SPOILER WARNING: This article contains major spoilers for “Batman” #21, on sale now.
Tom King and Jason Fabok’s “Batman” #21 marks the beginning of the Dark Knight’s anticipated crossover with the Flash, first teased in “DC Universe: Rebirth,” that will unveil many of the mysteries of the current DCU — including (possibly) the mastermind behind the New 52 universe, which excised five years from our heroes’ lives. “The Button, Part One” leans hard into the “Watchmen” themes that have permeated multiple titles since Rebirth, drawing heavy inspiration from Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ classic story.
Last year’s “DC Universe: Rebirth” one-shot by Geoff Johns, Ethan Van Sciver, Ivan Reis and Gary Frank, which re-introduced former Flash Wally West into the current continuity, immediately began the unraveling of some elements of the New 52 reality. The story strongly implied that Dr. Manhattan, the clockwork demigod of “Watchmen,” had altered the bonds of the DCU’s reality for some unknown purpose, while another character called Mr. Oz, whom some have speculated is Moore and Gibbons’ antagonist Ozymandias, has since been seen operating behind the scenes, working toward some obscure stratagem, faking the death of Tim Drake (aka Red Robin) to take him off the board.
“The Button” represents the overdue team-up between the two heroes most invested in this universal struggle, and those most likely to unearth its mysteries. In the “Rebirth” special, Batman discovered, embedded in the walls of the Batcave, the iconic, blood-stained smiley button Rorschach recovered after the Comedian’s murder. Wally West’s return showed current Flash Barry Allen that core pieces of his life had been ripped away, and illustrated how Wally’s role in changing reality in “Flashpoint” weighs heavily on his shoulders.
Now, Batman is finally getting around to investigating that smiley button. And King and Fabok are showing off their “Watchmen” chops, enhancing their story in a way that holds all manner of Easter eggs for fans immersed in Moore and Gibbons’ book, but is simultaneously entirely accessible for those who haven’t read it.
On the Grid
“Watchmen” was noted, among other things, for its strict employment of the nine-panel grid, a device artist Dave Gibbons used masterfully for the story’s rhythmic pacing. Tom King previously wrote for the grid in “Omega Men,” illustrated to perfection by Barnaby Bagenda. He does so once again in “Batman” #21, which adheres almost entirely to the grid, though it does break for a single page as Batman’s time runs out in his fight against the Reverse Flash (more on this in a bit).
The device isn’t necessarily apparent in the first few pages — pages 1 and 2 are each three panels, three rows with a single panel each, while page 3 is a splash. Further, the first two don’t immediately call “Watchmen” to mind, focusing as they do on a scene at Arkham Asylum, where the semi-amnesiac Saturn Girl watches a hockey game she knows will end in tragedy. (There is a quick nod to Moore and Gibbons’ work in the background, though, in the form of a smiley face-emblazoned poster declaring “Arkhman is for Healing.”)
But from page 4 on, which divides into a full nine panels, it’s clear that what’s preceded has also adhered to the grid, combining the left, center and right panels on each tier for pages 1-2, and all of the panels for the page 3 splash, much as Gibbons modified the grid in “Watchmen” to create specific pacing effects. Fabok and King use less variety here than did Gibbons and Moore — “Watchmen” layouts would switch up the selection of combined panels, whereas this issue trades primarily in full-nines, horizontal threes, and splashes. Whether this is by design and will play into the story’s upcoming chapters remains to be seen.
The bloodied smiley button, perhaps the most recognized emblem of “Watchmen,” hardly needs its significance explained. But King and Fabok make many subtle nods to the imagery of Moore and Gibbons’ dystopia, beginning right on page one.
Varying perspective, such as an extreme close-up of an object followed by a view of the same object from further back, was a recurring feature of “Watchmen” from its opening pages, where the view pulled directly up from a smiley button in a puddle of blood all the way up to the to the top floors of a high-rise. In “Batman” #21, we begin on a close up of center ice at a hockey game, viewed through a TV screen. In panel 2, when we pull back, a player’s stick has landed, evoking another bit of “Watchmen” iconography — the clock face. If that’s the minute hand, it’s pointed to around ten minutes to the hour. Not a lot of time, and deliberately similar as well, in fact, to the orientation of the blood spatter on the button.
Shortly after, in a scene Bat-fans have seen any number of times before, the Dark Knight stands before a massive wall of monitors in the Batcave. But in the context of such a “Watchmen”-heavy issue, the image evokes Ozymandias observing the world from his own headquarters. In this case, however, every screen is filled with the smiley face, save for four central monitors, one of which is tuned the hockey game.
The smileys overwhelm the image, giving an immediate impression that Batman is simply obsessed with this mystery, but with a moment’s thought this becomes a very strange scene. One of the smiley monitors displays a double helix overlay, suggesting Bruce is running tests on the button’s blood splatter, perhaps conveying that each monitor is devoted to a different experiment or set of data. But with only four remaining screens to keep an eye on Gotham — one shows firefighters at work, another appears to be a news program, a third looks like a bird’s-eye view of the city — why is one devoted to the hockey game? Is this what the Batman’s tests on the button are telling him is important, was he aware of Saturn Girl’s breakdown at Arkham, or is the Dark Knight simply a fan of the sport?
After rotating the button several times over his hand, all while he takes in the game, Batman tosses the button aside, causing it to come into contact with the Psycho Pirate’s mask. The Pirate, of course, was a major figure from “Crisis on Infinite Earths,” DC’s first major universe-altering event; so important that when the dust settled and a new universe was born, Psycho Pirate was the only person to remember the original continuity. Here, a spark passes between the mask and the button, and Batman sees a brief vision of the “Flashpoint” Batman, his father Thomas Wayne.
Batman phones up the Flash to help with this new mystery, and Barry Allen promises to be at the cave… in one minute.
“I saw God”
In that minute, though, the revitalized Reverse Flash attacks, taking revenge for his own death in “Flashpoint” at the hands of Thomas Wayne upon his son, this reality’s Batman. Bats actually holds his own pretty well against against a villain who can move at the speed of thought, taking each punch and even landing a solid hit by momentarily pinning Thawne’s foot to the floor with a Batarang. As the seconds tick down — another motif seen throughout “Watchmen” — Batman knows all he has to do is run out the clock until help arrives.
But the Flash is late.
This is the scene that breaks the grid; the clock runs out and the anticipated event fails to materialize. On the three-panel page, two tall panels split what would be the grid’s center panel, and Reverse Flash lands his knock-out punch in a full-width panel that is slightly taller than the grid’s third tier.
Thawne picks up the badge, which instantly transports him… somewhere; a moment later, he’s back, much as Dr. Manhattan would disappear and immediately reappear throughout Moore and Gibbons’ epic. But when the Reverse Flash returns — in a burst of blue light — his body is burnt and ruined, similar to how Barry’s was when he ran to save the universe in “Crisis.” Thawne’s final words before his seeming death are, “I saw God.”
The World’s Greatest Detective, The Fastest Man Alive
DC has made no secret of the fact that the “Watchmen” characters are central to the “Rebirth” mystery. Now that Batman and the Flash are attacking the problem head on, it shouldn’t be surprising, then, that that the influence of “Watchmen” grows ever stronger. But what’s also notable is how King and Fabok aren’t just using “Watchmen’s” characters and objects like the button, but also studying the storytelling elements that landed Moore and Gibbons’ book not only in the pantheon of comics but also earned it a spot on many literary “best of” lists. The result is not at all academic; they’ve enhanced their own story by using effective techniques, devices with a particular pedigree that enrich the sense of weight and import that the “Watchmen” characters’ arrival portends.
Most importantly, if you don’t know any of this, if you couldn’t care less about the science of comics storytelling. Even if you’ve never read “Watchmen,” you’ve still got a rock-solid story about the Flash and Batman teaming up to solve a mystery and stop a powerful villain. It’s a damn fine superhero action adventure, and really, isn’t that what matters most?