SPOILER WARNING: The following story contains spoilers for Batman #24, on sale now.
Well, it’s finally happened. After a year’s worth of careful Rebirth-born priority shifting and an escalating focus on their relationship, the Bat and the Cat may be finally taking their relationship to the next level. Bruce Wayne has proposed to Selina Kyle, fittingly, in his costume, on a Gotham rooftop... in the middle of the night.
Bruce and Selina’s romance has taking a front seat through a considerable portion of Tom King’s work with the character alongside his frequent collaborators, Mikel Janin, Mitch Gerads and David Finch. As such, Bruce popping the question in Batman #24 is anything but a left field moment for those of us who have been playing along at home.
...Or is it?
What is it about Batman that has kept him out of a long term relationship for so long? And how does this marriage proposal fit into his legacy?
Love & Rooftops
For as off-and-on as it is, the romance of Bruce Wayne and Selina Kyle is actually one of the oldest components of Batman, dating all the way to the very first issue of his solo series in 1940. Selina was one of three characters introduced to the canon in that first story, alongside The Joker and Hugo Strange, though her role as a villain was considerably less extreme than her cohorts. Catwoman’s direct purpose was, in the unsubtle world of Golden Age superheroes, to add a layer of sex appeal to Batman by being as flirtatious and sensual as pre-Code comics could allow.
However, likely thanks to Selina’s explicitly dubious morality as a burglar and femme fatale, when the Comics Code Authority and the incredible popularity of “family” groups of superheroes like the Marvels forced some paradigm shifting in Batman, it wasn’t Selina who was looked to to round out the “wholesome” appeal of a “Batman Family.” Instead, Catwoman and Batman’s implied romantic relationship was sidelined in favor of Kathy Kane, the Golden Age Batwoman.
The “Batman Family” experiment of the 1950s was a pretty resounding failure. Not even the attention grabbing subtitle of “The Marriage Of Batman and Batwoman!” on the cover of Issue #122 could seem to get readers to feel invested in Bruce Wayne’s love life, a problem DC Comics seemed to think was because Batman and romance simply couldn’t mix. In reality, it was thanks to the Silver Age’s time honored love of using “imaginary stories” as excuses for every shocking cover development causing fatigue in fans. By the end of the issue, Bruce and Kathy’s “wedding” turned out to be a dream of Dick Grayson’s.
Still, the damage had been done. The message heard was that Batman fans were not interested in a “true” romantic or family unit focuses for the Dark Knight, and the angle was downplayed until Batwoman herself was eventually pushed into complete obscurity (and much later reworked into the Kate Kane we know and love today.)
These priority shifts naturally echoed out to Bruce’s other potential love interests, and Selina was chief among them -- but maybe not in the way you might expect. The constant reworking, re-imagining, and reorganizing of very loose Silver and Bronze Age continuity left the nature of their relationship hard to pin down, especially as Bruce slid further and further into camp icon infamy and the complicated multiverse system of the DCU reached critical capacity.
Eventually, in the early '80s, the romantic subplots between Catwoman and Batman were officially shifted over to the Earth-2 universe, where the rest of DC’s most easily identifiable Golden Age continuity came to reside. On Earth-2, Selina and Bruce were married, and eventually had a daughter named Helena Wayne who would go on to be a hero in her own right: the Huntress.
This left the “prime” Earth open for new exploration of Selina and Bruce’s connection -- and, more importantly, officially absolved any lingering awkwardness around their shared history with one another. After Crisis on Infinite Earths officially realigned the multiverse all together, all bets were off. Compounded with the character-redefining The Dark Knight Returns, this newly solidified world for Bruce was one of a solitary, isolated and emotionally distant Batman. The prospects of things like marriage were definitively off the table.
Batman Works Alone, Except When He Doesn't
At some point, during all of this continuity reconfiguration a strange thing began to happen in the world of Batman and his fans -- he began being understood as a hero who could not, and would not, work well with others.
This, of course, was never genuinely the case. After all, even through various Crises and makeovers, Bruce remained a founding member of the Justice League, his friendship with Superman was maintained, his partnership with characters like Alfred, Robin, Jim Gordon and Nightwing were expanded upon -- There was no point in which Batman was ever truly a completely solitary hero.
However, with his darkened demeanor opened the door for a level of self awareness to be painted across Batman’s facade. The idea was, moving forward, Batman was serious, and that seriousness came at the expense of a great deal of his warmth.
Still, regardless of how absorbed into the popular understanding of Batman his solitary nature became, his stories didn’t actually change all that much. Comics and cartoons still looked towards the complicated network of friends, allies, and partners Bruce had cultivated over the years to flesh out Gotham, the “playboy” nature of Bruce Wayne’s public persona became more and more highlighted with an increasing number of new love interests, the term “Bat Family” was even adopted by fans to describe the web of sidekicks and team mates. And yet, somehow, the solitude of Batman had begun crystallizing itself into Batman zeitgeist.
The effect sparked a good deal of cognitive dissonance -- an awareness that Batman was anything but a lonesome character coupled with a mass understanding that working alone was, somehow, one of Batman’s most defining traits.
It was a tenuous balance, and something that, at the end of the day, meant that things that would otherwise challenge the perception of Batman’s solitude more than it was already inherently challenged were to be avoided -- Marriage was, once again, definitively off the table.
Of course, that brings us to today, where these ideas are being actively turned on their ear.
Bruce has proposed. It’s done, it’s happened. Regardless of Selina’s answer, the gauntlet has been thrown down -- and unless we can expect a fit of pure Silver Age wackiness to swoop in and explain away this last issue as an “imaginary story,” it’s something that will, eventually, need to be dealt with.
And honestly? It’s about time.
One of the biggest thematic undercurrents of Tom King’s first year writing the character has been to put pressure on the thinking that led to that sort of cognitive dissonance in the first place. Through arcs like “I Am Gotham” and “I Am Suicide,” King seems determined to suss out the cracks in the foundation of the Dark Knight legend, posing questions that may or may not be completely rhetorical about the very nature of a human being who puts on a costume and throws themselves off skyscrapers every single night.
One of those questions seems to be rooted in the idea that Selina and Bruce were there, together, at the very beginning -- romantically or otherwise, their relationship is one of the initial building blocks of the Batman myth, and it’s time to put it under a microscope.
Is it possible for that myth to finally sustain a long term relationship, a marriage, after so many years spent trying to absolve itself from the ghosts of the '50s and '60s? Are fans going to be willing to shed decades of deeply ingrained ideas, both honest and artificial, about the nature of their favorite hero?
Only time will tell... and it might be a lot of it. The next issue of Batman is slated to kick off the highly anticipated flashback story, “The War of Jokes And Riddles,” so we might be in for more than just the Rebirth standard two week wait to hear Selina’s answer.