I have to keep reminding myself that “Batman” #600 was published 20 years ago. 2002 just doesn’t feel like 20 years past. I wonder if 2002 readers felt the same way about 1982, which seems like a whole different era to me. Or if Batman in 2002 was so vastly different that it barely registered.
Written by Ed Brubaker & Patton Oswalt
Illustrated by Scott McDaniel, James Tucker, Stefano Gaudiano & Sergio Aragonés
Inked by Andy Owens, James Tucker, Stefano Gaudiano & Sergio Aragonés
Colored by Gregory Wright
Separated by Wildstorm FX
Lettered by John Costanza & Eric Shanower
Part 1 of “Bruce Wayne: Fugitive” kicks off in this oversized issue! Bruce Wayne is suspected of murder and is confronted by his allies in the Batcave—resulting in Batman and Nightwing going toe-to-toe in an amazing display of combat between teacher and student that ends with a shocking betrayal!
‘Bruce Wayne – Fugitive,’ far more than ‘Murderer?,’ is a status quo. Ostensibly, there are parts to it and the story develops across all the titles. Practically though, that information is so scattered and so minute that it’s functionally inconsequential to each book’s narrative. In fact, it’s so scattershot that while “Batman” #600 and 601 are both parts of ‘Fugitive,’ #602 is not, despite being the second half of a two-parter. Seriously, this is a strange, strange era for comics and I don’t think I appreciated how strange it was before beginning this read-through.
What’s even stranger is how “Batman” #600 is both oversized AND only features a lead story that’s a couple pages longer than normal. It’s a completely different beast to today’s anniversary issues and in some respects, I actually appreciate it more. Was it jarring to have a story that was primarily about Batman declaring “Bruce Wayne is dead” and then having an extended fight scene with Nightwing in front of Barbara on a TV, Tim, and Cassandra in a big celebration issue? Yes, yes it was. But it was nice to have a reasonable lead story and then three fun, wacky back-ups that had their own life to them.
Other than the Patton Oswalt & Sergio Aragonés back-up, which was a hilarious MAD magazine-esque tale about Batman “updating” for the 80s, I bought into the conceit that these were long lost stories hook, line and sinker. On some level I knew they weren’t really from the Gil Kane/Carmine Infantino and Dick Sprang eras of “Batman” – mostly due to the hi-rez linework and more contemporary figure placement in the panels – but Brubaker, Tucker and Gaudiano did such a good job of evoking the look and feel of those stories, I couldn’t help but believe.
‘The Joker Tips His Hat’ is definitely my favorite of the two. It’s the kind of goofy Silver Age nonsense I love and lets Batgirl & Robin take center stage. ‘Mystery of the Black Bat’ is good too as an homage. Perhaps too good. I kept worrying something unintentionally – or, in the original era, intentionally – racist or deeply problematic was going to crop up. I have a feeling that was the point as Brubaker & co. try to capture the simplistic, optimistic, and moralistic presentation of historical eras that characterized many of the wackier “Batman” adventures. While it’s a well-intentioned pastiche, the stumbles into a pseudo-Back to the Future situation, with Batman inspiring the adoption of “The Black Bat” as a moniker for a conductor on the Underground Railroad leaves me feeling uncomfortable.
The other two issues, however, left me feeling somewhat bored.
Yeah, I don’t know what it is about the ‘Fugitive’ arc that left me feeling cold. The Nicodemus stuff should be right up my alley and right up Brubaker’s too. It’s rooted in crime tropes and mobster fiction, what with his whole thing being about the corruption of the political class in Gotham. Yet the actual mystery is poorly developed, his big plan to attack all of Gotham is trite and amounts to nothing, and while I appreciate the whole thing being wrapped up in just two issues, even that felt like too long.Continued below
Nicodemus actually feels like a villain out of the 90s, like he’d be an Azrael villain or someone who cropped up in “No Man’s Land.” He’s not, though it’s interesting to note.
The other major story critique I have is, well, the leftovers from ‘Fugitive,’ where Bruce has pulled so far into himself that he’s pushing everyone away in an effort to prove that “Bruce is Dead. Only Batman was ever real.” It’s edgy and feels at odds with what Brubaker was doing prior to all the crossover stuff. Having read Rucka’s “Detective Comics” too, I can say it feels less at odds with the arc in that book. Even there, it came out of nowhere for me.
Once again, the fights are great and McDaniel conveys action well. I really like the panel of Batman ejecting his seat from the Batmobile during “Batman” #602 as he chases the train full of dynamite with the mayor strapped to the front. It’s clear, it’s dynamic, and it conveys the urgency of Batman’s actions. As for Nicodemus’ design…is it just me or does it feel kinda racist?
Hear me out. Here’s what Nicodemus looks like:
He’s portrayed as a large, bald Black man who keeps the bottom half of his face covered, evoking images from the nightly & cable news of the time of “gang members and their rising presence in America” or the odious super-predator myth. This carries through in the news coverage segments in “Batman” #602. Not great in that light but maybe I’m reading into things where there’s nothing. Now let’s look at how he’s portrayed in his “civilian” form, the real Nicodemus, if you will:
Notice a difference? Yeah. Putting aside the hair and loss of about half a foot in height, he’s thin rather than bulky and full of muscles. Oh and he’s white. Very white. See the issue now?
At first I put the blame solely at Gregory Wright’s feet for his choice in coloring. One could argue he looks different because he’s constantly lit by fire and in shadow, and we see how in one panel he’s red like he’s been sunburnt. However, the coloring holds when we see him on the TV screen and when we see Hart not in his Nicodemus costume, they’re colored entirely differently, even though he’s also being lit by the fire. It was a clear choice to make him look different and, to make him more menacing, the choice was made to make the character’s skin darker.
While I genuinely think Wright’s coloring shoulders most of the blame here – just one look at the cover to “Batman” #602 shows he was meant to have a much pastier complexion and not be the character playing on stereotypes of Black men to cover up his actions – McDaniel’s character design shares some of the blame too. Showcasing the limitations of McDaniel’s exaggerated cartoony style, he pulled from a heuristic of what a threatening person looks like to form Nicodemus’ body shape in contrast to Hart’s “regular” body and what came out was a design that reads as Black.
Now, I don’t believe much of this was intentional. On the news angle, it’s clear Brubaker was simply extrapolating on how Gotham news would portray this kind of character and race doesn’t factor into any aspect of the character other than design. He was not written to be Black, or pretending to be Black, and one can see how Wright colors actual Black characters like Commissioner Akins quite differently from Nicodemus. Moreover, it’s likely I’m only reading the character as Black because of the coloring and would otherwise just see him as a big and threatening bald white dude.
However, and it’s a big however, that doesn’t excuse the art team or editorial for not catching this. McDaniel could have adjusted Nicodemus’ design to not evoke the “Threatening Black Man” archetype or made him look even remotely similar to Hart in body type and Wright could have chosen a different way of lighting and coloring the character by the firelight. By choosing these changes as the markers of the “villainous” version of Hart, it perpetuates and reveals a subconscious association of Blackness and crime/badness.
It’s not a good look and, sadly, hangs quite heavily on these two issues, which are otherwise an OK “Batman” story. Hopefully the next time he appears these issues are fixed because the fire eyes are very cool. Think he’d fight Azrael next?