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GRAPHIC NOVEL and TRADE PAPERBACK (TPB) REVIEWS

by The Masked Bookwyrm


Batman - T

Batman: Tales of the Demon 1991 (TPB) 208 pgs.

Batman: Tales of the Demon - cover by Brian StelfreezeWritten by Denny O'Neil. Art by Irv Novick, Neal Adams, Don Newton, and Bob Brown, Michael Golden. Inks by Dick Giordano, Dan Adkins.
Colours/Letters: various. Original editors: Julius Schwartz, Paul Levitz.

Reprinting: Detective Comics #411, 485, 489, 490, Batman #232, 235, 240, 242, 243, 244, and part of DC Special Series #15 (vol. 2) (one of the three stories originally published in it) (1971-1972, 1978-1980)

Rating: * * * (out of 5)

Number of readings: 3

I'm sort of ambivalent about this collection of Batman's conflicts with the enigmatic Ra's Al Ghul (Arabic for Demon's Head) and his daughter, Talia. As a collection, it's pretty good, collecting the first 7 stories in order, as well as some other key adventures. It features the art of Irv Novick, Neal Adams, and Don Newton on three reprints each; guys who epitomize the Dark Knight (I'm not necessarily a big Novick fan, but I know others are). As well as a story each from Brown and Golden. There are some semi-pivotal stories, like the first use of Batman's alter-alter ego, "Matches" Malone, and the death of Batwoman. Many of the early 1970s stories had been reprinted previously, and more than once -- such as in a 1987 reprint mini-series The Saga of Ra's Al Ghul, which also included extra, more peripheral tales that fit inbetween these issues.

One can't quibble with the choice of stories...my quibble is with the stories themselves.

Some villains have enough facets and interpretations that they can be used in a collection (Spider-Man vs. the Green Goblin, or I once read a digest of Superman vs. Luthor stories that was very good). But surprisingly, Ra's just isn't that interesting when you read story after story about him, and he gets annoying precisely because O'Neil wants us to think he's cool (as if a homicidal megalomaniac can be cool). Perhaps the problem is that, by setting out to make Ra's a "great" villain from the beginning, O'Neil shaped him in too confining a mould. Ra's is pretty monotonous, lacking the facets that even comic book villains need to seem real. Yet despite an introduction saying the intent with Ra's was to create a mysterious foe where we're never sure what to expect...he isn't very surprising. And the notion that he is constantly at work on grand designs that neither Batman, nor the reader, is ever really privy too is sort of interesting, and sort of just smacks of a convenient narrative crutch where the writer doesn't really have to figure it out himself.

Talia, as well, is problematic, the archetypal lover/enemy of whom Batman seems to have so many. Indeed, for a while in the 1990s my understanding was that DC Comics was sort of pushing to replace Catwoman with Talia as Batman's chief opposite number paramour (coinciding with Denny O'Neil -- Talia's creator -- becoming editor of all things Bat?). BBut Talia is...vapid. A middle-aged man's fantasy, she's a woman-child defined solely by the men in her life: her father, and her "beloved" Batman, and her subservience to both. You can't picture a 20th Century kind of guy like the Batman living his life with this animated Barbie doll -- or even having a conversation with her over the breakfast table.

In a way, Talia is the polar opposite of Batman: a woman who, even as an adult, is bound by family ties, while Batman is the tormented orphan, shaped by the absence of family (like Catwoman). Admittedly, that could be an interesting avenue of exploration in their relationship, but in no Talia stories that I've read (by any author) have I ever seen that idea expressed.

Anyway, on to the stories themselves:

reissue cover by Neal AdamsThe early stories, introducing Talia and Ra's, are thinly plotted and repetitive, with Batman not immediately recognizing Ra's as a bad guy. It's an ambitious concept, slowly exposing Ra's' villainy over more than one story, but come on. How could Batman not realize there was something shady about Ra's, surrounded by armed goons and with intimate knowledge of underworld happenings? I mean, duh-uh.

The high points are two trilogies. The first, with Neal Adams handling two-thirds of the story, has Batman atypically assembling a team "Magnificent Seven"-style, then moving into James Bond territory as they head off to the alps to bring Ra's down. The second, drawn by Don Newton, chronicles Batman's fight with the League of Assassins, with Ra's more a supporting character. Both still suffer from shallow plotting and illogic (like why does Batman bother to assemble a team in the first trilogy?) and a lack of genuine emotion. The last trilogy begins with the (literally) senseless murder of Kathy Kane (Batwoman from the '50s and '60s), but despite titles like "The Vengeance Vow", Batman seems surprisingly unmoved by the murder of his one time friend, ally...lover. Since it was under O'Neil's subsequent editorship that Batgirl was crippled, perhaps O'Neil just has a pathological dislike for women who don Bat-costumes (he's also one of the few comic book writer who regularly throws in scenes where even the heroes use lethal force against animals). Still, as bubble-gum action-adventures, the trilogies are reasonably entertaining, benefiting from their greater length. Of course the art by Adams and, especially, Newton helps (I'm a big Don Newton-Batman fan, especially with someone like Adkins inking).

The collection also contains editorials by O'Neil and Sam Hamm, the writer of the 1989 Batman movie (admittedly, I don't consider that a recommendation...but Hamm did also write one of my all-time favourite Batman comics arcs -- Blind Justice)

The ambition that went into Ra's, the desire to create a mysterious, cosmopolitan villain and a kind of "X-Files"-like conspirator-of-one, a truly grand arch foe, is applaudable. I'm just not sure the actual execution of the concept fulfilled the intent. As well, I'll admit, I'm not the biggest fan of O'Neil's Batman stories -- which puts me in a minority, as O'Neil is often credited as the guy who redeemed Batman from decades of trivilization and the campy 1960s TV series. And it's certainly not like I don't like some of his stuff. But re-reading this (and some other O'Neil Bat-tales) I wonder if part of the problem is O'Neil was rather caught in the middle of changing times and styles -- trying to write comics that seemed more edgy, more serious than was the stereotype...while still writing them mired in the old cliches. In other words his stuff can seem pretentious, with brooding, overwrought captions...while his handling of plot and characterization doesn't really justify that sense of hubris. Even compared to his then peers, his dialogue can be a bit rough and clumsy, his plot twists kind of goofy, and his characterization superficial and inconsistent. BUT...I realize I'm reviewing decades old comics, and the same could be said of many of them -- heck, the same can be said of the newly printed comics fresh on the shelves!

Anyway, thanks to the two trilogies, Batman: Tales of the Demon is entertaining enough, and the shorter pieces aren't terrible, but this isn't really a "must have" collection. Maybe they should have broadened the contributors, instead of picking all-O'Neil stories. A Len Wein-scribed epic in which Ra's frames Batman for...the murder of Ra's Al Ghul, or a Mike Barr-written Batman Annual (I won't say which one, since Ra's participation was a mid-story revelation), might have added some needed variety to the collection.

Cover price: $21.95 CDN./$17.95 USA


Batman: Ten Nights of the Beast 1994 (SC TPB) 96 pages

cover by Mike ZeckWritten by Jim Starlin. Pencils by Jim Aparo. Inks by Mike DeCarlo.
Colours: Adrieene Roy. Letters: John Costanza, Augustin Mas. Editor: Denny O'Neil.

Reprinting: Batman #417-420 (with covers)

Additional notes: intro by (then assistant editor) Dan Raspler.

Rating: * * * (out of 5)

Number of readings: 2

In the 1980s, a rogue Soviet super assassin, dubbed the KGBeast, arrives in Gotham intent on sabotaging the Strategic Defence Initiative (SDI), the plan whereby America would be defended from missile attack by lasers (no, really, this was true, popularly referred to as the "Star Wars" program). The Beast -- and his Shi'ite terrorist (!) sidekick -- has a list of people he intends to eliminate, and it's up to Batman, as well as Robin, the police, the CIA, and the FBI, to try to stop him.

Ten Nights of the Beast is a reasonably well remembered adventure, following the familiar idea in comics of trying to introduce a new villain who we are to accept is just that much bigger and badder than anyone the hero's ever faced before. It was originally marketed as a mini-series-within-a-series, where for four months the title was blazoned on the cover of the comics (DC did that for a number of Batman stories at the time).

I recently picked it up because I had enjoyed the same creative team's controversial A Death in the Family story published a year later, and was looking for another story from the era before computer colour. Although A Death in the Family had unbelievable coincidences, I enjoyed it for its handling of the characters, and for the off beat attempt to set a Batman story against a semi-real world of geo-politics.

In that latter sense, this story is similar, featuring a rogue Russian agent in the days of thawing East-West tensions, with the catalyst the real life SDI program. It's also kind of silly in spots.

Don't misunderstand. This is a moderately enjoyable romp. Artist Jim Aparo has a clear visual style that keeps the pace up and, in a story where the action scenes dominate, the action is often dynamic and easy to follow. Writer Jim Starlin comes up with some nice action sequences, particularly in the third chapter with an off-beat sequence in an elevator, which then segues into a rooftop chase. Good stuff.

But the plot is thin. The Beast kills most of his targets before the end, not to mention innocent by-standers that number over a hundred. Starlin, like too many writers, trivializes death and suffering, racking up the body count simply so fans won't say, "The KGBeast ain't so tough, why the Joker killed more than that last time he was in the comic". This is particularly awkward when President Reagan himself comes to town. Don't you think the president might consider, y'know, postponing his trip? I know there's the old "we mustn't give in to terrorism" idea, but that's a theoretical "not giving in", not something where you know there's a killer in town, know he's gunning for the president, and know that, so far, you haven't been able to stop him (and that innocent bystanders often pay the price). Nor does Batman prove particularly clever when it comes to trying to thwart the Beast. The climax itself is awkward, when Batman seems to herd the Beast into an area of his pre-choosing...when he had no way of anticipating how the Beast would try to escape! And Starlin occasionally has to write gaping holes in the security arrangements for the Beast to escape through (the cops stake out a convention hall, but don't bother having snipers outside? or sewer grates inside buildings?)

The story is focused on plot, as opposed to being much concerned with characterization, but even a sub-plot involving a mole with the good guys is haphazardly developed -- it's not like we get to know the suspects, or are provided with a lot of clues.

Still, for all that I complain that it's basically about the KGBeast killing people and Batman playing clean up, Starlin and Aparo don't drag out the killing scenes, putting the emphasis more on Batman conferring with his allies, and his periodic tussles with the Beast which, as mentioned, are nicely staged and exciting.

But it is deeply silly at times, often lacking both plausibility and even logic. And Starlin's grasp of real world matters seems suspect. I believe the CIA is only authorized to act outside of the United States, so you wouldn't really have CIA agents running about Gotham. And, as in the later Death in the Family, Starlin throws in the idea of diplomatic immunity, but I'm not really sure diplomatic immunity works the way he thinks it does.

There are also moral qualms. I'm never big on real life politicians being featured as significant characters in comics -- there's often an uncomfortable propaganda aspect to such stories (with Reagan drawn to look about twenty years younger than he was, and portrayed as the epitomy of reason and good heartedness), not that it goes overboard by having Reagan team up with Batman or anything. Throwing in the SDI idea itself is awkward. I'm sure DC had a policy discouraging writers from getting too political, and Starlin throws in a brief debate between a CIA agent and a KGB agent about moral implications of the program. But even at the time, they must've been aware that most credible scientists had denounced the program as ludicrous and unrealistic. Sure, it makes a nice fit: a cartoony government policy featured in a comic book. But, read years later, after SDI fizzled out, it seems silly to imagine even renegade Russians putting all this effort into sabotaging something that never got off the ground in the first place.

Since the KGBeast is so super-tough, then it apparently falls to Batman to go to extraordinary measures to deal with him. And the story ends with Batman, essentially, killing the Beast in cold blood (without actually having him do so -- you'd have to read it). Comicbook pros like editor Denny O'Neil wonder why fans have become jaded when he tries to do his "moral" stories from time to time...it's because, by O.K.ing stories like this, he basically undermines his attempts to take higher ground in other stories.

A few years later, a quasi sequel was penned (by writer Marv Wolfman in Batman #445-447) with Batman tackling a protégé of the Beast, the NKVDemon. It followed a similar formula and even started out well but was, frankly, poor, so to his credit, Starlin must've been doing something right, because his version is certainly O.K.

Cover price: $8.00 CDN./ $5.95 USA.


Batman: Terror 2003 (SC TPB) 128 pages

Written by Doug Moench. Pencils by Paul Gulacy. Inks by Jimmy Palmiotti.
Colours: James Sinclair. Letters: Kurt Hathaway. editors: Andrew Helfer, Harvey Richards.

cover by Paul GulacyReprinting: Batman: Legends of the Dark Knight #137-141 (2000-2001)

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

Number of readings: 1

The comic book Batman: Legends of the Dark Knight began more than a decade ago as a forum for, nominally, more ambitious Batman stories. Often set early in Batman's career, each self-contained story arc is usually unconnected to other comics on the stand, and features writers and artists who work on one story line, then move on, rather than the same writer or artist for each arc. Originally the comic encouraged long story arcs -- five issues each -- but then they quickly cut back to stories usually no longer than three or four issues. Initially, many Batman TPB collections were culled from LOTDK -- each of the the first four story arcs were collected, and other stories found their way into TPBs. At least 7 or 8 Batman collections came from LOTDK. But just as the five part stories became rare, so to have the TPB collections reprinting LOTDK issues.

Recently, though, the comic has started experimenting again with longer stories, and we're seeing some LOTDK collections again. Appropriately enough, one of the first of these new TPB collections is a sequel, of sorts, to an earlier story arc. Prey was by writer Doug Moench and artist Paul Gulacy and was the third story arc to appear in LOTDK a decade ago. It reimagined Batman's first encounter with the demented psychiatrist, Hugo Strange -- a villain first created in the 1940s who enjoyed a bit of a comeback in the late 1970s-early 1980s as a manipulative character who had uncovered Batman's secret I.D. and was unhealthily fixated on Batman (as shown in the collection Batman: Strange Apparitions). When DC Comics overhauled its entire line in the 1980s, essentially rendering null all earlier stories, it left room for Moench to reinterpret the character as a much more twisted, but more realistic figure -- no longer a super-villain, just a demented psychopath. Prey was an attempt at a gritty, semi-realistic story, as Strange hooked up with a psychopathic cop. It was uneven, but O.K.

Recently Moench and Gulacy have reunited for this sequel (with Palmiotti replacing Terry Austin as inker) -- though it's not a sequel in a sense that you need to have read the original story. Strange is back from his seeming death at the end of Prey, this time seeking as his pawn-in-crime, not a bent cop, but a super-villain, the Scarecrow -- the latter a foe who, with a combination of a fear-inducing psychotropic gas and lethal weapons, seeks revenge on those who bullied him as a youth.

Here's where you notice the first major shift between the two stories. Whereas Prey was trying to appear, nominally, more "real", set against a back drop of crooks and cops, this is clearly superhero-supervillain territory. Even Gulacy's art style has changed significantly in the ensuing decade, eschewing his formerly realist style for a more cartoony, exaggerated look of big eyes and caricature.

The story starts out reasonably well, as Strange commits a seeming random murder, and then begins courting the Scarecrow. We wait for a complex plot to unfold, as the manipulative Strange strategizes from behind the scenes to attack Batman psychologically. But then Moench throws in a plot curve -- a curve which, though admirably unexpected, results in the lion's share of the saga becoming just a Scarecrow story. And a pretty run-of-the-mill one at that as Scarecrow hunts up some old aquaintances to be his victims, climaxing in Batman facing a haunted house style death trap. Moench himself has been over this ground in a Scarecrow story he penned in the early '90s (Batman #523-524)

I'll admit, the trend in recent years to recast all of Batman's villains as deranged, homicidal psychopaths, so writers can pretend they're being "gritty" and "realistic", has resulted in a certain numbing repetition. All the foes act pretty much the same. Frankly, a comic I read as a kid, with the Scarecrow as a less unstable -- and less murderous -- foe, struck me as a more interesting story than this.

When Strange and the Scarecrow are together, there's an intentional aspect of comedy to the proceedings, as two completely deranged men banter back and fourth irrationally. Which brings up another problem, which is Moench's emphasis on the villains. While in Prey, it was most definitely a Batman story, here Moench seems to put less emphasis on Batman, on portraying the person rather than the costume. The villains actually seem to get more pages. Even with Catwoman thrown into the mix, as she and Batman form an uneasy alliance, complete with supposed sexual chemistry, there doesn't seem to be enough Batman in this Batman story.

After all is said and done, this return to the five-part epics kind of reminds one of why they stopped doing them in the first place. There doesn't really seem to be enough here to warrant the length, and Gulacy's new art style isn't entirely a welcome change. And for something that seemed to be a return of Hugo Strange, in a comic that was supposed to be a forum for ambitious stories, the result is just a pretty standard Scarecrow story. And, for its length, not even that good a one.

This is a review of the story as it was serialized in Batman: LOTDK comics.

Cover price: $19.95 CDN./ $12.95 USA


Batman: Through the Looking Glass 2011 (HC & SC GN) 112 pgs.

cover by KiethWritten by Bruce Jones. Illustrated by Sam Kieth.
Colours: David Baron. Letters: Steve Watids. Ediror: Mike Carlin.

Rating: * * * * (out of 5)

Number of readings: 1

Reviewed: Feb. 2015

Through the Looking Glass is a bit of an oddity -- a light-hearted Batman story. Yet it manages to keep just this side of descending into complete parody by virtue of the fact that Batman is investigating an actual case -- it's just he's hallucinating while he does.

The premise is that Batman is visited by a little imaginary girl who looks like Alice in Wonderland and starts him on a mad investigation involving various figures from Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland -- from the White Rabbit to the Mad Hatter. But instead of this just being a dream or an imaginary adventure, his delusions cross back and forth with reality as Batman is actually investigating some murders involving local city councilmen. And though the girl looks and acts like Alice, Batman knows she isn't -- although that's because he identifies her as a little girl named Celia who died when he was a boy, but was one of his best playmates.

Needless to say, this all has Alfred and Robin (Dick Grayson) rather concerned, particularly when they deduce Batman has been exposed to a halluginogen. They set off hoping to corral the Dark Knight even as he sets off on his mad investigation through sewers and into the homes of Gotham's rich and influential.

And it's surprisingly fun.

As I say, it benefits immeasurably from the fact that it is, at least on a certain level, still meant to function as an actual investigation, so that it is still a conventional Batman adventure -- just told in an unconventional way. Although I won't say it's exactly a crime story tour de force (considering it comes in at over 100 pages), nor does it always make sense, particularly occasionally in what's really supposed to be occurring when Batman perceives something delusionally (like when he escapes from being tied to a gurney by stretching his arm!) Even the motives for the crimes is a bit vague by the end.

There's also a bit of a continuity question. One of the Batman's old foes is called The Mad Hatter (actually, he's had a couple of them called that) and when he meets the Mad Hatter here, he acts contemptuous and suspicious. So is this supposed to be his old foe? If so -- shouldn't he be a little more concerned that he's running around, unincarcerated? According to one thing I read, this story was maybe supposed to be one of those retro tales telling of Batman's "first" encounter with The Mad Hatter -- but I'm not sure that's made clear in the story itself (nor would it explain the instant animosity nor, for that matter, why toward the end it's implied this Mad Hatter knows Batman's secret identity).

Still, maybe a story like this isn't meant to be scrutinized too closely.

Sam Kieth's art is lively and energetic, enlivened with painted colours over figures that mix cartoony with just enough super heroism to not lose the essence of the property. His art sort of reminded me a bit of a cross between Sergio AragonÚs and Shawn McManus. While writer Bruce Jones keeps things light and amusing (accepting the context, of, y'know, a murder investigation) partly by letting Batman and company remain in character -- though this a decidedly gentler, more easy going Batman than some writers portray.

The result is something one doesn't get to say too often: a fun, good-hearted Batman romp (without simply being the camp pastiche that is, say, Batman '66).

Cover price: __

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