GRAPHIC NOVEL and TRADE PAPERBACK (TPB) REVIEWS

by The Masked Bookwyrm


Batman - Page A-1

"..when his parents were murdered before his eyes, Bruce Wayne...trained himself to wage relentless war against crime as the dread avenger of the night..."

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cover by AshmoreBatman: Absolution 2002 (HC and SC GN) 96 pages

Written by J.M. DeMatteis. Painted by Brian Ashmore.
Letters: Sam Konot. Editor: Dennis O'Neil, Matt Idelson.

Rating: * * * 1/2 (out of 5)

Number of readings: 1

An urban terrorist group bombs Wayne Enterprises, killing some employees, and Batman spends the next ten years -- off and on -- hunting the female leader of the group, tracking her down to various safe houses, only to have her escape again. The trail eventually takes him to India where she has joined a charity order working with the poor and the ill; but is it just a ruse, or is she truly seeking to make amends for her past?

There's a lot to like and admire and applaud about Absolution...even as there's other ways it doesn't quite live up to its own ambitions.

On the plus side:

The book is clearly meant to be deep and meaningful, positing profound questions of right and wrong, justice vs. vengeance, punishment vs. redemption, and even faith and God. It's a brooding character study as we see the driven Batman pursue the terrorist through the years, determined to bring her to justice, and unwavering in his Insp. Javert-esque, black & white view of reality, where there are no shades of grey, and no room for redemption. Yet, at the same time, writer J.M. DeMatteis presents a slightly kinder, gentler, more human Batman than a lot of modern writers do, a Batman who identifies some of the Wayne Enterprises victims as "friends" and who later remarks that he, however grudgingly, kind of likes an underworld stool pigeon of his. Batman with friends? Who can like a low-life informer? Will wonders never cease? As well, despite his hard line attitudes, this is not the hyper-violent Batman -- he'll get into fights and beat up bad guys, but there's little of the gratuitous reveling in brutality that some current Bat-writers think makes the character cool.

I liked the, more or less, real world environment Batman inhabits, devoid of garish super villains, or equally outrageous serial killers and mobsters. And I enjoyed the employing of an exotic, foreign locale that really makes you feel like you're seeing another country. And despite the archly-pretentious intentions, it's reasonably well-paced, breaking up the introspective bits with enough action and adventure -- and a plot twist or two -- to keep the story chugging along. And it's all delivered with fully painted art by Brian Ashmore.

On the down side?

Despite the ambition, despite the character exploration, despite DeMatteis' genuine talents as a writer, I'd argue the story is hampered a little by Batman himself. I've mentioned before that ever since comicdom embraced the notion that Batman was a rich, emotionally complex character...he has been written more and more simplistically, defined almost entirely in terms of one or two character traits. The current era Batman, far from being a complex, multi-faceted human being, shaped by a childhood trauma, has become a one note cardboard cut out. Batman is blindly committed to his once-a-villain-always-a-villain philosophy, even when he sees evidence to the contrary, and he never wavers from that belief. It's a 96 page graphic novel in which the main character doesn't really seem to evolve much over time. What's more, DeMatteis presents his themes in a ham handed, "spell it out clearly just so the kids get it" style, with Batman, in his voiceovers, explicitly stating his views again...and again. Yet DeMatteis contradicts himself. After all, would this unwavering Batman admit to "liking" the informer I mentioned earlier?

At the same time, there is an act of Batman's in the final scene that, though not echoed in the captions, suggests a certain softening and ambivalence in his attitudes.

Released after September 11th, 2001, a story about the bombing of a skyscraper that asks whether terrorists can be forgiven, would seem a controversial thesis for a comic -- for any medium! Yet, curiously, Absolution didn't seem to generate the controversy for which I'm sure DC Comics was braced (maybe even for which they were hoping). That may be because the story, for all its real world traipings, exists in its own, somewhat inspecific bubble. While modern America knows the face of terror as either Islamic fundamentalists, or homegrown, ultra-right wing fanatics, the terrorists here seem more modeled after long ago 1960s radicals, and even then, DeMatteis paints them as more apolitical anarchists. And the charity work in Indian is not really specific, I don't think -- are they sheltering the poor? Lepers? Who? What?

I don't entirely object to painting the issues in broad, inspecific strokes, seeking to say something profound by tackling ideas in the abstract. At the same time, it threatens to simplify, to "comicbookfy", what is meant to be a sophisticated, realist story.

Ashmore's painted art is also problematic. On one hand, it is fully painted, which can be pretty cool, and he is particularly good at using light, shaping figures by the way sun light plays on them, contrasting with the shadows, creating a warm, washed out look. And I like that his Batman is not all exaggeration and bulging muscles, but looks like a man. On the other hand, Ashmore's underlining pencils aren't always that strong, his handling of figures can be a bit rough -- admittedly, its deliberately Impressionistic at times. And the action scenes can be a bit confusingly presented, so you aren't always instantly sure who's doing what. His faces, too, can be a bit indistinct, at times, with a couple of scenes where it took me a moment to figure out who was who. I liked the art, but it has its shortcomings.

Strangely -- and this is something I'vbe noticed in a lot of modern comics, and I'll leave it to the sociologists out there to answer why -- Ashmore seems reluctant to paint truly dark skin pigments. A large part of the story takes place in Indian...yet few of the characters actually look, well, Indian. Mediterranean, perhaps, with lightly tanned, olive complexions, but not the darker hues one associates with many Indians.

Another quibble is how tiny the lettering is. You get used to it, but anyone with weak eyes might find it a real problem. One wonders if the book was originally going to be published in a larger-sized format, but then the brass at DC changed their mind, but didn't bother re-formatting the lettering for the regular size.

The bottom line is I did like Absolution -- I liked its attempt at being about something provocative, and I liked it's understatedness, with a physically human Batman and where the action scenes are often more about fights and car chases than anything too outrageous or cartoony (not that I object to those as a rule). It's undeniably moody, with DeMatteis' lyrical writing and Ashmore's atmospheric, painted art. But it never quite fulfills its own ambitions, being a big, complex idea...that is handled rather simply.

And, with apologies to the current editorial regime at DC, Batman is rapidly becoming a shallow, one note personality. And that, perhaps above all, prevents Absolution, despite its length, from truly being a great graphic novel.

Cover price: $27.95 CDN./ $17.95 USA


Batman and Robin: Born to Kill  2012 (SC TPB) 180 pages

Written by Peter J. Tomasi. Pencils by Patrick Gleason. Inks by Mick Gray, and Guy Majors.
Colours: John Kalisz. Letters: Patrick Brosseau. Editor: Mike Marts.

Reprinting: Batman and Robin #1-8 (2011)
Additional notes: story outline; character sketches.

Rating: * * 1/2 (out of 5)

Number of readings: 1

Reviewed: Apr. 2017

Born to Kill was the first arc of the series Batman and Robin -- a comic focusing on Batman and his boy sidekick. But this isn't any of the traditional Robins of Dick Grayson or Tim Drake. Rather this is Damian Wayne, Bruce (Batman) Wayne's biological son (apparently from a tryst with lover/enemy, Talia Al Ghul). Batman had only recently learned of Damian (in stories told elsewhere) and this series chronicles their uneasy partnership -- both as crime fighters, and as father & son. It's uneasy because Damian, though only ten, was raised by a cult of assassins to be a sociopathic killer! And in this arc, their already difficult relationship is tested further by the arrival of a murderous vigilante calling himself Nobody -- a vigilante with ties to Bruce's past, and who wants to make Damian his sidekick, arguing to the boy that they have more in common, philosophically, than Damian does with Bruce.

It's a bit unfortunate I chose to read this when I did, because coincidentally I had just watched the animated movie, Batman vs. Robin -- which was basically an adaptation of this same story (meaning it wasn't exactly a fresh plot for me). Although significantly the movie blended this plot with threads from the Court of the Owls saga that ran through many Bat-comics. I'll just leave you to ponder on that, and what it says about the thin-plotting of modern comics: that in order to adapt this seven issue saga for a movie running a measly hour and a quarter, the filmmakers had to pad it out by borrowing from another storyline!

So on the plus side:

Born to Kill boasts great visuals from Patrick Gleason, nicely mixing detail and realism with dramatic visuals and dynamism -- although there were a few action bits I had a bit of trouble figuring out (though maybe it's just me, because I've noticed that problem with a few modern comics). It's visually quite dark though -- oppressively so, and bordering on monotonously so (we'll come back to that in a moment).

It moves along briskly enough -- even as it's not exactly a busy, complex saga for something originally stretched over seven months. It's mostly focused on the central plot -- as opposed to the Old School of comic book storytelling where the first few issues might have featured self-contained adventures with the Damian/Nobody stuff teased along as a sup-plot that blossoms into the main story in the final few issues. I mean, there's an unrelated battle with some plutonian thieves early -- but it's more just an action scene than a "plot." The dialogue is decent enough.

Okay -- now let's roll up our sleeves and get into the problems (warning: I'm probably going to annoy more than a few readers as some of these criticism can be applied to many comics across the board these days).

Some of the criticisms I've already touched on: it's a fairly simple plot for a seven issue epic -- particularly, as noted, because there's not much else going on (either diversionary adventures-of-the-month or, conversely, other sub-plots bubbling alongside the main Bruce-Damian-Nobody story). There really are only four main characters (with Alfred being the fourth) which means it can feel like basically the same characters, expressing the same POVs, about the same topics, issue after issue. It's all supposed to be about the characters and their moral dilemmas -- but it can also feel a bit obvious and heavy handed and repetitive. And the motives and moral dilemmas themselves seem simple, with neither Batman, Robin, or Nobody really being nuanced, multi-faceted personalities. Rather they are strawman figures -- making it easier for the stories to offer "insight" into their characters.

And then we get into a deeper, more problematic aspect: namely that Batman stories have become an unrelenting horror show over the years -- and not in a good way. Some years ago Batman writers (and readers) crossed a line and they didn't even blink (to borrow a line from the Hollywood-version movie, Insomnia).

Part of this is certainly deliberate I'd noted in other recent Batman TPBs that the stories seemed to have gone all in for a horror vibe. And not vampires/werewolves horror -- but serial killers and Hannibal Lector type horror. Recent stories seem an unrelenting stream of serial killers, psycopaths, and sadism with no counterpoint or leavening of the ugliness. I earlier mentioned the visuals were dark -- and even at the end of this saga, when the script specifically makes a thematic point by having the characters suggest the horizon is lightening...it remains dark.

Perhaps nothing suggest the (I think unconscious) despair and nihilism inherent in modern Bat-comics than a supposedly hopeful scene of Bruce and Damian playing catch in the backyard -- in the middle of the night by some tombstones, like a scene out of the Addams Family!

And then there's the violence.

Ironically Robin's addition to the Batman mythos was often seen as a way of lightening the series, and humanizing Batman -- both in terms of how the writers/artists approached the stories, but also within the world of the characters themselves, other characters sometimes arguing Batman needed the young, cheery Robin to keep him grounded and human.

But now it's 2016 and in a comic specifically titled Batman and Robin, the violence is incessant, with the villain -- slowly -- lowering people into vats of acid, or other villains being baked alive in their own gettaway vehicle (after killing innocent by-standers themselves -- while making quips and jokes as if it's all supposed to be in fun!) While a climactic scene has Robin -- y'know, a ten year old boy -- being systematically beaten over multiple pages, the villain taunting Batman by describing as he methodically breaks different bones in the child. (I don't know if the fact that Gleason's art mostly downplays the visual gore is a good thing -- or makes it worse).

Of course Damian is no peach himself. After all, he was raised by an assassin cult and bristles at Batman's "no kill" policy -- and he does kill people over the course of the story, not to mention sadistically murdering small animals. (The only surprise to the saga is that a pet dog that is added to the Wayne household is still alive by the end of the story -- but I'm guessing it'll get killed off iin a few issues just to add to the "drama").

Ah hah, you might say -- but isn't the point of the story Robin's redemption? The damaged, sociopathic child slowly learning to be a good person through the influence of Batman?

Well, putting aside the fact that as depicted in recent years Batman is the last person on earth who should be trying to shepherd anyone to mental health, it's still problematic. The reader is still ultimately supposed to be rooting for Damian (and I remember when Jason Todd was supposedly hated by fandom because he could be a tad lippy!). So we know that no transgression he commits will be unforgiveable by virtue of the fact that it's an on-going comic called Batman and Robin.

After all, in another context that could've been the tension -- wondering if Damian is redeamablle. But not here where we know he is (it's like the second season of TV's Daredevil where it's set up as a moral debate between Daredevil and The Punisher -- when press releases had already announced The Punisher would be getting his own series, clearly indicating where the producers land on the "is he a hero or a villain?" debate).

Maybe that's what undercuts so many of these supposedly "sophisticated" "adult" comics -- their complete failure to grapple with the very ideas and themes they pretend they're about. Just as Batman, as a character, is too emotionally stunted to really act as a coinvincing parent for Damian, too many modern comic book writers seem to want to write profound, thought-provoking sagas but without evincing the intellectual gravitas to do so. So they reduce characters to one-note personalities to better "analyze" them, and revolve moral debates around arbitrary axes that don't even scratch the surface of the issues.

One point I'll make -- and I'm sure I've made this before in other reviews -- is the whole emphasis on kill/don't kill moral dilemmas. Look, I'm all for Old School morality in whch squeaky clean heroes don't kill. And if that's the world comics want to present, I'm cool with that.

But if you truly want to treat it as a sincere debate that writers and the readers are engaged in, these stories aren't it. First off, the whole idea of a hero "needing" to kill is really dubious if applied to the real world (in real life people analogous to The Joker go to jail and stay there -- they don't get released every few months so they can kill dozens more people ad infinitum).

But also I would argue the kill/no kill thing is a false line. Because of course sometimes a hero might need to kill someone. Not as an execution (which is what these comics often argue -- ie: some bad guys need killin'). Rather in the line of duty, to protect others (if a suicide bomber is heading toward a busload of orphans and the hero is too far away to reach him except with a bullet -- of course the hero should take the shot). But a hero should always use the minimum force required -- and no more. Yet comic books (and other mediums -- I'm looking at you, Daredevil TV series) set up this ludicrous idea that killing is the only taboo -- and the hero can beat, abuse, torture, and do whatever else they want and get off on it (yes, the heroes are often depicted enjoying their sadism) just so long as the villain can still breathe through a tube at the end of it.

And we're supposed to call it a moral debate.

In stories like this Batman isn't teaching Damian right from wrong, and writers like Tomasi aren't challenging his readers to think about morality/immorality. Instead it's just about setting up an arbitrary kill/don't kill line and as long as you stay on one side of it, you're good. I half expect comics to start having heroes get into righteous arguments about, I dunno, violence and wardrobe choices ("Damnit, Robin, heroes never kill wearing green -- that's the one line we must never cross; put on the blue suit if you're going to kill, otherwise you're no better than villains who wear green!")

Of course, even that line in the sand can be waved aside. As mentioned, Robin does kill, and though he gets a finger waving, it's not really a big deal. 'Cause the comic is called Batman and Robin after all.

So after that long philosophical digression, let's just get back to the TPB. Attractive visuals, and a relatively clippy pace and a potentially interesting theme (Batman and Nobody warring for the heart and soul of Robin). But it's thin, barely justifying half the page count, and without secondary adventures or sub-plots to beef up the narrative. And with the character exploration and moral debates upon which the whole thing is built requiring the characters and the issues be reduced to simple, basic factors.

Oh -- and it's about a ten year old sociopathic/sadist who, himself, is savagely beaten across multiple pages.

"Holy child endangerment, Batman!"

Cover price: $___.


Batman: The Ankh
  The Mini-Series Reviewed Here
 

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