A Black Batman was inevitable. The idea of a man so wronged by a city and a system resonates with the Black experience in America. There are of course grounded Black superheroes at the Big Two (also see the Milestone heroes), but none of them have the inherent appeal or cultural power that Batman does. With a new Black Captain America in the MCU and a Black Superman project in the works at DC (alongside last year’s surge in race-based violence and national racial reckoning), there has never been a better time to let this idea spread its wings. John Ridley and Olivier Coipel’s “I Am Batman” #1 has all the hallmarks of something great, but its strange relationship with continuity and backstory holds it back.
This is not actually the first issue of “I Am Batman.” The series was soft launched in August with “I Am Batman” #0, and the story of Timothy “Jace” Fox (the new resident of the bat suit) goes back to a previous series (“The Next Batman: Second Son”) and an alternate future story (“Future State: The Next Batman”) that surprisingly holds key details for Jace’s backstory and perspective on being Batman. None of these stories are exactly required to read this #1 issue, but many references are made to them in the issue and a new reader could easily be confused. However, if one can get around these backstory hurdles, they’ll find the seeds of a compelling and well-written story here.
Ridley has been working in film and TV for decades (“12 Years a Slave” (2013), “American Crime” (2015–2017)). He has the writing chops to make memorable and affecting stories, especially when it comes to race in America. I’m happy to say he has clearly grown as a comic writer in the time since he made the jump to comics with “Future State: The Next Batman.” There are entire scenes where he lets the wonderful Olivier Coipel do what he was put on this earth to do and doesn’t interrupt it with walls of exposition. Coipel’s presence is fully formed, and Ridley’s prose is sharper and drags less, though sometimes it can be a little less than subtle (see the scene between two Gotham City Police Department officers). Ridley clearly has a point to make about Batman and how he connects to the Black experience, but this has yet to coalesce into a fully formed story and character.
It’s hard to create a new and memorable character in superhero comics today, especially a brand-new legacy character taking on a legendary mantle. Bruce Wayne’s origin is famous to the point of parody now, and the vows he takes are embedded into the concept of the Batman. “I Am Batman” is making its own set of vows, and while this “debut” is a promising beginning, it feels like it’s trying to justify its own existence. The next Batman was always coming, it’s just taking him a little longer for him to get here.