The seventh in a series of posts on my favorite pamphlet comics of the decade
Batman, by Josh Simmons. Self-published, early 2007.
This is kind of a cheat, given that no matter how hard you comics-collect, you’re not going to find a copy of this issue. It’s a bootleg comic done for no profit and without the permission of DC Comics, so copies are limited to what Simmons could afford to print up and send out (reportedly something around 200). I still kind of can’t believe I have a copy. This thing is never going to be reprinted due to the copyright delinquency issues, so it will probably live out whatever post-release life it’s going to have as a webcomic (read it here first).
But it was a pamphlet first, so it’s eligible for a spot on the list. And Simmons’ incredible control of ambience, his skill with layout and pacing, and his slick, dark art, which reads like a fusion of Tony Millionaire, Chris Ware, and Moebius, easily earn it one.
Then there’s the story.
The other reason this comic will never be reprinted is because it takes the Batman character to a place DC owners Time Warner are never going to let one of their marquee holdings go. One of the best things about reading comics in the 2000s was that every once in a while you’d get a take on a corporate-owned comic that wasn’t just irreverent, but downright destructionist – see a few of the other entries on this list, plus the criminally underrated Bizarro Comics anthologies and what is probably the defining comic of the decade, Frank Miller’s Dark Knight Strikes Again. But the difference between those high-selling pastiches and Simmons’ hand-stapled, quasi-illegal desecration is that this comic was published with no corporate oversight, no editors, no boundaries. This is satire too, a pointing-up of how dark and brutal the “real” Batman comics have gotten in an effort to keep up their appeal, but unlike most satire the emphasis isn’t on humor or morals. Simmons goes for the carotid artery, and this comic is creepy, unsettling, and at a few points absolutely repulsive.
Simmons gives us a Batman who has been beaten down by his 75 years of crimefighting and international iconicity. He’s weary, not all there anymore – unable, as it turns out, to handle the pressures of being the Nietzschean moral arbiter he is expected to be. He goes rogue. His rule against killing is still in effect, (though he visibly resents it) because it is all that separates the Batman character from the bland homogeneity of a million other murderous action heroes. Still, this Batman needs something more than the PG-rated fight scenes that have characterized his decades of existence. He’s been out of the Batcave for two weeks now, sleeping rough on rooftops, only waking up at night. Constructing something that will aid him in a renewed, more visceral battle against crime.
Simmons deserves no end of accolades for creating a story in a format – the bootleg comic – that matches form perfectly to content. When we see the new Bat-gadget in action it is not necessarily the most violent scene the character has ever involved himself in, but it is the most shocking, the most depraved (especially when coupled with the comic’s last page). This comic could never have been published by DC, because this is a Batman who has split from the path of all profitable, safe, family/consumer oriented Time Warner products, including his own comics, and given in to the darkness that is only occasionally injected into corporate fiction in small, calculated doses. This is the Batman that DC never wants us to see, and even if Simmons had somehow convinced them to publish it, the comic would have lost much of the black, crackling aura that surrounds it as an illicit, non-commercial product. A lot more is being played with here than just our perceptions of a familiar character. This comic is a provocation, imparting much of its sinister ambience simply by existing as a product that is not capitalist or profit-oriented in nature.
In the showcase scene for Batman’s new gadget, Simmons shows us the omega of violence, the worst thing we will ever see in something titled “Batman”, but far from incongruous, it feels somehow true to the nature of the character and the increasingly dark material DC has published since 1987 or so. Batman ends the monologue that forms the story’s crux by saying “I’ve been Batman a long, long time,” and here we see that however long it takes, this is where he will end up. It could almost be said that after this, no other Batman story matters. Simmons has written Batman an end that is much more plausible than Frank Miller’s Dark Knight Returns – the accepted “Batman ending”, and also probably the dark-strangest Batman comic ever, outside of this one. As Dark Knight’s promise of a bitter end has haunted every Batman comic published after it, so too does Simmons’ vision stalk the spotted blacks of every post-2007 Batman story. Those stories are only Batman’s passage through time, and whether Batman & Robin and Detective Comics and Streets of Gotham and all the others only last another 12 issues or another century, Simmons’ jet-black fever dream will always be the comic that comes after them.
After a long, long time.
At the end.