Page 45 Review by Stephen
"This... could be fun."
"This will be fun."
For once I'm going to have a little think now before I write something truly contentious.
While I'm cogitating, please note that should I persuade you to read this book, the fifth in a series, you honestly won't have to have read the other four. I haven't.
Okay, I'm done.
This is the best BATMAN book that I have ever read.
It's also the best SUPERMAN book that I've ever read.
You may have enjoyed many for the spectacle of acrobatics and of combat; there have been some boasting extensive, razor-sharp plots realised with beat-perfect timing and thematic hearts which have been eloquently expressed, like IDENTITY CRISIS. But few superhero books - so focussed on fisticuffs - are renowned for being joyful, for being fun.
Whereas this, I swear, is a scream, bursting with character-driven wit, fulsome affection and fun. I've long made a joke about how you're unlikely to see a superhero comic in which everyone settles down in a park for an uninterrupted picnic, but that is almost exactly what happens for the whole of one chapter here when Lois Lane, Clark Kent, Bruce Wayne and Selina Kyle (Catwoman) decide to visit Gotham County Fair in their civvies. It's taken them a whole hour to agree on this venue and Selina is starving. But there's a slight problem: it's superhero cosplay night. Says the spod at the entrance, "And you all ain't superheroes."
Bruce, decidedly displeased: "Yeah".
Back at the car park, Lois observes, "Well, there is a solution, right? It's not as if you don't have costumes."
Clark's rather worried that they might look too much like the real things (!!!), so Lois suggests that they switch costumes.
Selina, one hand on Bruce's shoulder, the other on his lapel:
"What my kind, patient, fiancé means is that he sees that his kind, patient fiancée is tired and hungry.
"And he'll do what he needs to do to remedy that situation.
"Isn't that you mean?
With all the comedic timing of Gerald Durrell's family house-moves in Corfu, the very next page shows Bruce having resentfully given in. He's donning Clark's red, yellow and blue in a changing room cubicle while Lois slips into Selina's slinky black ("It stretches." "It better.") and Clark contemplates the Kevlar. Selina is going to wear Lois's sharp purple dress which obviously isn't a superhero costume, but she has a solution.
It isn't, but it was always going to work.
Which is where we came in, on a magnificent, full-page, Clay and Seth Mann masterpiece of Lois and Selina escorting Bruce, unshaved and so stubbly (clever - I've never seen Superman unshaved) striding out, fists as tight as Superman's often are, and Clark bringing up the rear in Batman's full cape and cowl with glasses on top: glasses which he does not need.
There is enormous humanity in Clay and Seth Mann's figures and faces - exceptional stature too, reflecting their capability. The ladies are precisely that: soft-faced and exceptionally attractive but in no way sexualised in their postures. Well, you know, apart from the page in which Lois and Clark then Selina and Bruce react somewhat differently to their times in The Tunnel of Love! There's an increasingly tender intimacy between Lois and Selina as the evening progresses, until they're sneaking a few snifters from a hipflask they share and Lois cracks a joke designed to boost Selina's sense of identity. Then they collapse to the floor in laughter, Selina nestling her head against the Catwoman mask worn by Lois: two new friends completely at ease, enjoying the moment to its fullest.
If I've so far failed to mention that Batman and Catwoman have recently become engaged, I do apologise. That evidently happened in another book. These are the immediate ramifications including Bruce's current and former wards finding out (not via Bruce but from Alfred the butler, which irks them something chronic) and this evening which is primarily about the girls getting to know each other better by exchanging confidences after meeting for the very first time in the preceding chapter.
It's also about Superman taking it all as graciously in his stride as he can, because that's in his nature, and Batman feeling extremely awkward because he's about as far out of his comfort zone as you can imagine! Haven't you always wanted to see that? Out of his comfort zone, I would emphasise, without there being any clear or present danger.
In that preceding issue Lois and Clark and Bruce and Selina do approach a clear and present danger from different directions, unknowingly, until they eventually bump into each other after exiting elevators halfway inside a skyscraper. Lois and Clark have taken an elevator up; Bruce and Selina have opted for descending down its twin shaft.
On their way there, the action flips between each party's perspective in very brief bursts, with one couple's conversation often being continued by the other. Yes, they are working on their investigative goals, but more interestingly they're focussed on friendship. Specifically, they are focussed on why Bruce is not picking up the phone to talk to Clark about his engagement to Selina, and why Clark isn't making the first move, either. Both Lois and Selina take the maternal role in trying to cajole the obstinate 'children' into communicative action. It's not as if either Bruce or Clark is being churlish, they're just being obdurate, tight-lipped men!
But while describing each other to their loved ones, both display the most moving awe, respect and deep-seated admiration, as well as a far greater understanding of each other than they have of themselves.
I've seen this reflective and reflected to-and-fro attempted in a prior series over a decade ago which I will not name and shame even though it was a toe-curling, cringe-inducing, cliché-ridden, heavy-handed and mawkish atrocity. This, by comparison, is light, bright, poignant and beautiful.
The final stroke of genius, however, is that although both Bruce and Clark erroneously conclude by declaring that you cannot possibly be best friends - or any friend at all - with someone like the other (because they're simply far too remote and impressive), the consequent funfair fiasco proves the exact opposite, while Selina and Lois - curious about each other's choice in men - hit it off big time.
This is possibly my favourite line, in which Selina Kyle (career criminal now on the rocky road to reform) confides what lies so deep in her heart that she has committed to a man who has made it his partial mission to bring her in. This to Lois Lane, who has spent half her adult life being defenestrated:
"It's just when I fall, he catches me.
"I know. It's stupid.
"Does that make any sense at all?"
All of this proves part of a refreshingly new dynamic even during first three combat chapters after the newly engaged couple encounter Talia Al Ghul, Bruce Wayne's potentially a-mortal and decidedly lethal ex-lover, mother to his own son, Damian. Once more King eschews the obvious on all counts, so don't expect petty jealousies: Selina Kyle is far too self-confident.
You can count on Damian for that instead.
It's called 'Rules Of Engagement', one of which, obviously, is that you have to keep your loved one happy, and it's funny witnessing Batman (very much Batman, rather than Bruce) deferring, back-tracking, almost apologising, and attempting to master the art of flattery when his fiancée can see straight through him.
Bellaire's colours initially contrast the cool of the study with the heat of the dessert as Batman and Catwoman approach Khadym while Alfred breaks the news of the engagement, artfully preceding this task with a seemingly unrelated "The mansion, like this family, is as large as it needs to be". He has complete command of every situation in that first chapter, including the seemingly uncontrollable dog. But will you notice, I wonder, Bellaire subtly controlling the oranges then reds of the dessert until the unseen sun finally sets and the fight continues well into the night?
King finds time to further explore the relationship between the current Robin, Damian, and the original, Dick Grayson (now Nightwing but at one point Batman to Damian's Robin), which is very much as little / big brothers. Damian, aged all of thirteen, has a habit of superciliously chiding others as "children", and Joëlle Jones provides an exquisite panel of expression when Damian tries it on Grayson, eyes and eyebrow disdainful, but lower lip jutting out with boyish petulance.
I'm going to leave the final story for you to discover for yourselves because you really shouldn't see it coming especially Michael Lark's quiet, tender and quite deliberate, crisp-leafed, autumnal contrast to Lee Weeks' energetic early-days engagements of a completely different nature... although Catwoman is quite clearly flirting from the very beginning.
Weeks pumps the pages to bursting point with cat-and-mouse, catch-me-if-you-can, youthful balletics and such torrential, driving rain that you'll feel both drenched and exhausted by the time they catch up with each other. Watch out for the wine glass as well.