My primary brief, with How Bad Can It Be?, is to look at media product that for whatever reason — an unpromising premise, a poisoned reputation, a creator’s track record — gives me no reason to expect that it’ll be any good, and to try to give that work the benefit of the doubt. But occasionally, something comes along that, on paper at least, should work. The question then becomes, “What went wrong?” Such is the case with Paul Pope‘s Batman: Year 100 (DC Comics).
The Batman, of course, is a hugely iconic property, and it’s easy to see why. Through all the various artistic takes and interpretations he remains a strangely inspirational figure; he’s One Man making A Difference, overcoming the trauma of his origins to recast himself as a protector of the weak, with no powers but his own indomitable will. For all that he is a terrifying badass, the Batman is perhaps the most lovable of superheroes, and his hard-edged altruism has proved a durable storytelling engine.
And Paul Pope? He’s your genuine comics rock star. From his earliest small-press works like THB and Escapo to more polished recent productions like Heavy Liquid and 100%, Pope has trafficked in SF adventure with an art-house sensibility. It’s bracing stuff — blazingly paced and compulsively readable, justifying the self-bestowed nickname “Pulphope,” shot through with smart speculative elements and moments of aching tenderness. And it’s all rendered in a kinetic, swaggering line, crackling with energy.
So when DC Comics announced that Pope would write and draw a four-issue miniseries re-imagining the Batman in a near-future setting — 2038, to be precise, 100 years after his debut in Detective Comics — it seemed like an aesthetic sure bet.
And yet it’s just sort of … blah. Oh, it’s a beautifully-rendered book, and it tells a perfectly competent quasi-military sci-fi story. The thing is, it’s not really a Batman story at all — it’s a Paul Pope story, all the way through.
The root of the problem, I think, is Pope’s politics. Like a lot of guys who started making good money at a young age, he leans Libertarian. Elements of his political philosophy have crept into his work before, but here they’re at odds with the underpinnings of his main character.
Christopher Nolan‘s Batman movies, especially The Dark Knight, keep the focus on the sacrifices that Bruce Wayne must make to protect the city he loves — letting go of the woman he loves, even taking the blame for a murder he didn’t commit, all for the greater good. But for the Libertarian — as for the Objectivist — the “greater good” is a sham, and sacrifice is for suckers.
Batman Year 100, like the earlier Heavy Liquid, plays out in a dystopian U.S. that has come under U.N. control. And who is the Big Bad? Let’s meet him.
Gasp! Horror! The White House is being run by a tea-sipping English bureaucrat! Who does a comical spit-take at the mention of the BAT-MAN OF GOTHAM! And why does the mere mention of that name cause this boutonniéred Euro-fop to hork his Oolong? Because the Batman is free — and therefore uncontrollable; in a world without privacy he keeps his secrets. And so Year 100 becomes that right-wing SF staple, a tale of One Man vs. The State. Foolish Mega-City Judges! YOU CANNOT STOP THE BAT-MAN OF GOTHAM!
Batman: Year 100 begins in the same way that The Dark Knight ends, with the Batman on the run from the cops. But Paul Pope’s Batman is only trying to protect his own interests. There’s a passing mention of his role as a vigilante, but we never actually see him fighting street crime, as such — only in taking down the government.
That’s a bad move. By keeping his public-spirited actions offscreen, Pope strips away any sense of the compassion driving the character — strips away, not to put too fine a point on it, his heroic qualities. He’s different from any other Pope protagonist only in that he’s got better gadgets.
What’s funniest about all this is that Year 100 actually marks Pope’s second attempt to turn the Batman into an Objectivist superhero. Included in the collected edition is a reprinting of 1997’s “The Berlin Batman,” which imagines the caped crusader as Baruch Wane, a wealthy young Jew of pre-war Germany fighting — I swear I am not making this up — to keep the documents of arch-conservative economist Ludwig von Mises from falling into the hands of the Nazis. It’s every bit as bizarre and ham-fistedly doctrinaire as it sounds.
Theme and subject matter are fatally mismatched here. Rather than bringing anything new to the old warhorse, Pope has fundamentally misunderstood what made the character work in the first place. The core element of standing up for the little guy — obliquely as the philanthropist Bruce Wayne, directly as the Batman — is irredeemably distorted by the Libertarian ethos of “rational selfishness.” Indeed, one wonders what attracted Pope to the character in the first place. Most of us admire the Batman because he’s out to save the city he loves, armed only with bottomless reserves of determination; Paul Pope, it seems, digs him mostly because he’s good-looking and rich.
The Batman will survive this mistreatment. His myth remains intact even in the face of many different interpretations of his motives. Making him over into a capes-and-cowls diversion for the Ayn Rand set only serves, in the end, to damage Paul Pope. FOOLISH OBJECTIVISTS! YOU CAN LAY NO CLAIM TO THE BAT-MAN OF GOTHAM!