Homage to the Old-School: Ra’s al Ghul, the JLA, and the Black Casebook (Batman Canon IV)

Yup, I just got done hatin’ on the Silver Age, and now I’m about to tell you about three collected editions featuring many comics straight out of the corniest, campiest era of Batman ever.

But first I should spend some time exploring why I don’t particularly care for the old-school of comic books. The most obvious reason is, of course, that I did not live through the period(s) in question, and therefore cannot relate personally to the social and cultural climates from which those periods’ comics arise. I have a couple of uncles who have loved comic books all their lives, and I’ve heard them mention more than once how important the 1960’s Batman TV series was to them, despite the fact that it’s frequently singled out as the campiest piece of superhero fiction ever created. “Camp” can be a relative term, though; I loved Batman Forever when I was a kid, but now I can barely sit through the first five minutes.  Our perceptions of our favorite media change not only with time, but also in comparison to other media of the same style or genre.

First impressions are also significant. I imagine it was hard to take Adam West seriously when this was my very first experience of the Dark Knight, at the ripe old age of three:

Thus began an entire childhood of running about in cape and cowl, growling “I’M BATMAN” at everybody dense enough to ask the obvious question: “And who are you supposed to be?” My mom has a framed picture of me wearing my “Batman face,” an expression I apparently assumed so often that it warranted a nickname and a professional photography session.

Anyway, the most important thing I want to mention regarding Modern vs. Silver is that in recent years Batman’s writers have emphasized his absolute dedication to doing what’s right, regardless of the consequences. Batman never compromises, and he never, ever gives in. This trend effectively redefined Batman’s war on crime, if “crime” it can still accurately be called; he doesn’t just go after gangsters and murderers anymore. If an amoral CEO is dealing weapons under the table, the Batman will take him down. If the police department is plagued by cops on the take, he and Jim Gordon will clean house. And if the United States government becomes a police state, then the goddamned Batman will spark a goddamned Bat-revolution.

I prefer the realism of the Modern Age, as the Batman character and his mythos are extremely receptive to hyper-realistic depictions of urban crime and its root causes. Christopher Nolan’s Batman films would not exist without the Modern Age of Comic Books, period. But just because many of the older stories toss credibility out the window doesn’t mean we can’t find some of them to appreciate. The following three volumes showcase some entertaining yarns from the Golden and Silver Ages, and they also set up a few plot points that will become very important later on in my customized Bat-character arc.

Batman: The Black Casebook

I was pretty skeptical when I first picked this one up, and I certainly wouldn’t call it a “must-read,” but I ended up liking it enough to include it in my collection. The Black Casebook collects 12 stories from the early 50’s to the early 60’s in which Batman experiences exceedingly bizarre and/or improbable occurrences. Most of them prominently feature Dick Grayson as Robin, which is a dynamic (get it?) that is pretty hard to come by in Modern Age comics, and the best of them try to play up the father-son relationship between Bruce and Dick. There are even a few touching moments between Batman and Boy Wonder amidst all the excessive camp.

But what I really like about The Black Casebook is that it provides a fine example of a retcon done right. In writing his “conclusion” to Modern Age Batman, Grant Morrison decided to completely ignore Crisis on Infinite Earths and directly connect these 12 comics from the Golden and Silver Ages to his contemporary work on the Batman family of titles. It lends a sense of mystery to these tales; it retroactively deepens their potential ramifications across 50 years of comic books. We can also read them as an expression of the extreme mental “stress and shock” one would certainly experience in leading a life like Bruce Wayne’s… Did all of these stories really happen, or is the Batman just a little bit batty? We’ll never know (although Morrison does hint at some of the answers in his landmark series Batman: R.I.P., to be discussed here at a later date).

JLA: The Greatest Stories Ever Told

I may not read their comics as exhaustively as I do Batman’s, but the heroes and heroines of the Justice League of America are important figures in Batman’s career, and as such I thought it appropriate to grab a compendium of some of their greatest adventures together. Like The Black Casebook, this collection also contains a few stories that would eventually become significant (and sinister) in the Modern Age. Not much more to say about this one; it’s fun, it’s lighthearted, and full of the action and heroics we expect from the Silver Age.

Batman: Tales of the Demon by Dennis O’Neil

Here at last appears one of the Batman’s greatest foes, as created by legendary DC writer Denny O’Neil: Ra’s al Ghul, which translated from the Arabic means “Head of the Demon.” This trade paperback collects the very first few stories featuring Ra’s and the League of Assassins. Some people complain that these stories feel more like a 007 film plus a cape and cowl, and they’re right, but I don’t mind. They showcase Ra’s as an equal intellect to the Batman and introduce his vile brand of “eco-terrorism” to the comic book world.

That concludes our foray into the Golden and Silver Ages of Comic Books. From now on, all of the titles in my Batman collection will be post-DKR. Next up: Dick Grayson’s swan song as the Boy Wonder in Nightwing: Year One.

Continuity Crisis, Vol. 1 — Crisis on Infinite Earths and the Last Gasp of the Golden Age

In 1985, DC Comics turned 50 years old. The age of the superhero had arrived with Superman in Action Comics #1, April 1938, and in the intervening 47 years the Man of Steel and his Super Friends forged a phenomenally popular and pervasive industry that has been dubbed the contemporary American version of myth-making. Legions of comic writers and illustrators wove a comically complicated web of their heroes’ origins and motivations, usually with little concern for consistency either within or across each individual character’s storyline. Meanwhile, DC amassed its wealth and acquired several smaller comics publishing companies, including Charlton Comics, which at that time owned the rights to characters such as Captain Marvel and the Blue Beetle. However, none of these other intellectual properties had yet been integrated with DC’s primary publications, meaning that they remained isolated from the stories (and therefore much of the success) that DC’s other characters enjoyed.

In other words, in 1985, DC’s comics were a clusterfuck — that is, more so than they had been before. The Bronze Age of Comic Books  (c. 1970-1985) also saw a shift toward darker, more realistic characters, the revival of horror and science fiction titles long banned by the Comics Code Authority, and a simultaneous rise in the success of independent publishers. Further, DC was bleeding revenue at the hands of Marvel Comics, whose onslaught of diverse, dynamic and socially relevant characters since the early 60’s had stolen much of the market DC previously dominated. All of these pressures combined to prompt some rather drastic measures: DC’s editorial and writing staff decided to destroy the Multiverse.

Like I said. Clusterfuck. “Worlds lived. Worlds died. The DC Universe was never the same.” So ran the tagline of 1985’s Crisis on Infinite Earths, a “12-part maxi-series” intended to unify all of DC’s various continuities and publications into a single, more or less internally consistent storyline. The DC “Multiverse” would be reduced to a DC “Universe” in which all characters could always interact with each other without resorting to inter-dimensional travel as a plot device.

For your convenience I present to you (so far as I know) the Internet’s shortest summary of Crisis:

The Anti-Monitor, aka Generic Jumbo-Sized Super-Villain, attempts to destroy all the parallel universes ever. Barry Allen aka the Flash runs really really fast. Supergirl punches Anti-Monitor really really hard. Anti-Monitor deep-fries Supergirl with his Generic Eye-Beams. Anti-Monitor has a Plan B, but the Flash runs really really fast and blows it up. In fact he runs SO FAST he melts himself or something (see image). Wally West aka Kid Flash earns his big-boy pants and becomes the Flash fo realz. The Spectre arm-wrestles Anti-Monitor for the fate of the remaining universes. Not even kidding. Spectre wins said arm-wrestling match and Superman of Earth-Two, aka the original Supes from Action Comics #1, punches Anti-Monitor really really hard. The remaining parallel universes and their respective heroes get magically retconned so they’re a single universe and they always have been. Everybody else who ever appeared in DC Comics never existed in the first place.

The end.

At last, DC could publish all their intellectual properties in the same storylines on a clean slate, all while making truckloads of money on their epic blowout year-long purging of any and all characters who had failed to be popular in the last 30 years. In other words, they could legitimately ignore anything from the Golden Age (and some of the Silver, too) because it never really happened anyway. I guess if I were a writer at DC, I could choose to see Crisis as a liberation of sorts, freeing me from the constraints of mid-20th century world events and zeitgeists that no longer held much relevance to a 1980’s reader. Crisis does help to clear away some of the decades-old detritus DC Comics had collected by 1985; but like even the best of spring cleanings, it never lasts — life goes on, and eventually you find yourself sweeping up the same old dust-bunnies all over again (or perhaps more accurately in DC’s case, sweeping them under the rug).

But Crisis on Infinite Earths is fan-service, nothing more or less. It accomplished what it set out to do, paid homage to a precious few of DC’s most popular heroes, and provided an epic send-off for the ones they wanted to retire — Barry Allen and Kara Zor-El being the most prominent examples.

But Crisis is almost completely inaccessible to the newbie DC reader, which is ironic, since one would think a single DC Universe would be easier to get your head around than an infinite number of Multiverses. I can geek out pretty hard over DC superheroes, and even I had to consult the Wikipedia summary before I really felt like I understood what the hell happened. Further, three-dimensional characters are all but absent from this series, with the exception of the two Supermen (Kal-El and Kal-L) and Supergirl. Everyone else in the story falls squarely into the category of “Person-Shaped Plot Device.” The Crisis is too epic for its own good: the range of emotions our beloved heroes might feel at being helpless to stop the literal end of the world(s!) is lost amidst full-page battle scenes and rapid, confusing plot exposition. But then, the self-acknowledged goal of the maxi-series is to remake the entire DC Comics continuity in a mere 12 issues, so maybe a little character development is too much to ask.

Earlier we discussed the idea that Crisis may have provided DC’s writers with some badly-needed breathing room, and that it would inevitably be a temporary relief at best. But DC’s superhero comics were not only stagnating in their own convoluted history; they were also adjusting to the rising popularity of the more adult and socially relevant themes of the Bronze Age. In this light, Crisis seems to harbor a very conservative, reactionary motive: to unite the Multiverse under a single, defining, and incontestable history, i.e., what is called the post-Crisis DC Universe, before the whole thing just became too fractured to repair. Crisis explicitly states the original 1938 Superman (Earth-Two/Kal-L) is the greatest hero of not just his own Earth, but all of them, ever. And the modern, mainstream Superman’s defining moment of the series comes at the death of Supergirl: Kal-El, the Man of Steel who would live on into the present day, mourns the passing of not only the Last Daughter of Krypton but also the passing of an age. On the other hand Batman, easily the most popular comic book character ever to represent a darker, more ambiguous view on morality and justice, is barely present in Crisis at all.

To me, the differences between the Golden and Silver Ages are largely commercial — that is, the Silver Age saw a new surge in the popularity of superheroes, solidifying the genre as a hallmark of American culture and giving rise to Marvel, the other contemporary giant of comic books. But I find the heroes themselves to be largely interchangeable. Superman of 1938 believes in pretty much the same thing as Superman of 1970: truth, justice, and the American way. Throughout most of the Golden and Silver Ages, Batman is frequently referred to as a “masked lawman” or even a legal deputy of the Gotham City PD rather than the dark, threatening outlaw he has become since the 80’s. When I consider the thematic differences between different periods in comics, I frequently feel like there are only three: an “early” period corresponding to the Golden and Silver Ages, a “modern” period for the Modern Age of Comic Books, and a “bridge” or “middle” period standing in for the Bronze. In other words: old-school, new-school.

Crisis can be read as both a celebration of and an epitaph for the old-school of superhero comics, as represented by Kal-L and Kal-El: the elder Superman succeeds in saving the world one last time before soaring off into the metaphorical sunset, while the younger carries forward the elder’s ideals — just the same as he always has. A poetic farewell to the early years of the Superhero? Sort of, but in the end the story boils down to the Who: “Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.”

Luckily, 1985’s Crisis on Infinite Earths didn’t galvanize the industry to launch a neo-Silver Age, which meant that the Bronze Age of Comic Books could resolve into the Modern Age, heralded by the sound of shattered plate glass.

The Original Boy Wonder (Batman Canon III)

Just like campy fetish-villains, there are also some good guys you just can’t avoid in the grand scheme of Batman. Luckily, the powers-that-be (or were) in the Modern Age of Comic Books took a cue from some of the old-guard of the Bronze Age and carried forward the darker, more serious tone that began appearing in the 1970’s. As we’ve already seen, stories like Batman: Year One and The Man Who Laughs are a direct result of that trend. But if there’s one character in particular among the Bat-family whose popularity has done nothing but skyrocket since the Modern Age “officially began,” it’s Robin.

Btw, I’m not linking to all these Wikipedia articles just for kicks — they can help to explain all the thematic and stylistic changes comic books have exhibited over the years, and they can provide some insight into the zeitgeist of their respective time periods. I guarantee this is not the last time I’ll mention some of the differences between various eras in American comic books.

In “current” DC Comics “continuity” (read the above links and you’ll get why those c-words are in quotes), there have been five different incarnations of the Robin character. We’ll talk about at least two more of them later in this series, but for now we’re talking about the one, the only original Boy Wonder: Richard John Grayson.

Dick Grayson first appeared as Robin in Detective Comics #38, April 1940, a mere 11 issues after Batman’s debut, making him the longest-running secondary character in the Bat-family, longer even than Bruce Wayne’s lifelong friend and guardian, Alfred Pennyworth. Dick has served many roles over his 72 years at Batman’s side, including but not limited to surrogate son, crime-fighting partner, stalwart ally, and stand-in Batman. In recent years, he’s been more than a stand-in, having taken over the mantle of the Gotham Batman after Bruce Wayne’s disappearance in Final Crisis and his subsequent creation of Batman, Incorporated.

His role as Bruce’s first and prodigal son is particularly important to the deepening of the Batman mythos. Dick and Bruce both suffer similar tragedies at similar ages; they are both orphans with no remaining blood ties; they fight tirelessly to prevent anyone else from having to grow up without their loved ones. But where Bruce is grim and often pessimistic, Dick has ever remained the lighthearted optimist. This is perhaps the very reason he’s retained and even amplified the more or less universal popularity he’s always enjoyed — Dick Grayson makes friends with everybody, and he’s always there when you need him, but he can be every bit as dedicated and deadly serious as his mentor.

The comics I include as Dick Grayson’s induction into the Bat-family have two things in common: first, they present Robin as a legitimate, intelligent, capable character — most emphatically NOT the “Boy Hostage,” as Harvey Dent has often dubbed him. It’s also important to me that any comics featuring Dick acknowledge the strong father/son bond he and Bruce have developed. No matter their differences, no matter the odds, Batman and Robin-I/Nightwing always reconcile with each other, and they’re always there for each other. How else would we define family?

Second, Dick Grayson lightens up the tone of Batman’s adventures. While I’m a self-professed adherent to the “dark, avenging creature of the night” brand of Bat-comics, there is an unavoidable element of camp in any comic book series, and when he’s done well, the Robin character serves as the primary mesh between the Dark Knight and some of his more preposterous escapades, particularly if we want to explore any of the early years of Batman’s publications (see the next entry in this series for more).

Batman: Dark Victory by Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale

Completing the Loeb/Sale trilogy, Dark Victory deals with the fallout from the collapse of the Falcone crime family. It’s another murder mystery, and this time the victims are all on the right side of the law. With Batman, Jim Gordon, and Harvey Dent estranged after Harvey’s rampage in Long Halloween, somebody else has to become the glue that holds the good guys together. (Guess who?) Themes of loneliness and isolation abound until Dick Grayson suddenly appears in Bruce’s life, offering a fresh, youthful perspective in the fight against crime and refocusing the Batman on why he does what he does. Loeb nails Dick’s trademark sense of humor, a character trait that has lasted since the earliest days of the Dynamic Duo.

Robin: Year One by Chuck Dixon and Scott Beatty

I just read this comic recently, and I was thoroughly impressed. It explores the Batman and Robin team from Dick’s point of view, with a good bit of narration and reflection from Alfred as well. Dick proves himself as a solid detective and crime-fighter, going up against Bat-villains that frequently seem too silly for Batman (Mad Hatter, anyone?), but the story still retains a grim feel. (The Hatter, for example, is kidnapping young girls to be sold into slavery, presumably sexual.) Year One also includes Dick’s first, nearly fatal encounter with Two-Face, which will be referenced by many subsequent comics. Overall, the series successfully balances Dick’s youth and enthusiasm with the Modern Age’s reinvention of Batman as the dark, menacing, and sometimes morally ambiguous figure we recognize. Additionally, Robin: Year One meshes its art styles with those of Batman: Year One and the Loeb/Sale titles, meaning it fits well both thematically and visually into my collection of Bat-family comics.

Next time, we’ll indulge some of the 1950’s and 60’s flights of Bat-fancy while setting the stage for some events that will take place much later in our Batman’s character arc.

Radagast the Brown Does Not Allow Birds to Shit on His Head, or “What Dale thought of the first Hobbit movie”

As a matter of fact, nobody ever shits in Middle-earth. Ever. This also applies to an offhand complaint from Bilbo about something the Dwarves did to the plumbing in Bag End. If you want a fantasy story about people tending to their various bodily functions, go read A Game of Thrones.

Many reviewers have decided The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is long and repetitive, bloated by Peter Jackson’s attention to detail and his insistence on three films featuring additional material from the Appendices to The Lord of the Rings. The cleverest comment from the critics comes from Rob Humanick at The Projection Booth: “Butter scraped over too much bread, Bilbo might say.”

All of these observations are true. But I don’t think all of them need be criticisms. I probably shouldn’t comment on The Hobbit‘s running time, given I would have gladly drooled over a six-film series of LotR (one for each “book” in the novel) and would gladly do the same for movie versions of… yup, anything else Tolkien wrote that hasn’t been filmed yet.

But a complaint that the film is repetitive implies a poor familiarity with both the novel and the medieval genre upon which it’s based. Excepting PJ’s additional material (some of which is pure invention), Unexpected Journey more or less exactly follows the first 100 pages of Tolkien’s novel, which is indeed a children’s story but also a romance. And not like Danielle Steele, but Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Romance as in a swashbuckling tale in which the hero embarks on a quest, takes part in adventures and divergences of varying dangers, and encounters other fascinating denizens of the world, both good and evil.

In that sense, Unexpected Journey is precisely what it should be. Once it gets going — which admittedly takes a good while — Thorin and Company get themselves into nothing but fires and frying pans, often literally. And said Company is made up of quite likeable fellows, who are alternately somber or merry, feisty or funny. The background on the Lonely Mountain, the Line of Durin and their misfortunes is all spectacular (though the fleeting shots of Smaug are clearly meant to tease), and it’s all mostly accurate with one big exception.

Which is where I begin to list my complaints. Azog? And he’s got a hook? (Linz thought it looked more like a rake.) Really? I don’t feel like this movie needed a Lurtz, and especially not Lurtz with a hike in his pay-grade, who has lines in some mystery language — the legitimacy of which I cannot comment on at this time. Except that is to say: PJ and Co. almost certainly made up words in Tolkien’s fictional world, and I really haven’t decided how I feel about that. Non-canonical Uruk-hai I don’t necessarily have a problem with as long as they’re minor, but making up words in Middle-earth? If there was ever a case for Tolkien blasphemy…

Azog is the lesser of two evils, though. Peter Jackson seems to have read some dialogue from the traitorous Saruman (“Radagast the Bird-tamer! Radagast the Simple! Radagast the Fool!”) and taken it as literal truth. The Brown Wizard bumbles about in his forest totally perplexed as to why beasts of all kinds are dropping dead before his eyes, and then is nearly eaten by giant spiders before he figures out, “Ohh… but it is magic… a black magic!” In a later scene he totters into Dol Guldur and jostles loose the Witch-king, who had apparently been napping inside a statue (lolwut?) and we get a sneak peek at the Necromancer. The whole sequence feels rushed, anti-climactic, and untrue to Tolkien’s customary description of an encounter between such powerful representatives of good and evil. One does not simply pop in on the Lord of Mordor — and in any case Sauron would certainly not reveal himself so brazenly to someone so powerful as Radagast. And didn’t PJ’s own Fellowship of the Ring movie claim that Sauron “cannot yet take physical form”? Yet there he is, flashing the poor Brown Wizard from the front stoop of Dol Guldur.

Two final gripes: the “White Council” scene not only felt wooden, but it suggests factions within the Council that just don’t make any sense, and indeed conflict with everything Tolkien wrote about the group. Specifically, why would Elrond seem to ally himself with Saruman rather than Gandalf and Galadriel, with whom he shares far more of his (ahem) counsels? Further, they hold the Three Rings of the Elves, which would naturally bind them closer together rather than fracture their loyalties. All this is to say: the conflict seemed contrived for the movie’s sake, but it’s important that we remember Gandalf, Elrond and Galadriel were all united in their belief that something should be done about the Necromancer of Dol Guldur, whereas Saruman was the only one arguing against them — and for very sinister reasons, as we learn in The Fellowship.

And last but not least, the rabbit-sleigh was embarrassing. I can’t help but be reminded of one of the most infamous exchanges in modern cinema, pertaining to the airspeed velocity of unladen swallows and the question of weight ratios.

Back to the good stuff. Martin Freeman as Bilbo was delightful — stodgy or comical as required, and definitely the character to whom the audience could most easily relate. His scenes with Andy Serkis approached perfection — high praise given that they’re arguably the most significant few moments in the entire story. He and Serkis provide a charming relief from the main storyline, which by this point has become a (mostly fun, but somewhat long) string of action sequences. Really the highest praise I can offer is this: at some point during the riddle game I realized I was leaning forward in my seat, hands gripping the chair, grinning ear to ear. Any movie that can make a grown-up feel like a little kid again is a good movie, and I’m quite sure Tolkien would agree.

And as long as I’m gushing over Bilbo and Gollum… there is a moment in The Fellowship of the Ring film in which Gandalf shares a very important bit of his legendary foresight:

One of the most disappointing scenes in The Return of the King is Peter Jackson’s handling of the destruction of the Ring. When Frodo goes back for Round 2 of struggling with Gollum over the “Precious,” eventually knocking himself and Gollum over the edge, he robs the scene of its most significant moment: in the novel, Gollum unintentionally steps too far and topples into the Crack of Doom. This is the Fate with a capital-F of which Gandalf spoke — the fleeting but sincere Pity Bilbo feels for Gollum leads to the salvation of Middle-earth over 60 years later.

Thankfully, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey captures that moment between Bilbo and Gollum perfectly. No dialogue, minimal soundtrack — just a few close-ups of some really beautiful, nuanced acting from Freeman and Serkis.

I could still go on for a while yet. The action scenes were a bit tiring at times, but they were fun nonetheless. PJ has done a lovely job balancing some of Tolkien’s more complex, adult themes with the child-like wonder we should always find in Middle-earth. I expected to hate the Great Goblin no matter how they interpreted him, but he was an even blend of the novel’s most common flavors: whimsical, wicked, and just a bit scary. I do miss the real people in real costumes as opposed to an entire race of digital lemmings, but it does tone down the fright-factor on the orcs and goblins, which seems fair for a story intended for children anyway.

Bottom line: I had a lot of fun watching this movie, even if I was having to shush my inner Tolkien-fanatic from time to time, and I cannot wait for The Desolation of Smaug (12/13/13) and There and Back Again (7/18/14). Everything that happens in Mirkwood should be a blast to see on the big screen, and if I know PJ, there will most likely be a big ol’ showdown between the White Council and the Necromancer, too. He might muck it up — but then again he might blow us away, too.

Bat-Villains, or “How to keep a lid on the camp” (Batman Canon II)

Gimmicky, campy villains are, unfortunately, a nuisance we must tolerate if we want to read superhero comics. More often than not, stories prominently featuring baddies such as Mad Hatter or the Ventriloquist/Scarface disregard logical plot and character development in favor of exploiting that villain’s obsessive/compulsive tendencies to the max; the comic becomes more an exposé on pathological fetishism than, well, anything else we might want the comic to be. Oddly enough, we could legitimately argue that some superhero-comic writers have a fetish for fetishes.

Even some of Batman’s more respectable rogues have fallen prey to this kind of writing. There is almost nothing more irritating to me in a Batman comic than one that has Two-Face running amok in Gotham City committing crimes entirely based on twos — I mean, is he a sociopath, or is he a character on Sesame Street? (“This caper brought to you by a silver dollar and the Number 2!”) Two-Face at his best is a character obsessed with the conflict between order and chaos, not with ripping off the 2nd Bank of Gotham on the second anniversary of his arrest. (True story — see Batman Forever. Or on second thought, don’t.) On a related note, what’s Joker’s deal with fish? I don’t know. I suppose we can only presume he finds them funny.

Anyway, what do we do with all these circus acts and their apparent obsession on oversized household objects?

Same thing the Batman does. Confine them — not in Arkham, which seems to have installed a revolving door in place of cell blocks, but to a specific role and frequency in your collection. Choose your Batman stories in part based on how logically and three-dimensionally those villains are presented, and reject those in which they are buffoons. I’ve chosen three to mention briefly here:

Batman: The Man Who Laughs by Ed Brubaker and Doug Mahnke

This one-shot from 2005 updates the first encounter between Batman and the Joker in familiar fashion: early in the Batman’s career, a psychopath with a fixation on the blackest of humors attempts to murder millions with a deadly toxin that literally causes its victims to laugh themselves to death. This is a good comic first and foremost because the Joker is simultaneously frightening and funny, a feat that’s apparently a lot harder than it sounds. It leaves Joker’s origin fairly ambiguous, which is unique in the superhero genre, and yet it suggests at the same time that maybe the Batman is partially responsible for his existence. And really, Batman’s arch-nemesis deserves his own full-length intro-story, whereas I’m content to ignore that of many others of his rogue’s gallery (some because they’re not all that important, and some because they’re just dumb). We will of course be talking about lots of other Joker-stories later on as well, and they only get better from here.

Batman: Haunted Knight

A brief mention for Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale’s first Batman collaboration: Haunted Knight collects three one-shot Halloween specials that were originally printed under the Legends of the Dark Knight title. It features Scarecrow, Mad Hatter, Joker, and Poison Ivy in succinct form, showcasing their personalities and, yes, their fetishes, but Loeb and Sale are pretty even-handed about them; the stories are fairly strong and none of them are long enough to really get on your nerves. Overall, Haunted Knight serves my collection well as a makeshift intro for a few of the more bizarre Batman villains out there. Makes for fun Halloween-season reading material, too, as the villains Loeb and Sale have chosen already have a kind of Halloweenish motif.

Batman: The Long Halloween— Loeb/Sale

According to the creators, this title grew out of their work on above Halloween specials and became something much more. Running 13 issues long, Long Halloween features a different guest-star supercriminal in each chapter, but the main story revolves around District Attorney Harvey Dent and his collaboration with Jim Gordon and the Batman against the Falcone crime family. It’s also an extended murder mystery that updates Dent’s transformation into a ruthless killer bent on exacting “justice” upon the Gotham City mob. Christopher Nolan drew heavily from this series for The Dark Knight, even going so far as to lift the scene with Batman, Gordon and Dent on the roof of the GCPD building straight out of this comic. All in all, this is pretty much a must-have in any modern Batman collection.

Again, the goal of my Batman collection is to create (something approaching) a fleshed-out character arc that captures many of the defining moments and supporting cast of the Bat-canon, while simultaneously jettisoning the campy, the nonsensical, and the far-fetched (“far-fetched” being a relative term). A hero is in part measured by the obstacles he or she faces, so if we want to take Batman seriously as an object of cultural study and appreciation, we ought to be able to take his rogue’s gallery seriously, too.

Birth of the Batman (Batman Canon I)

Batman: Year One (BATMAN #404-407) by Frank Miller/David Mazzucchelli/Richmond Lewis

This four-part story is the point of origin for basically all of modern Batman. It deserves praise for that, sure, but I like it for a few reasons that I think many critics tend to gloss over.

Mazzucchelli’s vision of the Wayne murders, imitated often but rarely surpassed. The last frame is brilliant; Bruce is becoming the Batman right before your eyes.

The artist should get first credit on this comic. I don’t think I’ve read anything else illustrated by David Mazzucchelli, but I’d like to on the merits of his Year One artwork alone. Each and every line is rich and stunning, as if he hit “Ctrl+B” in his brain before setting the pencil on the paper. Anything lost in detail is more than made up for in the sheer strength of the images, complimented perfectly by Richmond Lewis’ vivid coloring and judicious use of contrast — especially in the derelict building scenes in Chapter Three. This is one comic where I’d say the artwork far outshines the writing, even to the point where I think some of the text could be left out and the same meanings would come across equally well, perhaps even more powerfully. Mazzucchelli was also apparently the first person in decades to draw Batman as if he’s a real person, with a simple, utilitarian black-and-gray costume that completely lacks the comically conspicuous musculature typical of the superhero genre. And Gotham City is a real place, too, where in this artist’s unique style, no single object in a scene is left as an afterthought, or mere “scenery,” right down to the layer of detritus lining Gotham’s streets and alleys.

Regarding the writing: this is Frank Miller’s most restrained and nuanced work with Batman. Where  in The Dark Knight Returns the character is 100% fatalist, full of merciless conviction and explosive anger, in Year One he defines himself for the coming revitalization of comic books: haunted, obsessive, and self-critical, but also altruistic, self-sacrificial, and utterly determined. He’s got a mean streak, but he channels it well and, more importantly, he keeps it in check. Year One is essentially free of the unabashed sadism that plagues DKR and its sequel, The Dark Knight Strikes Again, and mangles the character beyond recognition in All-Star Batman and Robin the Boy Wonder.

All of this is to say: Batman: Year One is a great comic, but more so for its style and themes than for its actual plot. The pacing has always been a little off for me — I think it’s tough to tell a year’s worth of story in four monthly comics and still retain the immediacy and locality, two of the traits that make comic books so much fun. But the story is adequate to the task of propping up Miller and Mazzucchelli’s revamp of the Dark Knight, and it introduced the world to a few characters that would show up 20 years later in Batman Begins.

Stylistically and thematically, Year One is as realistic as superhero comics have ever been. The enemies Batman and Jim Gordon make for themselves in this comic all exist in real life. When I reread it recently, I also happened to be finishing up HBO’s The Wire (praised for its persistent and uncompromising realism), and I couldn’t help but notice a resemblance between Year One‘s Police Commissioner Loeb and his counterparts on the show. Barely a mention is made of the rest of DC’s pantheon in Year One; when Alfred pithily suggests to his employer, “Hmf. I suppose you’ll take up flying next– –like that fellow in Metropolis,” Bruce Wayne just grins. And fashions himself a Bat-hang-glider.

Gotham’s Finest.

More than just because it’s a great origin story, Year One appears in my collection of comics because the only thing that separates its gritty crime-noir setting from modern urban reality is its title character; lacking Batman, Year One would still read well as a grim tale of a good cop in a bad city (indeed, Jim Gordon often feels more like the central protagonist of the story than Bruce Wayne). Beyond declaring that Batman can be relevant to real life, this comic declares that we, the readers, are at odds with ourselves. Just by seeing the comic through to its conclusion, by acknowledging that Gordon, for all his hard work and integrity, can’t really go it alone, aren’t we implicitly agreeing that Batman should exist, that he needs to exist in Gotham City? And when Gotham is a fictional city in name only, aren’t we also tacitly approving of a real person donning the cape and cowl, despite whatever beliefs we think we hold regarding rule of law and due process and all the other social mores the Batman violates on a nightly basis?

In just four issues in 1986, Year One called for a new kind of comic book reader: one who’s eager to explore the complications of street justice and vigilantism, one who’s willing to confront these inherent contradictions without feeling put off and without retreating to the more traditional, fantastical sorts of comics because they’re “more exciting” or because their heroes have superpowers.

I still see this sort of audience as a work in progress; in recent years, DC continues to publish (and make truckloads of money on) some of its most far-fetched and fantastical adventures yet (see: Final Crisis or even Batman: The Return of Bruce Wayne). And The Avengers movie has set the all-time opening weekend record for box office sales at over $207 million, but for films only appearing in 2-D, The Dark Knight Rises now holds that same record, stealing the mantle from its own predecessor The Dark Knight. So cheap thrills and flashy action still trump thematic depth and realism — but only barely, and if we adjust for the 18-25% price hike for 3-D tickets, Avengers and Dark Knight Rises (and Dark Knight, too) are probably on much more even footing than we realize.

Batman: Year One represents the intellectual predecessor to Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy, a vein of comic book writing that firmly believes the medium can be about far more than some guy in tights who can lift up a car. With a rare exception, these are the sorts of comics I add to my library; these are the sorts of stories that keep me awake at night.

Next up: Batman: The Man Who Laughs.

Building a Better Batman Canon

Holy unnecessary alliteration, Batman!

The author is dead. So why am I talking about “canon,” which is eternally tangled up with the notion of authorship? Because in some media, it can still be a useful way of organizing how we think about the text(s). Put simply, “canon” is those works which a) originate with the creator of a given fiction, and/or b) are considered “official” by a fiction’s fan base. For example, Twilight is a part of Stephanie Meyer’s canon, while Twilight fan fiction is not. Revenge of the Sith is, sadly, official Star Wars canon, while anything that contradicts it is not. Such distinctions are relatively simple when the fiction has only one author from whom all the creative vision of the imagined universe stems.

Crisis on Infinite Earths #1, written by Wolfm...

DC’s heroes meet their most bewildering foe yet: the dreaded Retcon of the Multiverse! See them whirl about in an interplanetary vortex of utter befuddlement!

But what about comics? Between Batman’s first appearance in Detective Comics #27 in 1939 and the current Bat-family of monthly magazines, literally hundreds of authors and illustrators have contributed to the Bat-mythology – nevermind the films, TV shows, novels, and newspaper strips external to DC’s ongoing continuity. Even the notion of a “creator” is meaningless; Bob Kane was only directly involved in DC’s monthly publications for roughly the first twenty of Batman’s 73 years thus far, and may or may not have actually done the creating anyway. And even after all that, DC has rewritten its own continuity several times, just to simplify (read: complicate) the internal chronology of their characters.

In comic books, then, it seems the only semi-solid conception we have of “canon” is that stamp of publisher’s approval, the indication of copyright: DC. Canon is as much proprietary as it is visionary. DC is owner, operator, and author all in one.

But wait! The author is dead! As dead as, say, Jason Todd on the wrong end of a crowbar!

Aha! So does that mean I don’t think the author is dead? Perhaps the author has  ascended to superhero status; perhaps he is become the Ghostwriter, aka the Worldly Word-Slinger, eternally reanimated by clamoring fanboys and falling comic book sales, whose only weakness is the inability to permanently kill anybody, ever, no matter how completely, totally done in they might at first appear!

Fuck that shit. In my Gotham City, Jason Todd still lies stone dead of Joker-inflicted crowbar whacks, despite trade paperbacks, despite animated movies starring Neil Patrick Harris, despite his ever-increasing prominence in DC’s current publications. Why? Because Jason Todd’s death added a new layer of meaning to Bruce Wayne’s nightly crusade, a new wound reopened by every mention of Jason’s name, every glance at Jason’s Robin uniform enshrined in the Batcave, every single subsequent encounter with the Joker. I am the master of my comic book collection, and I say BATMAN #635-641 and #645-650 never happened.

DC’s decisions begin and end with their bottom line. No surprise there – it’s why they killed Jason Todd, aka Robin II, in the first place. He had become unpopular with readers, and DC’s editors felt it was time for him to shuffle off his (im)mortal comic book coil. Further, DC even let the readers decide via 1-900 number whether A Death in the Family would really end in Jason’s death. Comic book fans rarely have such direct influence on the course of their favorite characters’ storylines, but this underscores a truth about popular media: the relationship between consumers, writers, and copyright holders occurs in a triangular rather than top-down fashion.

A page of “reader response” to the Dark Knight from BATMAN #250.

But why not ignore the authorial stamp of approval altogether? In a story printed in BATMAN #250 in 1973 (adapted twice into animated form, in The New Batman Adventures in 1998 and again in Gotham Knight in 2008), a trio of boys narrate to each other their impressions of the Batman, all of which differ so wildly that they are mutually exclusive. In the original 1973 story, the youngsters are supervised on a weekend retreat by none other than Bruce Wayne, who is understandably shocked by their wildly inaccurate claims (one wonders at his indignation here, given that he generally cultivates this sort of mysterious aura). According to Will Brooker in his book Batman Unmasked, “Bruce Wayne, of course, is in a position of authority here… because of his ‘authorship’ of the Batman – and is therefore viewed within this story as a ‘dominant’ source of official meaning” (18). But the kids don’t care; even when Bruce dons the real Bat-costume and jumps out of the darkness as the real Batman, “the authorial meaning is derided, mocked, exposed as just another ‘reading’ and a pretty feeble one at that” (Brooker 21). Brooker’s point is clear: in this story, Bruce is a stand-in for DC Comics, the owner/operator/author, and their interpretation of the Batman is just that  – an interpretation, no more valued by readers than they value their own readings of the character.

So in that spirit, I’ll merrily dance on the grave of Jason Todd as I present to you the vital chapters in my own “reading,” my own “canon” of the Batman, including what I find meaningful within each story and how I think it fits into a larger arc, the overall Legend of the Dark Knight.