Batman: Holy Terror by Alan Brennert and Norm Breyfogle
Comics are, let’s be honest, hard to just jump into. I had to wait for Gotham City Sirens to make my first nervous foray into the current state of Gotham, but I’m glad I did. (The other titles I follow are non-superheroes.) I also happen to love alternate history, especially when it comes to exploring the minute choices that make us what we are. That’s probably why I’m so drawn to DC’s Elseworlds imprint—they’re not only one-shots you can just pick up without committing yourself to years and decades of back story, but they take familiar heroes and place them in different circumstances. I picked up Batman: Holy Terror (irrationally terrified I’d be put on some sort of watch list for putting such a title on hold) on the recommendation of MGK, whose blog you should really follow if you like comics at all.
Batman: Holy Terror takes place in a world where Cromwell died ten years after he did in our world, making his Protectorate accepted; England and its colonies, including America, are theocratic states. When the physician to the Privy Council, Thomas Wayne, and his wife are shot in Gotham Towne, their son Bruce finds solace in his faith and ultimately decides to take vows. But when a remorseful Inquisitor Gordon reveals his parents were murdered by the state, Bruce’s faith—and his faith in the religious state—is shaken to its core. Deciding on revenge, Bruce takes up an old demon costume his father used in Passion Plays and becomes the Batman.
I think the most astonishing thing about Batman: Holy Terror is how Brennert explores exactly what makes Batman. In regular continuity, it’s general knowledge that Bruce Wayne is a hollow identity to cover for the true man underneath, Batman—vice versa, Clark Kent is the real guy, while Superman is a convenient cover. But in a world where Bruce has faith to rely on instead of terror and vengeance, Bruce becomes a whole, functioning person. It’s only when he discovers that the state is corrupt that he breaks. As MGK points out, Brennert makes the case that our Batman isn’t a vigilante because of his parents’ tragic deaths; he’s a vigilante because it’s the only way to fight the broken system that caused their tragic deaths. Which is why Batman ultimately becomes a terrorist in Batman: Holy Terror; the system he’s fighting here is too ubiquitous and powerful for him to be anything but. Instead of making this a fun romp with a alternate take on a character, Brennert takes the opportunity to look at the very core of what makes Batman tick.
The theocratic state Brennert has constructed here puts me in mind of The Handmaid’s Tale; while there aren’t breeding programs, homosexuals and women seeking reproductive rights are persecuted by the state. Bruce (man, that’s weird to say!) discovers that his parents were involved with what the graphic novel calls counter-reproductive activities—helping homosexuals maimed by the state in attempts to “cure” them, sex workers, and women who turn to desperate measures to abort. In a short news report by Victoria Vale, we learn that the Protectorate is busy conquering and converting the Southern Hemisphere and landholding men have plural votes (while woman have none). While it can sometimes be a bit too pat—really? They celebrate the day Cromwell recovered from malaria and not his birthday?—it’s very deft worldbuilding. While some might question how the Puritan Protectorate got so visually Catholic, I can see the evolution, especially after three hundred years. Brennert wisely resists any urge to give us more than we need to frame this story of a religious Bruce fighting against a theocratic state.
I also really enjoyed how religion was handled here. It can be easy to demonize certain religions based on the theocratic states that twist them, but Brennert avoids this. Bruce’s faith is important to him, and he initially bemoans the betrayal of the state as a betrayal by God, but Dr. McNider points out how Cromwell’s Protectorate and the Bible were twisted by the Protectorate to justify the terrible things they do. It’s also easy to blame those in control; Bruce learns the hard way that the problem he’s facing is systemic, which forces him to ultimately become Batman. Ultimately, I am totally blown away by Batman: Holy Terror—I haven’t even mentioned the appearance of Zatanna as a brainwashed metahuman yet, and it’s heartbreaking. While I don’t think Breyfogle’s art has aged particularly well, it’s still good and services the amazing story Brennert has concocted here. Well done, gentlemen, well done.
Bottom line: In one of the first Elseworlds titles, Alan Brennert takes an opportunity to explore the very core of Batman by pitting him against a theocratic state descended from Oliver Cromwell’s Protectorate. Its astonishing and complex ideas will change the way you see the Dark Knight, even over in our continuity. Brilliant.
I rented this book from the public library.