by The Masked Bookwyrm

Batman - U - Wha

Pocket Book Reprint
The Untold Legend of the Batman - cvr by Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez The Untold Legend of the Batman  Published in 1982 by Tor Books, re-issued in 1992 - Black & White

Reprinting: The Untold Legend of the Batman #1-3 (1981 mini-series)

Written by Len Wein. Art by John Byrne, Jim Aparo. 
Letters: John Constanza. Editor: Paul Levitz.

Rating: * * * * (out of 5)

Intended to bring together into one story all the elements of the Batman's origin and mythos that had been introduced over the course of 40 years, The Untold Legend of the Batman has Bats being menaced by an unknown foe with access to the Batcave itself, leading our hero to reflect back on his origin and history in an attempt to ferret out the identity, and the motive, of the culprit. 

The first issue is the best, concentrating exclusively on Batman. By this point, so many aspects and personalities had been introduced to the mythos in so many different stories (from Harvey Harris to Lew Moxom) that, by spinning them together linearly, it makes for an enthralling, effectively complex tale as we learn the origins of the Batman and his unravelling of the secret behind his parents' murder. 

Unfortunately, the next two issues aren't as strong. The story expands to include the origins of Dick (Robin) Grayson and Alfred, villains like the Joker, all the way to the non-events of Lucius Fox's origin or who fixes the Batmobile. Wein fails to weave these elements together as effectively as he had Batman's story, making it more a collection of vignettes than a story. 

Perhaps he should've interwoven the whole saga, inserting the stories of Robin, Alfred, etc., in their proper chronological sequence in Batman's history. Conversely, by compartmentalizing (issue number one focusing on Batman; no. two on Robin, Alfred, etc.) it makes it worth picking up, even if you can't find the whole trilogy. The first issue is still a good read, even if the identity of the unknown adversary is left unresolved. 

And speaking of the loose plot of the unknown villain, Wein goes for the thoughtful solution, rather than the visceral. That's certainly admirable, but, I'll admit, a more action-oriented climax would've been more fun. Besides, though there was probably no way around it, the baddy's identity is pretty obvious, pretty early. 

Wein is one of my all-time favourite Bat-scribes. At his best, he could convey more character nuance with single line than a lot of writers can with whole monologues. When Batman, Robin and Alfred talk, you believe they've got years of shared history between them. Of course, since Wein lifts some scenes, sometimes verbatim, from previous stories, his workload is kind of halved. 

The first issue is drawn by John Byrne, and inked by long time Bat-artist Jim Aparo, the next two were drawn by Aparo exclusively. The first is the best. Byrne has Aparo beat with his detailed, meticulous style, but his draughtsman-technique probably would've lacked the sombre mood and organic flow demanded by the character -- something Aparo's inks give him. Together, the two are greater than the sum. 

For continuity buffs, the original point of the mini-series is entirely moot. This was the pre-Crisis Batman, and I'm not sure how much of this is in continuity anymore. Although, maybe that can be fun, too. Like reading an Elseworld's story, or watching a Batman movie, this can be an interesting read precisely for its mix of the familiar and the unfamiliar. 

Overall, "The Untold Legend of the Batman" is worth keeping an eye out for. The first issue is excellent, and the others O.K. Collected in a single pocketbook, it was printed in black and white, two panels per page, though with some editing: panels were trimmed to fit the spacing, and, occasionally, a panel was left out altogether (though the text was kept). There were also audio tape versions. 

Batman: Venom  1992 (SC TPB) 132 pages

Written by Dennis O'Neil. Layouts by Trevor Von Eeden. Pencils by Russell Braun. Finishes by Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez.
Colours: Steve Oliff. Letters: Willie Schubert. Editors: Kevin Dooley & Andy Helfer.

Reprinting: Batman: Legends of the Dark Knight #15-20 (1992)

Rating: * * (out of 5)

Number of readings: 2

Distraught by his failure to save a little girl's life, Batman begins using super-steroids designed by her scientist father -- which prove addictive and make Batman overly aggressive and unstable. After shaking off the effects, Batman pursues the scientist -- and his partner, a rogue general -- who are using the drugs as part of an unsanctioned experiment to create super soldiers.

The art for Venom is an unusual tag team, with two of the greats -- Trevor Von Eeden and Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez providing layouts and finishes, respectively, and the (to my mind) lesser known Braun the pencils. The result is striking, realist art, though Von Eeden's layouts are maybe not as eclectic as you might expect from him. It's the sort of art that in service of a great, down-to-earth tale would really enhance it. This is a "human" Batman -- who looks like a guy in a suit, more than a mysterious creature of the night.

Unfortunately, the story doesn't live up to the art.

Denny O'Neil is, to my mind, a problematic figure in comics. He's definitely something of a giant, generally respected -- I believe -- both by peers and fans. And I'll admit, I've read some memorable stuff by him (mainly Green Lantern comics)...but my visceral reaction to seeing his by-line is a certain unenthusiasm. Too often his plots tend to be simplistic, his dialogue unmemorable, and his characterization one-dimensional. And Venom falls squarely into that category.

The premise has potential: Batman developing and then overcoming an addiction. In fact, I had some vague feeling I'd read that O'Neil himself had had a drinking problem long ago, in his youth. If true, you might expect a penetrating insight into the mind of the dependent. But I just didn't really feel we got that. In fact, O'Neil might've been better to have spared a few pages to showing us Batman as a genuinely more effective crimefighter using the drugs -- so that we can understand why he might rationalize their use. Instead, he starts taking the pills...and then we jump three months to when he's basically an uncontrolled vigilante, hassling thugs for no reason.

As in his inaugural LOTDK story arc, Shaman, O'Neil seems to like playing around with time in a way that, in one of the regular Bat-titles, it would probably mess up continuity. The downside is, the numbers don't always add up. At one point there seems to be a five month gap where it's unclear what Batman was doing all that time. Or, even more peculiar, when faced with an obligatory death trap, the stated time frame goes from 24 hours to three days in the space of a few panels!

But the problem with Venom -- and, indeed, many of the longer LOTDK story arcs -- is it just doesn't justify the length. The Batman-addiction thing only takes up the first half of the story, and the plot overall is pretty simple and straight forward. And the villains are one-dimensional, so-evil-they-ooze, bad guys. Maybe O'Neil's sense of morality means he can't bring himself to try and humanize villains, but in a 126 page saga where the villains and their conversations take up an awful lot of page time, we need something more than just constantly cutting to them being evil and sleazy. It's not like mad schemes to create super soldiers are exactly a radical concept in fiction (even Alfred refers to it as "trite" at one point). Nor are the occasional supporting characters any better fleshed out -- the few that arise existing just enough to further a plot point.

In fact, the whole thing seems just a touch...tired. Admittedly, maybe it was fresher at the time (though I doubt it), but it seems you can scarcely pick up a Batman story without it involving Bats being driven "out of control", becoming a more brutal, undisciplined crimefighter. That's the problem -- as I've alluded to before -- with the current vision of Batman as a kind of limited personality type...there's only so many things you can do with him. Perhaps more disturbing is that, even though it's meant as a "criticism" of his actions, writers do it so often, one can't help thinking they kind of enjoy a vicarious thrill writing Batman this way. As well, the basic story is pretty humdrum. After Batman shakes off the drugs, and we're moving into the final confrontation, there's little to really intrigue or excite. There are no twists or turns we're anticipating as the whole thing trundles along predictably.

And there's a looseness and implausibility to the plotting. The very catalyst for the story -- Batman's failure to save the girl -- itself isn't really explained. Why did the scientist arrange the kidnapping and murder of his own daughter? Simply to ensnare Batman in his plans? But how could he know Batman would fail, or that Batman would come to him afterward, or be so emotionally distraught he'd take the drugs -- and why, if you're trying to test super soldier drugs, would you use a guy who's already the most fit guy in Gotham? Part of the story is showing how Batman loses his judgement when he takes the drugs...but in order to have him take the drugs, he has to act like a complete dork to begin with, not apparently noticing how really odd the father is behaving!

There's a kind of emotional vacuum in Venom -- and, indeed, a lot of modern Batman stories. So determined to write Batman as this one-note obsessive, writers like O'Neil fail to give us a complex human being. And O'Neil's bled much of the warmth out of the surrounding relationships -- Alfred now makes a lot of tart wisecracks (that aren't that funny), rather than seeming like he has a real relationship with Batman, and James Gordon insists that Batman keeps their relationship purely business. And, as noted, for a story that (at least at first) is very much intended as a character study -- I didn't feel we got any real convincing insight into Batman or addictions.

Still, I'll give O'Neil props for the climactic death trap -- ludicrously elaborate deathtraps are a staple of comics, but here, O'Neil both justifies it (the villains have a goal in mind) and comes up with a reasonably clever solution as Batman has to think his way out of it (you could almost use it in school textbook: Billy has to apply 800 pounds of pressure to point A, but...).

For continuity buffs, this also introduces the drug Venom that would later fuel the villain, Bane, though strangely, the name Venom is used nowhere but in the title!

This is a review of the story as it was originally serialized in the mini-series.

Cover price: $__ CDN./$12.95 USA

Batman vs. Predator II: Bloodmatch  1995 (SC TPB) 144 pages

Written by Doug Moench. Pencils by Paul Gulacy. Inks by Terry Austin.
Colours: Carla Feeny, Lovern Kindzierski. Letters: Todd Klein. Editors: Michael Eury, Scott Peterson.

Reprinting: Batman vs. Predator II #1-4 (1994 mini-series)

Co-published by Dark Horse Comics

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

Number of readings: 2

Suggested for mature readers

For more Predator see Predator vs. Magnus Robort Fighter

While a slew of mob hitmen are gunning for him, Batman must also face an alien Predator looking to put his head on its trophy shelf. His primary ally: The Huntress, the -- slightly -- ruthless vigilante he doesn't really approve of and who is eager to help, but whom he frequently rebuffs.

This is the second of what would end up being three or four different Batman vs. Predator mini-series. The Predators being alien big game hunters that like to hunt plucky humans, originating in a hit motion picture, and a not-so successful sequel...but morphing into a major pop culture force by virtue of the concept spinning off onto various paperback novels and Dark Horse-produced comics, including a slew of cross company character match ups, Predators having fought everyone from Judge Dredd to Tarzan to multiple Aliens vs. Predators grudge matches (can a Predator vs. Archie & Jughead be far behind?) But you knew that, right?

And with their outting, surprisingly Moench and Gulacy manage to deliver the equivalent of a big budget Hollywood action movie.

I mean, I luv comics (that goes without saying) and action-adventure superheroes, but comics, being a static medium of panels and word balloons, they rarely capture that kind of visceral adrenalin rush a motion picture can. That's not a criticism of comics, it's merely a limitation of the medium (just as movie rarely captures the same spirit, the same grandeur, the same introspection, that a good comicbook can). Yet here Moench and Gulacy come darn close, crafting action scenes that are breathless in their pacing, unnerving in their depiction of the unstoppable Predator -- even a little scary -- and generating tension within scenes and building to an exciting climax. This is partly attributable to Gulacy's knack for breaking down fight scenes into feints and blocks, honed years ago doing The Master of Kung Fu comics with Moench. So you can really feel the drama and tension of a fight, rather than it just being a splashy panel of comic booky "pows!" and "biffs!".

Monech throws in so many elements running about at cross purposes -- Predators (there's actually more n' one), various colourful hitmen, a government Task Force -- that it can make you dizzy, with the result that the action only occasionally lags. All the while he stays focused on Bats and the Huntress, remembering they're the stars. Huntress is depicted rather more scantily clad than I've seen her in some other stories, but I don't know if that was Gulacy's decision, or whether I'm just not sufficiently familiar with her "look".

Gulacy's detailed, realist art, though prone to a bit of awkward distortion, is generally great to look at (this being before the more cartoony style he's tried in more recent years) and he's aided a lot by inker Terry Austin, a master of detail himself. And with Gulacy's cinematographer's eye for panel composition, it's not too surprising that the story can evoke a movie at times.

Of course, this is just mindless action -- again, mimicking a Hollywood blockbuster. There are attempts at character bits, like Batman's conflicts with the Huntress over her more ruthless style -- conflicts that would have more weight if Batman wasn't often depicted as a guy who can be pretty rough himself. Even in this issue he does things like yanking a guy off a moving motorcycle -- by his neck. That's a move that would kill a man in real life, folks! But, nonetheless, Moench manages to make it seem reasonably sincere. In fact, though this remains squarely focused on The BATman (he's barely out of costume for more than a few panels) Moench mantains a human, sympathetic air to him. In fact, Moench has been a long time, on again/off again Bat-scribe...and one I've never fully grooved to. Though his stories often don't lack for ambition or deeper character themes, I've often found his stuff derivative, his handling of themes/characters heavy handed. Yet here, tackling a blantantly superficial story, with a pretty trite premise (as I said, Predator vs. ___ comics could take up their own shelf) -- he actually delivers one of his best, most riveting Bat-stories!

So much so, that it makes you overlook the obvious contrivances: the hitmen who are really there just to pad the page count, the government Task Force who are there to be the Straw Bureaucrats, criticized by Batman and Commissioner Gordon both even though they aren't really acting that stupid. Even the fact that we never really get an understanding of why this rogue Predator has such a hate on for Batman. But viscrally: the story is fast paced, exciting entertainment. If you liked the first Predator movie, or just want lots of running about and thrashing things, this delivers the goods.

It's also worth noting that it's a bit gorier than the average Batman comic, though probably not as much so as the Predator movies.

This is a review of the story as it was originally serialized in the mini-series.

Cover price: $__ CDN./$7.95 USA

Batman: Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader? 2009 (HC & SC TPB) 128 pages


Written by Neil Gaiman. Pencils by Andy Kubert. Inks by Scott Williams.
Colours: Alex Sinclair. Letters: Jared K. Fletcher. Editor: Mike Marts, Janelle Siegel.

Reprinting: Batman #686, Detective Comics #853, and selected stories from Batman Black & White #2, Secret Origins #36, Secret Origins Special #1

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

Number of readings: 1

Back when DC Comics was overhauling and re-booting its fictional universe in the wake of its Crisis on Infinite Earths, they commissioned an imaginary "last Superman" story to say good-bye to the Silver Age Superman who was, essentially, being erased from continuity -- "Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?", written by rising star, British writer Alan Moore.

Jump ahead two decades and DC has decided to do the same for Batman. In this case, there has been no reality altering event (or maybe there has -- I dunno), but in the comics Batman/Bruce Wayne had been supposedly killed off and DC was preparing to unveil a "new" Batman (Dick Grayson, the original Robin, assumed the pointy-eared cowl...though unlike some changes, no one really expected Bruce's "death" to be anything but temporary). Giving the nod to Neil Gaiman, another British writer whose rise to fame occurred around the same time as Moore's, and serialized across Batman's two flagship series (Batman and Detective Comics -- just as the Superman story was serialized over Superman and Action Comics), we are presented with a "last Batman" story. And wisely, Gaiman keeps it isolated from continuity (so even though Bruce Wayne did come back in the regular comics, this story has a timelessness about it).

This collection also includes a few short Batman pieces Gaiman has written over the years, only one of which I've read...but it was an amusing, self-reflective one from Batman Black and White.

The "Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader?" story is a surreal affair as Batman finds himself looking down upon a bizarre funeral for himself -- staged in back of a dingy bar, where all his old friends and foes have assembled to pay tribute. Batman isn't sure what's going on, whether he's dead or what -- and is further perplexed when the stories people tell about his life -- and death -- don't match up with each other. The first issue features two longer tales, relating the lives and deaths of two different Bruce Waynes/Batmen, but once we get into the second issue, they're shorthand snippets, generally focusing on different ways Batman died. It's a little as if we're seeing a bunch of unused story ideas for various Batman Elseworlds comics that Gaiman never got to write.

It's a moody, quirky affair, beautifully illustrated by Andy Kubert who eschews much of the sketchy lines or cartooniness I sometimes associate with the Kubert clan, for a richly detailed and modelled style, nicely embellished by the inks and colours. The faces are realistic, while also being expressive. After all these years, Batman doesn't have a signature artist that should've been tagged for the gig (the way Curt Swan was an obvious choice to pencil the Superman story), so Kubert proves a nice choice. He even quirks his style here and there for certain scenes and characters, to deliberately evoke the style of other key Bat-artists, or to present different variations on the Bat-costume, without the changes being too obvious or distracting.

And throughout, the dialogue and phrasing is quite good, the lines clever, quirky, yet not self-consciously so. And I say this as someone with no particular affinity for Gaiman in general.

It's interesting to contrast the Batman and Superman stories. With Moore's Superman -- involving a final showdown with all of Supes' foes, in which many friends and enemies were dead by the end -- a violent, "big fight" tale wasn't exactly my idea of the appropriate cap for the Superman legend. Yet Gaiman takes Batman, the prowler of the mean streets and battler of killers and psychos...and presents a strangely gentle, lyrical tale that, in a way, is meant to present a sublime acceptance of mortality -- ala The Death of Captain Marvel -- rather than a bloody final battle with an arch foe. That might seem a strange thing to say in a story presenting multiple deaths of Batman...but it never feels gratuitous or graphic. In fact, given how many writers like to perceive Batman as the dark, grim, even brutal avenger, when Gaiman has Batman reflect on his self-imposed mission, it's: "I protect the city. I rescue people. I investigate crimes. I guard the innocent. I correct the guilty." Nothing about "vengeance" or "punishment".

The story itself may be intended to evoke a 1970s Batman multi-issue arc, in which various villains recounted conflicting tales of having killed Batman. And one of the reasons Gaiman may have avoided the "Batman vs. all his foes" plot is simply because it's already been done, often, and often quite effectively (albeit, with Batman surviving) -- in Detective Comics #526, Batman #400, and Batman: Hush among others. And of course, over the years there have probably been more than a few "imaginary" Last Batman stories, so it's hard for Gaiman to come up with anything that isn't just one more variation on a sub-sub-genre.

I have some mixed reactions to the story. As often happens, the intriguing hook of the beginning (what's happening? what is the explanation for this surreal scenario?) is inevitably kind of let down by the explanation. And the two longer "what if...?" stories told in the first issue are the more developed (even if Gaiman confuses the -- very good -- 1976 movie "Robin and Marion" with the actual Robin Hood legend). Once we get into the second half, the stories are brief snippets, before we segue into the final act of the story as Batman learns the answers and confronts a mysterious woman who had been accompanying him. It can seem a bit protracted. Ironically, I had remarked that in Moore's Superman tale he was maybe hamstrung by his limited amount of pages...but Gaiman may have been hindered by having too many pages to fill (56 all told).

But there is a genuine power to Gaiman's tale -- even flipping through the pages, I find myself curiously misty eyed. Gaiman walks a fine line between sentimentality and saccharine. And he gives one of comicdoms grimmest heroes a bittersweet send off that is hopeful and sad at the same time, providing the character something he rarely had in life...a sense of peace ~ "Home is the sailor, home from the sea...and the hunter, home from the hill". And in the end, the point of the various tales, the different versions and faces of the Batman with which we are presented, is to nonetheless expose a core truth of the man, and his character -- no matter the superficial changes in the legend.

It tells us why he is, and always was, THE Batman.

(This is a review of the version originally serialized in the monthly comics)

Hard cover price: $__ CDN./$24.95 USA

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