The Masked Bookwyrm's

Batman Elseworlds Graphic Novels Reviews - PAGE 1

DC Comics "Elseworlds" stories are graphic novel and mini-series taking their regular characters, but placed in out of continuity stories. Sometimes they imagine a possible future for the characters (such as Kingdom Come) or literally reimagine the whole concept in another time and place -- the distant past, or alternate realities. Batman has been featured in more such "re-imagining" than any other are reviews of a few. Other Batman comics that might be considered "Elseworld" but which are reviewed elsewhere on this site include Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, Batman: Black and White, Batman: The Last Angel, and Just Imagine Stan Lee's Batman. As well, Batman has appeared in Kingdom Come and JLA: The Nail. I've included the Batman movie adaptation here, even though it's not technically an "Elseworld" story, but it suits the criteria.

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Batman - cover by Jerry OrdwayBatman 1989 (SC GN) 64 pgs.
a.k.a. Batman: The Official Comic Adaptation of the Warner Bros. Motion Picture

Written by Dennis O'Neil. Illustrated by Jerry Ordway.
Colours: Steve Oliff. Letters: John Constanza. Editor: Jonathan Peterson.

Based on the movie written by Sam Hamm and Warren Skaaren and directed by Tim Burton.

Rating: *+ (out of 5)

Number of readings: 1

Batman battles the Joker in this adaptation of the 1989 blockbuster.

The thing is, I didn't like the Batman movie, or its sequels. For all the claims to the contrary, they were just big, underlit, violent versions, not of the comics, but of the silly 1960s series, with over-the-top performances and campy one-liners. Except the movies made less sense. And, in the case of the first two films, it was clear the filmmakers considered Batman a second fiddle next to the villains.

I picked up this adaptation to see what real comicbook people would do with the material, whether they might shape it into something a little less insulting to the intelligence, and the genre.

Ordway's art is quite good, suiting the material more than I expected from a guy I associate with much brighter works. It's dark and brooding, and easily evokes the actors who played the parts. And he is nicely aided by Steve Oliff's colours.

Unfortunately, neither O'Neil nor Ordway have done an adaptation, let alone an interpretation, of the material. Instead they present a replication truncated into 64 pages. There are a couple of spots where O'Neil's tweaked the dialogue, or clarified a scene that was confusing in the film, and a few scenes where there were extra bits I didn't recall from the movie (though I may've just forgotten). But in most places, the scenes are just carbon copies of the film (without any added thought balloons or text captions)...but with stuff missing to cram them into the fewer pages. The end result is that, at times, the comic makes even less sense than the movie.

As beautiful as Ordway's art is, it too literally imitates the source. Facial expressions are often too much what they presumably were -- drawings taken from still shots of the actors, failing to convey the emotional needs of a particular moment. Other pictures fail to highlight the important gist of a scene. There are scenes I'm not sure will be comprehensible if you haven't already seen the film.

There's more to doing an adaptation than just cut and pasting snippets of dialogue from a movie. O'Neil (and Ordway) might have been better off reading older comic adaptations of movies penned by the likes of Archie Goodwin (check out his Close Encounters of the Third Kind adaptation) and Roy Thomas for Marvel to get a sense of how you can remain faithful to the source material while making for a satisfying, stand alone read. But maybe those guys were just working with stronger material.

Still, the art is nice looking and, since I didn't much care for the Batman movie, my judgement may be unduly harsh when considered by someone who did. Though published in this prestige, "graphic novel" format, it was simultaneously published in cheaper, comic book form, and was later collected (along with the adaptations of the subsequent movies) in a TPB called, I believe, Batman: The Movie Adaptations.

Cover price: $6.95 CDN./$4.95 USA.

Dark Allegiances - cover by ChaykinBatman: Dark Allegiances1996 (SC GN) 64 pgs.

Written and illustrated by Howard Chaykin.
Colours: Jamison. Letters: Ken Bruzenak.

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

Number of readings: 2

Mildly suggested for mature readers

Set in the mid-1930s, this Elesworlds story imagines Bruce Wayne as an industrial designer and a bit of a rougish swashbuckler (you know, the kind of character Howard Chaykin likes to do best) who dons the Bat costume as much to tackle racist secret society's like The White Legion, or to defend union workers from overzealous police, as much as he does to fight street crime. As Batman cheekily thinks at one point: "My hobby is dressing up like a masked maniac and beating the living daylights out of people I don't like."

As a writer, Chaykin is perhaps one of the more distinctive auteurs in comics, tending to bring recurring themes and sensibilities to his stories, even when working on established properties. Yet he can run hot and cold. Some of his best stuff can find its way on many-a reviewer's "best of" list -- while when he's off, he can be terrible, self-indulgent and inane.

The story here is pure mid-20th Century film noire, though with a decided wink and twinkle in the eye. Indeed, despite some serious and dark themes (and a title that uses the word "Dark") the actual tone is much lighter, like a humourous Howard Hawk take on Batman. The dialogue's snappy and witty as Batman uncovers a plot masterminded by a right wing senator and an entrepeneur who is Bruce Wayne's associate. There's a beautiful dame who's being blackmailed, an old fashioned Batman scene at a theme park made up of giant props, and a nice sense of period throughout, in both the story and the look, from the opening newsreel sequence on.

The period's not always as well served by the dialogue, though. Would they have really used colloquialisms such as "Kick his ass" back then?

Dark Allegiances is a great read for many reasons.

There's the brisk tempo and scene layered on scene to form a real story, not just a couple of extended action scenes loosely strung together. If you boil it down to the essence of the villains' scheme, it's pretty simple and cliched. But it's in the telling that Chaykin justifies the page count, the attention to character, to quirky scenes and interplay. Not too mention a heavy focus on the romantic entanglement. One of my main recurring complaints about so many super hero "graphic novels" (Elseworlds or otherwise) is thin stories that don't warrant the extra page length. Not so here.

Then there's Chaykin's crackling dialogue, sometimes thoughtful, sometimes amusing, frequently naughty, almost always on target. There's Chaykin's great, semi-realist art (though he rushes the hands at times). There's the clever lettering quirks of Ken Bruzenak and the evocative colouring. There's the evocative period ambience mixing nightclubs, political movements, and more. There's the fun way of "Elseworld" stories where familiar faces are worked in. Though here Chaykin takes a kind of odd track. Instead of inserting familiar Batman characters, he throws in characters who evoke them, but aren't quite them in look or name. The Penguin, Two-Face, the Joker, and the Catwoman are all represented, but Two-Face, for instance, isn't called Harvey Dent, he's a senator named Caldecott Pewtie.

Above all, what's bracing about Dark Allegiances is the in-your-face politics -- yes, politics in a super hero comicbook! And with a decidedly -- if nominally -- left-wing bias. Chaykin's having too much fun to let the thing become solemn or ponderous, but there's enough talk of real issues to make the thing a provocative, grown up read. And maybe even an impromptu history lesson. Chaykin conjures up a lot of real world elements that modern readers might not be so aware of, like a fascist movement in the United States, or the violent way the police would crack down on strikers, or alluding to the fact that, at the time, the public wasn't aware President Roosevelt was in a wheelchair by cleverly having Pewtie's disfigurement likewise kept secret from the general public.

The story builds to a climax that could have widespread ramifications, but if there's a flaw with the story, it's that it doesn't entirely seem like that for the most part. It's brisk, it's sassy, with an opening scene of Batman breaking up a rally of the Ku Klux Klan-like White Legion (a name used for a secret organization in an episode of the old Shadow radio series). Then the plot gets more low-key, focusing on Bruce's relationship with Kitty Grimalkin, a starlet being blackmailed, before veering back into the BIG plan of the bad guys.

Part of the appeal here is the decidedly and refreshingly adult approach to things, from the frank politics, to the frankly sexual innuendo. Which means that, though kids might benefit most of all from the former, and the period details, I wouldn't want to be the parent explaining some of the latter dialogue to little junior. Granted, there's nothing here that couldn't be portrayed in American primetime television, so maybe most people won't consider there much to be concerned about. But in the comicbook world, primetime TV standards probably warrant a nominal "mature readers" caution.

Ultimately, this is the best of the Batman Elseworld stories I've read (and maybe one of Chaykin's best efforts working with an established property -- other Batman comics I've read by him have been more middling). It's top of the heap both for, as mentioned, the fact that it feels like a story, with twists and turns and attention paid to characters and relationships. And for its willingness to root the story in a semi-real world of real political discussions. But also it satisfies as an "Elseworlds" story, by staying true enough to the Batman mythos to remain true to the character (albeit harkening to an earlier, less grim and broody Batman) yet being different enough, and rooting the story in its era, to justify being an "Elseworlds" story.

Cover price: $8.50 CDN./$5.95 US.

cover by Mike MignolaGotham by Gaslight 1989 (SC GN) 48 pgs.

Written by Brian Augustyn. Pencils by Michael Mignola. Inks by P. Craig Russell.
Colours: David Hornung. Letters: John Workman. Editor: Mark Waid. Introduction by Robert Bloch.

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

Number of readings: 3

In 2004 (or thereabouts) DC re-released this collected in a single TPB with its sequel Master of the Future.

The Batman concept is relocated to 1880s Gotham city. Just as Bruce Wayne begins his nocturnal crusade as the Bat-Man, Gotham is faced with a terrifying new killer...Jack the Ripper!

The precursor for DC's whole "Elseworlds" line of alternate reality stories, Gotham by Gaslight is effective in many ways. The period is evoked nicely in word phrasing and visuals, and Augustyn shows a nice ear for dialogue. Mignola, who's art up to that point had left me somewhat ambivalent on other projects, ideally creates a Victorian feel, both in what he draws, and how (Mignola obviously more suited to the gothic horror tone than he was to straight super hero adventures -- as he would prove a few years later when he launched Hellboy). David Hornung's colours add immeasurably -- though "colour" might be an overstatement. He shades the thing in browns and beiges, like an old photograph. Sometimes he's a bit heavy on the darker colours, though, obscuring some of the action. The story is well-paced, even though it's hardly action-packed, and the scenes develop it well, even throwing in a turn or two to the plot.

The problem arises because it's supposed to be a mystery. For some reason mysteries are a genre comic book writers seem incapable of getting right, this despite Batman being billed as a "detective". The story seems to be laying the groundwork for a compelling whodunnit...but you know who Jack the Ripper is going to turn out to be because there's only really one option! Augustyn seems to have graduated from the "Encyclopedia Brown" school of writing, where if there's an extraneous character or information, you know that's the key. And the "clue" that allows Batman to make the final deduction was unknown to the reader prior to its use as a solution. After that, the story just becomes a lengthy chase scene. And the revelation of the Ripper's motive fails to explain his insanity.

And there isn't a lot human drama to the proceedings, no romantic interest or anything, with Bruce/Batman remaining -- as he often is in the regular comics, too -- a fairly oblique figure.

There are also ways the story could've exploited the milieu better in regards to Batman's mythos, but doesn't. What would a Victorian batmobile look like -- a horse drawn carriage with fins, perhaps? Or how about a batcave, not with computers, but with beakers and abaci? As well, a friend suggested to me that the problem with putting Batman in a gothic Gotham is...that's largely the mood the modern Batman stories go for, anyway, so there's little contrast with the regular continuity.

The story, to its credit, avoids being too gory or lurid. I'll admit to some qualms about the popularization of Jack the Ripper. Sure, I've seen movies I've enjoyed (Murder by Decree, for one, with Sherlock Holmes investigating the Ripper's crimes, featuring an impressive cast of British and Canadian actors) but I sometimes wish fiction writers who exploit the Ripper would take the time to read about his crimes, to consider their horrendousness, to realize these were real people who were his victims who suffered real pain, and maybe, just maybe, such writers would be less inclined to use the Ripper in frivolous potboilers. Other times I think the writers probably have dwelt on it, imagined it, and still get a kick out of writing it. And that scares me more. Still, as I noted, Augustyn and Mignola use admirable restraint.

Ultimately, Gotham by Gaslight is an atmospheric story that does, indeed, seem like a story, a graphic novel, in structure and pacing. But it falls a little short of being a great story, underminded by the lack of development to the mystery aspect, or the characters.

It was followed by the loose sequel, Batman: Master of the Future -- and, indeed, in a later printing, the two were published in a collected edition.

Original cover price: $4.95 CDN./$3.95 USA.

Batman: Gotham Noir 2001 (SC GN) 64 pgs.

Written by Ed Brubaker. Illustrated by Sean Phillips.
Colours: Dave Stewart. Letters: Bill Oakley.

Rating: * * * (out of 5)

Number of readings: 1

Batman: Gotham Noir is set in 1949. James Gordon is a broken down ex-cop private eye who drinks too much. A simple assignment given to him by his ex-girlfriend, nightclub owner Selina Kyle -- to escort a mysterious young woman to a soiree -- goes wrong, and suddenly Gordon is up to his neck in gangsters, crooked politicians, secrets, and is the prime suspect in a homicide. To make matters worse, a mysterious Bat-Man is rumoured to be prowling through Gotham's underworld.

As the title suggests, Gotham Noir is intended to evoke the dark seedy world of dime crime novels and film noir movies -- right down to the lurid, painted, pulp magazine-style cover. In a sense, it almost does its job too well. This is a reasonably interesting, decently paced mystery-thriller...but it's also awfully familiar terrain. Even then, the mysteries at the core of the story aren't all that curious or oblique. The woman Gordon is asked to chaperon he suspects of being an ex-hooker. When she shows up at the party, some of Gotham's elite men act nervous and Gordon wonders why -- well, du-uh. The case doesn't veer off into any particularly unexpected quarters. Writer Ed Brubaker almost seems to realize this, because by the climax, a secondary plot involving the Joker seems to have taken precedence over the murder mystery that the story was ostensibly about!

Part of the appeal of these kind of Elseworld stories is the way they can mix elements, taking a familiar idea or milieu, then make it fresh by throwing in a super hero (and vice versa). In the case of Gotham Noir, however, we have a familiar private eye story about...well, a private eye. By having Gordon be the main character as opposed to Batman, the story really doesn't have a chance to break away from any preordained patterns. Batman does show up -- a mysterious, shadowy figure, drawn effectively as blacky swathes -- but not too often or to much effect.

A comic doesn't have to be about a super hero to be interesting, but Gordon never really grows comfortably into the part of lead. Surly and self-pitying, he's not really an interesting or riveting figure. It's not that he's a bad character, he's just pretty workman like.

The art by Sean Phillips is moody and effective for the most part, evoking David Mazzuccelli's work from the classic, Batman: Year One, without being quite as disciplined. He leans heavily on black inking to drench the thing in brooding darkness, aided by Dave Stewart's sombre colors, though maybe to too great effect. There's a certain monotony to the art at times. Still, the art works more than it doesn't.

There are a couple of revelations toward the end. One involves the Batman himself which causes you to flip back through the book, seeing if it makes sense. But there's just enough ambiguity that, I'll admit, I can't say for sure what Brubaker's point is (I'm pretty sure, just not sure sure). The other relates to Gordon's war time experiences. But though we'd been treated to the occasional flashback previously, there wasn't enough sense that there were any questions concerning his war experiences to make a revelation seem like a natural culmination.

I've harped perhaps unduly on the negative, because Batman: Gotham Noir certainly isn't a bad read. It's just not a particularly great, or original, read, either. For a better marriage of super hero with film noir ambience, another Batman Elseworlds graphic novel, Batman: Dark Allegiances, managed to be more individualistic.

Cover price: $11.50 CDN./ $6.95 USA.

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