Writing is an art. At times, I think the comic book industry fails to realize that, and publishers look past the actual craft of forming sentences or working the narrative. That’s not to disrespect any writers currently in the comic book industry, but I definitely feel as though many don’t pay much attention to their actual diction or syntax. Their sentences and words aren’t structured with much thought. So, I often feel that the comic book industry is filled with good storytellers, but not necessarily good writers. And yes, there is a distinction, even if you can’t quite put your finger on exactly what those distinctions are. But Warren Ellis… He’s a hell of a writer! (And I’ll be damned if Bryan Hitch isn’t one of the best artists in the industry as well!)
For years now, I’ve bemoaned the idea that Batman hasn’t really been Batman. He just hasn’t for me. There’s been little detective work. We’ve endured an abundance of melodrama and juvenile behaviors. The characterization has been abysmal, partnered with plots that don’t hold up to scrutiny… It’s been rough given a few exceptions (Tomasi’s Detective Comics, Orlando’s The Shadow/ Batman, Tom Taylor’s far-too-infrequent Batman issues, etc). Because of that, I can’t tell you how refreshing it is to have a Batman that actually feels like Batman!
Now look, I understand that there are many interpretations of Batman and that everyone has their core idea of who and what Batman is. It is why the character has withstood the test of time and remained ever-popular. Everyone has something they can take away from the various interpretations, but even then, there are typically cross-over elements or traits that make up these various incarnations: dark knight, detective, martial-artist, tactician, his drive to bring justice at a street level, etc. Whether light-hearted or dark and bleak, these elements always pop up within Batman stories, but they’re not necessarily done well… That’s not the case here.
Right away, Ellis makes a point to define who and what his Batman is. The first few pages feature Alfred and narrate his servitude to the Wayne family – both in life and after – as he tends to Thomas, Martha, and yes, even Bruce’s, graves. It’s in this opening scene that we learn why this is called The Batman’s Grave. Bruce isn’t dead. He isn’t dying. But Alfred, his father figure, knows that Bruce’s grave will be filled before he (Alfred) dies, simply because of Bruce’s choices and lifestyle. Within two pages, our tone is set, and the groundwork for two character arcs – Bruce and Alfred’s – are clearly established. I knew, at this moment, that I would love this issue because of the sheer subtlety and refinement Ellis and Hitch exhibit.
Ellis then continues to expand on who his Batman is. He’s a street-level hero. He finds value in stopping low-level crime because that’s what haunts and inspires him. He’s a master tactician and martial artist. We don’t need overly intense or threatening scenes to showcase this either. We don’t need elaborate and overdone violence where Batman endures an impossible beating just to show how much of a badass he is. No, Warren and Hitch have him stop two thugs, acknowledge the victims, and then move on to his next mission. Simple, but way more effective than the heavy hand that has become the trend.
But the greatness here is the subtlety of the character work. The details of the city. Ellis and Hitch both excel in this area. Alfred informs Bruce of a 911 call that has been placed four times from the same location, yet gone unanswered due to the swell of activity that night. Batman investigates, and in doing so encounters two civilians who placed the call. Yes, we learn quite a bit from what the characters actually tell us, but we also learn just as much from what they indirectly tell us: the scenery, the “voice” of each character, how they speak, the way they phrase their sentences, and even the way they care… It’s all very telling.
Look, specifically, at the woman’s dialogue. Look at the “acting” Hitch provides in addition to the script. This is efficient storytelling. Not only do we learn about the victim, but we learn about the female character based on how she speaks and her actions. It’s clear she isn’t well educated or well off, but it’s also clear where she places value and priorities – in people. Does this information do anything for the plot? No. Not yet, anyway. But it does provide texture to the story. We get a sense of the real world. A world that is lived in and inhabited by actual people. It’s believable. Gotham feels like a place I can actually travel to, as opposed to a glossy or overexaggerated interpretation that we often see. And keep in mind, all of this is done without walls of tedious exposition.
But this scene is also the scene where we start to dive into the actual plot. We’ve got a murder mystery on our hand, and to solve it, Bruce has to put himself in the victim’s shoes. This is a strategy that Alfred doesn’t necessarily agree with – but more on that in a bit. Upon a quick investigation of the scene, Batman uses a device to make a digital recreation of the scene so he can study it further.
Back at the cave, Bruce starts to work through various angles. What is the character’s history? How has his life changed? Who are the people in his life? How do they interact with him? When did he begin to follow Batman’s work? What spurred this admiration – or possibly obsession? Who would kill the victim? Why would they kill them? What would the killer gain from killing the victim? These are all questions that are presented and worked through by Batman, and it’s so refreshing to see Batman’s brain actually working and sorting through data and scenarios. Have I mentioned that I’ve missed detective work in Batman?
The work results in a discovery that sends Batman back to the scene of the crime, and ultimately provides a mystery/ cliffhanger that has me eager to find out what’s actually going on. Does this issue knock it out of the park? Not completely, but it’s damn near close. It’s also just the first of twelve issues, and, keeping that in mind, this issue definitely creates a solid foundation for the title. I’m eager to come back and learn what happens next, but I’m also eager to explore Gotham more. I’m also want to dive deeper into Bruce and Alfred’s relationship during this time.
Which brings me back to Bruce and Alfred, and Alfred’s dislike of Batman putting himself in the victim’s mindset. There’s a lengthy exchange between Bruce and Alfred in the study, and on my initial read, I wasn’t a fan. Alfred seemed out of character and a little more negative than what I’m used to. It just didn’t seem to sit well with me that Alfred would chastise Bruce for thinking like the victim rather than thinking like a killer. It also bothered me that Alfred would make a comment along lines of “Killing them would be easier.” On my second read, however, my opinion changed.
During my second read, the context of everything fell into place. Alfred has always supported Bruce and he always will… But that doesn’t mean it’s easy for him. In the opening pages, he acknowledges that he’s aware that Bruce will die – most likely be killed – before he dies. He knows he will have to bury his “son.” And, subsequently, by supporting Bruce in his mission, Alfred also knows that he is effectively playing a hand in killing Bruce. It is with this understanding that I was then able to look at Alfred’s conversation with Bruce as a moment of weakness rather than confrontational. I understood the strain and stress he endures every night, for hours, and I understood why he’d have a moment of weakness to argue for something different. What I originally thought was the weakest moment of this entire book was suddenly the most prevalent, and I can’t wait to see what next month’s issue will bring.
Tell me this isn’t a beautifully breathtaking panel? I mean, look at the detail that Hitch put into Wayne Manor. That’s one of the things that Hitch does well – world-building. Ellis put a lot of work into his script to make Gotham feel like a lived-in place, and Hitch matches that with his art. Putting this much work into backgrounds is incredibly time-consuming, but it makes a world of difference for the final result.
Backgrounds aren’t the only thing that Hitch excels in though. I’ve already referenced his ability to convey characters through body language, and the way he pulls “performances” out of the characters. In general, he’s a fantastic storyteller. Look at the following spread. Look at Hitch’s layouts and how he frames each panel. He expertly carries your eye and the story forward from one panel to the next, giving you context and detail in each panel, before ending with Alfred. Nothing is wasted here. Even Sinclair’s colors as they shift tonally from scene to scene. It’s brilliant.
If there’s one thing that sometimes doesn’t translate well for me with Hitch, it’s the action. It isn’t that the action doesn’t flow well or contain intensity or energy, it’s minor, minor details: the form of a kick or the placement of a head after being punched. Again, these are minor complaints, but when every other aspect is as perfect as Hitch’s work is, you do tend to notice such small mishaps. It’s a good problem to have.
- You like when Batman does detective work.
- You’ve missed classic elements that used to define Batman stories.
- You enjoy exploring Bruce and Alfred’s relationship.
- Warren Ellis and Bryan Hitch should honestly be enough of a reason.
The Batman’s Grave #1 is a master class in writing and storytelling. Warren Ellis and Bryan Hitch deliver a subtle, well-thought and executed debut that builds a solid foundation with a book that has endless potential. If you find yourself reminiscing about what Batman used to be and represent; if you’re not really connecting with current incarnations of Batman, then this is definitely the book for you. It may not seem like it at first, but there’s a lot to unpack here, and you’ll be happy you let yourself experience it.