Tom King’s Batman has caused controversy with critics and readers alike challenging his attempts at reshaping the Batman mythology. His overly structured narratives with large casts of characters challenge readers. Reading “I Am Suicide”, the reader must question every character’s background and motives, constantly thinking forward and backwards in time. In contrast, in Batman 14, the reader is encouraged to see the story as timeless. This seems to enact some of the central criticisms of King’s Batman, opting for a simpler emotive mood over more complex storytelling, yet this actually hides the craft behind it.
The issue opens with a classic King/Gerads 9 panel grid, focusing on a conversation about grey morality and blurred lines of truth between two distinct perspectives. This is Batman and Catwoman doing Sheriff of Babylon: man and woman, both grey anti-heroes, as American and Iranian. As a King fan, this sets up the reader for a classic King story.
Then King and Gerads raise a middle finger to the reader and themselves with a beautiful, silent two page spread. Without words, without panel breakdowns, King and Gerads evoke the sense of beauty and history necessary in any good Batman/Catwoman story. This shifts King’s Batman from its usual cerebral pessimism to a real romantic optimism.
This two-page spread also directly contrasts King and Janin’s two-page spreads throughout Batman 12. The two-page spreads in 12 are rich with detail and action, forcing the reader to slowly work many images within a larger canvas. They are cerebral complex spreads conveying great amounts of story material, along with multiple characters and settings. The use of narration in those spreads adds another perspective to these “long spreads”, already conveying multiple times and events without panel breakdowns. These force the reader to consider Batman as a child and Batman before and after “I Am Suicide” takes place. While the narration ultimately affirms Batman’s character, it largely deconstructs a traditional idea of Batman’s childhood, further literalizing the theme of suicide throughout the arc.
In contrast Batman 14’s 2nd/3rd page opening spread conveys one single moment in time, one simple action, with no outside words or perspectives influencing the reader. King and Gerads let the one image speak completely for itself. While issue 12’s spreads use multiple times and perspectives to deconstruct Batman, issue 14’s opening spread use a single image to reconstruct both Batman and Catwoman, evoking a sense of history and intimacy for even the most casual Batman fan.
Despite this initial twist, the issue still does continue in some ways in a more typical King mode; the reader still doubts Catwoman’s history and must search for truth somewhere between her and Batman. King and Gerads again play with expectations through the lack of typical story structure and villain. King is a master of story structure and timing. In the Batman Rebirth special, King uses Calendar Man to set up narrative beats with the seasons. The reader feels King’s sense of rhythm with Fall, Winter, etc. paneling. In Batman 14, the Clock King appears on page 9 as the mastermind villain. His dialogue parodies King’s extremely structured narratives. The Clock King envisions a narrative like Omega Men, with all actions enforced by temporal constraints.
When Catwoman punches and stops Clock King, this directly refutes King’s typical narrative structures for a seemingly freer and simpler romantic tale. King forces Batman into complex temporal multi-perspective narratives. The Clock King attempts a similar project, yet Catwoman punches him in the face and refuses to participate. King importantly waits a page between The Clock King’s introduction/speech and Catwoman’s interruption. This raises the reader’s expectations through reading the page, allows them to hang for a second, and then destroys them. On a larger structural level, the issue freely plays with panel layouts, embodying this sense of romantic freedom. As Batman and Catwoman can do anything with their one night, they freely move between panel layouts to fit their desires.
Yet, this refutation of temporal structures also signals Catwoman’s sense of denial. She can punch Clock King and give them freedom, but only for one night. This story still plays in a typical King temporality with the implicit constraint of night always pushing down on both characters. The two-issue story will most likely end in the morning with the sun coming up on both characters, just as Vision begins in the fall and ends in the spring, although the reader and characters are encouraged to ignore the impending deadline. In contrast, Vision forefronts its’ temporality. Both of Vision‘s narrators constantly play with reader expectations, forcing the reader to think ahead and behind.
This is not to say that Batman 14 abandons rhythm all together or is simply chaotic. Each individual activity Batman and Catwoman take part in has its own sense of rhythm, changing the pace of the issue every couple/few pages. The issue’s center spread embodies the its temporal paradox. Batman and Catwoman ruthlessly take out villains after stopping Clock King to buy their freedom for the night. This allows King and Gerads the freedom of playing with many classic absurd Bat villains. Yet their freedom only comes after a series of highly structured repetitive actions. This spread directly contrasts the early spread’s freedom, silence, and minimalism.
Here King and Gerads directly mirror two 9-panel grids, while also having nine paired panels. Every two panels act as an action beat and then a rest panel. The action panels convey information in multiple senses, using a caption, dialogue boxes, and swift movements within very small panels. The action panels’ red backgrounds further heighten the drama by using an active color, while the rest panels use multiple varying shades of blue and gray (both passive colors). This spread is the only two pages in the issue where the panel layout stays the same over two pages (although it is part of one distinct larger spread); the rest of the issue changes panel layouts between every single page for a constant shifting rhythm. Both characters only achieve their small freedom within a grand structured plan. The alternating paired panels in this spread works as a technical layer of the issue’s larger sense of back and forth. Batman and Catwoman alternate between loving and fighting, robbing and saving people, and constantly go back and forth in their dialogue; other than them and Kite Man’s faint cries of “Kite Man… Hell Yeah”, Clock King’s is the only other speaking character. Even Kite Man’s presence subtly reinforces temporal constraints, calling back and contrasting his early appearance in King’s run, while also providing mirroring humorous dialogue to start and end a nine-panel grid. On a larger level, King’s use of two-issue story arcs after main arcs gives his run on Batman a sense of back-and-forth while also fulfilling practical needs (allowing artists to stay on for full arcs).
Batman 14 plays perfectly with reader expectations. It sets up multiple possible larger temporal structures and refutes them for a strong sense of emotion, while hiding the smaller structures it works within. This small romantic Catwoman story serves as a necessary counterpoint to the grandeur and darkness of “I Am Suicide”. As if readers need any assurance, this also shows both King and Gerads’ flexibility as writer and artist, only making me further anticipate Sheriff of Babylon Season 2 and their next project together. This issue is a perfect love letter to the history and relationship of Batman and Catwoman and serves as a wonderful pause in the larger context of King’s Batman. It transports the reader back to a simpler time for both characters, free of any modern superhero ennui.
(Images from Batman 14 and Sheriff of Babylon 8 by Mitch Gerads, Batman 12 by Mikel Janin)