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Batman – Full Circle (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.

In a way, Mike W. Barr and Alan Davies’ Full Circle feels a bit like Steve Englehart and Marshall Roger’s Dark Detective. It’s a cap to a run on the character, something of a forerunner to DC’s recent “Retroactive” initiative, reteaming classic creators on a particular character in an attempt to recapture past glories. Like Dark Detective, Full Circle doesn’t quite work. It’s a direct sequel to Barr’s Year Two – albeit with recurring gags and characters thrown in from the rest of his Detective Comics run – and it seems to exist solely to make sure the reader understood what Barr was doing with Year Two.

Given that Year Two was hardly the most subtle of comics, Full Circle occasionally runs the risk of bludgeoning the reader into submission.

It's a Boy Wonder he doesn't get killed...

It’s a Boy Wonder he doesn’t get killed…

To be fair, there are some good ideas here. In particular, I like Barr’s dedication to the idea of Batman as a sort of generational saga. Batman was created the night that Thomas and Martha Wayne died, perhaps the last thing that Bruce inherited from his parents. His decision to recruit Robin to help him fight crime can be seen as an attempt to create a surrogate crime-fighting family. There’s little doubt that Dick Grayson and Tim Drake and various others will continue to fight the good fight long after Bruce Wayne is dead. (Of course, this being the serialised medium of comics, Bruce Wayne will never truly be dead – but the logic is sound.)

Indeed, Barr paints the occupants of Wayne Manor as a decidedly dysfunctional family. Bruce is the father trying to get his surrogate son to his homework (damn criminology!), while Alfred is the doting grandfather. After a heated disagreement with young Dick Grayson, Bruce plays the stern father figure until his ward is out of earshot. Then he suggests to Alfred, Take the boy a piece of your chocolate cake.” It’s clear that this isn’t the typical family, but it’s close enough.

Batman doesn't fear the Reaper...

Batman doesn’t fear the Reaper…

And Barr juxtaposes that with the family of Joe Chill. Which is absurd. Joe Chill isn’t a super villain whose title and role get handed from one generation to the next. He’s just a small-time hood who killed Thomas and Martha Wayne and created Batman. He’s a vitally important character in the Batman mythos, but turning him into an active and on-going participate feels wrong somehow. Barr typically does great work with comic book concepts, but positing a generation grudge that passes from Joe Chill to his children feels just a bit contrived.

Still, the central idea is good. And Barr’s Year Two demonstrated that the writer has a gift for mixing rather wonderful high concepts with some more questionable choices. The idea that Batman is caught in a struggle larger than just his own life was pretty profound for the time when Full Circle was published. Given so much of Batman’s appeal rested on the fact he was just a normal guy, exploring the ramifications of his actions across generations is a rather bold premise for a Batman comic.

In the dead of knight...

In the dead of knight…

Full Circle reinforces the idea that Barr has absolutely no interest in this excessively grounded and cynical Batman that became quite popular in the wake of The Dark Knight Returns and Batman: Year OneYear Two featured a gun-totting Batman as almost a parody of the sort of comic book anti-hero who was becoming more and more popular at the time. Here, we get a version of Batman who is on speaking terms with most of the criminal underworld and offers one-liners in the midst of action sequence. When he bursts open a door using the unconscious for of Moose, he remarks, “They don’t make doors very well around here.”

Indeed, Robin is vitally important to Full Circle. He’s featured prominently on the very first page of the novel, and gets to save Batman at the climax. The implication is that Robin is vitally important to the Batman mythos, and that he serves to lighten up Bruce and keep him from wallowing in darkness. It’s not for nothing that Full Circle tries to be the absolute complete 100% non-negotiable conclusion to the whole Batman origin thing.

Dude needs to Chill...

Dude needs to Chill…

Captured by Joe Chill’s children, Bruce is given a psychedelic drug and forced to watch a replay of a murder conveniently similar to the death of his parents. The idea is to drive Bruce to the bring of despair and to force him to take his own life. It’s nice to know that Joe Chill raised his kids to seek a moral victory instead of one of those “just shoot him in the head” victories. Because those are so cheap. Anyway, in case the reader doesn’t get how grim and oppressive this is, we’re helpfully informed, “‘Survivors guilt’ has taken its toll on survivors of concentration camps and disasters, making them doubt their right to live while they watched their loved ones die.”

After Robin zips into the rescue, Batman gains the strength to resist the video they’ve been looping. After the cops arrive to clean up the scene, Batman decides to burn the reel. Gordon makes the observation that the reel was probably evidence, but Bruce is having none of that. Symbolism trumps conviction every time. “Just something I should have discarded a long time ago, Commissioner,” he answers, dodging the fact that he is destroying evidence. The symbolism is hardly subtle, with Bruce destroying the representation of his guilt over the death of his parents with a little help from Robin.

Holding it together...

Holding it together…

Of course, the whole thing is decidedly comic-book-y, which feels a little surreal when you factor in that it’s supposed to be about a generation grudge held by the man who murder Bruce Wayne’s parents and now spends his nights chopping up prostitutes. Joe Chill Jr. and his sister even construct an elaborate death trap to make Bruce feel at home. “Should you leave this platform, for any reason, you will hang yourself… and, should that not kill you, that extremely virulent acid will.” Batman refuses to get into the spirit of the thing, wondering, “Can we just get on with it?”

At the same time, it’s clear that Joe Chill Jr. must have really wanted to be a supervillain when he was younger. Not only does he have elaborate death traps and mind toxins and plans to psychologically break heroes, but he also dresses up as the man who murdered his father for some reason. He even spouts the same damn catchphrase (“… fear the Reaper…”) and leaves riddles for the Dynamic Duo to solve. “‘S’ must mean south… so he’s somewhere where the only direction you can go is South,” Robin ponders. “He can’t be at the North Pole… so he must be at the Gotham City version of the North Pole.”

Taking a bath on this one...

Taking a bath on this one…

It all feels rather shallow and goofy. Of course, that’s entirely the point, but it doesn’t quite work in the context of a story about fathers and sons and cycles of violence. It feels like Barr is reaching for profundity, but it eludes his grasp. “It’s come full circle at last,” Batman offers. “It began with his father and mine… and, hopefully, it will end with his son.” It’s a nice idea, but it never feels like Barr quite earns it. For what should be a tragic story about generation grudges, the story is thrown off by all the goofiness.

I like my silly Batman comics. I love Mike W. Barr and Alan Davies’ original run on Detective Comics. However, their work involving the Reaper feels a little dissonant and off-key, as if the duo are struggling to reach the right notes.

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