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
Posted in THE WRITERS OF BATMAN COMICS | Tagged | 1 Comment

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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Taking a break…

solo 7Solo #7
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Kelley Jones’ technological Batman

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:

Batman 522Batman #522
Batman 523Batman #523
Batman 529Batman #529
Batman 530Batman #530
Gotham After Midnight 7Gotham After Midnight #7
Haunted Gotham 3Haunted Gotham #3
Batman 527Batman #527
Batman Unseen 2Batman: Unseen #2
Gotham After Midnight 1Gotham After Midnight #1
Gotham After Midnight 10Gotham After Midnight #10


NEXT: Winter is here.

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Spy comics: revisiting World War I

If you read the last posts, you know that this month I’ve been discussing cool spy comics.

Petrograd Silas Corey Silas Corey

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.


silas corey

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…

silas corey

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.

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