Imaginary Batman crossovers with Joe Casey comics – part 1

In recent years, the Dark Knight has found himself in a number of surprising team-ups, crossing over with all sorts of odd properties, from Elmer Fudd to the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Since nothing appears to be out of bounds anymore, I for one would get a kick out of seeing the Bat-books cross over with some of the craziest series written by Joe Casey.

Joe Casey’s comics can be truly something special. They often have a clear metafictional edge, playing with traditional tropes, pushing the boundaries of the format, and/or drawing on the styles of other creators (especially Jack Kirby) in a self-reflexive way. Plus, they usually overflow with foul language, sex, drugs, and gory violence.

For all his transgressive attitude, you can feel Casey’s genuine enthusiasm and the desire to explore the medium’s potential. As he put it on the backmatter of Butcher Baker, the Righteous Maker, the ‘comicbook’ (one word) is “the perfect bullet delivery system for your entertainment-hungry lizard brain.” Embracing the superhero genre in particular – both at its best (the bold zaniness and energy) and at its worst (typically narrow gender roles) – Casey tries to capture a childlike sense of unbridled imagination and exaggeration, even while filling the stories with R-rated content.

Although the main running motif of Casey’s work is rubbing in our faces how utterly cool comics can be, his books also tend to be sharp satires of celebrity culture and corporate power. The latter theme crops up, for example, in his Batman tales: the uneven two-parter ‘Tenses’ (in which Bruce Wayne restructures the business model of his company) and the neat Superman/Batman arc ‘Big Noise’ (in which we briefly see the contractor disputes to rebuild Metropolis and Gotham City after the ‘Our Worlds at War’ event). Neither of them is as bonkers as the greatest Casey comics, though, even if ‘Big Noise’ turns out to be particularly clever, using recognizable superhero story beats to address the War on Terror, with the Man of Steel and the Dark Knight embodying different perspectives in the end.

If Joe Casey was allowed to bring together his most outlandish creations and the world of the Caped Crusader, I’m sure the results would be epic. Here are some suggestions:

AUTOMATIC KAFKA

automatic kafka

“I’m running a marathon, my friend. I’ve seen a lot of spectacle in my years on this earth… And I plan to see a lot more. The nature of our work demands that we conjure up the most fantastic, absurd solutions to the moral dilemmas that we’re lucky enough to wrestle with.” (The Warning)

One of Joe Casey’s earliest masterpieces, this 2002 series followed a depressed robotic superhero as he sought stimulation through dope and fame. Along the way, he bumped into washed-up villains from his heyday, in the eighties, as well as into the eccentric members of his former team, The $tranger$. The series – which lasted for nine mind-bending issues – was as meandering as its titular protagonist, but it kept throwing memorable ideas and visuals at us (like an evil scientist who had his own head replaced with a miniature spiral galaxy). The most bizarre tangent took place after Kafka reinvented himself as a sadistic game show host and we spent one whole issue focusing on the heartbreaking life of one contestant and his childhood friends (a grown-up Charlie Brown and the cast of Peanuts).

Published by WildStorm’s mature readers line Eye of the Storm, Automatic Kafka was an ‘adult’ superhero comic, not just in the sense of being full of tits and cursing (although there was plenty of that), but also in the sense of being an intellectually demanding, complex reading experience. In a way, the series could be seen as Casey’s homage to Grant Morrison, with riffs on Doom Patrol, a layered narrative carefully constructed like a mosaic with clues to a larger picture (thus rewarding multiple re-reads), and a metafictional conclusion that explicitly brought to mind Morrison’s work on Animal Man.

Just to make things even more experimental, the art was painted by Ashley Wood in a style that ranged from rough sketches to surrealist collages, as if ushering the reader to imagine a reality beyond the drawings, many of which seemed to be translating or suggesting the story rather than simply depicting it. Wood got a chance to shine from the get-go, as the comic kicked off with a trippy near-death hallucination after Kafka apparently overdosed on a drug designed specifically for androids, called ‘nanotecheroin’ (“Finally, all your artificial intelligence systems can get their buzz on just like the fleshies do!”).

Automatic Kafka

It’s not that farfetched to imagine Batman crossing paths with a character like Automatic Kafka, who already looks like the version of Robotman you’d find in Frank Miller’s Dark Knight universe. Since DC seems desperate to continue to milk Miller’s cash cow – including through sequels written or drawn by other creators – they might as well have the Goddamn Batman, in all his messed up excess, clash with The $tranger$, including The Constitution of the United States (an ultra-violent-patriot-turned-porn-star) and Helen of Troy (who is supernaturally sexy). Casey and Wood could finally resolve Automatic Kafka’s subplot about exploding babies, perhaps by tying it to the sentient dolls of DKR!

THE BOUNCE

the bounce

“Gentlemen, we find ourselves standing at the crossroads of faith and fact.” (The Darling)

At first sight, this 12-issue series revolving around Jasper Jenkins, a stoner with the power to move around like a bouncing ball, may seem like one of Casey’s most conventional superhero sagas. The action is clear and exciting, the dialogue is peppered with amusing pop culture references, the hero is a likable, well-meaning loser with echoes of Spider-Man, and the main villain sounds like your average megalomaniac out to destroy the world (at one point, he looks at the White House and says that it’s like “driving past a museum piece”). David Messina’s art is effective without being particularly flashy – you could easily imagine his slick style in a mainstream book from the Big Two (he went on to draw Catwoman). Even the tonal shifts between escapist fare and edgier material aren’t that far removed from numerous other comics and, more recently, shows like Netflix’s The Defenders.

That said, the mysteries soon pile up, taking the narrative into unexpected places. Rest assured, The Bounce is not immune to Joe Casey’s flair for quirky concepts, whether it’s a dealer who is also the drug he’s dealing or “an entire sub-culture of secret quasi-religious corporations” funding an inter-dimensional portal in order to weaponize a Lovecraftian entity.

The Bounce

Pre-Crisis Batman has fought – and was even killed by – a villain called The Bouncer, whose look and powers resembled the Bounce and who hasn’t been seen since 1981. In a possible crossover, perhaps the Caped Crusader would be searching for a rebooted version of that villain and bump into Jasper Jenkins instead. Since it has been established that Jenkins’ world possesses the technology to reach parallel dimensions, the crossover wouldn’t be much of a stretch!

Alternatively, given the metafictional dimension of the Bouncer’s debut story (‘The Strange Death of Batman!,’ Detective Comics #347), I can also picture Joe Casey writing a sort of remake that’d combine the two characters into one.

BUTCHER BAKER, THE RIGHTEOUS MAKER

butcher baker the righteous maker

“Here’s to the good ol’ days – the days where collateral damage was rebranded “acceptable losses” – the days of evil empires and femme fatales – the days of methodized mayhem – the days where middle management fuckheads like these two ate the peanuts out of my shit.” (Butcher Baker)

The depraved 2011 series Butcher Baker, the Righteous Maker followed a super-soldier secretly tasked by the government with killing villains held at a special state prison (the Bertrand Institute for Meta-Criminal Containment) in order to cynically cut costs. The result was a brash, cacophonous extravaganza consisting mostly of no-holds-barred chases and slugfests, as Baker fought a rogues’ gallery that included such cartoonish super-villains as the fat luchador El Sushi, the bearded mass murderer (and mash-up of orientalist stereotypes) Jihad Jones, and the shapely mysterious cosmic being known as The Absolutely.

Even though the series only lasted eight issues, Butcher Baker made quite an impression with his bushy mustache, his gung-ho attitude, and his star-spangled truck (called Liberty Belle). More than a spoof of Captain America, Baker was basically Watchmen’s Comedian on steroids – a hyper-macho psychopath who lived for fucking and slaughtering (he used to do it in the name of god and country, but ever since he saved the President of Reality at the Pan-Dimensional Affirmation Parade he stopped caring about that bullshit). You may wish to see the whole thing as a parody of US chauvinism, with the titular jock as the country’s unbound military id whose intended victims came back for vengeance, but the comic feels more invested in the entertainment value of watching these crude caricatures clash against each other rather than in making any meaningful statement about it.

Gorgeously illustrated by Mike Huddleston (who imbued the lively art with intoxicating colors), there wasn’t a single page on this series that wasn’t bombastic in some way. Hell, the first issue opened with Dick Cheney and Jay Leno walking in on Baker in the middle of an orgy and it barely lost momentum after that…

Butcher Baker, the Righteous Maker

I guess the Batman series that most closely approached the manic, electrifying energy and gonzo villains of Butcher Baker, the Righteous Maker was The All-New Batman: The Brave and the Bold, which was coming out at the same time. Yet this is a tricky one… On the one hand, yes, the whole point of the latter comic was to see the Caped Crusader in goofy team-ups with other characters, no matter how strange. On the other hand, it’s hard to ignore the fact that Brave and the Bold sought to offer madcap romps that were suited for all ages, while the world and cast of Butcher Baker are very, very far from kid-friendly.

CODEFLESH

codeflesh

“A woman I know once told me that, even out of the joint, I had a doin’ time-kind of personality… a prisoner in my own mind. Maybe.” (Rotor)

There are many ways you can approach the concept of a bounty hunter specialized in super-villains who skip bail. In Codeflesh, Joe Casey did it as a relatively straight crime book, complete with a self-destructive anti-hero and a solid balance between dirty fights and touching character moments (it’s just that some of the criminals were telepaths or low-grade cyborgs). Charlie Adlard ran with this, giving the art a grounded, gritty look reminiscent of hardboiled ‘70s thrillers. Moreover, like The Bounce and Butcher Baker, the comic was elevated by the amazing letterer Rus Wooton, whose contribution always makes works feel groovier (he’s also a frequent collaborator of Jonathan Hickman, Rick Remender, and Robert Kirkman).

While overall the book is not as formally daring as some of the others on this list, the eighth chapter definitely stands out, as Casey, Adlard, and Wooton employ a highly original technique to convey how much the protagonist’s failing relationship is taking over his life. And even when they’re not reinventing the language of comics, the creative team delivers one moody, hard-hitting scene after another…

Codeflesh

This crossover practically writes itself. Either Codeflesh’s masked bondsman follows a villain into Gotham City, teaming up with Batman in the process, or – better yet – he writes up the bond for someone like the Ratcatcher or the Mad Hatter, who jumps bail and runs out of town. Noirish hijinks ensue.

DANCE

Dance

“The world doesn’t need superheroes. We’re the ones who need a world to protect… otherwise, we’re just an outmoded concept that’s way past its sell date.” (Shiny Happy Aquazon)

The Japanese teen group Super Young Team was created by Grant Morrison and J.G. Jones for the massive DC event Final Crisis, in 2008, as a kind of 21st century version of Kirby’s The Forever People. The following year, Joe Casey and artists ChrisCross and Eduardo Pansica ran wild with the concept in the awesome mini-series Final Crisis Aftermath: Dance, in which an eager P.R. promoter led Super Young Team on an international tour in order to push their brand on a global scale… and to distract the masses (and the superheroes themselves) from what was going on in Japan at the time.

Sure, the series benefited from the groundwork laid by Jones and Morrison, who originally designed the heroes’ looks and personalities, including their over-the-top names: Most Excellent Superbat, Big Atomic Lantern Boy, Shiny Happy Aquazon, Crazy Shy Lolita Canary, and Well-Spoken Sonic Lightning Flash. But Dance not only expanded their corner of the world, it also tapped further into the millennial zeitgeist, indulging in Japanese pop culture and youth trends more generally – in a groundbreaking move at the time, the comic was peppered with Superbat’s snarky tweets (“These clubbers don’t even have superpowers. Worthless.”), a device that still doesn’t feel dated a decade later. Much to the team’s occasional frustration, their adventures became as much about fads and marketing campaigns as about fighting monsters or saving the multiverse.

Even if you set aside the hip satire of media, consumerism, and corporate sponsorship, Dance still reads like a kickass superhero fantasy ride, including a delirious set-piece where a cosplay competition in Dubai is attacked by an army of Nazi preppies called The Parasitic Teutons of Assimilation (almost all villains in Dance are against individual identity in some way). The whole series is just so damn smart and nifty-looking, not least because of Snakebite’s ultra-bright colors:

final crisis aftermath dance

Since the members of Super Young Team live in the DCU, it’s easy to imagine them crossing paths with the Caped Crusader or one of his many sidekicks. Indeed, they had a couple of cameos in Batman Incorporated and there was even a fun special – written by Chris Burnham, with art by Jorge Lucas – about a date between Japan’s own Batman (Jiro Osamu) and Crazy Shy Lolita Canary.

But I want more. Let me see Grayson or Red Robin join the action during the Super Young Team’s inevitable, post-truth era rematch against the Brain Drain, the mind-controlling bacteria who infiltrated people’s consciousness through bottled oxygen (one of the team’s product endorsements), instilling a literal mob mentality!

 

NEXT: More ambitious crossover ideas.

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The tragic fate of Sarah Essen

Batman #406Batman #406

When people talk about the tendency for bestowing gruesome violence against prominent female characters in comic books – the ‘women-in-refrigerator’ trope – Sarah Essen is always one of the first names to come to my mind. She was a genuinely engaging character in the world of Batman comics for about a decade, playing a key role in the life of James Gordon in particular and Gotham City as a whole. She kicked ass and helped save the day more than once, even as she remained resolutely on the civilian side of the cast (i.e. no goofy costume or codename for her). And she sure deserved a much better fate than what she got.

Then again, at least Sarah Essen came a very long away, given that she essentially started as a vague line in Frank Miller’s 1986 opus The Dark Knight Returns. In that futuristic tale, Commissioner James Gordon mentioned that he now lived with a vegetarian woman named Sarah. The need to protect her served as inspiration every time he had to act tough and stand up against criminals, with Jim repeating the mantra “I think of Sarah. The rest is easy.” throughout the acclaimed mini-series.

When Miller rebooted Batman’s continuity the following year, he decided to retroactively establish Sarah – or, at least, *a* Sarah – as part of the Dark Knight’s saga from the start. Batman: Year One introduced Sarah Essen as a police detective who worked closely with James Gordon (a lieutenant at the time) on the first investigation into the bat-clad vigilante who had recently begun assaulting crooks and cops on the take.

Sgt. Essen actually got quite a bit of characterization – especially compared to Bruce’s mystery date. She came across as a Hawksian blonde (David Mazzucchelli’s art gave her hints of Lauren Bacall) who did more than just light up Jim’s cigarettes in a sexy way (although she did that as well). Sarah was the first to suggest that Bruce Wayne should be a prime suspect and, at one point, she even briefly got the drop on the Caped Crusader:

batman 405Batman #405

Keeping with the story’s mature, gritty tone, Sarah had an affair with Jim, whose wife was expecting a baby at the time. When he broke it off, Sarah requested a transfer and left Gotham City. Refreshingly, these were two grown-ups dealing with a complicated situation in a grounded way. Although the result wasn’t as powerful as, say, the third episode of Horace and Pete, the whole thing was handled beautifully, with a level of subtlety and restraint rarely seen in Miller’s other comics. In fact, this subplot was so neatly resolved that you could almost imagine Sarah not showing up again…

In late 1990, though, Sarah Essen came back in style (and with red hair, for some reason). By then, Batman comics were still clinging to the notion that The Dark Knight Returns was a possible future, so – after having introduced a tank-like Batmobile in The Cult and having killed off Jason Todd in A Death in the Family – it made sense to set up the forthcoming relationship between Sarah and Commissioner James Gordon.

In ‘Night Monsters’ (Batman #458), Sarah was transferred back from New York to Gotham, where she came to head the Major Crimes division. She hadn’t lost any of her edge – as soon as she stepped off the train, she immediately arrested a mugger while Jim blacked out:

Batman 458Batman #458

(This panel is not the only cool nod to Batman: Year One. The amazing duo of Alan Grant and Norm Breyfogle squeezed in a number of other callbacks, including a scene at an Edward Hopper-inspired diner like the one featured in the beginning of this post.)

It’s nice that the creative teams in the Bat-books took their time with the romance between Jim and Sarah. They were both widows by then and it was obviously a matter of time before they got engaged, but we still got to see them smoothly getting closer again. One of the high points was ‘Saturday Night at the Movies’ (Batman #459), in which they went on a date that, needless to say, was interrupted by police sirens (because Gotham). The issue cleverly used film tastes to make a point about different characters, including these two cops, who refused to watch horror, exploitative pulp, or TMNT-style shlock, choosing instead to attend a screening of the original The Mark of Zorro, which mirrored their ideals of old-fashioned romantic heroism (and, in a way, their connection to the Caped Crusader).

Not that there were no disagreements between the two lovers. Sarah Essen – who once again came close to figuring out Batman’s secret identity, in Detective Comics #641 – didn’t like the Dark Knight’s brand of vigilantism. She tolerated it, because Jim respected Batman so much, but this was a recurring source of tension:

Batman 484Batman #484

The scene above was written by Doug Moench, who initially used Sarah in a relatively ancillary way, with her views on Batman serving almost as a soap opera device, feeding into small character moments like this one. By contrast, Chuck Dixon tended to write Sarah Essen like a real cop, not just the Commissioner’s love interest… I particularly like her interactions with Jim in the thrilling arc ‘Electric City’ (Detective Comics #644-646).

Dennis O’Neil also gave Sarah some badass moments in 1992’s ‘Vows’ (Legends of the Dark Knight Annual #2), in which a simple trip to pick up her wedding dress soon escalated into a hardboiled crime adventure featuring blackmail, an electoral scandal, and a kidnapped child…

Legends Of The Dark Knight Annual 2Legends of the Dark Knight Annual #2

Sarah Essen and James Gordon ended up romantically getting married by a corrupt judge, on a boat, while waiting to be killed by gangsters, with a sadistic bent cop as a witness!

After this, their relationship continued to evolve in interesting directions. Following the Knightfall storyline – when Batman was temporarily replaced by the unstable AzBats – Commissioner Gordon found himself resenting the Dark Knight. Jim’s new attitude could have brought him closer to Sarah but, instead, she got fed up with her husband’s constant self-pity, which ironically lead to further marital strife…

Shadow of the Bat 33Shadow of the Bat 33Shadow of the Bat #33

The couple therefore switched sides on the whole Batman issue, with James losing faith in the caped hero and Sarah pragmatically accepting the city’s need for a Dark Knight. Because of this switch, in 1995 Mayor Armand Kroll – who had adopted a pro-Batman stance to go with his ‘law and order’ political platform – demoted Jim and promoted Sarah to Police Commissioner, a job she did for almost a full year.

The intricacies of the Gotham City Police Department are endlessly fascinating to me. Given that the city is full of quirky people, I imagine that even on a good day – when no major member of the rogues’ gallery is threatening to commit genocide – the police will probably have to cope with some smaller, lamer villain, like Death-Man (who keeps pretending to die every time he gets caught) or the Karate Creep (who practices martial arts on senior citizens). In the same way that the Hong Kong of Johnnie To’s Throw Down is a weird version of HK where everyone is into judo, Gotham is basically an alternate version of NYC where the average citizen is always on the verge of putting on a kooky suit and adopting a theme-based identity. Against this background, it’s amusing to see the police force run by a practical woman with little patience for costumed outlaws but taking it all in stride. Indeed, as commissioner, Sarah Essen Gordon played a significant role in several neat stories (including Chuck Dixon’s and Flint Henry’s Man-Bat mini-series).

Besides her ongoing marriage troubles, we saw Sarah struggle with the fact she was still a hands-on cop at heart and ultimately felt cooped up in her new position, shuffling paper instead of chasing criminals back on the street. Doug Moench effectively summed up this aspect in a little tale called ‘Commissions’ (Batman Chronicles #2), in which there was a hostage situation at the police headquarters…

Batman Chronicles 2Batman Chronicles #2

When the liberal Marion Grange replaced Armand Kroll as mayor, she acknowledged Sarah’s frustration. Grange gave her a new job as the mayor’s personal liaison to the Police Department and Sarah became more of a background character again (although Chuck Dixon did occasionally rescue her by providing Sarah with meatier supporting roles, for example in ‘The Death Lottery’ arc, from Detective Comics #708-710).

I suppose that, as a recognizable-yet-third-tier female cast member, Sarah Essen Gordon’s days were numbered. In 1998, Gotham was hit by an earthquake, which eventually lead to the No Man’s Land crossover, with the city abandoned by the federal government and mostly controlled by street gangs. Sarah stood by her husband and by the remaining police officers who fought to gradually reinstate some kind of formal order in the city. The story’s climax (cover-dated February 2000, written by Greg Rucka and Devin K. Grayson) involved Sarah going after the Joker – who had kidnapped dozens of babies over Christmas – and finally meeting her fate:

Detective Comics #741Detective Comics #741

Having the Clown Prince of Crime kill Sarah Essen Gordon was a terrible move all around. I don’t know whether to blame the editors or the writers (Devin Grayson was actually one of the few prominent female writers of Batman comics and Greg Rucka went on to become a strong feminist voice in the medium), all I know is that we lost a character that could’ve still given us plenty of great stories…

And what was the point of this sacrifice? It did nothing for the Joker’s status, since the previous decades had already more than established that he was a dangerous psychopath, with a body count in the hundreds, who was able to permanently harm the regular cast (in the late ‘80s, he had crippled Barbara ‘Batgirl’ Gordon for life and beaten Robin to death). It also did very little for James Gordon’s overall characterization, since he already had hardcore personal reasons to hate the Joker (because of what happened to his daughter) and he remained unattached until 2011’s New 52 reboot, so it didn’t even open the way for a new relationship… Hell, Jim was already a widow anyway, so not even that was new angle.

I’ve read that the writers initially considered killing off Detective Renee Montoya, which wouldn’t have been a good choice either (she had an engrossing arc later on). Looking back, if they really wanted to leave an impression by murdering a supporting member of the GCPD, they might as well have gone with Stan Kitch or perhaps Mackenzie Bock, who was quite active during No Man’s Land yet only made a few appearences afterwards anyway.

Still, I would’ve preferred if they’d found a different way of giving the story a lasting impact. The way in which subsequent comics showed Gotham trying to rebuild and regain some normality after a year of chaos made for a much more appealing read than seeing the various cast members at the funeral or all those downbeat moments with people mourning Sarah’s departure before moving on…

detective comics #742Detective Comics #742

At the end of the day, what little long-term impact NML had on Gotham – such as a fierce rivalry between the citizens who had stayed and the ones who had fled – had nothing to do with Sarah’s death… If nothing else, at least Rucka and Grayson could’ve shown us something had changed as a specific result of that terrible moment, no matter how idiosyncratic: maybe clowns could become illegal, or there could be some kind of New Age cult worshipping Sarah Essen Gordon as the savior of Gotham’s infants.

I guess the creators felt bad about how they treated Sarah and that’s why, soon afterwards, they brought Maggie Sawyer into the Bat-books, as the head of the Major Crimes Unit. Apart from the fact that Maggie is a lesbian, you can easily imagine her earlier stories at the MCU starring Sarah Essen Gordon instead. It would’ve been more fun to see someone in that position who actually had a troubled backstory with the Caped Crusader (we got a little bit of that in Batman Beyond, which was set in a future where Barbara Gordon became police commissioner).

That said, I think there is hope. In this era bursting with multiple incarnations of comic book characters (in comics, film, television, etc), Sarah Essen Gordon is ripe for rediscovery. I heard she showed up in the Gotham TV show for a while, but that’s not enough… Recent adaptations of superhero franchises have increasingly resorted to race and gender flipping in order to bring some much-needed diversity to stories that – for historical reasons – used to attribute agency overwhelmingly to white males. Well, here is a well-defined female character who can easily replace James as the go-to depiction of Gotham’s Police Commissioner!

This wouldn’t feel too forced – after all, there is a precedent in the comics. Plus, it would actually create an interesting dynamic by giving us a police commissioner who both respects and distrusts Batman, who both resents having to resort to him and grudgingly accepts she has to (not to mention the sense of complicity rooted in their shared loyalty to Jim).

Until then, all we have is the tragic fulfillment of Sarah’s own unintended prophecy, back in 1993…

Shadow Of The Bat 09Shadow of the Bat #9

NEXT: Crossover pitches.

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3 Scarecrow-induced hallucinations

One of the reasons the core of Batman’s rogues gallery has proven so lasting is the fact that many of his foes are super-functional storytelling devices. The Joker is a clown, so he always looks scary. The Riddler has a puzzle-compulsion, so he always provides mysteries for the Dynamic Duo to solve. Two-Face has a split personality and that coin toss thing, so he’s ideally suited for tales about free will, luck, and duality. With Poison Ivy, there’s the blatant eco-sexual symbolism.

Similarly, the Scarecrow’s modus operandi conveniently consists of spraying people with a fear-inducing gas, which a) easily allows writers to explore the subconscious of various characters, and b) can serve as a good pretext for artists to go wild, drawing freaky hallucinations. Several comics have taken advantage of this… Most memorably, Nightwing #9-10 features a lengthy, trippy Freudian vision full of callbacks to Dick Grayson’s backstory. I also have a soft spot for the Black & White short ‘Fear is the Key’ (originally published in Gotham Knights #37), which blurs the line between reality and delusion in an awesome way.

With that in mind, let’s take a closer look at how different creative teams explored the potential of Scarecrow’s gimmick…

Batman & Robin Adventures 13Batman & Robin Adventures 13Batman & Robin Adventures #13

By starting ‘Knigthmare’ (Batman & Robin Adventures #13, cover-dated December 1996) inside a Scarecrow-induced hallucination and only revealing this in the second page, writer Ty Templeton opens the proceedings with a nifty twist while quickly setting up how the whole fear gas thing works. The brisk pace, efficient storytelling, and accessibility are all hallmarks of the series and this issue doesn’t disappoint.

Penciller Brandon Kruse, inker Rick Burchett, and colorist Linda Medley pack a lot into each page. They do a stellar job with the shadowy cemetery scene (you can even glimpse the Scarecrow’s silhouette hiding in the first panel) as well as with the intoxicated security guard’s bug-eyed expression. The gassy, brightly noxious green-yellow panel borders in the transition to the ‘real’ world  guide your eyes down to the horrific title, at the bottom. The artists also sneak into the background Scarecrow’s accomplice, Michael Friday, casually walking into the room, thus establishing his personality through the lack of empathy with the screaming victim (his last name, which we find out in the next panel, is probably a nod to the fact that this is the thirteenth issue, thus paying homage to the horror franchise Friday the 13th). Moreover, you can see a poster for the ersatz-Beatles reunion that will drive the plot (not the first time that Batman and Robin had an adventure based on The Beatles). Finally, letterer Tim Harkins deserves praise for giving the guard’s word balloons a truly panicked feel.

‘The Sinister Straws of the Scarecrow’ (Batman #296, cover-dated February 1978) also begins by introducing the concept of the fear gas, as the disgraced professor Jonathan Crane explains its properties to his henchmen – a couple of former students who obediently fulfil their assigned tasks and are appropriately called ‘Strawmen:’

Batman 296Batman 296Batman 296Batman #296

You can tell this story was written by David Vern (as David V. Reed) because of the way the Scarecrow – aka ‘the Malevolent Merchant of Heartquake’ – keeps mentioning interesting factoids, whether about the human brain or the technical names of various phobias. Vern doesn’t clutter the comic with text, though, encouraging artist Sal Amendola to indulge in surrealism by confronting one of the henchmen with his biggest fear – the fear of being attacked by a godlike Dark Knight who shoots lasers out of his eyes and is able to transform into a giant bat! Jerry Serpe contributes to the psychedelic vibe by coloring that section with a garish combination of blue, purple, and yellow. Letterer Milt Snapinn joins in on the disorienting action not only by throwing a vertical word balloon into the mix, but also by having the Strawman’s scream fall out of that balloon.

(And this is only the beginning of an all-around fun issue, which includes further hallucinations, a snitch whose underworld slang is so intricate that it requires translation, Batman solving a mystery by looking at a floor plan, and a climax with the Caped Crusader reasoning himself out of fear!)

Our final example comes from ‘Mistress of Fear’ (New Year’s Evil: Scarecrow, cover-dated February 1998), in which Jonathan Crane tortures the plucky undergrad Becky Albright – who dared testify against him – by having her experience all the classic phobias in quick succession:

new year's evil - scarecrownew year's evil - scarecrownew year's evil - scarecrowNew Year’s Evil: Scarecrow

Duncan Fegredo’s art makes it so that the fears are illustrated not just by the individual images, but also by the overall layout. For agoraphobia we get Becky in a borderless panel full of negative space, signifying the unleashed fear of open places. For claustrophobia we get Becky in a clustered panel, with thick black borders, in line with the fear of closed confines. Colorist Bjarne Hansen lays on the toxic green motif. Letterer Albert de Guzman fittingly shifts the words’ fonts and sizes: the word ‘Agoraphobia?’ takes up a lot of space, the word ‘claustrophobia’ seems to be trying to break out of its balloon. The splash page in the middle shows all the fears blending into one huge panic attack, as Becky drowns in the dark while getting entangled with snakes and spiders. Her position suggests both falling *and* sinking. The last page in this sequence returns us to ‘reality,’ but it’s mostly framed with close shots, so that we continue to feel Becky’s exasperation at the wave of terror closing in on her.

Because the issue was written by an inspired Peter Milligan, it’s quite witty and cleverly constructed. After amusingly digging through both larger existential angst and mundane situations that can trigger anxieties (“An empty park bench. A cup of cold tea. A ball of hair in the sink.”), the Scarecrow shockingly realizes that Becky’s main trauma concerns being hated because her body didn’t fit society’s standards of beauty. It’s a powerful moment, not least because this is such a recognizable fear for a young woman to have. The realization strikes a chord within Crane, himself a victim of bullying, throwing the story in a new direction.

These are just three examples. The Scarecrow has given us plenty of cool comics so far and I suppose there are many more to come. After all, his fear gas should continue to provide engaging stories as long we live in a terror-filled world driven by stress and social anxiety.

 

NEXT: Sarah Essen Gordon.

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Gothic Batman stories from the ‘90s

Goth subculture had quite a devoted fan base in the 1990s. You couldn’t miss the hordes of stylish, pretentious teens with black clothes and eyeliner back then. Tim Burton and Marilyn Manson were all the rage for a while. Bands like AFI mixed hardcore punk-rock with dark romantic motifs, while Slipknot rode the nu-metal wave. The Sandman became the backbone of DC’s Vertigo imprint (which didn’t prevent Garth Ennis from ruthlessly mocking its tone in the Preacher one-shot Cassidy: Blood and Whiskey). And, of course, the Dark Knight jumped on the trend…

Last year, I mentioned that in the seventies Batman comics were full of ghost stories. Well, by the nineties things got even more ominous, with a number of creators sharing a passion for classic horror, including Alan Grant (who clearly drew inspiration from Tod Browning’s The Unknown and Freaks for Shadow of the Bat #14-15) and Kelley Jones (whose art consistently dripped and oozed with gothic atmosphere). Hell, even if you set aside Elseworlds specials like the Batman – Vampire trilogy, just based on the disturbing ideas and beautifully surreal visuals of the main titles, most creators seemed to be looking for inspiration in Alejandro Jodorowsky’s Holy Blood!

So if you’re ever in the mood for eerie comics with some good old-fashioned Batman quirkiness thrown into the mix, then make sure you track down any of these ten cool tales of grave robbers, living gargoyles, homicidal maniacs, twisted traumas, demonic forces, and dreadful monsters:

 ‘The Library of Souls’ (Detective Comics #643)

detective comics 643

Batman has faced his fair share of bizarre threats – especially when written by Peter Milligan – but ‘The Library of Souls’ and its story of Stanislaus Johns, a serial killer obsessed with the Dewey Decimal Classification System, is particularly macabre (if not without some black humor). I just love how Johns, like many Gotham City villains, is at once chilling, tragic, and pathetic.

‘A Gotham Tale’ (Batman #477-478)

Batman 477

This sadly forgotten two-parter could’ve been a Hammer Films production. Locked in a safe with two people running out of oxygen, the Dark Knight proposes a Canterbury Tales-style contest to decide who should sacrifice himself in order to leave the others enough air to make it through the night.

‘Boneyard Blues’ (Batman #539)

Batman 539

Writer Doug Moench, penciller Kelley Jones, inker John Beatty, colorist Gregory Wright, and letterer Todd Klein went further than any other team in terms of turning the regular Batman title into a grotesque, full-on horror comic. Case in point: in ‘Boneyard Blues,’ the Dark Knight investigates an undertaker who desecrates corpses in order to carve sculptures out of their bones.

‘Choices’ (Legends of the Dark Knight Halloween Special)

legends of the dark knight halloween special

The first of a set of beloved Halloween stories written by Jeph Loeb and illustrated by Tim Sale, ‘Choices’ has a young Batman chasing the Scarecrow while gradually being consumed by fear and self-doubt. As you’d expect from Sale, it’s a feast of freakish visions. (This story was later retitled ‘Fears’ and published in the collection Haunted Knight.)

‘The Thane of Gotham’ (Shadow of the Bat #10)

Shadow of the Bat 10

The Caped Crusader has thirty minutes to find his way through a maze-like castle and fight a monstrous man-child in order to prevent an eccentric Scottish lord from enacting a decades-old revenge. A typically deranged tale penned by Alan Grant, with a touching ending.

Night Cries

Batman - Night Cries

Batman and a recently promoted Police Commissioner James Gordon investigate a series of murders apparently related to either a drug war or child abuse – a case with a heavy psychological toll on both of them. As the former chief writer and editor of the landmark anthologies Creepy and Eerie, Archie Goodwin sure knew how to spin a gruesome, atmospheric yarn. Scott Hampton painted and co-plotted this powerful graphic novel.

‘Terminus’ (Legends of the Dark Knight #64)

legends of the dark knight 64

With expressionist art by Chris Bachalo, ‘Terminus’ is an urban horror story set in a dodgy hotel and built around depressing slices of life. It’s written by Jamie Delano in the same dark-as-hell, verbose style as his runs on Hellblazer and Animal Man, making this possibly the most Vertigo-esque Batman issue ever. (The other obvious contender for the title is No Man’s Land Secret Files & Origins, due to the moody main story by Alisa Kwitney and Michael Zulli.)

‘Sanctum’ (Legends of the Dark Knight #54)

legends of the dark knight 54

If ‘Terminus’ feels like a Hellblazer spin-off, then ‘Sanctum’ is pretty much a Hellboy preview, with artist Mike Mignola and colorist Mark Chiarello trying out the angular, shadow-heavy approach they would develop in the acclaimed Dark Horse series. Moreover, the plot covers similar territory, as Batman is attacked (or hallucinates that he is attacked) by a blood-sucking dead man in an Lovecraft-inspired fantasy yarn.

‘Last Chance’ (Gotham Adventures #6)

Gotham Adventures #6

I’ve spoken many times about my love for the way in which the Batman Adventures line nailed the Caped Crusader’s world at its streamlined best. In ‘Last Chance,’ Ty Templeton – one of the great unsung writers of Batman comics (and the focus of a future post in Gotham Calling, sooner or later) – presents the Adventures’ version of the origin of everyone’s favorite ghost, Deadman, who watches Batman, Robin, and Nightwing investigate his own murder.

(Like many of these stories, ‘Last Chance’ works pretty well as a standalone comic, but completists may wish to know that it is also a sort of sequel to ‘Second Chances,’ from Batman & Robin Adventures #15.)

Batman versus Predator

Batman versus PredatorBatman versus Predator

John McTiernan’s Predator became an instant classic, working both as a chest-beating Schwarzenegger vehicle and as an allegory about the US military involvement in Central America. The 1990 sequel Predator 2 moved the action from the jungle to a futuristic LA, pitting the titular alien hunter against the toughest thugs in town, including a loose cannon cop played by Danny Glover (doing a combination of the two leads from Lethal Weapon). The change to an urban setting and the concept of Predator trying to figure out who exactly is the best game around could’ve been clever ways to avoid repeating the original too closely, but the movie didn’t fully live up to the premise. By contrast, the first Batman versus Predator mini-series, published the following year, got all these elements just right, as the monster slaughtered his way up the Gotham chain of power until a brutal showdown against the Dark Knight. Along the way, we got compelling characters, stylish art, and gallons of horrific violence, moodily brought to the page by Andy and Adam Kubert.

NEXT: Scary visions.

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20 spectacular Spectre covers

Apart from having a particularly gruesome origin story, larger-than-life powers, a sadistic sense of poetic justice, and at least a couple of awesome comic runs on his portfolio, a key aspect that stands out about the Spectre is his visually striking design. The stylish green cloak and the ghostly white skin on his semi-naked body, coupled with the Spectre’s perpetually grim features and the character’s propensity for surreal horror tales, have lent themselves over the years to some of the most downright creepy covers on the stands.

Here are twenty breathtaking examples (taken from the Grand Comics Database), to haunt your nightmares:

More Fun Comics 54secret origins 5the spectre 4adventure comics 434Wrath of the Spectre 3the spectre 7the spectre 9the spectre 49the spectre 45the spectre 18the spectre 22the spectre 36the spectre 29the spectre 38spectre 9the spectre 6the spectre 30the spectre 24the spectre 44the spectre 10

And, of course, I had to include at least one with Batman on it:

batman 541

NEXT: This one is for the goths.

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Anatomy of Shadow of the Bat #45

Last week I went on and on about the compelling and cathartic lack of subtlety in the Batman comics of Alan Grant, so I figured it would be fair to spotlight one of the few issues that falls outside that description. I’m talking about the remarkably nuanced Shadow of the Bat #45, cover-dated December 1995 and titled ‘Wayne Manor: Anatomy of a Murder’ (not to be mistaken for Shadow of the Bat #71, which is confusingly also called ‘Anatomy of a Murder’ and it is a pretty neat comic in its own right).

shadow of the bat 45

This is an unusual issue on various levels. Apart from Brian Steelfreeze’s painted cover image (a homage to Detective Comics #31), the Dark Knight is nowhere to be seen and Alan Grant’s script avoids many conventions of the pulpy adventure and crime genre that typically fuels Batman stories. You won’t find any ingenious deathtraps or outlandish supervillains like Cornelius Stirk – the hypnotizing, heart-eating serial killer – in this one. Instead, for the most part we get a western-tinged period piece set during the US Civil War.

Even Michal Dutkiewicz’s interior pencils stand quite apart from the flashy art of Alan Grant’s usual collaborators in the series (like Norm Breyfogle and Mark Buckingham). Inker Gerry Fernandez and colorist Pamela Rambo – with color separations by Android Images – give Dutkiewicz’s work a subdued, quasi-realistic tone that, in most other comics, would’ve probably clashed with Grant’s style.

The plot: after Bruce discovers the corpse of his great, great, great-uncle Joshua Thomas Wayne underneath his wine cellar, he spends most of the issue reading the diary of the corpse’s brother, judge Solomon Zebadiah Wayne. We are thus treated to an extended flashback that shows how one of Batman’s ancestors died while operating the ‘underground railway’ that smuggled slaves from the South up the East Coast to Canada.

Shadow of the Bat 45

On the one hand, Shadow of the Bat #45 can be read as a relatively simple tale that effectively denounces slavery, casting those who exploit it as villains and those who fought it as part of a lineage of outstanding heroes that goes all the way up to the Caped Crusader himself. An epilogue wraps up the issue with a touching character moment, as Bruce Wayne, visiting a cemetery, reflects about his family history and, reminded that he is the last of his line, melancholically hopes to amend this condition in some future day or night.

All in all, this could almost be an Elseworlds comic, with one of the characters briefly resembling a 19th century proto-Batman:

Shadow of the Bat 45

On the other hand, Alan Grant buries underneath this framework a few elements that complicate such a straightforward reading. In fact, ‘Wayne Manor: Anatomy of a Murder’ can also be seen as an engaging illustration of the contradictions of wealthy white liberalism.

Like in your average Batman yarn, the protagonists of the story are rich protectors lending out a helping hand to poor victims (in this case the slaves), whose role is to make the heroes look good. However, recasting this narrative in another time, with new characters, allows Grant to highlight the substantial difference (and hierarchy) between the two positions. The comic doesn’t shy away from placing the Waynes in a tradition of well-meaning yet privileged humanists, whose behavior – for all its heartfelt altruism and progressive attitude – cannot be disconnected from their elite background.

Not only do the Wayne brothers condescendingly lecture the escaped slaves who think about giving up and going back to Maryland rather than facing a cold journey into the unknown, they outright threaten the fugitives with deadly force:

Shadow Of The Bat 45

This subtext is there since the very first pages, still set in the present day, as the shabby Sergeant Harvey Bullock arrives at the luxurious Wayne Manor to investigate the murdered corpse. During a wonderful sequence in the cellar, everyone stays true to character: Bruce Wayne sticks to his spoiled socialite act, Alfred Pennyworth behaves like the smartest man in the room, and Harvey Bullock barely disguises his contempt for the upper class…

Shadow of the Bat 45

As Batman fans, we know that Bruce’s foppish persona is actually a disguise, but Shadow of the Bat #45 cleverly reminds us that such disguise is nevertheless built on a long legacy of hereditary power by having Bullock follow the house butler at length across an aristocratic mansion decorated with family portraits and busts…

Shadow of the Bat 45

That bottom panel drives the point home, with Bullock’s grubby hand stealing food from the plentiful kitchen while Alfred hints at his condition as a servant who works hard in order to preserve his master’s lifestyle.

All this recontextualizes the closing scene, in which Bruce Wayne, standing on the buried bones of his ancestors and contemplating his parents’ adorned grave, has a realization that he is the final master of Wayne Manor (“He is the end of a Gotham dynasty, a living, breathing family tree toppling in the dust of time.”). While Bruce doesn’t rule out the possibility that he too will eventually spawn a continuation to the family name – and, ultimately, its possessions and status – his inner thoughts suggest a dark undertone in such a yearning, with Alan Grant’s narration claiming that this will happen only ‘when the innocent no longer cry out for justice… or he is no longer able to hear them.’

That said, we all know that moment is still far away, if nothing else because further down the page an orange blurb promises that in the following issue “Cornelius Stirk gets to the heart of the matter in… FEAR FRENZY!”

 

NEXT: A spectre is haunting Gotham Calling.

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Alan Grant’s in-yer-face Batman

I suppose it is possible to do subtlety in Batman comics. To do it well, even: from Greg Rucka’s nuanced characterization to Grant Morrison’s elliptic narratives; from Dan Slott’s skill at disguising plot points to Ed Brubaker’s occasional flirts with realism… Still, the notion doesn’t seem like a natural fit in a series about a guy for whom the best way to handle problems is dressing up like a humanoid bat and jumping from rooftop to rooftop in order to punch those problems in the mug – and by ‘problems’ I mean insane killers with flashy costumes and explicit themes running through their regular crime sprees.

One of the reasons I love Alan Grant’s work on Batman so much is that he unabashedly embraced the visceral appeal of this world, without attempting to soften or hide it. In the hands of this Scottish writer, Gotham City became a springboard for satisfyingly blunt, frantic, outraged, and outrageous stories. Grant’s Dark Knight was often furious, insulting criminal scumbags and the system that spawned them while burning with indignation. Grant’s villains were dangerously delusional or further pushing society off the edge…. or both, like in the case of Scarface, the ill-tempered gangster who was either a psychotic ventriloquist or a demonic wooden dummy with a speech impediment:

DetectiveComics583Detective Comics #583

After making a name for himself as one of the key voices of the irreverent British anthology series  2000 AD, Alan Grant arrived in Gotham City circa 1988. He penned a stupendous run on Detective Comics (#583-597, #601-621), at first co-written with his regular partner-in-crime, John Wagner, with hyperkinetic art by Norm Breyfogle. In late 1990, Grant moved to the more continuity-heavy Batman title, for which he did around twenty issues (mostly illustrated by Breyfogle) before being given a spin-off series (with various artists), Shadow of the Bat, entirely devoted to his brutal take on the Caped Crusader’s corner of the DC universe. Grant wrote that series until issue #82, in 1999, as well as a bunch of crossovers and specials throughout the nineties. The quality of his output became increasingly uneven, but there were odd gems right until the end.

Along the way, we got all sorts of deliriously tasteless comics, including disturbing tales of cannibalism and more dead kids than in Game of Thrones. From the onset, Alan Grant filled his scripts with macabre ideas and characters. Some of these caught on, like the serial killer Victor Zsasz or Jeremiah Arkham, the asylum director whose strategies for dealing with patients were dubious at best. Other characters remained mostly confined to Grant’s stories (perhaps because they were too eccentric to appeal to more reasonable writers), like the deranged debt collector Tally Man or the death-obsessed Mortimer Kadaver:

Detective Comics 589Detective Comics #589

As you can probably tell by now, there is a strain of dark humor running through these comics (particularly the ones set in Arkham Asylum, a recurring location), but it never fully takes over the material. While Grant’s most purely comedic series can be quite dumb and lowbrow (LoboRobo-Hunter, his final arcs on The Demon), in his Batman work the humor tends to match the overall tone, set somewhere on the border between amusingly silly and downright sinister.

Indeed, the flashes of comedy shouldn’t be mistaken for irony. Like I said, there is an earnestness and committed bluntness to Alan Grant’s writing, whose raw power sometimes approaches that of Scottish anarcho-punk. Himself a self-professed anarchist, who in the mid-90s became a follower of Neo-Tech, Grant often treated Batman comics as a vehicle for his takes on philosophy and politics (by ‘vehicle,’ I mean bulldozer).  This was especially the case in comics featuring his beloved creation, the vigilante Anarky.

Grant would often choose a specific theme and build the whole story around it, like an after school special. That month, every single character would end up engaging with the same topic, whether it was the notion of violence as entertainment (Detective Comics #596-597), the proliferation of garbage (Detective Comics #613), or hero worship (Batman #466). He occasionally came up with neat ways to frame the debate: in Shadow of the Bat #72, a writer goes around asking Gotham citizens about the meaning of life while Batman pursues a particularly grizzly case; in Shadow of the Bat #77, a teacher delivers a lecture about Darwin’s theory of evolution to the corpses of his dead students.

At his best, Alan Grant was able to blend his political and philosophical points into the series’ off-kilter vibe, but he didn’t always manage to avoid sounding preachy. One tale that bravely tried to walk that fine line was ‘An American Batman in London’ (one of several comics in which Grant took the Dark Knight to the UK).  This wall-to-wall action romp starts out just like so many other stories featuring cardboard jihadi terrorists, yet halfway through it confronts Batman and the readers with the other side’s perspective:

Detective Comics 590Detective Comics 590Detective Comics #590

The issue – cover-dated September 1988 – interestingly tries to offer a counterpoint to the many thrillers about Muslim villains coming out at the time (and still common today), with their one-sided, Islamophobic discourse… It also places this trend in a long tradition of simplistic public discourse about terrorism by setting the tale during Guy Fawkes Night. Yet the comic can be seen as becoming too much of a straightforward polemic, losing sight of what makes Batman stories so special.

The following issue, ‘Aborigine,’ was also pretty heavy-handed, although I would argue that it incorporated its critique of racism and colonialism in a more appealing way. In that swift-moving adventure, Batman faced a badass Indigenous Australian armed with spears and boomerangs on a bloody quest to recover an artifact from a Gotham exhibition. The result is goofy and weird and arguably offensive on many levels, but it’s also a lot of fun, even if Batman barely does anything significant in the story other than realize that not even he can stand in the way of historical justice…

Detective Comics 591Detective Comics #591

I’m also a fan of that 1995 one-shot in which Alfred and Nightwing travel to the United Kingdom to stop a group of Eurosceptic aristocrats from staging a coup – a comic that feels oddly prescient in the current Brexit era (even if the villains’ plan involved blowing up the Channel Tunnel, so that British insurance companies would get hammered, the stock market would collapse, the pound would nosedive, and they could then basically buy the country… a slightly riskier route than the one the UKIP ended up taking!).

One topic kept coming up more than any other one in these comics: drugs. You can pick any random issue written by Alan Grant and starring the Dark Knight and it is more than likely to feature illegal substances and psychotropic trips at some point, often at the core of the story. Perhaps it’s not so surprising, given that Grant was living in the Scottland that gave birth to Trainspotting, but in any case you can see this trait right from the start: Grant’s very first issue was about an outbreak of designer drugs called Fever (for feverol trinitrite), highly addictive pills that gave users a power rush. From there, Grant went on to write about every weed and opiate in the book. Detective Comics #611 even introduced a new cocaine derivative, called ‘super-crack.’

Seriously, Grant’s Gotham City was overflowing with narcotics…

DetectiveComics608Detective Comics #608

Even background characters couldn’t get enough of the stuff:

Detective Comics 589Detective Comics #589

We got to follow reporters Vicki Vale and Horten Spence around, as they were actually assigned a news story on this issue:

batman 475Batman #475

Alan Grant’s drug comics have that mix of grim outrage and shamelessly trashy entertainment you find in exploitation movies like Coffy and Class of 1984. It’s not just that the Caped Crusader spends much of his time beating up dope pushers and dealers, it’s the fact that they can be as hysterically over-the-top as everything else. In Detective Comics #608, punk rock star Johnny Vomit gets his ass kicked for smuggling smack in his guitar. In Shadow of the Bat #32, Scarface ruthlessly goes after a competing drug lord by cutting his heroin with strychnine, thus killing dozens of helpless junkies in order to ruin the guy’s reputation. Later, there was an unbelievably ridiculous storyline in which the Floronic Man, after having been beheaded at the climax of Mark Millar’s Swamp Thing run, came back as a grass-themed supervillain:

Shadow Of The Bat #57Shadow of the Bat #57

What else can I say? I wouldn’t want all my readings to feel like this, but Alan Grant’s works are the kind of pure, uncut stuff that gets me high on Batman comics (just to stick to Grant’s favorite imagery)… They can be hectic and gritty and borderline sadistic. They can feature a ham-fisted lecture or gloriously awful junk fiction. They can show the Dark Knight at his coolest, kicking butt and taking names, or just wrap up with Batman downtrodden by the cruel society around him, having let another villain get away or yet another kid die in vain. Or maybe you’ll get a corny final splash with the Caped Crusader framed between an eagle’s head and an US flag while thinking about the importance of making sure every child has a chance, regardless of background. In any case, you can be damn sure you’re in for a ride, with verve and panache to spare. It’s like every page is screaming: if you want subtlety, fuck off and go look for it somewhere else!

Detective Comics 614Detective Comics #614

NEXT: Slavery.

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Another year, another 50 kicks

Today is the third anniversary of Gotham Calling. As usual, I’m celebrating by posting fifty images of Batman kicking people and monsters in the head, accompanied by evocative sound effects as well as the occasional thoughtful, witty remark.

Have fun!

The Brave and the Bold #97The Brave and the Bold #97
Batman #292Batman #292
Swamp Thing #7Swamp Thing #7
The Brave and the Bold #167The Brave and the Bold #167
Detective Comics 604Detective Comics #604
Detective Comics #608Detective Comics #608
Legends #6Legends #6
Detective Comics #613Detective Comics #613
Detective Comics #615Detective Comics #615
Detective Comics #617Detective Comics #617
Legends of the Dark Knight #46Legends of the Dark Knight #46
Batman versus Predator II #1Batman versus Predator II #1
Batman #461Batman #461
Batman #470Batman #470
Batman #474Batman #474
Shadow of the Bat Annual #1Shadow of the Bat Annual #1
Batman #476Batman #476
The Batman Adventures #3The Batman Adventures #3
Batman #492Batman #492
Batman #495Batman #495
Batman 511Batman #511
Batman 00Batman #0
Shadow of the Bat 37Shadow of the Bat #37
Batman 515Batman #515
batman 517Batman #517
Legends of the Dark Knight 88Legends of the Dark Knight #88
Batman 518Batman #518
Batman 519Batman #519
Batman 520Batman #520
Batman 522Batman #522
Batman #524Batman #524
Shadow of the Bat 50Shadow of the Bat #50
Batman 526Batman #526
Batman 527Batman #527
Batman 80 Page Giant #1Batman 80-Page Giant #1
Batman 530Batman #530
Batman 532Batman #532
World’s Finest (v2) #4World’s Finest (v2) #4
Batman #534Batman #534
Batman #536Batman #536
Batman Annual #21Batman Annual #21
Batman #548Batman #548
Blackgate: Isle of MenBlackgate: Isle of Men
chase #7Chase #7
Batman #556Batman #556
Haunted Gotham #3Haunted Gotham #3
All Star Batman and Robin, the Boy Wonder #7All Star Batman and Robin, the Boy Wonder #7
Batman: The Brave and the Bold #11Batman: The Brave and the Bold #11
Legends of the Dark Knight (v2) #36Legends of the Dark Knight (v2) #36
Legends of the Dark Knight (v2) #68Legends of the Dark Knight (v2) #68

 

But of course, you know what they say… what goes around comes around:

Batman #427Batman #427

 

NEXT: Drugs.

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Len Wein (1948-2017)

In the same year, we lost Bernie Wrightson and Len Wein, the two creators of Swamp Thing. May you rest in peace and do not come back as a tragic vegetable creature or a patchwork Frankensteinian monster reanimated by Anton Arcane.

One day, Gotham Calling will look closely into Len Wein’s memorable and diverse work on Batman comics. Until then, I leave you with one of his most nightmarish contributions:

batman 327Batman #327
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Elseworlds tales of sword & sorcery

After another season of Game of Thrones, my mind has been on sword and sorcery. I still think the series’ most engaging contributions to this genre take place on the edges of the adventure stuff, as the characters count the dead bodies and figure out how to rule the cities they’ve conquered. Yet those aspects have increasingly taken a back seat to fan service: the last seasons gave us a clearer board game structure and a greater emphasis on epic battles, as well as the apparent introduction of widespread teleportation (with everyone now able to conveniently cross huge distances in a single day or night). To be fair, Game of Thrones was never about outright dismissing genre conventions as much as it was about expanding their horizons. If anything, this TV show has breathed new life into traditional fantasy elements from the start, embracing them with the straight-faced earnestness of Akira Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood and a level of unabashed glee that seems almost reminiscent of Robert E. Howard’s prose, something I didn’t think was possible after Terry Pratchett spent decades brilliantly parodying those tropes to death.

Sure, Game of Thrones was quite deconstructionist compared to, say, the Lord of the Rings movies (not least because of the very different source material). At the end of the day, however, a large chunk of it still revolved around sandal-wearing, swashbuckling muscular knights and scantily clad babes fighting supernatural threats in a miscellaneous composite of past eras and legends. In part, the show pulled this off by taking itself extra seriously, raising the levels of grim psychological and physical violence, coming up with diverse ways of raping, castrating, and viciously slaughtering most of the cast (the same strategy used by the DC Extended Universe). Yet GoT also did it through intricate plotting, witty dialogue, nuanced characterization, and a handful of truly shocking anti-climaxes.

For those previously unfamiliar with the genre, Game of Thrones has proven that you can tell complex, thought-provoking stories using sword & sorcery tropes. For me, though, it has been a pleasant reminder of how much fun these tropes can be in the first place. After all, those backroom scenes with people forging new strategic alliances, petty betrayals, and power-hungry conspiracies are great precisely because they take place in a world of dragons and zombies, not in spite of it!

With that in mind, I decided to revisit the various Elseworlds comics in which Batman was reinvented as a hero of sword & sorcery adventure, going back to 1993’s Dark Joker – The Wild. Set in a mystical, proto-medieval land, that one-shot imagined the Clown Prince of Crime as an evil wizard and the Dark Knight as the feral, winged son of the deceased sorcerers Majister and Liandra, now on a brutal quest with the help of a mysterious woman with magical powers.

This wasn’t Doug Moench’s most inspired script: the setting and mythology were so abstract and convoluted that it was hard to engage with the story as anything more than a sequence of haunting images… Fortunately, Kelley Jones and John Beatty were in charge of the art, with Les Dorscheid doing the colors, so those images were pretty fucking impressive:

Dark Joker The WildDark Joker The WildDark Joker – The Wild

In terms of writing, I much prefer the following year’s ‘The Last Man’ (Catwoman Annual #1), penned by Christopher Priest, a smart author who a decade earlier had already sought to bring greater emotional complexity to the Conan comics. This issue, part of DC’s strand of Elseworlds annuals that year (which also gave us a pirate Batman and a samurai Robin), takes place in an alternate 1275 AD, after the emperor of Augustonia declared war on the House of Selene, accused of idolatry, witchcraft, murder, blasphemy against the church and state, consuming the flesh of infants, and drinking the blood of martyrs. The war is carried out by the emperor’s son, the Batman-looking Timon, Vicar of the House of Lords, determined to slay the wicked savages.

After facing the fierce leader of the House of Selene – Rä’s al Ghül, the Cat-Man – Timon is rescued by his foe’s fur-covered daughter, slowly coming to terms with the fact that perhaps you shouldn’t believe everything you hear about other cultures, nor should you pass harsh judgement before making an effort to understand them. In other words, after setting the stage for a formulaic confrontation, the comic shakes things up by exposing the manly hero as a bigoted brute and his righteous crusade as essentially rooted in blind obedience.

Like Game of Thrones, though, ‘The Last Man’ seems less interested in defying the genre than in crafting a satisfying yarn within its boundaries. Priest has fun with the pompous speeches (“May the Devil and his minions feast on your entrails.”) and fake religious logic (“Selenes are no higher than rats or carrion! They have no souls and no sure welcome in paradise! You should be grateful such lack of humanity bars you from eternal damnation as well!”). He also creates a fine character dynamic between these versions of Batman and Catwoman/Talia, as they grow innevitably closer while journeying together…

Catwoman Annual 1Catwoman Annual 1Catwoman Annual #1

In 1996, we got a batch of this kind of tales thanks to another conceptual link running through DC’s annuals – under the banner ‘Legends of the Dead Earth,’ each issue told a story from the point of view of a post-Earth future in which DC’s characters had become misremembered legends. In practice, the stunt just meant that we got a bunch of Elseworlds comics, yet this time around more creators chose to go with the sword & sorcery route for the Batman-related books…

Dennis O’Neil and Barry Kitson did it in ‘Night’s Fall’ (Azrael Annual #2), which included an interesting fantasy retelling of the ‘Knightfall’ crossover, but it was sadly lost among the series’ usual barrage of bulky art, groan-inducing dialogue, and nonsensical plotting. By contrast, at the time Alan Grant wrote two outstanding takes on the genre: ‘King Batman’ (Shadow of the Bat Annual #4) and ‘Executioner’ (Legends of the Dark Knight Annual #6).

The former, smoothly drawn by Brian Apthorp and Stan Woch, is narrated by a being at the end of the universe who is recording “thought-images” directly onto subatomic particles in the hope that one day, in a new universe, someone will somehow find his message and decipher it. He identifies himself as “the end result of a myriad of evil thoughts and countless evil deeds” – in other words, he was the one responsible for Evil’s triumph and the subsequent destruction of the universe… And now, as he relives the path that brought him here, he wonders if he can still change history by mentally pushing quantum node points.

This is just the framing device, though. The main story actually involves an army of lizard-people mounted on dinosaurs, led by the ruthless Ophos Arkayos, who has been conquering Earth:

Shadow of the Bat Annual 4Shadow of the Bat Annual #4

Arkayos’ army is about to invade Nu-Gotham, where the lizards can access launch pads and take their war into space. In his way stands the city’s king, who is also a hero inspired by and modelled on the Caped Crusader. At first, King Batman seems to be little more than a slight variation of the original, albeit one armed with a photonic flash that can disrupt villains’ memory, bringing all of their evil to the attention of their conscious mind at once. Alan Grant, however, has a few more tricks up his sleeve, so he manages to provide a number of neat twists.

‘Executioner’ has even more of a sci-fi vibe, yet with enough medievalism thrown in to justify its inclusion here. It concerns a society in which Batman is the hereditary title of the official executioner, killing in the name of the law and thus practically eradicating crime from this version of Gotham. In fact, the story takes place on another planet, five hundred years after humans crash-landed on it and founded this civilization (so the palace is decorated with allusions to other DC heroes, like the Flash, Green Lantern, and Superman). When the latest Batman kills himself, his daughter, Kathy Kane, takes over the mantle, but while looking into the motives behind her father’s suicide she uncovers a sinister conspiracy that sheds new light upon the city’s law enforcement strategy.

Alan Grant shares plot credits with Barry Kitson on this one, but the art is by Vince Giarrano, who – like Kitson – has a propensity for exaggerated costumes and female busts, encapsulating some of the worst excesses of the ‘90s. As a result, his Kathy Kane looks like a Huntress dominatrix role-playing game:

Legends of the Dark Knight 6

Grant returned to the idea of combining Batman iconography with fortress cities, old-fashioned cloaks, and contradictory time references in the one-shot Batman & Demon: A Tragedy. The book’s high concept is basically a fusion between the characters of Bruce Wayne and Jason Blood – Bruce believes he is allergic to moonlight (owing to an orbital eccentricity, the moon shines full every night in this Gotham), but he is in fact unknowingly hosting Etrigan, the rhyming bat-demon, who goes around slashing criminals during nighttime. It’s a violent gothic tale that lives up to its title, finishing on a poignantly tragic note.

This time around, the illustrations are by Jim Murray, who comes up with jaw-dropping designs for Poison Ivy as a sexy alchemist, Killer Croc as a scary gang boss, and Catwoman as a badass occult fighter. Murray seems to be suitably channeling Frank Frazzetta’s classic covers for pulpy paperbacks and hard rock albums:

batman demon a tragedyBatman & Demon: A Tragedy

Finally, a couple of Elseworlds specials reimagined Batman as a British knight in the Middle Ages, caught between wizardry and chivalry. Bob Layton’s and Dick Giordano’s two-part Dark Knight of the Round Table drew on Arthurian legend and featured some interesting characterization by showing Bruce of Waynesmoor driven by thirst for vengeance against both Mordred and Arthur Pendragon. However, burdened with pedestrian art and storytelling – including exposition-heavy dialogue – the resulting comic was pretty much a mess (and not even a fun mess, like Guy Ritchie’s King Arthur: Legend of the Sword!).

More successfully, Mike W. Barr (the writer of Camelot 3000) penned the clever graphic novel Dark Knight Dynasty, in which three iterations of the Caped Crusader battled the immortal Vandal Savage in the past, present, and future. The past sequence, painted by Scott Hampton, follows the trial of the knight templar Joshua of Wainwrigth, who tells a fantastic story about a magical castle in 1222 AD… And, because this is a Batman comic by Mike Barr, you can bet there is at least one sequence with our hero ingeniously escaping from a deathtrap:

Dark Knight DynastyDark Knight DynastyDark Knight Dynasty

(Still, it doesn’t beat the final third of the book, in which Batman’s descendant fights Vandal Savage in outer space, with the aid of a monkey Robin!)

All in all, I guess the main lesson is that, no matter how much you twist Batman as a character, you know that sooner or later he is going to end up loudly kicking someone in the face:

Dark Joker The WildDark Joker – The Wild
Shadow Of The Bat Annual 4Shadow of the Bat Annual #4

NEXT: More kicks in the head.

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