“He’s a Doctor?” and Other Three-Word Heartbreaks on this Day of the Batman

For whatever reason, seeing that it is “Batman Day” made me think of Brian Azzarello. Maybe it’s that, this year, he’s co-written (or will have work he’s co-written released) four different projects featuring Batman. He’s written a surprising amount of comics featuring Batman from Broken City to Flashpoint: Batman: Knight of Vengeance to the Deathblow crossover to the Wednesday Comics story to First Wave to various shorts and guest appearances... I haven’t read every Azzarello Batman story (it’s pretty much a couple of shorts and that recent issue of Batman that he co-wrote that I didn’t know he co-wrote until the day after it came out), but I’ve read most of them and there are three that stand out to me today.

Azzarello has written numerous Batman comics that are straight up crime/superhero narratives. But, he’s also written a few that are downright cruel to the character, boiling him down to something almost pathetic, an emotionally and psychologically stunted child that we should pity rather than laud. I first noticed it in Broken City where Azzarello kept returning to that night when the Waynes were murdered, partly because a similar killing had happened, leaving another boy an orphan. In the final chapter of the story, Batman reflects on his parents and the day prior to their murder, of how precious his father’s time was, how rare it was for them to have a night together as a family, and of the final words Bruce spoke to his parents. To his credit, Azzarello never outright gives the three words that little Bruce screams in anger at his parents before running to his room in tears. But, it’s not hard to figure them out either. As an adult, Batman can’t even think the three words he said as a boy, that’s how much guilt and shame he carries around. But, Azzarello even goes a step further beyond that implication in Batman’s narration: “...SO HE WAS LEFT--ALONE-- / --WITH THE LAST WORDS HE SAID TO THEM. / MAYBE HE’LL SPEND HIS LIFE TRYING TO TAKE THOSE WORDS BACK... / ...OR MAYBE HE MEANT THEM.” It’s not that his final words to his parents were “I hate you,” it’s that he knows that, in that moment, he meant them. It’s the shame that he had those feelings that haunts him; even if he could take the words back, he could never take back the authenticity of his emotions in that moment of childish anger. And that he’s so haunted and driven by that shame is something that he recognises as sad, to a degree, going out of his way to try to help the orphaned boy in the story come to terms somehow with his parents’ deaths. There’s almost a moment of self-awareness where the character recognises that he shouldn’t be as fucked up over that as he is, that there was a failure to properly come to grips with his parents’ deaths and the final days he spent with them. There’s also the implication that he doesn’t fight crime to make sure no one loses loved ones like he did; he does it, so no one has to carry guilt like his. That’s an idea that deepens the character, makes him more sympathetic, and makes him more pitiable.

Knight of Vengeance is clever in how perfectly it inverts the Batman story, taking the orphan boy narrative and transforming it into a story about a couple whose child dies. Azzarello takes all of the internal emotions of that story and explodes them through the Batman mythos where the rage and pain at their child’s death pushes Thomas and Martha to extremes. They are both crazy and both walking embodiments of rage. Thomas takes his rage out on criminals, beginning with Joe Chill (who he opts to beat to death with his bare hands instead of giving him a drug overdose as planned); Martha takes her rage out on other parents by killing their kids. He hates the world that was responsible for his son’s death and seeks to eliminate that world completely; she hates everyone whose children didn’t get shot in an alley and seeks to bring them all down to her level, to know her rage and pain. I understand this story much better now than I did when it came out. But, the truly affecting part comes at the end where, Thomas (Batman) confronts Martha (the Joker) and poses the hypothetical raised by the Flash: the world they live in is wrong and there’s a chance to make it right. In the right world, their son lives and they die; does she think he should make that happen? She registers what he’s said and responds “PROMISE ME, THOMAS, YOU WILL.” The parents would, without hesitation, sacrifice their lives for that of their child. That is a key moment because of what comes next, where Martha asks about the Bruce of that world and Thomas says that “HE FOLLOWS IN HIS FATHER’S FOOTSTEPS.” She asks “HE’S A DOCTOR?” Thomas’s answer manages to drive a crazy woman made temporarily sane to such grief that she rushes to her death. She just made the decision to die so her son could live and learns that this second life she gives him is one spent as the Batman... and she reacts like he was shot again in Crime Alley.

In his Hellblazer run, Azzarello told a larger story that culminated in the final arc, “Ashes & Dust” where John Constantine finally gets revenge on the man who framed him for murder, S. W. Manor. Manor is a Bruce Wayne analogue that reads a bit like a big joke when you realise who he’s a stand-in for. Azzarello throws in lots of Batman references and it’s amusing (none more than the idea that Azzarello’s run culminates in Constantine/Batman slash fiction to a degree), but there’s also a moment of commentary on Batman that’s hard to ignore. Manor has spent much of his life trying to communicate with his dead parents and Constantine makes it happen. Manor tells a priest about the experience, hanging from his arms as Constantine whipped him to help create the state necessary to see and communicate with his parents. And it worked. “MY MOTHER AND FATHER. STANDING BEFORE THEIR ONLY SON. / GHOSTS. / I NEVER FELT SO ALIVE. / MY DEAR, SWEET MAN HAD GIVEN ME WHAT I WANTED MOST. / AND I WEPT. / AND HE LAUGHED. / LAUGHED AS THEY SPOKE. / IN WHISPERS OF CELLOPHANE AND TWINKLING ELECTRICITY, OF HOW THEY LOATHED THE MAN I’D BECOME. / HOW WRETCHED IT WAS TO SEE ME. / HOW WHAT AN UNFAIR WASTE OF LIFE I WAS. / HE LAUGHED. / AND HE WALKED AWAY, LEAVING ME THERE WITH MY PARENTS. / MY DEMONS.”

Looking back at the end of Broken City, that flash of self-awareness and his attempt to help the orphaned boy... does he know? That’s the true ambiguity that intrigues me. Azzarello presents a clear interpretation of Batman that is kind of amazing that DC published and what I love is not just that idea that Bruce’s parents would absolutely give their lives for his and that they would quite possibly hate what he’s done with it, but that, on some level, he knows it.

Happy Batman Day.

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