Batman Chronicles vol 1

Batman Chronicles vol 1 

By Bob Kane & Various (DC Comics)
ISBN 1-84576-036-0

For anyone who’s read more than a few of these posts, my tastes should be fairly apparent, but in case you’re in any doubt, here’s an up-front summation: I’m that shabby, crazy old geezer muttering at the bus-stop about how things were better before, and all new things are crap and not the same and…

You get the picture. Now, ignore all that. It’s true but it isn’t relevant.

Batman Chronicles is another re-presentation of the earliest Batman stories in the original order they came out. Starting with “The Case of the Chemical Syndicate” from Detective Comics #27, every story is reprinted up until #38, which introduces Robin, The Boy Wonder, and then Batman #1 in its entirety, featuring The Cat (who later added the suffix ‘Woman’ to her name to avoid confusion), Hugo Strange and the first and second appearances of the Joker.

These early stories set the standard for comic superheroes. Whatever you like now, you owe it to these stories. Superman gave us the idea, but writers like Bill Finger and Gardner Fox refined and defined the meta-structure of the costumed crime-fighter. Where the Man of Steel was as much Social Force and wish fulfilment as hero, Batman and Robin did what we wanted to do. They taught bad people the lesson they deserved.

Bob Kane, Jerry Robinson and their compatriots created an iconography that carried the strip well beyond its allotted life-span until later creators could re-invigorate it. They added a new dimension to children’s reading. And their work is still captivatingly readable.

One final thing. I’m that guy in paragraph one, right? I’ve read a lot of these stories many times, and in many formats, and I’d like to thank whoever decided that they should forego the glossy and expensive versions and print this time on newsprint-like paper, producing the same bright-yet-muted colour that graced the originals. More than anything else, this served to recapture the mood of the young Batman and of course, my poorly concealed inner child.

© 1939, 1940, 2005 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Batman: Broken City

Batman: Broken City 

By Brian Azzarello & Eduardo Risso (DC Comics)
ISBN 1-84023-922-0

It’s something of a maxim in industry circles that if you do the slightly outré titles (for which please read non-superhero) well enough you’ll be given your shot at the major properties. That usually means that if your writing/drawing can generate enough attention, or shock-horror!, big sales on whatever the fan-base considers a no-hope proposition like a vampire, humour or even – gasp! – crime comic, editors will come begging for you to work your magic on Wonder Woman, Spider-Man, Superman or the Bat. It happens all the time.

Broken City (reprinting issues #620-625 of Batman) is a “quest story” with a dark and gritty hero skirting the edges of his own unconventional morality in a hunt to catch the killer of a young woman. Angel Lupo butchered his sister. Everybody says so. The sister wasn’t no angel. There’s new muscle in town handing out beatings. And when the hero’s nearly got the do-er an innocent couple become collateral victims, just like the hero’s parents all those years ago. Another little boy gets to grow up alone, and the hero goes a little crazy, while he’s hunting.

All dark, moody stuff, and beautifully rendered by Eduardo Risso. Gotham has never looked better – or is that worse? There’s a genuine mystery to solve (or is that two?) with a masterful eleventh-hour plotting stroke worthy of Rex Stout or Ellery Queen. The styling is classic Noir. Creeps, Bad-Eggs and dissimulating hookers abound, the hero gets lied to and kicked around a whole lot, and there’s even that tantalising double-edged vibe with a “pal on The Force” that makes for a truly great Philip Marlowe yarn. The only really jarring aspect is that fruity weirdo in the tights and long-eared hat.

And that’s the real problem here and in a lot of these Hot Name/Big Brand press-gangings. This wonderful crime story is wasted on Batman, just as this wonderful character is forced into the inappropriate and ill-fitting Gumshoes better suited to a Jonny Double or Jason Bard. Don’t misunderstand me, I love my Batman just as hard-boiled as the next guy, but Broken City isn’t Gotham City and here he’s completely out of place.

© 2005 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Batman Begins

Batman Begins 

By various (DC Comics/ Titan Books edition)
ISBN 1-84576-067-0

It looks like I’m just destined to be wrong. Do you remember flared jeans, or even bell-bottoms? From which time? As the 1970s gasped to a close I said that we’d never see those again. Horribly, tragically, I was wrong.

I was seven when the Batman TV show first aired, and I loved it. By the time I was nine I had learned the word ‘travesty’ and loathed the show with a passion. When it was all over and the ‘Camp’ fallout had faded from my beloved comics, giving way to the likes of Frank Robbins, Denny O’Neil and the iconoclastic Neal Adams, I was in seventh heaven and praised pantheons of deities that I should never see ‘Batmania’ again. I was, of course, doubly wrong.

The Caped Crusader reconquered the world in 1989 and only the increasing imbecility of the movie sequels stopped that particular juggernaut. Now there’s a new film (and not half-bad – though that’s beside the point) and my letterbox is crammed with an absolute boatload of Bat Product.

This Titan Books edition reprints not only the adaptation of the film, creditably handled by Scott Beatty on script with Kilian Plunkett and Serge LaPointe illustrating, but also a well-considered selection of thematically similar stories. The lead feature is an intensely readable reworking of the myth, so much so that I was able, for once, to stifle the small, shrill and incessant comic-fan voice that always screams “why do they keep mucking about with this?”, and “why isn’t the comic version good enough for those movie morons?”

I do, however, still question the modern hang-up with having to start from origins stories at all. Was Star Wars: A New Hope a flop because we didn’t know how Darth Vader got Laryngitis? Which Bond movie tells us how he got to be so mean and sardonic? Why can’t film-makers assume that an audience can deduce motivation without a brand-spanking new road-map every time? Although to be painfully honest, most modern comics writers seem infected with this bug too…

Could it be that it’s simply a cheap way of adding weight to the villain du jour, who can then become a Motivating Force in the Birth of the Hero? Said baddies this time out are the Scarecrow and Ra’s Al Ghul, but I’m not going to speak anymore about the cinema or plot. Chances are most Batman fans will like this film and I’m never keen on giving away endings for enjoyable experiences. My job is to blather, and in extreme cases, warn.

The next chapter reprints “The Man Who Falls” by the aforementioned Denny O’Neil and veteran Bat-artist Dick Giordano (from Secret Origins of the World’s Greatest Heroes) a skilful and engaging comics retooling of the legend that accompanied the mania of the 1989 Movie. Hard on its heels comes one of the better stories of recent years, “Air Time” by Greg Rucka, Rick Burchett and Rodney Ramos from Detective Comics #757, 2001. It’s a taut, countdown thriller that in many ways presages the style adopted for the wonderful procedural series Gotham Central.

“Reasons” (Batman #604, 2002) by Ed Brubaker and Scott McDaniel, revisits Batman’s origins in a tale that seeks to redefine his relationship to the Catwoman, and the volume concludes with the brilliant “Urban Legend” from Batman: Legends of the Dark Knight #168. In a grim and unsettling tale of frailties Tom Fowler illustrates a wickedly sharp Bill Willingham script stuffed with the dark humour and skewed sensibilities that make Fables such a joy for grown-ups.

This is a pretty decent package for any casual reader that the film might send our way, with a strong thematic underpinning. In an era of DVDs and rapid home release, I’m increasingly unsure of the merit of comic adaptations, but if you are into such things it’s probably best they’re done well, if at all.

© 2005 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Batman: As the Crow Flies

Batman: As the Crow Flies 

By Judd Winick, Dustin Nguyen & Richard Friend (DC Comics)
ISBN 1-84023-914-X

Since he was one of the star villains of the film Batman Begins, the build-up of the Scarecrow started early, as DC tried to add some narrative credibility to a baddie who is almost as old as the Joker but has been woefully underused until recently – and mostly in the animation-inspired Batman Adventures titles at that.

In this most recent saga, collected from Batman issues #626-630, however, he’s portrayed as much an ineffectual lick-spittle of the Penguin as a truly evil and demented genius, and ends as little more than a staging device to introduce a monstrous new Female Fear-Foe “Fright” (sorry, my finger stuck on the Alliterator key).

The art is competent, but the characterisations are wooden, and slow paced doesn’t mean “moody” to me. Better luck next time, guys.

© 2004 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Batman: Cover to Cover

Batman: Cover to Cover 

By various (DC Comics)
ISBN 1-4012-0659-X

Although not strictly a graphic novel, this giant collection of the best comic covers to depict the caped crusader since his first appearance in Detective Comics #27 in 1939, is a nostalgic delight for old timers newcomers alike. Many of the people who worked on Batman over the past decades were polled to provide their own favourites.

What seems like an impossible task at first glance is sub-divided into easy to digest, themed subject-headings such as Fearsome Foes, Welcome to Fun City, The Dynamic Duo, Batman by Design, Death Traps, Guilty, The Batman Family, Bizarre Batman, Secrets of the Batcave, Covers from around the World, A Death in the Family, Milestones and World’s Finest (pairing our hero with other heroes from the DC universe). Added features include an examination of the logo by designer extraordinaire Rian Hughes, discussions on cover construction by Jerry Robinson, Neal Adams and Bob Schreck and a vote on the greatest cover ever by the likes of Alex Ross, Chip Kidd and Mark Hamill.

This fan-boy’s coffee table book is lovely to look at and should provide hours of debate as we all dip in, reminisce and ultimately disagree on what should and shouldn’t be included. Enjoy. Art-lovers!

© 2005 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Trinity

Trinity 

By Matt Wagner (DC Comics)
ISBN 1-84023-892-5

Matt Wagner’s epic featuring what purports to be the initial adventure of arguably the three most recognizable comic characters in the world, is a classic and stylish romp relating the attempt by immortal eco-terrorist Ra’s Al Ghul, and the tragic, monstrous Bizarro to use stolen Atomic missiles to bring about a new world order.

There is always the dilemma when producing this kind of tale to trade on current continuity or to deconstruct and attain a more iconic, epic feel. Part-time and casual readers need not worry. Wagner has hewn to the ever-fresh basics to create a gratifyingly “Big” story that still manages to speak more of the individual characters involved than a years worth of most periodical publishing.

Trinity is a grand adventure, accessible, exciting and rewarding, with Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman as they should always be but so seldom are. Graphic Novels should all be this good.

© 2005 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Batman: Hong Kong

Batman: Hong Kong 

By Doug Moench, & Tony Wong (DC Comics)
ISBN 1-84023-758-9

This Batman outreach project is a surprisingly engaging piece of Hong Kong cinema in comic form by frankly inconsistent writer Doug Moench and the anonymous horde of illustrators used by Comics Supremo Tony Wong to churn out literally thousands of lavishly executed Kung Fu comics that have earned him the title “the Stan Lee of Hong Kong”.

The story itself is fairly unsurprising tosh. A serial killer who webcasts his murders as realtime snuff movies leads Batman to the former British colony and a civil war between a Triad leader and his brother – a cop determined to bring him to book. Add to the mix a dashing young nephew who loves his family but thirsts for justice and you have all the elements for the next John Woo blockbuster.

Although a touch stiff in places and a little disorienting if you’re unused to the rapid art-style transitions of Hong Kong comics (artists and even forms of representation – paint, black line wash, crayon etc. can vary from panel to panel) this has a lot of pace and fairly rattles along. This book is a lot better and more accessible than many outings for the caped crusader in recent years.

© 2004 DC Comics

Batman: Gotham by Gaslight

Batman: Gotham by Gaslight 

By Brian Augustyn, Michael Mignola, P. Craig Russell & Eduardo Barreto (DC Comics)
ISBN 1-84576-403-X

This long overdue volume collects the seminal classic Gotham By Gaslight, which spawned DC’s eclectic “Elseworlds” imprint, and its cruelly neglected sequel Master of the Future.

The conceit of the first story is the transposition of the most recognisable icons of the Batman mythos to the end of the 19th century, enabling troubled millionaire and would be avenger Bruce Wayne to begin his caped career in gory battle with the world’s most famous serial killer, Jack the Ripper. Brian Augustyn’s moody steam-punk script is elevated to spectacular heights by the astounding artwork of comic giants Mike Mignola and P Craig Russell, and the results have long been considered one of the comic high-points of the last twenty-five years.

Which in some ways is a shame, as Master of the Future is in many respects a better story, with the superb but criminally unappreciated art of Eduardo Barreto recreating the turn of the (20th) century technological wonderment of Jules Verne and H G Wells. As a Mad Scientist threatens to destroy the burgeoning metropolis of Gotham City from his airborne dreadnought, only the by-now disenchanted Batman could possibly stand against him… if he can be bothered. Augustyn’s examination of vigilante motivation once his anger is expiated, especially in an era and milieu of extreme wealth and privilege, provides an interesting counterpoint to the mind-numbing obsessive ness of the “regular” caped crusader.

Batman was voted the most popular comic character of the 20th century. How strange, then that two of his best escapades deal with the age before then? How about judging for yourselves with this superb collection?

© 1989, 1991, 2006 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Batman: Detective

Batman: Detective 

By Paul Dini & various (DC Comics)
ISBN 1-84576-428-5

Here’s a pure and simple treat for all Bat-fans, ancient and modern, as award winning animator Paul Dini joins the monthly Detective Comics magazine as regular scripter. A consummate storyteller, he’s also quite obviously a lover of the character in all his aspects.

Playing to a long-forgotten facet of the Batman’s CV, that of ‘World’s Greatest Detective’, Dini has kept the bloodletting insanity rampant in Gotham City to a minimum and concentrated on the solving of outrageous crimes that used to such a large a factor in the popularity of the Caped Crusader.

These gripping yarns (Detective Comics issues #821-826) also showcase a host of premiere artists to great effect. J. H. Williams III starts the ball rolling in his unique high design style illustrating ‘The Beautiful People’ as a mugging gang, trained to pass as upper class swells targets Gotham’s Glitterati. ‘E. Nigma, Consulting Detective’, with art by Don Kramer and Wayne Faucher, features Batman’s obsessive arch-foe as a seemingly cured and reformed private eye on the trail of a murderer attempting to frame Bruce Wayne.

The homicidal poison Ivy features in ‘Stalked’ but as the prey of a marauding monster determined to destroy her. Joe Benitez and Victor Llamas provide pictures for a tale where not every thing is as it seems. Riddler returns, as does the art team of Don Kramer and Wayne Faucher in ‘Night of the Penguin’, as another apparently reformed foe plays victim not villain. This one is also noteworthy for a sparkling guest appearance by Superman’s wife, Lois Lane.

All the regulars take a break as guest writer Royal McGraw and artists Marcos Marz and Luciana Del Negro describe the vengeful campaign of murder and mayhem undertaken in ‘The Return of Dr. Phosphorus’, an homage to the era – and villains – of the groundbreaking Steve Englehart and Marshall Rogers run of issues in the early 1970s.

The volume concludes with one of the best Joker — and definitely the best Robin — stories in decades. Dini, Kramer and Faucher all return for the Christmas horror story ‘Slayride’ as the Crazed Clown traps the Boy Wonder in a stolen car and makes him an unwilling participant in a spree of vehicular homicides amongst the last minute shoppers. If there is ever a ‘Greatest Batman Christmas Stories Ever Told’ collection, (and if there’s anybody out there with the power to make it so, get weaving please!) this just has to be the closing chapter.

Great Character, great creators, great stories; let’s pray that this is the start of a Batman renaissance. Even if it’s not though, this is still the best Bat-book in simply forever and you should get this superb read.

© 2006, 2007 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved

Superman Batman: Public Enemies

Superman Batman: Public Enemies 

Jeph Loeb, Ed McGuinness and Dexter Vines (DC Comics)
ISBN 1-84023-915-8

For many years Superman and Batman worked together as the “World’s Finest” team. They were friends and the pairing made financial sense as DC’s top heroes should cross sell and cross pollinate their combined readerships.

When the characters were redefined for the post-Crisis 1980s they were remade as respectful co-workers who did the same job but deplored each other’s methods and preferred to avoid contact whenever possible (except when they were in the Justice League – but for the sake of your sanity don’t fret that right now!). Here they have reformed as friends for the style-over-content twenty-first century, and this is the story of their first outing together. Outlawed by Presidential decree and hunted by their fellow heroes, they find themselves accused of directing a country-sized chunk of Kryptonite to crash into Earth! To save Superman, the world and their own reputations they are forced to attempt the overthrow of the President himself.

In so many ways this compilation is everything I hate about the modern comics industry. Plot is reduced to an absolute minimum in favour of showy set-pieces. Previously established characterisation is hostage to whatever seems the easiest way to short-cut to action (mortal foes Captain Atom and Major Force work together to capture our heroes because US President Lex Luthor tells them to?). The story length is artificially extended to accommodate lots of guest stars, and yet large amounts of narrative occur off-camera or between issues, presumably to facilitate a faster, smoother read. Also, there was an unholy rush to a collected edition, presumably because of demand, but that didn’t prevent the publishers releasing the reprint as an expensive hardback before getting round to releasing a trade paperback collection a good few months after that. This is no way to service or expand an already diminishing customer base.

On the plus side however is the fact that I’m an old fart. There is obviously a market for snazzy looking, stripped down, practically deconstructed comic fare. There must be, or Image Comics wouldn’t have lasted three months, let alone the length of time many of the perpetrators managed. Public Enemies does look good, and if much of the scenario is obvious and predictable it is big and immediate and glossy like a summer action film. Perhaps there’s room for those alongside the Will Eisners, Dave Sims, Alan Moores, Robert Crumbs and Frank Millers of the world.

© 2004 DC Comics. All rights reserved.