Batman #51: Heart of ice, heart of flesh
Image credit: Lee Weeks and Elizabeth Breitweiser
The wedding is off.
Batman #50 is behind us, and in its wake, we have a much smaller, more intimate story than the long game Tom King and co. have been playing at for the past year. King's brightest moments on Batman have come in these narrow bands, most often with Lee Weeks giving shape to his vision. This week's Batman #51 sees the two joined by colorist Elizabeth Breitweiser and current series letterer Clayton Cowles, and the result is another (welcome) peak in what has largely been a controversial run.
Be warned: I will be discussing Batman #51 in some detail, so if you haven't read it and would rather not be spoiled, you'll want to leave now and come check this out once you've had the chance to catch up on the book.
Heart of ice
For me, King's greatest weakness on Batman in general, and in the lead-up to the wedding specifically, has been abstract storytelling. He has attempted to tackle some deeply personal topics, and—to be fair—he's had a few successes. I think of the moment at the end of his first arc, where Bruce comforted a grieving Gotham Girl, for example. There, King's trademark repetition—I know. I know. I know., in this case—was a natural choice for the dialogue of the moment. And then we had the Batman/Fudd crossover, or the Date Nights and Last Rites annual—both with Weeks. The former managed to take an absolutely ridiculous concept and turn it into a compelling detective story, one in which I found myself sympathizing even with the cartoon character co-lead, and his unfulfilled longing for his precious Cwoud.
But for most of this run? For most of this run, King has wrapped his intimate truths in too much artifice, characters communicating their raw emotions with craft language that distances them from those emotions, and us along with them. He has wrapped his intimate moments in theatrics and disjointed narrative, disconnecting broken hearts from the circumstances that broke them. And I have been left cold.
Batman #51 features well-known Bat-villain Mr. Freeze, a character planted deep in the heart of any fan who ever enjoyed his rebirth in Batman: The Animated Series. Freeze is such an interesting choice in the wake of this past year of storytelling. His physical state forces him to have some measure of distance from his love, Nora. There is glass protecting his head from the heat of the outside world, and glass encasing Nora in the cold stasis that preserves her. There's distance in the monotone of his voice, as well. And yet, ever since his landmark appearance in Heart of Ice, there has been no member of Batman's rogues gallery for whom we feel a greater sense of empathy and loss. There may be layers of physical mediators between Freeze and Nora, but in his B:TAS origin, we learn that the titular "Heart of Ice" is not the heart at the center of it all—that there is warmth beneath the facade; beneath the cold, unfeeling voice; beneath the layers of glass and wickedness that seemingly separate Freeze from his humanity.
Heart of flesh
Here in #51, Freeze is again the unexpected avatar of that humanity. The implication by the end is that Batman has forced a false confession out of him. Freeze still projects a fairly emotionless front—yelling in fear/pain and confession notwithstanding—but by the end of his testimony in court, we cannot help but empathize with him. He has been savagely beaten by the Batman, and even before Bruce's action on the final page confirms it, we begin to suspect Freeze's innocence.
Bruce shows more emotion than his enemy. In his hotel room, in the courthouse bathroom, as he listens to Freeze's testimony—in each of these cases, we're given visual cues to the struggle within. Whereas it has often felt as though King gives us a reverse-telescopic view into Bruce's heart, this time he just drops us right in the chest cavity where we can feel it thump and throb. The key here is in narrative, visual, and verbal plainness. We see events play out—even with quite a bit of elapsed time from scene to scene. We see the range of emotions—some pronounced, some subtle—on Bruce's face and in Weeks's quiet storytelling in the hotel room. We feel Bruce's pain in the silence, in the simplicity of a guttural yell, in a wince while Freeze recounts the horrible night of his capture. King's weakness in Batman—in this past year especially—has been in his attempt to speak for emotions that can speak for themselves—to elaborate rather than illuminate. King's victory in Batman #51 is in constructing a narrative that gives those emotions a platform—a victory shared by Weeks, Breitweiser, and Cowles for so perfectly realizing that platform.
So where do we go from here? Are authenticity and poetry mutually exclusive? Can we not at times find our truer selves in abstraction? Tom King himself has proven in a number of his other books that literary excellence can be an instrument of clarity, and that bizarre, theatrical narrative can be an x-ray view into the bones of living, rather than a shroud obstructing the obvious. And I have loved him precisely for both of those things. As he and Bruce pick up the pieces of the wedding that never was, I'm holding out hope—hope that as we enter the next long arc that is sure to come, and Tom King returns to his familiar tools, that he would find in Batman what he has found elsewhere; that he would show us always the heart of flesh inside the heart of ice; that though our eyes behold these stories through walls of glass, our hearts would not be contained by them.