Year One: Batman/Ra’s al Ghul

Year One: Batman/Ra’s al Ghul 

By Devin Grayson, Paul Gulacy & Jimmy Palmiotti (DC Comics)
ISBN 1-84576-254-1

Produced to cash in on the movie Batman Begins this run of the mill adventure is set after the death of the immortal Eco-warrior and criminal mastermind. Batman is sent on a quest to restore a dubiously ‘New Age-y’ balance to the Earth, which he inadvertently disrupted when he destroyed all of Ras al Ghul’s life-restoring ‘Lazarus Pits’, mystical chemical baths which would now appear to be the planet’s way of voiding detrimental energies.

Galvanised into action by a posthumous letter from al Ghul, and the distressing fact that all over the planet dead things and people are coming back to a ghastly semblance of life, Batman goes on a very pretty, monotonously action-packed but terribly silly rampage of action before he restores the natural order. Why haven’t all the mystical busybodies that guard the planet noticed before now? Where are Superman and the Justice League?

Rushed and ill-considered, and with plot holes you could drive a fleet of hearses through, this disappointing jumble from the usually excellent Devin Grayson will hopefully be soon forgotten. Surely this is one graphic novel that only the most non-discriminating Bat-fan could love.

© 2005, 2006 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Batman: Death and the Maidens

Batman: Death and the Maidens 

By Greg Rucka and Klaus Janson (DC Comics)
ISBN 1-84023-951-4

One of the biggest problems with the truly iconic characters is that once their periodical adventures are over there’s the inevitable rush to collect the tale as a book. Sadly, a lot of these tales just aren’t that good.

Death and the Maidens deals with the destruction of possibly the last great Bat villain – Ra’s Al Ghul – due to the machinations of his daughters Nyssa and Talia. The latter has been yet another villainess/love interest for Batman since the 1970’s but Nyssa is new and as the tale progresses through a series of flashbacks the reader discovers the hell that the immortal mastermind has subjected her to over the centuries, and how she has responded.

The conveniently dying villain appears to Batman and offers to put him in touch with his dead parents through an (al)chemical solution in return for a cessation of the hero’s campaign of destruction on the sources of Al Ghul’s immortality. How logical is that?

I don’t care how screwed up he is by their death. No one as calculating as Batman stops a ten year all-out war with a monster who intends to destroy the human race – particularly one with a history of using chemical and bacteriological weapons – on the promise of a pharmaceutical séance, especially when he’s on the verge of winning.

More importantly it serves no purpose in advancing the narrative, but seems there solely as a way injecting some heroic angst into the mix. Long story short, after loads of trauma and action the girls succeed and Nyssa replaces her father as head of his organization, and therefore as Batman’s implacable foe. Any bets on how long he stays dead? Creators Rucka and Janson can do so much better.

© 2003, 2004 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Batman: Arkham Asylum

Batman: Arkham Asylum 

By Grant Morrison and Dave McKean (DC Comics)
ISBN 1-84576-022-0

This is, by all accounts, “the best-selling original graphic novel in… comics history”, which, obviously does not mean it is the best written or drawn. It is, however, pretty damned good. A brooding, moody script was treated as a bravura exercise in multimedia experimental illustration, literally changing the way artists and consumers thought about the pictures in comics. The attendant media play also spread throughout society, and as with Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns generated one of those infrequently recurring periods when Comics become Cool. All those big budget super-hero movies you’ve enjoyed or suffered through might not have happened without these media zeitgeist moments.

On the most basic level, however, it’s still a fine tale of the hero having to overcome terrible foes, terrific odds and traumatic trials to vanquish evil as the Caped Crusader fights his way through the freed lunatics that have taken over their asylum to save a hostage from the ravages of the Joker.

This 15th Anniversary edition also includes Morrison’s original script and page breakdowns, offering those of you intrigued by the mechanics of comic creation a hard lesson in production and inspiration.

© 2005 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Batman Chronicles vol 3

Batman Chronicles vol 3 

By Bob Kane & various (DC Comics)
ISBN 1-84576-431-5

This edition of the economy collections of Batman’s early adventures takes us from December 1940 to April 1941. By reprinting the Caped Crusader’s exploits in chronological order this way we get to see the strip develop, but also learn that as he became more popular and his appearances more widespread, our yearly progress slows greatly.

Detective Comics #46 features the return (and last appearance until 1977) of our hero’s most formidable scientific adversary. ‘Professor Strange’s Fear Dust’ is followed by issue #47’s drama on a more human scale, ‘Money Can’t Buy Happiness’. This action-packed homily of parental expectation and the folly of greed leads into Batman #4 (Winter 1941) and features ‘The Joker’s Crime Circus’, the piratical plunderings of ‘Blackbeard’s Crew and the Yacht Society’; ‘Public Enemy No.1’ tells a gangster fable in the manner of Jimmy Cagney’s movies such as Angels With Dirty Faces, and ‘Victory For the Dynamic Duo’ involves the pair in the turbulent world of sports gambling.

Detective Comics #48 finds them defending America’s bullion reserves in ‘The Secret Cavern’, and they face an old foe when ‘Clayface Walks Again’ (Detective Comics #49, March 1941), as the deranged horror actor resumes his passion for murder and re-attempts to kill Bruce Wayne’s old girlfriend Julie.

Detective Comics #50 pits Batman and Robin against acrobatic burglars in ‘The Case of the Three Devils’, leading neatly into Batman #5 (Spring 1941). Once again the Joker is the lead villain in ‘The Riddle of the Missing Card’, and then the heroes prove their versatility by solving a crime in Fairy Land via ‘The Book of Enchantment’. ‘The Case of the Honest Crook’ follows, and it is one of the key stories of Batman’s early canon. When a mugger steals only $6 from a victim, leaving much more, his trail leads to a vicious gang who almost beat Robin to death. The vengeance-crazed Dark Knight goes on a rampage of terrible violence that still resonates in the character to this day.

The last story from Batman #5 ‘Crime does Not Pay’ once again deals with kids going bad and potential redemption, and the volume closes with the eerie murder mystery ‘The Witch and the Manuscript of Doom’, which came from World’s Best Comics #1 (Spring 1941 – and destined to become World’s Finest Comics with it’s next issue.)

These are the stories that forged the character and success of Batman. The works of writer Bill Finger, artist/creator Bob Kane and his multi-talented assistants Jerry Robinson and George Roussos are spectacular and timeless examples of perfect superhero fiction. Put them in a thrifty, nifty package like this, include the pop art masterpieces that were the covers of those classics, and you have pretty much the perfect comic book. And you really, really should have it.

© 1940-1941, 2007 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Batman: Dark Detective

Batman: Dark Detective 

By Steve Englehart, Marshall Rogers & Terry Austin (DC Comics)
ISBN 1-84576-325-4

Many comics fans share a variation of the same dream. They will awake sweaty, desperate and poignantly despairing because they have seen, touched and read a lost issue, produced by their favourite creator or creators, from their most artistically productive period – which just happens to be the dreamer’s most well-beloved – only to awaken to the gloomy realisation that they already have a complete collection and the dream artefact will never be part of it. Spitefully, images and fragments of the lost issue will tantalisingly return to them for days and months thereafter.

In the 1970s Steve Englehart, Marshall Rogers and Terry Austin produced a run of stories in Detective Comics (collected as Batman: Strange Apparitions, ISBN 1-84023-109-2) that managed to be nostalgically avant-garde and iconoclastically traditional at the same time, setting both the tone and the character structure of Batman for more than a decade to come, and leading, indirectly, to both the award winning cartoon series and the blockbuster movie of 1989. What could be closer to that cruel dream than the reuniting of these talented artists to tell one more story their own magnificent way?

It must have seemed like a good idea at the time, and if I’m totally honest, there are oh, so brief moments where I’m a blown-away kid again, but mostly this feels like a school reunion where you forget yourself for a moment, then catch yourself pogo-ing to “God Save the Queen” in the bar mirror. That was then and you just look like an idiot doing it now.

This plot has once-in-a-lifetime romance Silver Saint-Cloud returning to Gotham City as the fiancé of an aspiring State Governor. She once more meets Bruce Wayne and they take up their old affair. She decides to dump her current man and stay with Wayne, whom she only originally left because she couldn’t cope with his being Batman. But events are further complicated by the Joker whose latest scheme can be best described by his own slogan “Vote for Me …Or I’ll Kill You”.

As well as The Joker’s gubernatorial aspirations Batman also has to deal with the Scarecrow’s unwitting release of Bruce Wayne’s repressed memories of a murder attempt upon himself the night after his parents were killed, Two-Face’s frankly ludicrous clone-plot and a cheesy dream allowing the creators to do their version of many of the Dark Knight’s Rogue’s Gallery.

On a personal note, the co-conspiratorial habit of naming Gotham locations after various Batman creators of the past was charming then, but it’s tired, over-used and not a little annoying now. Just let it go, guys.

Their vision of Batman is a unique and iconic one, and it should never have been shoe-horned into current continuity. It would have been fairer to position it, like many out-of continuity Bat-tales, in its own private universe, perhaps in those distant days of thirty years ago, or even the 1950s.

Not a hoax, not a dream, and definitely not a good use of some very talented people or my childhood memories.

© 2005, 2006 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Batman: Strange Apparitions

Batman: Strange Apparitions 

By Steve Englehart, Marshall Rogers, Terry Austin & various (DC Comics/Titan Books)
ISBN 1-84023-109-2

In the mid 1970s Marvel Comics were kicking the stuffing out of DC Comics in terms of sales if not quality comic book product. The most sensible solution seemed to be to poach the top talent. That strategy had limited success but one major defection was Steve Englehart, who had scripted groundbreaking work on the Avengers and Dr. Strange titles.

He was given the Justice League of America for a year but also requested, and was given the Batman slot in the flagship DC title Detective Comics. Expected to be daring and innovative, he instead chose to invoke a classic and long-departed style which became a new signature interpretation, and one credited with inspiring the 1989 movie mega-blockbuster.

Initially Englehart was paired up with artists Walt Simonson and Al Milgrom for the series. ‘…By Death’s Eerie Light!’ and ‘The Origin of Dr Phosphorus’ from Detective #469, May 1977, introduced not only a skeletal, radioactive villain but also the corrupt city council of Rupert “Boss” Thorne, and had the Caped Crusader outlawed in his own city. The team also provided the sequel ‘The Master Plan of Dr. Phosphorus!’ which introduced another landmark character, the captivating ‘Modern Woman’, Silver St. Cloud.

With issue #471 (August 1977) relative newcomers Marshall Rogers and Terry Austin took over the art chores and the magic truly began. As the scripts brought back golden-age and ‘A-list’ villains the art captured the power and moodiness of the strip’s formative years whilst adding to the unique and distinctive iconography of the Batman. Last seen in Detective Comics #46 (1940 and reprinted most recently in Batman Chronicles volume 3, ISBN 1-84576-431-5), quintessential Mad Scientist Hugo Strange came closer than any other villain to destroying both Bruce Wayne and the Batman in ‘The Dead Yet Live’ and ‘I Am The Batman!’ (Detective #471 and #472 respectively).

Robin returned to the strip in #473’s ‘The Malay Penguin!’ as the wily Napoleon of Crime challenges the Dynamic Duo to an entrancing duel of wits, and the next issue featured the second ever appearance of Deadshot (after an initial outing in Batman #59, 1950). So reinvigorated was this third rate foe by his treatment in ‘The Deadshot Ricochet’ that he’s seldom been missing from the DC Universe since, starring in a number of series such as Suicide Squad and Secret Six, and even in a couple of eponymous miniseries.

Englehart saved the best for last with all the sub-plots concerning Silver St. Cloud, Boss Thorne, Gotham City Council, and even a recurring ghost culminating in THE classic confrontation with The Joker. Detective #475 and #476, ‘The Laughing Fish!’ and ‘The Sign of the Joker!’, comprise one of the most reprinted Bat-tales ever concocted, and was even adapted as an episode of the award winning TV show Batman: The Animated Adventures in the 1990s. In fact you’ve probably already read it. But if you haven’t… what a treat you have awaiting you!

Having said all he wanted to say, Steve Englehart left Batman and quit comics for a good few years. After a reprinted story in #477, Marshall Rogers drew one last adventure (in issues #478 and #479). Len Wein scripted ‘The Coming of… Clayface III’ and ‘If a Man be Made of Clay…’ whilst Dick Giordano replaced Terry Austin as inker on a tale of obsession and tragedy as another Golden-Age villain got a contemporary make-over. Sadly it just wasn’t the same. The magic moment was over, leaving us all wanting more. And surely that’s how it should be.

© 1977, 1978, 1999 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Gotham Central: The Quick and the Dead

Gotham Central: The Quick and the Dead 

By Greg Rucka, Michael Lark & Stephen Gaudiano (DC Comics)
ISBN 1-84576-381-5

Gotham City is a bad place to be a cop – even a crooked one. If you’re a straight arrow it’s even worse because then both sides of the street want you dead. When Detectives Crispus Allen and Renee Montoya turn their attention to corrupt Crime Scene Investigator Jim Corrigan it sets them both on a path steeped in tragedy and loss. “Corrigan” (originally published in issues #23-24 of the monthly comic) is by the regular team of Greg Rucka, Michael Lark and Stephen Gaudiano.

The same team bring us “Lights Out” (issue #25) as, in the aftermath of the War Games (see Batman: War Drums; War Games: Outbreak, Tides, Endgame and War Crimes) event, new police commissioner Akins severs all official ties to the Batman and has the Bat-Signal removed from Police Headquarters roof.

“Keystone Cops” (issues #289-31) is another superb blend of the procedural and the outlandish as beat cop Andy Kelly is mutated by a super-criminal’s booby-trap whilst rescuing some kids from a fire. Montoya and Allen must cross jurisdictional boundaries and moral landmarks to obtain the assistance of deranged Flash villain Doctor Alchemy if there’s any hope of curing their comrade. With the most chilling exploration of a super-villain’s motivation in many a year and a generous tip of the hat to ‘The Silence of the Lambs’ this is a moody masterpiece with a unsuspected kick in the tail. Rucka writes and Gaudiano graduates from inks to pencils with the embellishing falling to the capable Kano and Gary Amaro in this fourth volume of the award winning series.

© 2004, 2005 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Gotham Central: Unresolved Targets

Gotham Central: Unresolved Targets 

By Ed Brubaker, Greg Rucka, Michael Lark & Stephen Gaudiano (DC Comics)
ISBN 1-84576-130-8

There are two names synonymous with Gotham City, USA. If you’re a cop you keep your own opinions about the Batman, but it’s pretty much unanimous that The Joker is not someone you ever want to deal with. A madman with a homicidal flair for the theatrical, he loves a special occasion. It’s Christmas and it’s started to snow…

This third volume collecting the procedural exploits of the police of Batman’s hometown is tense and brooding, and manic and breathtaking by turns, as the poor officers of the Major Crimes Unit must catch a sniper who is randomly assassinating citizens – including the mayor. Even his early capture doesn’t halt the killings, since the proud culprit is the insane and Machiavellian Joker, who can seemingly now kill by remote control. This Yule looks to be the most memorable ever for the hard-pressed detectives in a tale entitled “Soft Targets” by Ed Brubaker, Greg Rucka, Michael Lark & Stephen Gaudiano (originally published in issues #12-15 of the monthly comic).

The second story, “Unresolved” by Brubaker, Lark & Gaudiano (issues #19-22) focuses on a cold case of fan-favourite character and all-around slob Harvey Bullock. When one of the maverick ex-cop’s old cases goes live again, the team must solve a high-school murder-bombing that somehow involves one of Batman’s weirdest foes.

Solid gritty police drama seamlessly blended with the grisly fantasy of the modern superhero seems like a strange brew but it delivers knockout punches time after time in this captivating series.

© 2003, 2004, 2006 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Batman: Scarecrow Tales

Batman: Scarecrow Tales 

By Various (DC Comics)
ISBN 1-84576-063-8

As with the appalling Catwoman film, DC produced a fine volume of reprints featuring the comic book appearances of the Scarecrow to capitalise on Batman Begins. Although having a much shallower well to draw from, there are some wonderful tales on offer (and the occasional dog, it must be admitted) with various pin-up pages and a cover gallery.

The obvious kick-off is the first adventure from World’s Finest #3 (1941), followed by his third outing in “Fright of the Scarecrow” (Batman #189, 1967) wherein scripter Gardner Fox introduces his current Modus Operandi of artificially inducing terror, rather than the forties version which consisted mostly of shooting at you until you wet yourself.

Two lesser efforts follow: “The Scarecrow’s Trail of Fear!” (Batman #262, 1975) is by Denny O’Neil, Ernie Chua/Chan and Dick Giordano and the frankly appalling duel with the Joker “The Scarecrow’s Fearsome Face-Off!” This turkey’s by Elliot S! Maggin, Irv Novick and Tex Blaisdell, and is from Joker #8 (1976). If you’re of the persuasion to think that some things can be so bad they become ‘good’ this one’s for you.

Gerry Conway wrote “The 6 Days of the Scarecrow”, beautifully illustrated by the vastly under-rated and sorely missed Don Newton, with inking by Dan Adkins (Detective #503, 1981) and Alan Davis and Paul Neary visualised Mike W Barr’s “Fear For Sale” (Detective #571, 1987). Next up is “Mistress of Fear” by Peter Milligan and Duncan Fegredo from the one-shot (Villains: Scarecrow #1, 1998), a truly exceptional psychological thriller, with “Fear of Success” by Devin Grayson, Roger Robinson and John Floyd (Gotham Knights #23, 2002) rounding out the volume.

As a trawl through the changing nature of the industry this book is quite illuminating and in all honesty there really wasn’t a lot of material to choose from, although one glaring omission is the ignoring of the great little stories featuring the character that ran in assorted issues of the TV Cartoon based Batman Adventures. Now those were thrilling…

© 2005 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Batman Chronicles vol 2

Batman Chronicles vol 2 

By Bob Kane & various (DC Comics)
ISBN 1-84576-292-4

More Batman magic from the dawn of comic-book time re-presenting further early Dark Knight tales in their original publishing order. Starting with “The Horde of the Green Dragon” from Detective Comics #39 through to #45 “The Case of the Laughing Death” (May to November 1940), every Batman and Robin story is reprinted, including the eight adventures from Batman #2 and #3 and the incredibly rare “Batman and Robin Visit the New York World’s Fair” from New York World’s Fair Comics.

© 1940, 2006 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.