American TV used to have something called A Very Special Episode. When Big Bird learned all about death? A Very Special Episode. When Zack from Saved by the Bell got addicted to drugs? A Very Special Episode. When The Fonz took part in genocide? Very Special Episode. One of those didn’t happen. The point of a very special episode, was to take the format of a commercially successful, and accessible format and use it to openly discuss tougher issues. It was an admirable, if thinly veiled technique which is mostly scoffed at these days. Comics did it too, most notably in Denny O’Neill and Neal Adam’s Green Arrow/Green Lantern series, subtitled Hard Travellin’ Heroes. This month, in Batman #44, Scott Snyder, Brian Azzarello, and Jock give us the Batman version of A Very Special Episode, and you know what? It’s really quite something.
Set prior to present day events in the Batman comics, this issue, titled A Simple Case is a done in one story about the murder of a child. A young black kid lies dead on the outskirts of Gotham City. Riddled with bullets, but seemingly killed from a fall from a great height. Batman wants to find the culprit, “Looking at the scene, one thought goes through his head: he will catch someone for this. He will punish the one who did it, and stop it from happening again.”
What follows is a fascinating deconstruction of what could have been a very straightforward Batman issue. The hero tracks down the most likely culprit, The Penguin, but discovers that this isn’t as simple as just another victim of one of his rogues. The trail leads from super villains to the complex gang system of Gotham city, and from there to the embedded racism within the Gotham police, and finally to Bruce Wayne himself. The smartest thing that Snyder and Azzarello do is to use this traditional superhero format to tell an increasingly complex story, filtering real life issues through this lens. Addressing modern day cases of police shootings such as the Michael Brown incident, Snyder and Azzarello show us a Gotham where black teens are forced to take sides in gang wars for protection, where they fear a police who are more than likely going to shoot them on sight, and who meet tragic ends just trying to escape a city that they have found themselves trapped in. Gotham City has always been a heightened lens on the real world, a magnification of our cities, but never more than here has this been more true.
I haven’t been much of a fan of Snyder’s run on the title. His story lines have a tendency to fizzle out, and he’s never been quite able to land an emotional wallop where it’s needed. Not so here. Perhaps because he’s paired with Azzarello (the man behind the best of the New 52 relaunches, Wonder Woman) – whose background in writing gritty crime comics has clearly been a major influence in this issue – but the writing shines.
So too does the art. Jock has worked with Snyder before, on the pre New 52 Batman run of Detective Comics, as well as on the Image comic Wytches. His work here doesn’t reach the giddy heights of his stunning art in either of those books, but it’s still on another level than most other superhero titles out there. The final few pages in particular are heartbreaking.
I didn’t think I would find myself enjoying a Batman comic for a while, but Batman #44 is up there with the best. In years to come, A Simple Case is going to be placed right alongside The Killing Joke, and Mad Love as one of the most iconic single issues Batman has yet released. A true achievement.