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.

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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.

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.