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.

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.