Tom King has some rather unfortunate obsessions. They are understandable, considering his background. But they are clear, nevertheless. Previous Batman author Scott Snyder was fascinated by the idea of Gotham as a living, evil entity, almost a spiritual power in the tradition of Stephen King’s dark musings about Derry, Maine. King explicitly disavows the idea of the city as a living, thinking thing, dismissing it as a collection of glass and brick and concrete incapable of taking action against anyone, including the grieving hero Gotham who is determined to take out his pain on the metropolis he wanted to save. Instead, King layers his own interpretation on the Batman mythos, a filter of tragedy and frustration in which well meant, ignorant action only makes things worse for everyone, including the would be saviors. It is consistent with his previous work in Omega Men and Sheriff of Baghdad, although not his stories for Grayson, which figured a hero ill-suited to such themes.
David Finch’s artwork fits nicely with such pseudo-realistic themes. His human forms are idealized but within the bounds of myth rather than the borders of the surreal. Likewise his buildings and streets have the texture of possibility rather than dreams. Jordie Bellaire offsets all this somewhat. The colors are rich and dark without being grim or roughly textured, giving the book the visual feel of a vibrant story and not a gritty chronicle. The tensions between realism and fantasy are just enough to keep the reader engaged without conjuring comparisons to the darker forms of story telling that the Rebirth initiative seems to be distancing itself from.
King also uses moments within his plot to break the tension, allowing a more vulnerable and human side of Batman to show forth. A scene with Alfred early in the book is actually laugh-out-loud funny, and completely on point to how one imagines the caustic, efficient, and exasperated butler reacting to his employer’s more exotic exploits. King has said that it is his intention to highlight a more human, socially connected Batman, and he succeeds admirably. He even goes so far as to break one of Batman’s long-standing traditions by calling in the Justice League for help against the rampaging Gotham. That particular moment does not go so well, as the members of the League feel more like wooden props than social presences.
It is the character of Gotham Girl that shines the most in this issue. We finally discover the roots of Gotham and Gotham Girl’s powers. The purchased the ability to burn years of life for power, although we do not know yet with whom the pact was made. Gotham perishes in a confrontation with his sister, who finds the strength to rise above he telepathically induced fear to protect the city from her brother. The heart of the book is the interaction between Gotham Girl and Duke Thomas as she struggles for the courage to rise out of her weakness and reveal herself as a worthy hero.
The most controversial part of the book is the final pages that include musings from a future version of Gotham Girl, in which she has married Duke Thomas and killed Bruce Wayne. It is hard to know how seriously to take such clues. They seem so crude as to beg for disbelief, yet King rarely if every provides in-story promises and fails to deliver. But Batman has recently died once, and the theme of a tragic sacrificial death only elicits a groan. It threatens to be years of our lives burned, not for power, but for profit.