Pulp and Dagger

Graphic Novel Review


Batman: Nine Lives

2002 - available in both hard and soft cover

Written by Dean Motter. Illustrated by Michael Lark.
Colours: Matt Hollingsworth. Letters: Bill Oakley. Editor: Joey Cavalieri.

128 pages

Published by DC Comics

Softcover price: $17.95 USA / $29.95 CDN.

With Batman Begins recently arriving in DVD, we at Pulp and Dagger decided to, once more, drag out a Batman graphic novel to review in honour of the occasion...

At DC Comics, the "Elseworlds" concept takes familiar properties (Superman, Batman, whoever) and re-imagines them for finite mini-series and graphic novels -- taking the familiar and giving it a little twist (for a similar idea, see our review of Star Wars Infinities). Paradoxically, that makes Elseworld stories both accessible to new readers (as they aren't really connected to the regular comics) and slightly inaccessible, as they are filled with knowing references to the "real" characters.

Batman, for instance, has been placed in every era from Revolutionary France to the far future, and reinterpreted as everything from a vampire to an alter ego of real life crime buster, Elliot Ness.

Batman: Nine Lives uses the mould of a 1940s film noir movie or hard boiled detective novel, with the central character not Batman/Bruce Wayne, but a down on his luck gumshoe named Dick Grayson. Things are kicked off by the murder of Selina Kyle, a woman of loose standards who had relations with half of Gotham City's underworld, as well as morally ambiguous industrialist Bruce Wayne (who prowls around as Batman), and Grayson himself. (As mentioned, the comic is full of references; so in regular comics, Dick Grayson was Batman's sidekick, Selina Kyle the Catwoman, etc.)

To further emphasize the film noir homage, the book is presented in an oblong format, presumably to evoke a widescreen movie, and the opening credits are presented in movie fashion.

Because the regular Batman comics are seen to draw upon noir and gothic imagery for their style, these milieus are often emphasized in Batman Elseworld stories. But the very obviousness of the match is why it's problematic. Re-imagining Superman as a hard boiled detective story might cleverly play against type. But recasting Batman's dark world of gangsters and thugs as...a dark world of gangsters and thugs? The point seems elusive to me.

Still, I went into this with some expectation, as reviews I read of it were quite enthusiastic... Remind me not to listen to reviews, won't you?

I'll confess I found Nine Lives rather unimpressive. And I suspect that part of that problem is that writer Dean Motter was so intent on making it evocative, conjuring up the feel of hard luck PI's and low life gangsters, and working in the odd homage (Grayson spends much of the story with a bandage on his nose, ala Jack Nicholson in the movie Chinatown), that he didn't really bother to put much effort into the story, or the characters.

Now, I'm well aware that sometimes I'm just not "in the mood", and read again, later, I might groove to a story better. Fair enough. But as it is, I just found Nine Lives kind of dull and poorly thought out.

The premise is that Selina has been murdered and the suspects are various people she may've been blackmailing -- operative word, may've. Motter seems to use the "blackmail" angle as a convenient catch all, as half the time it's not clear what she had on anyone. To Motter is doesn't seem important, it's just a generic motive. And since most of the guys are crooks, it's not like we're wondering what she has on them. In a mystery, we should be presented with a situation that intrigues us, where we're waiting to find out who did it and why. As it is, we don't really care, because none of the questions are particularly intriguing or mysterious. Stranger, Motter uses Grayson's voiceover narration to fill in a lot of blanks...where it's unclear how Grayson seems to know what he knows, or why he infers what he infers.

It just didn't seem to me that the story made a lot of sense...this is particularly true when you get to the climax and we learn something about Selina's death that, frankly, should've been obvious in an autopsy! (No, no, she wasn't pregnant).

Instead, the story is just a lot of bland scenes, showing the various gangsters and hoodlums (modelled after various Batman foes), lacking any real emotion. The connecting thread is that Selina was involved with all these men, but no one, not even Grayson or Wayne, really seems choked up that she's dead!

And the premise of this world is rather ill-defined. For example, Bruce Wayne is apparently a slightly corrupt business man, and it is believed that the Batman works for him...but we're never told what exactly Batman is supposed to do. One can't decide if Motter knew his premise so well, but forgot to explain it to the reader...or whether it was mushy in his head, too, and he just hoped we wouldn't notice. Included in the book is a reproduction of the original synopsis, which does a slightly better job of explaining things (even as it does seem to indicate Motter was still a bit vague on the details). Apparently this was originally intended for a four part mini-series...which could explain some of the problems, as Motter was trying to cram it into fewer pages. For instance, we're more than two thirds through before characters casually mention rumours of an alligator man in the sewers...uh, shouldn't that have been worked in earlier?

The problem with doing a Batman comic as an homage is it can end up generic. So Dick Grayson is a rumpled, unshaven, cigarette smoking private eye with a girl friday; nothing exactly fresh or original there -- even for Batman. There had been a similar Batman Elseworlds graphic novel, Batman: Gotham Noir (even the covers are similar), in which I felt a problem was that in recasting the franchise as a hardboiled detective story...they had simply written a generic, hardboiled detective story (but Gotham Noir was better and the plot made a little more sense).

Michael Lark is an artist who I first appreciated for his crisp, clean, striking visuals, which mixed an effective realism and grandeur with an appealing simplicity. Whether his style is evolving, or his hand is less steady, the work here is a little rougher. Still good...just not as good. And the oblong format is, ultimately, a failed experiment. In order to evoke a widescreen effect, the panels have to be widescreen, not simply the pages. Instead, Lark (understandably) gives us a lot of regular, square-shaped and small, panels. Better to have tried something like in Ruse, where the pages were regular, but the panels spread across two page spreads, in order to evoke a cinema screen.

Perhaps instead of trying to evoke movies, the oblong format could've been employed to invoke newspaper comic strips, and Motter could've written it as though it were some "lost", never published Batman newspaper strip (you know, with each page ending on a cliff hanger). Just a thought.

A few years before, Motter and Lark teamed up on Terminal City (collected as a TPB, and spawning a sequel, Terminal City: Aerial Graffiti). Terminal City was a beautifully imaginative mix of fantasy and film noire, set in a kind of retro-futuristic past, where everyone looked and talked like the 1930s, but there were robot janitors and airships. It was wonderfully evocative, and a real treat...but it too suffered a bit in the plotting department, as the central catalyst for the story went unanswered.

Motter and Lark still seem to have a bit of trouble getting their plots to work but, this time, even the milieu isn't as imaginative.

Reviewed by D.K. Latta

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