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.

July 31, 2012

The Long halloween….must read Batman stories … 5

Hailed as one of the greatest Batman stories of all time, it opens with an homage to the Godfather, but this mobster saga is much more about the Batman than the mobsters dying violently every few pages. Read separately over more than a year of monthly publishing, the individual issues of Long Halloween seemed to go by almost too quickly. The 370-page collection feels far more substantial. , I

Someone is killing off mob members with a .22 calibre pistol capped by a baby bottle nipple (to muffle the sound). The murders take place only during the holidays and each issue takes on the guise of a different festivity. There’s Catwoman on Valentine’s Day, Scarecrow on Mother’s Day and the Joker who stole Christmas.

Essentially a year one tale, The Long Halloween incorporates every aspect of the Batman mythology into one long maxi-series mystery. Batman needs to kick a lot of ass, must deal with a tenuous relationship with the police, has to do considerable detective work, must battle most of the big guns from his Rogue’s Gallery and even has to deal with the personal life of Bruce Wayne.

Loeb and Sale have proven themselves a perfect duo, but their place in history together is cemented by The Long Halloween. Though Loeb’s mystery is seemingly unsolvable by the clues given, it’s still enjoyable to watch unravel. He mixes Batman and Bruce Wayne’s lives as well as anyone has and brilliantly demonstrates the bond of brotherhood shared by Batman, Jim Gordon and then District Attorney Harvey Dent. As the murders progress deep into the year, the friendship deteriorates — in fact, all of Gotham deteriorates. Batman’s presence brings out the worst in his villains and that darkness overtakes Gotham leaving it a colder, harsher and less friendly place by the end of the tale.

The Long Halloween shows how far DC’s current continuity books have fallen. This is tight, engrossing and intelligent writing that never betrays that characters. Perhaps if the sequel, Dark Victory did not follow, the ending might feel too unfinished. The fact that the story and the mystery continues through a second year (and stands up quite) is a testament to Loeb and Sale’s ultimate vision.

If you have The Dark Knight Returns and Batman: Year One on your shelf then your next comic-book purchase needs to beThe Long Halloween.

July 31, 2012

The Cult ….must read Batman stories … 6

By all appearances in 1988, Batman: The Cult was going to be a good, but standard, Batman tale.  It begins with Batman abducted, a prisoner of charismatic Deacon Blackfire and his subterranean band of homeless followers. Kept hanging for weeks and barely fed, Batman slowly succumbs to Blackfire’s brainwashing. Yes, even the Batman can be broken and Blackfire does just that.

Starlin makes certain we catch every moment of Batman’s indoctrination into the cult, for the explanation of how Batman’s will is being worn down to the Dark Knight’s vivid hallucinations. Blackfire preaches justice, speaks the same message as the Batman, but says that brutality is the only way. It takes time, but Batman comes to agree with that position. After all, how could anyone doubt Deacon Blackfire ?

The controversy comes, in part, from the murder — the one Batman apparently commits. Armed with a machine-gun and hallucinating, Batman opens fire on what he thinks is the Joker. The dying man then changes to look like James Gordon and finally the truth is revealed. However, the murder is shown in such a fashion to one could argue Batman didn’t actually do the killing. But those are just the hardcore unable to accept the truth — Batman murdered a man while under the influence of a cult, incapable of controlling his actions or trusting his own senses.

The Cult is a brutal, dark story, but it’s absolutely enthralling. There’s perhaps a bit too much reliance on talking head news reports that look and feel too similar to The Dark Knight Returns, but overall this is a well-told mini-series. Batman has rarely been pushed to these limits and it’s refreshing to see that it’s not some hokey plot involving people from Bruce’s childhood. This is Batman at his lowest and it takes a good 50 pages for him to recover even after he’s free of the cult.

Interestingly, The Cult also features Jason Todd as Robin and is most likely the only Todd trade outside of A Death in the Family. For once he’s not annoying. This is certainly his strongest performance, one last hoorah before death.

This is Starlin and Wrightson at their finest. While everyone clamors to read Year One and The Long Halloween, comic fans should take the time to pick up Batman: The Cult. This is easily one of the best Batman stories every told.

July 31, 2012

Son of the Demon ..must read Batman stories … 7

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The best of the Ra’s trilogy, Son of the Demon is a refreshing read. Over the past few years, Batman has been turned into a completely anti-social zealot in DC continuity. However, this is not how he was envisioned nor how the Batman was portrayed in the ’80s and early ’90s. Batman is human and that humanity is on full display in Son of the Demon.

Mike W. Barr’s tale imagines a situation in which Batman finds himself allied with Ra’s Al Ghul. More than this, the Dark Detective finally succumbs to his love for the Demon Head’s daughter, Talia. Though Batman’s truce with Ra’s is tentative, his love for Talia is as potent as it has ever been in DC comics. In fact, the two are unconventionally married. This gives birth to the title, Son of the Demon, as Ra’s accepts Wayne as his son, allowing Batman to command troops into battle.

There are some distinctive touches, such as Batman training Al Ghul’s men to use non-lethal methods, but those who have only experience Batman over the past few years may not even recognize the caped crusader. Batman is not without some dry humor and his views on justice are broader. Though I respect the overly dark, isolationist Batman of recent times, readingSon of the Demon has reminded me that Batman was once a much more complex character than he is now.

Son of the Demon is much more of a Batman tale than one of Ra’s Al Ghul, but the relationship is never better defined than in these pages. Outside of this dynamic, Son of the Demon offers a fantastic mix of action and drama as Batman’s combat prowess is put to the test and Talia’s loyalties become split between father and husband. Jerry Bingham’s art proves that action can be exciting without the need for splash pages. This is graphic storytelling at its finest.

The only stumble is when Batman’s actions lead to the death of an enemy. He appears callous to the act, which is in stark contrast to Batman’s altruistic stance against murder. However, this could be attributed to the subtle influence of life with Ra’s Al Ghul or the overbearing need to protect Talia from harm. It feels false to the character, but this small betrayal is minimal compared to the rest of the tale.

There are many Ra’s Al Ghul tales, particularly in the past decade. If you’ve ever had a fascination with the Demon’s Head, Son of the Demon is one book you absolutely must read

July 31, 2012

Absolution …… ..must read Batman stories …8

A terrorist bombing kills a number of workers at Wayne Enterprises. The domestic terrorist, Jennifer Blake, flees the country and over the next decade, Batman hunts for her. For 10 years he searches, coming close, but finding Blake more elusive than any other criminal he’s ever chased. This isn’t a story about Batman versus a random bad guy. Absolution is about masks. The one Batman wears and the one Blake hides behind.

DeMatteis dares to make the Batman unlikable. He gets you to side with the villain, who’s responsible for the deaths of at least a dozen people. By the end of Absolution, we see how Batman’s obsession for justice/vengeance can cloud his judgment. The mask he wears sometimes obscures his vision. Sometimes, Batman is wrong.

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July 31, 2012

Red Rain ..must read Batman stories …9

 

red rain

No character has starred in more Elseworlds tales than Batman. The Dark Knight has been Green Lantern, a Victorian vigilante and even a true knight. However, all of these fantasy tales pale in comparison to Red Rain, which pits Batman against the one and only Dracula.

For centuries, Dracula has operated covertly, avoiding revealing his presence to the public. Having grown tired of playing it quiet and cool, Dracula has become aggressive. He’s taken up residence in Gotham City and is spawning his own vampire legion to take over the city from its only protector, the Batman. Fortunately for Bats, not all vampires are evil. He has allies in this war — allies who know the only way Batman can defeat Dracula is if the Dark Knight becomes one of their own.

Red Rain is full of the unexpected. Just about every page offers a new twist, a fun surprise. And though you never know what’s going to happen next, you’ll never get lost along the way. And when Bats grows wings, well, it really starts kicking ass at that point.

The first of a vampire trilogy, Red Rain is the only one that is truly excellent. There are no known Batman baddies clogging up the panels, no Joker or Two-Face — it’s just Batman versus the greatest threat he’s ever known. Kelley Jones’ art is very controlled in Red Rain, with just enough exaggerated physiology to make it all seem like a horrible living nightmare. The follow ups, Bloodstorm and Crimson Mist are fun stories, but Jones runs rampant in these.

Wonder, silence, gratitude

one who is going upstream ......

SS 24 - random thoughts

one who is going upstream ......

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