This week’s Batman #38 is a self-contained, one-issue story, about a newly orphaned young boy seeking out the guidance of Gotham’s Bruce Wayne, the city’s most famous, and successful, orphan. So, naturally, it’s also about Batman confronting an opportunity to, by proxy, solve the one crime he’s never been able to solve (except in the stories where he has): the death of his own parents.
It’s a good hook in a small package, with an extra twist in its final pages — but its value is all about its context, not its content.
[Warning: This post contains major spoilers for Batman #38.]
After all, Batman confronting boys who share his origins isn’t exactly a rare thing. That’s what drew Bruce to at least two of the boys who became Robin — an understanding of their shared trauma.
It’s also been a common theme in his villains for a while now. Tommy Elliot, or Hush, is a childhood friend of Bruce’s who, at a young age, attempted to murder his high society parents in order to gain access to their fortune. Roman “Black Mask” Sionis was abused by his high society parents and eventually successfully murdered them in his path to infamy. And most recently, the ultimate villain of Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo’s Court of the Owls story arc was revealed to be Thomas Wayne, Jr., the equally orphaned younger brother that Bruce — through a series of convoluted events — never knew he had.
Batman #38 isn’t the first story about Batman trying to solve the murder of the parents of a young boy, either. Though I can’t find the exact series or issue number, there’s absolutely a one-shot story out there about Batman obsessing over solving the double homicide of a young boy’s parents. I have a hunch it was in Gotham Knights, but it’s a plot line that’s terrifically hard to Google. It takes Robin’s urging for him to stop overlooking the true solution: The murderer was the young boy the whole time.
But then, Tom King, the current writer on Batman is well aware that anyone making additions to Batman’s legacy is standing on the shoulders of giants.
“Mark Waid had lunch with me [after I accepted the job],” King told reporters at San Diego Comic-Con this year, “and he’s like ‘Do you realize that more stories have been written about Batman than any other character — fictional, religious, nonfictional — in the history of anything? ... You just have to write the next one.’
“And then I fainted,” he joked.
His solution, he said, was to try to do something no one had done before: Write a story about Batman learning to move past his trauma and allow himself to be truly happy. And so the most interesting aspect of “The Origin of Bruce Wayne” might be that it’s happening in the larger context of Tom King’s run.
Instead of a one-shot story whose twist and themes will be forgotten, it’s another stepping stone in the character’s path towards self-realization. Specifically, it’s a story that forces Batman to admit that he might just be a sick kid with dead parents, after discovering the issue’s final twist.
Not only is the young boy he’s fighting a murderer. He’s a murderer who was inspired by the story of Bruce Wayne, the tragic philanthropist hero of Gotham City — who was inspired to do good by his parents’ deaths.
Another one-shot story in King’s run has also focused on Batman hunting down a parent’s killer on behalf of the orphaned child. Batman #23 had the Caped Crusader teaming up with Swamp Thing to find the man who murdered the big green guardian’s estranged father. In the end, Batman realizes that Swamp Thing has played upon his hopes in order to get his detective expertise. Just like in this week’s issue, he realizes that his soft spot for people whose stories are like his leads him to miss critical clues.
And the romanticization of his parents’ deaths has does their legacy — and his psyche — no favors at all.