Batman: Nevermore

(2003 - five issues, DC Comics)

Writer: Len Wein. Art: Guy Davis.

Nevermore falls under the label of DC's "Elseworlds" stories -- reimagining key characters in non-continuity tales. Here the story is set in 1800s Baltimore, Maryland and focuses -- as you might guess from the title's allusion to the poem "The Raven" -- on the real life writer, Edgar Allan Poe (or at least a fictionalized version of same -- an author who has been the subject of more than one fictionalized story by various writers over the years).

Poe is actually the main character. Working as a reporter (as the real Poe did at one point) Poe gets caught up investigating a series of grisly murders that seem to be targeting members of an exclusive gentlemen's club -- The Gotham Club. At the same time, a mysterious vigilante who dresses in a bat-like costume is prowling the city and Poe and the Batman ally together to ferret out the villain

Often the gimmick in Elseworlds tales is to play upon the readers' familiarity with the "normal" version of the character by drawing upon the existing mythos. So here, for instance, one of the members of the Gotham Club is Professor Crane, who Bat-fans will identify as the alter ego of Bat-villain, the Scarecrow, and Bruce Wayne is also a member of the club (though it's a long time before Poe learns the connection between Wayne and the Batman). But it's not just the Bat-mythos the story is playing around with here. For there's also Poe's own literary cannon. So various characters have names lifted from Poe stories (Usher, Pym), the deaths often echo grisly scenes from the real Poe's short stories, and likewise certain scenes borrow from Poe tales (including the climactic demise of the villain).

And it all starts out quite effective. Writer Len Wein was a major comics writer in the 1970s and 1980s, but had drifted away from the medium (working in Hollywood I believe). But returns nicely upping his game and style to suit modern, theoretically more sophisticated comics, while bringing an old school sense of pacing and storytelling (that many modern writers lack) for a nice blending of the best of both eras. In addition to throwing in winking nods to the Poe canon, Wein also writes the dialogue with a certain 19th Century formality that is both nicely evocative and, one suspects, a bit tongue in cheek at times (as even during death defying escapes or dramatic fights the characters speak with a florid formality). The story is filtered through Poe, and he serves as a sympathetic protagonist, which also allows Batman to shine nicely as the enigmatic man-of-mystery flittering in and out of the action.

Guy Davis' art is effective and moody. I was familiar with Davis' work from The Sandman Mystery Theatre and this is, of course, a not dissimilar milieu (a historical mystery with a grisly/horror vibe). But I actually liked his work more here. Davis' style is not really suited to iconic super heroes, being more about frumpy, normal people with a cartoony bent. But I think his style here uses more solid line work (rather than the overt scratchiness I associate with the Sandman stuff). And his storytelling and composition is quite effective, with a certain naturalism to how bodies move. His Batman design is reminiscent of the Victorian-era Batman in Gotham by Gaslight -- perhaps unsurprising since both were set in a similar historical period.

One thing worth noting is the story can be a bit grisly at times, warranting a "mature readers" caution, I think.

What makes the tale effective at first is that Wein approaches it AS a story, one to be developed and unfolded as Poe investigates the crimes. Yet Wein keeps the pace snappy so even as a lot of it is talking heads of Poe going around interviewing potential suspects, Wein avoids the common trap of modern comics of just seeming to be wasting pages, stretching out minor scenes so that each issue barely has anything happening.

Unfortunately, as much as I was enjoying the story, part way through you begin to realize that, for all the clever dialogue, the investigation, the moody art -- the mystery itself isn't actully progressing anywhere. Poe may wander about, interviewing suspects, then coming back to them for follow ups...but we aren't, in fact, learning anything that adds to our understanding of the case. I've said before that mystery/whodunits seem to be something comics have a lot of trouble doing well, and this proves no exception. And part of that is because, in the end, it isn't really a mystery, per se. In that the killer has no motive other than being a bit nuts (and what little motive we are told, I'm not sure we knew about before its revelation!) And one begins to realize that, like a lot of Elseworlds stories, it's relying on its resonance with the existing canon more than telling its a story that happens to borrow from the regular continuity.

The result is still an interesting, engaging read -- but one that ends up a touch more predictable and mundane than it seemed to promise.