Living On Borrowed Time: Tom King On ‘Batman’ #12 And ‘I Am Suicide’ [Interview]
Batman #12, the fourth part of "I Am Suicide," is a a story about Batman coming to terms with the nature of his identity (and perhaps Catwoman's) as he travels to Santa Prisca to confront Bane and bring back the Psycho-Pirate --- who might be the only person who can save Gotham Girl's life.
In captions throughout issue #12, writer Tom King presents us with a painfully honest letter from Batman to Catwoman, while artist Mikel Janin tells a parallel story in the visuals of Batman fighting an entire army to get to Bane. ComicsAlliance sat down with King to talk about the moment when Bruce Wayne's life ended, the true nature of Catwoman (and her fandom), and why Bane has stopped wearing pants.
This interview contains spoilers for Batman #12, so you may want to read the issue first.
ComicsAlliance: The text in this issue is a kind of treatise — it’s about who and what Batman is, on a fundamental level. I’m curious how you came to that perspective on Batman, and if this is something you were building up to all along.
Tom King: I mean, Batman’s not mine. He doesn’t necessarily belong to me. As a character he belongs first to the audience, and second to the hundreds of writers who have been writing him in comics for 75 years.
What I felt I was doing in this book was sort of building upon the foundation they had made, and clarifying an idea that runs right from [Bill] Finger to [Steve] Englehart to [Scott] Snyder. And it’s this idea that’s sort of — I’m just going to spoil the issue, but — that Batman at that moment, when Bruce Wayne took that vow, that in some ways that was the end of Bruce Wayne. Bruce Wayne became the mask and Batman became the real hero.
That’s not at all an original thought, but I think that’s who Batman is to me. And I combined that with the personal — that’s what you do as a writer — from a place of growing up as an outsider, as someone who felt sort of isolated from the world, and having thoughts similar to that.
CA: I’m curious about this. I can’t claim I’ve read every Batman comic, so I’ll just ask. The idea that when he made that oath, that Bruce Wayne literally had a razor blade to his wrist — is that new? Did that originate with you?
TK: Yeah, that’s new, but I think it’s totally in line with the past. When I had the idea, I called Scott [Snyder], and I said, “This is what I’m considering doing,” and Scott’s like, “Yeah, that’s my Batman. That’s how I always thought of it; it makes sense to me.” But yeah, that comes from me.
But again, it’s a literalization of the fact that when he made that vow, that’s the transformation. That’s the moment when he says, “I’m not going to live my life in just pain. That part of me is dead, and I’m going to live my life for a cause. And that cause is to fight crime and save people, like my parents couldn’t be saved.” To me it just seems more realistic, that if a kid’s in that position where he would sacrifice everything, that he would consider sacrificing everything in a physical way. That seems like a thing that would actually happen. It took some thing that lots of writers had made a metaphor, and tried to ground it, in the idea of a warm blade on the skin.
CA: I sort of hate to repeat the idea that, “We have to make old comic book concepts darker to make them real,” but that does sort of makes the idea that he literally said that oath feel more visceral and real, if that’s the moment that he was in.
TK: The whole arc goes back to the moment on the plane, which everyone just thought was a one-time story, but really is the heart of the series. When Batman’s saying, “I’m going to die for my city, I’m going to die for this cause,” and why is a person like that? Why can a person sacrifice everything for a cause?
And the idea is that that comes from that moment. That he’s already sort of made that sacrifice. He already knows; he’s already dead. He’s, to borrow [Jack] Kirby’s great phrase, living on borrowed time. His life is not his life. His life is the mission of Batman.
CA: And then of course, you also connect that same idea to Catwoman in the issue. As Batman specifically says, we don’t really know yet what’s going on with Catwoman, and obviously I’m not going to ask you to spoil that. But it does seem like you’re coming at Catwoman from a different direction than most creators have recently.
TK: What I like about that, is that I wrote this Catwoman story, and Catwoman fans jumped all over me. It got pretty vicious — there were people telling me to die and all sort of things. Saying, “You’re writing a Catwoman that doesn’t exist. It’s not in her character. Catwoman doesn’t kill 237 people, even if it’s justified. It’s just not who she is. That’s crazy, there’s something wrong.”
And that’s the exact reaction Batman had! That reaction all these Catwoman fans had, it’s the smartest, best reaction. That’s what Batman thinks too. They’re exactly right. Batman’s like, “Yeah, she says she killed 237 people, and she has a fantastic explanation for it, but that’s not who she is as a character. I know her, and she knows me, and I know she wouldn’t do that.”
It’s sad, because people were so angry with me, but I couldn’t respond, like, “Yeah, I know. Batman agrees with you. You’re on the side of Batman with these complaints. You’re saying the right things.”
CA: You also have this new incarnation, or new iteration, of Bane. Who I’ve been thinking of as “Naked Bane.”
TK: I like Naked Bane! That’s all Mikel [Janin]. When I was thinking about how to do Bane, I went to Brando in Apocalypse Now, where he’s pouring water over his head, and talking about errand boys.
I sent that clip to Mikel, and I said, “This is what I’m thinking of for Bane. Someone who talks very calmly and distinctly, but is kind of spooky-looking in the shadows,” and Brando’s not wearing a shirt in that scene, or you can’t tell because it’s so dark, so Mikel drew him naked, and he later asked the question, “Do you want me to put clothes on him?” And I didn’t know if we were allowed to do that, but the editor was like, “Yeah, no clothes.”
I like it. It’s hard to find a unique look for a Batman villain. Everything like a scar on the face, or a skin condition, there are so many unique signifiers taken. But an utterly naked, hairless man. That’s something new. And Mikel found it.
CA: And it works perfectly with what you’re doing with Bane, because he’s at this place where he doesn’t want to use venom anymore, and he’s trying to be a new man. So not only not wearing his mask, but not wearing anything kind of literalizes that.
TK: I always thought of his mask as being the thing that delivers venom to him. That’s why he wore the mask — because he needed the venom delivery — so we’re starting from a place where he’s off venom, so he’s much smaller than he used to be. He’s still the size of a wrestler, he’s just not a super-steroid wrestler. And so we took off his mask.
And it also speaks to the fact that "I Am Suicide" is not about Bane coming to Gotham, or doing something evil. He’s comfortable in himself. He’s like, “I’m like Doctor Doom, in the John Byrne years. I have my own country. I have my own place to be. I’m so comfortable I control the climate and I can be buck-naked anywhere I want to be. The only thing I need from the world is to stop wanting venom, the thing I’m addicted to. And the only way I can do that is to use Psycho-Pirate as methadone.”
But because of that one tragic flaw, he’s come into contact with Batman. So there’s a little tragedy, as there should be in every villain.
CA: By the way, I love that Psycho-Pirate is still wearing his Silver Age harlequin costume. He’s still the same Psycho-Pirate, while everything else has evolved around him.
TK: (Laughs.) I don’t know, I’m an old nerd, so I think that costume is the best costume. When I close my eyes and think of Psycho-Pirate, I think of him and the Anti-Monitor and Flash in the same room. And it makes no sense! You have a god, a superhero, and basically this weedy guy who can make people sad! He just doesn’t belong, but that’s what’s so cool about it. So it’s kind of a callback to [George] Perez and [Marv] Wolfman.
CA: Speaking of callbacks, I wanted to ask about the action that’s happening over the course of the issue. As we’re getting this letter, we’re also seeing this book-length action scene of Batman fighting his way through the prison. And I have to ask if you were thinking of Uncanny X-Men #133, where Wolverine fights his way through the Hellfire Club, or if that was just me.
TK: Yes! I think about that issue all the time! I love that issue. I did a direct tribute to it in Omega Men at one point. So yes, that’s not accidental, that’s a really good observation. You’ll see me constantly refer to that story. I think of that, and I think of Daredevil in the last Miller run. Fighting their way through a building to get somewhere.
This is a weird issue, right? It’s like eight splash pages. And I’m not sure that’s been done before — I mean, I’m sure it’s been done before. Ron Salas did it recently, in an issue of The Six Million Dollar Man. Also Mike Allred did it way back in the day. And I love both those issues, so I thought maybe we could do that here.
Because the letter is about Batman sacrificing himself, so here is Batman taking on impossible odds and sacrificing himself. To the point where at the end he just collapses on his knees and can’t move anymore. He’s at the mercy of Bane and Catwoman and Psycho-Pirate.
CA: I also want to talk about a character who’s not in the issue, but the issue wouldn’t be happening without her, which of course is Gotham Girl. I’ve been so fascinated by her, especially since what happened with Gotham and what we learned about her. I’m interested in the idea that you created this character who’s fundamentally doomed by her origin, and then threw in this glimpse at the future that implies that she’s maybe going to be okay.
TK: We’re right back to [Chris] Claremont’s X-Men. He used to say that the key to writing a superhero is to make their power their enemy. Like Rogue, her power gives her all these problems. He constantly did things like that. So Gotham Girl is the apotheosis of that. When she uses her power, she kills herself, so she’s constantly sacrificing herself.
And yeah, in the end of issue #5, we have that caption — the only narrative caption I’ve used in the entire run so far — to hint at a bigger story that Gotham Girl is involved in. So if she stops using her power, if she fights like Batman, she’ll live as long as a normal person. But the question remains, can she make the sacrifice of not making the sacrifice? And that story plays out. The end of that story has been approved, and it plays out over like a three year run. But it’s plotted.
CA: Her story also directly parallels the idea of Batman committing suicide by being Batman.
TK: Of course, yeah. In every Hitchcock movie, there’s somebody hanging by their fingertips from a rooftop. And in every Tom King book, there’s somebody committing suicide by trying to save the day.
Batman #12 is on sale now.