by The Masked Bookwyrm

Batman - C page 1

Batman: The Cat and The Bat  2009 (SC TPB) 128 pages

cover by MaguireWritten by Fabian Nicieza. Illustrated by Kevin Maguire.
Colours: I.L.L. Letters: Sal Cipriano. Editor: Mike Carlin.

Reprinting: Batman: Confidential #17-21 (2008)

Rating: * * * * (out of 5)

Number of readings: 1

Reviews: Mar. 2015

Batman: Confidential was the successor title to Batman: Legends of the Dark Knight in that it was used to tell self-contained arcs (usually flashback stories set earlier in Batman's career than contemporaneous titles) from changing creative teams -- with maybe the difference that it was less self-consciously pretentious than LOTDK.

Case in point is this deliberately breezy, fun romp -- and a story that focuses not so much on Batman, but on Batgirl (Barbara Gordon), likewise early in her career. And it chronicles supposedly the first encounter between Batgirl and Catwoman (who already at this point seems to have shifted a bit from a straight on "villain" to a more morally ambiguous figure).

Barbara has borrowed (well, stolen) her dad, Commissioner Gordon's, private notebook for personal reasons, intending to return it before he's the wiser -- when it gets lifted from her, in turn, by Catwoman. This leads Batgirl to chase Catwoman across Gotham City, eventually getting them embroiled with Russian mobsters and even a journey through the sinister halls of Arkham Asylum. It's a deliberately light, simple tale (the five issue arc occurs over the course of a single night) with Batgirl's initial pursuit of Catwoman alone taking up a couple of issues (before she learns Catwoman has a possibly altruistic motive driving her larceny). Batman does eventually get involved, but as no more than a secondary figure, with the story remaining about Batgirl and Catwoman.

And it is for the most part a fun romp, full of quips and quirky turns, Batgirl basically a good-natured plucky heroine still relatively inexperienced and guileless, she and the more cynical Catwoman trading -- um, catty -- retorts as they duel. Kevin Maguire has a detailed, realist style, well suited to mixing the super heroic with the whimsy (he used to draw the JLA during its whimsical phase in the late 1980s) and with an eye for drawing pretty women without going too far and just making it a collection of Image Comics-style pin-ups. At one point, Batgirl has to pursue Catwoman into a hedonistic nudists club (even marking the cliffhanger between issues!) for a sequence that smacks of deliberate sexploitation (as Batgirl, determined not to be thwarted, strips down to her mask) but maybe gets a pass by virtue of its intended humour and whimsy -- is the scene salacious or just innocently comedic?

Although that does raise an issue when later in the story the plot involves the characters attempting to secure the release of a woman held by the mobsters -- and it's pretty explicit that she is the monsters' sex slave (Catwoman even thinking how she has been "abused"). It's an odd aspect to toss into a story ostensibly meant to be a light romp, particularly given the story arc's obvious nods to salaciousness. It kind of makes you wonder what exactly Nicieza and Maguire (and their editor) really think about women and sex and the like.

As well, the point of the story is first and foremost meant to be humorous (while still being a fast-paced action-adventure) and the humour stemming a lot from Barbara's naivety and inexperience (even though she's perfectly capable in a fight). And that's fine -- a story about an inexperienced crimefighter in the early days of her career. But it does seem to follow a pattern of a lot of "retro" Batgirl tales, playing up Babs' inexperience or else presented as a kind of "loss of innocence" tale as the naive Barbara must confront serious villainy. But it could be construed as a tad condescending toward the character, losing sight of the more common Batgirl (from the 1960s and 1970s) -- a Batgirl who was a more level-headed figure than the brooding Batman...but nonetheless equally competent and capable.

Still, putting aside quibbles about a trivializing attitude toward sexual violence and the fact that it might be nice to see a more confident Batgirl at work, The Cat and The Bat does succeed as a fun, brisk romp, with some amusing dialogue and enough story twists and turns to keep the pages turning. It doesn't exactly emerge as a graphic "novel," playing out more like a motion picture (the 120 some pages probably amounting to the equivalent of a movie) but is enjoyable on that level.

This is based on the original comics.

cover by Asamiya Batman: Child of Dreams 2003 (SC & HC) 352 pages

Written and illustrated by Kia Asamiya. English adaptation by Max Allan Collins.

Additional notes: pin-up gallery; behind-the-scenes pages; interview with Asamiya

Rating: * * * * (out of 5)

Number of readings: 2

Child of Dreams has a slightly unusual production history, as DC licensed out Batman to a popular Japanese comic book creator, Kia Asamiya, to basically do a Japanese manga version of Batman -- though still operating under DC editorial supervision. That is: this is still DC's Batman, not an Elseworlds or other out-of-continuity project. And the result was then released in North America, in an English translation/adaptation, as a massive 338 page graphic novel.

The story has a plucky Japanese reporter, Yuko Yagi, and her film crew arriving in Gotham to do a report on the mysterious Batman, just as Batman is confronted with a strange new threat. Various of his key foes are cropping up around town, but turn out not to be his foes, but perfect dopplegangers apparently connected to a new street drug. Who and what is behind it eventually leading Batman back to Japan in pursuit of answers.

The format of Child of Dreams initially struck me as rather intriguing. Although the term "graphic novel" is bandied about a lot, in America it usually refers to 48 or 64 page stories, occasionally an "event" 96 pager. Longer volumes are not original graphic novels, but collections of stories originally serialized in monthly comics. So the idea of doing a 350 page graphic novel struck me as an audacious experiment -- a true graphic novel! However, reading the end notes, I realize that the story actually was first serialized in monthly instalments in Japan, it's only the English edition that exists only as a collected version. Anyway...

Child of Dreams has strengths and weaknesses, but emerges as a refreshingly strong, compelling -- even thoughtful -- saga. And I say that not being one especially fond of Japanese manga styles.

But the art is quite stunning at times. Presented in black and white -- as are most Japanese comics -- Asamiya makes great use of the lack of colour, presenting some meticulously shaded and toned images. There's an intriguing atmosphere generated that's almost dreamlike -- appropriate given the title -- and where Batman seems to exist less in a world of night, than a world of misty twilight. There is a certain cartooniness to faces, particularly with Asamiya's penchant for drawing big noses even on the good looking characters like Bruce Wayne and Yuko, but it only occasionally strays into the more magna style exaggerations and caricatures that one associates with the Japanese style (big eyes and comical expressions). And the world they inhabit exhibits an intriguing realism, with Asamiya perhaps utilizing photo references when drawing his city scapes and cars. As such, the story seems more real, more grounded, than a lot of Batman comics.

And Asamiya has a great eye for composition, the scenes often strikingly presented. The early scene where the Japanese film crew arrives in Gotham and first see the bat signal is stunning, as Asamiya presents the image, not as a spotlight in the sky, but as an image that looms over the city, barely glimpsed in some panels. His Batman inparticular is a nice blend of ideas, being at once all shadowy mystery, while still seeming to be just a man in a costume.

With all that being said, and the fact that I think the art is a big appeal of the story -- and the black and white presentation adding something colour might lack -- Asamiya isn't without his flaws. Namely the action scenes can be a bit confusingly staged. This is partly because the general realism he had applied to figures can get tossed aside a bit and the figurework itself get a bit distorted, partly because, in drawing a dark suited figure battling, often, other dark suited figures, it's hard to tell who's doing what, and partly because of his choice of composition, utilizing extreme close ups -- of what, you aren't always sure -- and strange angles. Now doing a super hero saga where the action scenes can be awkwardly presented might seem a kind of deadly flaw but, strangely, in Child of Dreams, the action scenes aren't exactly paramount. There's as much talking as fighting.

There is a strange...elegance to the tale, where the story can seem as much about the people and the mood and the suspense, as it is about any two-fisted dust up.

The story is a bit slow moving, a bit protracted. Does it really need 350 pages to tell the tale? And scenes can go on longer than they need, both conversations and action scenes. And though I've complained about that in other comics, here, though a flaw, it was often only a minor one. (And learning the story was originally serialized, one wonders if some of that sense of repetition and extended scenes was because ideas needed to be recapped from issue to issue). And that's partly because it does let the story, the scenes, and the characters...breathe. And maybe that's one of the strengths of the story -- it does seem as much about the people (limited though the cast is) as the events.

Yuko is a principal figure, and if not exactly a radical characterization (just a plucky but naive gal) she's nonetheless appealing. I've commented that super hero comics are often loathe to employ "guest stars" -- that is, to introduce and develop a character in a story that's not part of the regular mythos. Asamiya bucks that trend. Of course, with the focus on Yuko, one might almost bristle at the conceit of the creator -- doing a Batman story where his own character seems to hog some of the centre stage. But in the context of a Batman story, it actually kind of works, as DC has long played up Batman as a character who has worked to make himself as much a legend as a man -- as both Batman and billionaire Bruce Wayne. So telling the story, partly, from an outsiders perspective plays into this, allowing the reader to maybe appreciate Batman as others would. And, as well, Batman -- and Bruce Wayne -- are hardly neglected. In fact, although there's plenty of scenes of Batman in all his gothic grandeur, Asamiya also puts the emphasis on Bruce Wayne, allowing Bruce to act as the driving personality, who investigates some of the mystery in his civilian guise. And there's some intriguing reflections on the character and what makes him tick.

There's also a tentative romance that is developed between Bruce and Yuko that gives the story an added, human, element.

And perhaps most refreshing is Asamiya's presentation of the Batman character. Despite describing him as "more terrible than the villains", Asamiya's Batman is actually a more sympathetic, more compassionate hero than is often depicted these days, one who would as soon talk down a conflict, as fight it out, and one who can show pity toward his foes. This, as much as anything, helps to really make the story a memorable -- emotionally involving -- saga.

Of course, how much Asamiya deserves credit and how much Max Allan Collins does, I don't know. American writer Collins (who briefly wrote some Batman stories in the 1980s) is credited as "English Adaptation" which might imply he simply translated -- but "adaptation" implies a little more creative input than simply "translation". And at the back of the book, a few pages are reproduced, showing the original Japanese pages -- and it looks as though the Collins' version includes a few extra word balloons as if he was adding dialogue that Asamiya hadn't.

Ironically, despite the blatant fantasy of this super drug that can even alter physical appearances, there seems to be a groundedness to this Batman story, partly because, as noted, of Asamiya's realist backgrounds, and partly because of its emphasis on the people as people. I'd almost have said is that the Japanese influence? Except in a closing interview with Asamiya, he reveals that he had wanted to make it more weird and fantasy-based, but it was the American editors at DC who asked him to keep it more realist!

As mentioned, the story plays up the notion of Batman as a pop icon, even within his own reality, and the story plays with themes of media and celebrity, as the villainy is tied into a bizarre appreciation of Batman, as the mysterious villain announces early that he's Batman's "biggest fan". It could get a little too cutesy, or self-reflective, but Asamiya keeps it from sliding into self-referential camp. Ironically, you could perceive the story as being a criticism of over-zealous fandom -- except then, in that closing interview, Asamiya reveals he's a huge Batman fan himself and has collected a bunch of memorabilia!

Ultimately, I can't say Child of Dreams is flawless -- it's a bit too long, a bit slow, a few too many scenes protracted. For a "mystery", like a lot of comics, it's not like there are too many genuine surprises as to who the villain is, or even his motives (although there are some nuances that are developed). And there's a definite tenuous logic to the drugs involved and how they evolve. In fact, the mystery is supposed to coincide with the arrival of the Japanese film crew -- but they're "barely through customs" before the action begins.

With a second reading, my enthusiasm was a bit lessened. In some ways it remained high, even strengthened -- still enjoying the atmospheric, moody visuals, the human drama and character focus. The gradual unfolding over the generous page count making it feel like a "novel". But the fundamental thinness of the basic story and the protracted scenes -- particularly toward the end and the climactic confrontation which goes on longer than it should -- is more noticeable.

After one reading, Child of Dreams nudges its way toward the top of my list. And after a second reading -- still places respectably high. It's full of atmosphere and haunting mood, some beautiful, striking imagery, and a human, character-based tale -- one about people as much as super heroes. Batman is what a hero should be -- brooding and driven, yes, but also compassionate and sympathetic. It's nicely self-contained, with Yuko and the villain and his scheme entirely original to this store, but has fun playing on the Batman mythos with appearances by dopplegangers of Batman's key foes. In a way, it reminds me of some of Jeph Loeb's Bat-sagas like The Long Halloween and Hush, but seeming more intriguing, more -- dare I say it -- sophisticated. And as the title implies, there are hints of themes and subtexts threaded throughout the plot.

Hard cover price: $24.95 US.

Batman: City of Crime 2006 (TPB) 288 pgs.

coverWritten and layouts by David Lapham. Pencils by Ramon Bachs. Inks by Nathan Massengill.
Colours: Jason Wright. Letters: Jared K. Fletcher. Editor: Bob Schreck.

Reprinting: Detective Comics #801-808, 811-814, plus a short piece from Detective Comics #800 -- with covers (2005-2006)

Rating: * * * (out of 5)

Number of readings: 2

Reviewed July 22, 2009

Suggested for mature readers

At first glance, City of Crime has the potential to be one of the greatest Batman sagas...ever. At some 12 issues (and a short, only thematically relevant prologue from Detective Comics #800), it's a broad canvased tale encompassing multiple characters, and veering from gritty urban realism to supernatural, almost Lovecraftian horror, with a super villain or two tossed in. It's rich with themes and subtexts. It's an epic told in sequential pictures that has a clear beginning and end and isn't meant to simply lay the ground work for later stories, reference previous ones, tie into a zillion superfluous crossover comics, or to shoehorn in a parade of colourful guest stars (it's just Batman and Robin). It is a true graphic novel.

Unfortunately, the result is an intriguing, tatalizing, but somewhat frustrating, disappointing, glimpse of something that could have been.

The story, in a nutshell (if one can squeeze it into a nutshell) begins with a tenement fire that leads Batman and the authorities to uncover the grisly evidence of a blackmarket adoption ring. This turns the media spotlight on a woman whose pregnant teenage daughter has gone missing and might, possibly, have been a victim of the adoption ring. Her plight strikes a chord in Batman -- nursing feelings of guilt over having failed another teenage girl recently -- and he vows to find the missing teen. But soon it becomes clear the adoption ring was just the tip of the iceberg of a far darker conspiracy, one that terrifies even those peripherally involved with it, such as mobsters like the Penguin -- a conspiracy capbable of replacing its enemies with look-a-like imposters. The result is a story that starts out about urban crime and gradually swells into a nightmarish saga of paranoia and apocalyptic horror.

I sat on this review for months, in order to read it again, to try and sort out my feelings about it. There're undeniable strengths to the saga. For one thing, it does succeed on a viceral level of generating a sense of creepiness, of horror -- perhaps partly because it starts out seeming as though it'll be rooted in more realistic sins. Actually, it can be a little too horrible and grisly and I wouldn't recommend this for young or sensitive readers.

In a business where creators can skip from project to project like playing musical chairs, Lapham and Bachs stick with it for its entirety, further adding to the sense of a complete, consistent novel. Bachs is a solid, strong artist. I'll admit, I had some quibbles about his work -- nothing concrete, just that vicerally it didn't quite blow me over. But he's a solid, detailed, realist artist (working from Lapham's layouts) and if you're going to have an artist draw a 12 issue epic, this is preferrable to a lot of others -- because I certainly liked his work. And Jason Wright's sombre colours add to the ambience. And beyond the dark themes and ambitions, scripter Lapham also delivers some nice wit and humour, particularly in scenes with Robin.

So why do I criticize City of Crime?

For one thing, Lapham employs a dense, caption heavy narrative style -- something I would normally approve of, as I believe comics can benefit from captions and thought balloons, and many modern comics lose a layer of narrative complexity with their cinematic, dialogue n' pictures approach. But Lapham spends too much time telling us stuff...and not showing us. Describing characters, rather than portraying them. In one scene, a text caption reflects back on a wake in a previous scene, and remarks on the demeanor of those in attendance...but you didn't really get that from the scene itself! Lapham can actually distance us from the characters, when we should be feeling what they're feeling, believing in their emotions and actions.

And in trying to layer on complex motives, Lapham maybe serves to undermine the motivation. In a sense, the reason Batman obsessively takes up the cause of the missing girl is not, really, for her sake, but because she reminds him of another girl he failed...yet he didn't really care about that girl either, so much as she reminded him of himself as a youth. In other words, even Batman's driving more an intellectual abstraction. And yet, this obsession serves to make Batman blindly overlook obvious clues and jump to unsubstantiated assumptions.

And this character problem permeates throughout. Unlike many comic book sagas, Lapham generouly mixes in a bunch of new characters, each forming a part of the greater tapestry...but they rarely came to genuine life, rarely seemed well developed or subtly shaded. In a way, it reminds me a bit of what I criticize sometimes about Alan Moore -- it's intellectual string pulling rather than human drama. Part of the problem may be that we aren't intended to care about them, as Lapham goes for a dark, cynical ambience, portraying a city soaked in sleaze and corruption, where almost everyone hides a sin or crime. Unfortunately, that can be just as overdone and simplistic as a story full of impossibly noble characters. And Lapham's captions, heavy handedly emphasizing this, can veer into unintentional parody, like he's read Frank Miller's Sin City stories once too often with their equally ham-handed evocation of film noir profundity.

So for a part of the saga, it remains sort of interesting, with flashing hints of startling ambition, but marred by a certain sense the story, and themes, are driving the characters, not vice versa, with Batman himself not really seeming as front and centre as he should. We're learning things long before Batman does, so instead of discovering the story with him...he's more playing catch up to us. And for all that this is a 12 issue epic, veering from the board rooms of the mighty to the mean streets of the desperate, the story actually isn't that complex, with an impression of density created simply by cutting between characters...not because their plots are actually developing (a sequence where some characters are basically holed up in a hospital actually stretched over four or five issues!) And with some jumping back and forth in time, I think even Lapham may've lost track occasionally as to how the different scenes related to each other, time-wise.

The story starts to improve significantly more than half way through when Batman goes undercover -- ironically, he doesn't appear in costume for a few issues, but at least he is firmly in centre stage as our protagonist, and by staying with certain characters and a certain neighbourhood (as opposed to earlier cutting in snippets between various players) there's more a sense that the story is finally unfurling as a story.

But by the end...I'm not really sure it made sense. What was the goal of the conspiracy? What was the point of the adoption ring? Why did it seem to be trying to replace people in Gotham if, in the end, it just seems to be trying to destroy the city? Maybe I'm just obtuse, but (kind of like with Batman: The Long Halloween) I've come across favourable reviews of this that also acknowledge it's oblique, and how not every question has an answer. I don't mind a few such open questions...but not ones that are quite so fundamental to the narrative. Like with the characterization, it's a bit as if Lapham was so concerned with the traipings of a conspiracy story he forget about the substance. That's part of the danger with employing supernatural explanations, and attempting to evoke themes -- it means the nuts and bolts get shrugged off. The conspiracy's motive is just that it's evil. Period. And Lapham's thematic idea of almost anthropomorphizing Gotham City itself, as an evil, malignant force with which Batman is at war...kind of flies in the face of other Batman stories, in which he sees himself as the defender of Gotham City against the evil that bedevils it.

Even minor plot points seem ill-explained -- the Penguin seems to be working for the conspiracy, yet then later says he knows nothing of relevance. Presumably Lapham wanted to create a chilling sense of a conspiracy so secret, even its operatives had no grasp of its full scope. But the Penguin is still going to know something. As well, for a detective story, Lapham often glosses over the deductive parts, how/why Batman (or other characters) make the intellectual leaps they do, often with characters just coming to the right solutions by "instinct".

There are so many things to like about this, and so many things to feel let down by. I've had discussions before with people about which is preferrable: a breezy, light weight story, flawlessly told...or an ambitious, audacious effort that doesn't quite succeed. And there's no cut and dried answer. City of Crime is definitely intriguing: ambitious, atmospheric, atypical for a Batman story. But it seems a bit like a shadow of the work it could've been.

Cover price: $__ CDN./$19.99 USA.


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