Batman #40 is the conclusion of the Super Friends arc, and it picks up right where #39 left off. In the previous issue we were introduced to the Gentle Man and the realm where he has been fighting a horde of demons for a thousand years. Batman and Wonder Woman fought by his side once, and agreed to take the Gentle Man’s place should he ever want to take a day off and rest. However, as we discovered last issue, an hour on earth lasts years in the Realm. Naturally, this has Selina worried, and she demands the Gentle Man to hurry up his business so Bruce and Diana can come home. Now, I’ll say this right off the bat: I think this is not a bad issue, but it’s not the best of the run so far either, as there are several problems with the issue. That said, I still find it enjoyable and there are some great moments here too. Therefore, it’s still worth a read.
The issue opens with Selina pressing the heel of her boot to the Gentle Man’s throat, as the Gentle Man lies on his back in an alley in Gotham. She demands an answer to the question of whether Bruce and Diana knew that time runs differently in the Realm, and the Gentle Man says no. The immediate question that I have on seeing this opening sequence is how exactly Selina managed to get the Gentle Man to lie down. The man is a fierce warrior, who has been battling the Horde for over a thousand years non-stop. Even the Gentle Man himself points this out a few pages in, saying that he can surely take on Catwoman if he can take on the Horde. I suppose this could imply that the Gentle Man isn’t fighting back because this is his day of rest, and as such he does not want to cause violence. But still I’m not sure if he would actually lie down on the ground in a dirty alley. It almost feels like this scene is only visualized in this way to make Catwoman look like a badass. That’s not a bad thing in and of itself, but it reminds me of issue #33 (also drawn by Jones) where Catwoman was going up against a mountain of muscle and beat the crap out of him, but the entire fight happened off-panel. It’s one thing to make Catwoman look like a badass (and I think she is a badass, so by all means, do so!), but I’d still like to see her earn it.
Flipping the page, we’re presented with a gorgeous double page spread. The silhouettes of Bruce and Diana are front and center, and in the darkness of the Realm the only light comes literally from the campfire. Personally, I’m a huge fan of shadow plays and wajang (Indonesian puppet theater, basically), and this double page spread reminds me of that because of the heavy use of shadows. The way that Bruce is sitting there, slowly leaning in to Diana, and the way that Diana is moving toward Bruce both make for an intimate and tense scene. Clearly they are drawn to each other, and the image of the fire reflects this as it roars up in the background. However, I’m in two minds about this being a double page spread. On the one hand, it has a great impact on me, and puts me right there in the moment, eager to find out what is going to happen next, allowing me a second to, in a sense, prepare for what might be an incredibly significant moment for the two characters. On the other hand, this being a double page spread means that we lose two entire pages that could have been devoted to more panels, and therefore potentially more story. However, in this case I think the creative team gets away with it because I love the image so much. As for what happens next, I have some things to say about it, but I’ll put this in spoiler tags. What I can say now, however, is that the following sequence is my favorite from this particular issue because emotions are strong, tension is high, and I think it’s pretty meaningful as well.
The next sequence is about the Gentle Man visiting his wife, and Selina tags along with him. As they are standing at the front door, the Gentle Man promises Selina that his visit won’t take long, and they talk briefly about marriage. Selina wonders why the Gentle Man’s wife isn’t with him in the Realm, and it makes me think she might not truly be talking about his wife, but about Bruce instead. What follows is a scene where Selina is confronted with the sight of a married couple, happily reunited after so long. This sequence is interrupted a few times by Batman and Wonder Woman, fighting off the Horde in the Realm. The way that the Batman/Wonder Woman scenes cut into the Gentle Man/Catwoman scenes is abrupt and a complete switch in tone. While this could make for a jarring reading experience for some readers, I’d argue that it reflects Selina’s mindset. Seeing the Gentle Man and his wife cuddling on the couch and catching up, she can only think about Bruce, out there, waging war, beside a beautiful woman no less. She’s worried about them, and it’s all she can think of. Furthermore, the idea that the Gentle Man’s wife has been waiting for him, and that they have always stayed loyal to each other (as far as we can tell), must raise questions. Is Bruce staying loyal to Selina out there? Is he coming back at all? Is he okay? If anything, seeing this married couple must make Selina miss Bruce even more. And the question she asked the Gentle Man earlier, why his wife isn’t with him, could then be read as her asking why she isn’t with Bruce instead of Diana.
The fight scenes with Bruce and Diana in the Realm mirror each other. First we see Bruce faltering, saying that he can’t keep up. Diana comes to him and helps him on his feet, telling him they are in this together, and that together they can overcome. Now, on the one hand you might wonder why Batman—the Batman—is on his knees, nearly admitting defeat, and why it’s necessary that Diana helps him up. The same could be asked about Wonder Woman, in the scene that mirrors this one, where the characters’ roles are reversed. But I think we have to take into account that they have been fighting for years and years against an everlasting Horde, and that this is merely a moment where either character falters. That is, in my opinion, actually incredibly impressive and speaks volumes about the fighting prowess of these two. It also, of course, shows us how they are constantly there for each other, never abandoning each other. Later in the issue, there is another quiet scene with Bruce and Diana, but contrary to the intimate sequence earlier in the book, we see them chewing on monster meat. Neither character looks particularly attractive here, and any table manners that Alfred must’ve taught are thrown out of the window. Bruce and Diana talk about home, and how they miss their friends, family and pets. To me it seems this sequence hammers home that we are not reading a romance between Batman and Wonder Woman, but a story that indeed strengthens the friendship between them. If we look closely, we can even see them laughing at each other at times, like friends would do.
Unfortunately, on reaching the end of this issue, I’m left with a feeling of: “So, that’s it?” In my opinion, the romantic scene with Bruce and Diana by the fire is the highlight of this issue. Having the highlight early on is not a bad thing necessarily (because this is most likely rather subjective on my part anyway), but it does mean that the remaining part of the issue needs to be very strong as well. I don’t mean to say that the story fell flat after it, because it still managed to develop some very cool themes. However, I think that the beat-em-up scenes in the Realm and the scenes with the Gentle Man and his wife lacked some substance. After such an intense moment between Diana and Bruce, everything that followed felt so safe, and my interest was waning because there didn’t seem to be anything really exciting happening anymore. Of course Bruce and Diana came back all right. Of course Bruce would be reunited with Selina. So, reading this strictly for plot makes for an almost dull read, but if I focus more on themes and character development it’s a lot more interesting and quite entertaining. One thing I am glad about, though, is that Tom King didn’t decide to focus on the actual battles in the Realm, but really about how the characters experience the entire situation.
As for the artwork, we have Joëlle Jones on pencils as well as inks again. Whereas I really enjoy her work in general, I think that in this particular issue it’s less strong and consistent. Characters’ faces change in shape from panel to panel; sometimes backgrounds are nonexistent, which makes for rather dull panels; the inking is very rough at times and muddles up panels; and, finally, it is strange how Wonder Woman, on the final pages, is not wearing her cape in the Realm, but once she’s transported back to earth she suddenly does wear her cape. These are all distracting inconsistencies that I don’t expect from a talented artist like Jones. Especially knowing that she can do so much better disappoints me here. On the flip-side, I think she did stellar work on the romantic scene with Bruce and Diana. The close-ups were really well drawn, and she found a way to maintain that tension throughout by fully immersing me into the sequence.
On colors we have Jordie Bellaire, who has been a mainstay on the Batman title since the start of King’s run. I have always enjoyed her color work, and so too do I enjoy it here. Her colors are very consistent, and she finds the right tones for every scene. When colors have to be bright, they pop, and when the setting is dark the colors are muted. Out of everyone working on this issue, I think Bellaire is the most consistent of all.
Before I sign off, I just want to add this: The captions that indicate what year it is in the Realm jump from 24 to 19 to 14 to 31. At first I was wondering why King would choose to put these scenes out of chronological order, because it just doesn’t add anything to the narrative at all. But King has said the following on Twitter:
Despite this not being King’s intention, it is, unfortunately, still a part of the product. Yet I am not taking away points for this, because DC is fixing it for reprints and trades, and mistakes can happen. But at the same time it does make for a very confusing reading experience. The main reason I put this here is so those readers who didn’t see King’s tweet at least get some explanation.
You need to know if Bruce and Diana share that kiss or not
You enjoy seeing Batman and Wonder Woman fighting side by side
You pay more attention to themes than plot
You want to see Selina’s devotion to Bruce by trying her hardest to get Bruce and Diana to return to earth ASAP
Overall: This is not a bad issue. There’s plenty here to talk about and analyze, as is always the case with a King comic. The themes are carefully implemented and come full circle in the end. However, in my opinion the highlight of the comic is early on, and therefore the subsequent scenes feel like they lack some substance as they don’t manage to live up to the highlight. The ending also left me with a feeling of: “So, that’s it?”, which is never a good sign. Still, the highlight I mentioned is instantly one of my most favorite scenes from King’s run, and that makes it worth reading at least once. So, yeah, get this issue. It may not be the best so far, but it still gets the job done, and it concludes an arc.