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Mark Waid’s Run on Justice League of America – Tower of Babel (Review/Retrospective)

23rd July is Batman Day, celebrating the character’s 75th anniversary. To celebrate, this July we’re taking a look at some new and classic Batman (and Batman related) stories. Check back daily for the latest review.

Although actually published in 2000, Tower of Babel is the third definitive Batman story of the nineties. Running only four issues instead of a massive sprawling crossover across an entire line of comic books, Tower of Babel is certainly more condensed than either Knightfall or No Man’s Land, hitting on many of the same themes and concepts. It is very much constructed as a cautionary tale – a warning about taking a particularly cynical approach to Batman to its logical extreme.

Due to his stand-off-ish nature, the nineties iteration of Batman is sometimes affectionately (or not so affectionately) referred to a “Batjerk.” This version of the character has a wonderful knack of pushing his friends and allies away, making enemies, and escalating problems due to arrogance and ego. In many respects, Tower of Babel is a quintessential “Batjerk” story, where Batman’s anti-social tendencies lead to the humiliation and defeat of the entire Justice League using his own plans.

The last temptation of Batman...

The last temptation of Batman…

Mainstream comic books are an interesting medium. Due to the nature of serialised storytelling, there are limitations on how far a particular character can grow or evolve over the course of a story or run. After all, the character needs to exist in a state where he can be picked up and passed from one creative team to the next, and the creative team will get a chance to tell their own version of iconic stories featuring this character.

In some senses, this creates the impression that the character is simply running on a treadmill. They are moving forward, but remaining in the same place. In the nineties, stories like Knightfall and Tower of Babel stressed the idea that a paranoid Bruce Wayne disconnected from those around him was not a healthy character. Both of these stories seemed to stress the need to rehabilitate the character, to help him move through this.

Green Lantern's light...

Green Lantern’s light…

However, it seems like Batman is constantly learning these lessons, to the point where it seems like he never genuinely learns any of these lessons. Half a decade after Bruce Wayne’s arrogance led to the humiliation of the Justice League in Tower of Babel, Greg Rucka had his ego lead to countless deaths over the course of The O.M.A.C. Project. Grant Morrison’s extended Batman run had the character trying to modify his behaviour, but it seems that Scott Snyder’s Batman may return to the characterisation.

In a way, the inevitability of this character regression adds a layer of tragedy to comic book characters. Any development is most likely to be temporary, any gains are likely to be reversed. Batman will be Batman. There is a tragic inevitability to it. Grant Morrison touches on this towards the end of his Batman Incorporated run, which seems like a reflection that there is only so far a writer and artist can drag a popular character before they must snap back into shape.

Words fail...

Words fail…

In many respects, Mark Waid was the obvious choice to take over Justice League of America after Grant Morrison departed. Waid had written a number of fill-in stories during Morrison’s run, including a tie-in to No Man’s Land that hit on a few of the themes that Waid would bake into Journey of Babel. A couple of years earlier, Waid had taken a year out from his epic stint on Flash to write the year-long miniseries Justice League of America: Year One. Morrison had temporarily filled in for Waid on Flash.

Morrison’s artistic collaborator Howard Porter stays over to assist with the transition from Morrison to Waid. However, this isn’t really necessary. Waid is a writer whose storytelling preferences line up quite well with those of Grant Morrison. Waid might have a more conservative storytelling style, but he shares Morrison’s deep and abiding affection for the Silver Age, and is just as cynical towards nineties trends in comic book storytelling.

Beware the Superman...

Beware the Superman…

Tower of Babel features Batman betraying the rest of the team, writing a series of files that expose the weaknesses his fellow superheroes. In some respects, this could be seen as a deconstruction. After all, Bruce Wayne has a bit of a point here. The Justice League of America first formed to fight a mind-controlling alien starship. There have been countless cases of mind-control, body-swapping, or doppelgangers over the years. (It’s telling that Batman cites a Silver Age example to support his case.)

With this in mind, Batman’s safeguards seem perfectly logical and rational. In fact, he’d be reckless not have some measures in place to help him deal with a mind-controlled Justice League. However, Waid then flips the basic idea on its head. Those plans are stolen from Batman, and they are used by a supervillain to defeat the Justice League. Batman’s paranoia is turned against his allies. it is revealed to be self-defeating.

Well, he knows how to make an entrance...

Well, he knows how to make an entrance…

After all, Tower of Babel seems to support Bruce’s decision to make these preparations. The problem isn’t that this information exists. The problem is two-fold. Most obviously, Batman never sought the consent of the Justice League in constructing these safeguards. One imagines that characters like Superman and the Flash (and even Green Lantern) might even help Batman in building these defences. As Wonder Woman remarks, “He could have told us they existed without detailing them.”

The other problem is that Bruce is completely and easily distracted during the crisis. He completely ignores the Justice League during the initial stages of the crisis. After J’onn is taken down, Superman calls Bruce for assistance, but Bruce shrugs him off. “The League’s being hunted by persons unknown,” Superman explains. Batman responds, “Is anyone dead?” When the answer is negative, Bruce effectively shrugs it off.

Plastic, fantastic...

Plastic, fantastic…

Granted, Bruce is attempting to recover the bodies of Thomas and Martha Wayne, but it’s telling that he is completely unwilling to request assistance in this operation and that he is two short-sighted to recognise that this is the way that he is being targeted as a member of the Justice League. Basically, Batman never seems to see himself as a member of the Justice League, instead behaving like an independent operative whose areas of interest occasionally overlap with the Justice League.

Appropriately enough, given the title of the story and Ra’s Al Ghul’s grand evil plan, both of these problems are rooted in communication. If Bruce had been willing to either talk or listen to the rest of the team, the crisis could have been avoided. Asking how they can get out of this mess, Wonder Woman reflects, “You just have to do what he won’t… and that’s listen to others.” In Tower of Babel, the world almost comes to an end because Batman is not a team player.

He knows how to make an entrance...

He knows how to make an entrance…

Tower of Babel emphasises the importance of communication and trust among the team. In many respects, it seems like Mark Waid is rejecting the sort of deconstructionist approaches that were increasingly popular in the nineties. Outside of Batman, J’onn is the first member of the League to be targeted by the League of Assassins – acknowledging how important  his communication and networking is to the team.

Arriving at an important diplomatic summit, Aquaman explains to Plastic Man, “You’re my teammate, Plastic Man. I trust you. I don’t like you, but I trust you.” That’s the basic level of functionality necessary for a book like Justice League of America to function. While books like The Authority were deconstructing superhero teams and examining the tropes necessary to tell these sorts of stories, Tower of Babel reinforces the idea that a certain level of trust and faith is necessary for a comic like this to work.

It's really kicking off...

It’s really kicking off…

It’s also worth pausing to note that many of Batman’s plans to incapacitate the superheroes are incredibly silly ideas that could backfire horribly. It’s nice (and perfectly in-character) that Batman’s plans to incapacitate the superheroes are all non-lethal, even if they are far from painless. (Although those used against Wonder Woman and Aquaman present a pretty serious risk of killing them.) However, the is something highly impractical about a lot of Batman’s plans, something that makes it seem like they might not even be the best way to keep an evil version of the Justice League under control.

He sets J’onn alight, creating a rampaging on-fire superhero. He almost burns down the Black Forest, and it’s not too hard to imagine what he could do in a metropolitan area. Green Lantern is still able to lash out blindly, which would presumably put many more civilians at risk. It also requires Kyle to be asleep in the first place, so why wouldn’t Batman just keep him drugged and unconscious? The Red Kryptonite appears to have a random effect on Superman. “It’s everything Superman can do to keep from exploding with power,” J’onn observes, which is not what you’d want to do to an evil Superman.

Flash is not going to save every one of us...

Flash is not going to save every one of us…

Still, it’s nice that Batman’s plans to dispose of Superman and Wonder Woman are at least thematically appropriate. He forces Wonder Woman to push herself to the brink, leading to a heart attack. Attacking Wonder Woman’s heart is a delightfully sly twist on her initial mission to spread love to the rest of the world. Similarly, the super-charging of Superman very cleverly plays on Superman’s own fears and insecurities. Superman is a character who fights to control his strength as he interacts with the world. Taking that control away from him would be represent the most serious breach of trust imaginable.

As such, it is no surprise that Superman casts the deciding vote to eject Batman from the League. The conversation between the other seven members about what to do with Batman is arguably the highlight of the four-issue storyarc. Waid has a firm grip on each of the characters involved, and their positions all seem entirely logical and in-character. The stalemate feels organic, rather than forced, and Superman’s deciding vote also feels in character.

Grave omens...

Grave omens…

It’s also interesting to note Waid’s handling of Talia Al Ghul. When an anonymous henchman returns to inform her that Batman fell to his death, she’s too genre-savvy to buy into it. “And you have seen his body?” Talia demands, smacking the henchman across the face. “Then he is not dead.” If only other super villains were so rational. The plot of Journey to Babel hinges on Talia deciding to betray her father, suggesting that Waid’s view of the character exists at odds with Morrison’s take on the Demon’s daughter.

Asked why she is assisting the League in their fight against her father, she replies, “Because I have had enough of being a pawn in my father’s endless schemes.” Once again, we see an example of the treadmill effect in action – Talia may protest to her father’s schemes here, but she will inevitably ally with him again. Much like Batman doesn’t seem to learn anything from the events of Tower of Babel, the same is true of Talia. Despite her protests, she will inevitably be a pawn again at some point.

... And then there were seven...

… And then there were seven…

Tower of Babel is a fantastic comic book, and a wonderful opening chapter to Mark Waid’s run on the title. It’s also a rather wonderful look at the character of Batman in the nineties, examining just why “Batjerk” is not a sustainable characterisation.

3 Responses

  1. Cant help but find the Talia comments ironic in hindsight

  2. shut up idiot. Tower of babel is a great story.

    • The concluding two lines of this review are:

      Tower of Babel is a fantastic comic book, and a wonderful opening chapter to Mark Waid’s run on the title. It’s also a rather wonderful look at the character of Batman in the nineties, examining just why “Batjerk” is not a sustainable characterisation.

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