Bombastic sci-fi comics

After the last couple of weeks in the fields of politics and technology, it’s beginning to feel like we’re at the verge of an era when the most farfetched science fiction will become true – not just Children of Men and Black Mirror, but also Idiocracy and They Live. (Or, to put it on a Ben Elton scale, not just Blind Faith, but This Other Eden.) Yet, even though it may seem increasingly hard to provide a sense of strangeness in such already strange times, I know I can count on this genre to continue to come up with marvelous, fascinating worlds and scenarios. For one thing, there is a truly long and proud tradition of imaginative yarns that have pulled it off on the big screen.

As immersive and exhilarating as films can be, though, today I want to draw your attention to a handful of sci-fi comics from the last decade or so that have pushed storytelling beyond cinematic effects and limitations in order to give you an experience you couldn’t get in any other medium:

THE WAKE

the wake

“You tricked us into coming a mile beneath the ocean to be trapped in a tin can with a wild animal none of us know anything about. The one thing I do know is that the thing in that tank is saying something. It’s talking to us.”

While I’m not the biggest fan of Scott Snyder’s work on Batman, one thing I like about his writing is the ability to keep a pulse-pounding momentum by constantly throwing curveballs at the reader. The ten-issue series The Wake is a perfect example of this craft: after starting out with a Michael Crichton-like nail-biter about scientists studying an eerie merman, each issue keeps upping the ante, giving the story a larger and larger scope, jumping between the distant past and far into the future, so that before you notice it you’re reading about giant squids and post-apocalyptic pirates. Impressively, Snyder keeps you invested even as he radically shifts the settings, atmosphere, and protagonists.

I can think of no one better to illustrate this book than Sean Murphy, who can basically take anything a writer throws at him and make it look amazing, whether it’s an elaborate deep ocean oil rig (‘Yes, it’s a secret. No, it’s not legal. But, it has the potential to extract nearly two hundred thousand barrels a day, so there it is.’) or a pre-historic shark jumping over the corpse of a freaking mammoth. Murphy’s textured, expansive visuals – with stylish colors by Matt Hollingsworth – are a major asset to any tale looking to reimagine the world in a way that feels at once recognizable and vastly outlandish. (No wonder Mark Millar chose the same team for Chrononauts.) And if much of the art still recreates the devices and pacing of cinema, The Wake nevertheless shows how far one can go when unrestrained by budgets or special effects…

The Wake

From the early claustrophobic horror of the underwater rig sequences to the sorta New Age ending, this sprawling, ambitious ode to adventure and exploration takes you on a thrill-packed journey of the highest order.

PAX ROMANA

pax romana

“Is this providence, a gift from God himself, or yet another in the long line of arrogant, Babel-like displays of humanity?”

What if the Vatican developed time travel technology and sent a bunch of mercenaries into the past to strengthen the rule of Emperor Constantine I? Such an off-the-wall high concept seems to beg for a wild and shamelessly ludicrous approach – and Jonathan Hickman is certainly no stranger to comics that are simultaneously clever, funny, and weird (such as Transhuman or The Manhattan Projects). Yet Pax Romana plays its preposterous premise completely straight.

Sidestepping anachronistic action scenes, Hickman focuses on the theological and technical discussions surrounding the mercenaries’ mission and – even when rendering these in the form of extended transcripts – manages to make them engrossing as hell. He has a knack for forceful, riveting lines: “We will do whatever it takes to destroy the past and create a greater future.”; “This will be a mission of enlightenment, not conquest or thuggery.”; “Your life of misdirected violence has come to an end – from here on out, there is pardon for your sins.” – there are just so many of these…

It also helps that Hickman’s unparalleled sense of design smoothly draws you in, shaping the narrative through footnotes, maps, and infographics that would look out of place on a more conventional book but which are perfectly integrated here. I especially love the way the first chapter drops hints about the strange future in which the original timeline begins.

Pax Romana

Underneath Pax Romana’s psychedelic colors, experimental layouts, and inventive approaches to infodumping, there is a terrific speculative tale about religion and imperialism, projecting their logical outcome if faced with the possibility of an extra-temporal crusade.

HOTWIRE

hotwire

“Nuke them alphabetically. I think it displays a feeling of casual contempt.”

How can a series rock this hard and practically fade into obscurity? In a cyberpunk dystopia where the dead began drifting into cities all over the world, grazing off the electromagnetic waste of a billion wirelessly connected consumables, Detective Exorcist Alice Hotwire rides around in a motorcycle chasing ghosts (officially called ‘blue-lights’ or ‘transient ego-forms’).

Based on a story idea from Warren Ellis, phenomenally developed and brought to life by writer/artist Steve Pugh, Hotwire is such a kick-ass character: the brilliant, snarky daughter of a hippy hacktivist, she is both a tough cop (at the Necro-Forensics Department) and an idealist crusader against the abuses of the police force. What’s more, like the hero of Mike Carey’s very cool Felix Castor series, Hotwire is an exorcist who doesn’t believe in ghosts, which makes her all the more pissed off at the damned ‘blue-lights’ for apparently flying in the face of science.

That said, while Felix Castor combines noir mystery with occult horror, Hotwire is hardcore sci-fi all the way. Its futuristic world is fully fleshed out, with Pugh sprinkling clever details all over the art and dialogue.

HotwireHotwire

There are two Hotwire mini-series and both have been collected, as ‘Requiem for the Dead’ and ‘Deep Cut.’ Much like Steve Pugh’s earlier cult-worthy masterwork, the fabulous Shark-Man – which, rather than just another superhero shark comic, is basically Batman-on-acid (and if you think Batman stories already feel like an acid trip, then imagine Batman-on-even-more-acid) – these comics may not be easy to find, but they’re damn well worth the effort to track down!

BLACK SCIENCE

black science

“We call this construct “the onion.” Layer upon layer of parallel dimensions. The Pillar is a tool that pushes through these layers, allowing us to travel to these other worlds. Each layer represents an immeasurable number of realities, each created from the choices made by every living being in the universe. Once we map them, we can find the solution to every problem mankind faces.”

After the sabotage of a machine designed for interdimensional travel, Grant McKay and other ‘dimensionauts’ of the Anarchist League of Scientists become doomed to run throughout the Eververse, randomly skipping from one parallel planet to the next. The whole thing is pretty much style over substance, but what an entertaining style it is: always one to downplay scientific rigor in favor balls-to-the-wall excitement (“We have to go to the center of the onion”), writer Rick Remender never lets the series slow down for long, filling each issue with desperate chases and killing off regular characters – usually through laser decapitations – while quickly establishing a plethora of alternate realities, like the one in which Native Americans invaded Europe or the one in which Egyptian pharaohs evolved into gangsters. This is a viciously frantic and delirious comic, particularly suited for fans of the latest Guardians of the Galaxy.

And, above all, it looks great. Not only does Matteo Scalera populate the various worlds with all sorts of fantastical creatures and vegetation, he tends to sprinkle many of the panels with inkblots, giving the comic a punk look that enhances the overall unhinged, cartoony vibe. The result is pure eye candy, especially in the early issues, which were painted by Dean White:

Black ScienceBlack Science

On top of the sci-fi trappings, the dimension-hopping framework allows Black Science to merge different genres, from war stories to sword & sorcery, from retro-futuristic dystopias to dark fairy tales. There are quirky spins on tropes such as anthropomorphic animals and ultra-violent superheroes, not to mention obvious echoes of Remender’s beloved cosmic adventure series Fear Agent.

CAPTAIN VICTORY AND THE GALACTIC RANGERS

captain victory

“Let our Tiger batteries sing their fiery hymn of destruction!”

Speaking of pulpy cosmic adventure: originally created by the insanely prolific Jack Kirby in 1981, Captain Victory is the commander of the Dreadnaught Tiger, a spaceship used by the Galactic Rangers as they protect the galaxy from threats like the evil Insectons and Paranex, the Fighting Fetus. A key gimmick is that Captain Victory keeps bravely dying and his memories are then transferred to one of multiple contingency clones. Also – and even though this is not a DC comic – he is probably the grandson of Darkseid. Plus, the whole thing is ultimately a goofy allegory about tolerance and war and the future of mankind and the purpose of life. (Yep, Kirby was awesome.)

After a few unremarkable attempts to revive this property, Dynamite finally struck gold a couple of years ago with a six-issue mini-series by the wonder team of writer Joe Casey, artist Nathan Fox, colorist Brad Simpson, and letterer Simon Bowland (with additional art by Jim Rugg, Ulises Farinas, Michael Fiffe, and Jim Mahfood, among others). The story, told on overdrive, kicks off with an attack on Dreadnaught Tiger that destroys Captain Victory’s body bank, which leads to the jettisoning of two clones that haven’t finished downloading the captain’s identity yet (one is a teenager who ends up in late-70s’ New York City, the other is a reused corpse who becomes a space barbarian). The crew then tries to track down the lost clones, physically and telepathically.

Captain Victory and the Galactica Rangers

The series’ creative team does a stupendous job of channeling Jack Kirby at his best – rather than going for a straight-up pastiche of Kirby’s style, they capture the spirit of his most memorable comics, making each page an explosion of color and energy and mind-expanding ideas and weird-looking aliens shouting stuff like ‘Make room for the uber-evolved!’ Moreover, Joe Casey has a field day with the implied connection between Captain Victory and the New Gods, sneaking into the climax a number of nods to Kirby’s masterpiece, The Fourth World.

(It’s a shame Casey hasn’t given us a follow-up to this mini-series, but at least Fabian Rangel Jr and Alexis Ziritt have been cranking out what feels like a fucked up homage to Kirby’s Captain Victory in the form of their Space Riders comics.)

NAMELESS

nameless

The being we call God is a deranged prisoner of war from another universe? Jailed on an asteroid? Itself the remnant of a lost world?

Grant Morrison’s return to twisted, esoteric science fiction – a la The Invisibles and The Filth – opens with a convoluted dream heist sequence before shaping up into a gory yarn about an occult consultant on a mission to prevent a brutalist-looking asteroid from colliding with Earth. However, Nameless gradually unravels layers upon layers, especially after multiple readings, so that what you think is the main plot may be a secondary dimension of the story, the obvious heroes turn out to be the villains, and a space action thriller becomes a mystical horror tale of epic proportions. (In other words, after oudoing Christopher Nolan’s Inception, it goes on to outdo Ridley Scott’s Prometheus.)

More than the abundance of brain-scratching concepts, what makes Nameless such an incredible ride is its non-linear narrative. The comic keeps bombarding you with scattered information, targeting your subconscious with cryptic lines of dialogue, disconnected images, obscure references, shifting color palettes (courtesy of Nathan Fairbairn), and recurring themes (so many keys and doors!). This makes for a confusing read at first, but once it clicks, you’ll find yourself rearranging all the elements in your mind.

Adding to this effect, Grant Morrison’s partner in crime is the wonderful Chris Burnham, whose art is full of disorienting angles and overwhelming visuals.

Nameless

Morrison explained some of their approach in the book’s back matter: “From the expressionistic panel shapes and page layouts to the multi-levelled, entangled symbols and irrational, dreamlike cadence, Nameless was to be a work of nightmare logic, incorporating within its sticky web a number of horror story tropes: possession, home invasion, cosmic monsters, visceral gross-out scenes, existential nihilistic despair, a séance in a haunted house, serial killers, Hell and the breakdown of civilization into barbaric chaos, among other classics of the genre.” By fusing these tropes with Mayan and cabalistic mythology (along with other magical and philosophical traditions), Nameless gives us an unforgettable alien invasion saga where the alien is ultimately an idea that has already invaded us.

 

NEXT: Batman in Vietnam.

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An average week in the life of Robin

MONDAY

Robin 21Robin (v4) #21

TUESDAY

Devil's AdvocateThe Joker: Devil’s Advocate

WEDNESDAY

Robin 15Robin (v4) #15

THURSDAY

Catwoman 25Catwoman (v2) #25

FRIDAY

robin-annual 1Robin Annual #1

SATURDAY

Batman vs Predator 3Batman vs Predator III #4

SUNDAY

detective comics 685detective comics 685Detective Comics #685

 

NEXT: Science fiction.

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When Batman comics meet courtroom dramas

From Jimmy Stewart’s captivating performance in Anatomy of a Murder to the shocking reversals in Witness for the Prosecution, from the noirish colonial atmosphere of 1940’s The Letter to the underdog-getting-his-groove-back formula of 1982’s The Verdict, from the gripping climax of every episode of Law & Order to that twisted scene at the beginning of Better Call Saul, for decades we’ve been getting some of our best fiction in the form of courtroom drama. Trial cases are just ripe for this kind of exploitation, what with the clearly-defined conflict between (at least) two parties, the crime investigation angle, the psychological tricks that go with the questioning, the palpable tension in the room, all those rules and rituals, the emotional final speeches, and the suspenseful build-up until the verdict/resolution is announced.

Nevertheless, this is one genre that hasn’t found much of a place in Batman comics, perhaps because it revolves around characters pursuing justice by standing there (or sitting down) and talking to each other for a very long time, whereas stories about the Dark Knight tend to go more for masked vigilantes jumping off buildings and quickly kicking thugs in the face.

Sure, there have been a few exceptions… The Caped Crusader’s crazy world has spilled into the court system on more than one occasion:

Detective Comics 199          Detective Comics 281

‘Stepping Forward’ (Gotham Adventures #35) has Bruce Wayne assigned jury duty, which means he has to decide whether or not to convict a man Batman helped arrest. In a cool twist on the classic 12 Angry Men (another powerful trial movie), all the jury members think the defendant is not guilty, so it’s up to Bruce to convince them otherwise.

The brilliant graphic novel The Joker: Devil’s Advocate has a lot of fun showing us what happens when the Clown Prince of Crime is taken to court, after a killing spree over the fact that he was not included in a special stamp collection about comedians. I’ve always loved Chuck Dixon’s sick take on the Joker and this story is probably the best he’s done with the character (other strong contenders include Robin: The Joker’s Wild, The Demon Laughs, and ‘Fool’s Errand,’ from Detective Comics #726, plus that time the Joker tried to do a film about murdering AzBats). I really can’t recommend this book enough!

Moreover, in ‘The Outlaw Batman’ (Detective Comics #240), the Caped Crusader is arrested and trialed on the suspicion that he has been playing a double game for years, keeping part of the loot of the crimes he has stopped. This one is a typically delirious Silver Age tale that doesn’t make a lick of sense, but it is not entirely devoid of a sort of goofball charm. Plus, let’s face it, this wouldn’t be the oddest crime to happen in Gotham City anyway:

detective comics 240Detective Comics #240

There is also a small tradition of stories in which the rogues’ gallery organizes wacky mockeries of the judicial system, from the wonderful ‘Where Were You On the Night Batman Was Killed?’ (Batman #291-294) to the BTAS episode ‘Trial,’ from the Scarecrow’s infamous kangaroo court in The Dark Knight Rises to that time the Caped Crusader appeared before a judge in Jokersville:

Batman 163Batman 163Batman #163

(Hey, it’s still less silly than most of Ally McBeal.)

Of all the efforts to combine Batman comics and the conventions of courtroom drama, though, my all-time favorite has got to be ‘The Trial of Titus Keyes!,’ originally published in Batman #20 (cover-dated December 1943-January 1944), written by Bill Finger, drawn by Bob Kane, inked by Jerry Robinson, and lettered by George Roussos.

Batman 20Batman #20

Bill Finger was in top form here, crafting a neat courtroom procedural around an innocent-looking man being trialed as an arch-criminal. The comic features many staples of the genre, such as agitated examinations and cross-examinations, a last minute surprise witness, and a plot twist every couple of pages.

Finger cleverly figured out a strategy to weave in the action scenes and madcap excitement readers expected from a Batman comic: basically, although the main narrative thread takes place in court, the witnesses’ testimonies become flashbacks revealing parts of the case, namely the parts where Batman and Robin kick butt and take names.

This gimmick has the added benefit of showing the Dynamic Duo through multiple outside eyes, creating a Citizen Kane-like effect.

Batman 20Batman #20

What makes ‘The Trial of Titus Keyes!’ so great is that we don’t merely get boring, passive witnesses recounting the actions of Batman and Robin… Instead, Bill Finger’s script instills each character with a different voice and personality. According to the witnesses’ accounts, most of them even took some active role in helping out the Dynamic Duo (which may implicitly suggest that they are unreliable narrators taking the chance to brag).

This is such a packed little 12-page gem of a comic. Besides lighthearted jokes and a thrilling mystery, we get plenty of historical flavor through references to the 1929 stock market crash, war bonds, and Joe Dimaggio.  What’s more, even though the plot, when you get down to it, is a relatively conventional crime yarn, the creators managed to include one gloriously over-the-top set piece, as the Caped Crusader fights a guy underwater with an mechanized diving-bell!

Batman 20Batman #20

And if all this is not enough to convince you to track down ‘The Trial of Titus Keyes!’ (collected in Batman: The Dark Knight Archives, vol.5 as well as in The Batman Chronicles, vol.11), bear in mind that the same issue also contains a story in which the Joker apparently discovers a way to travel through time – and boy do things get out of control very fast…

NEXT: It’s not easy being Robin.

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10 covers with minimalistic symbolism

As much as I enjoy psychedelic, surreal covers, sometimes a realistic image can be just as powerful in its own way. With this in mind, this week I present to you a selection (although not any kind of close analysis) of impressive covers of Batman comics that effectively summarize what their issue’s story is about without resorting to overblown visuals.

Each of these ten examples outlines a clear high concept through simple symbols depicted in a straightforward, figurative style:

BATMAN VS DEADSHOT

batman adventures 5Batman Adventures (v2) #5

BATMAN VS SCARECROW

batman annual 19Batman Annual #19

BATMAN GOES TO JAIL

Gotham Knights 25Gotham Knights #25

JLA GOES TO A DESTROYED GOTHAM CITY

JLA 32JLA #32

WHO WILL STEP INTO ROBIN’S SHOES?

Batman 18Batman #18

BATMAN’S WAR GAMES END UP IN DEATH

batman 631Batman #631

BATMAN & WONDER WOMAN ARE AN ITEM

JLA 90JLA #90

BATMAN VS WONDER WOMAN

the hiketeiaWonder Woman: The Hiketeia

BATMAN VS GEARHEAD

detective comics 717Detective Comics #717

BATMAN VS KEVIN SMITH

Batman Widening Gyre 5Batman: The Widening Gyre #5

 

NEXT: Batman goes to court.

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I can’t get enough of adventure comics

It has been a year since ABC cancelled its witty adventure show Agent Carter and I’m still looking for something with the same jazzy panache and the ability to conjure that old-school type of silly, joyful escapades.

Don’t get me wrong – lately we’ve been spoiled for high quality genre television with fantastical elements. Luke Cage was a stylish love letter to Harlem with a bulletproof protagonist and larger-than-life villains, but it owed more to smooth Blaxploitation crime flicks like the original Shaft and Cotton Comes to Harlem (albeit with more of a millennial sensibility) than to the titular hero’s quirky source material. Game of Thrones remains an engrossing mix of debauched, gory sword & sorcery with a cynical take on international relations, but the stronger bits tend to take place on the edges of the high adventure set pieces, exploring the fucked up morals and backroom politics of this alternative world. And the first season of Westworld managed to take one of my favorite techno-thrillers and turn it into a chilling, thought-provoking labyrinth of a show, but it was as bleak as you can get.

When I’m craving breezy, fast-paced, globetrotting excitement, I still turn to comics. Very often, these are comics starring the Caped Crusader (the classic Tales of the Demon, the underrated Legacy, the bombastic Batman Incorporated), but not necessarily. Here are some adventure series that make me pumped up and giddy even though they have nothing to do with Gotham City:

DESCENDER

descender

Tim-21 is a robot boy whose AI codex may hold the key to explaining the brutal attack that devastated the galaxy ten years ago, so now everyone in the universe seems to be after him, from terrorist androids to alien bounty hunters to the forces of the United Galactic Council. Descender is a swift-moving space opera full of strange worlds and an ever-expanding cast of captivating characters, like the snarky Queen Between (who is the leader of a cyborg cult) or the simple-minded droid Driller (“Driller a real killer”). Along with a few cliches and the non-stop twists and turns of the plot, we get solid characterization all around, as the ensuing cosmic saga deals with loyalty, heroism, and compassion (or lack thereof).

Jeff Lemire has previously shown he can write science fiction with a resonant emotional core – particularly with 2014’s Trillium – but in Descender he operates on a wider scale than usual, giving all these eccentric life forms their own individual voices (each distinctly lettered by Steve Wands). High points so far include a whole issue devoted to following a robot dog around and another one where two mining droids forge a sweet bond, despite their basic programs.

The main attraction though, has got to be Dustin Nguyen’s gorgeous painted artwork, which flows seamlessly from endearing character moments to ominous facial expressions to breathtaking planetary vistas.

EVANGELINE

evangeline

Created by Judith Hunt and Chuck Dixon in the mid-1980s, the short-lived series Evangeline followed the exploits of a two-fisted killer nun on dangerous missions for the Catholic Church at the turn of the 22nd to the 23rd century. It was a gripping, violent comic that went on to inspire a rock ballad by Matthew Sweet (and, I would like to believe, this catchy Bad Religion track).

Although the series initially drew on revenge-driven spaghetti westerns, it soon settled on a cross between of nuns-with-guns grindhouse and futuristic James Bondian action with a gender flip and a religious twist. Evangeline’s assignments were pretty diverse and all over the world (hell, all over the universe!), although wherever they took place at some point they usually involved knocking down sleazebags trying to force themselves on her… The stories became more connected towards the end, once Evangeline began investigating a company engaged in genetic experimentation (condemned by the Vatican) and uncovered a secret plot to somehow use the latent powers of autistic children to improve interstellar navigation. In the final arc, our hero found herself on the Vega system, where a gang of criminals was holding an entire planet hostage!

Judith Hunt, who did Evangeline’s pencils and colors (the inks were by Ricardo Villagran), gave the comic a nifty hand-painted look. It was a shame that she left the series after only six issues (later artists included Cara Sherman-Tereno, John Statema, and Jim Balent). Curiously, in 2009 Hunt announced she was planning to relaunch Evangeline as a webcomic, picking up where she’d left off, thus creating an alternative continuity to Chuck Dixon’s subsequent stories, with a renewed emphasis on the character’s feminist credentials – however, the project has yet to materialize.

PAPER GIRLS

paper girls

In the last half-dozen years or so, there has been a whole wave of fiction trying to recapture the magical feel of eighties’ cinema… I don’t mean just the countless sequels, reboots, and remakes, but also stuff like Super 8 or Stranger Things, which pay homage to the early works of Steven Spielberg and John Carpenter. In a way, the still-ongoing series Paper Girls is Brian K. Vaughan’s and Cliff Chiang’s cool contribution to this retro-infused subgenre.

Initially set in 1988, the comic follows a group of teen newspaper delivery girls from Cleveland who one night find themselves in over their heads as their neighborhood gets invaded by outlandish monsters and mysterious mutants. The book soon turns into a mind-bending time travel thriller with plenty of heart underneath pop culture savvy R-rated banter. I won’t spoil any specific twists, though, since the barrage of surprises is definitively part of the appeal… Suffice it to say that the result is an irresistible sci-fi epic about inter-generational conflict.

Chiang’s sharp lines – served well by Matt Wilson’s ultra-moody colors – provide both low-key expressive characterization and a number of majestic splash pages. Between that and Vaughan’s skill at evoking a contagious spirit of youthful exuberance (has it really been over a decade since he co-created Runaways?), Paper Girls is an absolute treat. As of writing, 12 issues have come out already, so track them down – or get your hands on the two paperback collections – and join the ride!

THE RED SEAS

red seas

Published intermittently between 2002 and 2013 on the pages of the anthology 2000 AD (and partially collected in one book, so far), Ian Edginton’s and Steve Yeowell’s The Red Seas is a ripping swashbuckler packed with good-humored roguery and mayhem. The comic revolves around Captain Jack Dancer, an 18th century pirate with a penchant for dangerous sea-faring quests, although the focus sometimes shifts to side characters, like a posthumous Sir Isaac Newton or Mistress Meryl, landlady of The Jolly Cripple pub (“I got clean sheets, clean girls an’ the wine ain’t watered – come and make y’self at ‘ome!”).

While an obvious blueprint are old Hollywood crowd-pleasers like Robert Siodmak’s The Crimson Pirate, the series revels in wild fantasy, combining disparate legends and classic literature – from Greek myths to The Tempest, from Christian lore to One Thousand and One Nights while carving out its place in Ian Edginton’s own expanding steampunk multiverse (which also includes the neat horror series Stickleback, Leviathan, and Ampney Crucis Investigates). It all adds up to a beautiful testament to – as well as an interesting comment on – the power of the tales humanity has spun over the centuries, as Captain Dancer’s voyages take him and his diminishing yet loyal men (plus a two-headed dog) in search of all sorts of arcane wonders, whether it’s the flying island of Laputa or the eighth sea, beneath the earth. Ultimately, The Red Seas seems to imply that religion is just one more narrative, but narratives are a force to be reckoned with, giving shape to our ideas and beliefs, solidifying fears and hierarchies.

The dialogue is the usual hodgepodge of faux-old English witticisms (after getting shipwrecked on a bushy island: “We’re becalmed in green hell, with naught but doom and damnation for company!”). Edginton and Yeowell also have fun with such whimsical creations as the intriguing sorcerer Alhazred, with his bronze vessel propelled by rowing automatons, and the sinister Doctor Orlando Ignatius Maximillian Herodetous Doyle, an Oxford don who travels with a crew of rotten undead sailors trying to put together the secret history of the world in order to kill God.

Yep, it’s a hoot.

TOM STRONG

tom strong

A tribute to pre-superhero archetypes (especially Doc Savage), launched among Alan Moore’s broader 1999 effort to reinvigorate a field that seemed to have lost its sense of playfulness, Tom Strong imagined modern adventure comics through the lenses of early pulp fiction, as visualized by the graceful designs of Chris Sprouse, inked by Al Gordon.

Born on New Year’s Day 1900 – a fulfillment of the era’s positivist (and eugenic) ideals, with a longevity prolonged by the exotic Goloka root – Tom Strong is a ‘science hero’ operating out of Millennium City, an awe-inspiring metropolis of staggering skyscrapers connected by high-altitude cable-cars. When he is not exploring Venus or testing an autogyro that can travel to the afterlife, Tom Strong is holding off an inter-dimensional invasion by ultra-technological Aztecs (“When Cortez landed, we were waiting for him with machine guns.”), facing the unexpected return of his flirty WWII foe Ingrid Weiss (“Don’t delude yourself, Weiss. If I wanted to embrace some cold, perfect, heartless product of the Third Reich, I’d hug one of Albert Speer’s buildings.”), or teaming up with an anthropomorphic bunny version of himself in order to save the whole of spacetime from his egomaniac arch-nemesis. While each adventure is serviceable on its own, the comic’s strength lies in world building, from the extended cast (besides Tom’s multiracial family and fan club, he has two bickering sidekicks – a mechanical butler and a talking gorilla) to the rich background history that readers can put together through spread-out flashbacks and offhand allusions (for example, apparently in this world the USSR did not collapse).

There have been plenty of comics about Doc Savage (I’m quite the fan of Doug Moench’s run in the seventies), but leave it to Alan Moore to take the same ingredients and come up with something as clever and amusing as Tom Strong. Sure, the material doesn’t always transcend its origins… Pneumatic robots, intelligent apes, time-travelling paradoxes, crazy parallel realities, aerial battles with muscular Nazi babes – none of this is new or approached in a completely innovative way (in fact, some of the joy comes from recognition, like in the case of the send-ups of old DC and EC comics). Tom Strong just feels like a masterclass in how to do this kind of throwback, alliterative puns and all. This is Moore in full swing reconstructionist (rather than deconstructionist) mode, blissfully pushing the buttons of nostalgia and childlike wonder, even if he doesn’t refrain from his brand of caustic humor (an in-house ad starts with a little kid mumbling to his friends: “Holy socks, guys! Collecting comic books just isn’t fun anymore! We may as well turn to hard drugs!”).

To top it all off, the final issue, which came out in 2006, is a surprisingly touching crossover with Promethea, featuring cameos from other series in the America’s Best Comics line, such as Top Ten and Greyshirt. On the surface, those books have fairly little in common (except for a fondness for sex jokes), but one thing the original Tom Strong series and the spin-off anthology Tom Strong’s Terrific Tales do share with other ABC titles is a delightful dose of metafictional experimentation: it isn’t always clear when we are reading a canonical story or merely a tale about Tom Strong produced by the media in his world, including pastiches of Mad magazine and Hanna-Barbera Saturday morning cartoons. Hell, at one point we even get a whole adventure told through bubblegum cards!

Besides Moore, Sprouse, and Gordon, several other talented creators worked on the characters, with mixed results. The flashbacks were usually handled by different artists (among others, Arthur Adams, Jerry Ordway, Dave Gibbons, and Gary Gianni) aping old-fashioned drawing styles, with letterer Todd Klein adjusting the fonts accordingly. There were nice fill-in issues by fan-favorite writers Brian K. Vaughan and Ed Brubaker. The bulk of Tom Strong’s Terrific Tales was penned by Steve Moore. Moreover, Peter Hogan has written a bunch of sequels and spin-offs, mostly forgettable except for the hilarious one-shot The Many Worlds of Tesla Strong.

THE UNKNOWN

the unknown

America’s foremost detective, Catherine Allingham, has only six months to live, so she is using them to frenetically solve the most challenging mysteries she can find. In this rollicking 2009 mini-series, Cat investigates the world’s first ‘quantum crime’ – the locked-room disappearance of a machine to measure the human soul – with the assistance of ex-bouncer James Doyle (who has an uncanny talent for reading body language). Cue a deranged Orthodox priest, a murderous Asian golem, and a masterful action scene on a train, all lusciously illustrated by Minck Oosterveer.

Not only did Mark Waid write a smart comic that never lost its breath as it jumped around from light comedy to hair-raising terror, he rooted The Unknown in characters you could not help but care about, crafting an all-too-rare male/female duo whose bonding suggested friendship rather than romance. To quote Gail Simone’s introduction to the collected edition: “It’s a story that’s part classic chase, part detective, part speculative science, part metaphysical, part crime drama, part buddy flick, and oh, hell, let’s just throw in the damn kitchen sink while we’re at it and God knows how he did it but it all works.”

Waid and Oosterveer re-teamed for a sequel, titled ‘The Devil Made Flesh,’ delivering another ingenious supernatural whodunit (although the ending raised more questions than it answered). What’s more, they later collaborated on the enjoyable 2011 mini-series Ruse: The Victorian Guide to Murder, which also featured a genius detective, albeit in the 19th century.

 

NEXT: Minimalist Batman covers.

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Jim Aparo’s schlocky Batman

Batman 415Batman #415

For some, it may sound odd to describe Jim Aparo’s Batman comics as ‘schlocky,’ given that not too long ago Aparo came in second at CBR’s poll of greatest Batman artists, right after the immensely talented Neal Adams. But I don’t mean this in a bad way. Although his unmistakable style sometimes fell flat, even at its weakest Aparo’s straightforward, unpretentious storytelling and workmanlike approach were a perfect fit for comics that knew damn well they were disposable junk and weren’t trying to hide it. More than merely acknowledge the material’s status as schlock, though, his strongest work celebrated schlockiness with a fair amount of gusto, as Aparo proved capable of turning the silliest scripts into straight up shit-your-paints horror, outlandish satirical sci-fi, and over-the-top action/adventure. He was the John Carpenter of Batman artists, minus the synths.

In many ways, Jim Aparo had a lot in common with Neal Adams… Their renditions of the Dark Knight were athletic yet drawn with realistic proportions and, in both cases, their artwork really peaked in the 1970s (back when Aparo not only pencilled, but also consistently inked and lettered his own work). Moreover, as in the case of Adams, my all-time favorite Aparo cover is actually from The Phantom Stranger:

Phantom Stranger 21

And yet, while Neal Adams was doing ‘social relevance’ stories featuring Green Lantern and Green Arrow, written by the liberal Denny O’Neil, Jim Aparo was cranking out deranged exploitation horror starring the Spectre, written by the misanthropic Michael Fleisher. If Adams pushed the boundaries of superhero comics and instilled his work with a certain degree of elegance and self-importance, Aparo seemed more like the guy you’d turn to when you wanted your book to scream: ‘trashy entertainment and proud of it!’

Batman 285     Brave and the Bold 121     Brave and the Bold 120

No wonder Jim Aparo felt so at home during his long run on the team-up book The Brave and the Bold (1971-1983), a series with a definitive B-movie spirit, featuring tales with titles such as ‘Gotham Bay, Be My Grave!,’ ‘The Corpse That Wouldn’t Die!,’ and ‘Disco of Death!’

As I pointed out a few of weeks ago, the defining feature of The Brave and the Bold was that writer Bob Haney never let anything get in the way of a good story, particularly not trite things like continuity, or even plain logic. This was perhaps never more so than in the issues pairing up Batman with the gung-ho, all-American, cigar-chewing Sgt. Rock… Haney established in ‘The Angel, the Rock and the Cowl!’ (with art by Neal Adams) that, even though this version of Bruce Wayne looked like he was in his thirties by the late 1960s, Batman had nevertheless met Sgt. Rock while fighting as a spy for the Allies in World War II. Haney then went on to pen several bewildering tales about this unlikely duo. Jim Aparo not only illustrated the one where Batman *literally* sells his soul to Adolf Hitler (The Brave and the Bold #108), but also one in which Aparo himself saves Batman’s and Rock’s life:

Brave and the bold 124The Brave and the Bold #124

It’s so awesome to see Bob Haney throwing all these crazy ideas around, framing them in the most balls-out and hyperbolic terms, and then Jim Aparo just running with it and playing them completely straight. If anything, Aparo’s no-nonsense art seems to work best the more hectic and bizarre the stories get, creating a fascinating contrast.

I don’t mean to imply that Aparo’s draftsmanship was entirely devoid of stylized pyrotechnics. In fact, his art during this period had a vibrant authorial voice. As he points out in this interview, Aparo liked to draw geeky easter eggs in the background, including celebrity cameos and clues about the upcoming guest stars. There was also the occasional experiment in terms of page layout…

Brave and the Bold #115The Brave and the Bold #115

The main thing that stood out in Jim Aparo’s comics, though, was the abundant use of Dutch angles. Seriously, it’s like the ‘camera’ never stopped moving – his predilection for skewed shots, coupled with his rugged inks, helped infuse The Brave and the Bold with an intoxicating brew of grounded grit and dynamic visuals.

Aparo complemented this device by penciling letters in all sorts of counter-intuitive directions, which really pulled your eyes across the page, turning text-heavy sequences into a forceful, energetic reading experience:

Brave and the Bold #112The Brave and the Bold #112

As you can see from the example above, one thing Jim Aparo excelled at was packing tons of details on the first pages of an issue while still delivering a slam-bang opening that drew you in!

Here are another couple of vertiginous, adrenaline-pumping openings, from a classic issue of The Brave and the Bold and from the compelling mini-series The Untold Legend of the Batman:

Brave and the Bold #124The Brave and the Bold #124
The Untold Legend of the Batman #2The Untold Legend of the Batman #2

Gradually, Jim Aparo adopted a slightly more minimalist style, with more negative space and simpler yet powerful images. You got the sense that Aparo had pretty much figured out his standard techniques and wasn’t looking for any new challenges. He became a more meat-and-potatoes kind of artist, with a boilerplate aesthetic, just applying what had worked so far into whatever he was asked to draw.

Batman and the Outsiders 11     Batman 414     Batman 298

This attitude may explain why, unlike Neal Adams (who seemed to take himself more seriously), Jim Aparo stuck around for so long. Notably, in the 1980s he co-created – with Mike W. Barr – Batman and the Outsiders, an uneven superhero series with the schlockiest stories about the nuclear threat this side of Joseph Ruben’s Dreamscape. Later in the decade, he illustrated Jim Starlin’s infamous run on Batman, which included ‘Ten Nights of the Beast’ (a take on the Reaganite action sub-genre that Cannon studios specialized in) and ‘A Death in the Family’ (the story arc in which the Joker beat Robin to death with a crowbar).

By then, Jim Aparo’s art had grown noticeably stiffer. He stopped inking his own pencils, which became way too clean and boring for my taste – they lost much of their appealing roughness and sense of urgency. His limitations were also more apparent. For example, although Aparo had a range of facial expressions…

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…when he was tasked with long stretches of drama, his characters usually felt like they were chewing up the scenery.

Check out all the ‘overacting’ in this scene:

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Regardless, Jim Aparo was acknowledged as a master storyteller and you could see writers trusted him. In Batman #431 (which came out in 1989), written by James Owsley (aka Christopher Priest), Aparo got to illustrate a neatly choreographed eight-page fight scene with ninjas that brings to mind the stylish intensity of those dimly lit fights in the Daredevil show. Shortly thereafter, he drew the quasi-wordless Batman #433, from a script by John Byrne. In this issue – the first part of ‘The Many Deaths of Batman’ story arc – Batman dies and we see the reactions from various characters, with all of the narrative and pathos hinging on Aparo’s mise-en-scène and body language.

With his old-fashioned figures and clear transitions, the man could definitely carry an effective narrative. It was only when he was asked to design new characters that what he came up with tended to be somewhat embarrassing. As if the Masters of Disaster and the KGBeast weren’t bad enough, there was the case of Metalhead:

Batman 486Batman #486

That said, in 1991 someone had the inspired idea of assigning Jim Aparo with bringing to life Peter Milligan’s scripts. With a surrealist streak and a tongue-in-cheek sensibility, Milligan gave Aparo plenty of intentionally offbeat stuff to draw, bringing back some of that Brave and the Bold magic… For example, in ‘And the Executioner Wore Stiletto Heels,’ the Dark Knight found a paraplegic snitch glued to the ceiling:

Detective Comics #630Detective Comics #630

Other than that, throughout the 1990s Aparo remained that reliable artist who, while not expected to produce anything outstanding, was always sure to deliver a competent yarn. After significant contributions to the high-profile ‘A Lonely Place of Dying’ and ‘Knightfall’ storylines, Jim Aparo turned into a fill-in artist for when creators just wanted to tell a solid little one-off, whether it was a crime story (Shadow of the Bat #61), a horror tale (Shadow of the Bat #68), or a mix of both (Detective Comics #716).

By 1998, Aparo’s style had become so identified with the default look of Batman’s world that ‘Sound and Fury’ (Detective Comics #719) used it to visually distinguish fact from fiction in a prisoner’s fanciful account of a heist – the reality was penciled by Aparo and the fantasy sequences by Flint Henry, whose drawings were much more exaggerated and grotesque. That year, Alan Grant and Mark Buckingham sort of paid homage to the veteran artist in Shadow of the Bat #75, where Batman defeated Clayface by crushing the villain with a huge billboard that read ‘Aparo Originals – Need we say more?’

Honestly, I don’t think the 1990s’ inking and coloring trends gelled very well with Jim Aparo’s pencils – the result tended to be passable, but it rarely jumped off the page like it used to do in the old days… That said, there were some interesting exceptions. For example, Bill Sienkiewicz’s inks managed to give Aparo’s work a distinctive look. In 2001, inker John Cebollero and colorist James Sinclair did a stellar job with Aparo’s final Batman comic, ‘The Demon Laughs’ (Legends of the Dark Knight #142-145) – about a twisted team-up between the Joker and Ra’s al Ghul – where his art felt less anachronistic than it had done in years!

All in all, Jim Aparo was a quintessential artist of Batman comics at their schlocky best and worst. I’ll finish by pointing out that Aparo was not just great at crafting alluring opening pages, he also knew how to pull off a moody ending:

The Untold Legend of the Batman #3The Untold Legend of the Batman #3

NEXT: Fantastic adventures.

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Why Commissioner Gordon hates Mondays

PhantomStranger #01The Phantom Stranger (v3) #1
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legends of the dark knight halloween specialLegends of the Dark Knight Halloween Special: Choices
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Batman - BaneBane

NEXT: An iconic Batman artist.

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Bernie Wrightson (1948-2017)

John Trumbull said it all.

batman hidden treasuresHidden Treasures
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Batman collections for casual readers

You know who Batman is. At least the gist of it. You’ve seen him in books or in films or on television, hopefully at his best. Probably, you’re even familiar with some of his supporting cast and rogues gallery, not to mention other heroes in the DC Universe. And even if you’re not necessarily willing to dive into the sprawling, entangled continuity of the regular Batman comics, you may still wish to visit this weird, fascinating world and have a good time…

With this in mind, every once in a while I recommend a selection of diverse worthwhile collections for readers who are just looking to get their hands on a sample of solid standalone tales starring the Caped Crusader.  Here are some more options, all of them highly entertaining:

THE BRAVE AND THE BOLD – THE BRONZE AGE OMNIBUS: VOL.1 (2017)

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Let’s start with the most expensive suggestion… The Brave and the Bold – The Bronze Age Omnibus: vol.1 is a monster of a book, collecting 34 issues of Bob Haney’s legendary run on The Brave and the Bold (plus one written by Dennis O’Neil and one by Mike Sekowsky), originally published between 1967 and 1973 (specifically, issues #74 to #109). Ostensibly, the high concept of this series was that each issue told a self-contained yarn in which Batman joined forces with another hero, but the true appeal was Haney’s carefree approach to storytelling, constantly shifting gears and throwing surprises at the reader. At the turn of every page, there could be a shocking reveal and a dramatic change of stakes. Without losing a beat, a gritty crime story would morph into a supernatural horror story, a character would suddenly turn out to be an alien (or the Devil, or Hitler), or – as pictured above – an issue would kick off with the proudly anti-gun Dark Knight viciously charging against criminals while shooting a weapon, John McClane-style!

The ensuing comics were fiendishly fun, ferociously paced, and sometimes freaking bizarre – especially the ones in the final third of this collection, after the iconic Jim Aparo took over the art duties and filled the thing with tilted angles (again, check out that title page!). You can see Bob Haney’s gonzo imagination filter both pop culture (the chase scene through Vienna’s sewers in ‘Count Ten… and Die!’ pays homage to the film noir The Third Man, ‘A Traitor Lurks Inside Earth!’ is a madcap version of the sci-fi thriller Colossus: The Forbin Project) and contemporary anxieties (besides the ubiquitous Cold War politics, there are several references to the civil rights’ struggles, including a couple of baffling takes on the youth movement in ‘Rebels in the Streets’ and ‘The Commune of Defiance’).

To top it off, not only did the Caped Crusader team up with A-list superheroes like the Flash, Green Lantern, and Wonder Woman (during that phase when she became a mod martial artist), but Bob Haney also threw in quirkier DC properties such as Metamorpho and the Metal Men. In particular, it was a hoot to see Haney play with the oddball creations of Jack Kirby, which is why the second ombinus will be even more amazing, as it should contain the issues with the super-escape artist Mr. Miracle and the creatures from Kamandi – The Last Boy on Earth! (Kirby’s post-apocalyptic comic that makes Escape from New York, The Omega Man, and the Mad Max saga look like grounded visions of the future).

(By the way, if you’re curious about Bob Haney’s early work on this series, you can also find it in Batman Illustrated by Neal Adams: vol. 1.)

THE BRAVE AND THE BOLD: THE FEARSOME FANGS STRIKE AGAIN! (2011)

Brave and the Bold 8

In 2008, DC revived the idea of an over-the-top adventure series in which Batman teamed up with other heroes, blowing fans’ minds with both a memorable TV show and a colorful funhouse ride of a comic. The Fearsome Fangs Strike Again! collects six issues written by J. Torres and Landry Walker, who totally go for broke as they embrace the wondrous goofiness of the material, maniacally brought to life by the cartoony art of J. Bone, Carlo Berberi, and Eric Jones.

Working alongside wacky versions of the Doom Patrol, Green Arrow, the Atom, and Adam Strange (plus a number of priceless cameos), throughout the book the Caped Crusader faces the villainous fashion designer Mad Mod, gets turned into a giant mutant monster, and saves the universe more than once. Along the way, we also get a surprising allegory about Tibet and the Christmas story to end them all!

Unapologetically cheerful and kid-friendly, this iteration of The Brave and the Bold is about as far from Zack Snyder’s self-important, grim this-is-not-your-daddy’s Batman crossover as you can get, even if it also bursts with action-packed fantasy!

FOUR OF A KIND (1998)

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Four of a Kind collects four annual issues from 1995 reimagining Batman’s first encounters with notorious members of his rogues’ gallery, namely the seductress Poison Ivy, the puzzle-obsessed Riddler, the frightful Scarecrow, and the deformed Man-Bat. These are nifty, well-crafted tales with plenty of wit and excitement, fleshing out key villains as they face a still relatively fallible Dark Knight (the stories take place very early in Batman’s crime-fighting career).

The tales in this book are written by Alan Grant, Chuck Dixon, and Doug Moench, the trio responsible for the majority of the Batman output in the nineties. Here, they don’t try to reinvent the wheel or anything… Instead, they take the neatest ideas from the old comics that originally introduced these characters and confidently deliver smart, satisfying remakes. (I love how Dixon – unlike many other writers – doesn’t spell out the answers to the Riddler’s clues, he just casually integrates them into later panels, like in the excerpt above.)

And don’t be fooled by the book’s ugly cover – the inside art is as sleek as the writing, with Kieron Dwyer and Richmond Lewis giving the Riddler story a particularly cool look. The Poison Ivy one also stands out, as the art team of Brian Apthorp, Stan Woch, and Linda Medley put together one stunning sequence after another, including an unforgettable double page splash of a kiss (which really drives home the point that some people are poison).

LEGENDS OF THE DARK KNIGHT: MARSHALL ROGERS (2011)

Dark Detective #3

This book collects the various Batman comics illustrated by the brilliant artist Marshall Rogers, who – between 1977 and 2005 – worked with several great writers in the field, including Steve Englehart, Len Wein, Dennis O’Neil, and Archie Goodwin.

I’ve already written a bit about these issues in the past, so I won’t go into too much detail. Suffice to say that Marshall Rogers’ appealing designs and graceful pencils are a pure joy to behold – especially when they’re inked by Terry Austin – and that here his art is at the service of some of the finest damn Batman stories out there!

SHADOW OF THE BAT: VOL.1 (2016)

Batman - Shadow Of The Bat #02Batman - Shadow Of The Bat #02

With art by Norm Breyfogle, Dan Jurgens, and Tim Sale, this is the first collection of the early ‘90s series Shadow of the Bat, which supposedly pointed the spotlight at different heroes and villains who crossed paths with the Dark Knight. In fact, the series seemed more like an excuse to let writer Alan Grant go wild and do whatever he felt like after having bonded him to the continuity-heavy regular Batman title for a while. The results were lively and edgy and, often, mystifyingly twisted.

The two main stories here are ‘The Last Arkham’ and ‘The Misfits.’ In the former, unorthodox psychiatrist Jeremiah Arkham becomes the new director of Arkham Asylum and has Batman committed to the institution (besides Jeremiah, this tale introduced what would become two recurrent Arkham inmates: the sinister Zsasz and the brutish Amygdala). In the latter story arc, a group of notoriously lame villains – including Killer Moth and Calendar Man – set out to prove themselves by kidnapping Gotham’s Mayor, Commissioner Gordon, and Bruce Wayne, so it’s up to Robin (Tim Drake) to save the day!

In addition, you get to read a couple of jabs at social relevance (such as the unbelievably gritty drug tale ‘The Black Spider’) and a couple of outlandish adventures (including ‘The Human Flea,’ in which Mortimer Kadaver – a villain with a death-fetish – tries to turn Gotham City into a giant mausoleum), all written in Alan Grant’s bombastic, in-yer-face style.

THE STRANGE DEATHS OF BATMAN (2009)

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I’ll end with a recommendation for those in the mood for something even more offbeat: riding the wave of 2008’s Batman R.I.P. storyline, DC put out this collection of zany superhero tales about the Caped Crusader kicking the bucket. Bear in mind that these are not the only comics in which Batman apparently dies – we’ve seen it happen plenty of times, from the self-contained issue ‘You Only Die Twice!’ (The Brave and the Bold #90) to the mega-crossover event Final Crisis, from the fake-out twists of ‘I Died a Thousand Deaths!’ (Detective Comics #392) to that time the Electrocutioner did clinically kill Batman, only to then defibrillate him back to life (Detective Comics #645). Regardless, for the most part this book does live up to its title: there are some magnificently strange stories in here!

To kick things off, we get a 1966 gem with a pop art look and a metafictional edge, courtesy of Gardner Fox, Carmine Infantino, and Joe Giela – basically, a confrontation between the Dynamic Duo and a new villain, the Bouncer, shifts into an imaginary tale halfway through on a whim of the writer, who directly addresses the readers before reinventing the Batman & Robin team. Next, there’s another Silver Age fever dream (by Cary Bates, Curt Swan, and Jack Abel) in which the Boy Wonder sets out on an years-long revenge quest after the Dark Knight gets himself killed by some guy called the Automator, who is succinctly described as “a master in the creation of robot crime machines.” Then we move on to a typical slice of craziness from the aforementioned Haney/Aparo run on The Brave and the Bold, in which the Atom uses his shrinking powers to reduce himself to a molecular level, sneaks inside Batman’s dead body, and jumps up and down on the brain area, manipulating Batman’s corpse like a zombie puppet in order to complete one last mission.

The high point of the volume is the 1977 epic ‘Where Were You On the Night Batman Was Killed?’ Written by an inspired David V. Reed, with art by John Calnan and Tex Blaisdell and colors by Jerry Serpe, this is an amusing spin on the whodunit formula: following rumors of Batman’s demise, several criminals claim credit for it, so the underworld bosses set up a trial in Gotham City to settle the matter, with Two-Face as prosecutor and Ra’s al Ghul as judge. We end up with a reverse courtroom drama, in which the defendants (Catwoman, Riddler, Lex Luthor, Joker) all claim they’re guilty and it’s up to the prosecutor to prove their innocence against their will. The result is at once quite clever (Two-Face pierces holes in the testimonies through the kind of factoids Reed was so fond of, like the properties of dynamite or the density of Brazillian pepperwood) and hopelessly silly (Luthor’s plan is particularly preposterous).

These tales more than justify purchasing or borrowing The Strange Deaths of Batman from your local library. And while the last stories in the book aren’t nearly as wild as the initial ones, at least one of them has a pretty badass opening:

World's Finest 269

NEXT: A glimpse into the life of Commissioner Gordon.

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Classic hardboiled crime novels

If, like me, you dig pretty much everything noirish (even if it’s a highly derivative mash-up of familiar tropes, a weirdly pretentious cheapie about an incompetent hitman, a sleazy erotic thriller with contradictory gender politics, or a mystical, sluggishly paced Bhutanese mystery), surely some of the appeal Batman comics hold for you is the remarkable influence of hardboiled pulp fiction and film noir.

Detective Comics 37     Batman 620     Bruce Wayne: Murderer

This influence was clear from the very first stories and, while the Dark Knight went on to have many other kinds of adventures, several writers and artists have kept the genre connection alive (most notably Frank Miller, Bruce Timm, and Brian Azzarello). Apart from Elseworlds pastiches like Nine Lives and Gotham Noir, you can find blatant homages to all those hard-hitting, convoluted tales of betrayal and murder – written in a scathing staccato rhythm oozing with male gaze, a sense of doom, and atmospheric slang, filled with slick mobsters, femmes fatales, tough guys in search of justice, and desperate protagonists haunted by their past – in gritty comics such as Batman: Year One, The Long Halloween, Broken City, Gordon’s Law, and City of Crime.

Yet perhaps you’re coming at it from the opposite direction. Perhaps you gained a taste for these elements through the comics and are now wondering about having a look at the original source. In that case, you are in for a ride, my friend! A couple of years ago, I suggested a bunch of film noir gems but, if you want to engage with the genre at its best, make sure you also pick up these three quintessential novels:

RED HARVEST

(Dashiell Hammett, 1929)

Red Harvest

“I first heard Personville called Poisonville by a red-haired mucker named Hickey Dewey in the Big Ship in Butte. He also called his shirt a shoit. I didn’t think anything of what he had done to the city’s name. Later I heard men who could manage their r’s give it the same pronunciation. I still didn’t see anything in it but the meaningless sort of humor that used to make richardsnary the thieves’ word for dictionary. A few years later I went to Personville and learned better.”

While working a case in a city that seriously rubs him the wrong way, an unnamed private investigator (an operative of the Continental Detective Agency) decides to declare war on crime by manipulating a dozen gangsters into killing each other. Less of a pure detective tale than Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon, this is essentially a chain of interconnected mysteries, as the book keeps providing new twists almost until the final paragraph.

Hammett’s anti-hero spins this sordid yarn like a furious scriptwriter on a tight deadline, keeping most descriptions on the surface while letting you work out each character’s hidden agenda – they all have one! – based on their external actions and dialogue. He gives you just enough to feel the reek of smoke and sleaze all around. You can also sense the narrator gradually getting carried away by his self-imposed mission.

“This damned burg’s getting me. If I don’t get away soon I’ll be going blood-simple like the natives.”

The result is one hell of a page-turner, with quite a cinematic flair… No wonder Red Harvest – mixed with the also-cool-but-not-as-cool The Glass Key – served as inspiration for the phenomenal movies Yojimbo, A Fistful of Dollars, and Miller’s Crossing. (The quote above also inspired the title of the Coen brothers’ neo-noir Blood Simple.)

Furthermore, there is a lot of Gotham City in Personville (aka ‘Poisonville’) with its gaudy buildings, overwhelming corruption, and endless supply of devious bastards.

THE LONG GOODBYE

(Raymond Chandler, 1953)

The Long Goodbye

“The first time I laid eyes on Terry Lennox he was drunk in a Rolls-Royce Silver Wraith outside the terrace of The Dancers. The parking lot attendant had brought the car out and he was still holding the door open because Terry Lennox’s left foot was still dangling outside, as if he had forgotten he had one. He had a young-looking face but his hair was bone white. You could tell by his eyes that he was plastered to the hairline, but otherwise he looked like any other nice young guy in a dinner jacket who had been spending too much money in a joint that exists for that purpose and no other.

There was a girl beside him. Her hair was a lovely shade of dark red and she had a distant smile on her lips and over her shoulders she had a blue mink that almost made the Rolls-Royce look like just another automobile. It didn’t quite. Nothing can.”

The premise of The Long Goodbye involves the sardonic (if principled) private eye Phillip Marlowe trying to clear the name of his friend Terry Lennox, who seems to have murdered his wife. However, once again the labyrinthine plot keeps on spinning in surprising directions until the bitter end.

Raymond Chandler’s prose is a joy to read. He’s a master of witty turns of phrase and logical yet unexpected punchlines, with a sharp eye for detail (especially when it comes to capturing the decadence of Los Angeles). This is one of his most ‘literary’ novels, packed with beautiful descriptions, intriguing characterization, some social commentary, and a genuinely melancholic atmosphere drenched in hopeless loneliness and alcoholism. That said, Chandler doesn’t stray too far from his pulp origins: he still gives readers plenty of violence and hardboiled one-liners. While not as seedy as The Big Sleep, this is one mean read.

“I’m a licensed private investigator and have been for quite a while. I’m a lone wolf, unmarried, getting middle-aged, and not rich. I’ve been in jail more than once and I don’t do divorce business. I like liquor and women and chess and a few other things. The cops don’t like me too well, but I know a couple I get along with. I’m a native son, born in Santa Rosa, both parents dead, no brothers or sisters, and when I get knocked off in a dark alley sometime, if it happens, as it could to anyone in my business, nobody will feel that the bottom has dropped out of his or her life.”

Twenty years later, Robert Altman did a bizarre film adaptation that hugely simplified the story (although adding an extra knockout twist at the end!) while transposing it from the noirish 1950s to the New Age 1970s. If nothing else, the picture is worth watching just for all the little quirks, like the fact that Elliott Gould of all people is cast as Marlowe or the fact that every tune in the soundtrack is a variation of the same song.

THE HUNTER

(Richard Stark, 1962)

The Hunter

When a fresh-faced guy in a Chevy offered him a lift, Parker told him to go to hell. The guy said, “Screw you, buddy,” yanked his Chevy back into the stream of traffic, and roared on down to the toolbooths. Parker spat in the right-hand lane, lit his last cigarette, and walked across the George Washington Bridge.”

Sure, we all love watching rugged detectives played by Humphrey Bogart and Alan Ladd struggling to do what’s right in an unfair world, but a great allure of film noir is also the sub-genre of movies where you find yourself rooting for hardened criminals who are just trying to pull a job in as professional a manner as possible (Jules Dassin’s Rififi, Paul Wendkos’ The Burglar, George Sherman’s Larceny). Under the pseudonym Richard Stark, writer Donald E. Westlake gave us his share of this type of stories in dozens of deliciously nasty thrillers about Parker, a ruthless freelance robber with big hands and a craftsmanlike, take-no-shit attitude.

In the series’ first entry, The Hunter, we meet Parker after he has been double-crossed and left for dead. We follow him – and, in the mid-section, one of his prey – as he methodically tortures and/or kills his way up the mob-like organization known as the Outfit in order to get his revenge… and his money back. Unlike the two books I mentioned above, The Hunter is written in the third person, but the gripping, unsentimental style actually mirrors Parker’s personality.

“It was his belt buckle that saved him. Her first shot had hit the buckle, mashing it into his flesh. The gun had jumped in her hand, the next five shots all going over his falling body and into the wood of the door. But she’d fired six shots at him, and she’d seen him fall, and she couldn’t believe that he was anything but dead.”

As others have pointed out, one of the things that makes The Hunter so enduring is that, even though it starts out as a personal revenge quest, it ultimately turns into a confrontation between a solo entrepreneur and a big corporation. The novel efficiently sets up a whole underground world of organized crime, with strict rules, specialized hotels, and an intriguing sense of community (not unlike the recent John Wick movies). It’s also a tight little beast, the action unfolding in a way that is as straightforward and relentless as Parker himself.

This book has been loosely adapted to the big screen at least three times (with the titles Point Blank, Full Contact, and Payback) and there is a gorgeous graphic novel rendition as well. Moreover, with its skill at delivering taut dialogue and keen heist plots, the Parker series was an obvious influence on the Catwoman comics of Chuck Dixon and Darwyn Cooke.

NEXT: Batman collections.

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