“Why,” I asked carefully, “Kite Man?”
Tom King looked me straight in the eyes, grinned, and went: “Hell yeah!”
I won’t tell you all of what he said next, yet. That would be saying the punchline before telling the joke; revealing the answer before asking the riddle.
Tom King’s ongoing run on Batman is best known for its big movements. In 17 months, he’s written what he purports to be just the first third of a story about Batman discovering whether he can ever move past the trauma of his parents’ death, the very narrative core of his character for the better part of a century. Batman has partnered with the Suicide Squad, overthrown the might of Bane, met his living father from another dimension and proposed marriage to Catwoman.
This is not about those big stories.
“The history of taking old ideas seriously, that’s what comics is about,” King said, while answering my question. “This character that everyone’s laughing at is actually a character that everyone’s crying at.”
Over the past 17 months, Tom King has taken Kite Man from a poster child for the silliness of mid-century superhero comics to something much, much more. And he did all of it without letting on that he was setting up for a punchline — and that that punchline would reverberate back through his Batman run.
Tom King took the joke of Kite Man and made him into a riddle.
A gliding gag
Kite Man’s first appearance in King’s Batman lasts all of two pages. He smashes through the window of a building. He steals a woman’s pearls, shouting “Kite Man!” He leaps out another window and glides away. “Kite Man. Hell yeah.” (See the top image on this post.)
He is immediately captured, plucked out of thin air by Gotham Girl, a very powerful superheroine that Batman has taken under his leathery wing. This set the tone for a series of recurring appearances: a running (or perhaps gliding) gag, in which Kite Man would appear in a montage of equally feeble Batman villains getting their comeuppance.
One such moment is now enshrined in an Eisner Award-winning story, “Good Dog,” which ran in the 2016 Batman annual, in a montage of Batman puzzling over Gotham crimes while, unseen and unappreciated, Alfred attempts to gentle an abused dog. At the center of a beautiful story about how anyone can come back from trauma, is this Kite Man gag:
I made a joke about it when I wrote up the story’s Eisner nomination. “There’s so much more to the quick tale than you might guess ... Can people really change? Can trauma truly be healed? What the heck is even Kite Man’s deal?”
Kite Man appeared in issue #6 and #9. Then #14. Then #23. He wasn’t a consistent joke — but it sure seemed like he was Tom King’s favorite punching bag.
And at the time, King admits, Kite Man was.
“Ivan Reis drew an extra panel in a comic book I was writing, and I had ... just added Kite Man ‘cause I just needed someone for Batman to punch, or for Gotham Girl to punch,” King told me at San Diego Comic-Con. “He had added an extra panel; ‘Tom, just add some dialogue to this’ ... so I just put ‘Hell yeah.’ Just out of nothing? I liked him just saying his own name, ‘Kite Man.’ He steals stuff; ‘Kite Man, hell yeah.’”
King’s Kite Man began as a borrowed trick from Frank Miller and Brian Michael Bendis’ runs on Daredevil, which use Stilt-Man and the Owl — absurd silver-age villains who’ve long lost any gravitas they might have once had — as recurring gags. But then he started to think about the character a bit more. Particularly, he latched on to how Kite Man’s secret identity is a reference to another titanic comics character, one whose legacy looms as large, and maybe larger, than Batman’s.
Yes, Kite Man’s given name is, canonically, Charlie Brown.
Kite Man, who he is and how he came to be
You might not be as familiar with the name of Bill Finger as you are with Bob Kane, who took full credit and compensation for the creation of Batman for decades. Kane only publicly admitted Finger’s contributions to Batman years after the latter’s death in 1974. Finger had died penniless and alone, his body lying undiscovered in his apartment for several days.
Bill Finger laid fundamental building blocks of the DC Universe. He named Bruce Wayne and Gotham City and contributed major conceptual cornerstones to the Joker and Robin. He invented Batman’s cape and cowl, his Batmobile and Batcave, and his noir detective nature. He created the villains of Catwoman and Clayface, Superman’s teenage love interest, Lana Lang, and Batman comics’ characteristic use of huge replicas of everyday objects (like pennies).
He also created Kite Man.
1960’s Batman #133, written by Bill Finger and drawn by Dick Sprang, featured a villain who used kites to perform high-flying heists. This was, honestly, not overly strange by the standards of the time. It would be nearly 20 years before he’d be seen again, but Len Wein picked up the character again for Batman #315 in 1979. Both Finger and Wein played Kite Man completely straight, and without much explanation — he was a villain and a thief who used kites and gliders to commit crimes. The bread and butter of Batman had always been outlandishly themed and gimmicked bad guys.
It took writer Tony Isabella and another half-decade of time (a half-decade closer into American comics’ post-modern dive into the anti-hero and self-referentiality) to give Kite Man his secret identity, and to deliberately make him comedic. Isabella brought the character in for a single issue of his run on Hawkman in 1986.
“I had been writing some pretty grim stuff for the characters,” Isabella told me via email. “I decided issue #4 would be a treat for myself. ... I always loved Kite-Man. He was one of those goofy obsessed Batman villains, so lame I figured I would have a better than 50-50 chance of beating him myself. He was just the right touch of light villainy I needed for my lighter-than-usual issue.”
Not only did Isabella give Kite Man a civilian name for the first time, he left the character in a most ignominious defeat — crashing into a tree while he exclaimed “Rats!”
“Charlie Brown was a natural choice,” Isabella said, “as was adding a kite-eating tree to the issue. It's one of my proudest moments in comics.”
“What the heck even is Kite Man’s deal?”
“The thing about Kite Man,” King said at San Diego, and then changed the tack of his sentence.
“Condiment King,” he continued. “That was created as a joke. Someone’s like ‘Ahaha, that’d be funny; if Batman fought someone named Condiment King.’ Dude, someone took Kite Man very seriously to create him. Bill Finger created Kite Man! He’s like ‘I’ve created three things in my life, Batman, Robin, Kite Man! Nailed it!’”
That contrast, between an inherently silly character intended seriously; between a simple, obscure supervillain and one of the most famous tragicomic characters in newspaper strips ever, tickled King.
“If you take those old ideas seriously, if you take the genius those people put in — that Bill Finger put into this character — and be like ‘Wow, there’s real pathos in the idea of a kite flying into a tree.’ And if there’s real pathos, then I’m going to exploit it.”
Enter “The War of Jokes and Riddles,” King’s story of how Batman became entangled in a supervillain gang war between the Joker, who finds he can’t find anything funny anymore, and the Riddler, who wants revenge on the Joker for shooting him in the gut. In Batman #27, it’d been four issues since we’d seen hide or hair of Kite Man. King’s Batman comic had never mentioned his true name.
I explain this because you’re reading a post about Kite Man. You’re going to see this coming a mile away — in practice, King pulled off a masterful twist.
“The War of Jokes and Riddles” is all about Batman self-flagellating with an exhaustive tally of the lives he was unable to save in the Joker and Riddler’s war — he has made sure that he knows their families, their histories and how they met their grisly, random fates. And Batman #27 is about one of those small victims — a former Joker henchman with some education in aerodynamics who once worked on the design for the Jokermobile.
It begins with Batman walking into a bar (already the set up for a joke), grabbing that henchman and demanding that he set up a meeting with the Joker, so that Batman can capture him and end the war. From there, this hapless Gotham native, who goes by the name Chuck Brown, is pulled three ways between Batman, the Joker and the Riddler, all of whom think they’re using him to get one over on his opponent.
There is one quiet moment among all these scenes of Brown’s family getting threatened if he doesn’t agree to triple-cross three of the most dangerous men in Gotham City. A moment where he flies a kite with his son, Charlie, and admonishes him for using a curse word. For saying, “Hell yeah.”
The meeting doesn’t go well.
His family gets put in protective services, but it’s too late. Riddler knew, even before the meeting, that Brown would double-cross him, and he poisoned his son with a chemical on his kite string. Brown does the only thing that makes sense in Gotham City, the thing that only makes sense in Gotham City.
He uses his degree in aerodynamics engineering to make himself a kite-based supervillain, and goes to fight for Joker’s side of the gang war. The final page of the issue gives the reader its title, “The Ballad of Kite Man, Part 1.” Batman’s failure to save an innocent life has created yet another tragic and dangerous foe, and another set of names for his guilt list.
It’s sad. A father watching his son die. It’s also hilarious. A poisoned kite string? Kite Man, hell yeah? Chuck Brown? Batman walks into a bar? “Good grief?”
Suddenly, Kite Man is more than a joke. He’s a character, he has pathos. He’s a minnow among sharks, as the tide turns against the Joker and his allies, as Batman and the Riddler’s forces take them down, one by one. He’s a joke, and you root for him. You want something to go right for him.
You want Tom King to just let him kick the football for once in his sad little life. He doesn’t.
While King makes Kite Man the emotional heart of “The War of Jokes and Riddles,” he (without spoiling the exact events) also makes him the lynchpin of the Riddler’s ultimate plot. Kite Man is the punchline on an elaborate joke the Riddler is telling the Joker, in an effort to solve Gotham’s biggest riddle.
It turns out, in the end, that the Riddler made Kite Man. He made him to be a joke. And Tom King took a joke character and made him something that it takes a two-thousand word article to fully explain.
“This wasn’t called the Joker and Riddler War, it was called the War of Jokes and Riddles,” he told me at New York Comic Con, in the week after the arc’s final issue and the reveal of the Riddler’s plan. “The idea of Kite Man was he combined both of those, in some ways. He’s an utter joke. You say Kite Man, people laugh. He’s the joke of a hero. But he’s also this little riddle because there’s no understanding him. ‘Who is Kite Man?’ is the riddle.
“It started out as just a joke, but it turned into a riddle, it solved something ... Because what Riddler does at the end — he’s like ‘I solved the riddle by making a joke.’”
Kite Man, hell yeah
“Not interested. They’re just a boring character,” is a line you can find in comment after comment and forum post after post when people gather to discuss long-running superhero settings. If Tom King’s Kite Man says anything, it’s that there’s no such thing.
This is the magic of never ending, serialized comics, as King effused at San Diego Comic-Con, an event dominated by movie studios but still the annual house that comics built. “The history of taking old ideas seriously.”
A jewel thief with a cold gun can become a grieving husband moved to crime. A serial killer can become an elaborate prankster — and then a serial killer again. A bumbling servant can become an essential father figure and narratively necessary foil throughout every adaptation in mainstream media.
And a character earnestly created by a tragic figure of comics history and made a joke by time — can be seamlessly converted into a tragicomic figure by way of the exact characteristics that make him laughable.