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Bat-Chain Filler

  Batman: Bruce Wayne: Murderer?

 

Various writers and artists

DC, 2002

Rating: 2.8

 

 

Posted: June 30, 2002

By The Gentleman (exclusive to Shaking Through)

One has to give the folks in charge of the Batman mythos over at DC some credit. After all, they've done a remarkable job over the past few years of fostering the illusion of significant and shocking change in the Bat-titles. We've seen Batman himself out of commission with a broken back; we've seen Gotham racked by plague and earthquake, then abandoned and declared a "No Man's Land" by the U.S. government; and we've seen Commissioner Gordon lose his wife at the hands of the Joker, later get shot (watching his assailant walk free) and, finally, resign his post.

That's a lot for followers of the various Batcomics to digest, and it certainly gives the impression of radical change in Batman's densely-populated corner of the DC universe. But an impression is all it is. Of all of those earth-shattering events mentioned above, only the resignation of Gordon is significantly felt in Bruce Wayne: Murderer? -- all of the other cataclysmic events seem to have faded into the mist, as if they never happened.

In point of fact, BWM is a perfect example of the "illusion of change" dynamic -- so essential to daytime soap operas and monthly superhero comics -- in action. Because throughout its 257 pages of story, many things seem to happen, when in fact, very little actually happens.

The first chapter -- which reprints the successful "10 cent Adventure" marketing ploy/comic first released last fall -- dutifully sets up the intriguing premise. The reader spends an evening with the Caped Crusader as seen through the eyes of Sasha Bourdeaux, Bruce Wayne's bodyguard. (The influence of Atticus Kodiak novelist and Detective scribe Greg Rucka, perhaps?) Sasha, hired by Wayne Enterprises (billionaire Wayne's multi-million dollar company) to safeguard its figurehead, has learned Wayne's secret identity and, being nothing if not thorough and stubborn in her duties, now accompanies him on his nightly rounds, the better to keep him alive. Circumstances force the pair to split up toward the end of the night, and Sasha returns to the Batcave to find Wayne already there. Almost immediately, they stumble upon the body of Vesper Fairchild, a hard-driven reporter and an ex-flame of Wayne's; also as immediately, Gotham's Finest bust into Wayne Manor, guns drawn, having been privy to a 911 call that featured Fairchild's last words.

The story continues from there. Wayne and Bordeaux are thus arrested, and separated by the cops, the better to test their alibis (the old Prisoner's Dilemma). Sasha has a particularly rough time of it: She's torn between loyalty to her charge and a nagging doubt (Wayne did, after all, have ample time to have committed the crime in question before she returned to the Batcave), clinging desperately to her firm conviction that above all, Bruce Wayne does not, would not (and hopefully did not) kill -- ever. Meanwhile, her employer chafes at the liability the Bruce Wayne identity proves to be in prison: Years of careful, methodical play-acting demand he stay true to Wayne's image as a layabout playboy, even as the urge to treat his fellow-inmate tormentors to a Batman-style ass-kicking grows ever stronger. Denied bail, and thus frustrated at his inability to put this nuisance behind him and continue with what's important -- his "work" -- Wayne/Batman finally snaps, laying the serious Bat-smackdown on three bothersome convicts no doubt looking to enact an episode or two of the HBO prison drama Oz. Which only fuels speculation that Wayne is capable of the crime of which he's accused, and further drives daggers of doubt into Sasha's already-crumbling resolve.

Meanwhile, the Batman supporting cast spends a lot of time tracking down leads and doing its fair share of agonizing. Indeed, here is where much of the real "action" in BWM takes place -- emotionally. Wheelchair-bound information broker Oracle (Barbara Gordon, the former Batgirl) and Robin wrestle with doubts similar to Sasha's, while loyal Nightwing (Dick Grayson, the first Robin) refuses to even entertain such notions.

(Spoiler Alert: Don't read any further if you don't want a couple of key plot-points revealed. ) Inevitably, Bruce Wayne escapes (distressingly, off-panel, as it were), and is confronted in the Batcave by his Bat-family while making preparations to go into hiding. Annoyed and taciturn, Batman repeatedly ignores or refuses to answer the questions of his rightfully upset comrades, flatly stating that the Bruce Wayne persona has become a liability and is thus now discarded. (A private jet has just taken off, giving the world the impression that Wayne, a fugitive from justice, has left the country, sealing the issue of his guilt once and for all.) Grayson reacts poorly to this news -- it's he who, more than anyone else, feels a kinship to Bruce Wayne as much as to Batman -- indeed, Wayne has recently adopted Grayson as his son. A fight naturally ensues, but it proves as unsatisfying as much of what's gone before.

So on the surface, a great deal seems to take place. But tellingly, it takes over 200 pages of comic book storytelling to churn through a tale that could have been capably developed in less than half the space. After all, the quicker the storyline gets resolved, the quicker things return to normal and readers come to realize that the status quo is never actually shaken up for very long. Never mind that the story might actually prove more compelling if compacted: the Bat-creators, more concerned with appearances than with story, employ a Bat-bellows to pump BWM full of air. By dragging the story out, taking up much more of the Bat-reader's time (and money), they create the appearance of change, when we all know that eventually Wayne's name will be cleared and the status quo restored. (Although not, apparently, anytime too soon: First, there's the much, much longer Bruce Wayne: Fugitive storyline to plod through.)

Having just heaped criticism on the various writers and caretakers of the Batman titles, this writer, ever a gentleman, feels compelled to point out a few standout contributors. The aforementioned Greg Rucka runs the farthest with the balls he's given, showing a flair for both the police procedural and prison-drama milieus in his turns at bat, while Ed Brubaker invests his chapters with an authentic sense of true noir grit. In fact, the other writers -- the always capable Devin Grayson, DC warhorse Chuck Dixon and Kelly Puckett -- also comport themselves admirably.

The artists, alas, are more of a mixed bag, most notably Scott McDaniel, who brings an admirably street-level feel to the second chapter -- Rucka's fast-moving "Procedure" -- but pencils the final chapter as if suffering from a number of progressive neurological maladies; the fisticuffs between Batman and Nightwing are headache-inducing, and his anatomy starts at deplorable and descends rapidly from there. Happily, Rick Burchett renders the first chapter with a stark, stylized feel favorably comparable to the Batman animated series, and Pete Woods brings a recognizable sense of place and atmosphere to his contributions.

The ups and downs of the individual creators aside, there's no escaping the fact that BWM is a lumbering goliath, painstakingly plotted so as to kill a great deal of time and convey a false sense of movement. In better days, this story would have taken a lot less time to tell, and been much the better for it. The fact that it doesn't speaks to a loss of creative confidence in the Batman's powers that be. If they trusted themselves to tell more, and more compelling, tales -- and more importantly, trusted their readers not to be concerned with a static status quo, as long as those tales were indeed compelling -- such tricks as the one BWM ultimately fails to pull off would be neither necessary nor missed.

Related Links:

The Dark Knight Strikes Again #1

The Dark Knight Strikes Again #3

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