by The Masked Bookwyrm

Batman - J - L, page 1

cover by Don MaitzBatman: The Last Angel 1994 (SC GN) 96 pages

Written by Eric Lustbader. Pencils by Lee Moder. Inks by Scott Hanna.
Colours: Lovern Kindzierski. Letters: Todd Klein. Editor: Dennis O'Neil, Jordan B. Gorfinkel.

Rating: * * * * (out of 5)

Number of readings: 2

This is, I believe, the first graphic novel by suspense novelist Eric Lustbader (sometimes billed as Eric Van Lustbader). It's marketed as a Batman graphic novel, but it's equally a Catwoman story (in fact, at times, it's more a Catwoman story than it is Bats'). The plot has Catwoman out to steal a priceless Maya mask, and Batman out to stop her, both unaware that the mask has supernatural properties. It's rumoured that any who come in contact with it will be possessed by the soul of a high priest who, supposedly, destroyed the Maya civilization itself centuries before. All of this is being orchestrated by another Bat-foe, but that's a revelation later in the story, so I won't say any more.

On one hand, despite this being by a "real" novelist, there's nothing out of the ordinary. Lustbader doesn't bring any particular literary flare to the proceedings, or any edgy dialogue, or any penetrating insight into the Human Condition. And for a man who I remember as writing violent, sexually kinky thrillers, this remains fairly wholesome throughout (despite the occasional murder). Lustbader at times writes with a heavy handedness, with characters spelling out their motivations and concerns in obvious monologues, and with the story often portrayed in tight, almost too tight, scenes. Whether he's writing down to the medium, or whether this is his regular style, I can't say (it's been years since I read anything by him).

With that being said, The Last Angel's weaknesses are also its strengths. There's a kind of old fashioned, unpretentiousness to the story. It trundles along briskly and comfortably fills out its 90-some pages with enough action and twists and turns that you don't feel like there's any padding. As well, Lustbader does throw in character stuff, moreso than one might expect from another comicbook writer who might be so concerned with his style, and his "edge", that he forgets to tell a story. Lustbader sets up some character arcs with Batman and Catwoman so that when we reach the end, we feel as though we've gone somewhere emotionally, not just physically.

The story is seen by some as being almost an "Elseworlds" story (that is, apochryphal), since in some respects it plays fast and loose with Batman continuity. Catwoman has a new, striped costume and seems to have a telepathic rapport with a preternaturally intelligent leopard. As well, in her alter ego of Selina Kyle, she moves in the same High Society circles as does Batman's alter ego, Bruce Wayne, though both are ignorant of each other's secret IDs. As well, some have pointed to the fact that another recurring Bat-villain, Rupert Thorne (in a small part), seems to get killed. But looking over the scene again, there's a certain ambiguity as to whether Thorne is supposed to be dead or not (it's all in the visuals). In a sense, The Last Angel can be likened to a Batman movie in the way it doesn't stick religiously to the mythos...but it feels more truly a Batman story than any of the movies ever did. And in other ways, it's very much evocatve of the stories, including such stand bys as Batman being summoned by Commissioner Gordon via Bat-Signal, to Batman's investigative mix of analytical skill and skulking in the shadows.

When a writer from another medium is lured to comics, particularly for a one-shot deal, you can't help but wonder, is this a closet fan, or is he merely doing it for the money? Since Lustbader was one of many who contributed commemorative essays to Batman's 60th anniversary (published in the back pages of Detective Comics #598-600), I'm more inclined to lean toward a closet fan, discrepancies notwithstanding. The fact that he would even throw in Thorne (a fairly obscure foe, after all) implies some knowledge of the comics -- unless his DC editor just provided him with a list of character names he could use.

Lee Moder's art is appealingly bold and vital, with well rounded figures. Though he's a bit weak on the fight scenes -- a superhero artist who isn't so great at action! At the same time, it's conventional comicbook art and colour, nothing extraordinary as you might've expected DC to provide for their novelist writer. Moder's art, like Lustbader's script, also seems to veer in and out of regular continuity, with both his Catwoman and his Thorne not really looking like themselves -- Catwoman has brown hair, and that odd costume, and Thorne is bald and hulking. At the same time, his Batman and Commissioner Gordon are very much themselves.

This is hardly an essential read, suffering from a little too much brevity in scenes and characterization, but at least there is character stuff. Ultimately, it's a fairly fun, entertaining read and, with its large page count and accompanying plot twists, provides a satisfying adventure -- like coming across a (good) Batman movvie.

Cover price: $17.95 CDN./ $12.95 USA.

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