GRAPHIC NOVEL and TRADE PAPERBACK (TPB) REVIEWS

by The Masked Bookwyrm


Batman - Page A-2

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Batman: Archives, vol. 1 1990 (HC) 304 pages

Written by Bill Finger, Gardner Fox. Illustrated by Bob Kane, Jerry Robinson.

Reprinting: The Batman stories from Detective Comics #27-50 (1939-1941)

Additional notes: introduction by Rick Marschall (pop culturist); covers.

Rating: * * * (out of 5)

Number of readings: 1

DC's Archives books are hardcover, exorbitantly expensive tomes collecting chronological runs of early comics. The Batman Archives volume 1 collects Batman's inaugural appearance in Detective Comics #27 as well as the succeeding 12 page Batman stories from roughly the next two years of Detective Comics (Batman was only one of the features to appear in the anthology title Detective, but the other features aren't reprinted). Of course, during this period Batman began appearing in his own, self-titled comic, so it's not like this is the complete early adventures of the Batman -- the stories themselves are all self-contained but, as an example, the Joker appears in these pages...but Batman had already fought him. Or one issue ends with a panel ad for another Batman story...but it doesn't appear in this collection, because the story actually was published in Batman comics (The stories from Batman comics are collected in the series Batman: The Dark Knight Archives).

(A more economical collection of chronological Batman stories (from bothDetective and Batman) have been released as the softcover Batman Chronicles.)

There are plenty representations of early Batman mythos here...from his origin, to the origin and introduction of Robin ('tec. #38). Bruce Wayne has an occasional love interest, Julie Madison (who is largely written out before this collection ends) and Commissioner Gordon appears, but in a fairly minor role (as Batman has yet to develop his close ties to the police). Alfred has yet to be introduced into the series, and Batman's high tech devices are fairly minor (I'm not sure if the Batcave appears). And the Batmobile -- assuming the colours are reproduced faithfully -- is red!

Batman's costume evolves a bit in these early stories (initially he wore gloves that ended at the wrist, not gauntlets) and Batman shows an occasional ruthlessness, even carrying a gun in a couple of the earliest stories.

These Archive books are useful, in that the original issues would be next to impossible to collect and ridiculously expensive. At the same time...aside from the nostalgia, a modern reader might not find the stories worth the cost (hence the appeal of the cheaper Batman Chronicles). The story and art is rather crude. And though I could say it reflects the period, and the still fledgling medium -- which it does -- it's also true that there were better written and drawn series (particularly in the newspaper strips) even at the time.

Yet there's no disputing Batman struck an instant chord, becoming viewed as one of the archetypes for zillions of later super heroes even as he himself borrowed, sometimes shamelessly, from earlier pulp characters -- a fact acknowledged in this collection''s introduction, but not fully (no mention is made of the pulp hero, The Bat, who also dressed in a black, ridged cape).

Then again, the very fact that Robin was introduced maybe hints there was some concern sales needed a boost.

And the stories do improve as things go, both in story and art. The art becomes a little stronger technically but, more to the point, develops more style, introducing intriguing trademark quirks like exaggerated shadows cast by the figures. And the plots, which initially are fairly rudimentary, sometimes incoherent, and emphasizing daring escapes from implausible death traps, become a little more structured, some even being mystery/whodunits (a concept introduced in the very first Batman story). Stories, such as strange happenings at a boy's boarding school (where Robin goes undercover - 'tec. 41) and the introduction of the original Clayface, about murders at a movie studio ('tec. #40), are actually fairly decent gothic mysteries (albeit, since later readers know who Clayface is, the mystery is rather muted). There's even an intriguing Human Drama ('tec. #47) one as Bruce Wayne/Batman becomes embroiled in the troubles of a dysfunctional rich family.

The characterization remains minor, the development of the stories crude and unsubtle...but, frankly, the nature of the stories actually seem more ambitious, more eclectic, than modern Batman comics which tend to rely on repetitively recurring super villains, or unceasing mob wars.

It's hard to imagine a Batman story written in the last decade or so where Bruce Wayne, witnessing the domestic troubles of a friend, decides to look into it as Batman -- even before he knows an actual crime is involved! And you know what? The modern comics are the poorer for it.

In fact, recurring villains only appear in a handful of stories here -- and only the Joker really qualifies as a costumed villain. The others are Hugo Strange, Dr. Death, and Clayface. And, significantly, the stories featuring returning foes are often the weaker ones.

In plot and concept, there's a lot modern writers could learn from these stories...even as, in actual execution (writing, art) these are what they are, reflective of an earlier, less disciplined era in comics.

Interestingly, the period isn't always obviously evoked. Nowhere in these stories would you even be aware that a World War was already raging in Europe, for instance!

For hard core completists, this is, of course, a worthy tome. The introduction by Rick Marschall provides a lot of context, even acknowledging Batman was not just the work of Bob Kane (despite his name alone on the cover), though it is, after all, a hyperbolic ode to Batman, DC and comics in general. At one point Marschall mentions comics' "universal" appeal even as, in the same paragraph, acknowledges they're more popular in the U.S. than elsewhere (and Canada, though he doesn't mention that). But to more casual readers, there's some novelty, some interesting aspects. But there's also a lot of chaff among the wheat, too.

Original price: $49.95 CDN./ $39.95 USA


Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth 1989 (SC & HC GN) 128 pages
a.k.a. Batman: Arkham Asylum

Written by Grant Morrison. Painted by Dave McKean.
Letters: Gasper Saladino. Editor: Karen Berger.

Rating: *  (out of 5)

Number of readings: 1

Suggested for "Mature Readers"

As I've mentioned other places on this site, I used to read comics, stopped, then came back to them. Arkham Asylum was released in that period when I had fallen out of the fold, but I was certainly aware of it. Even though I wasn't reading comics, I continued to have an interest in the field and kept abreast of trends through things like TV's Prisoners of Gravity. When first released, Arkham Asylum was considered a ground-breaking work, pole vaulting the medium forward into adult narratives with Dave McKean's eclectic painting style and Grant Morrison's dark, tortured script. But as I got back into comics some years later, and gradually collected some of the seminal works that I had missed the first time around, I began to notice something: Arkham Asylum didn't actually seem to get mentioned that often. While The Watchmen, or Neil Gaiman's Sandman, continued to enjoy critical accolades, and even Batman: A Death in the Family continued to evoke debate, Arkham Asylum seemed less like it was a seminal work, and more like it was becoming just a blip on the cultural radar. I'd even begun to come across frankly dismissive reviews of it.

All of which meant I wasn't really sure what to expect going into this graphic novel set within the asylum for the criminally insane that has become one of the touchstones of the Batman mythos.

The story starts out effectively enough, with a flashback to the turn of the Century, and the diaries of Arkham founder, Amandeus Arkham. Then it moves forward to modern times as Batman is summoned by the police after the inmates have rioted and taken over the asylum. Their demands? Batman.

McKean's style is a mixed bag of paint and photography, of surrealism and Impressionism, but also realism, where faces and figures really do look like faces and figures at times. Much was made of the art of the book, but it threatens to get just too jumbled and messy at times, where it's difficult to tell even what's going on. But still, it works reasonably well at first, lending a dark, brooding mood to the piece.

Batman arrives, meeting the Joker...and the first hints of a problem occur. It's unclear how literal scripter Morrison intends the story to be. Batman exchanges himself for the hostages...except not all the hostages are released, but this doesn't seem to phase Bats. As well, he doesn't really seem to have a plan to quell the rebellion at the asylum. Morrison obviously is using the "plot" as just a framework to hinge his ideas on, putting sub-text ahead of text. As such, it doesn't really pass the litmus test of plausibility. Still, things remain O.K. for a bit, as Batman questions whether the treatment inmates like Two-Face have been receiving is really helpful, or even humane, and we periodically flash back to Amandeus Arkham.

However there's a feeling the book is trying to create a sense of complexity, and obliqueness, not through a dense narrative, but just through confusing tricks, like Joker's dialogue written in a jumbled red font that means it is, literally, hard to read -- and it even spills off the page at times, losing words (which may be a printing error).

Then Batman is sent off into the asylum, to be hunted by the inmates...and right about here it completely falls apart.

McKean's art, already a bit murky and confusing, gets even moreso, so that you often can't tell what's happening or why. He also likes to use the "splatter" effect of scattering drops across a page for no reason, presumably 'cause it makes him look like a real artist (other painted comics, and comics that are meant to look painted, have done the same). Morrison's script doesn't offer much clarification, either. Batman wanders through black corridors, encountering inmates that maybe we're supposed to recognize, but it's unclear, because some of them McKean has reinterpreted visually, and Morrison has re-fashioned character-wise. But are they part of the group hunting Batman...or are they just inmates wandering the halls? And why does Batman cold-bloodedly kick a man in a wheelchair down the stairs? Who's the man? You see my predicament.

Alan Moore's Batman: The Killing Joke carried the tagline "A cold hard look at insanity" -- and my opinion of that worthy tome is already a matter of record. Here, Morrison seems to want to treat these comic book villains as if they really were insane people, postulating -- I assume in his mind -- a more realistic vision of them. The Mad Hatter as a child molester, Maxie Zeus obsessed with his own feces. But that takes us...where, exactly? As a story, or as an exploration of the human condition? The characterization is also a little repetative, as well. And does Morrison really have enough insight into mental illness to make this any more plausible than any other comic book, anyway? Allusions to the movie "Psycho" kind of make one infer Morrison's grasp of psychology was gleaned at the local Bijou. As well, he trots out stock cliches: Batman is emotionally scarred, perhaps as crazy as the people he fights. Nothing very fresh or sage there, I'm afraid.

Maybe Morrison has audited a few psychology seminars, and some reviews of this book praise its use of Jungian symbolism, and I'm sure there's plenty of ego and id contrasts and the like. But psychological analysis, first and foremost, is about revealing character. In one scene, Batman performs an act of self-mortification. But it's not enough to say some people do that. A story teller has to convince us this character would do this thing in this situation. And if he can't, then all the psychobabble in the world doesn't make it a penetrating character exploration.

And the episodic nature of the scenes, as Batman encounters various foes, just so they can spout off, before he moves on, is a little, well, dull. Eventually he gets into a fight with Killer Croc, seeming to kill the man -- which just adds to the sense that this is, nominally, an Elseworlds story, not meant to be considered in continuity. While, through flashbacks, we learn Amandeus Arkham was unhinged himself. Though it doesn't seem that Amandeus became deranged (that is, character development)...just that he was like that all along. Eventually there's a twist, relating to a character that, frankly, barely made an impression to begin with (I found myself going: "who's he?") and then Batman leaves...um, with the inmates still in control of the asylum which was, like, kind of why he went in in the first place.

As a plot -- whether an adventure story, or a human drama -- Arkham Asylum starts out O.K., but getss derailed along the way, failing to satisfy as a simple story, while intellectually never justifying its own self-importance. But even as a mood piece, it loses its effectiveness, as McKean's initially intriguing art just gets confusing and unclear. I'm beginning to see why, after all the initial hype, Arkham Asylum may be quietly fading into the sunset of cultural obscurity.

Soft cover price: $20.95 CDN./ $14.95 USA 


Batman Arkham: Penguin 2018 (SC TPB) 240 pages

Written & illustrated by various.

Reprinting: stories from Batman #155, 374, 548-549, Detective Comics #58, 610-611, 824, Batman: Penguin Triumphant, Joker's Asylum: Penguin #1

Rating: * * * * (out of 5)

Number of readings: 1

Reviewed: Oct. 2019

This is one of a spat of Batman Arkham TPBs collecting tales from across the years focusing on particular key villains: this volume dedicated to The Penguin (of course). The stories range from his very first appearance in the 1940s to a 2008 one-shot, and includes a couple of two-parters as well as a 48 page graphic novel.

It's perhaps appropriate that I'm reading n' reviewing this just as the ballyhooed (and controversial) oh-so "serious" Joker movie is hitting the theatres. Because I would argue that if you want to make the case for who was the most believable, "grown up" Bat-foe...it isn't The Joker, The Scarecrow, or even Two-Face, but Mr. Oswald Cobblepot -- The Penguin! When most Batman villains are generally portrayed as demented psychopaths (and increasingly depraved as "violence" and "nihilism" gets mistaken for "sophisticated" and "edgy" by modern Bat-fans and writers alike), The Penguin's goals and motives are generally more fathomable and realistic. He commits crimes to acquire things, to gain wealth; he's something of a social climber who wishes to be taken seriously by high society (even as he equally can despise the very class with which he wishes to ingratiate himself); presented as a mobster or a shady business man as often as a costumed super-villain.

The result is his stories don't (necessarily) have to be mired incessantly in sadism and mayhem. Oh, some of them are that, taking us into the dark recesses of the mind of a ruthless criminal twisted by a bullied childhood. But other tales can be a bit lighter, fun little romps. In Paul Dini's tale from his run in the __ the Penguin has become a semi-legit business man and isn't even the villain of that particular tale!

As always with such a collection the questions are: are the collected stories decent reads? Are they the best choices that could've been made? And do they reflect their eras? As the years trundle by it of course becomes harder for such collections to do justice to all decades -- because there are so many to cram in.

I suspect maybe part of the factor in the selections was to pick stories where the Penguin is fairly prominent in the tale, driving the story -- not just the villain-of-the-month popping up in a couple of scenes to be trounced by Batman.

The inclusion of the first Penguin story is an obvious choice, and is a fairly typical example of a 1940s Batman tale. Then we leap frog ahead to 1963 to what seems to be the Silver Age re-introduction of the character after a hiatus, again a pretty generic example of a Bat-tale from that era: simplistic in terms of characterization (of Batman, Penguin, etc.) but with a lot of twists n' turns crammed into a few pages. Then we jump entirely over another two decades! I don't know if that was because they didn't feel there were any worthy Penguin tales, or maybe the obvious choices they felt had been reprinted too often elsewhere (I'm thinking of something like Steve Englehart's late '70s Penguin tale which gets reprinted whenever Englehart's run is collected).

Perhaps the oddest inclusion in this collection: an early '80s story by Doug Moench and illustrated by Don Newton & Alfred Alcala. It has an odd rhythm to it, rambling about with various threads and on-going sub-plots. As I mentioned, part of the point of a collection like this should be to reflect different eras, and a story certainly does that by giving us glimpses of then on-going threads (Bruce Wayne in a kind of love triangle with Vicky Vale and Alfred's daughter, Julia; the corrupt Gotham Mayor Hamilton Hill, etc.). But it's only the first of a two part tale -- and the conclusion isn't included! Oh, it doesn't end on a cliffhanger (the Penguin merely escapes, his bigger plan unthwarted) but it seems odd. Why not include the second half (as the editors do with other two-parters in this TPB)? Or select a different tale? But perhaps they just wanted to include the work of Don Newton (an iconic Bat-artist from the era) and maybe this was the only Penguin tale he did.

The other two-parters include one from the Alan Grant-Norm Breyfogle period -- an intriguingly twisty and convoluted tale that begins with the Penguin's funeral! -- and a two-parter from when Moench had returned to the property, this time paired with the decidedly eccentric visuals of Kelly Jones. It's a less memorable tale, but OK (though I'll admit my biases that I often found Moench's work on Batman a bit generic).

For some of the Batman movies, DC would try and cash-in by releasing one-shot/graphic novels highlighting villains from the films (though despite the film connection, they reflected the traditional comic book takes on the characters). So timed for 1992s Batman Returns, John Ostrander scripted the Penguin Triumphant with Penguin embarking on one of his many reformed (but not really) phases, secretly using it as a cover for new crimes -- which involve renting out Wayne Manor itself! It's an enjoyable romp. And it's still a Batman tale, Bats and Alfred, etc. popping in and out of the action, but with Penguin getting more page time. It's appealingly illustrated by Joe Staton (nicely embellished by inker __) whose knack for a slightly cartoony style wedded with a good eye for storytelling composition is well-suited to the waddling reprobate.

As mentioned the Dini tale (drawn by Doug Kramer) actually moved the Penguin away from overt villainy, running a semi-legit club, and Batman finds himself (grudgingly) helping the Penguin when another crook tries to scam the Penguin's casino. Dini's era seemed a deliberate attempt to move the series a bit away from the incessant brutality other scribes imbued into it: no one ends up dead in the story, and Batman is a (slightly) more human figure.

Funnily enough the final story is the polar opposite of Dini's -- and more indicative of modern trends. Part of a series of Joker's Asylum one-shots (wherein the Joker tells stories of his fellow rogues), it's squarely a Penguin story (Batman barely appearing) and is a darker, more twisted version of The Penguin in a beauty & the beast plot involving human trafficking and brutal revenge. (Although as others have pointed out: since The Joker is the narrator -- how reliable is the story?) It's moody and atmospheric -- but unfolds in a fairly predictable way.

Are these great stories (Penguin or otherwise) culled from decades of comics? Not necessarily (though I don't have enough Penguin stories in my collection to say if there were better offerings to be had). I mean, even having just read the book I'm having trouble recalling too many of the details. And maybe there's too much weight given to Penguin-Batman stories as opposed to Batman-Penguin stories -- call me old fashioned, but I tend to find heroes more compelling than villains. (For that matter, it might've been interesting to include a story of The Penguin battling a superhero other than Batman -- I'm guessing there have been one or two of those over the years).

But most stories succeed as decent page-turners (among the best being Penguin Triumphant) and with an assemblage of artists that are mostly above average. And perhaps more than a lot of Batman foes, The Penguin has evolved over time (from colourful super-villain to Kingpin-like mobster) allowing some variety to the tales, while retaining the core elements of the character.

Some philosophical thoughts: I mean, I'm stretching here because there's arguably not a lot of depth on display to delve into. I mentioned how comics have gotten more violent and gritty over time, but it's equally weird to see how blithely casual early comics could be about violence. In the first Penguin story Penguin fires acid from his umbrella which Batman dodges -- and the visuals show it striking one of The Penguin's henchmen in the background! But -- nothing is said about it in the scene or the dialogue! And having Penguin frequently surround himself with pretty-but-dumb bimbos -- I dunno. After a while it can feel less like a comment on The Penguin and more a sexist trope.

Still, a solid collection.

I picked this up precisely because I figured a Penguin collection would offer a bit more variety (ranging from light-hearted to grimly serious, and with Penguin himself evolving over the years) than a lot of comparable villains -- but I might try another Batman Arkham collection at some point.

Cover price: $19.95 USA.



 

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