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.

Superman Batman: Supergirl

Superman Batman: Supergirl 

By Jeph Loeb, Michael Turner & Peter Steigerwald (DC Comics)
ISBN 1-84576-114-6

DC really can’t seem to make up their minds over Supergirl. I’ve actually lost count of the number of different versions that have been foisted on us over the years, and I can’t escape the queasy feeling that above all else she’s a concept created to ease young male readers over that bumpy patch between voices breaking and hiding things under your mattress where your mum never, never ever looks.

This latest version resets to the most popular concept and has a naked blonde chick arrive on a Kryptonite meteor claiming to be Superman’s cousin. The most intriguing aspect of this incarnation is Batman’s total distrust of the girl as she is hidden from the world while she assimilates. This leads to her training/babysitting by Wonder Woman’s amazons and her eventual kidnapping by evil space-god Darkseid.

All in all though, it’s woefully predictable stuff with oodles of lovingly rendered girl-flesh and fetish outfits jostling for attention amidst the lavish fight-scenes and interminable guest-cameos. Yet as much as I bitch about all this, I won’t disparage the popularity of the material, because any increase in sales of comics is a wonderful thing in this current climate, but I just know that the writer of The Long Halloween and A Superman for All Seasons is capable of producing better stuff for artists of this quality to draw.

© 2005 DC Comics. All rights reserved.

Gotham Central: Half a Life

Gotham Central: Half a Life 

By Greg Rucka & Michael Lark (DC Comics)
ISBN 1-84576-091-3

The second collection of this procedural cop thriller set in the urban hell of Gotham City is another superb study in genre-crossing. The action centres around the framing and persecution of long-time supporting character Renee Montoya, a detective in good standing who suddenly finds herself utterly alone, in the un-friendliest job in the world, in the nastiest town on Earth. As part of the Major Crimes Unit she’s seen how bad Batman’s enemies can get, but this time she’s the target, not the hunter, and not just her life is at stake.

This engrossing drama never steps outside of human bounds irrespective of the nature of crime in Gotham, and the original comic presentation (from issues #6-10) won Eisner, Harvey, Eagle and Prism awards for Best Story. Also included in this volume are two earlier tales from Montoya’s past (Batman Chronicles #16 – Two Down, by Rucka and Jason Pearson & Cam Smith, and Detective Comics #747 – Happy Birthday Two You, by Rucka, William Rosado and Steve Mitchell) that, although stand alone tales at time of publication, lead directly into the tragic events collected here.

It’s always difficult to recommend stuff to comics virgins. This is something even your girlfriend won’t laugh at. Go on, see for yourself.

© 1999, 2000, 2003, 2005 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Gotham Central: In the Line of Duty

Gotham Central: In the Line of Duty 

By Ed Brubaker, Greg Rucka and Michael Lark (DC Comics)
ISBN 1-84023-828-3

One of the great joys of the legendary comics characters is the potential for innovation and reinterpretation. There always seems to be another facet or corner to develop. Such a case is Gotham Central, wherein modern television sensibilities combine with the long suffering boys in blue of the world’s most famous four colour city. Owing as much to shows such as Hill Street Blues, Homicide: Life on the Streets and Law & Order as it does to the continuity of Batman, the series combines gritty authentic police action with a soft-underbelly look at what real peacekeepers have to put up with in a world psychotic clowns, flying aliens and scumbag hairballs who just don’t stay dead.

This volume kicks off with Ed Brubaker’s introduction of the cast, and first tale wherein superfreak Mr Freeze intersects a kidnap investigation by detectives Driver and Fields leading to the latter’s hideous demise. The ensuing noir classic theme of the hunt for a cop-killer is edgy and fast paced while still delivering pithy characterisations. Greg Rucka handles the second story arc as the now fit for duty Driver and his new partner use solid police work to solve the kidnap case, all the while under the gun as Batman villain The Firebug dances on the horizon threatening to destroy the city.

The appropriate quota of human drama, tension, stress and machismo play well under Michael Lark’s deft illustrations, adding a grimy patina of pseudo-reality to good old fashioned cops ‘n’ robbers stories, playing out in what can only be described as the urban city of the damned.

© 2004 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Batman: Year 100

Batman: Year 100 

By Paul Pope (DC Comics)
ISBN 1-84576-424-2

Paul Pope is one of the most individualistic comics creators to emerge in the last decade, both in his writing and the superbly moody drawing. He’s worked on a few Batman projects in that time but none quite as high profile as last year’s prestige mini-series Batman: Year 100.

In Gotham City 2039AD there’s a conspiracy brewing. In a dystopian, authoritarian world where the Federal Government is oppressive, ruthless and corrupt, a long-vanished threat to that iron control has resurfaced. In spite of all odds a masked vigilante is once again taking the law into his own hands.

Eschewing the contemporary obsession with spoon-fed explanations, Pope leaps head-first into the action in this dark political thriller. We don’t need a backstory. There’s a ‘Bat-Man of Gotham’ dispensing justice with grim effectiveness. There’s a good but world-wearied cop named Gordon helpless but undaunted in the face of a bloated bureaucracy. There’s a plot to frame this mysterious vigilante for the murder of a federal agent. Ready, steady, Go!

Fast paced, gripping, eerie and passionate, this version of the iconic Batman taps into the primal energy of the character seldom seen since those early days of Bob Kane, Bill Finger and Jerry Robinson. Once more a special man, fights for good against all obstacles, and uncaring of any objections – especially the police.

Guys with suits and a Plan have always scared me more than nutters in spandex and it’s clear that I’m not alone in that anxiety, as Pope’s civil servant antagonists cut a swathe of destruction through the City they’re apparently protecting. Like so many previous Administrations in US history, the objectives seem to have obscured the intentions in Gotham 2039. With such sound-bite gems as “To save the village, we had to destroy the village” echoing in your head, follow the newest Caped Crusader as he cleans house in a dirty city in a dirty world.

Also included in the book are ancillary text pages to supplement the story, notes and design sketches, and as a bonus, Berlin Batman Pope’s first ever Bat tale from 1997. In this alternative yarn (originally published in Batman Chronicles #11) Pope and Ted McKeever depict the career the nature of a Jewish super-hero who plagued the Nazis through the darkest days of the Third Reich.

All science fiction is commentary on the present, not prognostication of tomorrows. The Heroic Ideal is about wish-fulfilment as much as aspiration and escapism. Batman: Year 100 is a moody yet gloriously thrilling story that honours the history and conventions of the Batman by speaking to modern audiences in the same terms as the original did in 1939. This is a book for the generations.

© 2006 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Superman/Batman: Greatest Stories Ever Told

Superman/Batman: Greatest Stories Ever Told 

By various

(DC Comics)  ISBN 1-84576-433-1

This most inevitable of hero pairings first occurred on the Superman radio show in the 1940s, but for picture purposes that event happened in the pages of Superman’s own bi-monthly comic (issue #76, May/June 1952). Pulp science fiction writer Edmond Hamilton had the task of revealing how the Man of Steel and the Caped Crusader first met and accidentally discovered each other’s identities whilst sharing a cabin on an over-booked cruise liner. Although an average crime-stopper yarn in itself, it was the start of a phenomenon. The art for The Mightiest Team in the World was by the superb Curt Swan, with inking by John Fischetti.

As comic book page counts dwindled, World’s Finest Comics, which had featured solo adventures of the heroes, simply combined the two in one story per issue. Many were illustrated by the legendary and unique Dick Sprang. One particularly fine example is Superman and Batman’s Greatest Foes from World’s Finest Comics #88 (1957), with Hamilton again scripting and Stan Kaye inking a team-up of Lex Luthor and the Joker. The Composite Superman (WFC #142, 1964) and the The Cape and Cowl Crooks (WFC #159, 1966) both came courtesy of Hamilton, Swan and George Klein, and dealt with foes with far mightier powers than our heroes – a major concern for young readers of the times. To this day whenever fans gather the cry eventually echoes out, “Who’s stronger/faster/better dressed…?”

1968 brought radical changes to DC, and edgier stories of the Boy Scout heroes began to appear. From World’s Finest Comics #176, comes The Superman-Batman Split by Cary Bates and the iconoclastic Neal Adams. Ostensibly just another alien mystery story, this twisty little gem has a surprise ending for all and a guest stars Supergirl and Batgirl.

A Matter of Light and Death (WFC #207, 1971) is a fine action-mystery romp by Len Wein, Dick Dillin and Joe Giella, and the last of this volume’s tales to feature the long-standing partnership in its traditional form. After the Crisis on Infinite Earths series rewrote the DC universe in 1985, everything was shaken up and the retooling of Superman by John Byrne the following year in the Man of Steel miniseries re-examined all the Caped Kryptonian’s close relationships in a darker, more cynical light. From the third issue comes a new first meeting with Batman in One Night in Gotham City, written and drawn by Byrne, inked by Dick Giordano.

The venerated title “World’s Finest” has resurfaced a number of times since its cancellation during the 1980s. In 2000 a twelve issue maxi-series re-interpreted the growing friendship of the two characters. A Better World (Superman & Batman: World’s Finest #7) by Karl Kesel, Peter Doherty and Robert Campanella is an introspective and very human discourse of motivation and achievement from the pair. This is followed by a magnificent two-pager from Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale first seen in Superman/Batman Secret Files 2003. When Clark Met Bruce posits a road not taken with telling force and subtle wonder.

We come full circle with a retelling of The Mightiest Team in the World from Joe Kelly and a veritable army of artists (Ed McGuinness, Ryan Ottley, Sean Murphy, Carlo Barberi, Dexter Vines, Cliff Rathburn, Don Hillsman II, Bob Petracca, Andy Owens and Rodney Ramos – if you’re keeping score). Originally published in Superman/Batman Annual #1 (2006), Stop Me If You’ve Heard This One… is a retelling of that landmark tale in a thoroughly modern context, with super-villains replacing gangsters, and heavily slanted towards an audience accustomed to action/comedy movie blockbusters, which ends this volume on a very frenetic high note.

These ‘Greatest Stories’ volumes are a smart outreach idea for an industry desperately in need of new and returning consumers. If you accept the premise that everybody has read comics at some time in their life, and that new kids are being born quite a lot, then re-packaging good stories featuring characters that have ‘broken’ on the world stage can only bring new business. For us fanboy vets however, what defines ‘good’ is still a cause for debate. Good thing we’re not the target market then isn’t it?

© 1952, 1957, 1964, 1966, 1968, 1971, 1986, 2000, 2003, 2006, 2007 DC Comics.
All Rights Reserved.

Batman: Secrets

Batman: Secrets

By Sam Kieth

(DC Comics) ISBN 1-84576-425-0

Fan favourite Sam Kieth returns to the caped crusader for an exploration of media tactics and exploitation in this dark, daft and slightly overblown psycho-drama. Somehow the Joker has convinced a parole–board to release him (and no, there’s no explanation as to how such a body can rule on someone under psychiatric detention, so just let it go) and is doing the chat show rounds, plugging his new book.

He hasn’t actually reformed though: Having seduced and enthralled the truly disturbed assistant D.A. handling his case, Joker plans more mischief — beginning with the murder of her boss. When Batman intervenes, two bystanders photograph the fight and a picture that seems to show our hero torturing the villain gets picked up by all the news services.

This is the spark for a media-storm as the jackals of the fourth estate smell a scoop. One of the news-barons, a childhood friend of Bruce Wayne (they share a bloody youthful secret), is blackmailed by the Joker to lead a witch-hunt to harass Batman whilst the mad clown fuels the media frenzy with fraud and slaughter in semi-successful attempts to frame the Dark Knight.

Batman must conquer his own secret past, save lives, and turn the tables on his manic foe’s most insidious scheme under the corrupt glare of a biased media that no longer has the will to assess or the time to judge the facts and actions it purports to report…

This is an oddly dissatisfying concoction. Kieth is a talented creator, and has some good points to make regarding the “if it bleeds, it leads, one picture is worth a thousand thoughts” mentality behind modern news-gathering. He should also be admired for attempting a slightly different style of story, but hasn’t quite pulled it off here. There are plot holes you could drive the Batmobile through, far too many manic head shots and too few backgrounds, establishing shots or even mid-, medium- and full-body long-shots. Visually, it’s as if he’s fallen for the very philosophical and aesthetic trap he decries in newsmen. Is a dramatic picture more worthy than context or narrative? You decide, obviously, but I’ll stick to style AND substance, if you don’t mind.

© 2006 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved

Batman: The Greatest Stories Ever Told, Vol Two

Batman: The Greatest Stories Ever Told Vol Two 

By Bob Kane & various

(DC Comics)  ISBN 1-84576-427-7

If you buy into the myth, then there are actually many great Batman stories. Over the decades lots of very talented creators have excelled themselves within Gotham City. Often the real problem is one of context, as many adventures worry reprint editors in terms of Sell-By Date, as if nearly seven decades of creativity can avoid looking dated to some modern consumers. Guys, who cares? They’re the ones who want to remake The Ladykillers and never read any book written before 1989. If they can’t understand history unless it’s got an American accent then they’re not worth the effort.

This selection has opted for a more open-minded interpretation and there is probably something that will appeal to every disparate sub-section of Bat-fan, from Dark Knight to Alien-Busting Boy Scout, since one of the big secrets of the Caped Crusader’s success has been his adaptability. There really is a Batman-for-all-seasons, and I’m sure someone, somewhere has written a thesis on his social mirroring of each popular societal trend.

For us though, there’s a charming and rewarding blend of Dark and Light as we walk the streets of Gotham from the late 1930’s to today.

One smart move is opening with a modern(ish) retelling of the origin and first case by reprinting Roy Thomas and Marshall Rogers’ excellent tale of the Golden Age Batman from Secret Origins #6 (1986) and following with Hugo Strange and the Monsters (Batman #1, 1940), Bill Finger, Bob Kane and Jerry Robinson’s pulp masterpiece that was recently reworked by Matt Wagner as Batman and the Monstermen.

From the idyllic 1950s period comes The Career of Batman Jones (Batman #108, 1957), a tale of a boy who wants to be a crime-fighter, by Finger, Sheldon Moldoff and Charles Paris. And the same team produced Prisoners of Three Worlds, a trans-dimensional sci-fi drama featuring Batwoman and the very first of many Batgirls (Batman #153, 1963). How Many Ways can a Robin Die? (Batman #246, 1972) comes from that edgier period when Batman first regained his grim mystique, and has the hero hunting for his missing partner and an axe-wielding psycho-killer, courtesy of Frank Robbins, Irv Novick, Dick Dillin and Dick Giordano.

The Batman’s Last Christmas comes from Brave and the Bold #184 (1982), a potentially confusing tale for some, as the daughter of the deceased Earth II Batman crosses the dimensional divide to spend the holidays with our hero. Mike W. Barr and Jim Aparo keep the scorecards there. Detective #526 (1983) gave us All My Enemies Against Me! an anniversary tale featuring a huge punch-up against nearly two dozen bat-foes and the origin of a new Robin, written by Gerry Conway, drawn by the shamefully neglected and much missed Don Newton, and inked by Alfredo Alcala.

The more-or-less modern Batman is represented by Of Mice and Men (The Batman Chronicles #5, 1996) by Alan Grant, Scott McDaniel and Ray McCarthy and Cave Dwellers by Scott Beatty, Chuck Dixon, Marcos Martin and Alvaro Lopez (Batgirl: Year One #4, 2003), both reinterpreting the early days of the characters for a modern and ostensibly more sophisticated audience, and both doing a good job of it. The volume closes with a stylish pastiche of black and white movie classics with the decidedly odd but engaging Citizen Wayne by Brian Michael Bendis and Michael Gaydos from The Batman Chronicles #21, 2000.

With judicious selection, there’s probably a good few more tales that could appear in successive volumes, but I’m still a little hesitant with that ‘Greatest Ever’ tag. Surely they can’t all be … No wait, I actually think they can.

© 1940, 1957, 1963, 1972, 1982, 1983, 1986, 1996, 2000, 2003, 2007 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.