MINI-SERIES The Masked Bookwyrm

#1 - coverRagman

(1991-1992 - eight issues, DC Comics)

Plot/layouts: Keith Giffen. Script: Robert Loren Fleming. Art: Pat Broderick, Romeo Tanghal.

My initial review of this mini-series was mild but amiable -- but, to be frank, a second reading left me more ambivalent. As you'll see...

Ragman was first created by Robert Kanigher and Joe Kubert in the mid-1970s, an attempt to give DC Comics a slightly grittier, urban hero who was the defender of the ghetto. But though fondly recalled, not the least for its atmosphere and for Ragman's eerie, idiosyncratic costume, it only lasted 5 issues.

So in 1991, in the wake of DC's post-Crisis revamping of its entire universe, came this eight issue maxi-series, reinventing the property. Ragman is still Rory Regan, pawn shop owner by day, dark avenger by night, but this time given a supernatural spin (the costume is alive, and the Ragman has the ability to absorb the souls of evil men) and a more explicit ethnic spin. Though Kanigher and Kubert were Jewish, their Rory was Irish-American. Here, Rory is Jewish and the Ragman is a variation on the Golem legend and given ties to the Warsaw Ghetto of Nazi-occupied Poland.

But the result is thin and undeveloped.

This was overseen by Keith Giffen -- a well regarded artist who also enjoyed some long term story collaboration partnerships with writers like Paul Levitz and J.M. DeMatteis. Giffen had his name on a few projects around this time where he was credited with story and lay-out -- even as the actual writing and art was left to others.

Here Giffen lays out most pages in a nine panel grid which, in a way, is a nice antidote to too many comics with their big panels and Spartan verbiage. At the same time, quite a few times Giffen will simply spread a single image over a few panels, belying the intent of the grid format. The finished pencils by Pat Broderick are robust and energetic, though as always with Broderick, can be a slightly acquired taste given his slightly cartoony style. The depiction of the Ragman -- visually -- is striking and eerie, but the art fails to evoke the same haunting atmosphere and melancholia as the 1970s series.

The plot is an origin saga, of Rory discovering the Ragman costume after his father's murder, then being approached by a quirky Rabbi who installs himself as Rory's mentor, Yoda-like, and tells Rory of the suit's history. The basic conflict involves street gangs and a billionaire developer who wants to destroy the neighbourhood.

But it is a basic plot. Despite the nine panels per page, and a page count that totals almost 200 -- it's thinly developed, full of anti-climactic and almost Shaggy Dog sequences. There are almost no characters -- Rory, the Rabbi, a quirky street person, Betty (a radical re-invention of a character from the original series), a Golem who comes into conflict with the Ragman, and the villain. And none of them really develop much beyond their introduction (except, ironically, the Golem!). Or are developed erratically (suddenly towards the end Betty makes quirky references to having worked in the Kennedy administration). There's also a street gang leader and a local doctor, but they have even less development.

The plotting can seem pretty lax at times, like with Betty somehow conveniently knowing everything relevant about Rory/Ragman and the Golem. One letter writer even commented how she couldn't wait to find out how Betty knew, assuming it was supposed to be a mystery. But it's not a mystery, it's just poor storytelling. Even the ethical issues, with the Ragman a darker vigilante, willing to kill his foes (by absorbing their souls into his suit), yet also having to learn restraint (a whole issue is devoted to Rory mastering the malevolent impulses of the suit by going around not killing bad guys), seem a bit muddled. While at one point a letter writer comments the bad guy's actions seem kind of dumb -- and the editor's response? "Are we supposed to think crooks are too smart to do this?" (It's a bad sign when you have to excuse plot points by suggesting the characters themselves are stupid!)

And the creators have lost touch with the very raison d'etre of the character. Despite (modest) super powers, Ragman was originally a "realist" hero in a "gritty" environment. Here, he's given all sorts of magical abilities and a supernatural origin. And Giffen populates the ghetto with colourful street gangs like the Mimes (who dress like mimes -- well, like clowns, actually) -- not exactly a realistic touch. In the original, Rory's father was an alcoholic. In this, he's not.

The theme is about a champion of the neighbourhood. Except the creators have no interest in the community. In the final issue, Ragman tussles with Batman (the series taking place in Batman's Gotham City) as the villains were defeated in the previous issue -- again, in an oddly anti-climactic way. And during their running battle (that consumes the whole issue) Ragman is thinking of all the people he's helped in the neighbourhood, reflecting on the hobos he pulled from snow banks, the families he rescued from burning tenements, as we are meant to perceive Ragman as a unifying force around whom the people rally.

Except none of those scenes were actually portrayed!

The previous issues were merely concerned with a him beating up thugs and street gangs...when he was depicted as doing anything at all! (Indeed, I was surprised the locals even knew The Ragman existed!). The series ends with Ragman leaving the ghetto -- Lone Ranger-style in a kind of "Well, my job is done here, pardner" way -- again as if the creators liked the idea of a hero of a neighbourhood, but had no interest in its inhabitants.

I kind of get back to Giffen "plotting" the comic. It can feel a bit like he had a sense of the ideas and themes he wanted to explore -- but less sense of how to get at them. It's as if all those years collaborating with Levitz and DeMatteis he didn't realize just how much the writers were bringing to the plot development.

It might have been better as 4 issues, rather than 8.

The comic is also interesting when looking at the ethnic angle. Despite an obvious Jewish resonance (of a ghetto ragman), and Ragman's creators being Jewish, originally Rory Regan was a Gentile. So you might think Giffen figured he was doing the comic Kanigher and Kubert wanted to do. But in a way he goes overboard -- almost making it a kind of caricature of Judaism (especially the comical Rabbi). Indeed, maybe Kanigher and Kubert deliberately didn't make Rory a Jew to avoid that very trap! While in the original, it was a multi-racial ghetto, with black supporting characters -- yet in this ghetto there are almost no non-white characters at all! And, as mentioned, it's a less earthy, less authentic vision of a ghetto than the original series.

I also find myself wanting to comment on the letters page. One letter writer objects to the cliche of the Holocaust origin, feeling the creators should be more contemporary in their depiction of Judaism; to which the editor's response is that the Holocaust is too important to be forgotten. Yet then another letter writer complains that depictions of war-time Poland neglect the fact that the general (Christian) Polish population also suffered under Nazi occupation; to which the editor's response was, basically, it's not the comics' responsibility to educate people about history. Um...anyone else see a contradiction there? It isn't that both letter writers don't have a point, nor that the editors' responses weren't valid. But side-by-side, it smacks of a desire to just say anything to "win" the argument (much the same way the editor lambasts readers when they criticize the nine panel format...but if enough people raise objections to an aspect of the comic, it maybe indicates something that should be re-considered).

This was followed by a second mini-series, Ragman: Cry of the Dead, but no regular series.