On the final page of Batman #24, Bruce Wayne takes off the cowl, gets down on bended knee and proposes to Catwoman. He offers her a ring set with a diamond he’d caught her stealing the first night they'd met. His marriage offer changes a dynamic that has been in play since the very first issue of Batman in 1940, and threatens to resolve the on-again/off-again romance that has had the Bat and the Cat dancing around each other for decades.
But what is it that led Bruce Wayne to finally pop the question? Selina is arguably the most important woman in his life. Like him, she is a rooftop-dwelling creature of the night, and a human who uses her wits, her physical prowess, and technology to enhance her abilities. She is not a metahuman, and despite her murky relationship to law and order, she is the closest thing he has to an equal in Gotham City, and perhaps one of the few suitable romantic partners on the planet.
So what’s been holding him back?
Batman writer Tom King has spent his entire run answering that question, with the first issue nearly seeing the demise of the Dark Knight. Riding atop a plane that had been hit by a missile, Batman steered the crashing aircraft toward Blackgate Gulf in the Gotham River. Attaching jets that were remotely activated by Alfred, he guided the plane to a landing in the water, knowing full well that the impact would kill him, an acceptable loss since it meant the passengers on the plane would survive.
As he faced faced certain death, the dutiful paterfamilias radioed Alfred saying that he’d left messages for the “boys” ( the various Robins, Dick Grayson, Tim Drake, Jason Todd and his own son Damian), while also suggested that his current protegé, Duke Thomas continue his training with Nightwing. But the heartbreaking moment was the question he put to the man who raised him: “Would they—Mother and Father—Would they have been proud? Is this a good death?”
This is the defining question of King’s Batman run. It is also its defining relationship. Bruce Wayne may be the titular head of the Batman Family, but everything he does is informed by his relationship to his parents. Despite the cape, the gadgets and his impressive martial arts skills, Batman is very much the traumatized ten-year old who witnessed his parents’ murder in an alley behind a theater.
King’s Batman has a tenuous relationship with the living because he is obsessed with the dead. More precisely, he is obsessed with death itself. As King revealed in “I Am Suicide: Part 4” (Batman #12), then ten-year old Bruce Wayne -- bereft at the loss of his parents, and reeling from the absence of their kindness and dignity in his life -- tried to kill himself. “I was pain,” he wrote to an imprisoned Selina. “That’s all I was…. And what use is pain? What is the use of just being pain… Maybe it’s better off as nothing. Gone.”
Young Bruce fell to his knees, but no one answered his prayers and, in a moment of anguish and pure nihilism, he swore a war against criminals that was pure negation. “It’s the choice of a boy,” he wrote to Selina, “The choice to die.
“I am Batman,” he proclaimed, “I am suicide.” With these three words, King rewrote the Dark Knight’s origin story, and Bruce Wayne’s crime-fighting career became a protracted act of self-destruction. His relationship to Selina Kyle was also recast in light of his destructive tendencies: “When we kiss. The pain goes away,” he writes, “Because, for a moment, we share our deaths.”
Thus defined, their romance, the night patrols and the alliance against Bane are little more than a suicide pact. In promising to free her, he writes, “We’ll put on our masks, and together finally, we’ll laugh, and laugh, and laugh.” He is referring to his belief that his parents would have laughed at his costumed antics, but his words also suggest that they are perhaps strangers to each other, united by little more than their pain.
Removing the cowl to propose suggests that Bruce Wayne is ready to move beyond his pain. He is heeding the advice of his father -- whom he encountered while traveling through Hypertime with the Flash -- and who urged him: “Don’t be Batman. Find happiness.” But he was only able to heed the call to happiness because he had already saved Gotham Girl by kidnapping the Psycho-Pirate, and reversing the fear he’d inflicted upon her. This led to his confrontation with Bane (Batman #20).
As he dealt a finishing blow to the behemoth, he screamed at Bane, “I am Batman.” He then concluded an imaginary monologue with his mother, who answersed the question he’d asked Alfred as he’d faced sudden death atop the crippled airliner. “You don’t need a good death for me to be proud of you.”
In saving Gotham Girl, Bruce Wayne not only freed himself from decades of pain, he also repaid a debt: it was Gotham Girl alongside her brother Gotham, who had saved Batman from sudden death as he was steering the airplane to a safe landing in the water.
Inspired by Batman, Claire Clover and her brother Hank decided to become superheroes, trading years of their lives in exchange for superpowers, metahuman abilities which, the more they're used, the shorter their lives became -- a truly Faustian deal. After he was driven to a murderous rage by the Psycho-Pirate, Henry went on a rampage, and Claire had to kill him to prevent him from murdering Batman. This, and the Psycho-Pirate's meddling, finally put her over the edge
Saving Claire provided Bruce Wayne with a pathway to redemption, and in giving back her life -- by also helping her learn to be a hero without using her powers -- he took back his own. In the daylight, atop a skyscraper, their conversation in Batman #24 echoes the imagined dialogues with his mother. Batman has to admit that being scared kept him sane, but it also kept him from happiness. Then she puts to him a question that he’d never asked himself: “What do you want to do?”
The wounded orphan and head of the Batman Family who waged war on crime as an elaborate act of negation, who mentored many a young hero, and who is raising a son of his own, finally makes peace with his parents, and walks away from his death wish. For the first time in his life, Bruce Wayne is not a victim of his past; rather, he is embracing it, along with his fears.
And what better way of embracing his past than offering Selina a ring set with the diamond he recovered from her upon their first meeting, thus circling back to her 1940 debut? Catwoman insists that they met on the street, an origin that references Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli’s 1987 storyline Batman: Year One. Although she initially disputes his version of the facts, her surprise at his revelation that he’d bought the diamond she'd stolen, and that he'd kept it all these years, suggests that this is truly how they met.
Is this a retcon? Evidence of multiversal shenanigans? Or is it simply King’s way of saying that his detour, which cast Batman in an apparently new light, was his roundabout way of returning the Dark Knight to his roots?
As for Selina's answer, readers will have to wait until after the conclusion of "The War of Jokes and Riddles," a flashback story arc that debuts in the pages of Batman #25, before we find out if she'll accept Bruce's proposal.