GRAPHIC NOVEL and TRADE PAPERBACK (TPB) REVIEWS

by The Masked Bookwyrm


Batman - Q - S (part 1)

Batman: Reign of Terror
  is reviewed here



Batman: Run, Riddler, Run
  the un-collected mini-series is reviewed here


Batman: Scottish Connection - cover by Frank QuitelyBatman: Scottish Connection 1998 (SC GN) 64 pgs.

Written by Alan Grant. Illustrated by Frank Quitely.
Colours: Matt Hollingsworth, Brad Matthew. Letters: Bill Oakley. Editor: Denny O'Neil.

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

Number of readings: 3

Firstly, I admit the two stars is harsh. Probably way, way too harsh. I had such mixed feelings about this that I read it twice before putting up my review...and I'm still ambivalent! There's some pleasant stuff in this graphic novel. I'm just not sure, in good conscience, that I can give it three stars.

The story has Bruce (Batman) Wayne visiting Scotland and investigating a would-be killer fired by a two hundred year old clan feud.

The emphasis on Bruce Wayne is interesting, with his only becoming Batman for the action scenes. And this is a more relaxed, easy going Bats than is often portrayed these days. A not unwelcome hearkening back to a less grim version of the character.

What's bizarre about this story is that it must have gotten the editorial go ahead based solely on the novelty of the Scottish setting, there's really nothing else of significance here. It's entirely plot-driven, but the plot, though technically bewildering in spots, is simplistic and downright silly at times. You can guess most of the story long before Alan Grant presumably wants you to (a climactic "revelation" is no revelation at all). The whole way Batman becomes embroiled in the case (via desecrated tombs leading to a lost Knights Templar recipe for creating super-assassins) is actually pointless...the bad guys are no more formidable after becoming "super-assassins" than they were before! And it's not really relevant to the revenge scheme anyway. Even after a second reading there seem to be incoherent leaps of logic.

A loose plot can (sometimes) be excused if it serves as the backbone for the human drama...but there's no such human factor to speak of (despite the potential, including an ending that could have been poignant if Grant had bothered to develop characters and relationships).

The art by Frank Quitely reminds me of European comic artists. It's very detailed and elegant, beautiful to look at (and evocative of Scotland, not that I've ever been there) -- the opening few pages are particularly effective -- but it's all a little...dispassionate. The characters lack any real emotion and the fight scenes lack kineticism. But that former complaint is more a result of the story. Quitely can't necessarily be expected to invest the characters with passion if it's not in the script.

Alan Grant and Frank Quitely are Scottish and work in some Scottish lore, including real-life Rossyln Chapel, but the story seems no more authentically Scottish than could be done by an American (it even reminded me a bit of an old McMillan and Wife episode, thanks in part to Quitely's Max Fleischer-esque Bruce Wayne evoking Rock Hudson). Alfred at one point gives Bruce a rundown on the local dialect...but wouldn't it have been cleverer to have worked that into the story itself?

On the plus side, the art is striking, and I didn't dislike Batman: Scottish Connection...condensed into a regular, single issue comic, it would've been fine. Maybe even as a two-parter it'd be O.K., if unexceptional. But the fact that this was stretched out to 64 pages and released as a prestige "graphic novel" is, frankly, ridiculous. I've criticized GN like Spider-Man: Fear Itself for being reasonably engrossing, but hardly "special", so how then do I rate a GN that, though not by any means terrible, is neither engrossing, nor special...nor even well thought out?

A final thought: though I initially regretted laying out the money for such a thin read, I don't actually regret having Scottish Connection on my shelf. There are some books that I kind of grumble about, but this isn't one. So, my final assessment is that, though my collection would be no poorer for having missed it, I don't begrudge it now that I have it. How's that for a wishy-washy review?


cvrBatman: Second Chances 2015 (SC TPB) 280 pgs.

Written by Max Allan Collins, Jim Starlin, with Jo Duffy. Illustrated by Dave Cockrum, Jim Aparo, and others.

Reprinting: Batman #402-403, 408-416, plus the back-up story from Batman Annual #11 (1987)

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

Number of readings: 1

Reviewed: Oct 2019

Second Chances is kind of an odd collection. A (more-or-less) consecutive run of issues by a few different creators, but with few particular story highlights. Its significance is that it presents the introduction and early stories featuring the 2nd Robin -- Jason Todd.

Or rather the "second" introduction. Jason had been introduced a few years before, but this was a re-booting of his story in DC's post-Crisis Universe. As well it was meant to herald a whole new creative team taking over the creative chores in the persons of writer Max Allan Collins and artist Chris Warner. A new creative team and possibly a new creative direction shepherded by editor (and one-time Bat-scribe) Denny O'Neil -- the title on the comics' covers even going from simply "Batman" to "Batman: The New Adventures."

Actually the collection begins with Jason already ensconced (possibly the lingering pre-Crisis reality?). Then we skip four issues that were Frank Miller/David Mazzuccelli's seminal Batman: Year One arc, which officially re-booted Batman. Then it's back to Collins as we jump ahead a few years from Year One and Batman officially decides to drop the original Robin (Dick Grayson). He fears the life of a crimefighter isn't appropriate for a teen...only to then adopt the even younger Jason Todd in the same storyline! This Jason is a re-imagining of the original: now re-cast as a saavy, orphaned street urchin who Batman takes under his wing. This new era feature a few minor adventures, while establishing this new Robin in this new reality, including a two-issue tussle with Two-Face made personal because Two-Face may have killed Jason's real dad!

Then there's a creative shake-up. Before we get to that, though, some thoughts on the Collins issues.

Collins was/is a successful crime novelist, as well as a writer of comics and, notably, the Dick Tracy newspaper strip. But here he seemed a slightly odd fit for Batman -- especially coming in around Frank Miller's gritty, somewhat adult Year One saga. Viewed one way, Collins seems determined to take the character Old School -- the stories seeming a bit lighter, a bit glibber, a bit simpler. The dialogue is fairly clunky and blunt. I don't know for sure how much this was a creative intent or just a reflection of Collins having spent years writing the Dick Tracy newspaper strip, a medium requiring a certain simplistic brevity of storytelling. I'm inclined to think it was, at least partly, deliberate. Collins' issues before the Year One gap (two issues involving Batman tackling a murderous vigilante who dresses like him) seemed more typically "gritty."

The problem isn't that I object to a slightly lighter Batman comic (far from it) except that Collins' storytelling and plotting is equally simplistic and old fashioned. Admittedly, Collins is saddled working with pre-determined story ideas: it's really awkward to have Batman dump Dick Grayson and then pick up an even younger sidekick in the same story! It also reflects the whole awkwardness of those post-Crisis years, where writers were struggling with what was canon/non-canon. The Jason origin story involves Ma Gunn -- a re-imagining of an older, slightly obscure Bat-villain; while Bruce Wayne is dating journalist Vicky Vale -- but we aren't necessarily supposed to be seeing this as a continuation of the pre-Crisis relationship!

Perhaps the most extreme example of this "lighter" Batman is the tale from Batman Annual #11 (the lead Alan Moore-George Freeman story isn't reprinted here). Collins teams with Norm Breyfogle (an artist just beginning to establish himself in the Bat-mythos, but evincing a firmer, more textured inking style than I often associate with him) for a deliberately light-hearted tale about The Penguin trying to go straight (in the name of love) and Batman being unconvinced. You can genuinely believe that Collins (and Breyfogle) are enjoying telling the guileless little tale -- but, like with a lot of Collins' stories here, feels thin. A likeable 5 or 8 page short stretched out to 15 pages!

The opening two issues of this TPB collection are drawn by old stalwart Jim Starlin and relative newcomer Denys Cowan respectively -- Cowan who would go on to draw a couple of significant Batman story arcs! But the "official" new artist (coming on board with the re-booted narrative in #408) was newcomer Chris Warner. Except Warner was gone by the next issue (even editor Denny O'Neil in an editorial in the comics admits he wasn't sure why that arrangement fell through). Veteran artist Ross Andru pinch hits, then the chores are handed over to another veteran artist -- Dave Cockrum.

Unfortunately the art isn't that great -- or, at least, isn't that well suited to Batman and his milieu. Although it does maybe suit Collins' scripts and, therefore, maybe part of an editorial direction O'Neil wanted to pursue. Warner and Cockrum (and Andru) having fairly bright, open styles, with Batman wandering the daylit streets a bit like Adam West from the 1960s TV series.

The result isn't without some charm but Collins' plotting runs to fairly bland and generic. There are also ethical quibbles. As mentioned, the pre-Year One story involves Batman tackling a murderous vigilante -- but Collins' (at least as expressed through his characters) seems a little too sympathetic to him and his ways. Likewise, a recurring thread Collins introduces is the idea that Vicky Vale is spearheading a citizens committee opposed to Batman and his vigilantism, lending the comic a kind of right wing, reactionary tone (with Batman sympathetic to the murderous cop and the antagonists are "bleeding heart" liberals!) for all that, in other ways, Collins seems to be going for a kinder, gentler Batman.

But I wonder if whatever they were going for (O'Neil, Collins, et al) wasn't really working. Because abruptly there is a pinch hitter issue by Jo Duffy drawn by Kieron Dwyer (nice work but from an artist who would improve). Duffy -- an often unsung but rarely less-than-good writer -- seems to be continuing Collins' tone with a story involving mysterious goings on at a museum in which, by the end, no one even ends up dead! But Duffy pulls it off better than Collins, with a story that is intriguing precisely because you're not sure where it's all headed!

And then the creative team shifts entirely.

Jim Starlin takes over as regular writer (Starlin who drew the opening issue in this collection) and re-establishes a broodier, slightly more sophisticated tone, even copying the Batman-voiceover-narration Frank Miller used in Year One and would become the norm in the Batman comics. Art is now the pervue of dynamic Jim Aparo -- an artist with an association with Batman dating back almost two decades (especially on the long running Batman team-up comic, The Brave & the Bold).

I don't know the behind-the-scenes but it can feel like editor O'Neil had been deliberately trying something different, pulling the comic away from the Gothic tone (that he himself had popularized in the early 1970s) with Collins/Warner/Cockrum -- and then decided it wasn't working, or sales were slipping. So he threw up his hands and simply hired an artist who was as quintessentially "Batman" as any and a writer long associated with dark n' brooding.

And, admittedly -- there is an up-tick in quality.

Aparo's art may be a bit looser than in his prime (tellingly, he's no longer inking himself, now with Mike DeCarlo serving in that capacity) but arguably his storytelling and composition has just gotten better. While Starlin -- a writer I can be up and down on -- brings an interesting, slightly sophisticated tone to things. As well as some stylistic variety. Although the three issues from the team are still a mixed back.

The first story has Batman investigating a serial killer -- and I've gone on record as to how much I dislike serial killer stories (and find them creatively bankrupt). But to Starlin's credit it works pretty well, largely because he isn't focused on the murders or the luridness, but the emotional consequences, and how it impacts on Batman. Unfortunately, the story ends inconclusively (it would be a few more issues before Starlin returned to the plot). The next issue is a tie-in with Millennium -- that year's company-wide crossover story. But the context is sufficiently explained for those unaware of Millennium, and the story is a surprisingly effective action piece (in contrast to the more brooding, introspective previous issue).

The final story in the collection is a character piece -- and ties back into the early part of this TPB, making this feel like more than just a random collection of sequential issues but a genuine story arc. Nightwing (Dick Grayson, the former Robin) returns to have it out with Batman over the dissolution of their partnership, and also to team up with Jason Todd.

As mentioned, I have been up and down on Starlin over the years, but there's an easy readability to his issues -- whether he's crafting action scenes or talking head character scenes. Granted he -- like Collins -- is struggling to make narrative and emotional sense out of problematic editorial edicts. Having Nightwing and Batman have an emotional confrontation is hamstrung by the fact that, dress it up as much as Starlin wants, Batman's behaviour never made a lot of sense. (I've said before that the problem with Batman over the last few decades is that the more writers try to delve into Batman psychologically, the more he is reduced to a one-dimensional personality)

The result is -- an uneven read. For completists it's a good collection introducing the post-Crisis Jason/Robin, and acting as a companion to the seminal Death in the Family story. I hadn't realized just how problematically obnoxious Jason was to begin with (no wonder fans voted to kill him!) although I think Starlin tries to pull him back from Collins' initially brash and cocky version. But as a collection of stories this has some decent tales, and some mediocre tales, with even the better tales often hamstrung by being a bit inconclusive, or part of bigger or on-going threads.


Batman: Shaman  1993 (SC TPB) 136 pages

Written by Denny O'Neil. Pencils by Ed Hannigan. Inks by John Beatty.

Reprinting: Batman: Legends of the Dark Knight #1-5 (1989)

Rating: * * (out of 5)

Number of readings: 2

This collects the inaugural storyline from Legends of the Dark Knight -- a story which spans the first two years of Batman's career, involving a macabre Carribean drug cult springing up in Gotham that's somehow mixed up with Alaskan Indian shamanism that once saved Batman's life. Because of the time frame, this would've been impossible to have been told in any other Batman comic -- it would completely throw off the regular comics' continuity. But overall it was a bland choice with which to begin the new Batman comic, Legends of the Dark Knight, a title intended to tell ambitious, stand alone Bat-sagas.

This is one of those stories, common to comics, where there's little human drama...just about everyone who has so much as a line is there to serve a function (the one curious exception being a priest in one scene). You can figure out who the villain will turn out to be simply because he opened his mouth! Even Batman is at arms lengths in a lot of scenes, the reader not always allowed inside his head.

The plotting is weak, with some clues that are so obvious you can't believe Batman didn't pick up on them, and other "clues" that the reader didn't even have access to. And the story doesn't always make sense -- really! There are plausibility problems overall. Including with characterization. Batman seems to feel such contempt for Indian beliefs that he relates a tribal legend that was told to him in confidence (an act that seems wildly inappropriate) then, later, seems to accept the mystical aspects unequivocably. Stranger still, Batman spends the whole story insisting there must be a connection between some Alaskan Indians and a drug cult -- but by the end, the connection is tenuuous.

For a saga about cults and mysticism, instead of being brooding and eerie, it's kind of matter-of-fact with unimaginative action scenes of Batman tackling street hoodlums (the cultists only appear in the second and fifth chapters!). There are few memorable scenes or lines in Shaman -- ironically, one exception is just a quirky scene involving a couple of hard-of-hearing security guards. The dialogue, overall, is workmanlike at best. There's also uncomfortable racial stuff. O'Neil's portrayal of the Native Indian characters is meant to be respectful, but he seems to have trouble seeing them as people first, Indians second. And when the archaic phrase "renegade Indian" is used...well, you feel just a little queasy. And the story hinges on the cult being populated by superstitious, drug smuggling illegal immigrants.

The opening sequence in Alaska is well written by O'Neil and well drawn by Hannigan (evoking Neal Admas). But Hannigan's later work is sketchy and rough with only workmanlike composition. There's clarity to the scenes, but no real fire, no imagination. Though Hannigan's Batman (particularly his cape) was rendered with surprising effectiveness in some scenes.

This is interwoven with scenes from Batman: Year One, but like a lot of post-Year One writers, O'Neil ignores the police corruption of that classic tale, portraying the police as the unimpeachable "thin blue line" while James Gordon contemptuously refers to "human flotsam" (now there's a healthy attitude for a guy carrying a gun to take).

At times O'Neil's Batman is disturbing, threatening to cripple people, or declaring the streets belong to him (surely the streets belong to the people and he is their protector?) yet he is compassionate in the end when dealing with a character who O'Neil hadn't portrayed as anything more than a homicidal lunatic. Never do you get a sense of why Bruce Wayne became the Batman, despite that being a major subtext to this story. Sure, he became Batman because his parents were murdered, but that doesn't answer the question. This Batman seems less outraged by crime than he is just curious.

Ultimately this is a minor story lacking depth and, sometimes, even logic.

This is a review of the story as it was originally serialized in Batman comics


Batman '66, vol. 1  2014 (SC TPB) 188 pages

Written by Jeff Parker. Illustrated by various.
Colours: various. Letters: Wes Abbott.

Reprinting: Batman '66 #1-6 (2014)

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

Number of readings: 1

Reviewed: July 2015

Nostalgia is a curious thing.

Back in the 1960s the live-action Batman TV series (starring Adam West and Burt Ward) became a massive phenomenon. Although its peak was fleeting (I believe it only lasted three seasons) it helped put comic book heroes back into the mainstream of pop culture (after a fashion), largely created the concept of deliberate "camp," and continued to influence the shape and style of super hero adaptations in movies and TV for decades (yes, even the Tim Burton Batman movies for all their added darkness and violence) and how people perceived the genre. How many old newspaper stories about comics began "Bam!" "Biff!" "Pow!" (in honour of how the TV series would feature sound effect baloons on-sreen)?

Yet comics fans regarded it with some cynicism, precisely because it was spoofing comic book themes. Indeed, the Batman comics spent years (starting in the late 1960s) deliberately trying to break away from the shadow of the 1960s TV series.

Yet now, decades later, and with the increasing prevalence of media tie-in comics that are both commercial and critical successes (when in the past TV tie-in comics were often poorly received) DC has decided to re-embrace its prodigal son with Batman '66 -- an out-of-continuity Batman comic that is meant to evoke the 1960s TV series. The other impetus, presumably, was the way DC and Marvel both have occasionally experimented with All-Ages versions of their main properties -- what with a feeling that a lot of comics can get a bit too dark and gritty (particularly Batman comics with their endless parade of demented psychos and serial killers) and so discourage younger readers that are necessary to the long term health of the industry.

So this TPB collects the first six issues of the on-going Batman '66 comic which is basically a tie-in to a TV series which was an adaptation of a comic book character. The stories are deliberately light-hearted and light-weight, clipping along briskly, with tongue firmly in cheek. Batman and Robin are drawn to evoke actors West and Ward and their rogues gallery is likewise fashioned after their TV incarnations -- including some foes that only ever appeared on the TV. Over these six issues they encounter everyone from the Riddler to The Penguin to Egghead and The Sandman (a TV villain unconnected to any comic book character of that name) and with Catwoman drawn to look both like Julie Newmar and Eartha Kitt in separate adventures.

All issues are written by Jeff Parker who, in a way, has been this route before. At least in that he was responsible for Marvel's X-Men: First Class which told light-hearted retro tales of the original X-Men.

But though Batman '66 is hard to dislike -- equally it's hard to get too excited about, at least once the initial novelty has worn off. Part of that lies with the source material itself. Don't get me wrong: I watched the Batman TV show voraciously as a kid. But as I got older, I was aware there is a limitation to the whole "camp" style. It means the plots and the characterization aren't really meant to be that interesting on their own -- yet it's not really that funny either, as the humour is supposed to stem from the ambience rather than actual wit.

So the problem here is the stories aren't especially clever or twisty, following pretty simple paths to pretty simple resolutions. Yet Parker isn't trying to be obviously comedic either (unlike his X-Men stories which had actual funny quips). Each issue is generally comprised of a 20 page lead story, and a ten page short tale. But neither are that complex. At least the TV series -- I seem to recall -- could boast some twists and turns to the plots.

One way the comics do try to break away from the TV series is by exploiting the "bigger budget" of comics by featuring stunts and scenes (including aerial dog fights!) the TV series couldn't have mounted.

The art is part of the camp/light-hearted feel, with all artists engaging in cartoony, bright, open art. The point is to evoke the feel of the 1960s series, so the characters (to varying degrees) evoke the actors, and the sets and environments are colourful and cheery. Yet I would argue the art can lose some of the point of the comic -- which is to make you feel like you're coming upon some lost episodes of the TV show. Ty Templeton draws one story and his work strikes me as among the best precisely because he goes for straight forward realism -- it really does look like scenes from the series with West and Young et al running about. But a lot of the other artists are more cartoony. Some quite a bit, in a way that might turn off younger readers (who, after all, I suspect like clean, easy to follow panels). In the opening story by Jonathan Case, at times he just kind of flings his characters across the page in a way that confuses perspective and lacks grounding. In one scene, recreating the series' signature scenes of the heroes rappelling up a wall, their feet don't really seem to be touching anything.

Often I suspect the very act of trying to win over new, younger readers means "All-Ages" comics offer little with which to woo existing, older readers. Batman '66 may avoid that problem because DC has latched onto the perfect cross-generational formula. Bright visuals, simple stories, and a lack of too much overt nastiness to appeal to young kids while, simultaneously, appealing to older readers who will enjoy it for its nostalgic rush. Indeed, I wouldn't be surprised if the main audience are aging baby boomers.

But though I don't for a minute dislike these issues, neither is it fully griping. It's not funny enough to be a comedic romp, yet without enough in the story/plot department to simply make the issues engrossing page turners. Kind of the problem with camp.


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