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When I did a post on Kelley Jones’ eccentric Batman art a couple of months ago, I talked about Jones’ flair for the grotesque, the gothic horror influences, the exaggerated capes and shadows, the neat chapter headings and preview blurbs.
One thing I forgot to mention, though, was the way Kelley Jones keeps drawing these ultra-elaborate gadgets… In his comics, the Dark Knight’s detective work often relies on a set of impractically intricate microphones, microscopes, binoculars, and computers adorned with anachronistic lightbulbs and multiple screens. They look futuristic, but from a future imagined by older science fiction, when illustrators and set designers still assumed technology was going to become larger and visibly complicated rather than compact and user-friendly. Together with the extravagant architecture, this gives Jones’ tales – both canon and Elseworlds – a time-displaced look, which I find quite appealing.
Here are my ten favorite gizmos:
NEXT: Winter is here.
Historically associated with imperial rivalry and pointless carnage in the public imagination, World War I doesn’t seem to have inspired nearly as many works in the spy genre as World War II or the Cold War. Nevertheless, there are some solid films (The Spy in Black) and novels (The First Casualty) worth checking out.
There are also some very good comic books…
Set in its titular city during the snowy winter of 1916 and mixing fictional characters with historical figures and events, Philip Gelatt’s and Tyler Crook’s brilliant graphic novel Petrograd tells the story of the murder of Grigori Rasputin, the mystic advisor of the Romanovs, from the point of view of an exasperated British secret agent, Cleary, tasked with organizing the sordid affair.
The SIS are trying to keep the UK’s Russian allies in the war, since they suspect Rasputin has been advising the Tsarina to negotiate a separate peace with the German Kaiser (her cousin). The murky morality of this mission, coupled with the fact that from today’s vantage point we know how things turned out in Russia and in WWI, raises what could have been a merely enjoyable potboiler into an engrossing, thought-provoking read. Not only does Petrograd successfully combine elements of political thriller and period drama, it also features a touch of heartbreaking romance and deadpan humor (one running gag concerns the conspirators’ terrible plotting skills, with the aristocrats spending most of their time bickering about the symbolism of each gesture rather than considering the practical requirements).
There are three captivating characters at the heart of the book. With his sad eyes and mysterious Irish background, Cleary at first seems to be an outstanding agent, navigating through social classes, having befriended well-connected members of the aristocracy, of Bolshevik revolutionary cells, and of the Okhrana (the Tsar’s secret police). However, you gradually get the impression that what makes Cleary so adaptable may also be his greatest weakness, as he is harboring a deep-seated identity crisis. Then there is Grigori ‘Mad Monk’ Rasputin, who is such a legendary eccentric figure that he has popped up in many pulpy comics throughout the years, from The Shadow Strikes! to Firestorm, from Hellboy to the recent Rasputin series by Alex Grecian and Riley Rossmo. Finally, there is the cold city of Petrograd, who is arguably a character in its own right, evolving and constantly interacting with the rest of the cast.
That said, all the characters have their moments, from subtle gestures, like removing a hat near the statue of the old tsar, to inspired dialogue exchanges. Cleary’s contact at the Okhrana tells him that he clings to his words but actions make him sick, to which he replies: ‘I am afraid you’re confused. It’s the vodka I cling to and the borscht that makes me sick.’ Later, during a lovely scene in the city’s outskirts, someone describes a gypsy camp as Petrograd’s own ‘land of outcast dreams,’ where ‘one day goes to die and the next comes to be born, a feast for senses starved by a day’s doldrums.’
Despite Philip Gelatt’s ear for witty dialogue, most of the storytelling is visual, especially during the tour-de-force sequence that is Rasputin’s assassination attempt, which goes on for over thirty intense pages. Fortunately, the art couldn’t be in better hands: Tyler Crook draws with all the expressiveness and dynamism of Will Eisner, staying true to the script’s realistic tone and deliberately measured pace while crafting a melancholic atmosphere, enhanced by the sepia colors. I particularly like Petrograd’s scene transitions as the book moves from one social milieu to the next. Like Gelatt, Crooke is able to imbue every character with a sense of humanity, treating them with compassion, knowing that they are part of something much larger than they can perceive.
I will finish with something a bit different. The French comic series Silas Corey reimagines World War I and its aftermath through the adventures of the titular hero, a snobbish private detective with an opium habit and a skilled Vietnamese assistant. Told at a breakneck pace and with undisputable zest, this is a wonderful cloak and dagger romp that, criminally, remains unpublished in English.
The first couple of books take place during the spring of 1917. In this version of history, the pacifist Joseph Caillaux is still prime minister, so the opposition leader, Georges Clemenceau, hires our hero to search for a missing journalist who appears to have found incriminating evidence linking Caillaux to the Germans. This is only the starting point for a maze-like yarn bursting with double-crosses and misdirection, in which Silas Corey manages to also be hired by the French secret services and by the ominous arms dealer Madame Zarkoff before a powerful climax at the trenches. The second arc, set immediately after the armistice, sees Corey searching for Zarkoff’s son among the communist uprising of Bavaria, getting entangled in the chilling politics of post-war Germany.
With its WWI spies frantically running around, its sudden touches of humor, and its willingness to play fast and loose with history, Silas Corey sometimes nears the lunacy of Alfred Hitchcock’s Secret Agent and Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s A Very Long Engagement (without ever reaching either the all-out comedy of Blackadder Goes Forth or the all-out fantasy of the recent Wonder Woman flick). Nevertheless, the comic doesn’t shy away from its grim background. In fact, the protagonist is not a mere post-Holmesian caricature – underneath his cynical posture, Corey is haunted by memories of the front…
Pierre Alary’s art is cartoony yet vibrant, its POV constantly shifting from close-ups to wide angles. Alary fashions beautiful establishing shots and somber glances with the same panache as he delivers bloody fistfights, high-octane chases, and massive explosions. The colors are by Bruno Garcia, who gives each scene a distinctive tone, helping readers keep up as the stories quickly move from one setting to another.
As for writer Fabien Nury, suffice it to say that he is one of the strongest voices in French genre comics at the moment. He has a special flair for nifty period pieces, having written dozens of books inspired by various literary traditions. So far, my favorites are the hardboiled crime series Tyler Cross, set in the sixties, the darkly satirical The Death of Stalin, set in 1953, and the Kelly’s Heroes-esque graphic novel Comment Faire Fortune en Juin 40, set during the Second World War.
NEXT: Batman’s gadgets.
The thing about spy yarns is that the tradecraft can be the real star of the story. Even when the leads aren’t particularly likable or you don’t fully support their actions, it can be satisfying enough to watch a complex operation enfold, to figure out who is playing whom, to appreciate the strategies and techniques of professionals, whether they’re German agents in WWII (like in The Eagle Has Landed) or the kind of tough American spooks David Mamet wrote about in Ronin, Spartan, and The Unit.
While a handful of suspenseful sequences, fake IDs, and double-crosses may suffice to carve out an entertaining thriller, however, some of the best works in the genre are the ones that reflect – intentionally or not – the moral ambiguity of espionage by drawing on current political issues to flesh out their narratives. This is usually the case, for example, with series about top secret government agencies that carry out special missions to serve their country’s interests.
Nathan Edmondson’s and Mitch Gerads’ The Activity – which came out from 2011 to 2014 – followed a team of ‘problem solvers,’ i.e. a direct action unit within the ISA (Intelligence Support Activity) specialized in cleaning up what other outfits left behind after their missions and, occasionally, fixing their mistakes. Backed by bleeding edge technology, these operatives undertook assignments all over the world, from Mexico City to Amsterdam, from Thai prison cells to the Congolese jungle.
Although there is a military slant to several stories, most of The Activity goes for understated rather than explosive scenes. The tone is dry and realistic, with both Edmondson and Gerads clearly putting a lot of research into the comic – indeed, much like the ISA operatives in the series, the creators seem to have thoroughly thought out and carefully put together every sequence. Check out the nuanced color work on the pages above (Gerads did the coloring as well as the pencils and inks, with Kyle Latino and Jordan Gibson credited as ‘color assistants’).
The series has an episodic structure, with each issue focusing on a specific assignment, but it plays around with the format, so that it doesn’t become too repetitive. Apart from the changing goals and settings, stories zoom in on different stages of the agents’ work – its preparation, execution, or aftermath. For example, the third issue, ‘The Long Ride Home,’ takes place immediately after a failed mission in Afghanistan, with the characters comparing attitudes towards their job during their flight back (and discretely setting up future plot points).
You can tell Nathan Edmondson has a ball crafting the dialogue out of technical lingo and acronyms – there is even a glossary at the end of this issue (“BOHICA: Bend Over Here It Comes Again”). The result is a smart comic with plenty of enjoyable banter, subtle characterization, and exciting spies-on-a-mission thrillers.
That said, I can see how some readers may find The Activity‘s Kathryn Bigelow-ish approach off-putting, as the series presents extrajudicial killings and torture with the same matter-of-factness it presents the many debriefing meetings (even if issue #10, ‘Out with the Trash,’ does powerfully address the question of local collateral damage). Me, I think this refusal to moralize works to the comic’s advantage, leaving it to each of us to engage with the agents’ methods on our own terms.
While The Activity generally refrains from exploring the political implications of the characters’ actions, other series are more openly cynical about black ops, inviting readers to simultaneously root for the protagonists *and* question the ethics of what they are doing or who they are working for. This has been the high concept behind several team books (basically, every other WildStorm title in the ‘90s), but it was particularly prominent in comics of the late 1980s, in the aftermath of the Iran-Contra scandal and at a time when relations with the Soviet Union were improving.
It was during this period that writer Paul Kupperberg, having concluded – in the grittiest way possible – his run on the fucked up crime comic Vigilante, turned his sight on the world of espionage. At first, he combined international intrigue and superheroics in the nutzo mini-series Peacemaker (where the titular anti-hero tried to prevent Dr. Tzin-Tzin from toppling the USSR while being haunted by a projection of his dead Nazi father, who insulted him all the time) and the one-shot The Doom Patrol and Suicide Squad Special (where agents from both sides of the Iron Curtain went to Nicaragua after the jingoistic superhero Hawk got captured by the Sandinistas). Kupperberg then decided to do a more realistic take on the genre while building on the intricate intelligence community he had been developing, co-creating with artist Steve Erwin the cult series Checkmate! (with some costume designs by John Byrne).
Checkmate! followed a shadowy government agency organized around chess-related codenames (King, Bishops, Knights, etc). In true Reagan era spirit, the organization ran covert operations that sidestepped the judicial rulebook, the ends justifying the means. After a sneaky backdoor pilot in Action Comics #598, the series debuted in April 1988 with a taut three-part yarn about a secessionist plot by the American Supremacist Party (back when this kind of movement was an obvious villain, not part of the accepted White House inner circle). Later missions targeted all kinds of topical threats, from drug deals to terrorism and money counterfeit, with the comic making a point of showing us not only the field work, but also the fierce arguments and disputes taking place at the higher levels.
As you can see in the sequence above, Steve Erwin’s clean, naturalistic art, with its precise sense of geography, helped nail the down-to-earth feel of the comic while smoothly flowing from cloistered, wordy panels into knockout splashes. I really like Erwin’s double-page compositions in ‘Heat’ (Checkmate! #6), a story that keeps shifting between a Knight stuck in the Middle Eastern desert and flashbacks to his earlier operation against a smuggling network:
The protagonists kept changing from arc to arc, the focus rotating between different operatives throughout the series. The comic did suffer from too many bland agents and villains, but fortunately the supporting cast also included interesting characters that Kupperberg had introduced in Vigilante – like Checkmate’s King, Harry Stein, and the rogue Black Thorn – as well as characters from other series, like the Bishop Harvey Bullock (originally from the Batman books) and the Queen Amanda Waller (from Suicide Squad). This was a treat for DC fans, even if at first the series worked largely on its own, telling nail-biting, self-contained tales.
Indeed, like Gotham Central and Mike Grell’s Green Arrow, this was a comic that was firmly set in DC continuity yet had little interest in the kookier, supernatural side of the DC Universe. In contrast to Greg Rucka’s (excellent) take on Checkmate years later, Paul Kupperberg’s scripts and Steve Erwin’s pencils initially treated the series as a proper spy thriller rather than as a superhero book with spy elements in it. They even managed to pull off a trio of fabulous tie-ins with the mega-crossover Invasion that still felt like grounded action stories by never focusing on (or fully showing) the aliens who were attacking Earth at the time.
After a solid first year, however, Kupperberg gradually abandoned his pretension to realism, bringing in the deranged Peacemaker as a recurring character (“I love peace so much I’m willing to kill for it!”). There was also the obligatory crossover with other, more outlandish DC spy books – the 11-part ‘The Janus Directive,’ which ran across Checkmate!, Suicide Squad, Manhunter, Firestorm, and Captain Atom, pitting the US government’s various secret agencies against each other. This was a fun event, which not only ripped off the climax of Moonraker – the most amusingly over-the-top 007 film – but also included a face-off between Black Thorn and Captain Boomerang where they argued about who was the best Bond (she was into Dalton). By the final issues – with rougher art, by Gabriel Morrissette – Checkmate! had ventured into shamelessly schlocky territory, brimming with ninjas and cyborgs!
NEXT: WWI spy comics.
As I explained last week, throughout July I’m recommending various spy comics here at the blog, trying to show that stories of espionage can serve both as a way to expose hidden processes taking place around us and as a springboard for wild escapism.
Today, I want to focus on the subgenre of two-fisted tales revolving around fierce, stylish, ultra-competent agents – like Jason Bourne, only way more ruthless:
Secret (collected in paperback as Secret: Never Get Caught) tells the story of a group of agents from a private security company who uncover a massive conspiracy. It’s very much a post-Cold War thriller, not only in the sense that the comic is set in the information age where hackers can pull off a heist without leaving their seats, but also in the sense that the intricate plot leaves nationalist and ideological disputes behind – no one is out to destroy or defend capitalism, they just enact it in different ways.
The mini-series features byzantine intrigue, macho posturing, mutilation, chases, and shootouts, yet the bulk of it takes place in corporate settings, with characters spouting exposition while undertaking aggressive negotiations or discussing financial transactions. Fortunately, the whole thing is written by Jonathan Hickman, an expert in penning machine gun-paced dialogue with plenty of lively turns of phrase:
At the end of the day, Secret may be little more than a lean, mean genre exercise, but for fans of this type of twist-filled yarn it is a joy to see the creators play to their strengths. Jonathan Hickman (who did a much more comedic take on industrial espionage in Transhuman) brings in the usual élan and intelligence, including his signature conceptual games in the chapter titles and covers. This is matched by colorist Michael Garland, who gives each panel shades of only one or two colors, reinforcing specific moods and hinting at hidden symbols throughout the narrative. Meanwhile, Ryan Bodenheim absolutely kills on the art, conveying a constant state of tension, as if things are always on the verge of exploding – and when they finally do explode, he renders that in riveting fashion.
(Warren Ellis & Jason Masters run)
Much of the hyper-stylized take on espionage goes back to James Bond, the swaggering, womanizing secret agent 007, of the MI6, with his license to kill and his blend of sex, sadism, and snobbery. James Bond came to life in 1953 on the pages of the novels of Ian Fleming and, since 1962, has found a popular home in a long-running movie franchise full of lavish sets, international vistas, killer sharks, sexy ‘Bond girls’ with ludicrous names, and megalomaniac villains threatening the world, often connected to the sinister organization SPECTRE. While it is easy to mock the series’ iconic formula and catchphrases (not to mention the misogyny and imperialist politics), I’m not immune to the pulpy thrills of the underwater fights in Thunderball, the ninja school in You Only Live Twice, the chase through the Indian marketplace in Octopussy, the gleeful media satire in Tomorrow Never Dies. Due to the franchise’s connotation with cheesy clichés and outrageous double entendres, when spy yarns want to be taken seriously they tend to distance themselves from Bond – but I also like it when creators try to have it both ways, presenting 007 as an old-school pro, albeit one operating in a slightly off-kilter universe.
There have been several comic books featuring James Bond and, a couple of years ago, some mad genius at Dynamite decided to let Warren Ellis have a go at the property. After all, who could be better suited to pen a series built around murderous violence, high-tech gadgets, British politics, and a dark sense of humor? Predictably, the result was a blast – easily the best Bond tales since Martin Campbell’s Casino Royale, with Ellis writing a modern 007 that is closer to the cruel-bastard-in-a-tux from the vintage novels than to the cartoonish horndog from most movies.
In ‘Vargr,’ James Bond investigates an insanely lethal drug being smuggled into the United Kingdom. In ‘Eidolon,’ a routine operation to extract a compromised agent at the LA Turkish consulate turns out to have much more far-reaching implications than expected. Along the way, you get gallons of bloody action and British wit, nastily brought to the page by Jason Masters.
Although best known for his sci-fi and superhero comics, Warren Ellis has frequently ventured into spy fiction before, from the relatively straightforward mini-series Reload and Red to outlandish genre hybrids like Desolation Jones, Global Frequency, and Ultimate Human. He feels right at home here, returning James Bond to a world of trade jargon and technobabble while making a point of downplaying some of the franchise’s dated tropes by giving us a multicultural Britain as well as a number of strong female characters. Plus, the comic can be outright funny, especially the running gag about 007 no longer being allowed to carry a gun in the UK.
Since this relaunch, Dynamite has been putting out other James Bond series in the same vein as the Ellis/Masters run. In particular, Andy Diggle’s and Luca Casalanguida’s ‘Hammerhead’ is rather swell, with its relentless forward momentum and its jabs at the Brexit zeitgeist (luckily, it has nothing to do with the campy 1968 Bond rip-off of the same name).
NEXT: Even more spy comics.
Every once in a while, I like to shift gears and spotlight comics or films set outside Gotham City. Once a year, I take this one step further and devote a whole month to non-Batman comics.
This time around, I want to focus on one of my all-time favorite genres: spy fiction.
It’s not hard to see why espionage has become the source of so many gripping tales. Besides the thrill of being allowed into an exclusive club of people who secretly shape our collective destiny, there are all kinds of storytelling devices embedded into the genre’s premise – after all, you know there is always something underneath the surface and a plot twist waiting around the corner because the key characters, almost by definition, lie and deceive for a living, manipulating their audience while hiding who they are.
The Cold War gave a big boost to this genre, not only because every corner of the world seemed to be a potential target of intelligence networks and covert operations, but also because a number of outstanding works left a long-lasting mark on pop culture – movies like North by Northwest and Dr. No, television shows like Mission: Impossible and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, the novels of Len Deighton and John le Carré. Even though there is plenty of spy fiction being written today, much of it still goes back to those seminal texts and, in fact, much of it is still set during that era when agents had to rely more on their wits than on their computers.
With that in mind, this week I will spotlight a couple of recent comic series that revisited the underworld of Cold War cloak and dagger.
THE COLDEST CITY / THE COLDEST WINTER
2012’s graphic novel The Coldest City, written by Antony Johnston and illustrated by Sam Hart, is a tight, labyrinthine mystery yarn set in Berlin during the days leading up to the fall of the wall. After the murder of an MI6 officer, London sends agent Lorraine Broughton to track down a Stasi list with the names and positions of every spy in town, but – as is usually the case in this kind of stories – nothing is entirely what it seems.
As a tale of espionage, The Coldest City falls into the John le Carré mold, with most of the action consisting of long, cryptic conversations between people who know the game and are slightly tired of playing it. The fun is not just figuring out what everyone is saying through their tradecraft talk, but also figuring out what they are *not* saying (yet probably implying). Despite the occasional shootout, this is more of a book of subtle clues and dead drops in dark alleys.
While Antony Johnston doesn’t go as far as le Carré in terms of characterization – the characters here are essentially chess pieces – he still provides neat little touches, as the local agents keep acting condescendingly towards Lorraine because a) she is a woman in a boys’ club, b) she has a less than perfect command of the German language, and c) she has never operated in Berlin. (In the tradition of classics like The Spy Who Came in from the Cold and Funeral in Berlin, the comic presents this German city as the beating heart of the Cold War, hence the title.)
Between the codename-heavy dialogue, the realistic vibe, the likable British female lead, and Sam Hart’s high-contrast art, it’s hard not to compare The Coldest City to Greg Rucka’s masterful spy comic Queen & Country. That said, this book does get bonus points for the 1989 setting, exploring that Cold War stage when various members of the intelligence community were beginning to suspect the glory days were behind them and the world as they knew it was coming to an end.
Last year, Antony Johnston delivered another cynical noirish thriller set in Berlin, starring a few of the same characters, with even more snow and shadows thrown in. The Coldest Winter, with art by Steven Perkins, takes place in the winter of 1981/1982 and revolves around an attempt to help an ill Russian scientist defect to the West. One of the many challenges is that the city’s trains and planes are grounded because of the weather, so the MI6 must keep the old man hidden for a while and the whole thing turns into a clever game of cat-and-mouse.
With its gimmicky gadgets, stylish cars, and kinetic action scenes, Velvet falls more on the Ian Fleming end of the genre’s spectrum, albeit with some modern revisionist twists (the high concept is usually described as ‘What if Miss Moneypenny was James Bond?’). In the early 1970s, Velvet Templeton, a former secret agent turned secretary for ARC-7 (a remnant of an Allied espionage group from World War II), goes back in the game to investigate the murder of ‘the best field op in the world’ and ends up unraveling a conspiracy within her own organization.
The series is written by Ed Brubaker, who, in his typical more-tell-than-show approach, crafts a well-rounded, genuinely kickass protagonist. What makes this such a damn fine read though, is the luscious look courtesy of artist Steve Epting and colorist Elizabeth Breitweiser… Velvet may not have anything particularly deep to say about Cold War politics, but – much like Jean-Christophe Thibert’s Kaplan & Masson books or Alex de Campi’s, Tony Parker’s, and Blond’s Codename: Felix series (starting with Mayday) – it effectively draws on the era’s aesthetics and resonance in popular imagination to provide a cool background for globetrotting intrigue full of quasi-cinematic fights and chases.
Ed Brubaker had already proven his superior skill at plotting paranoid super-spy narratives with Sleeper and his run on Captain America (the latter also illustrated by Steve Epting). Here, however, he drops the goofy masks and magical elements as he embraces glamorous high adventure.
Fast-paced yet with an impeccable sense of mise-en-scène, sexy yet not quite sleazy, slick yet with close attention to period detail, Velvet is as moody and elegant as it is thrilling!
NEXT: More spy comics.
NEXT: Spy comics.
Kelley Jones is one of the most divisive Batman artists. His Dark Knight has absurdly long ears that look like devilish horns and fingers that look like claws. And it’s not just Batman who feels like a nightmarish hallucination: most characters in Kelley Jones’ comics tend to be downright grotesque (with the occasional cartoonishly voluptuous lady). As a result, many fans consider Jones’ art amazing horror, while many others consider it amazingly horrible.
Me, I’m mostly fascinated that such an eccentric artist, more than being given a chance to draw the odd one-shot or out-of-continuity mini-series, actually got to pencil the mainstream Batman title for four years! After all, we’re talking someone whose style often crosses the border into black metal album territory:
(You can hear those guitars getting goddamned shredded to death!)
Kelley Jones’ most blatant sources of inspiration range from Bosch’s hellscape paintings to Escher’s freaky litographs as well as classic horror films (especially German expressionism and those old Universal monster movies). The latter influence, in particular, is plastered all over his props and poses:
(Yes, the last one probably owes more to 50s’ sci-fi schlock.)
Jones is cleary a fan of the horror genre. In Batman #541, he has the Spectre pull off a straight-up homage to Alien. In Batman #548, the design of one of the key players seems inspired by Boris Karloff’s Frankenstein monster. Outside of Gotham City, Jones was responsible for ‘Calliope,’ one of the creepiest issues of The Sandman (which is saying something).
Given this affinity, it’s no wonder Kelley Jones made his Batman debut with a Dracula story, back in 1991. It became the first of an Elseworlds trilogy in which the Caped Crusader eventually turned into a bloodthirsty vampire. This was followed by another special featuring a monstrous version of Batman: Dark Joker – The Wild, a gory sword & sorcery yarn that sounds like the kind of sick fairy tale people would tell each other in Westeros (it also established the team of penciller Kelley Jones, inker John Beatty, and writer Doug Moench, who became regular collaborators).
In the cannonical DCU line, Kelley Jones became a popular cover artist, illustrating several iconic covers in the early nineties, most notably during the Knightfall story-arc. Jones began to draw interiors with Batman #515 (cover-dated February 1995), where he was put in charge of revealing Batman’s post-Prodigal look… and, of course, it turned out to be the most demonic thing you could imagine:
(As if the horns and grim expression were not enough, his feet look like cloven hoofs…)
As you can see, even though he was no longer working under the Elseworlds banner, Kelley Jones continued to draw the Dark Knight like a muscular vampiric beast. It wasn’t a brief stunt either – Jones stuck around, pencilling most issues until Batman #552 (plus a handful of standalone tales afterwards), without ever softening his über-gothic aesthetics.
This choice would’ve felt bold by itself, but what made it even more extreme was the fact that Doug Moench’s scripts at the time were as over-the-top as Jones’ pencils, treating Batman’s world like a macabre comedy that filtered adult themes through the distorted fantasies of a traumatized child. For a while, the flagship Batman series seemed to take the spirit of the Tim Burton films and blow it up with the kind of flair for wild exaggeration you found in early Image Comics. Here was one of the weirdest pairings at one of the weirdest times in comic book history.
Complemented by John Beatty’s thick inks and Greg Wright’s psycho colors, the ensuing run kept treading a narrow line between seriously ugly comics and luscious-looking comics that happened to have ugly people in them.
(Those purple pants have got to be a nod to the Hulk, right?)
Not only was Doug Moench writing specifically for Kelley Jones’ twisted sensibility, but you could tell his stories were essentially pretexts for Jones to have a go at all the main villains in Batman’s rogues’ gallery. Thus, in these issues, Jones put his unmistakable spin on the Joker, Black Mask, Killer Croc, Scarecrow, Mr. Freeze, Two-Face, Poison Ivy, Man-Bat, Penguin, and Clayface. It was an epic run, even if we never found out who the hell was the mysterious puppeteer that kept showing up in the background…
In order to make the most out of Jones’ knack for surreal, bone-chilling imagery, Moench packed the comics with supernatural creatures, including guest appearances by DC’s spookiest anti-heroes:
For example, in Batman #530-532, Jones got to revisit the skull-headed version of Deadman he had introduced a few years before. The poor ghost possessed a corpse that was visibly decomposing throughout the story – a crazy adventure in which the Dark Knight traveled to Peru to face evil mercenaries and restless Inca spirits…
(Still, as Peru adventures go, it’s not as crazy as that comic Moench wrote back in the ‘70s, where he had Doc Savage fight the Peruvian version of Mothra before uncovering the radioactive ruins of a lost civilization in the Amazon and learning that the Mayans had actually descended from alien test tube babies!)
There is something malignant and disturbing about Kelley Jones’ linework – it isn’t always pleasant to look at, but it’s full of extravagant, interesting touches. Famously, as shown by the image above, one of the features of Jones’ gargoyle-looking Batman is that he has fantastically long capes.
As if this wasn’t enough to create a ridiculously goth vibe, Jones also has a thing for shadows, which he sometimes combines with his cape fetishism:
It isn’t just the deformed bodies and impractical costumes that make Kelley Jones’ pencils so special. His buoyant art has a malleable feel, coming alive on the page. Plus, Jones’ drawings of everyday objects and architecture are a strange mishmash of medieval, Victorian, and retro-futuristic designs, which creates a quasi-mythical, out-of-time atmosphere, as if Gotham was one of Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities.
Hell, this is how Jones visualizes the Batcave:
That said, what really gets me is the way Kelley Jones tends to playfully adorn his comics with all sorts of nifty ornaments. He sometimes draws the Dark Knight peeking from the corners of pages, beyond the panels, as if somehow outside the narrative, looking in. There are also small thematic drawings at the beginning of each issue, like the historiated initial of an ancient manuscript.
Take a look at these chapter headings:
Batman: Unseen #1
And what about these Next Issue previews:
By framing the comics with these beautiful side illustrations instead of just the usual text title and final blurb, Kelley Jones blurs the line between the main action and outside elements commenting on it.
The 2008-2009 twelve-issue series Gotham After Midnight went even further, as letterer Pat Brosseau integrated the opening credits into the early images of most issues… It’s hardly a new technique, but it expands the effect Jones seems to be going for. And it’s always cool to see the credits list on newspapers blowing in the wind, restaurant menus, tombstones, party banners, balloons, and even written through fire flames:
Visually, Gotham After Midnight is one of the high points of Kelley Jones’ ventures into Batman comics. For once, Jones inked himself and the colors were by Michelle Madsen, whose autumnal choices turned out to be a perfect fit for his Halooween-esque artwork. The story was penned by Steve Niles, an obvious partner in crime – after all, Steve Niles is also hugely into classic horror and, while I don’t think he’s particularly talented, in his best days Niles still manages to write slightly better than Doug Moench in his worst days.
Much like the nineties’ Batman run, Gotham After Midnight reads like a string of set pieces designed to let Kelley Jones unleash one remarkable image after another, reminiscient of every horror trope in the book. You’ll find yourself taking in precious little moments, like when Commissioner Gordon’s pipe smoke turns into a silhouette of the Caped Crusader or when the Batcave’s screens and lamps all turn into tiny versions of the Bat-Signal as a warning that the police is calling – and then you flip the page and you’re blasted away by the awesome sight of a gigantic Clayface attacking the city!
Notably, the drawings are full of F.W. Murnau riffs, culminating in what is possibly the most Kelley Jones Batman panel ever:
Besides kicking ass as Batgirl, over the years Barbara Gordon has been a librarian, a member of Congress, and a first-rate hacker who – under the codename Oracle – supplied intelligence to the crime-fighting community of Gotham City. The combination of these traits has meant that comics featuring Babs tend to incorporate all kinds of interesting factoids and geeky tidbits of information, making them not only entertaining but also highly pedagogical.
For example, in ‘The Million Dollar Debut of Batgirl!’ you can learn about the market price of the Bay Psalm Book:
And from ‘Batgirl’s Costume Cut-Ups!’ you can learn about Austrian sport habits:
‘The Invader from Hell’ teaches us about Benedict Arnold, the American Revolutionary War colonel, through a story in which he seemingly comes back from the dead and kicks Barbara’s ass:
More recently, in ‘Son of Penguin – part 2,’ I learned that the reason I cannot understand kids today is because they are literally speaking another language…
Finally, from ‘Nuclear Roulette’ (the climax of an arc in which the Joker launches a bunch of cruise missiles towards New York City), you can learn that writer Chuck Dixon, sixteen years before penning the anti-Bill & Hillary graphic novel Clinton Cash, already enjoyed taking digs at leaders of the Democratic Party…
As an embodiment of changing fads and obsessions of US pop culture, Batman’s adventures could hardly stay immune to the social impact of the Vietnam War. And while the Caped Crusader’s TV incarnation could initially be seen advertising war bonds, the comic books went on to plaster Gotham City with several reminders of the physical and psychological toll of that conflict.
This goes back to the war era itself. In the classic ‘The Silent Night of the Batman’ (cover-dated February 1970, written by Mike Friedrich, with art by Neal Adams and Dick Giordano), we briefly meet a woman who seems desperate about her husband fighting abroad…
While crying at the edge of a Gotham bridge, she looks at the water and appears to gain a new sense of hope as she notices the shape of the bridge’s shadow:
It’s such a powerful image. Darn it if Adams doesn’t seamlessly pull off the parallel between the shadow and the bat-symbol… It reminds us that this symbol can be an inspiration for average citizens as much as it can be a source of terror for the foes of the Dark Knight.
Two issues later, Mike Friedrich briefly returned to the topic in ‘Hot Time in Gotham Town Tonight!,’ which revolved around an African-American soldier who brought back an idol from Vietnam with an evil demon trapped inside (subtle, I know). Friedrich was 20-years-old at the time and this problem was clearly on his mind. As I mentioned before, he also wrote ‘The Private War of Johnny Dune!,’ in which Batman and the rest of the Justice League of America faced a disgruntled vet who used his hypnotic voice to mobilize the youth to march against the power!
Frank Robbins, who was well into his fifties, engaged with the conflict’s impact in his own eccentric way by creating a couple of very different recurring characters: Jason Bard, a private detective who walked around with a cane because of a crippling injury sustained in Vietnam, and Philip Reardon, a blind villain who had his optic nerves reconnected into his fingertips and called himself the Ten-Eyed-Man.
The latter actually started out well enough… Before going blind, Reardon was established as an efficient veteran of the Special Forces who knew how to keep an eye out for danger by making use of unexpected angles:
In another neat bit of foreshadowing, we learned that during the war an enemy grenade fragment had lodged itself onto his forehead, earning him the nickname of ‘Three-Eye’ Reardon. Soon, however, Philip Reardon’s saga spiraled out of control… He lost his sight in a blast, blamed Batman for it, and – equipped with his freaky fingertip vision – set out for vengeance.
His most elaborate revenge scheme involved hijacking a goddamn airplane and convincing the White House to exchange the Caped Crusader for the hostages, so that Reardon could fight Batman on his turf, i.e. the Vietnamese DMZ:
As plans go, it is a particularly outlandish one, even for the standards of Batman’s rogues gallery. However, as a result, this issue – published in early 1971 – can be seen as somewhat demystifying the allure of combat in an era when kids were still being shipped out to the jungle… In a roundabout way, the comic called attention to the brutal violence of the weapons being used on the ground (like the ‘bouncing betty,’ described as “a devilish land-mine used by the Cong”).
It also heavily implied that the reason the Ten-Eyed-Man had come up with such a kooky scheme in the first place was because he had not returned from the war without a degree of PTSD…
Now, there have been many great works written about the trauma and the challenges of coming back from the war and the soldiers’ difficulty in reintegrating into a society that would rather pretend they didn’t exist, but leave it to Batman comics to assign these problems to the oddest characters. When Mike W. Barr and Jim Aparo tackled the topic on the pages of Batman and the Outsiders, instead of the angst-ridden John Rambo of First Blood or even the desensitized Frank Castle of Marvel’s Punisher fame, we got this dude:
(The best part is that he wasn’t really disfigured, just looking for a pretext to fight another war…)
In Legends of the Dark Knight #91-93, the king of war comics, Garth Ennis, gave us yet another goofy villain to come out of Vietnam in the form of Doctor Freak, a batshit crazy hippie who sought to get all of Gotham tripping on acid.
Rory Regan – also known as the Jewish superhero Ragman – is a (relatively) less obscure Gothamite veteran. The impact of Vietnam was not a big deal in his original series (1976-1977), but writers Keith Giffen and Robert Loren Fleming gave it more prominence in the 1991 reboot… This is how they introduced their protagonist on the very first couple of pages:
This version of Rory Regan went on to star in the 1993 mini-series Ragman: Cry of the Dead, by Elaine Lee and Gabriel Morrissette. It was a gritty horror comic, set in New Orleans, which revolved around a demon who viciously avenged dead children… That series showed how the Vietnam War continued to haunt Rory’s dreams, drawing a parallel between the abusive parents in the story and the US government, who had drafted innocent kids and then put them through Hell.
That said, I don’t think any writer went farther than Alan Grant in terms of repeatedly conveying to readers that the legacy of this conflict was still around on the streets of Gotham. Always one to wear his politics on his sleeve, Grant kept bringing up the lingering brutality of war in his stories… In Detective Comics #590, a terrorist cell committed a massacre at the ‘Nam Vets’ Club (Commissioner Gordon: “It makes me sick to my gut! Those vets have had more than their share of suffering already!”). In Detective Comics #616, Batman tried to stop a demonic sacrifice at Gotham’s War Vet’s hospital. In Shadow of the Bat #6, an ultra-patriot violently lashed out at anti-Vietnam War protesters and ended up being recruited by the CIA, who then somehow amplified his patriotism to even more insane levels through judicious doses of LSD, deep hypnosis, and sensory deprivation. He became a super-jerk, under the codename ‘The Ugly American.’ (And yes, just in case you miss the point, there’s totally a moment when Batman tells a CIA agent: “You called him the Ugly American – but the truth is, you and your goons are the real ugly Americans!”)
Alan Grant’s most long-lasting contribution – co-created with the brilliant artist Norm Breyfogle – was Legs, an opinionated homeless alcoholic who lost his lower limbs due to an anti-personnel mine in Vietnam (or as he put it: “I didn’t lose ‘em… I know exactly where they are… Spread over twenty meters of the Mekong Delta!”). Legs made his debut in the awesome three-part arc ‘Night People’ (Detective Comics #587-589), back in 1988:
Legs’ first big moment near the spotlight came up the following year, with ‘Anarky in Gotham City’ (Detective Comics #608-609). In this arc, Legs began supporting the vigilante Anarky after a bank bought the piece of land where he lived – also known as ‘Cardboard City’ – and kicked him and his buddies out.
Anarky convinced the homeless crew to attack the construction site. When Batman took the side of the establishment, they attacked him and Legs actually managed to catch the Dark Knight by surprise:
(You’ve got to love Batman’s expression in that final panel. Gods bless you, Norm Breyfogle!)
When Grant and Breyfogle moved from Detective Comics to Batman, they took the homeless crew with them. The crew showed up in ‘Identity Crisis’ (Batman #455), where they had a nice scene with photojournalist Vicki Vale, who was doing a piece about homelessness for the Gotham View magazine (it came out in Batman #460). They were also attacked by the city’s latest serial killer and Legs was one of the few survivors.
The cranky vet continued to work with Anarky. In ‘Tomorrow Belongs To Us’ (Batman Chronicles #1), he helped the iconoclastic vigilante break into the headquarters of a billionaire media owner. Grant and Breyfogle brought Legs back once again for their 1997 Anarky mini-series. Moreover, Batman saved him when he got trapped in the rubble following the earthquake of the depressing Cataclysm crossover (Shadow of the Bat #74).
I’ll wrap up with a comic in which we gained a deeper insight into Legs’ experience. In a short tale set in the aftermath of Knightfall, Legs (with a slightly different look, courtesy of Mike Vosburg, Ron McCain, and Dave Hornung) bumped into a homeless Jean-Paul Valley, then recently kicked out of a stint as AzBats. In this memorable sequence, Legs reminded the sad bastard that, as gritty and angsty as comic book heroes got in the early ‘90s, they should at least take some consolation over the fact that they lived outside of the real world: