SPOILER WARNING: This article contains major spoilers for "Batman" #12, on sale now.
In what is sure to be a controversial development, "Batman" #12 by Tom King and Mikel Janin reveals the true meaning of the current story arc's title, "I am Suicide," with an explosive reinterpretation of core moments from the Dark Knight's origin. In a letter from Bruce Wayne to Selina Kyle as the latter was being transferred to Arkham Asylum following her alleged murder of 237 people, Batman ruminates on their shared traumas, ultimately confiding that he only resolved to dedicate his life to fighting crime after attempting suicide as a child.
I am Suicide
The arc title initially seemed to refer to Batman's ill-fated Suicide Squad, which fell apart last issue when Catwoman betrayed the team. But it is now clear that, whether or not Batman succeeds in freeing the Psycho Pirate from Bane to save Gotham Girl, this reveal is the moment the story has been building toward.
Last issue, Selina engaged in a similarly nihilistic internal monologue about why there was no hope for redemption for her crimes, but Bruce's story is about fighting an eternal struggle. He begins by acknowledging the absurdity of his crusade, noting that his "classically dignified," "classically kind" parents would have laughed to see their son dressed up as a bat, the "little rich kid" who made a vow to spend his life "warring on all criminals."
But after reflecting on how the whole world may laugh at him, how he sometimes wants to laugh himself, he notes that Selina wouldn't, because "You know what this is."
At this point comes the major new details in the classic origin story, the moment a ten-year-old Bruce Wayne attempted to cut his wrists with his father's razor blade. He describes this as his act of surrender, after which "my life was no longer my life," and it was at that moment he made his oath to fight crime.
Bruce/Batman concludes by describing his crusade as "the choice of a boy. The choice to die," declaring, "I am Batman. I am suicide."
Outside of the story at hand, the implications are staggering. Tom King has made a truly daring choice in introducing this wrinkle into the Batman mythos, a decision that is not without complications. On the one hand, people who have struggled with suicide, particularly young people, may be encouraged to see themselves represented in one of the most important heroes -- one of the most powerful pop culture icons -- in the world. Batman, the Dark Knight himself, overcame despair to lead a life of intense purpose and valor.
But did he?
The story Batman tells is of the death of Bruce Wayne, of giving up everything that defined him in order to serve a mission. This is a fatalistic self-lessness, and one that is in many ways hard to admire and not something that should be emulated.
There is a version of this story that would offer more hope. That is not the story that King and Janin tell. This may be the right decision, as a more triumphant take could have read as saccharine, flimsy and unconvincing. But what do we make of this important new detail of the Dark Knight's history -- especially as it recasts another defining characteristic, his refusal to kill?
Frankly, this is actually a more convincing motivation than the "slippery slope" argument that's been trotted out so often -- it doesn't even take a freshman ethics class to recognize that, no, killing the Joker does not make you just as bad as he is.
Do we want, though, a Batman who views himself as having literally annihilated his actual self? A man who is a mission and nothing more? And to what degree should we take him at his word?
Bruce Wayne is dead. And yet Batman mourns for Tim Drake, whom he believes has perished. The Dark Knight anguishes over his failures with Jason Todd. He takes pride in Dick Grayson's growth as a hero. And even now, as "I am Suicide" approaches its conclusion, he fights for the life and soul of Selina Kyle, who betrayed him. Batman may contain death, he may be the product of suicide, but there is a living self there, even if he cannot acknowledge it.
Readers can trust that there will be more to the story. King is an extraordinary writer, as evidenced by the stellar "Omega Men," "Sheriff of Babylon," and "Vision," and he's working with exemplary artists -- Janin's visuals throughout this issue are breathtaking. DC Comics appears to have given him tremendous leeway in telling the story he wants to tell, and whatever else comes of his run on "Batman" it's clear these characters will become richer for the experience.