Thursday, July 26, 2012

A Tale of Three Batmans

A few months ago, I wrote about my first exposure to comics, vis-a-vis my discovery of Batman as a young boy in central California.

Recently, I've gotten into yet another comics kick, perhaps due to all of the hype about the "Avengers," "Spider-Man," and "Dark Knight Rises" movies this Summer, following on the trail of "Thor," "X-Men First Class," "Captain America," and the sadly disappointing "Green Lantern" movie from last Summer.

I think the unveiling of DC's New 52 last Fall also has something to do with it. I'm really more of a DC comics fan, versus Marvel, and I was a bit intrigued by the idea of the New 52, but, until recently, I hadn't picked up any of the issues. 

I think the main reason is that, I hate change. I hated having to move all the time when I was kid, due to my dad's job. I hated having to make new friends. I hate having to start a new job, move to a new house, buy a new brand of cereal because my old brand is no longer being made, etc. I really don't like it when there's a new version of the games I play (D&D, Warhammer 40K, et al) being released every few years. I just don't like change.

That's part of the reason that I didn't want to get into the New 52. I heard that they changed a bunch of stuff - character origins, costume designs, overall comic history (I understand in this version of the DC Universe, Jason Todd didn't die), and more. That kind of stuff bugs me. 

Because of that, I tend to limit my comics reading to graphic novels that take place outside of current continuity and can stand alone as just good stories without all of the baggage of what DC is doing to try to sell more comics. 

Recently I read three very different versions of Batman stories in graphic novel format, and I liked all of them for very different reasons. 

First up was Batman: Noël, by Lee Bermejo. The story is based on Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol and features characters both from Batman as well as from the original source story. I don't want to say too much to spoil the surprise of reading the story, but the artwork is incredible - detailed cityscape of Gotham along with extremely well-executed character designs and, despite the season during which the story takes place, a form of warm coloring that brings the characters to life. On Batman, we see every wrinkle in his suit, every seam and patch, and every pocket where he is hiding a little gadget. The style is both realistic and yet "comic-book" at the same time - this isn't the realism of Alex Ross, but a realism that exists to explore the form of comic art to its fullest.

Story-wise, the key elements are drawn from Dickens' classic, but I frankly was a little bit shocked at the POV character, which I guess I shouldn't have been. Full disclosure here - I really enjoy the original A Christmas Carol in both novel and movie forms (with the 1952 Alistair Sim version being my favorite).

Next, I read Chip Kidd's and Dave Taylor's Batman: Death by Design, which was an incredible visual treat. Both the story and the art in this comic are concerned primarily with architectural design, which might seem a bit odd for a comic until you remember that we're talking about Gotham City, which is, I maintain, one of the most important characters in the Batman universe. As much as I thoroughly enjoyed Christopher Nolan's Batman movie trilogy, one thing I always felt he was missing was that Gotham City should have been more prevalent with a distinctive sense of design and character. Nolan chooses to define Gotham solely by its inhabitants, whereas I feel that Tim Burton had the right idea that Gotham needed a specific sense of design, where you could look at a cityscape and immediately recognize, "That's Gotham City."

Batman: Death by Design takes two different events from our own history - the destruction of Penn Station back in the 1960s, and the 2008 crash of a tower crane in New York City that killed two people, and intermixes them into a story where both events occur in the same time frame, and then posits the question, "What if these two events were related?" Familiar Batman characters have their place in the story, as well as new ones created specifically for this effort. 

While the story is good, the artwork is just absolutely fantastic. In a neat twist in these modern times of computer-generated graphics, artist Dave Taylor noted that he did the art for Batman: DBD the "old-fashioned way" - in non-repro blue pencil, and then re-traced the lines he chose to keep in graphite, without erasing anything. The end result is a classic feel that immediately evokes the time period during which the story takes place, in that vague "Dark Deco" 1930s-1960s time period popularized by television's "Batman: The Animated Series." 

Lastly, for a change of pace, I read the highly regarded Batman: The Black Mirror, by Scott Snyder, Jock, and Francesco Francavilla. This particular story technically breaks my rule of not reading continuity comics, as it is really not a true original graphic novel, but instead a trade paperback collection of a story told in pre-New 52 Detective Comics. In this particular story, Batman is actually Dick Grayson, who is assisted in the story by Red Robin (aka, Tim Drake, the previous Robin). Robin during this time fame would have been Damian Wayne, Bruce's son (an idea that, frankly, I always hated), but he does not appear in the story. The Gordon family, including Jim, Barbara, and both Jim's current wife and his ex-wife, have some significant roles in the story, as well as appearances Detective Bullock and some familiar Batman villains.

This story is dark, and I mean dark. It explores a lot of areas around just how inhospitable Gotham really is, and how it can corrupt the seemingly incorruptible. Like the best Batman stories, this is a thinking person's Batman, and (at least for me, as this is the first time I've read a Batman story with Dick Grayson as the title character), it allows ones to explore what it really means to be Batman through a different lens. Dick has much of the same training, and ultimately the same motivation as Bruce Wayne (striking back at the type of criminal mind that killed his parents), and yet the execution of that mission is very different. I enjoyed little touches, like one scene where Batman and Jim Gordon are speaking on a roof, and in the middle of the discussion Gordon seems a bit preoccupied, stopping in mid-sentence, and when asked it anything's bothering him, he replies, "No... I supposed I'm just no used to it yet." Batman asks, "Used to what?" and Gordon replies, "To you still being there when I look up." 

Many have proclaimed that this story-arc, which is really a collection of three separate stories ("Black Mirror," "Skeleton Cases," and "Hungry City") is this decade's, or even this century's, definitive Batman story that belongs with such classics as Batman: Year One by Frank Miller. The story is definitely extremely well done, and the artwork is perfect - with Jock and Francavilla taking turns illustrating separate parts of the story (Jock concentrating on the Batman-focused ones, and Francavilla covering the Gordon-centric ones).

Best of all, reading these three different stories in a row, I was really reminded how writers and artists all have their own take on Batman, and yet, in all of these different incarnations, he is still quintessentially Batman. Even in the Black Mirror, with Dick Grayson as the Caped Crusader, there is still an undeniable quality of "Batman-ness" to the character, and a talented writer like Snyder is able to pull off distinguishing between the Grayson-style Batman and the Bruce Wayne-style, while still retaining the essence of the character.

Even if you typically don't read comics, I'd recommended picking up at least one of these stories to see what is being done these days in the graphic novel medium. You could do a lot worse than picking up one of these three stories.

Hanging: Home Office (laptop)

Drinking: Had a glass of Halter Ranch "Cotes de Paso" (a Rhone-style blend) for lunch

Listening: "It Never Entered My Mind" by the Miles Davis Quintet


  1. Thanks for the post. I've never gotten into Batman as a comic... But perhaps I should. I did get into dark horse during aliens, but stopped soon thereafter.

    1. If you're a Batman fan (or really just a fan of a great combination of art and story, no matter the setting), I think one of the above stories would do the trick. As an artist yourself, I think you'd really appreciate it.

      Also, since you don't read comics a lot, being able to read a self-contained story like these is kinda cool, since you don't have to worry about "what am I missing by not reading eight other titles?"

      Regarding Dark Horse's Aliens stuff - did you ever read their tie-in stories like Superman vs. Aliens or Batman & Superman vs. Predator & Aliens? I've never read those, but was always intrigued by them.


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