On September 9, DC Comics released “Batman” #44. Written by Scott Snyder & Brian Azzarello and illustrated by Jock, the story chronicles an early case of the Batman involving a dead Black teenage boy found on the edge of Gotham City. A boy wearing a hoodie, shot four times, and being picked at by crows.
If you haven’t read the story, I recommend it for a number of reasons which will be made clear.
Batman’s investigation leads to a low-income neighborhood within Gotham City called “The Corner,” mostly populated by African-Americans.
Batman learns about the neighborhood and its history, one forged from the racism-based real estate laws from the early-to-mid 20th Century, which denied Black people fair opportunities to purchase homes.
“The Corner” was pushed further into descent by the influx of narcotics during the ’80s.
In his secret identity as billionaire Bruce Wayne, Batman funded programs designed to provide quality housing for low-income residents. Those programs led to further dislocation of the people who were supposed to receive aid, due to increasing property values.
These factors in the socio-economic decline of “The Corner” contributed to the young man getting involved with underworld elements, to help keep the family-owned bodega out of the control of a street gang.
The disastrous results forced the young man down an unexpected avenue, the acquisition of superpowers through the use of an illegal narcotic.
Bolstered by his new powers, the young man confronted the gang members at the bodega, engaged in a fight which led to a fire. He was confronted by a police officer — an armed police officer, with his own preconceived notions of people who live in “The Corner.”
Seeing what he perceived as an inhuman kind of rage in the young man’s eyes, the police officer shot him.
Due to his powers, the boy managed to escape, and eventually die in the spot where Batman found him.
“Batman” #44 represents a point of convergence where various timely, real-world issues meet.
- The growth of the cocaine industry in America, during the ’80s and the Reagan-era “War on Drugs.” A time in which the United States government had a strategic relationship with Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega. Since that relationship dovetailed with the continued entry of cocaine into various urban neighborhoods in America, the CIA was mentioned in various conspiracy theories and reports. The department was accused of a lack of incentive to prevent cocaine from reaching American streets, based on the alliance with Noreiga.
- The impact of the pre-’70s business practices of the Federal Housing Administration, using its power to block Black people from owning homes, leading to more ethnic segregation between neighborhoods. Neighborhoods set up to be almost entirely populated by people of color, with no chance of wealth development through equity.
- Gentrification, facilitated by increasing property values forcing low-income residents to move out, making way for middle-income people to take over the neighborhoods. The newer residents and property owners tend to be of different ethnic backgrounds from the original residents of the neighborhood, while the displaced former residents are sometimes compressed into certain areas.
It’s fair to say that it would be difficult for a writer to pull these various issues into a story that doesn’t come off as “The Preachy Superhero Comic Book That Has Nothing To Do With Why I Bought This And Show Me The Costumed Supervillain Please.”
However, that’s just what Snyder and Azzarello manage to do, with a certain amount of success.
That’s because the super-narcotic story element, and the story’s place in Gotham City’s recent history, connect directly to the new Batman’s war with an unusual crime lord known only as “Mister Bloom.”
“Batman” #44 received a good deal of media coverage for the tackling of social issues, inclusive of the ongoing killings of young Black men by police officers in America.
However, “Batman” #44 was not the first Batman comic book to tackle the Dark Knight’s encounters with Black America and social issues.
In 1999, DC Comics published a Batman one-shot called “Batman: The Hill.” Written by Christopher Priest and illustrated by Shawn Martinbrough, the story was about Batman visiting an area of Gotham City called “The Hill” for the first time.
At the center of the story was a Black male teenager, an aspiring screenwriter who called himself “Hollywood.” Hollywood was under the thumb of Demetrius Korlee, the well-dressed Black crime boss who fashioned who controlled The Hill through money and fear.
Politicians ignored The Hill, policemen offered no protection or service to the neighborhood’s residents, and when Batman made his first attempt to scare the drug dealers in Korlee’s employ… they were not afraid of him.
The people of The Hill had never seen Batman before, so they had no reason to fear him. One young man dismissed Batman as a White man in a silly costume.
A town of people desensitized by social and economic decline, surrounded by criminal activity, and resigned to choosing apathy over getting killed, had no fear of the Batman.
His legend had no impact.
Batman had to infiltrate The Hill under the guise of a cemetery groundskeeper, to live among the people and learn about them, going off-radar with Commissioner Gordon to take on the covert mission of removing Demetrius Korlee from the neighborhood.
In the end, Batman managed to defeat Demetrius Korlee, to make the crime boss fear him, but he could not save Hollywood. Batman gave Hollywood the choice to save himself.
Writer Christopher Priest is one of the most influential Black writers in American comic books, from his work as a co-founder of Milestone Media, Inc. to his stories in Marvel Comics’ “Black Panther” series, along with such groundbreaking series as “Xero,” a DC comic book about a Black government assassin wearing a mask showing Caucasian skin and blond hair.
In Priest’s hands, “Batman: The Hill” was neither a story about a White superhero savior of poor Black people, nor did it suggest that Batman made a permanent impact in “The Hill.” It shined a direct Bat-signal on the trials of Black America that go unnoticed and misunderstood by White America, until they are compelled to engage.
Batman’s lack of understanding paralleled America’s lack of understanding, but Batman’s willingness to admit to that lack of understanding and the limited range of his justice due to neglect does not reflect America’s consciousness.
For various administrative reasons, “Batman: The Hill” almost did not see the light of day as a published comic book, but thanks to the efforts of Jordan Gorfinkel and myself, the editors, and Denny O’Neil, the Batman Group Editor at the time, the book did not disappear in a pile of cancelled projects cast to the wind.
Today, DC Comics has used the characters of Batman, Superman and Green Arrow to discuss the violence directed at Black Americans and the social movements created as a result. “Action Comics” #42,” written by Greg Pak with art by Aaron Kuder and crew, showed Superman on the side of protesters and in direct conflict with the police.
The first story arc of “Green Arrow” by the team of writer Benjamin Percy, artist Patrick Zircher and crew showed a law-enforcement program using robotic sentinels to fight crime through racial and wardrobe profiling.
The trio of Batman, Green Arrow and Superman has repeatedly been utilized by DC Comics to reflect the political zeitgeist. The most popular example is probably “The Dark Knight Returns,” the seminal miniseries from the mid-’80s, written and illustrated by Frank Miller and colored by Lynn Varley.
I imagine the higher-ups at DC Comics are aware of this, and have purposely chosen those three characters to take on subjects that echo the killings of young Black men in places like Ferguson, MO, and movements like Black Lives Matter.
Unfortunately, while books like the “Green Lantern/Green Arrow” run by writer Dennis O’Neil and illustrator Neal Adams and “The Dark Knight Returns” remain on the pop culture radar, and journalists praise the publisher and creative teams of “Batman,” “Green Arrow,” and various Superman titles for taking on the social ills of America, a book like “Batman: The Hill” has not been referenced or reprinted.
A book like “Batman: Seduction of the Gun,” published in 1993 and written by “Suicide Squad” writer John Ostrander and illustrated by Vince Giarrano, has suffered the same fate.
This is unfortunate, and I hope to see DC Comics dig through its library to unearth all of the gems that speak directly to the specific violent and political movements of our times… especially when those stories are penned by writers of color like Christopher Priest.
The violence, apathy, prejudice, ignorance, and dismissal surrounding real-world events, all continue to fester and grow in America and beyond.
No story that uses the amazing medium of comic books to connect with an audience about these issues should be left behind.
Joseph Phillip Illidge is a public speaker on the subjects of race, comics and the corporate politics of diversity. In addition to his coverage by the BBC and Publishers Weekly, Joseph has been a speaker at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, Digital Book World’s forum, Digitize Your Career: Marketing and Editing 2.0, Skidmore College, Purdue University, on the panel “Diversity in Comics: Race, Ethnicity, Gender and Sexual Orientation in American Comic Books” and at the Soho Gallery for Digital Art in New York City.
Joseph is the Head Writer for Verge Entertainment, a production company co-founded with Shawn Martinbrough, artist for the graphic novel series “Thief of Thieves” by “The Walking Dead” creator Robert Kirkman and video game developer Milo Stone. Verge has developed an extensive library of intellectual properties for live-action and animated television and film, video games, graphic novels and web-based entertainment.
His graphic novel project, “The Ren,” about the romance between a young musician from the South and a Harlem-born dancer in 1925, set against the backdrop of a crime war, will be published by First Second Books, a division of Macmillan.
Joseph’s newest comic book project is the upcoming Scout Comics miniseries “Solarman,” a revamp of a teenage superhero originally written by Stan Lee.
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