SPOILER WARNING: The following contains spoilers for Batman #57 by Tom King, Tony S. Daniel, Danny Miki, Tomeu Morey and Clayton Cowles, on sale now.
One's a crimefighting American billionaire who led a carefree life as a child, at least until his parents were murdered right in front of him. The other is a deadly Russian assassin who was forced into child labor by day and suffered drunken beatings by his father at night.
No one would think that Bruce Wayne and Anatoli Knyazev – aka The KGBeast – share any kind of common interest, but Tom King and Tony S. Daniel's Batman #57 reveals otherwise. But what is this commonality that links such two very disparate men from across the world? Why, bedtime stories, of course.
Not Your Everyday Children's Story
Many children have bedtime stories read to them, but it's a very obscure and disturbing one that captivated both young Bruce and Anatoli. The Animals in the Pit (titled as The Animals and the Pit in this issue) is a real-life 1916 Russian folk tale written by Alexander Nikolaevich Afanasyev. It's perhaps no surprise that such a story would draw the favor of Russian children, Anatoli among them. This century-old tale, illustrated by Mark Buckingham and Andrew Pepoy, serves as the issue's framing sequence.
What is a surprise, though, is that readers learn young Bruce also enjoys that very same story. In Afanasyev's tale, a group of animals on their way to church fall into a pit and become trapped. The seemingly innocent animals end up consuming each other to fend off starvation, and the story ends with the final survivor's fate left deliberately unknown.
Perhaps that's why both children grew into such unusual and dangerous careers -- repeated readings of that story is enough to warp any kid's childhood.
You Love That One
For young Anatoli, who lived a harsh life as an abusive peasant's child, any tale set outside his brutal world was likely a refreshing respite. Every minute his father spends reading him a bedtime story is a minute that he's not tormenting Anatoli and the rest of his family. Maybe a story about a bunch of animals killing each other whet his appetite as a future assassin.
What about Bruce, though? Why would a boy of his upbringing and background enjoy such a dismal tale? What's wrong with, say, Goldilocks and the Three Bears? As Thomas Wayne says to his young son, "Why you love that one…" wondering, without answer, about his son's taste in stories.
Well, maybe Bruce's dark side had already started to emerge, long before The Batman, and even before the death of his parents. Perhaps the life as the sole child of rich, socialite parents brings some stresses of its own that require respite – into darkness. Even at a young age, Bruce may have been seeking that darkness – before it found him.
The Assassin and The Bat
So what significance does this story hold? What does the concept of innocence giving way to savage darkness mean for both men? And what does the story's ambiguous ending signify? In a word? Everything.
For the boy who would become the KGBeast, his entire life was about lost innocence, or even if he had much to lose in the first place. A hardened, alcoholic father took that from him at an early age, and Anatoli eventually transformed into a killer. And after his latest encounter with Batman, his survival is uncertain.
For the boy who would become Batman, his innocence was also stolen. He turned to darkness, struggling every day with the loss of his parents. The more recent losses he's suffered – Dick Grayson's shooting, Selina Kyle's rejection – have left him at a new emotional low. Whether Batman can ever emerge from his own pit of darkness is also a significant point of uncertainty. As the folktale ends, "Did he climb up, or is he there still? I don't know."
Batman #58, on sale November 7, might offer some insight.