Batman: Tenses Part I

(2003)
Writer: Joe Casey
Illustrator: Cully Hamner
Inker: Dexter Vines
Colorist and Separator: Lee Loughridge
Letterer: Sean Konot

If there's any justice in this world (or at least in the world of capes and tights and Batarangs that comprises the evaluation of comic books as literature) Joe Casey's Tenses should be right up there with Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns or Batman: Year One. Make no mistake, Tenses is required reading for any Batfan. And most fans of the character have probably never heard of it.

Tenses was produced as a prestige-format 2-parter. For the layman, that’s a 128-page story separated into two parts for $6.95 each. For most comic fans, this publishing format was prohibitively expensive and the artists involved didn't ring any real bells for DC fans. Joe Casey had put in some time over at the Superman title, telling Big Blue what to do starting with issue #588. Since I've never picked up an issue of Superman (or Wildcats 3.0 or Automatic Kafka or any of Casey's other projects) I can't tell you what kind of a writer Casey is apart from his stunning interpretation of Batman. But, at least when it comes to ol' pointy ears, the man's good.

Casey presents a year-one era story that does what Frank Miller's Year One couldn't, or wouldn't, do. I said in my review of Year One that Miller made no attempt to understand the psychology of Bruce Wayne or how he formed his alternate identity - Year One was more interested in telling a story about Gotham City's corrupt police force and James Gordon's marital problems than delving into the heart of darkness that is Wayne's psyche. Casey delivers on that aspect, and so much more.

Batman: Tenses pt. 1 opens with Ted Krosby, a weak-chinned, balding and unassuming nebbish who would seem out-of-place in any situation, let alone a Batman comic. Ted works for Kane's Department Store in the women's clothing department, and has just been given some bad news: parent company Wayne Enterprises has ordered Kane's to trim the fat, and Ted has been downsized.

That one element makes Tenses one of the first Batman stories to tackle the economic implications of Bruce Wayne's year-one era mission. Wayne is pouring enormous financial resources into his nightly costume party - Batcaves and Kevlar body armor don't come cheap, after all, and the money has to come from somewhere. Casey's thesis (and I think it's a good one) is that Wayne made some tough decisions that first year out to free up the capital he needed to fund Batman's mission. One of the consequences was Ted Krosby, along with thousands of other Gothamites who suffered economically for Bruce Wayne's obsession.

Immediately following the destruction of Ted's drab existence we meet a young Wayne at a posh upper-class post-Christmas Christmas party. Bruce is playing playboy, seducing young debutants and pouring his bourbon out into a planter while ducking questions about his strange fiscal policies as head of Wayne Enterprises. There's an odd moment in a deserted hallway as Wayne catches sight of an elderly couple dressed for an S&M rendezvous: the shocked look on Bruce's face does more to underscore his naïveté and inexperience with the world than anything Miller included in Year One. We're reminded here that Bruce is all of 20 and has spent most of his life dealing in abstractions as he trained for his life-long mission. People, it seems, confound him. This story takes place before Dick Grayson enters his life, before Alfred Pennyworth has had time to become a trusted confidante and Leslie Thompkins a surrougate mother. Bruce is more alone now than at any other point in Batman's career, and it shows.

At the party Wayne meets investigative reporter William Black, who starts quizzing him on his odd decision to set up R&D companies with Wayne Enterprises money and gutting the rest of the corporation. Black encourages Bruce to "come out from the shadows" and explain his actions to his shareholders. Wayne, typically, refuses. We've seen this scene before, in countless Batman comics and graphic novels. What's key here is that, rather than attributing his decision to keep mum on corporate policy to Batman's mission or Bruce Wayne's business savvy, Wayne's decision here plays as sheer arrogance and dangerous chess-playing with other people's lives. Bruce doesn't come off as a particularly nice guy here, and for once the reader is on the side of the hotshot reporter who wants to understand Wayne's secrets rather than the stubborn and secretive vigilante.

The story then rotates to a deserted dockside warehouse, where Batman is foiling an attempted robbery of military ordinance. Cully Hamner's artwork here deserves some attention: his strong, sharp lines and distinctive faces are highlighted by Dexter Vines' inking and Lee Loughridge's coloring which enhances moments of physical violence: backgrounds shift from cool blues, purples and greens to vibrant oranges and yellows as feet and fists connect with men's faces. The background gags are fun, too - there's a bus route to "Meen Streets" and a sign for a stage musical called "Bats!"

Batman is brutal here, putting a spear gun through someone's shoulder, breaking noses, cheekbones, limbs. Another sequence later in the second volume, has Batman left standing amid a sea of unconscious and bleeding criminals, a knife stuck deep in his thigh, a syringe jutting from between his ribs. He's breathing heavy, and one cannot escape the implication that here, and only here, where he risks his health and well-being, Bruce Wayne is truly happy. And that may make him as sick as Ted Kord or any other of the later costume villians.

The violence of Batman's confrontation echoes in Ted's journey throughout inner-city Gotham: left unemployed and homeless, Ted wanders the streets, unable to escape apocalyptic visions of homeless men as macabre urban scarecrows, of skeletons and fire. Ted, it seems, is either hallucinating or gifted with some sort of precognition, and it's driving him mad. "I don't wanna know!" he cries desperately, a man as cursed by vision as Bruce Wayne.

We see more of "Board Room Bruce" in Tenses than in some decades-long runs on Batman. Wayne informs his executive officers that the resources of Wayne Enterprises are being "wasted": he demands more streamlining in order to make his company conform to his vision, which translates into more layoffs for the Gotham working class. "Priorities," he reminds his staff. "That's a good word to remember." Later, in a meeting with his stockbroker, Bruce is warned that his policies for Wayne Enterprises are setting a precedent: other Gotham companies are about to start massive layoffs to follow the trend set by Bruce. "They think you know something," the stockbroker tells Bruce. "Do you?" "I know myself," Bruce replies. "What else am I responsible for?" That's a large jump from the Batman of modern cannon, which presents us with a Batman who feels responsible for every life, and death, in Gotham.

As I pointed out before, Bruce Wayne's priorities, at this point well before Dick Grayson and Barbara Gordon and Jason Todd and Tim Drake, are entirely selfish in nature. He is cut off from any sense of community - there is a repeated panel of Wayne standing in an empty boardroom or on the deserted grounds of Wayne Manor, facing the Gotham skyline. Gotham and its people are strangers to him: all he knows of the city is that it killed his parents. And he feels no compassion, no duty towards its populace. To his credit, Wayne does feel guilty about his decisions - we see him put himself through a punishing workout. Afterwards he glances in a mirror and finds himself staring at the child he was. In a fit of self-disgust, Wayne shatters the glass, denying the changes in himself that have taken place since he was eight, the coolness towards humanity that his parents would surely have disapproved of.

Ted's in trouble, too. He's hooked up with the same crew that tried to steal the military ordinance from the dockyards. The men are trying to take advantage of Ted's "gift" for fortune-telling, exploiting his ability to plan robberies. After a brutal beating, Ted gives the men information about Kane's Department Store. Lives intersect as Batman shows up to deal with the robbery, disabling most of the crew and, in an almost surreal episode, a hysterical Ted Krosby. The police arrive and find only Ted, who is quickly admitted into a psychiatric facility. As the guards chatter on about a new pension plan ("It kinda makes you optimistic for the future, don't it?") Ted's visions get worse. He sobs in relief, believing that there's nothing more to see, because he's seen the worst. And then...

The guards reappear and find that Ted has bashed his head against his cell wall repeatedly. "What the hell?" they ask. Blood dribbling down his face, Ted glances up and asks, "Ever wonder what comes after the end of the world? Me."

Click here for...
Tenses Part Two!


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