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GRAPHIC NOVEL and TRADE PAPERBACK (TPB) REVIEWS

by The Masked Bookwyrm


Batman - M - N

cover by MahnkeBatman: The Man Who Laughs  2005 (SC GN) 64 pgs.

Written by Ed Brubaker. Illustrated by Doug Mahnke.
Colours: David Baron. Letters: Rob Leigh.

Rating: * * * (out of 5)

Number of readings: 1

Reviewed; Dec. 2015

The Man Who Laughs is one of those stories that, y'know, kind of makes me wonder if I have the right perspective to review comics these days. Because it's meant to be a retelling of Batman's first encounter with his arch foe, the Joker.

Yes...again.

I mean, by this point you could practically devote a whole shelf to stories telling -- and re-telling -- either the origin of the Joker, the days leading up to him becoming the Joker, Batman's first encounter with The Joker, etc. And that's not even pointing out that, aside from the gimmick of it being a "first" encounter -- more often than not such adventures are pretty much like any other Joker story anyway (same M.O., same themes).

But that's where perspective comes in. Many, many years ago apparently the thinking was comics fans were transitory, often only reading comics for a few years before dropping the habit. As such, recycling story ideas made sense -- especially the retelling of pivotal stories important to the mythos. So maybe the Man Who Laughs was mostly aimed at newer readers who will find it fresh, rather than jaded readers like myself who can hear in it echoes of many other past stories.

Yet equally, I thought the business had long since realized (and encouraged) long term readers. And with TPB and reprint collections, old stories often are just a visit to the comic shop away.

Anyway, the thing is The Man Who Laughs is a perfectly okay Batman vs. Joker story. Drawing more explicitly upon -- or at least referencing -- Batman: Year One (reviewed elsewhere on this site) in a way that some other "retro" Batman stories haven't recently (a reference is made to the recently deposed corrupt police commissioner, Loeb, who was in Year One) the story has Captain James Gordon and Batman investigating a bizarre series of grisly killings perpetrated by a costumed madman -- The Joker. The art by Doug Mahnke is effective and of a realist variety, but well suited to the mix of gothic mood and raw urban grittiness. I have a vague feeling I'd seen Mahnke's art elsewhere and wasn't as enthused, but it's very good here -- certainly suiting the material.

The story is a bit overly grisly at spots, but that's too be expected these days. And if you haven't read many Batman vs. Joker stories it's a decent enough page turner.

But here's the problem -- it remains largely a generic Batman vs. Joker story.

Despite the gimmick of this being Batman's first encounter with him, it's not like that really throws any surprises into the plotting. And as I say, even "first" encounters have been presented before (including Batman: Legends of the Dark Knight #50), without Brubaker really presenting any reason why his story needed to be told, or offering any unusual takes on the idea.

Indeed, I suspect its very cliched-ness is actually kind of the point. So the chief plot involves the Joker publicly declaring that he will be murdering certain targets at given hours. And the police and Batman play vigil, trying to guard the victims -- usually with little success. All of which can describe any number of Joker stories over the years (dating back to the very first Joker story from 1940 -- which, Brubaker might argue, was deliberate). And then we build to a climax of the Joker's (nominal) plan that is itself a pretty hoary cliche of crime thrillers.

Again, I'm guessing that was sort of the point.

But if that's the point -- then what's the point? (If you get my point).

Building your story around a lot of generic cliches and familiar tropes is fine if they are basically just the bones around which you want to lay new muscle and skin. But it's not like there's anything else going on, any extra sub-plots, or romantic storylines, or even plot twists and turns so that we can say, oh, the whole Joker-targets-public-victims idea is just the catalyst for what the story is really about. And as often happens with Batman comics -- Batman is mostly Batman throughout, with little time put aside for Bruce Wayne. In many ways you could argue Batman doesn't really have a secret identity, at least in so far as it's usually of little relevance to his adventures -- and of equally little interest to his writers.

Worse, not only is Brubaker drawing upon cliches, and not only is he using them as the main point of his story as opposed to simply as building blocks, but he doesn't even put much effort into them anyway. As if recognizing they were cliched, and so he just couldn't be bothered. The Joker targets various victims even under police protection -- but how he gets to them isn't especially clever, or even explained. Again -- fine if it's just a minor diversionary aspect of the plot. More frustrating if Batman trying to outwit the Joker is the focus of the plot.

More than half way through the story Batman goes to investigate the decommissioned chemical factory where he suspects the Joker was "born" -- and for a moment I thought a fresh plot was finally going to be wove into the familiar sweater. But no, nothing much comes of it (other than confirming Batman's suspicion that the Joker started out as a petty crook called The Red Hood -- which long time fans knew and isn't really relevant to this story anyway).

So as I say: well illustrated, and certainly Brubaker presents competent enough dialogue and it trundles along efficiently enough. But at 64 pages it doesn't really seem like any thing that couldn't have been told in 48 pages -- or 22 -- or even 12 (back in the Golden Age). It never really surprises or does anything unexpected. And I suspect it isn't intended to.

Cover price: $__ .


Batman: Masque
see review in Batman Elseworlds section



cover by WatkissBatman: Monster 2009 (SC TPB) 176 pgs.

Written by James Robinson, Warren Ellis, Alan Grant. Illustrated by John Watkiss, John McCrea, Quque Alcatena.
Colours: Digital Chameleon, Jessica Kindzierski. Letters: Willie Schubert. Ediror: Archie Goodwin.

Reprinting: Batman: Legends of the Dark Knight #71-73, 83, 84, 89, 90 (1995-1996)

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

Number of readings: 1

Reviewed: Nov. 2014

Monsters collects three separate tales from the comic, Batman: Legends of the Dark Knight -- a series in which each story or story arc was handed over to different creators with no on going threads or sub-plots. The connecting theme here is, as the title says, "monsters."

In "Infected" (Ellis/McCrea, #83, 84) a couple of mutated men -- victims/survivors of a rogue experiment to create super soldiers -- rampage through Gotham City and Batman must stop them. It's a perfectly okay page turner, focused and briskly-paced (Batman never has time to slip out of his mask) with stylish, energetic art -- kind of as if Walt Simonson was inked by Berni Wrightson. But at the same time: it is an entirely generic, straight forward action story. Not just Batman-hunting-monsters but even the underlying idea of rogue super soldiers is pretty much a dime a dozen in comics (and other fantasy/sci-fi stories). Sure, the soldiers are particularly grotesque-looking, and there's the added novelty that they were designed to survive after a nuclear war (and have been brainwashed into perceiving the world around them through that perspective) but those are, ultimately, just minor touch ups to a standard picture. There isn't any secondary theme or subtext, nor is there anything that clever in Batman's actions or strategies. But it's an okay page turner.

"Clay" (Grant/Alcatena, #89, 90) re-imagines Batman's first encounter with Clayface II -- the villain who appears as a monstrous clay monster and can shape change. It has the added novelty that it is set in the earliest days of Batman's career -- he's only been active a few weeks -- and so threads in a sub-plot of Batman's inexperience and having to confront and master his own fear of, in essence, his first "monster." The rest of the plot is, like in "Infected", fairly generic -- both because it is borrowing from the existing Clayface II mythos, and because it's a pretty straightforward film noir type story, with Clayface hiding out with a girl who loves him but isn't quite wise to the fact that his criminal personality is as much the monster as his physical appearance. I'm guessing that traditionalness is deliberate -- the woman is imbued with such one-note naivety it borders on sexist. But I'm guessing that's kind of the point. The art by Alcatena seems deliberately to evoke old comics -- not only does his Batman seem like something out of the very earliest Bob Kane issues, but the art has a kind of sophisticated crudeness -- as though a modern artist with modern training and skill, but trying to evoke a kind of ugly 1950s EC Comics horror/crime vibe. It's a pretty simple, cliched plot -- but given an extra boost by the emphasis on Batman's reactions and uncertainty.

Which then brings us to "Werewolf" (Robinson/Wakins, #71-73), at three issues the longest story here, and the one that tries the most to be an original plot. A murder that could almost be the work of a werewolf leads Batman to London, England and a series of similar murders. Instead of a generic cliche (as the other two stories could be described) it's a deliberately convoluted, twisty tale, with Batman following both the trail of the werewolf killings, but also some crimes involving Wayne Enterprises U.K. branch, embroiling him with a hitman and gangsters, the separate threads overlapping and intersecting. It is essentially a detective story, with Batman investigating and pursuing suspects, while also with plenty of action and adventure, Robinson writing a relatively level-headed Batman (as opposed to a driven obsessive). Granted, there isn't a great deal of underlying emotion and the very twisty convolutions of the story means it's a bit hard to quite keep track of things. But unlike the other stories in this collection, you can't accuse it of being straightforward or of guessing where it's headed. The art by John Watkiss is stylish and energetic, Watkiss often emphasizing light and shadow to define figures rather than simply linework (that is, shapes are defined by the shadows they cast -- faces often lacking clearly drawn noses, or Batman shown with an exaggerated upper lip as though lit from below).

Although that's perhaps a problem with the art in this collection -- and maybe a reflection of a problem, or at least a conceit, of the LODK comic in general. All artists here are good, affecting some interesting or stylish efforts. But it can often seem like art for art's sake. The visuals stylish and moody, or even evocatively raw and cartoony, so that you can admire it -- but maybe also pushing you a bit away, losing the simple sense of storytelling where Batman and the other characters are meant to be flesh and blood people we can care about and relate to.

The very fact that two of the three stories here are, as I say, pretty generic -- hardly unique or special when compared to the other monthly Batman comics -- maybe reveals something. Because, truth to tell, though Batman: LOTDK was supposed to be a classy series presenting A-list creators telling "special" Batman stories, one wonders if the editors were more focused on the art than the stories.

Still, as a collection Monsters is a decent grab bag. The very fact that it's a collection means that no one tale has to carry the book, so the fact that "Infected" and "Clay" are pretty simple, familiar stories ("Infected" benefitting from a fast pace, "Clay" from some attention paid to Batman's emotions and motives) is less conspicuous. And with "Werewolf" entertaining as a multi-issue saga that justifies its length.

Nothing here is a classic or a "must read," but nothing is disappointing, either.

This review is based on the original comics.

Cover price: ___



Batman: Mr. Freeze - cover by Brian StelfreezeBatman: Mr. Freeze 1997 (SC GN) 48 pgs.

Written by Paul Dini. Drawn by Mark Buckingham. Inks by Wayne Faucher.
Colours: Linda Medley. Letters: John Constanza. Editors: Scott Peterson, Denny O'Neil.

Rating: * * * (out of 5)

Number of readings: 1

Mr. Freeze goes on a rampage through Gotham, icing everyone in his path, while reminiscing on his origin. Batman, eventually, comes after him.

With each of the Batman motion pictures (except the first, I believe), DC Comics has tried to cash in by releasing one-shot specials starring a villain featured in the then-current cinematic spectacular. With the fourth Batman feature came Batman: Poison Ivy, Batman: Bane and Batman: Mr. Freeze.

I had been curious about whether these books were real Batman adventures or, as the titles and covers implied, strictly about the villain. In the case of Batman: Mr. Freeze, Bats does appear at the beginning and end, but more as a physical presence than a character. Ultimately the story belongs to Mr. Freeze -- what there is of a story, that is. The modern sequence is just an excuse for the villain's flashbacks and the final Act fisticuffs, nothing more. In that sense, Batman: Mr. Freeze is structurally reminiscent of The Killing Joke (though minus the mature readers trappings).

The writing by Paul Dini (best known for his work on the critically acclaimed, adult-friendly Batman cartoon series) is O.K. Artist Mark Buckingham belongs to the modern school of comic book artists, with a style that leans towards too cartoony, but it was O.K. (though his Kelly Jones inspired Batman, with bunny rabbit ears that bend and fold depending on Bats' mood, leaves much to be desired). The colouring was O.K., the inking and the lettering, too. Everything was O.K... nothing more.

Since a big chunk of the story relates Mr. Freeze's origin, it'll probably be more effective if you were unfamiliar with it to begin with. Myself, I was curious to read the modern interpretation of the character (having only ever read a Mr. Freeze story from decades ago) since in both the recent animated series and the live-action motion picture, Freeze was portrayed as a more complex, poignant figure than I remembered (don't get me wrong, the motion picture still sucked, but at least there was some heart). The modern comic version, though similar, has one major change (at least in this story): in the comics, Freeze's wife is dead, not in cryogenic suspension, robbing him of any motive except blind revenge. Meaning -- and who would've thought it? -- the Holllywood version is actually a little more interesting, a little more ambivalent than the comic version.

Like a number of graphic novels on this site, I got this for cheaper than the cover price, which might influence my opinion. Batman: Mr. Freeze is nothing special -- an attempt to cash in on the motion picture, more than an artistic statement, but a moderately entertaining read for all of that. Still, it's probably best if you can find it on sale.

Cover price: $6.95 CDN./$4.95 USA


cover by a HamptonBatman: Night Cries 1992 (HC & SC TPB) 96 pages

Written by Archie Goodwin (plot Goodwin and Hampton). Painted by Scott Hampton.
Letters: Tracy Hampton-Munsey. Editor: Denny O'Neil.

Rating: * * * * (out of 5)

Number of readings: 2

Re-reviewed: June 2015

Additional notes: tabloid size

Suggested (somewhat) for mature readers

I recently re-read this. I added a couple of points to my review, but left my main reassessment for a final addendum.

Batman: Night Cries is a fully painted, prestigious, tabloid-sized graphic novel delving into the gritty, slightly mature readers area of serious issues -- namely, child abuse. It's treacherous terrain for a comic book super hero to tread, skirting the edges of good taste or, equally problematic, in danger of ending up a dry, pompous lecture rather than what, ultimately, fiction is supposed to be about -- a plot and characters. Somewhat surprisingly, Night Cries manages the task quite well. I say surprisingly, in part, because I'd read reviews that complained it was too much about its "issue", and let the storytelling side of the equation slide. But I don't quite agree.

In fact, I'd argue (on reflection) that despite some preachiness here and there, and some listing of statistics, co-creators Goodwin and Hampton keep a reasonable reign on their outrage. Child abuse is an underlying theme, and is a part of the story...but it's not the whole story. And the moody, haunting result lingers long after you've closed the book.

The plot has Batman and newly appointed Commissioner Gordon investigating a series of grisly, multiple homicides that seem connected to a recent drug that's hitting the streets. Meanwhile, Batman, as philanthropist Bruce Wayne, is involved in establishing a safe house for abused kids, founded by two adult siblings. How do these threads connect? Well, that's the point. Co-plotters Archie Goodwin and Scott Hampton actually keep some cards close to their breasts, so even knowing the story will somehow be about child abuse, the plot keeps us waiting to see how it will all unfold. Which is, y'know, storytelling! They also toss in a sub-plot involving family man Gordon's personal demons, and a background of an abusive father.

Over the years, Gordon has constantly fluctuated between being just a cop liaison, and supporting character, to a figure almost as important to the comic as Batman himself. Sometimes they pull it off, making Gordon interesting and sympathetic, and sometimes they don't, rendering him dull. Fortunately, in Night Cries they pull it off, making the scenes with him, and his frustrations trying to do his job while working in an uncaring system, involving. Not that Batman/Bruce Wayne doesn't have his share of scenes and introspective captions, or that we lose sight of the fact that this is, after all, a "Batman" comic.

The painted art by Scott Hampton -- as painted art often is -- is a mixed bag. On one hand he maybe takes his "dark knight" theme too literally, and tends to lather on the blacks and dark hues, so that the book is just a little too dark overall, to the point where it's sometimes hard to make out the details. On the other hand, it is atmospheric, full of mood and pathos, complementing the intent of the story, and furthering the sense of this being a "sophisticated" story. One review I read criticized the art and compared it to Dave McKean's on Arkham Asylum -- I'd disagree, although I can certainly see the connection. But ultimately Hampton is a reasonably realist artist -- people look like people, streets look like streets. The images are occasionally obscure because he paints it too dark, but not because the underlining pencils are weak or too abstract the way McKean's art can suffer. (One point I'd add is that Hampton's Gordon looks a bit atypical, with slightly shaggy hair and a bushier mustache than is often the norm for him. But it's a look I seem to associate with writer Archie Goodwin, so I wonder if there was a visual in-joke/homage and Hampton deliberately modelled his Gordon after Goodwin).

There are flaws, particularly at the beginning, where, in order to set up some straw villains and create conflict, Goodwin gives us some caricaturish municipal politicians who try to hamstring Gordon and are blatantly dismissive when they hear about crime in a poor section of the city. It's cartoony and childish writing in an otherwise serious book. More, having Gordon bristle at their hypocrisy and callousness is fine...but Goodwin seems to want to contrast the entirety of the police with the sleazy politicians, as if all cops are somehow paragons of Liberal tolerance and compassion (ask people living in, say, Watts what they think of such a thesis). I've mentioned before the disturbing trend in comics, and other mediums, to constantly push an agenda which belittles democratic figures (politicians, reporters) while lionizing decidedly less democratic forces (police).

It's true the story isn't that complex. It gets a lot of mileage out of a mid-story twist, which I won't detail, and they could've offered up more suspects just to muddy the waters. Still, the plot has enough threads that it comfortably fills out its 90-some pages, and there are twists and turns as the story unfolds. I never found it dragged, or like it was just coasting between plot developments.

The late Archie Goodwin has long been regarded as a great in the comics field, bordering on a legend, at least within the biz (maybe not so much to the casual reader). But I never quite saw it. Sure, I loved his Star Wars comics for Marvel, and his Manhunter series was very good, but I'd read a lot of other stuff -- mainstream, super hero stuff, including some Batman -- that was fairly run-of-the-mill generic. But this (which he co-plotted with Hampton) is a thoughtful, mature Batman story, with some nice dialogue and effective captions, and maybe lets me see more of the Goodwin others talked about.

Ultimately, this is a haunting effort that tackles its subject matter with reasonable restraint and sensitivity, with some nice character shadings to Batman and Gordon, and if not an "action-packed thrill ride" nonetheless doesn't lose sight of the fact that, good intentions aside, it's still supposed to be a story -- an adventure-thriller. There is a case that's being investigated, and late night prowling of the rooftops, and some fist fights and action scenes.

And the whole thing builds to a final page denouement that, in both image and caption, is as unanticipated, and character revealing, as it is astonishingly powerful.

Addendum: I recently re-read this after a number of years. And though I don't have any really big disagreements with my original points, I'll admit I wasn't maybe as impressed as I was originally. There is a definite stiffness to Hampton's art, falling victim to a lot of comic book painted art where the "prestige" of the paints can be used to distract from what is simply average drawings. But it's still a solid graphic novel. If not exactly a Byzantine epic (given it's 94 pages!) it doesn't play all its cards too soon, keeping you interested in seeing it unfold. And though the characterization isn't especially rich with neither Gordon (despite a sub-plot of him dealing with his own demons) nor Batman much more than heroes to drive the story -- but equally they remain paramount, rather than subordinate to the technical plot. And I do keep coming back to that last page which stuck in my mind all these years and really does work as a powerful insight into Batman's psyche. Ultimately, I knocked the rating down from 4.5/5 to 4/5 -- still, in my mind, an above average read.

Original soft cover price: $15.50 CDN./ $12.95 USA


Batman: Nine Lives

Rating: * * (out of 5)
Number of readings: 1
see my review here


cover by BermejoBatman: Noel 2011 (HC & SC TPB) 96 pages

Written and drawn by Lee Bermejo.
Colours: Barbara Ciardo. Letters: Todd Klein.

Rating: * * * * (out of 5)

Number of readings: 1

Additional notes: introduction by Jim Lee; behind-the-scenes sketches and commentary by Bermejo.

Christmas-themed super hero comics have been around for ages -- probably almost since the super hero genre began (festive stories were an annual staple of The Spirit). And over the years publishers have released holiday anthologies of new stories featuring familiar heroes as well as collections reprinting past stories.

But Batman: Noel may be the first-ever all-original graphic novel to marry a super hero with the holiday theme. Written and illustrated by Lee Bermejo it takes a kind of obvious enough idea: grafting the theme of Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol onto the Batman. I say "obvious" because A Christmas Carol has been recycled and "borrowed from" for innumerable movies and stories over the years, including super hero comics (Adventures of the Outsiders #43 comes to mind). As well, given Batman is supposed to be a grim hero scarred by past events, he makes a convenient Ebeneezer Scrooge substitute (even in my own fan-boy way I had once toyed with such a plot).

So it's perhaps a notable achievement for Bermejo that Noel is actually more clever and unique than you might expect given how obvious the idea might seem.

Inatead of simply re-telling A Christmas Carol with Batman as Scrooge (perhaps as an Elseworlds tale) or otherwise inserting the character into the story, Bermejo uses a voice-over narration of a character relating Dickens' story to his child while a Batman story plays out underneath. Part of the trick is that the narrator doesn't recall the story in every detail, so is more describing the basic ideas and themes.

But as such this isn't about Batman being literally visited by three Spirits of Christmas as much as he encounters characters (Catwoman, Superman) who end up serving that metaphorical function.

The "literal" story is Batman is hunting the Joker, with all his obsessive, dark knight zeal. He zeroes in a low level crook in the Joker's employ who Batman plans to use as a pawn to lure the Joker out of hiding -- Batman not overly concerned about the crook, or his innocent son, who might get caught in the crossfire. Batman is Scrooge, the crook is essentially the hapless Bob Cratchit, the Joker is -- well, okay, I'm not saying it's a total parallel to A Christmas Carol. Along the way Batman finds himself reminded of his more innocent past, and that there is a gentler world outside of the dark and twisted reality he inhabits, eventually achieving something of a Scrooge-like epiphany by the end.

As I say: it's quite clever, existing as a Batman story rather than solely as a rehash of A Christmas Carol.

If I was to complain, it would be to say that Bermejo basically wraps the story around a kind of one-note, Batman-as-a-borderline-psycho-fascist character. Admittedly, this is the sort of character that some writers have presented in the last couple of decades, but it's a pretty narrow version of the character. And not one that I find entirely interesting. It works for this specific story and the redemption themes -- but it doesn't exactly gel with how other writers might portray the character (such as in the way Batman shows so little concern for any potential danger to "Bob"s son). Personally, I tend to prefer a more complex, more multi-faceted Batman; grim, but with a range of emotions.

In the context of this tale's Batman-as-Scrooge theme, it makes sense. Unfortunately there are some writers who write this version of Batman normally -- and mistakenly think they've written a complex personality. Heck, the very fact that a story like this essentially presents Batman at a bit of an arms length (not really telling the story through his perspective) kind of indicates even writers can have trouble really fleshing him out.

As for the art: well, in short, it's gorgeous. And this applies both to Bermejo's pencils and inks and to Barbara Ciardo's colours. Indeed, the seeming-painted colours are so much a part of the visuals I just assumed they were supplied by the penciller. It's visually dark, as suits both a Batman tale and something drawing upon the gothic tone of A Christmas Carol, but rich and textured. While Bermejo's drawings are detailed and rounded, the characters and environments boasting an almost 3-D effect. Funnily enough (and this may be entirely incidental) it even reminded me a bit of some lavishly painted children's Christmas book, giving it an added resonance with the holiday theme (particularly the scenes with the crook who looks almost like something out of a Norman Rockwell painting).

Though I might quibble about the lettering for the narration, which uses white letters on the dark backgrounds (as opposed to black letters on light panels) -- it's readable, certainly, but maybe not always as easy as it could be.

Ultimately Bermejo has successfully taken the Christmas Carol theme but utilized it in such a way that the story works as more than just another "gimmicky" re-telling of A Christmas Carol. It's held back a bit by a plot that, granted, isn't exactly complex (given the page count) and, as mentioned, by relying on a pretty one-note characterization of Batman. But it makes for both a solid, atmospherically visualized Batman story while rooting it in the holiday themes and milieu.

Cover price: ___


Batman: The Order of Beasts

   Is reviewed in my Batman Elseworldshere section.


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