GRAPHIC NOVEL and TRADE PAPERBACK (TPB) REVIEWS

by The Masked Bookwyrm


Batman - C page 2
 
 

Batman: Collected Legends of the Dark Knight 1994 (TPB) 160 pgs.

Batman: CLOTDK - cover by Brian Bollandby: James Robinson / Tim Sale - Alan Grant / Kevin O'Neill - John Francis Moore / P. Craig Russell.
Colours: various. Letters: various. Editors: Archie Goodwin, Bill Kaplan.

Reprinting: Batman: Legends of the Dark Knight #32-34, 38, 42-43 (1992, 1993)

Rating: * * * * (out of 5)

Number of readings: 2

This is a collection of stories from Batman: Legends of the Dark Knight (LOTDK), a Bat-comic with no consistent writer-artist, often telling more ambitious or off beat stories than other Bat-titles, usually set during Batman's early years of crime fighting. Critically well regarded, quite a number of the early storylines have been collected in TPBs.

Enough of the preamble, on with the review.

"Blades" (#32-34)
A charming, swashbuckling superhero, the Cavalier, becomes a media darling when contrasted with Batman's dark, sullen demeanour. But while Batman is obsessed with a killer of old people, the Cavalier veers from the straight-and-narrow of superhero-dom. Batman eventually captures the serial killer...and then must face the Cavalier in a final confrontation.

This is a popular storyline, and it's easy to see why. For one thing, despite the serial killer angle, this isn't a violent, hyper-macho opus the way some Batman stories are presented. It's almost lyrical in spots, and a story rather than just an action piece. The Cavalier isn't a black-hat bad guy, and you've got to love any story where some of the key action scenes aren't Batman beating up bad guys, but Batman saving lives. Too many comic book writer's (even those who decry the juvenileness of the genre) rely solely on violence and fisticuffs to generate excitement, forgetting Batman is as much a defender as an avenger.

Artist Tim Sale has a (slightly) cartoony style (lots of big heads), lending the story its vaguely fairy tale ambience, and he has a nice eye for composition (accentuating one of the story's themes -- showbiz -- with exaggerated shadows annd lights, as if Gotham itself were a stage). And colourist Steve Oliff's use of earthtones complements him beautifully, giving Gotham a melancholy, yet hauntingly poetic air.

"Blades" isn't perfect: there's a feeling James Robinson was striving too hard to write a "Great" story, and didn't always write a good one -- it's too aloof in spots. His dialogue lacks naturalism, and the story and characters could've used some fleshing out (it's hard to believe it took 77 pages). And Robinson fails to make all his themes connect.

In the end, though, the strengths of "Blades", the atmosphere, and the tragi-comic figure of the Cavalier, haunt the reader long after the weaknesses are forgotten. Actually, it's one of the more memorable comic book stories to be published in the last few years.

"Legend of the Dark Mite" (#38)
Bat-Mite, the other-dimensional imp conceived in the more whimsical '50s, is here re-introduced into the modern, more "realistic" Bat-mythos through the conceit of possibly being a junkie's drug-induced hallucination.

And it answers the question "what would Batman be like as done by counter-culture animator Ralph Bakshi?"

O.K., O.K., so this satirical curio is better than anything Bakshi's ever done. It's funny in spots, and visually off-kilter, but there's an underlying ugliness and meanness that sours it a bit. The nihilistic-'90s digging its talons into the product of a more guiless era. And though LOTDK is a comic published without Comics Code approval, this is the only story in this collection that seems as though it mightn't have got that approval if it wanted. Though since some of the (admittedly cartoony) violence may be a hallucination, maybe it's justified as unreal.

"Hothouse" (#42, 43)
A new drug leads Batman to the supposedly reformed Pamela Isley (a.k.a. Poison Ivy), who can have a bio-chemical effect on men. Isley claims she's an innocent dupe of a couple of drug suppliers, and Batman wants to believe her...but is he just falling under her spell?

Like "Blades", "Hothouse" also avoids being a testosterone-driven pummel-fest, and is instead more a detective piece. John Francis Moore scripts some nice, wry lines, and Batman is a more compassionate figure than he's often allowed to be, making the story surprisingly ingratiating, particularly after a second reading. Even Ivy is more multi-dimensional, and sympathetic, than she's been in some stories.

Conversely, for a 50 page story, the plot isn't all that complex, or unexpected, making some of the talkie scenes a bit dry occasionally.

The art by P. Craig Russell, like Moore's script, is a mix of plus and minus. His lush, flowing style gives the piece a sense of elegance, but it can be a little too stylized and aloof.

Ultimately, "Hothouse" is a fair, understated effort: likeable, but not riveting.

"Blades" is haunting, "Hothouse" likeable, and "Legend of the Dark Mite" is, well, interesting, making Batman: Collected Legends of the Dark Knight a pleasing compilation -- although you could probably pick up the original issues at a well-stocked comic shop for no more than the price of this collection..

Cover price: $17.95 CDN./$12.95 USA.

This is a review of the stories originally published in Batman: Legends of the Dark Knight comics.


Batman: Contagion - coverBatman: Contagion 1996 (SC TPB) 267 pgs.

Written by Chuck Dixon and Dennis O'Neil, Alan Grant with Doug Moench, Christopher Priest. Art by Vince Giarrano, Dick Giordano, Barry Kitson, Mike Wieringo, Jim Balent, Tommy Lee Edwards, Kelley Jones, Graham Nolan, Frank Fosco, Matt Haley. Inks by various.
Colours/letters: various. Editors: Dennis O'Neil, et al.

Reprinting: Azrael #15, 16, Batman #529, Batman: Shadow of the Bat #48, 49, Batman Chronicles #4, Catwoman #31, 32, Detective Comics #695, 696, Robin #27, 28 (1995)

Rating: * (out of 5)

Number of readings: 1

A deadly ebola-like virus achieves epidemic proportions in Gotham, causing chaos and rioting. Batman and his veritable army of associates (Robin, Azrael, Catwoman, Nightwing and the Huntress, not to mention James Gordon & the police, Oracle -- the former Batgirl who acts as Batman's information/cyber-cowgirl -- and more reluctant allies like a mercenary named Tracker -- and Catwoman, for that matter -- and the villainous Poison Ivy) try to control the chaos while also seeking a cure by tracking down survivors of a previous outbreak in the hope their blood will provide needed anti-bodies. One of the quests even taking the characters to Canada.

Who would've thought I'd think a Batman collection was bad -- disappointing, sure, medicore, more thhan once, but bad? And this despite the fact that it's a huge 12 issue storyline, collected at a relatively modest price as far as TPBs go, and gives you a crash course in the constantly expanding world of Bat-related spin-off comics.

But the story is thin with whole issues not amounting to anything. The TPB reprints thumbnails of the comic covers, but it's hard to guess to what issues they refer, the covers are so generic (though subsequently I realized they're numbered). It could be argued that that's a reflection of the blandness of many of the issues themselves.

With this kind of grim, apocalyptic premise, you might imagine a thriller spiced with human drama, but it's mainly an action piece. But pointless action. Knowing from the beginning that there are three previous survivors of an epidemic means the reader knows the first two searches will end in failure, muting the suspense, particularly when the quests themselves are not particularly interesting, or cleverly portrayed.

For a twelve issue epic, there's little in the way of sub-plots or character arcs that should make the thing a complex, rich read. Gotham is under the control of a sleazy out-going mayor and an incompetent police commissioner (Gerry Conway should be flattered: ever since his early '80s run on Batman, where he used a plotline involving a mayoral race and wrastling for the Police Commissioner's job, it seems almost every time I've read Batman in the last two decades, there's some sort of sub-plot involving those elements -- and it's getting old, folks!) Anyway, the mayor and the commish, supposedly, bungle the crisis...but we hardly see them at all, or learn in what way, or why, they mishandle things. With the exception of the heroes, characters aren't developed beyond the necessities of a given scene.

Even the heroes are sketchily portrayed. There are some decent scenes between Batman and Gordon, and some between Alfred and Robin, but other times...not. Gotham is falling to a plague...but does James Gordon spare a moment to think about his loved ones? Robin contracts the disease, but Batman barely blinks an eye. In fact Batman is portrayed as blank and one-dimensional...and even non-existent. For a TPB called Batman: Contagion, Bats spends a lot of time in the background. But you get little insight into most of the heroes, anyway. Alfred, who spends much of the saga in the background, adds some desperately needed humanity in the latter portion of the storyline -- then plays a prank that's in such unbelievably bad taste it's impossible to reconcile with the character and smacks of just bad writing.

Orchestrating a crossover story involving more than one writer (though Dixon does the lion's share) must be difficult. In the climax the heroes discover (and this is not a spoiler, friend) discover the plague was created by a crazed religious order called St. Dumas (a recurring force in Azrael comics)...but the heroes knew that in the very first issue!!! And when you learn just why the order unleashed this plague on Gotham...well, you can be forgiven for throwing the TPB across the room in disgust. And there's just a lack of plausibility throughout -- like why only Batman's cronies are seaarching for survivors instead of anyone with real authority? As well, there are technical faux pas that make you want to buy the staff at DC an atlas for Christmas: Greenland is not part of Canada, a Torontonian is not an American, and Alaska and the Yukon are not interchangeable names. Sometimes they seem to know that...sometimes they don't.

Other qualms arise when you peer beneath the surface text. A plague sweeps the city, innocents are dying, our heroes speak of saving Gotham City ("If Gotham dies, they might as well bury me with her," remarks Gordon)...but they don't seem to care as much about the people who comprise the city. In Doug Moench's single contribution to the saga, he has Batman comment: "We can't let death turn lives into (statistical) numbers." It's a movingly profound comment from the Dark Knight -- too bad Dixon, Grant and O'Neil hadn't taken it to heart.

A story about a plague could explore issues of paranoia and prejudice (think of AIDS) but instead, Contagion exploits those very unsavory attitudes. The plague victims too often are portrayed as sub-human monsters, to be treated with disgust and horror, not compassion.

What emerges is disturbing. The civilian population is a mindless mass of instability, falling victim to the plague, or rioting, with only the superheroes and the police proving their moral fibre. Contrast that with the closing chapter of the classic Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, in which Frank Miller portrayed the worst, yes, but also the best of the common people in a crisis (and it's not like Miller hasn't had his ethics criticized from time to time). Even the plague survivors the heroes search for are treated as little more than objects, or worse, commodities. When one plague survivor is murdered, it takes two more issues (and Doug Moench again!) to acknowledge that a man was killed.

Superheroes began as a childish fantasy, then evolved in the '60s and '70s as an adolescent release, exploiting themes of alienation and power fantasies -- both subtexts leading pundits to dismiss comics as juvenile. Yet these '90s comics display a far more disquieting undercurrent, that of a kind of fascistic wet dream, with the ubermensch of superheroes and police arrayed against the seething mass, not of super-villains, but the civilian population. It's a theme that I've commented on in Batman: The Cult and Legends among others. In fact, the very cast of comics like Batman have shifted over the years, dropping civilian supporting players in favour of more and more cops and costumed heroes.

Other problems arise from the modern editorial attitude in comics, which is that outsiders are to be discouraged. There's character stuff that is confusing for the novice. Nowhere would you learn in 12 issues that Oracle is the Commissioner's daughter. And in one scene, Batman has inexplicable knowledge of the Penguin's (in a bit part) plan -- inexplicable if you didn't recognize Batman's alter-ego, "Matches" Malone, in an earlier Penguin scene. But nowhere is "Matches" identified as such, or as being a disguised Batman. This contempt for "inexperienced" readers explains why the comic book audience has imploded so drastically over the years. There are times when stuff seems to be missing, too, like maybe another Azrael comic to which the characters refer late in the proceedings.

The art...ah, well, the art. Some of it's good (Matt Haley on a 10 page Huntress story), some of it's O.K. (Nolan, the Balent/Giordano combo), and a lot of it struck me, personally, as just Godawful. There's a lot of use of "Image"-style splash pages and big panels, often for no dramatic purpose, and artists who studied anatomy by watching Saturday morning cartoons, and other artists that are so stylized you can't even tell exactly what's going on. Admittedly, art is a subjective taste, but aesthetically a lot of it left me cold.

Ultimately Batman: Contagion picks up a little in the second half (though that may've just been because I had lowered my expectations by that point), but it's comic booky in all the wrong ways: glib and superficial and kind of dumb and silly. The plot is blah, the characters unrealized, and the ideology disquieting. Still, I emerged with a new respect for Doug Moench (I guy I never much liked as a Batman writer), so maybe it wasn't a complete loss.

A few years later Batman comics re-explored the same theme with an epic storyline where Gotham is wrecked by an earthquake and anarchy ensues. Maybe they learned from Contagion's shortcomings and the Cataclysm/No Man's Land epic is better. Personally, though, I'm disinclined to give that second storyline a try after this.

Cover price: $17.95 CDN./$12.95 USA


Batman: The Court of Owls 2013 (SC TPB) 176 pgs.

coverWritten by Scott Snyder. Pencils by Greg Capullo. Inks by Jonathan Glapion.
Colours/letters: (I'm too lazy to look 'em up right now)

Reprinting: Batman (series 2) #1-7 (2013-)

Rating: * * * (out of 5)

Number of readings: 1

Reviewed: Oct 2016

The whole Owls storyline I think became a rather major arc in the Batman comics -- spreading over multiple TPBs and with message board threads trying to guide fellow fans through the proper order to read the comics.

This opening arc has Batman investigating a grisly murder that seems to lead to an old legend about a secret society in Gotham -- a legend Batman never took seriously and dismissed as an urban legend. But he soon realizes it's anything but.

Because comics (and Batman) can go through different iterations, I'll mention Batman here is back to being familiar ol' Bruce Wayne (last time I read a Batman TPB, Dick Grayson was wearing the cowl). Dick is still around, peripherally, as Nightwing, Tim Drake is some version of Robin and there's yet another, younger, sidekick, too (Damian). I had mentioned when reviewing that other non-Bruce TPB -- Black Mirror also by Scott Snyder -- that Bruce has been so reduced to a one note obsessive that having Dick as Batman actually gave us a more accessible Batman. But maybe Snyder just has a better feel for the franchise than some, because his handling of Bruce is also a little more agreeable. Still broody and obsessive -- but not a dick (as opposed to Dick).

And the idea of using Batman for a conspiracy thriller -- as opposed to simply another tussle with some colourfully themed serial killer -- is always welcome.

Yet for all that, the Court of the Owls never fully hit the proper igniters for me.

The idea of having Batman uncover some long brewing secret in Gotham is certainly interesting, giving us the sense of a menace more dangerous than his usual foes (since it's operated under his nose for years). And Snyder is happy to try and create the sense of his own story, not overly beholden to existing continuity. After all, Batman, Commissioner Gordon, etc. act as if this legend of the Court of Owls has always existed -- but we readers have never heard of it before! Likewise, Snyder even back dates it by tying it into the murder of Bruce's parents -- Bruce explaining he believed the Court to be a myth because he had already debunked it in connection to his parents' deaths.

But it pushes at plausibility. I mean, um, the characters are awfully casual about this folklore, complete with a popular children's rhyme, as if it's just a normal part of urban living. But, y'know, it isn't. (One could picture a scene of Batman sitting around the JLA HQ, shooting the breeze, and casually saying: "Hey, you know how every big city has a decades old legend about a secret society that controls everything...? Uh, guys? Why are you staring at me that way? C'mon, Flash, I'm sure Central City has something similiar? What about Metropolis, Supes? No? Really? Gosh...")

As well (and this relates to a point I've made before that maybe I've read too many comics) but it couldn't help remind me of other sagas like City of Crime and even Dark Knight, Dark City.

Snyder maybe rushes through the set up too quickly. Instead of teasing the Owls plot as a creepy, slowly building sub-plot behind adventure-of-the-month stories of Batman tackling the Riddler or Killer Moth, we dive into it a bit too quickly, and fully, maybe bleeding some of the key "surprise" revelations of their oomph.

And we don't really get much sense of what this Court of Owls is. Now, obviously, given it stretches forth into subsequent TPBs, most likely Snyder is just slowly unfolding his saga. But the problem is, there is also a tendency in comics (especially Batman comics) to rely on the crutch of villains whose motive is just that they are...villains. Madmen like the Joker, for instance. In another Batman TPB by Snyder a plot involved a secret cabal of rich people whose motive was just that they were creepy weirdos. Likewise, in City of Crime, the idea was to suggest a villainy that almost transcended motive.

So you can forgive my caution that this saga may be setting up a generations spanning secret society -- whose actual motive and goals might be vague. Because when Batman actually encounters the Court of Owls -- they just seem to be a bunch of creepy sociopaths, rather than the secret puppet masters that pull Gotham's strings.

Part way through this run of issues Batman finds himself captured by the Court and imprisoned in a bizarre subterranean complex where he wanders about for a few issues, suffering deprivation, hallucinations, and attacks. It's sort of creepy -- but likewise reveals maybe Snyder's interests (and the modern editorial regime at DC) in the comic being more a horror series than a crime or adventure series. It can feel a bit thin -- not to mention implausible (Batman is apparently down there for days without food, but though he certainly gets weak and bedraggled, not as much as would seem likely). Also I find it frustrating how the cliche of Batman is he is comicdom's greatest detective, the guy who plays chess while everyone else is playing checkers. Yet in his own comic -- he rarely actually does anything that clever (I've complained about more than a few comics where he "solves" the mystery simply by beating up suspects, or because villains lure him to their hideouts). So during the whole underground sequence I kept hoping the twist would be Batman had some secret plan, or was more on top of things than the villains (and us readers) suspected. But he isn't. And in the end he mostly triumphs in that standard comic book cliche that he simply finds a convenient reservoir of strength (despite being half starved) and fights his way free.

(Now, obviously, Snyder wanted to focus on character, and having it suddenly turn out that Batman had been keeping secrets from the reader might be problematic -- but surely there is a middle ground between an opaque, master strategist Batman who has a surprise card up his sleeve and a Batman who just seems to blunder his way through crises relying on the fact that he can punch harder than his opponent).

The art is robust and dynamic, and mostly well-composed. But there were times when I struggled to figure out what I was looking at, either because the artist chose a tight close-up of something, or just the overall shapes were too stylized (there's a bit of a manga feel at times). As well -- and I've commented on this before with other modern artists -- there can be a certain sameness to the figures, the facial types. Almost as though everyone comes from the same gene pool (there were scenes between Bruce and a local politician where I kept having trouble remembering which was which). I like artists who can evoke different characters, different physical types -- and likewise can convey emotion and attitude through a character's body language.

Still, it's good art -- and perfectly in keeping with contemporary styles.

Because this is just the opening arc in a much longer storyline, nothing is especially solved by the end, but it still tells a plot that can be read for itself (and so you can decide if you want to follow the rest). Batman uncovers this ancient conspiracy and survives his first head on encounter with it.

It's a decent opener -- but didn't fully excite me, despite potential for a moody, sophisticated thriller.

Cover price: $ __.


Batman: The Cult - cover by Berni Wrightson

Batman: The Cult 1991 (SC TPB), 208 pages.

Written by Jim Starlin. Illustrated by Berni Wrightson. Painted by Bill Wray.
Letters: John Constanza. Editor: Denny O'Neil.

Reprinting: Batman: The Cult #1-4 (1988 prestige format mini-series)

Rating: * * (out of 5)

Number of readings: 1

Recommended for Mature Readers

Batman is tortured and temporarily brainwashed by the Deacon Blackfire, who's assembling homeless people into an army of brutal vigilantes. Batman joins with this cult, but manages to shake off the brainwashing and escape. But he remains broken inside and scared of the Deacon, allowing the Deacon's army to literally take over Gotham City. Eventually, though, Batman must rally his courage and, with Robin (then Jason Todd), bring down the Deacon Blackfire.

The Cult is probably intended as a horror story, more than adventure, and is quite probably the bloodiest Batman story I've ever read, not to mention the grimiest with much of the action taking place in fetid sewers. Unfortunately, too much gore can be...too much. After you've seen the umpteenth image of stacked corpses, the story quickly loses its ability to shock.

The first chapter is intriguing as we wonder just who -- or what -- the apparently immortal Deaacon is and what are his goals. It's atmospheric in a dark, grim sort of way. Jim Starlin and Berni Wrightson use interesting techniques to portray Batman's drug-induced disorientation. The character-stuff with Batman is decently handled (though has a major misstep in implying Batman kills a man while under the Deacon's sway, yet not having this factor into his later self-recrimination).

But Starlin falls into the lazy trap of concocting a story geared around the stretched-out action scenes, rather than posing questions about the plot or the characters. By chapter two he's exhausted his twists and surprises so that, by the climax, I was actually kind of bored by the lack of plot and characterization.

The socio-political stuff is poorly handled. There are vague comments on religious fanaticism, but nothing insightful. The idea of the Deacon becoming a rallying point for the homeless and disenfranchised is unconvincingly handled: he offers nothing other than his war on crime. Jim Starlin, like a lot of comic writers, seems to forget that, in the real world, there are other things that fuel people's fears: hunger, unemployment, etc. Nor is there any sincere attempt to portray the Deacon's flock of homeless people as anything other than grotesque bad guys.

The idea that some Gothamites rally around the bloody Deacon could've been an intriguing, and disturbing, comment on society...but, likewise, never seems penetrating.

That's assuming all this is even sincere. The story ostensibly decries the fascist Deacon, but the heroes are all gun-totting, non-accountable figures themselves (the police, the army, even Batman himself is outfitted with heavy -- albeit largely non-lethal -- artillery for the climax), while the public, and democratically elected politicians, are treated with utter scorn and contempt.

There are other, less profound, weaknesses. The Deacon himself fails to be intimidating -- in fact, he seems like a bit of a dork -- nor does his character seem to evolve logically. There are weird plot lapses, too, like a scene where a cop volunteers to go undercover in the Deacon's group...but then disappears entirely from the story, or the fact that the Deacon seems to have one major henchman throughout the story, but then suddenly he has three in the climax. Berni Wrightson's art is fine for the grittiness, and the "real" people, but is actually a little silly when depicting the "super" guys -- Robin, in particular, needs to lay off the steroids before he explodes.

In the end, The Cult seems heavily influenced by Batman: The Dark Knight Returns. Published just a couple of years after The Dark Knight Returns, this was clearly intended as a sort of follow up, at least format-wise -- a four issue, prestige format mini-series, aimed at "mature readers". It even borrows Frank Miller's technique of "talking head" TV commentaries, and the use of repetitive images, but badly abuses both techniques. When whole pages are made up of the same image over and over, it's not clear if we're looking at Art...or laziness. More to the point, The Cult bears more than a passing similarity to "The Dark Knight Triumphant" (the 2nd chapter of Batman: The Dark Knight). To be fair, The Cult attempts a more penetrating examination of Batman's reaction to being, initially, beaten, but overall, Jim Starlin and Berni Wrightson take 184 pages to do what Frank Miller did in only 46, and did much better.

This is a review of the version serialized in the Batman: The Cult mini-series.

Original cover price: $17.95 CDN./__ USA


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