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I have unwittingly played an April Fools prank on myself. Our own Rob van Winkle, as he's done in past years, solicited nominations for the worst of the worst, those pieces of pop culture you wouldn't wish on your worst enemy, which he then doles out (gleefully, I assume) to CC2K writers to consume and respond via articles. I've been burning through graphic novels lately, choosing titles based on various "best of" and "top #" lists around the web. Thinking that we've never included comic books in our April Fools Week (AFW) event week, I was determined to find something appropriate. I saw Kevin Smith's Batman: The Widening Gyre come up in searches for bad comic books, and one particularly scathing review. That sealed it. It would be my nom for AFW.
There are two things I should mention that contributed to this self-inflicted prank. One, I hadn't actually read the book myself; yes, I had judged a comic book by its cover, or rather, by its reputation (I know, shame on me). The second, RvW changed the rules this year. Instead of assigning my pick to some other unlucky writer, he assigned it to me. Specifically, I was to write a positive review of it. Oh you're a scoundrel, RvW. Now I had to shelve my preconception and actually read Smith’s work and find “good” things to say about it. Challenge accepted!
Batman is one of the greatest, most popular, most enduring, interesting, and complex superheroes ever conceived. With such a rich history and deep rogues gallery at his disposal, Kevin Smith has done the seemingly impossible. He has made the Dark Knight ordinary. Boring. But he hasn’t stopped there. He has given readers a series that is derivative without offering anything original, yet at the same time ignores, discards, and outright destroys superior canon that has come before. What an accomplishment! Let’s examine how he did it.
The Widening Gyre opens with Baron Blitzkrieg and Atomic Skull teaming up to attack a synagogue. Why? Something about wanting to destroy an old copy of the Torah. Who cares? This is en medias res, man. Actually it’s en medias res retro en tempore. Batman and a young Dick Grayson as a “Holy insert-pun” and horrible Jew-based-joke-spouting Robin quickly dispatch them. Jump to present day and Batman is helping a grown Dick Grayson as Nightwing deal with some Neo-Nazi thugs. Why does Nightwing need Batman there? Because one of the thugs (somehow) found Baron Blitzkrieg’s old armor, and Dick wants to make a joke about it. What a bold choice. There’s just not much humor in a typical Batman title, and here Smith pulls Batman from patrolling Gotham’s streets to share a joke with his old pal and mentee, Dick Grayson. In fact, Smith infuses, no forcibly inserts humor throughout The Widening Gyre, again and again no matter how much it may cry and ask him to stop. Kevin Smith is funny, damn it. How else to prove it than by making a Batman comic book funny? The fact the it isn’t funny is beside the point. He gets an A for the effort. Oh, and Dick wants to show Bruce a dead body in the Bludhaven morgue, a med student with vines protruding from *every* orifice of his body (emphsis Smith's). But Poison Ivy’s locked away in Arkham Asylum, so what happened?
Batman speeds to Arkham, stopping to switch from the Batboat to the Batmobile and have Alfred make a turkey on rye sandwich for him. Yes, Smith presents Batman as an overworked, Average Joe, eating while commuting to work. When was the last time you saw that? Answer: Never. Only Smith has the cajones to present Batman doing something so mundane.
Upon arriving, Batman finds Arkham literally overrun by vegetation. No guards, doctors, or orderlies to be found. Where is everyone? The mystery deepens. After chatting with Two-Face and Joker, Batman finally hacks his way through to Ivy’s inner sanctum, where he (and the reader) is confronted by this:
[Picks jaw up off of floor] Sweet Mother Nature, look at those melo-ERR Sorry. Anyway, so what is Ivy’s plan? Was killing the med student (who had been interning at Arkham) just the first step of some larger, diabolical design? Well, no. What, exactly, is she after? Two words:
Ivy starts by remarking on how much she's always loved Batman's *tireless* tongue. Then she outright propositions him by asking him if he would like to "commune with nature" and "explore the forbidden parts of her jungle" because her "gynoecium is on fire for him". There you go, readers. Only Kevin Smith gives you an obscure botany lesson in a Batman comic, gynoecium being the female reproductive parts of a plant, if that wasn't obvious. When Ivy's attempt at seducing Batman with increased pheromone production fails (Batman has long ago synthesized an antidote), Ivy proceeds to pleasure herself.
While Ivy's pheromones do nothing to Batman, they do affect Killer Croc, who busts in and attacks Batman for mating rights with Ivy. While Batman engages Croc, he monologues about Croc's origin. Here again Smith makes the brave choice to ignore the established cannon that Croc had a form of atavism (having evolutionary throwback features, e.g. being born with a tail) and uses this opportunity to educate readers. Batman mulls on the fact that Croc suffers from Epidermodysplasia verruciformis, a condition that rendered him susceptible to human papiloma virus (HPV), causing his scaly skin, and I can only assume his reptilian features, super strength, and taste for human flesh. So remember female readers, if you don't want to end up a cannibalistic alligator woman, get the HPV vaccine.
Anyway, Batman subdues Croc, and Ivy resumes her attempts at bedding the Bat. With pheromones a failure, Ivy turns to that most potent of aphrodisiacs, cannabis. Yes, Ivy has the marijuana plants in the room start releasing elevated levels of THC, drugging Batman. This is so refreshing. Sure, Ivy has always been depicted with some degree of sex appeal, and she's often been portrayed as a seductress. But this is typically for some ulterior and nefarious motive. Ivy usually plays the role of an extreme ecoterrorist, waging a one-woman war on mankind on behalf of plants. However, Smith wisely chooses to avoid all of that tired socio-political commentary and just present Poison Ivy as a fanboy fantasy, a pure sex object. Kevin Smith, giving his readers what they want.
Getting back to the action, before Ivy can proceed with date raping Batman, the minor DC character and demon Etrigan enters mid-feasting on the flesh of a freshly killed Arkham orderly. He promptly attacks Batman and proceeds to easily kick Batman’s ass. As Batman is resigning himself to dying, his only regret being not finding someone he can trust with guardianship of Gotham City, a new, mysterious masked vigilante throws holy water onto Etrigan, forcing him to change back to his human host Jason Blood.
This sequence of events raises obvious questions. Etrigan has been portrayed as much a hero as a villain, even being selected by none other than Batman to serve on an emergency, backup Justice League, so why is Smith going with pure demonic evil here? How much of a barrier would a wall of plants pose to a fire-breathing demon? With Etrigan on the loose, why wasn’t Commissioner Gordan and the GCPD alerted, thereby alerting Batman? If Jason Blood shares the same weaknesses as Etrigan (and he does), why would changing back to Blood be “necessary” after getting doused with holy water? Who is this vigilante that came to Batman’s rescue? How did he know what was happening at Arkham, that Batman needed help, and that his foe was a demon? Why does he seem to be wearing a rabbit-shaped mask? Or is it horse-shaped? Yes, there are questions, but who am I to pose these questions? How can I hope to understand the inner workings of an artistic mind like Smith’s? We can only trust him to lead us through this story. And this climactic introduction of “The Player to be Named Later” (I’ll call him Seabiscuit) represents the first major plot development of this series.
The major development of Issue #2 is the reintroduction of former love interest Silver St. Cloud, who just shows up one day, single, and ready to pick up where she and Bruce left off. If you don’t remember Silver, don’t worry; Silver St. Cloud first appeared in a Batman limited series called Strange Apparitions in the late 90's. Smith brought her back for his other Batman series Cacophony, where they fell in love and she even figured out that Bruce is Batman. She left him, saying that she couldn’t stay with him and worry about his nocturnal crime fighting, never knowing if he’d return in the morning. But now she’s back, filled with regret over her decision to leave.
Over the course of these two issues, she and Bruce rekindle their relationship while he continues his crusade as Batman. The plot shifts from Batman fighting no-name criminals and C- and D-list members of his rogues gallery at night, and days filled with schtupping Silver at various exotic locales. Though he’s facing off against the junior varsity squad of his rogues gallery, Batman is struggling. To paraphrase Jay-Z, it seems the Dark Knight has 99 problems and a bitch IS one. He’s distracted, thinking more and more of a life with Silver and without Batman. Fortunately, Robin (Tim Drake) is there to save his ass, which oddly Batman seems rather ungracious about (more on this later). Seabiscuit is also there, though we learn that his mask is neither a rabbit nor a horse, but a goat. Forgive me, Mr. Smith, for not seeing that right away. Though Goat-Man will be identified in Issue #3 (more on that in a moment), I will continue to affectionately refer to him as Seabiscuit. The more Seabiscuit comes to Batman’s aid, the more Bruce considers him as an ally, and perhaps even a possible replacement.
Yet, all of this intrigue regarding the mystery of Seabiscuit takes a back seat to the main plot Smith is exploring, that of Bruce Wayne’s resuscitated love life. Again, allow me to point out the sheer audacity, dare I say the genius of Kevin Smith. You’ve probably read dozens, no hundreds of Batman comics about fighting crime and foiling the murderous designs of psychotic supervillains. Smith isn’t going to give you more of what you’ve had, he’s going to give you something you didn’t even know you wanted. Batman wading into the ominous, treacherous waters of love. Smith knows that Batman’s greatest, most dangerous foe isn’t the Joker. It’s the love of a woman.
Oh, we do actually learn Seabiscuit’s name in Issue #3. It’s Baphomet, which Batman quickly deduces refers to Baphomet, the Sabbatic goat, which Batman comments “smacks of villainy”. See, while you or I (or your average high school dropout criminal) may have NEVER seen nor heard of this name before, Smith knows it has occultish, even Satanic connotations. So while Smith could have gone with something a little more obvious, he went with the deeper cut, the more obscure reference. See how smart he is? And we get this gem of a panel:
GAWD. That is just fantastic. Isn’t it? Seabiscuit’s goat/horse/rabbit mask is SO scary, criminals are going to straight up consider suicide. Gaze upon the horrible visage of Seabiscuit evil doers. Gaze upon it, and TREMBLE. That kind of potential to instill great fear is worthy of a yellow power ring.
I think it’s a testament to Smith that he repeatedly takes the road less traveled, scraping the very bottom of the barrel of Batman’s rogues gallery to give us epic battles with the likes of Baron Bedlam, Killer Moth, and Crazy Quilt. Sure, Crazy Quilt (and most of Smith’s villain choices) shows up near the top of the worst/lamest Batman villains again and again and again, but that’s the point. This isn’t just about entertainment; it’s about education. Smith knows that you know all about Two-Face and Mr. Freeze and the Joker. It would be too easy to showcase the Joker. Again. Smith takes the challenge of presenting you with Crazy Quilt and convincing you that he should be taken seriously. I mean, Seabiscuit helps Batman defeat him (after we see Batman and Dick “The Boy Wonder” Grayson defeat him in a flashback), and then asks Batman if he can keep Crazy Quilt’s helmet as a trophy. When Seabiscuit wants to mount your head on his wall, readers are going to sit up and take notice, I tell you.
The first big twist of Issue #4 comes just after this exchange. I’d like to show you Batman’s reaction first:
Kevin Smith knows, just as Batman does, that the first rule of masked vigilantism is YOU DO NOT UNMASK. Not right away, at least. But that’s precisely what Seabiscuit does, resulting in Batman’s reacting as if Seabiscuit dropped his tights and revealed he’s a true hermaphrodite (which would be ironic, since traditional images of Baphomet represent male/female duality, but I digress). It’s understandable; Batman thinks Seabiscuit is great and all, a little inexperienced and headstrong, but a solid ally in the war on crime. But he can’t be expected to move that fast. Give up his entire life for a broad he’s been getting sex on the regular with for a couple of months? Sure. Unmask and EXPOSE himself like that with a crime fighter he barely knows? Slow down, killer.
Anyway, Smith then gives his readers a real treat. Bruce Wayne as the lovesick puppy. Getting in touch with his emotions, opening up to Silver and communicating, not just talking, but really connecting with her, ya know? You just don’t see that. Moore and Loeb, Miller and Morrison, they all give us the obsessive, slightly demented, psychologically bent and broken Batman. The one who’s almost as fucked up and crazy as the psychos he puts away in Arkham. But not Smith. No sir. As I said near the beginning, he manages to do the seemingly impossible. He presents us an ordinary, boring Bruce Wayne. But he doesn’t stop there. He sees the line, that line he probably shouldn’t cross. That big, shiny red button he absolutely should NOT touch, and he just goes right across and presses that fucker.