The negative consequences of bullying has quickly become well-trodden territory in comics. I’m all for it in many cases, because I remember getting bullied mercilessly when I was a chicken-legged smart kid rocking sweat pants with glasses, clutching my prized #1 copy of Spawn.
All I ask for is something that digs below the well-established patterns of bullying stories. Will Batwing #25 take us there? Lets see.
We open on a young Luke Fox training with his MMA hero in a gym packed with kids. Luke has brought his scrawny friend Russ, who we learn is being bullied at school. Russ says it’s because other kids are jealous of his smarts. Luke thinks it has more to do with his pal’s lack of confidence and overall weirdness. Considering that Russ has synesthesia (causing his senses to get mixed-up), mumbles to himself in French and won’t make eye contact… either way he doesn’t have much of a chance. The two boys spar back and forth, with the much bigger and stronger Luke trying to encourage Russ to stick with the training.
On the train ride home the two are approached by a gang of masked thugs who promptly shake them down for their lunch money. Russ wants to avoid trouble and hand over their money, but Luke is jumping for a chance to put his MMA training to use. Luke takes out all five gang members quickly, even as they pull knives and guns.
As the two run away from the scene Russ berates Luke for making a stupid decision. Surely the gang is going to come back stronger and meaner looking for revenge, so now they can’t ride that train anymore. Luke will hear none of it. Russ, however, calls Luke out for looking for an adrenaline high, regardless of the danger it put them in. By the end of the walk home, the two have made up, and they part ways.
Next up we get a snap shot of Russ’s week, during which he’s subjected to pranks, taunts and abuse. Russ calls his father for help, but his dad just tells him he’s being dramatic and refuses to help. In a fit of rage, Luke Nolan Ryan’s his cell phone at the wall, nearly hitting a popular kid. Russ gets in one backhanded punch, but ends up a bloody mess as other kids record it on their phones and laugh.
The next day Russ locks himself in a school lab as Luke heads off to train. On the way home he’s confronted by the gang from earlier. Just before he’s gunned down, Batman swops in and saves him. Luke is so jazzed he runs back to school to tell Russ… just in time to see the popular kid who pummeled Russ be thrown from an upstairs window to his death. It turns out that Russ has been working on a formula that has turned him into some giant Bane-like monstrosity. Russ heads for the Gotham levees with a pack of explosives. Luke ties to stop him, but he’s completely outmatched. Russ is planning to blow the levees as the super storm sets in, which will flood the school and likely kill most of the people that have bullied him. Luke gets the detonator away from Russ, but as he tries to run, he has to dive to dodge a cop’s bullet. His hand accidentally activates the bomb, Gotham is flooded and Luke’s future motivation for protecting the city is in place.
While it wasn’t an earth-shatteringly new take on bullying, I did enjoy a few aspects of this story. I liked how Luke’s actions on the bus confront one of the most annoying responses to bullying you hear in pop culture: ‘just stand up and be a man about it’. That makes a good sound-bite/bumper-sticker, but real life is rarely that easy. Fights don’t always end when someone loses, just like the true damage from bullying doesn’t manifest in bruises and blood.
Carl Jung once said, “The healthy man does not torture others – generally it is the tortured who turn into torturers.” Dumb that down a few notches, and you get ‘Payback is a bitch.’ Bullying/slavery/torture corrupt the victim and the abuser by creating an often-unbreakable cycle of revenge. The victim is made powerless, and yearns to reclaim that feeling of power. In acting out, they invert the victim-abuser roles, and the original abuser now seeks to reclaim the power dynamic. Run in that hamster-wheel long enough, and somebody snaps. This time it was Russ, as well as the gang.
This story does a nice job creating a villain for Luke. I wish there’d been a few elements that separated this bad guy from Bane (weakling genius gets transformed into giant with tubes feeding a secret formula…), but there’s plenty of time for that later. I also really like the idea that Luke will take mantel of Batwing because he feels like he owes the city after inadvertently creating this catastrophic flood. He’s not a complete victim, so the score he has to settle is really with himself.
It’s not an epic for the ages, but Batwing #25 is a satisfying appetizer that adds some pathos to Luke Fox.
Reviewed by Benjamin Scott