neighborhood’s creation is documented here, as is the rise of the Four Fives, and an accounting of police encounters with black men that end in fatal shootings. The urban renewal angle adds some more depth to Batman’s story. It turns out that Bruce Wayne is the force behind the effort, in an earnest attempt to revitalize a dilapidated area of the city he protects as Batman. And in trying to do good he adversely affects the people who live in that area, as is often the consequence of real life urban renewal efforts.
A central theme of this issue, to me at least, seems to be futility. Batman goes through his usual methods of finding out what happened but by the end of the issue we only know that the culprit is current villain Mr. Bloom, who is still running loose six years later. As Bruce Wayne he tries to help a crumbling neighborhood but only makes it something for various bad actors to fight over even more. And then there’s the dead boy who tried to keep the Four Fives off of his family’s property and ended up having to go to the Penguin, and then Mr. Bloom to get a drug that ultimately killed him. Penguin’s rise isn’t halted and the Four Fives are still doing their dirt.
The Bruce Wayne piece is an answer to a question I saw on Twitter one day: why doesn’t he just use his money and business acumen to make Gotham better instead of suiting up to beat the crap out of criminals every night? Because money alone doesn’t fix anything and can make it worse. And even a good cop like Jim Gordon isn’t prepared to consider the possibility that a dead teenager may have taken a drug that would make him sprout wings and later fall to his death. The city needs Batman as much as it does Bruce Wayne, maybe more. Which is why in the present day Gordon is patrolling the city as Batman and is now trying to catch Mr. Bloom.
After all that, what am I trying to say? Real simple….GO GET THIS ISSUE. It’s worth it.