What would it mean for the world if superheroes actually existed? Oddly enough, that is not a question that either DC or Marvel has much cared to explore over the years. They have been content to create universes in which their heroes operate, but in which society and technology and government more or less continue as before. Even the main outlines of human history are largely unaffected.
Now, a moment’s reflection tells us that would be completely impossible. If superheroes and super villains were to appear, the ramifications would expand through scientific circles, military activity, social attitudes and structures, and government policy. At the most fundamental level, the super people would either take over, or society would rapidly organize itself to control and exploit them. But such stories have largely over the years been confined to Elseworlds diversions, or to properties like WildStorm. Maybe the chief exception has been quasi-spy properties such as Checkmate, with its relationship pre-Flashpoint to the Suicide Squad, and the New 52 A.R.G.U.S. and its involvement with the Justice Leagues. Batman Eternal has taken another tentative step toward exploring the implications of superheroes, at least for a specific city. And that may be its most valuable contribution to the Batman mythos.
Eternal had several goals when it launched in April 2014. The first was to serve as the main keeper of continuity in the Batman universe, and in that task it largely failed. The other titles in the Batman line eventually ran beyond it or scattered in various directions, while editorial turnover and drastic shifts in the strategic direction of the line meant that the title could not reflect important developments that occurred suddenly and with little time for preparation, especially the change in status of Dick Grayson and the return of Damian Wayne. But even had these major shifts not occurred, the Batman Office may have given too little thought to the difficulties inherent in coordinating a weekly title with multiple ongoing monthlies over the course of a calendar year.
The title also set out to tell a major Batman story that would serve as an iconic tale celebrating the character’s 75th anniversary. Here the weekly was a qualified success. Echoes of the well-regarded Hush and Long Halloween storylines were deliberate and generally served to heighten interest without repeating those epics beat for beat. The use of themes and characters from the earlier Court of Owls likewise worked to deepen complexity and please fans of Scott Snyder’s popular work in the New 52. Probably the biggest wins came with the introduction of new characters Julia Pennyworth and Stephanie Brown, both welcome additions to the Bat Family, as well as the further psychological depth gained by Harper and Cullen Row.
The structure of the story was somewhat more problematic. The writers, James Tynion IV, John Layman, Ray Fawkes, Kyle Higgins, and Tim Seeley, divided the book into small arcs of consecutive issues, allowing them the space to set out and explore themes in some depth. Unfortunately the quality of these arcs was uneven, and their pacing and contribution to the overall story often left something to be desired. Overall, many of the issues felt like filler, and the entire set of arcs dealing with the supernatural dealing at Arkham Asylum was an unnecessary diversion that seemed more designed to set up the Gotham by Midnight ongoing than to contribute to the story of Batman Eternal. Likewise, the artwork was inconsistent and often distracting in its variety. The story of Eternal could have been told in six months rather than twelve, and with a much tighter pace and more coherent imagery.
And the story itself? In the end, it was amusing and interesting. It was an intellectual puzzle. But the problems with pacing robbed it of much emotional strength, and the unnecessary diversions dissipated narrative energy. It was a good story but not a great one. It was a memorable story, but one suspects it will not be an iconic one. Certainly it was a financial and critical success, but it was not another Hush or Long Halloween or Knightfall.
But, as said above, there was one interesting and perhaps enduring contribution to the mythos, the relationship of the Bats to Gotham. Scott Snyder has toyed with this before, in a mystical sense that sees the city as a living entity. Eternal made a nod to this theory early on. But in the end, the statement this book makes is more ordinary, but perhaps just as interesting. How do the people of Gotham relate to the heroes in their midst? In the beginning they react with suspicion. Then they feel fear. All of this is embodied in the character of Jason Bard, yet another highly successful introduction. But finally, the people react with unity and a sense of identity. The Bats are the people of Gotham. The people of Gotham are the Bats. Or, more precisely, the Bats represent the people of Gotham, and in the end Gotham must embrace and rise to the support of the Bats, or fall with them.