Archive for July, 2012

July 31, 2012

Year One — must read Batman stories – 1

The amazing thing about Batman: Year One is that it’s much more a tale of Jim Gordon than the Batman. Ask most any comic-book fan who’s read and loves Year One, and they’ll remember every great Batman moment. It’s like the collective conscious has fooled itself into believing Batman bursts through every page of this fantastic tale. In fact, Batman gets about half the screen time here, perhaps even less, but each moment is made memorable. Writer Frank Miller does not waste a single panel.

Bruce Wayne’s return to Gotham parallels Jim Gordon’s arrival from Chicago. At the time, Gotham is a mess of corruption. The commissioner is owned by the mob, most of the police are too. Gordon is one of the few good cops. I imagine Miller watchedSerpico before writing Year One, as the journey of these two cops trying to clean up their departments is remarkably similar in some respects.

The path of Bruce Wayne and Jim Gordon begin far apart, but over the course of the four-issue story, the two paths come together. It isn’t until the very end that Gordon and Batman see eye-to-eye. This is a story of how that relationship was forged, of how two men came to the dirtiest, crummiest city in America with the hope of doing some good.

Gordon’s journey is used to illustrate the corruption in Gotham, of the grime and darkness as viewed from the man on the streets. Batman’s tale is more of the transformation from man to myth, of how the harshness of Gotham forced Bruce Wayne to put on a bat costume. Mixed together, they make for a incredible exploration of the Batman mythos.

What’s shocking, reading Year One so many years later, is how little of this story actually has stayed in continuity. Selina Kyle is no longer a reformed whore, Gordon has never again shown that he can actually kick some ass and Batman is hardly human any longer. Miller offers some rather heavy hints that Gordon knows Bruce Wayne is Batman. After an unmasked Bruce Wayne saves the life of Gordon’s newborn son, the future Commissioner gets a long hard look at the Batman. Many have interpreted Gordon’s line, “You know, I’m practically blind without my glasses,” to indicate that he couldn’t actually tell who the savior was. Those folks are just plain wrong.

Gordon is offering plausible denial. If nothing else, his wife (whom Gordon brought with him when he interrogated Wayne about possibly being the Baman) got two good looks at Bruce in action. The power of Gordon’s knowledge over the years hold much more significance than the ignorance portrayed in later years.

Year One was a clear influence for Jeph Loeb’s Long Halloween and Dark Victory as the inspiration for some of Loeb’s stories can be seen here. It’s nice to see someone appreciated Year One enough to spawn two brilliant stories in its honor.

You know that saying, “If you read just one book, this is the one to read”? Well, that applies to Batman: Year One. It’s not only one of the most important comics ever written, it’s also among the best.

July 31, 2012

The Dark Knight Returns — must read Batman stories – 2

Few writers are fortunate enough to write one great Batman story in their lifetime. Frank Miller has written two. In fact, he’s written the two best. That’s saying something. Within the span of one year, Frank Miller absolutely revolutionized the Dark Knight and his influence can be felt throughout comics, even 20 years later.

Following the death of Jason Todd (which, incidentally, had not happened yet in continuity), the Batman has retired. Skip ahead ten years and millionaire Bruce Wayne appears comfortable in his role as philanthropist. He cannot forgive himself for the death of Todd, but he finds it difficult to ignore the nagging voice in his head that he is needed back on the streets.

To make things even more difficult, Gordon is just days from retirement and his replacement has a very firm stance against vigilantism. The world has followed suit in this regard. It isn’t just Batman who has hung up the cape. Wonder Woman has returned to Paradise Island, Green Lantern has disappeared in the stars and Superman has become a covert tool for the government (run by Ronald Reagan, surprisingly enough). The world has lost its heroes. Without Batman, the streets of Gotham have gone to hell. Crime is rampant and a new gang, calling themselves the Mutants, have the city in fear. Without a symbol to respect (and to fear), Gotham has fallen to chaos.

When Harvey Dent, having apparently been physically and psychologically made whole, begins committing crimes again Bruce is compelled to don the mantle of the bat once more. Batman’s return jars his oldest nemesis, Joker, from ten year’s of catatonia. Once and for all, Miller declares that Joker could not exist without the Batman and vice-versa.

What follows is a true masterpiece of storytelling. Scene after unforgettable scene propels Batman into near-fatal conflicts with the police and one final showdown with the Joker. It ends with a spectacular battle against Superman, perhaps the most memorable moment in DC’s history. It is in this book that the Batman of the next 20 years is forged. Indeed, Batman does return.

July 31, 2012

The Killing Joke – must read Batman stories – 3

Easily the greatest Joker story ever told, Batman: The Killing Joke is also one of Alan Moore’s finest works. Originally released in 1988, The Killing Joke tells the origin of the Joker — or at least one version of the origin. The Clown Prince of Crime himself admits even he can’t be sure which version of his beginnings is true. The origin is the underpinning for the psychological drama, rather than being mere filler. True to his psychosis, the Joker doesn’t want to accept responsibility for his actions and goes about attempting to prove that any man put under proper duress would go bonkers.

The Joker’s experiment leads to one of the most shocking moment’s in DC history, an event that affects Batman continuity for the next 15 years and it’s done as casually as a Joker killing spree.

Those who focus on the Joker’s origin are missing the point.The Killing Joke isn’t about how the Joker came to be, it’s an examination of human nature. If Joker can turn his captive, Commissioner James Gordon, into a raving lunatic, then it’s proof that any man in Joe Kerr’s position would have gone a little nutty. However, should Gordon survive with sanity intact, it serves as proof that there is something buried deep within each lunatic, a nugget of insanity, that is simply waiting for the right moment to spring forth. Is it the horrors of a particular event that make a man insane or is it something deep within the man himself?

Outside of the psychological and sociological undertones, The Killing Joke is a masterfully told story. Each scene features perfect transitions, allowing the story to easily weave between present and past as the Joker attempts to force his insanity on James Gordon. Brian Bolland’s art is a rarity for comics. It features no set-ups, no heavily-reused poses. Everyone’s face is full of expression, no muscle is left unused throughout the short tale. Together Moore’s rhythmic dialogue and Bolland’s organic art create a unique story often mimicked but never matched.

What Moore understands that so many writers seem to overlook is that clowns are inevitably pitiable people. Behind every clown’s smile is a sad story, they say and the Joker is no different. Though an unforgiving and brutal mass-murderer, the Joker is shown as a vulnerable and pathetic figure, trapped in a cycle of violence just like Batman.

If you haven’t read The Killing Joke, you have no right to call yourself a Batman fan. You may not find it to be the greatest Batman story of all time, but you’ll be hard-pressed not to laugh at the end. Re-printed more times than almost any other comic in history, The Killing Joke is still readily available, meaning you have no excuse. If you’ve read it before, go back and read it again. You owe it to yourself.

July 31, 2012

Arkham Asylum …. must read batman stories – 4

There’s something just a little bit crazy about a guy who dresses up like a bat. Though the Batman battles some true loons, there is an uneasy familiarity between hero and villain. Grant Morrison and Dave McKean explore that connection inArkham Asylum, one of the finest superhero books to ever grace a bookshelf.

When the maniacs in the madhouse are set loose inside of Arkham, they hold the workers hostage. They have a list of demands and topping that list is the Batman himself. Bats agrees and enters the insane asylum, but not with batarangs blazing. In fact, it’s a calm entrance, with Joker acting as host. His enemies cause is simple; they believe Batman belongs in the Asylum just as much as they do. The twist — Batman doesn’t necessarily disagree.

Parallel to Batman’s journey through the Asylum is the tale of Amadeus Arkham, who originally constructed the house in the ’20s. His journey into madness notes some rather familiar symbols. At one point he finds a playing card, the Joker, until eventually his madness emerges with the symbol of the bat, tying the Dark Knight to all the other madmen. Of course, this is 60 years prior to the birth of Batman and his Rogue Gallery, which then assumes all of this insanity was predestined.

McKean’s art is crucial to the tale. No other artist, with the exception perhaps of David Mack, could come close to capturing the claustrophobic psychosis permeating Arkham Asylum. Many of the pages read down instead of across and it’s a disorienting experience. Each page feels like madness. The imagery is beautiful with Batman’s battle with Killer Croc the most vivid moment.

Batman: Arkham Asylum is unlike any other Batman book you’ve ever read. No one’s ever tried to duplicate it. I doubt anyone could. While I can’t really buy the comparison of Batman to Jesus (it’s first implied with a spear stab to his side, then confirmed with a visual side-by-side), the rest of Asylum is brilliant. Is Batman really just as crazy as the rest, but somehow driven by divine purpose? Let’s flip a coin to decide.

Wonder, silence, gratitude

one who is going upstream ......

SS 24 - random thoughts

one who is going upstream ......

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