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GRAPHIC NOVEL and TRADE PAPERBACK (TPB) REVIEWS

by The Masked Bookwyrm


Batman - D
 
 

Batman: The Dailies, 1943-1944 1990 (SC TPB) 176 pgs.

coverWritten by Bill Finger, Don Cameron, others. Art by Bob Kane, others. Inks by Charles Paris.
black & white. Letters: various.

Reprinting: a year's worth of the Batman newspaper strip

Rating: * * * * (out of 5)

Additional notes: intro by Joe Desris; published in oblong format.

Number of readings: 1

Reviewed: Jan, 2012

I have a fondness for old newspaper comic strip adventure series. I say "old" because even though some are still hanging around, the series themselves are few, and appear in only a few papers, whereas once drama/adventure strips were as ubiquitous as Peanuts and other comedy series. As well, the shrinking of the physical size of the newspaper strips has rendered it harder to tell a serialized story in daily instalments -- where once such strips featured usually four panels per day, and big enough to encompass a reasonable amount of dialogue, now such strips are often only three or two panels, with less room for verbiage. And the story telling art has been lost a bit over time -- whereas you can read collections of old newspaper strips and the story can flow almost seemlessly, nowadays the heavy use of recapping means that often one day's strip spends half its space...simply recapping yesterday's strip.

Anyway, another interesting thing about old newspaper strips (which, were the origins of the comic book -- literally, the first comic books just reprinted newspaper comics) is that in some ways they were actually more sophisticated than the comic books published at the time. This was partly a result of the format, forcing the stories to be more plot oriented, requiring twists and turns to keep things moving from day to day, and also being longer than the average comic book story. But also the nature of being published in the family newspaper meant there was an assumption that they were trying to catch the attention of the adults, as well as the kids who were otherwise the main readership of the newsstand comic books.

And just as the newspaper strips gave rise to the comic books...so it was that some comic book characters attempted to make in-roads back into the newspapers. Though usually with limited success, such as the 1940s Batman newspaper strip which only ran about three years.

But what's interesting about this collection of 1940s Batman daily strips (the first of three volumes) is, as I mentioned, newspaper strips were in some ways more ambitious than the comics. So even though these are written and illustrated by the same creators who worked on the DC Comics...in some ways these are better, smarter stories that weather the test of time, owing as much to, say, Dick Tracy as the Batman comics.

I've often commented that even though signature, recurring foes are a staple of comics -- and seen as a big part of their appeal -- stories with such foes often aren't the best, as they tend to be repetitious, without much room for surprising twists in character or motivation. So it's perhaps unsurprising that the weakest storyline here is the one where Batman & Robin take on the Joker -- it's basically just a pretty straight forward, undistinguished adventure of the heroes chasing after the Joker, following various obvious clues he's left behind.

Much better are the other stories, bereft of familiar foes (or costumed villains in general) that owe as much to Dick Tracy and Dragnet as they do super hero adventures. And there is a certain variety in the plots and the milieus. One is a nicely traditional, nicely evocative tale of mysterious goings on at a theatre, that has a gothic, Phantom of the Opera feel to it. Another is a taut tale of an injured Batman holed up in a cabin while mobsters move in. Another has a human drama melodrama aspect to it as Batman and Robin become involved in the schemes of a murderous con artist which has some nice twists and turns. Indeed, the nature of the various stories' length, serialized over many days and weeks, is that many have a human/character aspect to them, the supporting characters and guest stars given more to do and more fleshing out, than as simply plot devices.

Batman, being a "creature of the night" is perhaps well suited to the black & white presentation of these daily strips. And though the art is simple and straightforward as reflects its era, there are still some nice, artful techniques...such as the way Batman's shadow is deliberately exaggerated as it plays across the walls, almost like a character in its own right.

I actually think the daily strip format is perhaps more conducive to telling deeper, more complex stories than the Sunday colour format, the very limitation of panels per instalment meaning the focus is more on telling a story, rather than on the big action scene.

But if you have a nostalgic affection for old, vintage Batman comics...but find that, when read, they can often seem a bit too juvenile and simple for your modern, adult tastes...these newspaper strips might be a nice middle ground. Oh, I'm not saying anyone was Jonesing for a Pulitzer, they're still goofy and juvenile -- but they marry the visuals and flavour of the old comics with a slightly more ambitious approach to the stories.

Cover price: $__ USA.



Batman: Dark Allegiances
see review in Batman Elseworld section


cover

Batman: Dark Detective  2006 (SC TPB) 144 pages

Written by Steve Englehart. Pencils by Marshall Rogers. Inks by Terry Austin
Colour: Chris Chuckry. Letters: John Workman. editor: Joey Cavalieri.

Reprinting: the six issue mini-series

Rating: * * * * * (out of 5)

Number of readings: 2

Mildly for mature readers

Three decades ago, Steve Englehart, Marshall Rogers, and Terry Austin produced a brief run of Batman stories in Detective Comics that was considered a creative benchmark, with fans long after demanding (in vain) the return of the love interest Englehart introduced in those issues, Silver St.Cloud. It's one of the few Bronze Age (late 1960s to mid-1980s) story arcs DC has collected in TPB form -- as Batman: Strange Apparitions. (I actually came across a review which, referring to that Englehart/Rogers run, claimed it was what the 1989 Batman movie was based on -- sure, insofar as they both featured a guy with pointy ears and a cape...but not in anyway that related to plot, theme, characterization, style, or artistic intent. I've seen that before -- it's a trendy marketing ploy when a super hero movie/TV show does well, to hype any and all comic book stories as being THE one that directly inspired the movie, even if it bears little resemblance to it).

Anyway, last year the team reunited (including letterer John Workman) for the mini-series, Batman: The Dark Detective, subsequently collected in a TPB.

For the record...I wasn't a big fan of the original Englehart-Rogers run. But I picked this up, unhappy with some current Batman stories and feeling nostalgic. What I got...was one of the best mainstream comics in recent years!

Englehart sets it up as unpretentious, super hero adventure, with The Joker, Two-Face and the Scarecrow all in town, pursuing separate schemes...but then he returns Silver St. Cloud. She rekindles her romance with Bats, and the comic takes on a refreshing maturity, as we get a grown up, and messy, relationship (Silver is engaged to another man, a gubernatorial candidate the Joker is targetting). Englehart, while still portraying a brooding Batman, redefines him as a three dimensional human being, capable of passion, insecurity, and even wit.

There's humour, too, and Englehart throws in cheeky political jibes -- adding to the sense he's writing up to his readers, not down. Current affairs satire in a super hero comic? Will wonders never cease? There's also a Cary Grant reference and character names derived for old Batman writers and artists -- again, suggesting an older target audience.

Rogers-Austin's line work isn't as tight as in their heyday, but Rogers can do mood-heavy backgrounds like few others, and flares Batman's cape with a aplomb. He often had a good eye for composition but perhaps because of the character-rich scenes, excels himself here. And the fight scenes, though innovative, retain a pleasing reality.

The adventure aspect is straightforward, super heroics -- The Scarecrow doesn't even seem to have any particular plan. Though Englehart has a better sense for making the Joker seem truly crazy than most writers. But by having three villains, we get a cleverly chaotic reality, where Batman can't just deal with one case at a time (as he remarks to Two-Face when stumbling upon the latter during a robbery: "I was actually looking for the Scarecrow!") While a scene where Joker and Two-Face briefly confront each other is an understated bit of coiled tension, suggesting two old soldiers but with significantly different world views -- none of the cutesy "super villain club house" stuff ala Identity Crisis.

But it's with the characterization that the saga leaps above the crowd. Englehart puts a provocative spin on Two-Face's two-headed coin obsession that, if other writers had already posited it, I've never read. However, it's with Batman that Englehart really shines, creating a plausible human being, not just an icon. In fact, the reason the Scarecrow doesn't seem to have much of a goal is because he's really just a catalyst for exploring Batman's psyche.

Of course Silver and Bats don't live "happily ever after" -- though not necessarily for the reasons you might expect.

Admittedly, the climax left me with mixed feelings as Batman, and some police, separately invade the Joker's booby trapped house. It's a genuinely creepy, edge-of-the-seat sequence -- generating more tension than I expected, or thought could be mustered in a comic book form (especially given that Bat-foes with booby trapped lairs are a hackneyed staple of the character). But it demonstrates a level of violence that jars with the series overall.

There are some continuity questions. Batman is an outlaw, but it's not explained why, and Englehart ignores that Silver had previously returned to Gotham (in the "Siege" storyline, from the comic Batman: Legends of the Dark Knight -- drawn by Rogers, yet!). Silver's participation in that earlier story was sufficiently peripheral that he could've told this story while still acknowledging it.

Anyway...

What was maybe intended as just an excercise in nostalgia turns out to be a refreshing mix of fun, four-colour super heroics...and sophisticated, adult drama. What Batman should be...and too rarely is. Definitely recommended.

This is a review of the story as it was originally serialized in the monthly mini-series.

Cover price: $__ CDN./ $14.99 US.


cover

Batman: Dark Knight, Dark City  2015 (SC TPB) 192 pages

Written by Peter Milligan. Pencils by Kieron Dwyer, Jim Aparo, with Tom Mandrake. Inks by Dennis Janke, Mike DeCarlo, with Steve Leiahola.
Colours/letters: various.

Reprinting: Batman #452-454, Detective Comics #629-633

Reprinting: the six issue mini-series

Rating: * * * * (out of 5)

Number of readings: 2

Reviewed: June 2015

Dark Knight, Dark City was a three-part story published at a time when a number of Batman story arcs were treated almost as a mini-series within the main series -- even featuring the story title in distinctly designed logos on the covers (some of which have also been published as TPBs). And Dark Knight, Dark City had already been collected in one of the DC Comics Presents 100-Page Spectacular DC put out in the late 2000s. But at three issues, it warranted a little more padding to justify a TPB. So this could equally be labelled "The Peter Milligan" collection, featuring in addition a bunch of other Batman stories written by Milligan from that period.

And it's a good choice to focus on Milligan (as opposed to, say, an all-Riddler collection, or some other connecting theme). Because in his brief run Milligan wrote some notably quirky, intriguing tales.

Yet for all the existing accolades, Dark Knight, Dark City is an enjoyable, fast-paced story -- but not especially stand out. The art is great, from penciller Kieron Dwyer (and inker Janke) who nicely mixes both clean, straight forward realism, super heroic idealism (with Batman looking like a super guy in a cape) with appropriate spooky, Dark Knight Gothic-ness. The faces are expressive, the figures rounded with dimension, and the environments detailed. As for the story, it clips along at a breathless pace for its three issues.

The premise is that The Riddler has blown back into town -- except acting with an uncharacteristic psychotic-ness usually reserved for The Joker, including a disturbing kidnapping on an infant, and leaving a string of murders (or attempted murders) as Batman tries to unravel his various riddles. The reason for this is The Riddler seems to have tapped into some demonic presence lurking beneath Gotham. And the story features cutaways to Satanic rituals committed by the city's founding fathers -- the idea being that Gotham itself may have been built upon a foundation of evil (hence -- "Dark City"). These ideas have been re-used since (both a homicidal Riddler and Gotham-as-an-evil-presence) but I think Milligan was there first (being British, Milligan perhaps has a little fun tweaking expectations, suggesting some of America's founding father's were part of this 18th Century cult).

As I say: it's fast, exciting stuff. The only reason I say it's not "exceptional" is just because, well, that's all it is. It's not exactly a twisty saga, or with a great deal of underlining emotion (though Milligan does handle Batman well). And the idea of taking a previously "mild" villain and turning him into a meaner, nastier, crazier version has been done so often it gets kind of cliche. (By the end, even Batman is unsure if The Riddler was being influenced by the demon -- or just 'cause he had become more psychotic). But as I say: a good page-turner and strikingly illustrated.

The remaining stories bar one are drawn by veteran Bat-artist Jim Aparo (with his frequent inker from the time, Mike DeCarlo). Although I used to feel DeCarlo's hard, rigid inking wasn't ideally suited to Aparo's more flowing, sinewy pencils, I've grown to appreciate the combo more. And the thing about Aparo was, in many ways, his almost effortless storytelling composition. It wasn't that he was particularly stylish, or broke down a scene in an eclectic way, but particularly late in his career ('80s-'90s) he could present a scene in such a way that it just flowed. Often able to convey a scene, even character emotion, without any written caption.

While Milligan delivers some intriguing, off-beat tales. Admittedly, part of the problem with Batman over the years -- and it's true here with Milligan -- is that sometimes writers seem not to know what to do with Bats himself. Comic fans and pros often like to claim Batman is the most emotionally complex super hero -- but he's often the least complex as writers sometimes have trouble presenting him as anything more than the grimly obsessive Dark Knight. The result is a lot of Batman comics almost focus more on the villains-of-the-month with Batman just the cowled figure who catches them.

But that's why Milligan's quirky plots -- like Dark Knight, Dark City often heavily drawing upon the supernatural (or at least the weird) -- are so important. In one story Batman investigates a series of inexplicable deaths with its roots in Irish folklore, in another he tussles with Siamese Twins hitman/men (one black, one white -- biologically impossible of course, but it suits a kind of Dick Tracy weirdness). In a two-part tale he gets caught up in racial strife and a resurrected Golem from Jewish mythology. All of which manage to be perfectly familiar Batman-style thrillers...yet with enough twists, emotional nuances, and quirkiness to also keep you turning pages to see where it ends up.

Perhaps the most disappointing is a tale where Bruce Wayne finds that his memories of being Batman are disputed. Alfred professes not to know anything about it and there seems to be no hidden Batcave. The problem I have with a story like that (and, let's face it, it's been done a few times over the years) is it's really just a build up to whatever solution the writer is going to use (it's a dream, it's a villain's scheme, it's a practical joke, etc.). It's probably better used in some 8 page short rather than a full 22 page story. (Or, at least, come up with more plot to go with it).

This is a good collection, well illustrated throughout, and with stories that, as I keep saying, nicely straddle being familiar Bat-tales yet, at the same time, unique and intelligent versions of them. Though Batman himself is more just a lantern-jawed hero to run across the pages, rather than a protagonist to invest in emotionally. Perhaps that's why, just as I think these are all good stories to read -- they are equally good to re-read, because it's hard to recall what happened in them!

But then -- that's kind of a good thing if you want it for your shelf.

This is a review of the story as it was originally serialized in the monthly mini-series.

Cover price: $__ CDN./ $14.99 US.



Batman, The Dark Knight: Knight Terrors
see review Batman: Knight Terrors



Batman: The Dark Knight Returns
click here for review



The Dark Knight Strikes Again
click here for review


Batman: Dark Legends  1996 (HC & SC TPB) 176 pages

coverWriten by Bryan Talbot, Alan Grant, Dennis O'Neil, Dan Raspler, Mike Mignola. Illustrated by Bryan Talbot, Bret Blevins, Arthur Ransom, Mike Mignola.
Colours/letters: various

Reprinting: Batman: Legends of the Dark Knight #39, 40, 50, 52-54 (1992-1993)

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

Number of readings: 1

Reviewed: Feb. 2015

Legends of the Dark Knight (as I've said in more than a few reviews!) was a comic set aside for writers and artists to tell their story, then move on -- no permanent creative teams teasing along multi-story sub-plots. The other idea was usually the stories were set (or implied to be) during Batman's early days.

Instead of collecting a particular story arc, this brings together a grab bag of different tales. I can't decide if the title -- Dark Legends -- is just because it's from Legends of the Dark Knight, or whether it's meant to refer to the type of stories. Certainly there are dark tales, including some with a supernatural theme, but I wouldn't necessarily say the overall tone was atypically dark for Batman.

Writer artist Bryan Talbot gives us the two-part "Masks" (#39-40) in which Batman finds himself in a mental institution, and told his super hero life is just a delusion. Because it's in LOTDK -- and could possibly be apocryphal -- and Bruce finds he doesn't even have Batman's physique, it can keep you guessing whether it will turn out he really is crazy (as opposed to a villain playing with his head). But though it's okay, the truth is we've seen these sorts of stories before, and Talbot doesn't really bring anything extra to the table in terms of story twists, or character stuff. The way it's set up it really is just an either/or mystery (either he's crazy, or someone is messing with him). It could just as easily have been one issue.

For "Images" (#50) long-time Bat-scribe Dennis O'Neil teams with artist Bret Blevins for a 40 page anniversary story of Batman battling the Joker. Unfortunately, it s a pretty generic tale. The Joker kills a bunch of people at certain deadlines while Batman tries to stop him (but mostly doesn't). It's fine, but reads like any of a zillion similar tales. The main difference is it purports to be the first encounter between the two, so there is a certain novelty in Batman not already hip to the Joker's style (the best scene is at the beginning when Batman breaks up a gang of crooks -- then lets the Joker walk free not realizing he's the real criminal).

"Tao" (#52-53) by Alan Grant and Arthur Ransom has actually been collected in more than one TPB (including Batman International) -- and I'm not sure why. It's not that it's terrible, it's just largely unmemorable. While Batman is on the trail of a Chinese ganglord, he ends up butting heads with an assassin -- cue: flashback to when they were both martial arts students in Tibet. Other than Grant having presumably done a bit of reading about Taoism, there's not much here (it's not like the bad guy has any particular depth or emotional complexity). I've liked some of Grant's Bat-tales for their portrayal of a "nicer" Batman (at a time when the dark n' fascist Batman was common) but here his Batman/Bruce has little real personality. Ransom's art is appealing in its realism, though a bit dark and stiff. Again: it could've been told in one issue and lose nothing.

The collection finishes with "Sanctum" (#54), illustrated by Mike Mignola, who collaborated on the story with scripter Dan Raspler. Mignola had illustrated Batman before (such as Gotham by Gaslight) but he's in particular Hellboy-mode here (complete with cutaways to silent statues and tombstones). It's also evocative of Hellboy in that it's a thin story with a Lovecraftian vibe, buoyed by the moody visuals. Tracking a serial killer to a graveyard, Batman ends up falling into a dream (or not) where a ghostly spirit seeks his life force to come back to life. In a way, it's sort of reminiscent of the first story, "Masks", in that a lot of it's just Batman and another character talking.

What to say? Nothing here really jumps out as a classic, yet neither is anything terrible, boasting mostly attractive enough visuals. Basically it's a collection of tales, ranging from the standard ("Images") to the off-beat. Which maybe is good, as some TPB collections are entirely made up of off-beat or quirky tales, making it unsatisfying if you're just looking for a Batman adventure, or conversely are an assemblage of repetitive generic adventures.

So...an okay collection.

Cover price: __USA


Batman: Death by Design  2012 (HC & SC TPB) 108 pages

coverWriten by Chip Kidd. Illustrated by Dave Taylor.
Letters: John J. Hill.

Additional notes: sketch gallery.

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

Number of readings: 1

Reviewed: Dec. 2015

Death by Design is an entirely self-contained Batman graphic novel -- even to the point where it might even be meant as an Elseworlds story. At least there's a bit of retro vibe/design to it all, almost as though a period piece set in the 1930s or 1940s, with seeming old time fashions and designs that seem Art Deco and Steampunkish -- even though I don't think it explicitly says it's not modern times. While Batman's costume seems meant to evoke the look he had in his very earliest published stories.

The plot revolves around Bruce Wayne's plan to tear down a train station first erected by his father. It's regarded as a city landmark, but due to poor workmanship it is crumbling, and he intends to replace it with a brand new construction. But someone seems to be sabotaging the new design, while Bruce (and Batman) must contend with various players: a beautiful society gal spearheading an effort to save the original building; the son of the architect who designed the original building (and who suffered disgrace when it started to fall apart); a reporter covering the saga; a corrupt union boss; and a mysterious vigilante called Exacto (looking very Rocketeer-style retro with goggles and such) who may be a hero or a villain. Oh -- and The Joker crops up, too.

Part of the appeal of Death by Design is it feels like an actual story -- rather than just an excuse for a lot of fight scenes and splash pages. Batman shares page time with Bruce Wayne, allowing the story to feel a bit like a detective/mystery tale as much as a super hero adventure. Although there's death and threat of death, it feels nicely genteel, rather than just being about grotesque serial killers or gritty mob wars as so many Batman stories are. Bruce/Batman is a likeable enough hero, and there's some nuanced scenes and clever, sometimes amusing dialogue (Batman, after inadvertently startling someone he meant to rescue, drily muses he might need to re-think his spooky approach). The backdrop of municipal planning and architecture isn't just window dressing for the fights, but really is integral to the plot (just as plenty of detective series will deliberately root each mystery in a new milieu for the hero to explore) -- yup, a Batman comic where characters actually have conversations about architecture! It lends it a nice sense of sophistication -- without sliding into just being turgid or self-indulgent.

Unfortunately it still fails to entirely fulfil expectations established by the early pages. After a while you realize that even though we've been introduced to a cast of new characters -- there still aren't that many of them, so that they begin to fall neatly into their plot slots (it's no big stretch to guess who Exacto is). It can almost feel a bit as though Kidd was writing as he went, hoping it would all gel into something by the end -- and then it didn't entirely. The reporter turns out not to really have much relevance to anything. A sub-plot about the architect of the original building having gone missing gets revolved in a way that almost feels as though Kidd had forgotten about him and then hastily tried to tie that thread up. As mentioned, The Joker crops up. And though that might be seen as just a marketing conceit, it does add an odd freshness (even though the Joker can be a tiresome cliche, here he provides an unexpected element) adding a wild card to the story since he doesn't seem connected to the existing mystery. But equally, it can feel like he's just there because it's to be expected (including a climax where Batman confronts him in a crumbling building after he kidnapped the woman -- in echoes of the 1989 Batman movie).

Perhaps the biggest demonstration of what I mean about the problem with the plotting is that I hadn't even realized the climax was the climax as I read it. I assumed there was still more to come in the story!

As mentioned there's a deliberate period vibe to the story, from the wardrobes to the technology to the fact that it is presented mostly in black and white (or grey, rather) giving it the look and feel of an old Hollywood movie -- almost as if we are imagining "what if" there had been a big budget, A-list Batman movie at the time (instead of cheap movie serials). One can't decide, though, whether that dictates part of the story. A villainous figure in the story is a corrupt union boss which can seem like a cliche of period noir thrillers -- or can seem like a bit of a reactionary knock against organized labour (after all, free enterprise -- as represented by Bruce Wayne -- is unarguably the good guy).

The art for the book is by Dave Taylor who has a realist yet slightly sketchy style (he boasts that he doesn't actually erase lines, just works over them). His style is more realistic than one sometimes associate with the Gothic flavoured Batman (his Batman looks like a man in a costume) but he nicely captures both the big screen extravagance of the splash pages and the quiet, talking head scenes of the character/detective stuff, all reproduced from his pencils (rather than inked) allowing for shading and texture. And, as mentioned, presented in an atmospheric grey wash as opposed to obvious colours. The first time I recall seeing Taylor's work was on Batman: Legends of the Dark Knight #100 -- also reproduced from his pencils -- and his style remains the same but, arguably, even better.

The result is certainly a likeable, engaging Batman adventure, nicely readable for itself and itself alone. With enough snazzy action scenes to be exciting, but nonetheless with more care paid to characters and the story unfolding than a lot of Batman comics. And eschewing the overt violence and nastiness of so many comics. But, with that said, it does feel as though it doesn't fully live up to the expectations it engenders in the reader, making for a good read -- but not quite the great one it promised to be.

Cover price: __USA


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