On Tolkien, Old Friends, and the Resiliency of Magic

This post is reblogged from a Magic: The Gathering forum in which I participate. Though it’s relevant to this blog’s interests and themes, consider yourself warned: those who have never slung spells at their friends in a dingy nerd-gaming store may find the following rather arcane.


For reference: orco (Quenya, pl. orcor, orqui) and orch (Sindarin, pl. yrch) are the two most common Elvish words for the servants of Morgoth and later Sauron, in the Common Speech often named “goblins.” Any distinctions between them (orc, goblin, hobgoblin, uruk, etc.) depend strongly on dialect/locality and refer only to variations in size, intelligence, breeding, or superficial features. “Orc” is merely the Westronized (read: Anglicized) form of the Elvish words, and thus can indeed be interchangeable with “goblin” depending on context.

51DVTBCQ4WL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Freshman year of high school I read The Lord of the Rings for the first time, and so began the rest of my life. I remember one school night sitting in the Maple Grove Barnes & Noble, comparing The Lord of the Rings Roleplaying Game Core Book and the Star Wars Roleplaying Game Revised Core Rulebook. I had been a fan of Star Wars for a lot longer than Tolkien, but at that point in my life there was no contest. It was a question of, “Will we play both, or will we just play LotR?”

Core rulebooks are expensive. I made the correct choice, and every Friday night onward I was in Stu’s dining room narrating a fellowship of absurdly overpowered heroes through the dangers of Tolkien’s Beleriand. We didn’t understand the rules very well early on, so Stu was routinely decapitating eight orcs with a single swing of his Dwarven axe and my wizard guy collapsed mountainsides to save the company from the minor inconvenience of finding an easier way around.

Subtle and quick to anger, and such.

Then senior year came along, and Magic: The Gathering started to creep into our circle of friends. For some I suppose that should read “started to creep back in,” but I had never played before. I vaguely remembered a bunch of nerds at a certain lunch table every day in middle school slinging their spells at each other, but beyond that I’d had no exposure. I find a lot of memories from high school harder and harder to access these days, but somehow I ended up at the Maple Grove Shinders buying the Elvish Rage and Zombies Unleashed preconstructed decks from Legions. We can partly blame my fondness for tribal decks on Tolkien, and partly on the Onslaught block, the most tribally-oriented bunch of expansions up to that point in Magic’s history.

blastodermMagic and I got off to a rocky start. On the one hand, it was great for spending early mornings in Wahlin’s classroom and avoiding the majority of our graduating class, most of whom I considered to be wankers anyhow. (Some I still do.) Many a time do I remember sliding two of those shamefully cramped desk-chair hybrids together, climbing in across from Stu and praying for a Blastoderm (which I had added to my Elf deck) so I could wreck his mono-red burn. I also enjoyed attending the Shinders Legacy tournaments, though I can’t ever recall doing particularly well until I turned my vanilla zombies into Zombie Clerics and started sacking Dark Supplicant to dig Scion of Darkness out of my library (who generally turns up with a horde of 2/2 Zombie tokens thanks to Rotlung Reanimator). I also had a B/R Dragon Reanimator for a while, which in hindsight I imagine was quite a pile, but could swing for lethal on turn 3 (Dark Ritual –> Buried Alive into Reanimate or Exhume targeting Bladewing the Risen andDragon Tyrant). It also allowed me to play 4x Terminate, which still remains on my shortlist of kick-ass creature removal.

But on the other hand, Magic also started creeping into Friday night LotR RPG, which as Narrator and resident guy-who-likes-Tolkien-so-much-he-learned-to-speak-Elvish I was decidedly not happy about. Roleplaying games are time-consuming affairs, and they require a lot of preparation; folks have to create characters, order pizza, make sure there are approximately 10,000 cans of Mountain Dew in the fridge, and so on.

So those of us not directly involved with LotR preparations camped out at one end of Stu’s massive dining room table and started dealing 20 in the meantime. As you might guess, the Magic-fever was virulently contagious and LotR-night quickly devolved into nine guys sitting around that same table in a massively-multiplayer Mexican standoff.

I’m not saying I didn’t have fun, but in a way Magic was the demise of a Friday night ritual that to this day claims the lion’s share of my favorite memories with the guys I still count as my best friends.

entombBut it was already senior year, and change is the only constant in the universe. The Geek Squad dispersed to their chosen institutions of higher learning, and I dropped out of Magic for a while, returning to it briefly with some guys in college, and again a couple years later when I discovered Reanimator (possibly my favorite pet deck of all time) was stomping the shit out of Legacy after the unbanning of Entomb and by adding blue for (surprise!) Force of Will, Daze, and silly things like Mystical Tutor — which was later banned, largely for the ridiculous ease with which it fetched every single answer AND every combo piece Reanimator cares about.

Several hundred dollars later, I stopped just long of 4x Polluted Delta and just short of 4x Underground Seas when I realized I wasn’t having any fun. A lot of the guys I was playing against at Monster Den in Minneapolis were incorrigible douche-bags, and moreover they spared no expense on their combos, while I simply could not justify paying over 150-200 dollars for a single scrap of cardboard. I was “employed” by AmeriCorps. What had I been thinking?

Luckily Magic cards don’t depreciate, and I recouped a lot of my financial losses and, incidentally, some of my self-respect. There was also the added bonus of getting back in touch with Derek, whom I hadn’t seen very much through my college years. I remember Jack playing some variation of Dead Guy Ale somewhere in there too, and maybe even Stu behind the wheel of Zoo.

Anyway, we tried LotR RPG again here and there, but it’s hard these days to make a game like that stick. People have jobs, people have kids, and some of us have a lot longer journeys to undertake than others. Lord of the Rings Roleplaying Game was never the same, and at this point I suppose I regard its passing with an appropriate symmetry to Gandalf’s final words on the shores of Middle-earth: “Go in peace! I will not say: do not weep; for not all tears are an evil.”

But the brevity of a single game of Magic has allowed it to outlive the more involved of our nerdy pastimes. When the Sundering Seas of modern adulthood deign to part we can still fling elves and orcs and lightning bolts at each other without feeling like our time is at a premium, and without feeling burdened by the frustrating notion that our story will end prematurely — as they almost always did anyway with tabletop RPGs, even back in high school when we had all the time in the world.

And Peasant Magic specifically accommodates the other reality of living in a capitalist society: money. We’re all paying off school loans or a car; some of us are public school teachers or we work for non-profits; some of us have kids and a mortgage, for chrissake. Peasant means everyone has equal potential to build and play the best deck in the format, regardless of whatever other financial concerns they may have — which in turn means that the emphasis is on having fun and spending time with friends. (Sometimes I think it should be called Proletariat Magic, but we’ll not speak of politics where Having Fun is our primary concern).

Whew. Sometimes… I get really serious about stuff. To lighten your mood, I submit these cards for your amusement. Feel free to call the goblins “orcs”; they already hate you anyway.

Advertisements

Because It’s Not Funny: Why No One Should Ever Read “The Killing Joke” Again

I bought this comic sometime in 2008 or 2009, during its most recent resurgence to popularity. As The Dark Knight‘s release date approached and Heath Ledger revealed it as a source of inspiration for his upcoming performance, Moore and Bolland’s 1988 one-shot (re)surfaced as the definitive depiction, “easily the greatest Joker story ever told.” The Killing Joke is a bizarre, brutal carnival ride of a comic book to be sure, but it doesn’t add anything meaningful to the characters it involves and torments and maims.

It does a lot of subtracting. It robs a beloved heroine of her dignity and the use of her legs. It lowers the Batman to the Joker’s level of depravity. And it diminishes the value and complexity of one of the most compelling villains in comic books.

Why does anyone like this comic? Why did I like this comic?

Until sometime last year, I would’ve sung the same praises everybody sings of The Killing Joke. But last year I did some reading, and I did some thinking, and I changed my mind. I took my copy of this wretched mistake of a Batman comic down to my local Half Price Books and received quite a fair sum of cash for it. (My copy was hardcover, you see. I hate hardcover comics anyway.)

The reading I did was mostly of the Gail Simone variety. She’s currently writing Batgirl in DC’s New 52 lineup, and she is the coiner of the comic-book criticism called “women in refrigerators,” which basically argues that, just like in real life, comic book men treat comic book women like shit to be used and thrown away.

In The Killing Joke, Barbara Gordon aka Batgirl is having some hot chocolate and hanging out with her police-commissioner dad Jim Gordon when the Joker shows up at their door and shoots Barbara through the spine. While his goons drag the commissioner away, Joker strips Barbara naked and snaps those photographs we see him leering about on the cover.

So the cover of the The Killing Joke is us looking through Barbara’s eyes, naked, humiliated and paraplegic, dying on her father’s living room floor. DC threw their most popular Bat-family heroine under the misogynist Joker-bus just to make a point: That Joker guy? He’s a sicko. When Alan Moore pitched the story to DC’s executives, they (allegedly) replied, “Yeah, okay, cripple the bitch.”

Later in the comic we learn Joker is only using Barbara to torment her father, with whom he has much older beef. But he’s just trying to make a point: even the sanest person can lose their marbles over a single, horrible day.

The only thing I can appreciate about this comic anymore is how it’s so ironically meta: Alan Moore uses Barbara Gordon to make the point that Joker’s a sicko by writing a story in which Joker uses Barbara Gordon to make the point that anybody can turn into a sicko. Only it’s worse when Alan Moore does it because he’s a real person and (allegedly) not a sicko.

(For the record, Watchmen is fucking brilliant.)

So I’ll ask again: Why does anyone like The Killing Joke? It’s gratuitous and vile, and we’re still only talking about the first of my three complaints. 

Back to the refrigerator for a sec. Batgirl is arguably the highest-profile incident of this nauseating genre trope, despite not being the one it’s named for. But in the New 52, Gail Simone has taken Barbara back to the streets of Gotham, giving her back the cape and cowl no other woman has ever worn with so much style and character. Except now she’s got confidence issues, survivor’s guilt and an entirely rational fear of guns. She’s a real person, which tends to set her apart in a world where dudes (and dudettes) can bend steel with their bare hands.

I liked Barbara Gordon as Oracle, but 26 years after Killing Joke, we can be honest about what her new alter-ego really was: a Band-Aid on a wound that ran a lot deeper through DC and comic books in general than anybody realized at the time.

On to gripe #2: Moore makes Batman complicit in Joker’s violent misogyny.

Killing Joke has this weird ending where Batman catches up to Joker in his creepy Carnival-o’-Horrors and like, doesn’t kick the living shit out of him. I mean, this fucking piece of trash has just humiliated and brutalized two of his closest friends and partners in crime-fighting, damaging them both for life. You can’t unring the bell, and all that.

Of all the ways I relate to Batman as a character, our mutual disgust and hatred for victimization is the most visceral. That uncontrollable blood-red rage that grabs you by the gut when something bad is happening to somebody and nobody’s doing anything to make it stop. When I watch movies or TV shows where one person in a position of power abuses or tortures another, the following thought crosses my mind 9 times out of 10: “This show could really use more Batman right about now.” Batman doesn’t exist because his parents got shot. Batman exists because Bruce Wayne watched his parents get shot and he couldn’t do anything to stop it, and one day he decided that should never, ever happen again to anyone else.

All this is to stay: Joker should be lying in a bloody, broken heap by the last frame of this comic, possibly dead. Because if anything could force Batman to break his one rule, it should’ve been this. But instead Bats tries to talk it out with the craziest crazy in all of comic books. Joker is somehow lucid for a moment and says “Thanks but no thanks” and then tells Batman a joke.

And Batman laughs. He has a good guffaw with his ol’ buddy the Joker and then sends him off with a pat on the shoulder (literally — see image). HAHAHA, Barbara Gordon’s crippled for life, HAHAHEE. Hilarious.

I should note that my personal Bat-hero Grant Morrison sees it differently, and as usual, iconoclastically so. Seriously — listen to the clip. It does dramatically change how we could talk about this comic.

Or at least, it would change things if DC hadn’t decided to adopt Killing Joke into their mainstream canon, meaning Batman cannot possibly have killed the Joker at the end of this comic as Morrison suggests. Which means the only other interpretation is the one where Batman is a heartless bastard and the Joker wins, because he finally got his arch-nemesis to crack a smile.

That’s not my Batman. My Batman never lets the Joker win. My Batman is the one Neil Gaiman wrote in his fucking legendary story-to-end-all-Batman-stories Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader:

“Smile, damn you, why don’t you smile?!”

“Because it’s not funny.”

So here’s gripe #3, and it is a minor gripe compared to the others: The Killing Joke makes Joker boring. He tells Jim Gordon this origin story about being a shitty comedian who got mixed up with some gangsters and had “one bad day,” unceremoniously toppling him off the proverbial sanity-wagon. But he also says “Sometimes I remember it one way, sometimes another… If I’m going to have a past, I prefer it to be multiple choice,” implying the whole thing might be a fabrication.

The point is there’s a bunch of missing variables. We don’t know for certain who the Joker is, or why he is, and I don’t think we ever should know. Origin stories give a character their raison d’être; they let us get inside their heads and they tell us why these people choose to paint on some tights and leap over tall buildings and such.

But why would you ever want to be inside the Joker’s head? And who cares what lives in there anyway? Could anything explain (much less excuse) the fact that he’s killed and maimed and tortured hundreds of people?

In one of its many claims to greatness, The Dark Knight takes Moore’s multiple choice idea seriously and pairs it with the single most important truth about the Joker, which so many comic writers (including Moore) have either ignored or failed to understand:

Luckily Heath Ledger’s performance doesn’t have much of anything in common with The Killing Joke; his Joker is far more dynamic and unpredictable and unsettling, without any of the casual misogyny.

Bottom line: don’t buy this comic, don’t read this comic, and don’t let it slide if you see this comic on your friends’ bookshelves. It bears some discussion; most people probably just gloss over the poor treatment Barbara receives because it’s the Joker and he’s “supposed” to be like that, but sexualized violence against women absolutely isn’t okay.

If you must read the Joker, pick up these instead, and if you must read Alan Moore, read Watchmen.

Actually, you should read Watchmen either way.

Continuity Crisis, Vol. 2 — Zero Hour: Crisis in Time

Zero Hour: Crisis in Time was so utterly boring and stupid that I dare not discuss it here for fear of losing my already admittedly miniscule readership. Instead, watch this immensely entertaining YouTube video (which incidentally summarizes the important parts of Zero Hour starting at about 12:05).

Stay tuned for further entries in the “Crisis” series as well as a revised format of my Batman canon. Enjoy “The Death and Return of Superman”!

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.

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.