GRAPHIC NOVEL and TRADE PAPERBACK (TPB) REVIEWS

by The Masked Bookwyrm

Batman - I -

Batman in the Sixties 1999 (SC TPB) 224 pgs.

cover by Murphy AndersonWritten by Bill Finger, Gardner Fox, Mike Friedrich, Frank Robbins, and others. Pencils by Sheldon Moldoff, Carmine Infantino, Gil Kane, Irv Novick, Chic Stone, Dick Sprang.
Colours/letters: various.

Reprinting: stories from (not always the whole issue) Batman #131, 144, 148, 155, 179, 181, 200, 217, Detective Comics #298, 341, 349, 369, 388-391, Batman's Kellogg's Special (featuring Catwoman) - 1960-1969

Additional notes: intro by actor Adam West (TV's Batman); various contextual editorial/paragraphs; various vintage covers, character profiles, etc; plus creator bios.

Rating: * * * * (out of 5)

Number of readings: 1

Reviewed: Jan, 2012

Batman in the '60s is one of a series of TPBs collecting Bat-tales from specific decades (in addition to the occasional "Greatest" TPB collecting stories from multiple decades). Most of these 10 year overviews give a decent snapshot of a particular creative era, so the appeal of the book (in addition to how good the individual stories selected are, of course) will depend on your pre-disposition for that era and its writing and art styles.

But Batman in the Sixties may be slightly anomalous in that sense, since the 1960s was arguably the most creatively transitional period in comics history, as the comic book style (specifically in super hero comics) that had been in place since the 1930s was giving way to the changes in story and art -- an overall (if sometimes only slight) sophistication -- that would set the tone and style that is the foundation of the comics published today. And Batman may be an even more dramatic demonstration of that evolution -- less because it ended the decade more sophisticated than its compeers, so much as it began the 1960s more simplistic. Visually, while the Flash, Green Lantern, and Superman were being graced by the polished, realist pencils of Carmine Infantino, Gil Kane, and Curt Swan, Batman began the decade with artists like Sheldon Moldoff still working in a cartoony, angular house style that was meant to evoke Bob Kane's art that dated back to the 1930s. Yet changes were in the offing, in part instigated both by the needs of the market, and by Julius Schwartz assuming editorship of the Bat-line. Carmine Infantino was brought over to give the visuals a more realist look, married with his more distinctive and stylish composition and storyboarding, with the likes of Gil Kane and Irv Novick following along. And even Moldoff's mid-'60s art, though not as effective as those gentlemen, was clearly trying to break away from the "old" look. And the scripts too shifted over the decade (though some of that may have just been that with better, more stylish visuals, the scripts inherently seem smatter, more sophisticated).

As such, the problem with Batman in the Sixties is there's less of a consistent tone to the stories...even as, the advantage is...there's less of a consistent tone. The variety is fun, as is following the evolution of a series... and of an art form.

Although "sophistication" is a matter of taste. The first story here, basically a very traditional Batman mystery -- with nary a super villain in sight -- is, arguably more sophisticated (plot-wise) then some of the later stories! This is followed by a story nicely reflecting its by-gone era, with an appearance by the pre-Barbara Gordon Batgirl, as well as Bat-Mite!

A large chunk of the stories are devoted to super villain tales, with no less than two Joker tales, plus appearances by the Penguin, Scarecrow, Clayface II (in his first appearance) and others. On one hand, sure, part of the fun of a hero is his rogues gallery...on the other hand, such stories often are lesser tales, with pretty simple, formulaic plots. Some of the editorializing here blames the times, claiming recurring super villains were a big part of the series (partly in response to the popularity of the 1960s TV series), but I suspect their inclusion also reflects the bias of the selections editor, as there were certainly plenty of tales from that era that didn't rely as heavily on familiar foes pulling off generic heists!

But even here, as mentioned, the evolving visuals can add an extra sophisticated storytelling veneer. Such as a very cinematic sequence of panels in the story "The Joker's Comedy Capers!" as Robin comes up behind Batman. (That story -- about the Joker pulling heists under the guise of filming homages to silent films -- I believe was adapted into a story in the TV series, though the TV episode featured the Riddler). Some of the scripts are pretty plot/gimmick oriented, often more about following the villain pulling his crime, with Batman & Robin just showing up to stop him. Yet other stories hold up well enough, like "The Blockbuster Breaks Loose!" which is a moody enough tale thanks to Infantino's art. It actually ties into a then on going sub-plot...and in a nice add-on, there's a brief editorial at the end of it, explaining how that plot unfolded, making it a far more satisfying read (decades later) than if it was left dangling.

Another "first" (in addition to Clayface II) is the first appearance of villainess Poison Ivy. It's written by Robert Kanigher, and Kanigher is a respected writer, usually for his war comics -- but I've often noticed an odd style to his writing, a kind of dreamlike logic and mannered dialogue that, in a war comic, kind of adds a strange atmosphere. But this Batman tale just seems...odd, like he's writing it as a stream-of-consciousness.

Of course, with Infantino re-setting the visual bar, it means with stories like that (drawn by Moldoff) you're more conscious of the lack of visual flare. Chic Stone's art on the Scarecrow story, though lacking Infantino's finesse, nonetheless offers some dramatic composition and presentation. (Though there is at least one credited mistake -- "Batgirl Breaks Up the Dynamic Duo!" is credited to Gil Kane...but it's obviously Infantino's art).

Like with some of these other Batman collections, what's curiously missing (if only as a reflection of the Batman "line") is any of his Brave & the Bold team ups! However, the Batman family is reflected, both in the regular use of Robin, and both Batgirls, but we're also treated to a couple of solo stories of Batgirl and Robin (both drawn by the appealing combo of Gil Kane and Murphy Anderson).

The final story here, "One Bullet Too Many!", reflects the decades's evolution with a more low-key tale of Batman, sans Robin and costumed villains, trying to catch a gun man. Novick's realist pencils are a far cry from Moldoff's early '60s work, and Frank Robbins script tries for a greater depth, trying -- however heavy handedly -- to put a human face on the victims of crime (as opposed to just using them as plot devices). Whereas, as mentioned, some of the early tales here treat Batman as barely more than a costume to beat up bad guys in the climax, in this tale, we spend most of the story focused on Batman -- including many scenes of him as simple Bruce Wayne, and dealing with human dilemmas removed from the crime busting (as Robin leaves home for college). It also marked a then dramatic change in the series -- not just relegating Robin to an occasional player, but having Batman relocate from Wayne Manor to a mid-town penthouse. Read now, it might seem a minor experiment, but the penthouse locale actually remained in place until the early 1980s...when Batman once more returned to Wayne Manor.

A few more tales like that one might have been nice, to provide more of a counter balance to the lion's share of catch-the-costumed-villain tales. But though, as with other such collections, I can easily argue there were other -- better -- tales that could have been included, Batman in the Sixties is a fun little tome, the very evolution of the medium it attempts to chronical making it a nice little grab bag of styles -- and maybe a more interesting collection than some TPBs which reflect a more consistent style. Most of the tales here aren't particularly smart, or sophisticated...but most are, in their various ways, fun page turners.

Cover price: $19.99 USA.


Batman International 2010 (SC TPB) 168 pages

coverWritten by Mark Waid, Alan Grant. Illustrated by Diego Olmos, Frank Quitely, Arthur Ransom.
Colours/letters: various.

Reprinting: Batman in Barcelona: Dragon's Knight one-shot (2009), Batman: Legends of the Dark Knight #52-53 (1993), Batman: The Scottish Connection GN (1998)

Rating: * *

Number of readings: 1

Reviewed March 5, 2010

These days it often seems as though anything that gets published as a comic, inevitably makes it into a TPB collection a few months later. So you have situations like Batman: International where one suspects the point was simply to re-publish the recent Batman one shot, Batman in Barcelona, as a TPB...and to justify it by tossing in a few other "international" flavoured Batman stories to boost the page count. The problem with things like that is it can result in kind of slap dash TPBs.

I mean, doing a themed Batman collection of international adventures could be a fun gimmick -- y'know, collecting eight or ten stories, culled from over many years, could make a nice little grab bag of disparate tales. But by virtue of being a collection of only three stories, this demands that each story here be that much stronger to make up in quality what is lacking in quantity.

And the stories here just ain't much to write home about.

The gimmick behind the 38 page Batman in Barcelona: Dragon's Knight was to pair industry fav, Mark Waid, with Spanish artist Diego Olmos -- little known in North America -- for a tale set in Olmos' native Spain. Olmos is a perfectly okay artist, nothing more, and not enough so to justify the story on his own (the way, I'd argue, Claudio Villa's photorealist art on Marvel's Daredevil/Captain America one-shot, Dead on Arrival, almost justified the purchase of that comic by itself). While Waid's script is written on autopilot -- assuming you don't mind if your autopilot runs you into a mountain! Seriously, it's just a pretty bland, generic, and thin story. Villain Killer Croc has escaped prison, seeming crazed by some psychotropic drugs, and has gone on a killing spree in Barcelona in order to lure Batman after him so as to act out a restaging of St. George's battle with the dragon. Batman shows up, they have a couple of fights. The end. Honestly, that's all there is to it.

There's a lady friend of Bruce Wayne's, whose part is so small, so pointless and irrelevant, you assume she was only tossed in to play damsel in distress...only she doesn't turn out to have even that much relevance! As if recognizing how thin the story is, Waid throws in a surprise "twist"...except it's a pointless twist that makes the story even lamer than it already was. (And, no, we shouldn't wonder how a seven foot tall lizard man was able to inconspicuously book a flight to Europe).

Obviously, part of the point of an "international" story is the exotic locale, so there is some attempt to draw upon the local colour...but not enough to really distinguish the story (even the idea of Batman being hunted by the cops isn't that unusual). Indeed, it just draws attention to how poorly developed the plot is, when Batman is even told he's arrived on the eve of a Spanish festival honouring the St. George legend...and he still doesn't think to stake out the celebration.

Honestly, one has to assume Waid just knocked this out one afternoon to meet a deadline, rather than out of any inspiration.

Padding out the TPB comes a couple of older stories.

From Batman: Legends of the Dark Knight -- a comic with no regular creative team, so allowing for more or less stand alone stories and story arcs -- comes the two part "Tao". Written by frequent bat-scribe, Scotsman Alan Grant, and drawn by Arthur Ransom (marking the Englishman's first American comics work) it has Batman investigating an extortion racket in Chinatown, only to discover there's an Asian assassin following a similar trail -- an assassin Batman knew from years before. Cue: flashbacks to when they were both studying Taoism and martial arts in the Asian mountains. It's a pretty bland, non-descript tale, one that might've been an okay filler for one issue, but at two seems stretched, like Grant only agreed to do it if he could get two pay checks for it.

The idea of the adversary in a current case causing the hero to flashback to their shared history is nothing new -- nor even the Asian/martial arts milieu. In fact, around this time Batman: The Animated Series did a similar story. Maybe it was based on this comic...or maybe it just demonstrates what I mean about how standard the idea is (my imperfect recollection is that the TV episodes were better). The problem is, there's little personality for any of the characters -- even Batman. Nor is there any real twists or nuance to the story (it's not like he used to be friends with the guy and we learn how they had a falling out).

Maybe the selling point was Ransom's art, and the story was just an excuse to give him something to draw. Ransom's art is certainly impressive, in a British way, with a detailed, realist, fine art sort of style, heavily relying on shadows and light/dark contrasts (presumably because British comics artists are used to drawing for black & white comics). But it too has its problems. It's too dark, where a lot of the time you're struggling to make out what you're looking at. The lack of emotion/personality to the figures could also be attributed to the way Ransom draws faces and expressions.

The longest story in this collection, ironically, already existed as a graphic novel (as opposed to a folded spine comic book). Batman: Scottish Connection, written by Alan Grant (again!) and drawn by Frank Quitely. It's the best of the stories here -- and it still isn't much, and I review it in greater detail here.

My common complaint about all three stories is that they all seem rather thin, with meagre plots, little characterization, nor much originality. Maybe in writing about foreign locales, the writers kind of felt like it was a vacation...and didn't really require any work.

Still, as I say, another TPB of some of Batman's various globe hopping adventures might still be a fun idea for a collection. But as for Batman: International -- man, someone should sue the travel agency!

This is a review based on the original comics.

Cover price: $__


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