The Masked Bookwyrm's

Batman Elseworlds Graphic Novels Reviews - PAGE 2

For reviews of regular Batman GN/TPBs, go here

For a list of reviews of other GNs/TPBs, go here

Batman published by DC Comics

Batman: Holy Terror - cover by Norm BreyfogleBatman: Holy Terror  1991 (SC GN) 48 pgs.

Written by Alan Brennert. Art by Norm Breyfogle.
Colours: Lovern Kindzierski. Letters: Bill Oakley. Editor: Denny O'Neil.

Rating: * * * (out of 5)

Number of readings: 2

DC's Elseworld line -- one-shots and mini-series featuring familiar DC characters in alternate reality settings -- was inspired by Batman: The Dark Knight Returns and Gotham by Gaslight. But the "official" beginning of the line -- and the first use of the "Elseworlds" logo -- was this 1991 story.

Holy Terror is set in a United States that is a religious police state. As he is about to enter the clergy, Bruce Wayne learns that his parents' long ago deaths may not have been a random mugging as he had always believed, but a state sanctioned execution. He dons a bat-costume to investigate, which takes him into the heart of the seat of government...the massive building known as Cathedral.

Labelling this (in my mind) as a graphic novel, I was disappointed by an O.K. but kind of undeveloped story. However, taken as just a slightly long, off beat comic book tale, it's an entertaining enough read.

I had been looking forward to it thanks to the presence of Brennert, a writer for print and TV, as well as comics, who's written some nice stories before such as "To Kill a Legend" (Detective Comics #500) and one of my all-time favourite comic book stories, "Time, See What's Become of Me" (Brave and the Bold #181). He's also written episodes of the 1990s revival of The Outer Limits TV series but, hey, no body's perfect.

The setting is off-beat, and Brennert crafts solid, mature dialogue. The story is briskly-paced, easily sustaining interest. The opening scene, restaging the deaths of Batman's parents -- well, the minutes after the murder -- manages to inject freshness into this oft-portrayed incident. "Do you remember what he (the killer) looked like?" asks inquisitor Jim Gordon. Then, seeimg Bruce's face, remarks: "Yes, I...I suppose the real problem will be in forgetting."

I enjoyed Breyfogle's art more than I expected to based on other work I'd seen by him. It's moody and his utilizing of the religious theme in sets and costumes is striking. Conversely, there may have still been a slightly arms-length approach to his work, that didn't quite allow me to be totally drawn into this world and these characters. Also I quibble with his slightly redesigning Batman's costume since you lose some of the weirdness of seeing Batman in this unorthodox world...'cause he doesn't entirely look like Batman.

The colouring by Lovern Kindzierski is rich and atmospheric.

But Brennert hasn't really crafted a stand alone story, built up of little scenes all pushing us toward an exciting climax. You could almost see the conceit as being imagining this as an origin for an alternate line of Batman comics -- in that it can feel, by the end, more like a pilot episode than a story complete unto itself. Sure, 48 pages isn't a lot to work with, but he could've done more with them. There aren't many supporting characters, or a romantic interest, or anything. And it doesn't quite evoke its "Heart of Darkness" structure when Batman travels deeper into Cathedral and his mental journey becomes conceptualized as a physical one. Intellectually I recognize that was probably Brennert's intention, viscerally it didn't quite register.

I was disappointed by how heavily Brennert utilized the DC universe. That's part of the point of Elseworlds stories, but eventually there was a feeling that the story, and the themes, take a back seat to presenting familiar DC characters in unusual ways -- with Barry (the Flash) Allen and others in significant parts.

And not just familiar characters.

A mad scientist crops up who's Prof. Elder. Elder (unless he's been reimagined in recent years) is an obscure DC character only significant for bringing the Martian Manhunter to earth. Such name dropping can be fun, but here it's distracting (though it may be intended as a red-herring involving references to a "Green Man"). In another scene we are treated to an obligatory martyr/crucifixon symbol, but in the context of this story, it seems precious rather than profound.

As the story progresses, the whole milieu seems a little wasted. It's not clear why this has to be a religious tyranny as opposed to any other kind of oppressive regime. The whole thing is kind of soft-peddled, carefully drawing a line between God and religious fanatics. If they wanted to show the dichotomy between true religious teachings and how fanatics twist them, Brennert should've done so with examples, making the story richer, more challenging. Of course, the problem is that, for all Batman's protests, fanatics don't generally misconstrue biblical teachings, they merely adhere to them selectively.

A decent read but, to my surprise, not a great one.

Original cover price: $5.95 CDN./$4.95 USA.

cover by Mike GrellBatman: Masque 1997 (SC GN) 64 pages.

Written and Illustrated by Mike Grell.
Colours: Andre Khromov. Letters: John Costanza. Editor: Darren J. Vincenzo.

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

Number of readings: 2

Although relocated to the 19th Century, this Elseworlds tale -- that is, a story not adhering to regular Batman continuity -- isn't that far removed from familiar Batman stories. Batman is still playboy Bruce Wayne by day, summoned to trouble by the bat-signal cast by Commissioner Gordon at night. The basic story owes something -- quite a bit, in fact -- to Gaston LeRoux's The Phantom of the Opera in that it revolves around a theatre (here a ballet rather than an opera -- being a visual medium, it's easier to draw someone dancing than to depict singing in a comic). Bruce is smitten with the female lead's understudy -- Laura Avian -- but when the male lead, Harvey Dent, is disfigured in an accident, it seems to set off a chain of mysterious deaths.

I've often been critical of so-called graphic "novels" because they fall rather short of that moniker -- that is, being a "novel" in the sense of a fully bloomed plot, complete with characterization. But writer-artist Mike Grell does a decent job of, if not quite making this like a novel, at least pushing it towards being a movie. The story takes it's time going where it's going, but not in a sense that it feels like Grell is padding or wasting time. The scenes are interesting, if a little curt, and he lets the story tell itself.

The emphasis on a romantic interest is very much a benefit. It is almost de rigeur in movies to have some sort of central romantic interest -- it's a way of insuring a human dimension to a story. But comicbook superheroes either have a steady love interest, or there's no romance at all. I'm not saying one wants Batman to ape, say, James Bond, with a new lover (or three) each adventure, but threading a romance through stories can add an extra level to the adventure. Yet even Elseworlds stories -- ones that are essentially self-contained -- are often devoid of a love interest.

Grell started out an artist -- though, like many artists-turned-writers, he tends to write more than draw these days. I used to be a big fan of his work, on Superboy and the Legion of Super-Heroes and The Warlord (he even did some Batman in the 1970s), although I became aware of certain stylistic weaknesses. His art here is uneven, even rough in spots, but in general works quite nicely here. He evokes the period well in costumes and sets, while Grell's thick ink work and Andre Khromov's dark colours, combined with the archetypal story (murder at the theatre), creates a nicely traditional gothic feel. What works about the art, ironically, is that it's good...but not too good. That is, some artists can do such a wonderful, intricate job, it can actually take away from the scene, the immediacy of the moment, as you "ooh" and "ah" over the drawings. But Grell's work is good enough to tell the story, where facial expressions can convey nuance, and the images can be striking...without being so good it draws attention to itself. Though a weakness is that Grell is experimenting with panel arrangements -- sometimes treating a two page spread ass one page, or using a collage format where there are no panel breaks between images. It can make for sequences where it's hard to figure out in what order things are meant to be read.

Despite all the pluses, and the fact that while in the middle of it, Masque was looking to be a particularly strong effort, the story ultimately falters a bit. Grell doesn't really bring much new to the proceedings, with the villain turning out to be...well, pretty much who you expected him to be in a vaguely anti-climactic climax. And when the epilogue comes, it seems more to occur simply because that's how you'd expect a Batman story to end, rather than because it really seems justified by this story. Grell seems to want this to act, at least in part, as a psychological study of Batman, without really making his themes apparent. It fails to really seem as though bigger ideas are at work here.

There's also a sense that Grell wants you to suspect it's headed somewhere it isn't. Sure, that's part of story telling -- the red herring -- but it's kind of awkward here, with Grell basically trying to distract from his obvious plot by making you think it's something more off-beat (I know I'm being vague, but I don't want to give away spoilers).

The result is a good little read, evocatively illustrated, with a plot that feels like a story...but it ultimately fails to reach any true heights. And though I don't necessarily regard this as a significant flaw, there was very little here that required this to be an Elseworlds story. Although the Elseworlds banner lends a story an extra dimension of suspense because you can't be sure how it will all end.

Original cover price: $9.95 CDN./ $6.95 USA. 

cover by BarretoBatman: Master of the Future 1991 (SC GN) 64 pages.

Written by Brian Augustyn. Art by Eduardo Barreto
Colours: Steve Oliff. Letters: Willie Schubert. Editor: Denny O'Neil.

Rating: * * * (out of 5)

Number of readings: 2

In 2004 (or thereabouts) DC re-released this collected in a single TPB with Gotham by Gaslight.

During the '90s and early 2000s, one of DC's most common graphic novel/prestige format projects was its "Elseworlds" line, re-imagining its characters and mythos in out-of-continuity one-shots and mini-series. Gotham by Gaslight kicked off the whole concept (and pre-dated the Elseworlds label itself) in which Batman was relocated to Victorian Gotham, hunting Jack the Ripper. Writer Brian Augustyn revisits that version of Batman, this time paired with a different artist, Eduardo Barreto, for Master of the Future.

Not that you need have read Gotham by Gaslight -- other then a few passing references to the previous story, and sharing the same historical milieu, there's no real connection between them. Bruce Wayne has largely laid aside the mantle of the Bat-Man, content with his life as a millionaire man-about-town, and helping to prepare Gotham for its World's Fair exhibition -- but the festivities are cast in a dark light when a swashbuckling madman threatens to disrupt the fair and burn Gotham.

In some ways, Master of the Future is better than Gotham by Gaslight -- the pace and scenes unfold better, and there's more a sense of Bruce as a person, existing as part of the city, not just as the reclusive super hero overseeing it. And there is a greater emphasis on Bruce, with Batman his alter ego, more than the other way around. (Though a caveat to that is, much later, I re-read both stories back-to-back and actually liked Gothan by Gaslight slightly more).

There's also a significant shift in tone. Whereas Gotham by Gaslight was very much trying to evoke a sense of gothic gloom, with its tale of a serial killer, and drawn by Mike Mignola swathed in brooding hues, Master of the Future is visually a much brighter book, taking place under open skies and sunny days. And Barreto, a good artist in general, delivers some of his finest work both in terms of storytelling, and evoking the period. The brighter ambience is perhaps because the inspiration is different -- if Gotham by Gaslight was meant to evoke a bit of Victoria horror, Master of the Future owes more to Victorian sci-fi of Wells and Jules Verne, with the villain more like one of Verne's hi-tech megalomaniacs. And it's a testament to Barreto and the colourist that they can set Batman in this environment and still give him a dark air.

But like with Gotham by Gaslight, the story is rather thin -- and this time, Augustyn is even working with more pages! But there aren't really a lot of twists or turns as the story follows a straightforward progression, with little character depth. There's a half-hearted mystery tossed in -- but it is half-hearted at best. And though Bruce is given a romantic interest (reprising his Golden Age love interest, Julie Madison), she barely registers as more than a peripheral character.

For that matter, and again like with its predecessor, there's not a lot here that couldn't have been re-staged as a modern, in-continuity Bat-story.

Ultimately, the scenes are stronger than the whole, but it still makes for a modestly enjoyable romp.

Original cover price: $6.95 CDN./ $5.95 USA. 

Batman: Nine Lives

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

I originally posted my review elsewhere (linked below) after I had first read the book. After a second reading (now a few years later) I find that I like it a bit better...even as I can't really disagree with any of my criticisms! By that I mean even as I was re-reading the story (and had forgtten what it was about or what I had originally thought of it) all the issues I had with it I realized were mentioned in my initial review. It's just, as I say, now I might be a little less harsh. Still, on with the initial review...
see my review here

coverBatman: Order of Beasts 2004 (SC GN) 48 pages.

Written by Eddie Campbell and Daren White. Illustrated by Eddie Campbell.
Letters and digital finish: Michael Evans. Editor: Joey Cavalieri.

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

Number of readings: 2

The Order of Beasts is an "Elseworlds" story set in 1939 with Bruce Wayne, in the early months of his crime fighting career, visiting England on business. A rash of murders, apparently targeting members of a secret society/gentlemen's club, The Order of Beasts, causes him to assume his still fledgling alter ego to investigate.

It is drawn, painted and co-written by Eddie Campbell (with co-writer Daren White). Campbell's a comic creator better known for less mainstream works, ranging from horror to semi-autobiographical. The unlikeliness of his working on something like Batman is, no doubt, intended as part of the appeal.

Campbell tackles the franchise with a more relaxed tone than a lot of modern comic creators. His art doesn't exactly lend itself to the gothic, Creature of the Night visuals often associated with Batman, so instead the focus is more on Batman being just a guy in a suit, blithely sitting in the office of the police Inspector (one Frank Constantine -- presumably a nod to DC Comics' John Constantine character). And this is a relaxed, easy going Bruce Wayne, rather than the driven, obsessive -- frankly somewhat caricaturish -- version so often portrayed. I've nothing against the visual extravagance of the Big Ears, billowing cape Batman, nor the dark, brooding avenger personality -- far from it -- but it can get a bit overdone. A kinder, gentler -- more human -- Batman as depicted here can be equally effective.

Alas, if only the execution could match the intentions.

As an artist, Campbell is clearly of the independent comics scene. His understanding of anatomy, of how and where things work in the human body, is barely more than serviceable, and his rudimentary facial expressions aren't exactly rife with nuance. For the most part his characters stand about in stiff, rather non-descript positions. The art isn't horrible -- it gets the job done. And the fact that it is atypical for a super hero adventure can be its own appeal, with Impressionistic crowd scenes and understated action sequences. And re-reading it, you could argue the very simpleness of the art is meant to evoke the early Bob Kane-drawn Batman comics (appropriate given the historical setting) -- more elaborate, to be sure, and with painted colours. Almost as if we were to imagine "what if...a fully painted, prestigious Batman graphic novel had been done in the Golden Age of comics?"

What's more, the very low-keyness of the art means that the reader isn't distracted from what should be the true focus -- the story.

However, the writing is unexceptional. It has pretensions to be a murder mystery -- except the murderer's identity isn't much of a secret, or of much significance. I suppose the "mystery" is less who, than "why?" -- but that turns out to be a non-starter (and all too typical for comic books). Part of the "twist", I suppose, is a chain of events -- a "comedy of errors" as Batman describes it, as a murder is committed, but then the body is disposed of by others, thereby muddling motives. But for all that the story references its time and place -- from use of cockney slang and a series of murders quoting an old English rhyme to the pre-war milieu with Nazi sympathizers prowling London (and with one of the members of the Order of Beasts we are meant to infer is Winston Churchill) -- all that turns out to be irrelevant, a red herring, robbing the plot of any depth or social or political bite. Unlike some historically-set comics where the setting is crucial to the plot (ie: having it be the story really does revolve around Nazi spies in pre-war England). In short, it's just a comic book romp.

Campbell and White's dialogue is workmanlike, more there to convey information than to live and breathe on its own. Though like my point about the art, whether that's a deliberate attempt to coyly evoke 1940s comic book writing, is hard to say (since I'm not familiar with Campbell and White's other work). Nor is there much characterization to speak of -- for a detective story with various characters, none are given much personality or motive. As mentioned, this is a relaxed, easy going Bruce Wayne, which makes him likeable -- but his nonchalance can leech a bit of the energy from the story itself as he doesn't really seem all that passionate about the investigation. There's a love interest thrown in, but it's so undeveloped, and her personality so non-existent, it seems there simply to justify Bruce being in certain places at certain times.

Ultimately, the comic starts out promising, with its relaxed pace and focus on talking heads implying it's going to be a character/plot driven story as opposed to just an excuse for a few splash pages, and with an obvious love for the period and setting by its creators. But very quickly it becomes, well, just a middling Batman comic, as he plays catch up to a series of pointless murders, driven by little motivation, lacking much excitement or suspense, and where his deductions are rather simple.

With that said, if you are harkening for a kind of traditional, Old School Batman story, just stretched out from eight pages to forty-eight, there is a kind of nostalgic appeal.

cover by Garcia-LopezBatman: Reign of Terror 1999 (GN) 48 pages

Written by Mike W. Barr. Illustrated by Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez.
Colours: Noelle Giddings. Letters: Todd Klein. Editor: Jordan B. Gorfinkel.

Rating: * * * (out of 5)

Number of readings: 2

In this "Elseworlds" tale, the Batman mythos is re-imagined against the backdrop of revolutionary-era France -- during the "reign of terror" of the title. Captain Bruce Wayne returns to Paris after fighting for the revolution, but his cynicism over what the revolution has become is intensified on seeing the state of affairs, leading him eventually to don a bat costume and fight against the very revolutionary government he supported.

At first blush, inserting a Batman-like figure into the French Revolution might seem like a logical idea. Until you realize that the reason it seems logical is because it's already been done...with the Scarlet Pimpernel! Writer Mike Barr makes no pretense at concealing his inspiration, with Bruce adopting a foppish persona so no one will suspect his secret identity, much like the Pimpernel (and Zorro, for that matter) -- Bruce even recites a little verse ala the Pimpernel's "They seek him here, they seek him there..." scene. But, as such, there's very little that's new here. To be sure, it trundles along at a fair clip. But if you or I or anyone had been asked to imagine a Batman story set during the reign of terror...we probably would've come up with almost this exact same script.

It's a tad...generic.

Overall, Barr just seems to do...what you'd expect him to do. There is no great character arc -- Bruce is already ambivalent about the revolution at the beginning -- and the story just touches on the to-be-expected elements -- Batman rescues people from the guillotine, is eventually unmasked, leading to a darying escape and rescue. The plot never evolves into anything particularly individualistic.

Barr does provide some nice additions, like giving this Eighteenth Century Batman some period accoutrements (a sailing boat with bat-like sails). There's some -- occasional -- cleverness in the action, like Batman and his charges escaping from soldiers by dressing in uniforms and joining in their own hunt (though even that was "borrowed" from The Scarlet Pimpernel -- or at least one of the movie versions). There's a nice climax, taking us away from the period in spirit, and more into Batman-style action with a bizarre, larger-than-life death trap. The inclusion of a Two-Face-like foe is effective, although not enough is done with him, character-wise. And the decision to leave his deformity hidden for much of the story is rather undermined by featuring his mutilated visage on the back cover. Barr also offers some divergences from regular Bat-mythos by giving this Batman a wife, and having him live with his family (parents, sister).

However, much of this isn't really explored. That may be a problem with the 48 page length, not allowing Barr to really elaborate upon anything. For instance, in an early scene we meet Bruce's sister, later she discovers his secret and announces she suspected all along...but I'm not sure we even saw the sister between the two scenes! Meanwhile Bruce plays the dandy, even before his wife (whose parents are threatened by the revolution), but we never get any sense of the inner turmoil Bruce might feel over misleading his beloved wife -- in fact, I think there's only one or two scenes where we even see the wife during Bruce's charade. It's ironic that the story starts out somewhat promising (perhaps because there is more attention paid to Bruce's character, a man fighting for a revolution yet disenchanted by it), but becomes generic and superficial once he dons his bat-guise.

I've been a longtime appreciator of Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez's art, and he seems particularly at home in a period setting, where his eye for realistic postures, and detailed costumes, helps root the story in its proper era. His story telling eye has been better -- not that there's anything wrong here. But few of the scenes leapt up and grabbed me either, viscerally speaking. Muted, occasionally drab colouring, doesn't exactly help much, either. Overall, though, the visualizing is definitely in the plus column, with the crowd scenes especially nicely realized.

Batman: Reign of Terror is an O.K. read, but nothing that particularly stands out, or that you're liable to remember a few days after you read it.

Cover price: $7.95 CDN./ $4.95 USA

Back to Batman-Elseworlds reviews - page 1

Back to