Kurt Busiek and John Paul Leon team up for a prestige miniseries branded as a spiritual successor to Busiek’s “Superman: Secret Identity.” Will this one reach the same heights as its spiritual predecessor? Some spoilers follow.
Written by Kurt Busiek
Illustrated and Colored by John Paul Leon
Lettered by Todd Klein
Young Bruce Wainwright lost his parents in a violent crime…and in the real world, no superheroes exist to save the day. But as grief and rage builds inside Bruce until he feels he can’t keep it inside anymore, something strange starts taking wing in the Gotham night! Perhaps Bruce’s grief isn’t inside him after all? Modern masters Kurt Busiek and John Paul Leon unite for the spiritual companion to the beloved SUPERMAN: SECRET IDENTITY, putting a new spin you’ve never seen before on the legend of Batman—and the dark emotions that drive him!
Busiek and Leon are masters of reworking a concept for a different character and making it feel completely original. As the follow-up to Busiek’s celebrated “Superman: Secret Identity,” the creators decided to take only the most basic aspects that people liked about that story and completely invert its execution. As with “Secret Identity,” a young child starts out “Batman: Creature of the Night” with the same name as its titular superhero and slowly becomes that character over the course of the book. But the two books differ in just about every way besides that: Where Clark hated being compared to Superman, Bruce loves being compared to Batman. Where Clark unwittingly accepted his powers and had to learn to use them for good, Bruce immediately sees them as an inherent aspect of himself embraces them to deal with his trauma. This book is that book’s polar opposite, and it’s all the better for it.
Modern Batman stories trend towards the dark. They can focus so much on Batman as a lone man on a mission that they forget to examine who exactly Bruce is and why he does what he does. That motivation usually gets boiled down to “parents shot when he was a child” without any deeper psychological exploration, and when creators try to get deeper, a lot of the time it seems ham-fisted and the story ends up falling apart. In approaching this “Batman: Creature of the Night” as the inverse of “Superman: Secret Identity,” Busiek and Leon are able to take those core aspects of the character — primarily, parents shot when he was a child — and explore the child’s psyche. Beyond the gimmick of the main character having almost the same name as Batman’s alter ego, the book’s primary purpose is to establish the Batman identity as a way for Bruce to deal with his loneliness. The entire story is built around that, from his dead parents to his decaying relationship with Alfred to his obsession with finding his parents’ murderer. The end result is something revelatory, a jaw-dropping, if unexpectedly mystical, conclusion to a finely crafted story. The mystical elements did throw me off a bit, but I can accept them for the end result: a positive acceptance of the Batman persona.
Busiek and Leon have crafted an astonishingly smooth read. This was one of those situations where I planned to only read half of the issue and then take a break, but ended up running through the entire thing because I didn’t want to put it down. The two creators have such a fantastic working relationship, knowing when to step out of the way for the other and let the story dictate what’s needed in the moment.
Busiek uses dual narration, one from a future (Uncle) Alfred looking back, and one from young Bruce (Wainwright) in the present. The two types of narration serve two completely different purposes, so they never get in the way of one another, and Klein’s lettering unmistakably separates the two. Comparing it to older comics, Alfred’s captions are more like traditional narrative captions which push the story forward, while Bruce’s are more like old school in-the-moment thought balloons. Alfred’s narration creates an engaging story-time experience, and it also gives us the sense that this issue’s story is just a small part of something much greater. Bruce’s narration gives us a direct line into his mind, which thankfully never quite devolves into angst but nonetheless allows us to understand his confusion and loneliness, and thus his motivations.Continued below
As much as Busiek’s concepts set the story up in a genius fashion, John Paul Leon’s art takes it to a new level. He’s all about the interplay of darkness and light. It looks as if he draws everything out, then blacks out as much as possible with inks so only the most iconic shapes and details remain. When doing this, he also gives great thought into how the leftover white space will intermingle with the blacks to create the full image in readers’ minds, with stunning results. His visuals tend to look like realistic snapshots instead of your typical house style comic book art. This isn’t to say his art looks realistic, it’s clearly stylized, just that it’s painstakingly detailed and that the environments, objects, and character figures are all given equal weight so as to look like one whole instead of multiple bits stuck together on a page.
For the colors, Leon clearly understands what works about his black and white art, so he uses a non-invasive coloring style to preserve his use of darkness and light. The colors all look washed out and mostly stick to the blue-purple end of the spectrum, with the occasional beige to switch things up. Klein also follows suit, making Alfred’s caption boxes beige and Bruce’s a pale blue. The end result is something that accentuates details of Leon’s pencil and ink work, helping to separate certain visual items from others, while still letting the unique shadow-heavy aspects of his art come through.
“Batman: Creature of the Night” did something that seldom seems possible today: it created new insights into the mind of Batman. Ironically, the creators were only able to do so by creating a new situation and a new character to stand in for the Bruce we know and love. With Busiek’s expert use of different forms of narration and Leon’s masterful chiaroscuro art, they have set this story up as far more than just the spiritual successor to “Superman: Secret Identity.” This is on track to be one of the greatest Batman stories of modern times.
Final Verdict: 9.3 – An immensely rewarding and well-crafted tale that actually manages to say something new and interesting about Batman.