Tuesday, December 11, 2012

The Cheese Stands Alone: Batman #422

The Cheese Stands Alone is a semi-regular column featuring examinations of single issues that can be understood and appreciated on their own, without reading any of the preceding or following issues of the series.

Technically speaking, Batman #422 is the conclusion of a two-part story begun in the previous issue, but it works all by itself for a couple of reasons. First of all, the opening page efficiently recaps all the information you need: two men, Karl Branneck and Vito Procaccini, have been murdering women together, and now Batman is on to them, which frightens Vito but only strengthens Branneck's resolve. Secondly, Batman #422 focuses narrowly on Branneck, who narrates for most of the story and is on more pages than anyone else, and because it's more a character study than it is the latter half of a Batman story, we get a full portrait of this serial killer contained in a single issue. Not a flattering portrait, or even necessarily an enjoyable one, but a complete one nonetheless.
     Karl isn't just a scumbag and a murderer, he's an aggressively sexist egomaniac who sees his killing spree as a political statement on contemporary gender dynamics. Pissed off over women who refuse to be subservient to men, Branneck views his actions as righteous, and seems to consequently think of himself as not only beyond reproach but, to some extent, untouchable and/or invincible. He isn't at all bothered by Batman being on his trail, apparently unimpressed by the hero's abilities, and even describes himself as a "match" for the Dark Knight. And even after Bats breaks his jaw and brings him in, Branneck stays smug and self-assured, to the point that when his case is thrown out of court, he decides that it's because he was "born under a lucky star." This level of hubris, coupled with his excessive, insane hatred of the opposite sex, immediately makes Branneck a truly despicable villain, and the more captions we get in his ignorant and rage-filled voice, the more disgusting he becomes as a character.
     In fact, I'd say that Branneck's narration, more than anything else, is what makes Batman #422 such an effective tale. Early on, it starts to feel like maybe writer Jim Starlin could've cut a handful of the caption boxes, because Branneck seriously never shuts up, and after a while all his misogyny and cockiness becomes wearisome. But it is right around the time that you start to think you can't take another panel of this madman's self-important ranting that his next would-be victim suddenly turns the tables and slashes his throat with a straight edge razor. Of course, even as he bleeds to death in the street, Branneck doesn't let up, but it is much easier to read his nonsense when you're watching him die. Whether or not Starlin intended it to be this way, having Branneck's internal monologue be so constant and repetitious ends up being the most unlikable (and therefore important) part of the character, right up to the very end of his life. While I might normally complain about the excessive amount of heavy-handed captions, here they are a necessity, because they make me so sick and tired of this horrible man that I am actually able to root for his killer and cheer at his death.
     The woman who finally takes Branneck out is Judy Koslosky, sister of one of his previous victims, who's been tracking Branneck & Vito for a long time. When she finally discovers who they are, she begins following Branneck around everywhere he goes, and we see him notice her several times in the issue before their final confrontation. She gets his attention on purpose, staring at him, making sure she's right there whenever he turns around, until he grows so sick of seeing her that, naturally, he selects her as his newest target. Unfortunately for him, this is exactly what Judy wants, because it allows her to get close enough to exact her revenge. When questioned by the police, Judy shows no remorse. She's not even the least bit shaken up about killing a man. She calmly, proudly confesses, points out that no jury will convict her, and argues that what she did wasn't murder, it was putting down a "mad dog."
     The moment where Judy strikes her fatal blow is easily the strongest scene of the issue. We know ahead of time that she'll be an important character, because she is so strongly set up throughout the issue by Branneck noticing her wherever he goes. But there's no reason, necessarily, to expect her to be anything other than another victim, perhaps a woman who Batman will save at the last minute or who will act as a way for the audience to really see Branneck at work. Instead, in a single, sudden panel, she becomes his downfall. Though Mark Bright's pencils are strong and clear for all of Batman #422, it is this scene where they really shine. Not only because of how quickly and determinedly Judy strikes, but also the subsequent shock and horror we get from Branneck. Looking down at the blood on his hand and realizing it's pouring from his jugular, Branneck becomes a terrified child, literally crawling away from his attacker in desperation and fear. After all the smirking and swagger he's shown us so far, it's immensely satisfying to watch him so quickly become scared and pathetic. And then we get a gorgeous full-page splash wherein Branneck is visited by the ghosts of his victims, surrounding and overwhelming him in his final moments. Here his terror reaches its peak, and again, it's a warm and welcome feeling to see this self-important ass finally brought down several pegs and given a taste of his own medicine.
     I know it sounds like I am endorsing the notion of murdering a murderer, when really I am against it conceptually. I'm not a proponent of this kind of eye-for-an-eye justice, yet in reading Batman #422 I wholeheartedly support and side with Judy Koslosky. Even though really, with her self-righteousness and smug attitude, there's a fairly thin line between her and Branneck. Why is it, then, that I so completely agree with Judy's actions? Partly, as I've said, there's all the legwork done by Starlin, Bright, and company to make me utterly despise Branneck while he's alive. And of course there's the fact that he's a fictional character, so his death isn't as heavy as it would be if he were real. But perhaps more than either of those factors, there's the weak, insincere (or, at best, half-sincere) speech Batman gives to Robin at the issue's close. The Robin in question is Jason Todd, and this issue comes only a handful of months before the Joker kills him, so by now he's firmly established as the angry, out-of-control Robin with something to prove. So he, too, sides with Judy in this case, as happy to have Branneck dead as she is. Batman, as is his duty, tries to convince Jason that this is not the right answer, that taking the law into your own hands and killing someone, no matter how awful they may be, is always going to be the wrong decision. Yet he says this all in decidedly lackluster fashion, even admitting out loud that he sometimes wishes things were different, i.e. that he could just go ahead and take his opponents out permanently. And it's just one page in a comicbook chock full of pages devoted to making the reader wish Branneck would go away forever. The weakness of this counterpoint, both in terms of the space it's given and the lack of enthusiasm with which it's delivered, is likely the strongest reason for my cheering Judy on. Without being given a convincing or even inviting alternative, I remain as pleased as ever that Branneck is dead.
     It's a strange place to land at the end of a superhero comic, to be sure. I'm not usually left rooting for the morally ambiguous character and thinking of the "good guys" as wimps, but here we are. Is this the intention of the issue? Hard to say. But it's the result, regardless of what the creators were aiming for. They did such an outstanding job making Branneck into an unbearable prick that watching him die in the street felt great. And I assume that this is precisely what they wanted, that the whole point of the issue is to make the reader root for Judy despite, perhaps, our better judgments. It's certainly the effect it has on me every time I read it, and it always makes me reexamine my stance on the concept of capital punishment, revenge, etc. Ultimately it's not persuasive enough to change my mind in the long-term, but that a single issue could even raise such powerful doubts is impressive enough. Batman doesn't kill, but doesn't and shouldn't are two very different things. It's a facet of the classic character well worth exploring, remembering, and, once in a while, reconsidering.

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