Pulp and Dagger

Graphic Novel Review


Batman: Absolution

2002 - available in both hard and soft cover

Written by J.M. DeMatteis. Painted by Brian Ashmore.
Letters: Sam Konot. Editor: Dennis O'Neil, Matt Idelson.

96 pages

Published by DC Comics

Softcover price: $19.95 USA / $27.95 CDN.

With Batman Begins hitting the local bijouxs, we at Pulp and Dagger decided to hit the local bookshelves to find a Batman graphic novel to review in honour of the occasion...

An urban terrorist group bombs Wayne Enterprises, killing some employees, and Batman spends the next ten years -- off and on -- hunting the female leader of the group, tracking her down to various safe houses, only to have her escape again. The trail eventually takes him to India where she has joined a charity order working with the poor and the ill; but is it just a ruse, or is she truly seeking to make amends for her past?

There's a lot to like and admire and applaud about Absolution...even as there's other ways it doesn't quite live up to its own ambitions.

On the plus side:

The book is clearly meant to be deep and meaningful, positing profound questions of right and wrong, justice vs. vengeance, punishment vs. redemption, and even faith and God. It's a brooding character study as we see the driven Batman pursue the terrorist through the years, determined to bring her to justice, and unwavering in his Insp. Javert-esque, black & white view of reality, where there are no shades of grey, and no room for redemption. Yet, at the same time, writer J.M. DeMatteis presents a slightly kinder, gentler, more human Batman than a lot of modern writers do, a Batman who identifies some of the Wayne Enterprises victims as "friends" and who later remarks that he, however grudgingly, kind of likes an underworld stool pigeon of his. Batman with friends? Who can like a low-life informer? Will wonders never cease? As well, despite his hard line attitudes, this is not the hyper-violent Batman -- he'll get into fights and beat up bad guys, but there's little of the gratuitous reveling in brutality that some current Bat-writers think makes the character cool.

I liked the, more or less, real world environment Batman inhabits, devoid of garish super villains, or equally outrageous serial killers and mobsters. And I enjoyed the employing of an exotic, foreign locale that really makes you feel like you're seeing another country. And despite the archly-pretentious intentions, it's reasonably well-paced, breaking up the introspective bits with enough action and adventure -- and a plot twist or two -- to keep the story chugging along. And it's all delivered with fully painted art by Brian Ashmore.

On the down side?

Despite the ambition, despite the character exploration, despite DeMatteis' genuine talents as a writer, I'd argue the story is hampered a little by Batman himself. I've mentioned before that ever since comicdom embraced the notion that Batman was a rich, emotionally complex character...he has been written more and more simplistically, defined almost entirely in terms of one or two character traits. The current era Batman, far from being a complex, multi-faceted human being, shaped by a childhood trauma, has become a one note cardboard cut out. Batman is blindly committed to his once-a-villain-always-a-villain philosophy, even when he sees evidence to the contrary, and he never wavers from that belief. It's a 96 page graphic novel in which the main character doesn't really seem to evolve much over time. What's more, DeMatteis presents his themes in a ham handed, "spell it out clearly just so the kids get it" style, with Batman, in his voiceovers, explicitly stating his views again...and again. Yet DeMatteis contradicts himself. After all, would this unwavering Batman admit to "liking" the informer I mentioned earlier?

At the same time, there is an act of Batman's in the final scene that, though not echoed in the captions, suggests a certain softening and ambivalence in his attitudes.

Released after September 11th, 2001, a story about the bombing of a skyscraper that asks whether terrorists can be forgiven, would seem a controversial thesis for a comic -- for any medium! Yet, curiously, Absolution didn't seem to generate the controversy for which I'm sure DC Comics was braced (maybe even for which they were hoping). That may be because the story, for all its real world trappings, exists in its own, somewhat unspecific bubble. While modern America knows the face of terror as either Islamic fundamentalists, or homegrown, ultra-right wing fanatics, the terrorists here seem more modeled after long ago 1960s radicals, and even then, DeMatteis paints them as more apolitical anarchists. And the charity work in India is not really specific -- are they sheltering the poor? Lepers?

I don't entirely object to painting the issues in broad, unspecific strokes, seeking to say something profound by tackling ideas in the abstract. At the same time, it threatens to simplify, to "comic bookify", what is meant to be a sophisticated, realist story.

Ashmore's painted art is also problematic. On one hand, it is fully painted, which can be pretty cool, and he is particularly good at using light, shaping figures by the way sun light plays on them, contrasting with the shadows, creating a warm, washed out look. And I like that his Batman is not all exaggeration and bulging muscles, but looks like a man. On the other hand, Ashmore's underlining pencils aren't always that strong, his handling of figures can be a bit rough -- admittedly, its deliberately Impressionistic at times. And the action scenes can be a bit confusingly presented, so you aren't always instantly sure who's doing what. His faces, too, can be a bit indistinct, at times, with a couple of scenes where it took me a moment to figure out who was who. I liked the art, but it has its shortcomings.

Strangely -- and this is something I'vbe noticed in a lot of modern comics, and I'll leave it to the sociologists out there to answer why -- Ashmore seems reluctant to paint truly dark skin pigments. A large part of the story takes place in India...yet few of the characters actually look, well, Indian. Mediterranean, perhaps, with lightly tanned, olive complexions, but not the darker hues one associates with many Indians.

Another quibble is how tiny the lettering is. You get used to it, but anyone with weak eyes might find it a real problem. One wonders if the book was originally going to be published in a larger-sized format, but then the brass at DC changed their mind, but didn't bother re-formatting the lettering for the regular size.

The bottom line is I did like Absolution -- I liked its attempt at being about something provocative, and I liked it's understatedness, with a physically human Batman and where the action scenes are often more about fights and car chases than anything too outrageous or cartoony (not that I object to those as a rule). It's undeniably moody, with DeMatteis' lyrical writing and Ashmore's atmospheric, painted art. But it never quite fulfills its own ambitions, being a big, complex idea...that is handled rather simply.

And, with apologies to the current editorial regime at DC, Batman is rapidly becoming a shallow, one note personality. And that, perhaps above all, prevents Absolution, despite its length, from truly being a great graphic novel.

Reviewed by D.K. Latta

Got a response?  Email us at lattabros@yahoo.com

Pulp and Dagger Fiction Webzine