The Batman mythos come in a plethora of delicious flavors. Perhaps this is why the character and his world have been able to appeal to such a wide variety of audiences during their time in the cultural spotlight. As times change, so do Gotham City and its iconic hero. For example, in early stories, Gotham and the Dark Knight weren’t actually that dark at all. The Caped Crusader paraded around his bright city with an upbeat sidekick in Adam West‘s live-action series, engraining himself in the public eye as a campy, lovable do-gooder. As time continued, and the world became more complicated, the comics became edgier. Alan Moore and Frank Miller took the character’s troubled youth and turned it into decades of violent, gothic storytelling. Batman became angry, and the lights in his city began to dim. For a while, it’s seemed readers had already witnessed the darkest places a writer could take the protagonist. In all honesty, that may have been true, until Mattson Tomlin stepped into the ring.
Batman: The Imposter, a three-issue limited series from the Project Power creator, isn’t especially dark because of any specific moment or event. Although, to be clear, it does have plenty of those. It earns it’s anguished tone by nature of it’s most prevalent recurring thematic device: soul-sucking despair. The story sees a young, inexperienced Bruce Wayne encountering his greatest career challenge in the form of a murderous copycat vigilante, while simultaneously falling for and running from GCPD detective Blair Wong. The world in which the book takes place is maybe more realistic than anywhere we’ve ever seen the character operate before, made evident by constant sobering revelations about the consequences of his supposedly heroic actions. When he was still credited as a writer for Matt Reeves‘ The Batman, the creative gave multiple interviews claiming the protagonist to be representative of “sheer human will and determination.” In his comic, now the most authentically Tomlin take on the character, he puts this opinion to the test. For every minor victory the hero manages to take, it feels there are twice as many setbacks.
Cops are able to keep a healthy track on Batman by cutting down his deserted ziplines and confiscating his poorly-hidden equipment. Crooks are afraid of the Bat, but never fail to leave him bruised and bloodied after a fight. His single ally, Commissioner Gordon, has been run out of Gotham after only a year of Wayne’s war on crime, with a wave of criminals put back on the street for his mistakes. To top it all off, this version of the character is also without the ever-loyal Alfred Pennyworth, who is shown to have abandoned a young Bruce after the child’s sociopathic tendencies drove him to a near mental breakdown. Yes, that is correct. This is a book in which Bruce Wayne is shown to be an actual sociopath, trading in the typical socialite playboy personality for an angsty, bull-headed recluse convinced the world will never understand him. While all that may sound like a progressive downfall for Batman over the course of the Black Label series, it’s actually just the way Tomlin sets the rest of his story up.
It’s a strange thing to read about a Batman who, having only just entered the costumed scene, really feels like he may also be facing the end of his crusade. Truthfully, it’s not really until the end of the comic that the intention of the whole thing becomes clear. The Imposter puts Bruce Wayne through the wringer not because it wants to prove how much he can take, but because it wants to show what obscenely deep-rooted emotions can drive a person to do. It is an ode to the complexities of depression. This is not to say it celebrates how immense sadness can manifest inside its host, just that it’s not afraid to explore both the highs and lows of that cerebral rollercoaster. It does this most effectively when it puts Bruce up against other characters with the same depressive qualities. Readers see his willpower when he’s put against would-be villains succumbing to their anxieties, determination when he puts everything on the line to confront his malicious doppelganger, and that small inkling of hope when he meets those that would seek to help him.
The comic is aided by the use of a Sopranos-esque plot point, where the stubborn Bruce is forced into therapy sessions to prevent his identity from being exposed. These direct conversations are often lapped over incredible artistic design from Andrea Sorrentino, who manages to transform entire splash pages into the same symbols that the characters fear will one day take over Gotham. The added effect increases the impact of the words on the page in the same way a gorgeous score may take a good film to the next level. Ultimately, it makes for a unique comic that achieves a certain ‘film noir’ aesthetic in both its visuals and its script. Batman: The Imposter may not be directed reading for the titular character, but it’s certainly worth checking out if one would like to take a darker look into their favorite hero’s psyche.