Batman + Phantom Stranger 1997 (SC GN) 48 pages
by Alan Grant. Illustrated and coloured by Arthur Ransom.
Letters: Bill Oakley. Editor: Scott Peterson.
Rating: * * * * (out of 5)
Number of readings: 2
A low-level mobster is looking to uncover a source of great power that dates back to the mythical lost land of Lemuria -- it's a search that begins with him and his gang desecrating a Gotham City cemetery. Batman becomes involved when he, mistakenly, believes a local juvenile delinquent, whom he has be mentoring in his alter ego of Bruce Wayne, is involved in a related murder. But the arrival of DC's resident mystery man's mystery man, the Phantom Stranger, apprises Bats of the greater stakes involved.
Batman / Phantom Stranger teams up -- as the back cover proclaims -- "the most mysterious man in Gotham with the most mysterious man in the universe". It's a moody, agreeable read. Sure, like a lot of "graphic novels", there's no reason the two heroes couldn't have teamed up in an annual, or even a couple of issues of Batman's regular titles instead.
Alan Grant does a nice job of telling a "mean streets" style crime-drama, peopled by three time losers, with the story following its own path as the hoods pursue their, well, pursuit. It feels like a story, where one scene takes us to the next, rather than just a curt set up for the action scenes. The story is a mix of elements. The juvenile delinquent character, for instance, attempts to serve as a kind of character/emotional thread to the piece. While the climax goes a mystical route, as Grant, no doubt, thinks he's being profound and provocative. Batman, admittedly, spends much of the story just playing catch up, with Grant occasionally in danger of giving more page time to the villains than to the hero. But not quite. Bats' initial encounter with the Stranger -- with Batman brusquely brushing him off, seems ludicrous and out of character (a guy shows up, offering information on a crime, and Batman tells him to blow???) But subsequent scenes give it more plausibility, as we realize Bats was in a bad mood, the circumstances striking a personal chord. In fact, although Grant could do more with Batman, this actually provides some decent -- if subtle -- character bits, making Batman more than just a superhero in a suit. There's also occasional humour, like a kind of silly scene involving the Stranger and a bar brawl -- atypical, but amusing because of that.
The art by Arthur Ransom is pretty effective, of a moody, elegant style, with lots of cross hatching, and nicely rendered, very human faces. It's also very dark -- between the inking and the colours, mayhap, too dark occasionally, where it's hard to make out the details of a scene. But overall, it adds to the mood, to the effectiveness of the story.
Admittedly, Grant's mixing of elements doesn't always gel together naturally. The final, mystical aspect doesn't quite flow naturally from the main, film noir hoods story. They don't clash, but they don't quite gel, either. When the final "message" is delivered, it doesn't cause you to go back and reconsider the events of the previous forty pages from a fresh perspective. And while Grant clearly wants the story to have a whiff of profundity to it, he doesn't really offer anything unusual...even his truisms are often lifted from others (the Phantom Stranger asking, "what does it profit a man to win the world, if it means he loses his own soul?") And the stuff with the juvenile, though welcome -- harkening back to a more socially relevant type of Batman story -- can seem a tad...forced. Although we are told the boy has a criminal history, all we see is a kid drawn into this caper against his will. As such, when he later has to choose between the good guys and the bad guys, it doesn't seem like it should be a hard choice.
In a sense, I probably shouldn't give this four stars. After all, four stars should denote a really strong story. But I liked the mix of elements, the urban drama, with the mysticism, with the social/character stuff. The elements may not blend seamlessly, but I like the fact that they're there at all! Particularly the attempt at character stuff with Batman and the kid. And I liked the art, restrained and semi-realist, while brooding and moody. I guess this kind of struck me in the right frame of mind, and like such previous Bat efforts as Poison Ivy and The Last Angel, it's not perhaps special, but it's a decent tale, decently told. And sometimes, that's all you can ask for...or would want.
Cover price: $6.95 CDN. /$4.95 USA.
Batman: Poison Ivy 1997 (SC GN) 48 pgs.
Written by John Francis Moore. Pencils by Brian Apthorp.
Inks by Stan Woch.
Colours: Patricia Mulvihill. Letters: Todd Klein. Editor: Scott Peterson.
Rating: * * * * 1/2 (out of 5)
Number of readings: 3
Arms merchants get on the wrong side of villainess Poison Ivy, and she starts wreaking her revenge, victim by victim, up the criminal chain of command. Batman, meanwhile, is investigating.
One of a number of graphic novels released to take advantage of the various Batman motion pictures by highlighting the villains, Batman: Poison Ivy is stronger than, for instance, Batman: Mr. Freeze. Here we get a real story, not just a loose excuse for a retelling of her origin, and Batman is front and centre. Sure, he spends much of the time playing catch up, but at least he's there, doing something. This is a Batman and Poison Ivy story, not just a Poison Ivy story with a cameo by Bats.
John Francis Moore scripts good dialogue, with some effective underlying emotion. He delivers a particularly memorable scene between Batman and another villain, Killer Croc, in Arkham Asylum. Based on this and the Poison Ivy story he wrote included in Collected Legends of the Dark Knight, one gets the feeling that Moore would happily paint all Batman's villains in shades of grey, and not just as wild-eyed baddies. Poison Ivy, herself, here is basically a wronged victim, seeking her own brand of merciless justice. While Batman himself is a more old fashioned take on the character, a little kinder and gentler -- the detective more than the avenger. Moore also seems less prone to rely on mindless fisticuffs to keep things going, which is nice. There's action, certainly, but it's dictated by the needs of the story.
The plot sustains itself sufficiently, and is decently paced, as we follow the criminal hierarchy that leads from the ground level mercenaries all the way to a seeming legitimate Gotham City business man. But because we know why Ivy's doing what she's doing and to whom, there are no real surprises or twists for Batman to uncover that we, the reader, aren't already privy too. It maintains your attention, without actually being intriguing.
The art by Brian Apthorp is good, particularly his eye for the ladies -- his Poison Ivy appears rather scantily (and unexpectedly so) clad in a couple of panels, but only a couple. Though like a lot of modern artists, his eye for doing nice drawings may be stronger than his eye for narrative composition. There were a few spots where I had to re-read a scene in order to glean its full import, because the key element wasn't effectively highlighted visually. Patricia Mulvihill's colours are a little too muted, as well.
Yet despite my few quibbles, Batman: Poison Ivy tends to linger with me as a good, stand alone thriller featuring the Caped Crusader and his flora femme fatale. Everytime I think of it, it is fondly. And everytime I re-read it, I enjoy it slightly more than the time before, for its effortless dialogue and solid sense of pacing. As a self-contained Bat-tale...it hits the spot.
Cover price: $6.95 CDN./$4.95 USA.
Batman / Poison Ivy: Cast Shadows 2004 (SC GN) 64 pages
by Ann Nocenti. Painted by John Van Fleet.
Letters: Todd Klein. Editor: Joey Cavalieri.
Rating: * * * 1/2 (out of 5)
Number of readings: 1
There's something about the modern incarnation of Batman villainess, Poison Ivy, that seems to bring out the sensitive side in a comics writer these days. Certainly when John Francis Moore penned a Poison Ivy tale for the comic book, Batman: Legends of the Dark Knight (included in the TPB collection Batman: Collected Legends of the Dark Knight) and later penned the one-shot graphic novel, Batman: Poison Ivy (1997), he wrote stories that were more than just mindless fisticuffs of Batman tackling a one-dimensional foe. Oh, they weren't necessarily high art, or especially sophisticated -- they were both super hero thrillers, aftter all. But they were touched by humanity. Likewise, Ann Nocenti's Cast Shadows is not necessarily a milestone in comics literature, but it is an agreeable read, injecting some nice character stuff, and thematic threads and symbolism, into a reasonably well paced thriller.
Poison Ivy is currently incarcerated in Arkham Asylum where a new therapist has been treating her with hobby-based therapy -- encouraging Ivy, the erstwhile botanist with the poisonous kiss, to continue her work with plants. But when a newly erected skyscraper threatens to block out the light to her window, trouble ensues. People start contracting a lethal toxin, and Batman is forced to call upon Ivy's assistance in finding an antidote...but he begins to suspect she might be responsible for the cause, not just the cure.
The story begins with echoes of Grant Morrison's much ballyhooed -- and grossly over-rated -- decades old Batman graphic novel, Arkham Asylum, in that we open in Arkham itself and are treated to the darkly creepy world of the inmates. But unlike Morrison's graphic novel, Nocenti doesn't let it get away from her, or become swamped in pointless self-indulgence.
Nocenti's handling of Batman is also nicely down-to-earth. There have been some comics writers in recent years who have kind of embraced the idea of Batman as an ultra hard nosed, almost fascistic fanatic. But Nocenti's Batman is more human, more compassionate. He's a guy who can unself-consciously stand around a brightly lit hospital corridor discussing medical options with a doctor, rather than remain coiled in the shadows, his cloak wrapped about him like an understudy for a roadshow production of Dracula. And though he is mistrustful of his old foe, Ivy, he can engage in conversations with her that are without rancor, even tinged by sympathy. One can appreciate the fact that, for a superhero action-adventure, the crime-busting takes a backseat at times to trying to combat a disease. In fact, cops are little in evidence in this story, as Batman's chief foil this time out is the local medical examiner. This is a far more humane take on the "plague" concept than was employed in another Batman TPB collection, Contagion.
Of course, as noted at the beginning of this piece, Nocenti has not necessarily written anything extraordinary. Though well-paced, it's not an especially complex or twisty tale for 64 pages. To be fair, she does keep us guessing a little as to how much, or in what way, Ivy is responsible, but it's not exactly a brilliant study of red herrings and misdirection.
It's in her treatment of the characters, and the use of symbolism and themes, that the story lingers in the mind. The very concept of rampant urbanization, as the towering skyscraper blocks the light from those around it, adds a tinge of social comment, even if it's understated. And at one point Ivy complains to Batman about her cell, saying "It's so dark in here" and Bats responds "There's nothing I can do about that." At first it seems Batman is being a touch callous, then you go: oh! I get it. They aren't really talking about her cell, but her psyche.
Ironically, the biggest weakness with the story is the painted art by John Van Fleet. I say ironic because I suspect that was meant to be a big selling point: oooh, painted art, the fans are meant to whisper. Van Fleet does a good enough job with the people -- they look like people, and are real enough -- but his backgrounds are sometimes muddy, even when he's going for a hyper- realism (I think he's actually using photographs for the backgrounds in some panels). He so blurs the image, or washes it out with colour, that it can still be hard to figure out quite what you're looking at. Cast Shadows is more a suspense-thriller than an action piece, which is just as well as Van Fleet's handling of the occasional action scene can also be hard to figure out precisely what's happening. Which isn't to say the art ruins the story. Particularly when characters are standing around, talking, the scenes are well enough portrayed. And there is often a certain ineffable, moody atmosphere with which painters can imbue their work. But ultimately I can imagine quite a few pencil and ink artists who would've done as well -- and better -- with the material.
The bottom line with Cast Shadows is that, even if it's not brilliant, it doesn't feel stupid. It's a story as much about the people as the events, and one that, though clearly pretentious at times, doesn't forget that it is, after all, meant to be an entertaining adventure. It's a decent, likeable read and sometimes, on a rainy day, that's all you can really ask for.
Cover price: $10.75 CDN./ $6.95 USA
Batman: Prey 1992 (SC TPB) 125 pgs.
by Doug Moench. Pencils by Paul Gulacy. Inks by Terry Austin.
Colours: Steve Oliff. Letters: John Costanza. Editors: Kevin Dooley, Andy Helfer.
Reprinting: Batman: Legends of the Dark Knight #11-15 (1990-1991)
Rating: * * * (out of 5)
Number of readings: 1
During the early days of his career, Batman is still an outlaw. A Batman task force is set up with a vicious cop who hates Batman, Max Cort, as its 2nd-in-command (Captain James Gordon being its, reluctant, commander) and a prominent psychiatrist as an advisor -- the dangerously deranged Hugo Strange. Strange works to uncover Batman's secret identity, while persuading Cort to prowl the night as an even more vicious vigilante in an attempt to discredit Batman. With such men allied against him, Batman must continue to protect Gotham...while attempting to forge a tentative alliance with James Gordon.
Prey starts out a bit slow, and resolves a bit easily, but has some decent stuff in the middle.
The problem is that it wants us to believe it's smart, insightful -- but fails on that level more often than it succeeds. Maybe I need to read it again, or maybe I'm just too dumb to grasp the subtleties, but neither the insanity of Hugo Strange nor of Max Cort were satisfactorily explained. In fact, Doug Moench hedges his bets by having Cort partially under the hypnotic sway of Strange -- as if even he wasn't convinced by his character's actions and so needed a fallback explanation.
The story could easily have been shorter. Ironic since, as it is, the plotting is a bit abrupt. Batman and Gordon deduce Strange and Cort's villainy...with little evidence; and the simple climax is anti-climactic -- after five chapters, you're expecting soomething requiring a little more cunning.
The trend with many comics published in recent years is not to use super heroes to tell stories about other things, but to tell stories analysing what it means to be a superhero/vigilante. Unfortunately, such analysis is rarely insightful. Batman butts heads with the police, failing to consider that if he and the police are after the same bust, maybe he's in the wrong spot. A vigilante/superhero should be where the police aren't, tackling the crimes they can't -- or won't -- tackle. Otherwise, what's the point?
A weakness I used to find with Moench's Batman (he wrote the regular comic in the mid-'80s and again in the early '90s) was that he tended to seem overly derivative. Granted, when a character has appeared in thousands of stories, it's hard to be fresh, but I felt Moench was more stale than some. Here he clearly borrows from Batman: Year One -- even to the point of throwing in Catwoman, but her brief appearances seem pointless -- while re-introducing Hugo Strange to the modern Bat-continuity. So many of the ideas (Strange analysing Batman, Gordon questioning his relationship with Bats, Strange's fixation on a female mannequin ala Clayface III, Batman tackling a more vicious vigilante, etc.) had been done before, with Moench bringing little new to the proceedings.
Significantly, the one thing Moench (and every other post-Crisis writer) hasn't followed up on, was the police corruption Frank Miller introduced in Batman: Year One. This despite the fact that that would actually justify the existence of a vigilante like Batman. In fact, despite showing cops clearly out of control (Max Cort isn't the only shoot first/question later cop on the beat), Moench doesn't criticize them, at one point even having Gordon and Batman agree that they sympathize with cops who hate Batman, but despise politicians who feel the same. Huh? Two groups with the identical opinion, but one group is "good" and the other "bad"? This, of course, is endemic of many a comic book (and movie and novel) in which police and military types (you know, people with guns who are not accountable to the public) are held up as a paragons of virtue, while anyone representing the democracy they're supposed to be safeguarding (politicians, lawyers, and the civilian population itself -- that's you and me, friend) are regarded with contempt. If you've ever wondered how it is fascist parties can get elected by the very people they will go on to oppress, you need go no farther than seeing how quick supposedly clear-thinking people are to embrace and apologize for them.
The art by Paul Gulacy is pretty effective. His detailed, realistic style, combined with a nice eye for mood and striking panel composition, gives the thing a lot of atmosphere (aided by Steve Oliff's colours). Though, curiously for a guy whose style seems so realistic, it can be awkward in spots, with too-short limbs, etc. He also indulges in a little sexploitation (not that I begrudge him) -- there's no nudity, but there are an abundance of shots of women wearing nothing but bed sheets, or a panel of Catwoman in silhouette...and nothing else. He and Moench used to work on the Master of Kung Fu series for Marvel, which probably explains the too-lengthy fight scenes and Batman's judo-style stances.
Constanza does his usual subtly effective job on the lettering.
Like a lot of the attempts to re-invent DC Comics characters for the "sophisticated" '80s and '90s, I'm not overly impressed. Prof. Hugo Strange was a 1940s mad-scientist who returned to Batman stories in the late-'70s and early '80s where he began his odd-ball obsession/identification with being Batman (first begun in stories collected in Batman: Strange Apparitions). It was precisely this gradual evolution that made the character intriguing. Here, Strange (now a Dr., leading to confusion with Marvel's superhero of the same name) is just a demented psychiatrist with a problem with women, lacking the gothic malevolence, and flamboyance, of a guy who could turn people into monsters -- this Strange may be a little creepier than the first, but he's also more pathetic...and less threatening. And his obsessive identification with being Batman seems to come from nowhere. Which is, perhaps, the biggest weakness: we never really feel like we understand Strange.
Ultimately, I have mixed feelings about Prey. Not great, and kind of missing most of the emotional and intellectual targets it sets up for itself, nonetheless, once you get into it, it's an O.K. read.
Moench and Gulacy later teamed up again for a quasi-sequel: Batman: Terror.
This is a review of the story serialized in Batman: LOTDK comics.
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