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GRAPHIC NOVEL and TRADE PAPERBACK (TPB) REVIEWS

by The Masked Bookwyrm


Batman - D - E
 
 

Batman: A Death in the Family  1988 (SC TPB) 144 pages

cover by AparoWritten by Jim Starlin. Pencils by Jim Aparo. Inks by Mike DeCarlo.
Colours: Adrienne Roy. Letters: John Costanza. Editor: Dennis O'Neil.

Reprinting: Batman #426-429 (covers reprinted on back cover)

Additional notes: mock intro by a future historian, analyzing Batman and Robin; afterword by Dennis O'Neil.

Rating: * * * * (out of 5)

Number of readings: 2

This was the controversial storyline in which Jason Todd -- the second Robin -- was murdered by thhe Joker.

There's a lot of baggage that comes with this story (which I hadn't read when it was originally published over a decade ago). It raised a lot of eyebrows among the general public as to just what sort of people were writing comics these days. This was not simply because those writers killed off a well known supporting character (although the original -- better known -- Robin, Dick Grayson, remained unscathed) , or the fact that the character in question was a kid (entertainment in the murder of a minor?), or even the brutal manner in which he was killed. The controversy stemmed from the fact that DC left the decision as to whether Jason lived or died up to the fans who could phone in their votes. In other words, the Batman readership -- many, one assumes, kids -- were encouraged to decide whether a character lived or died. Not since the days of the Roman Colliseum had the world experienced such a questionable spectacle. And the fact that the person in question was a fictional character didn't tend to mute the disgust many felt toward DC Comics. Adding to the situation was the fact that the vote to kill Robin didn't pass by a huge margin -- a lot of fans actually voted to keep him alive.

As I said, there's a lot of ethical baggage that comes with this, but I'll put it aside (for the moment) and concentrate on the story as just that -- a story.

Surprisingly, this turns out to be a pretty decent read.

The first two issues of this four issue story were double-sized, meaning it's actually a solid, six issue epic. Literally. Those double-sized issues are broken evenly into 22 page chapters and one can't help infering that DC had originally planned it as six regular issues but, maybe feeling they couldn't sustain the publicity machine over six months (after all, the story was a publicity stunt) decided to make it four months.

The story has Jason Todd discovering that his birth mother is still alive and might be one of three women, all of who are currently living in various parts of the middle east and North Africa (absurd coincidences play a big part in the ensuing activities -- you either swallow them, or you might as well not read the book). Meanwhile, Batman is hot on the trail of the Joker who is also winging his way to the middle east (I warned you about coincidences). The story is, therefore, comprised of a few smaller stories -- their quests for the first two women lead Batman and Robin into adventure and intrigue involving terrorists, but also turn out to be wild goose chases. Ultimately, you know the third time will turn out to be the charm. But because all stories take place in, roughly, the same geographical area, and the Joker weaves in and out, the result is a story that has the feel of a single epic, while being comprised of three or four smaller stories. Along the way, Superman even crops up in a supporting part for an issue or two.

Part of the saga's strength is the removal from Batman's usual Gotham City stomping grounds. The middle eastern setting adds a fresh ambience to the saga, and there's a clear attempt to imbue the series with a grittier, real-world edge, as the Joker eschews his usual comic book activities of jewel heists and the like in favour of branching into the world of terrorism, or hijacking famine relief supplies he figures he can sell on the black market. As the saga moves into its climax, global politics become central to the story, leading to a showdown at the U.N. Though I wasn't as comfortable with the idea of Batman breaking up a kiddie porn ring at the beginning (nothing graphic, of course).

Writer Jim Starlin tells the story well, with a good blend of mood, introspection, and action. The only other Bat-tale I'd read by him from that period -- The Cult -- had left me disappointed, but this is decently written, with good characterization and dialogue. Jim Aparo, a guy who will no doubt go down in comicbook history as one of the definitive Bat-artists, aquits himself quite nicely. Aparo is right at home, and his style is dynamic and comprehensible -- there's nary a picture or scene anywhere that you need to read twice to figure out what's going on. His teaming with inker Mike DeCarlo works very well. I had previously had my reservations about Aparo's looser style from the period, and felt DeCarlo's rigid, geometric inks weren't the most appropriate for him. I don't know if I've mellowed, or whether this is just better work, but the art is particularly strong -- curiously, DeCarlo's inks don't even look like DeCarlo's usual style. There's also a touch of the influence of comic strip legend, Milton Caniff, that I'd never recognized in Aparo's art before (though I realize it was there all along).

Of course, just because this is trying for an edgy realism doesn't mean it altogether succeeds. There's some simplistic plot progression and lapses in credibility -- even silliness (I mean, just what did the Iranians intend in the climax?). And one gets the feeling Starlin probably didn't do a whole lot of research on the region, or his topics. There's an intriguing plot twist late in the saga, involving Diplomatic Immunity, but it pushes credibility. But then, comics have also (I believe) misunderstood the legal definition of Insanity for many, many years, so legal technicalities are not something you should learn from a Batman comic. There I go, referring to "comics" again, as if it's the only medium with such problems, when in fact all of my above criticisms could be applied to many a respected movie or novel, as well.

Set in the Arab world, peopled by terrorists, it could slide into offensive cliches, but (maybe because of innocent Arab taxi drivers and hotel clerks) you don't really come away feeling Starlin is trying to paint all Arabs as bad guys...anymore than the Joker and his goons represent all Americans. At the same time, the portrayal of Iranians later in the story as just cardboard, illogical villains certainly seams xenophobic (whatever one may think about the Iranian government, then or now). And when Batman at one point refers to an Iranian generically as an Arab, Starlin seems to be blurring the distinction between a government...and a race. Which is troubling.

Another qualm is that once Jason learns he has a "real" (read biological) mother, the way he just seems to forget about his dead mother -- the woman who raised him -- seems cold and insensitive.

Emotionally, the story doesn't really succeed as well as it should. Granted, I wasn't that familiar with Jason Todd, so his death didn't strike a personal chord with me. But although Jason's death, part way through, sends a vengeful Batman after the Joker, comic writers like Starlin seem more comfortable with emotions like anger or revenge, rather than the more powerful, and heart-wrenching emotion of...grief (O.K., now I do mean to single out comics writers). Neither Batman, nor Alfred, really act like they've lost a member of their family. Though, ironically, given that Jason was killed precisely because a lot of fans didn't like him, I didn't find him an unsympathetic character here.

But, despite its short comings, despite my moral qualms and my cynicism, A Death on the Family turns out to be a highly readable saga -- one that boasts some atypical, even complex plotting and plot turns. Compared to some other "stunt" stories (The Death of Superman, for one), this holds up as a story, regardless of its mythos shaking significance. I even thoroughly enjoyed the old fashioned, pre-computer, single tone colouring. I like modern comics with their rich, shaded palates, but sometimes they can be a bit cluttered and overwhelming.

That's the story considered apart from the ethical questions. Considered with the ethical question, it remains a highly questionable excercise, as does the excessively brutal manner in which Robin was killed -- comics, too often, have become a mediuum of excess. And it's made all the more distasteful by the way DC Comics (here represented by a closing editorial by Bat-editor Denny O'Neil) constantly refuses to acknowledge the legitimacy of their detractors' views, and refuse to accept responsibility ("it wasn't our fault, blame the fans"). Ugh. Though one can sympathize with O'Neil, who acted as front man on the whole enterprise, but has repeatedly claimed he voted to keep Robin alive! Adding insult to injury is a quote on the back from O'Neil saying it would be "sleazy" to bring back the character. Though Jason remains deceased, DC and O'Neil conjured up yet another Robin (Tim Drake) just a few issues later. Yup. Sleazy's the word.

Originally published as one of those economical TPBs DC used to put out on conventional newsprint paper for a fantastically modest price, it has since been re-issued as a more conventional TPB...with an appropriately inflated price tag.

Original cover price: $4.95 CDN. / $3.95 USA
Current cover price: __ / $12.95 USA


cover by Simone Bianchi

Batman: Detective 2007 (SC TPB), 144 pages.

Written by Paul Dini, with Royal McGraw. Illustrated by Don Kramer, and J.H. Williams III, Joe Benitez, Marcos Marz. Inked by Wayne Faucher, Victor Llamas, Luciana Del Negro.
Colours: John Kalisz. Letters: Jared K. Fletcher, with John J. Hill. Editor: Peter Tomasi.

Reprinting: Detective Comics #821-826 (2006-2007), with covers

Rating: * * * (out of 5)

Number of readings: 1

Batman has gone through a bit of a creative tug-of-war over the last few decades. Often portrayed as a single-minded, one note vigilante (sometimes dismissed as "A$$h__e Batman" by some web reviewers), and his adventures often caught up in multi-title Batman Family crossovers (War Games, Contagion, Bruce Wayne Murderer, etc.). There's a school of thought that says Batman has kind of gone off the creative rails. So every now and then, DC responds to such criticisms, and the recent run on Detective Comics by Paul Dini offers a slightly more sympathetic Batman and, in a bit of Old School conceit, presents a lot of one-off, stand alone adventures.

Oh, yeah, and he also plays up Batman as a detective, not just a knuckle-duster.

Batman: Detective collects the first six issues of this "new era", and sure enough we have six largely stand alone tales -- oh, not isolated from continuity, as familiar foes crop up, and Dini introduces a minor recurring thread in that the Riddler, who not so long ago had been re-invented as a homicidal madman privvy to Batman's secret identity, has since developed amnesia and gone straight...turning his criminal mind for puzzles into the analytical mind of a private detective (resulting in some amusing clashes with Batman over shared investigations).

And the overall result is...okay. Unfortunately, I can't really be more enthused than that after reading this collection (and, indeed, a couple of subsequent Dini scribed issues), even though I'm all for what is the point of the tales -- stand alone stories with beginning, middles and ends; a greater emphasis on mystery and detection; and maybe a slightly kinder gentler tone.

Essentially, this collection can be broken into two types of tales -- 3 detective/mystery tales, and 3 traditional arch foes/super hero tales.

I've said before that detective/mystery stories seem to be something comic book writers do really, really, badly -- whether the mystery is crammed into an 8 page short, or stretched over a 12 part maxi-series. They just seem to have trouble getting the basics.

In this case, Dini offers mysteries where the emphasis is on talk more than action, with the fighting minimal as Batman investigates. But Dini tends to cheat, as killers are often revealed to be people we'd barely met, based on clues that we were never fairly given, and deductions that are more leaps of logic than analytical inferences. I'm in the middle of reading Showcase presents The Elongated Man...and thoroughly enjoying it. In it, the mysteries tend to be a bit haphazard...but it can be forgiven because the stories are short, and the set ups are usually intriguing (even if the denouements are weaker). But stretched out to 22 pages, you kind of need better plotted mysteries. Particularly because that's all there is: Dini offers no on-going sub-plots, no blossoming romance betweern Batman and a love interst, or anything, so he can't fall back on the "the plot-of-the-month is just a fun filler tale" excuse. And the action scenes, themselves, are largely bland and non-descript.

Nor is there a great deal of human emotion: his Batman may not be a one-note fascist...but he's not really anything else, either. He basically just saunters through the tales (and narrates) with a kind of unflappable stoicism.

In one of the superhero/action stories, Batman must protect villainess Poison Ivy from a killer monster plant, before discovering Ivy's own ugly secret. To which Ivy remarks: "You're acting as if I betrayed you. Did you truly believe your efforts...would change me?" But Dini never really gave us any hint of Batman becoming emotionally invested in the case. (And that's ignoring the fact that Ivy seems to ping pong back and forth, depending on the writer, as to whether she's a tragic antagonist...or black hearted villainess)

Other "superhero" focused stories are one where Dr. Phosphorous returns (scripted by pinch hitter McGraw)...and it's an entirely generic example of the "villain-seeks-revenge-by-killing-off-his-enemies-one-by-one" tales. And, I'll admit, I have no idea how this fits into DC's morass of retconned continuity (since Dr. Phosphorous was first introduced into pre-Crisis continuity). The final story has Robin tied up in a car with the Joker while the Joker goes on a vehicular homicide killing spree. It's a story that can leave you mixed. On one hand, it's an off beat concept (basically one scene)...and on the other hand, it is just an excuse for a lot of Joker mayhem, and it too lacks too much in the way of any kind of emotional sub-text (not to mention that Robin has his own comic, so why is this tale being told here?)

As I say, ostensibly, these are largely stand alone tales, but there remains that whole problem in modern comics as to whether they're writing for a committed fan base...or hoping to woo new readers. In one story Batman makes a quick call to Zatanna the Magician for advice...but it's not really explained who she is for the uninitiated (she even refers to herself in the third person, so a casual reader might not realize it's her name). Comics are having enough trouble holding an audience...they really need to be written more reader friendly (as others have said, every comic is potentially some reader's first comic...and could be their last if they find it too confusing in its cryptic references).

Paul Dini came to comics from TV, where he wowed comic fans with his work on Batman: The Animated Series -- the cartoon that was seen as an adult-friendly, and arguably the most true to the spirit of the comic of any filmed version of Batman (from West to Burton). But I'm reminded of a comment I recently read made by Christopher Priest, a comics scribe who, though hit and miss, it's safe to say is one of the more critically acclaimed writers in recent comics, and how he seemed to indicate he was kind of leaving the biz, in part because the new editorial trend seemed to be to embrace the recent influx of "slumming" TV writers (like Dini, Joss Whedon, J. Michael Straczynski, etc.) at the expense of comics writers who made the art form their first and last love. The point is, Dini is not a bad writer compared to comics veterans...but I've yet to read anything by him that made me stand up and shout, either.

The art is strong throughout, reflecting some intriguing stylistic variances, from JH William III almost photorealism to Joe Benitez's Jim Lee-esque stylings on the Poison Ivy tale (with its slightly more cheesecake approach) to Marcos Marz's work on the Dr. Phosphorous tale which looks both vaguely painted...and as if reproduced from the pencils, yet it was neither. But Don Kramer is the principal artist and has a solid, realist style. I'll admit, though I can't really find fault with too much of the art...none of it necessarily excited me either, or made me say: "Man...I have just got to see more by these guys!"

As I said, this is maybe supposed to be a kinder gentler Bat-era...but those terms are defined by Batman's already dark and twisted world. There's still muder and mayhem and grisly atrocities -- more than is perhaps really needed, or warranted given that, in other ways, Dini and company seem to want to go for a (slightly) lighter touch with quips and humour. And scenes of Batman visiting a kinky sex club like something out of CSI seem a tad questionable.

And there's still the eternal problems of super heroes and they're love of brutality. In one story, Batman tracks down a suspect in a homicide -- not even a suspect, more a "person of interest". And we cut to Batman dangling the man from a building, with blood on the man's face. Sure, we don't know what preceded it -- maybe Batman acted in self-defense. But what we see is Batman beating and, essentially, torturing a guy to get information...a guy he has no reason to really view as a serious suspect yet. And Dini and company clearly think this is okay...better yet, is kind of cool ("You show 'im Batman...and remember, it ain't torture -- according to the Bush adminstration -- as long as you stop before organ failure!")

Ahem...still, aside from that momentary political digression on my part, over all, I moderately enjoyed these issues -- I really did -- but, as I say, moderate is the most I can muster. There are some cute bits, some amusing exchanges (particularly when Batman clashes with the reformed Riddler). I was perfectly content breezing through the stories...even as, when I finished them, most left me with a vague sense of dissatisfaction.

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


cover by Dave JohnsonBatman: Evolution  2001 (SC TPB) 224 pages

Written by Greg Rucka. Pencils by Shawn Martinbrough, John Watkiss, William Rosada, Phil Hester. Inks by Steve Mitchell.
Colours: WildStorm FX. Letters: Todd Klein, Bill Oakley. Editor: Dennis O'Neil.

Reprinting: Detective Comics #743-750 (2002) - with covers

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

Number of readings: 2

Evolution collects a run of stories which has Batman battling minions of his nemesis, Ra's Al Ghul, with a couple of other, unrelated tales sandwiched in-between.

The four part "Evolution" story line has agents of Ra's stirring up a gang war between various Gotham crime factions, while making alliances with mobsters who can help them make and distribute a new, designer drug...a drug with a bizarre side effect. Complicating things, Ra's agents, a woman named Whisper A'daire, and her henchman, Mr. Abbott, are were-creatures, able to mutate into half-beast forms.

At the time this came out I'd been hearing a lot about novelist Greg Rucka's foray into the comicbook medium, with the buzz pegging him as the hot new talent. Unfortunately, there's nothing here to indicate what the fuss is about. It isn't that the stories are bad...they're just somewhat bland and familiar. In fact, this collection is the reverse of how something can be greater than the sum of its parts. Here, nothing is particularly bad -- either in Rucka's writing, or the various art chores -- but nothing's particularly good either, and the combination results in a whole that's less than inspiring.

The whole "Evolution" story seems like Rucka started writing it, hoping inspiration would come to him...but it didn't. What does occur is not especially unique as plots go -- despite Batman acting as if it's a puzzler. But, honestly, gang-war stories are a dime a dozen in comics. Other -- potentially more intriguing -- plot threads, such as Whisper ingratiating herself with various influential people, never turn into anything.

Even the scene-by-scene stuff lacks inspiration. One issue ends, cliff hanger style, with Batman caught in an explosion...then the next chapter begins with Batman striding out of the explosion, with no explanation for how he survived. Later he goes head to head with Mr. Abbott in the latter's lupine form -- oooh, a big bad fight, we figure, as Batman must use all his skill and wiles to...or not as Batman easily trounces him. Sure, we know Batman will survive explosions, and win fights, but the writer's job is to make us think that he might not, to suggest, at the very least, that it's an effort. There's a kind of laissez faire attitude throughout, such as a later sequence where Batman lets a villain go...only to have her betray his kindness. Except, it was implausible that Batman would let her go in the first place, given all the murder and carnage she had perpetrated! And you realize Rucka only had Batman let her go so he could "surprise" us with her betrayal. Is that what passes for plotting these days? To be fair, I think Rucka also saw it as relating to a theme of addiction, but it's not very covincing.

Then there's a one-issue story following Det. Montoya, with Batman in a minor supporting role. A low key drama piece, it kind of reminded me of the old "Tales of Gotham City" human interest stories that used to run in Detective Comics in the late 1970s/early 1980s...except those were only seven pages or so, not stretched out to feature length. And this hinges on the reader having some past knowledge of Montoya, and her relationship with a certain villain, to get anything from it. I didn't have that knowledge, Rucka doesn't explain it, and the whole story ends up meaningless to me.

This is followed by arguably the collection's best story, an old fashioned detective/mystery piece as Batman investigates some bombings that maybe aren't what they appear. It's still not exactly a classic -- the villain is obvious, and it doesn't really warrant two issues -- but it's O.K. as a detective story for, after all, the Dark Knight Detective.

Then we come back to Ra's for the final showdown. The first time I read this it seemed kind of confusing, with Batman all hot and bothered to find Ra's when he hadn't so much as alluded to him for the past few issues. But then I realized it makes a little more sense if you see it as following directly on the heels of the Evolution arc. The stories inbetween (the Montoya piece, and the bombing story) are drawn by "guest artists" and so might have been intended as deadline fillers (though still written by Rucka) -- or maybe Rucka just wanted to hold back the double-sized Ra's confrontation for #750. Either way, maybe the reprint editor should've stuck it in immediately after the #743-746 arc, and presented #747-749 at the end of the book. Though even then, there are cryptic references to other adventures and Ra's organization being in disarray (apparently Ra's had fought the JLA) that are a bit confusing. And once again, the story isn't terrible -- but just seems like a rehash of a dozen other Ra's showdowns: Batman skips from country to country seeking him out, tracks him to the dessert, Talia betrays Ra's for love of Batman, etc.

What Rucka does bring to Batman is a slightly kinder, gentler, more relaxed Bats -- oh, sure, he still beats up and intimidates people (for a guy who's supposed to be a detective, he does most of his deducting with his fists!). But he's not quite the one-note avenger that has been passed off as a deep character by some recent writers. This is a Bats who seems to enjoy play-acting the board playboy, and whose occasional conversations with confidants seem a little more human. But, unfortunately, they are just occasional. Batman/Bruce has few people to play off of: Robin's nowhere in sight, while Alfred only has one scene. Lucius Fox crops up but for little effect.

Batman comics have become so top heavy with cop characters one wonders if modern Bat-writers would rather be writing "NYPD Blue" than a man-in-tights story. In the Montoya-focused issue, Bats barely appears, and even in the bombing story, it's as much about the police investigation as it is Batman's. But for all these cops running around, hogging scenes, they aren't especially well defined as people -- I couldn't always tell one from another (presumably a reader better familiar with this era would have less trouble). Thankfully, Rucka doesn't bury us with 10 page mindless action scenes, yet neither are the main plots anything special, nor are there intriguing sub-plots or soap opera-y character arcs. And, as noted, even the character/human drama stuff is thin. Commissioner Gordon's wife had, apparently, been killed in a previous story. So Batman asks him how he's holding up. Then he asks him again, an issue or two later. End of character/human drama.

Despite a number of artists, the style remains consistent, and it's a craggy, slightly cartoony look -- but not too much so. It's a style that would be O.K. supporting a great script, but doesn't do much on its own. And it suffers under the bizarre colouring decision. Instead of a rich, multi-hue palette, the decision was to go for an almost-black & white & grey look...except instead of grey, different hues are used -- red for the "Evolution" story; purple and yellow for the Det. Montoya one-shot, etc. It can be applauded as an experiment (or maybe even a variation on what Frank Miller was doing with his Sin City stories) but it doesn't work. If the intention was to create a brooding, film noire ambience, or to set the mood with the various primary tones...it doesn't. And when laid over art that is only O.K. to begin with, it can't help but hurt it. Phil Hester, employing a lot of thick, moody shadows, probably takes to the limited colour the best. Ironically, my least favourite artist here is the main, regular artist -- Shawn Martinbrough (sometimes working with John Watkiss). Particularly in the climactic #750 the art is sufficiently cartoony it seems a bit incongruous for a "serious" adventure story.

These issue follows on the heels of an epic story line where Gotham City was devastated by an earthquake -- hence why this collection is sub-titled "New Gotham #1" (implying it is the first of, one assumes, a series of TPBs set in this reconstructed Gotham). The earthquake story set up a social dynamic between the have nots (those who remained in Gotham and lost everything) and the haves (those who fled only to return to Gotham after everything's settled down). Presumably it's a way of dealing, metaphorically, with economic disparity and race relations. But haven't comics evolved to the point where they can deal with those things directly?

This seems like a pretty negative review, but -- honestly -- I didn't hate this TPB. In fact, strangely, I regard it with a certain pleasant affection -- despite the murder and mayhem, it didn't really seem gratuitously mean or gritty. But I just felt a certain ennui toward it. Rucka and his artists hit a baseline of competent mediocrity, and don't seem to feel much need to rise above it, delivering workmanlike work, nothing more. I sympathize with the difficulty of coming up with fresh, exciting stories each issue, month after month. I really do. But that's kind of the name of the game, isn't it?

Cover price: $21.95 CDN./ $12.95 USA.


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