The cover for Josh Simmons’s 2021 Batman pastiche Birth of the Bat tells a story all by itself. The caped-and-cowled Bat, slumped with exhaustion in his finely-upholstered armchair in “Wain” Manor. A framed image of his loving, dead parents above his head. Opulent ornaments atop the mahogany (one imagines) book cases. Rays of light streaming through the window, perhaps signaling morning and a new beginning for the Bat, after the horrors depicted in Simmons’s previous Bat-tales.
In 2007’s Mark of the Bat, the titular hero leered and lurked along the rooftops, devising a vicious implement that would mark criminals as deviant outcasts. It’s too much for Cat Lady, who abandons him. In 2017’s Twilight of the Bat (drawn by Patrick Keck but written by Simmons), the Bat and the Joke Man wander a frozen post-apocalyptic G----- City, and their twisted relationship with cupcakes and each other leads to a violent conclusion. Like its precursor, Twilight of the Bat ends with a Bat alone, with no one else to blame but himself.
Simmons provides no indication of the continuity between these three stories of the Bat, but if they are read in order of publication date, the thematic evolution shows Bruno Wain, the Bat, increasingly isolated and alone, retreating into his manor with memories and sadness as the once-frozen world burns around him.
Those rays of light on the cover of Birth of the Bat do not come from the sun, but from the flames of a destroyed landscape. A closer look reveals that the slumped Batman in the armchair isn’t fully-clothed; his Bat-symbol is emblazoned on his flesh. His nipples are erect. He is shirtless, pantsless, and hirsute. The cover is a wraparound image, and flipping to the back you’ll see the shattered glass of broken windows, a cracked grandfather clock, torn furniture, ripped pages from the Wain library, waves of fire, and wisps of smoke. The Birth of the Bat is the third in a trilogy of endings.
There are few better (maybe none better) than Josh Simmons at telling horrific stories about endings. Characters often implode in his tales, or destroy everything around them, and Simmons tends to amplify the horrific nature of these emotional or physical outbursts with the juxtaposition of traditionally joyful or childlike images and settings with the lurid and the disgusting and the dangerous. Whether it’s the ultraviolent love story of “In a Land of Magic” (reprinted in The Furry Trap) where faeries and dragons and gruesome slaughter co-mingle, or “A Day at the Beach” (in collaboration with Eroyn Franklin, reprinted in Flayed Corpse and Other Stories) where a mother-daughter day at the beach is destroyed by the tyranny of lust and narcissism, Simmons is a master of crafting surprising, terrifying moments that linger over every panel that follows.
Simmons does just that in Birth of the Bat, but like his previous two Bat-tales, this horror show is also a love story. What kind of love story it is hinted at with the half-naked Bat on the cover and the lettering of the title page inside, where the word “Bat” is drawn lumpen, fleshy, and dotted with pubic hair. Simmons doesn’t attempt subtlety in his superhero pastiche. He also clearly indicates that this volume is for “Matoor Readers,” in case you weren’t properly warned by his use of the decidedly non-TrueType testes font.
The three acts of the comic unfold like this. (1) The Bat, self-harming, self-pleasuring, wallowing in memories, ranting at his beloved butler, Albert. (2) An old nemesis, Puffin, a penguinesque character, intrudes on the Bat’s self-destructive, onanistic alone time. Conflict arises, and as the violence throbs, so does the Bat. (3) Clear-headed after his climactic confrontation, the Bat realizes that he must be reborn, and he continues the transformation that was destined since he was a child. The Bat is (re)Born.
In all of the Josh Simmons comics I have read, and I’ve read most of them, I’ve never much thought about Simmons's achievements as a visual stylist. I’ve appreciated how his style retains the cartoony quality of a Nickelodeon Magazine strip contrasted with the mundane weirdness of something akin to Chester Brown’s perversions, but other than thinking “I like Josh Simmons comics and they make me laugh and shudder,” I haven’t spent much time considering the craft of his image-making. I feel the same about Birth of the Bat -- it has some wonderful visual moments, from the cover to the reveal of the destroyed wing of the Wain Manor to the double-page “CHUD” of a climax between the Bat and Puffin -- but Simmons as a comics-maker is less interesting for his drawing of anything in particular than in his comedic pacing, his grotesque moments of horror, and in his seeming ability to taunt the boundary of good taste and then blast right through it. Birth of the Bat is a good case study for all of those things.
Ultimately, Birth of the Bat is a defiantly silly comic (as are most of the best costumed flying-mammal comics), but that doesn’t make it any less of a horror story. The love Simmons depicts, a deranged self-love that the Bat cannot escape, is both true as a commentary on Batman comics in general and on the horrifying narcissism of this specific character type: a billionaire who indulges his own pleasures while the world burns around him. We know that type, and Simmons doesn’t restrain himself from exposing that character for the world to see.