I've read a lot of Batman comics over the years.
If you sort my personal collection of more than 1,000 comics alphabetically by title, you'll be nearly halfway through before you make it past the 'B's. It's one of the first things that my friends explain when they describe me to other people. "Oh yeah, and Susana's really into Batman."
This means there are a few questions I hear quite a lot, and I don't hate any of them except for "Wouldn't Batman be more effective if he used his money and influence to help Gotham instead of beating up criminals?"
Conveniently, one of the best answers to this question is Gotham Knights #32, and it's the best single issue Batman story ever.
A long time ago in a Gotham that's been retconned away...
Gotham Knights ran from 2000 to 2006, overlapping significantly with my favorite period in Batman books (from about 1998 to 2004) when the Batman editorial office's take on Gotham City was characterized by three things.
First: family. It was a time when the original Robin and Batgirl had grown out of their costumes and into new roles in the wider DC Universe, which included mentoring the younger men and women who occupied their legacies. The Batgirl and Robin of that time were both characters whose roles were primarily to work closely with Batman in inner-city Gotham, a bit different than how things are today, and the city was populated with a host of tertiary vigilantes like Spoiler and Huntress for our heroes to run into. It was a big, but tight-knit, cast.
Second: A tacit choice to treat Batman as if he were more an urban legend than a superhero. In the grand scheme of things, this didn't make much sense — after all, Batman had been a member of the Justice League for years. But what this detail lacked in logic, it made up for with the tone that it lent to the Bat-books overall. It necessarily pushed the Batfamily into the shadow of their own mythology, making the fact that they were merely human in a world of superheroic miracles feel all the more remarkable.
And finally: an emphasis on (relatively) mundane crime or mystery stories. This was an era where the Batman "bullpen" was populated by some of the strongest crime writers to ever work with the character, like Greg Rucka and Ed Brubaker. That's not to say there weren't big flashy villains to punch — there were — but beyond them were often bigger structural problems in Gotham.
It was an era in which major event stories included the Bat-family coming together to find the man who near-fatally shot Commissioner Gordon and bring him to lawful justice — only to be stymied by their reliance on coercion by intimidation. It saw an assassin carefully frame Bruce Wayne for murder in such a way as to convince even his family of expert detectives that he might have done it, and the Bat-family adopting gang tactics to protect citizens in a Gotham that had been declared a legal and political no man's land.
You didn't have to threaten hundreds in Gotham City to make a big Batman event, it was implied; you just had to endanger one.
Why is all this special?
These are aspects of Batman that are easy to miss, because they have never really been pushed to the fore of any live-action adaptation. They're also my favorite aspects of the character. Despite the fact that he's arguably more famous than some DC superheroes who have multiple seasons of their own television shows right now, Robin remains an elusive figure in modern live-action Batman adaptations, never mind Batgirl or Nightwing.
Criminal investigation is rarely used as a central plot in Batman films — bombastic costumed villains usually take the spotlight. For a character who is nominally the World's Greatest Detective, somehow nobody ever thinks to make a Batman movie that's a whodunnit.
"If I had a dime for every job Batman ruined," he mutters. Batman didn't even show up.
So while I admit to being annoyed by the "What if Batman used his money instead of his fists" question, I understand why people are asking it. After all, mainstream culture's most recent and memorable look at Batman, in the year 2016, is the Christopher Nolan trilogy, in which Bruce Wayne's traditional dedication to philanthropy is curiously absent.
If anything, the closest the non-comics-reading audience has come to all of the ideas above is their use in the longest-running non-comics version of Batman ever: Batman: The Animated Series. And, I'd say, the use of those themes is the reason why B:TAS was able to resonate so universally, last so long, and have the opportunity to spawn the half a dozen other shows in the DC Animated Universe (and produce Mask of the Phantasm, a rare feature-length Batman mystery movie about relatively mundane crime).
But I digress
In comics, these themes were nowhere better exemplified than in the pages of Batman: Gotham Knights. Flagship title Batman showcased the major Batman events of the time, while Detective Comics focused on mysteries. Legends of the Dark Knight was a place to tell stories that didn't take place in the modern Batman era or weren't intended to be canonical. And Gotham Knights was a series meant to focus on Batman's relationship with his wider cast of characters.
Knights was concerned with Batman and his surrogate children, Dick Grayson, Barbara Gordon, Tim Drake, Cassandra Cain, et al.; his surrogate parent, Alfred; his colleague, police Commissioner James Gordon; and even with some of his major villains — like Two-Face or Catwoman — with whom he once shared a more friendly connection. Devin Grayson was the first regular writer to helm the series, which makes her the first — and, 12 years later, still the only — woman to have ever been the lead writer on a main Batman title.
After nearly three years on the book, she penned her 32nd and final issue, "24/7," drawn by Roger Robinson.
In "24/7," all of these ideas — Gotham's patchwork vigilante family, mundane crime, Batman as urban legend and Bruce Wayne as a force for good in Gotham — are elegantly and succinctly woven into a single 22-page story. Although "story" may be a loose description here: "24/7" is more like 21 separate vignettes.
Narrative boxes with time and location stamps let us know that each one-page scene takes place roughly every hour (or so), collectively painting a picture of a single, average day in Gotham City. Nobody escapes from Arkham. No riots break out. The Batsignal is not turned on. None of the Bat-family are riddled, joked, death-trapped, abducted, injured, or held for ransom.
Instead, here are some of the things that happen:
Bruce subtly manipulates two separate business moguls into doing good acts for the community by appealing to their egos. Then he revives the dreams of a teenage employee by fake-casually informing him that Wayne Enterprise offers full college scholarships to all its workers.
Flitting through the city under the cover of darkness, Batman saves a bunch of cops pinned down in a firefight without throwing a punch, watches over Robin as the kid singlehandedly takes out a gang of Neo-Nazis ... and when he checks in with Barbara Gordon in her clock tower, he makes sure to ask how her dad is doing.
In Gotham's neighboring city Blüdhaven, where original Robin, Dick Grayson, is working his day job as a beat cop, the police department receives a Wayne Enterprise donation of bulletproof vests, enough for every officer. When asked why Gotham's most famous son would donate to another city's force, Grayson replies, "I think he'll want us to be safe."
A gay couple celebrate "Batman Day," the anniversary of the time Batman rescued one of them from a mugger. In a job interview, an ex-con explains to his potential employer that he was inspired to turn his life around by the individual attention Batman paid to him when he was apprehended. A Gotham police officer comes home from the late shift to find his pregnant wife is having trouble sleeping. He suggests they go for a walk in the park: "Word on the street is that Batman makes a south east sweep from the Hill to Robbinsville sometime around 12. Even if it's not true ... [the surrounding neighborhoods are] all dead zones crime-wise between 11 and 3."
A trio of jewel thieves are forced to abandon their break-in when their safe-cracker quits after realizing where the heist is located.
"If I had a dime for every job Batman ruined," their leader mutters. Batman didn't even show up.
There are a lot of reasons why Gotham Knights #32 appeals to me on a personal level. I love Bat-family stories. Bruce Wayne's need to create a surrogate family and to be an obsessive crime fighter have combined to create a tangled web of allegiances, legitimate grudges and unspoken bonds that fascinates me. I love the idea of Batman as urban legend, a character whose influence — encouraged in no small part by the man himself — terrifyingly precedes him. And, though I'm down for the occasional ninja man-bat army digression, at heart I'll always want to return to Batman stories where weird science and dark magic are far enough outside of our heroes' comfort zone that it seems all the more impressive when they triumph.
The fact that "24/7" can so deftly express all of those notions and be the answer to my least favorite question about Batman is downright perfect. It's a comic that deals with the almost viral power of doing good, which makes it a welcome and optimistic look at what can often be a very dark fictional world. The story's theme, that Bruce Wayne influences when he's not present, regardless of whether its the influence of Batman or his civilian identity, becomes even stronger once placed within a larger context.
Bruce Wayne: Fugitive
Gotham Knights #32 came out just after the close of Bruce Wayne: Fugitive, an arc in which Bruce was expertly framed for a murder he did not commit. Arraigned, denied bail and imprisoned in Blackgate Penitentiary along with the rough and tumble of Gotham's criminal underclass, Batman decided that since his secret identity had become more of a liability than an asset, he would abandon it. He broke out of prison and devoted all of his time to fighting crime — much to the dismay of his family, who'd been working very hard to prove his innocence.
And so "24/7" doesn't just depict a normal night in Gotham, it's also an explicit return to normalcy for Bruce, as he returns to helming Wayne Enterprises (all the murder stuff got worked out in the end).
It doesn't just remind the audience of everything that Batman's secret identity allows him to accomplish, thanks to his money, influence, corporate goodwill and even a carefully placed suggestion while golfing with one of Gotham's fat-cat real estate moguls — it’s a nice reminder that the character is more than fists applied to criminal chins. To paraphrase a certain movie adaptation, when you devote yourself to an ideal, you can become a legend. And Bruce Wayne's legend works just as hard as he does.