Monday, March 26, 2007

Actually Essential Storylines: Batman

Rachelle over at Living Between Wednesdays beat me to the punch when it came time to making fun 52's back-up origin of Batman.

In her review of 52 #46 she writes : "Also, there is an origin story for this fellow named Batman, who sounds like quite the hero indeed! I must look into this brave young man and his essential story lines."

Yes, this week DC opted to detail the origin of probably the single most well known and often told origin in all of comics. Hell, even Superman's origin has been tweaked and altered more over the last six decades. Batman started out as a wealthy socialite whose parents' murder drove him to dress as a bat and fight crime, and damn it, that hasn't changed a bit.

While the origins are fun and often allow for interesting artists to draw little-seen characters, they tend to be very poorly planned, big-picture wise. They would be much more useful if they matched up with characters who actually appeared in the issue they run, or in the series at all. Instead of, say, Catman, who has yet to appear, why not let new readers know more about Dr. Sivana, Captain Marvel and the Marvel Family, John Stewart, Alan Scott, Jay Garrick, Obsidian, Zauriel, The Spectre, Natalie Irons, Amanda Waller, Captain Boomerang II, Eclipso or Atom-Smasher?

Now Batman has appeared in the series, in one issue anyway, which gives him a leg up on Catman or Zatanna, but still, what the hell? Who doesn't know who frigging Batman is, or how he came to be?

If these aren't to introduce new readers to the characters appearing in this series, then, at the very least, they could be used to tell us old readers who already know all these origins and have already read all of the suggested storylines what exactly has changed since the "New Earth" continuity rejiggering at the end of Infinite Crisis. Mark Waid's scripts tend to not mention anything that's changed however, so that rather than filling in the blanks, they just kinda highlight the blanks. And, often times, the origins themselves contradict the storylines that are suggested at the end of them, as is the case here with Batman.

The art comes courtesy Andy Kubert, the current "regular" artist on the Batman monthly (although, in actuality, he's only drawn four out of the last nine issues). It's all decent enough and competently done, but there's nothing terribly striking in here. Batman may be the hardest character to draw simply because everyone's drawn him, but that's no excuse for Kubert giving us that generic Batman swinging on a Bat-line image for the title pose; your average Norm Breyfogle sketch is more iconic than that.

Waid's origin is fine, turning on the theme of the usage of fear, which gives the piece, like a lot of Waid's two-page origins, a bit of literary thrust, beyond simply a dry retelling of facts.

It's fine, I should say, except for one point (Two, if you count his decision not to use the phrase "superstitious, cowardly lot," but I suppose that's more an aesthetic call than a logical one). At the climax of the story, and perhaps the most important moment in bat-history—even moreso than his parents' murder, since that only made him a man driven to fight crime, not a Batman drivien to fight crime—a bat flies into his father's tudy, giving him his inspiration.

In this panel, Kubert draws Wayne chilling out in his rich man's robe, writing a letter or journal entry or something. That's how Bob Kane drew the original incident in the Golden Age. It's not how Frank Miller wrote and David Mazzuchelli drew it in Batman: Year One, the official, post-Crisis (um, the first crisis) origin of Batman. It's the same story that "Essential Storylines" recomends reading a few panels later. Did Waid and Kubert both fail to take the "Essential Storylines" feature's advice themselves?

Anyway, it's only of note because in Waid's version, Bruce Wayne’s just sitting there on a lazy evening when he sees the bat that will change his life. In Year One, he's dressed like a burgular and is bleeding to death, having gotten horribly wounded while trying to fight crime while not dressed as a bat.

But enough of that, let's take a closer look at the storylines themselves. Now, usually in this beloved EDILW feature, which I spend forever researching and writing and nobody ever responds to, or, for all I know, even reads, I would take a look at DC's piss-poor suggestions, spend a thousand words or so sniffing at them, and then break out a few thousand words devoted to my own, far superior suggestions.

But this is, however, Batman for crissakes, and you all know his origin, and you all know his essential storylines as well as I do, so what's the point?

There isn't one, of course.

But I've never let pointlessness stop me from posting before, so why start now?

Here's what DC recommends...

BATMAN CHRONICLES: DC’s plan to publish every single Batman story chronologically in affordable graphic novels are a great idea (They’re doing the same with Superman, and God, I wish Wonder Woman, Captain Marvel and Plastic Man were getting Chronicles collections of their own, given how pricey the archives collections are. This is a great, great comic, one which has many virtues, including the amount of two-fisted violence.

Batman has been drawn by pretty much all of the greatest artists in comics, and many of them have contributed some wonderfully scary interpretations. There’s Kelley Jones version of Batman as a gargoyle come to life, or Frank Miller’s wild animal version, or Norm Breyfogle and Jim Lee’s man-of-action wearing a mask and cloak of shadow. But no one has really managed to capture that original creepiness that Bob Kane gave “Bat-Man” in his earliest adventures, which are covered here:

Even the Batplane, at the time a “batgyro,” was frighteningly weird back then, and a sighting of it was enough to make Gothamites lose their shit and clutch their infants close to their breasts, lest a giant bat swoop down and gobble them up.

(Somewhat ironically, the only artist I’ve seen come close to capturing Kane’s original weirdness is Tony Millionaire in his Bizarro Comics contributions featuring Batman.)

So these books definitely belong on the “Essential Storylines” list in terms of an essential Batman read, and probably belong on the shelves of fans and/or scholars of comic book, and in the face of anyone who’s trying to figure out just why it is that Batman is so goddam popular—it’s not just that he’s a bad-ass, it’s that he’s a creepy, weird-looking lunatic who dresses like a bat and is a bad-ass.

But if you’re looking for more stories relevant to who Batman is these days and where you can learn more about his current continuity, these are, like, the last stories you should bother reading. Set in the late ‘30s and early ‘40s, these are pretty much the definition of out-of-countinuity stories. (Well, they’re in continuity for Earth-2 Batman, who is also out of continuity at the moment, but you know what I mean).

When I saw this book leading off the list of Batman’s “Essential Stories,” I couldn’t help wonder what DC consider to be the “essential” part.

Is it the part where Batman wields a handgun?

Or the part where he smokes a pipe, while listening to the radio news about the death of his latest adversary?

Or maybe the part where he totally kills a guy?

At least three of the stories in the first volume of Batman Chronicles have been reimagined post-Crisis and brought into continuity, in Matt Wagner’s Batman and the Monster Men and Batman and the Mad Monk and the Batman story arc “Batman: Year Three.”

BATMAN: YEAR ONE: The official and current origin of Batman, written by Frank Miller and drawn by David Mazzuchelli. If there is such a person in the world that actually needed to read this two-page origin story, this is the book to read next.

THE GREATEST BATMAN STORIES EVER TOLD : I actually read this out-of-print collection back in, oh, 1989 or 1990 or so, and haven't read-read it since, so at this point I'd have a hard time saying just how "essential" it is. There's a newer version, published with an Alex Ross cover, but I don't see that on DC's website, so I'm not sure if it's still available or not either.

I found the original version, with a dynamic Walter Simonson cover, at my local library this weekend, and it does seem chock-full of good Batman stuff. Artists include Neal Adams, Bob Kane, Dick Sprang, Alex Toth, Marshall Rogers, Simonson, Sheldon Modoff, Jim Mooney, Michael Golden, Joe Giella, Dick Giordano and Jim Aparo. Villains covered include the Joker, Penguin, Man-Bat, Catwoman, Two-Face, Hugo Strange,The Scarecrow, Deadshot and Calendar Man. There are some pretty awesome stories in here, including one in which Catwoman strips Batman and Robin down to their masks and gives them Tarzan furs to wear and the classic “Robin Dies at Dawn."

A few are quite relevant to current Batman comics, what with the two Golden Age stories Matt Wagner was re-working contained within, and the Denny O’Neil-written illustrated prose story “Death Strikes at Midnight and Three,” which Morrison recently riffed on in his pretty horrible Batman #663

But this was conceived to celebrate Batman’s 50th anniversary (in 1989), and thus none of the stories is any newer 1983, making them all pre-Crisis stories and thus, as entertaining as some of them are, they are all essentially out-of-continuity (although the first few could be considered Earth-Two continuity, and the book actually ends with Earth-Two Batman writing in his diary about how he decided to marry Catwoman.

If you’re not already fairly fond of the Batman, it’s probably worth keeping in mind that DC’s "greatest stories ever told" collections usually aren't actually that but, rather, "The Greatest Stories That Are Too Short To Collect As Their Own Graphic Novel, And We Couldn't Think of Another Place To Stick 'Em Either But, You Know, They're Rather Good Anyway."

THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS: Yes, Frank Miller and Lynn Varley’s seminal look at a possible future for the Batman, as dated as some of the political commentary may now be, is an essential storyline…for everyone. Part of the 1980’s triumvate that redefined mainstream perception of the comic book (along with Watchmen and Maus), this thing is fucking canon, and there’s no denying it.

It is, however, like Batman Chronicles, pretty much the exact opposite of an “essential storyline” if you want to better get to know the fictional history of Batman. Set in a possible future that is since no longer even possible, it was a post-“Imaginary Story” imaginary story, or a pre-Elseworlds Elseworlds story, if you like. Miller has built on it since, with sequel The Dark Knight Strikes Again, he and Todd McFarlane’s collaboration on Spawn/Batman and even All-Star Batman and Robin, the Boy Wonder. I call the fictional universe in which these stories are all set the DKU (Dark Knight Universe).

And here’s what they missed…

Never mind that these are all nice, short, accessible Batman stories for a moment, and the fact that there are dozens of them in this trade collection, which gathers the original four-part anthology miniseries, plus some extras. Just listen to this list of contributors: Neil Gailman, Bruce Timm, Frank Miller, Matt Wagner, Mike Allred, Howard Chaykin, Michael Kaluta, Walt Simonson, Joe Kurbert, Archie Goodwin, Richard Corben, Kevin Nowlan, Simon Bisley, Klaus Janson, Bill Sienkiewicz, Teddy Kristiansen, Ted Mckeever, Denny O’Neil, Chuck Dixon, Jan Strand, Brian Bolland, Brian Stelfreeze and Katsuhiro Otomo (yes, that Katsuhiro Otomo). It isn’t just a who’s who of Bat writers and artists, it’s a who’s who of comics greats period.

BATMAN: YEAR ONE…ISH: Batman’s first years on the job are thoroughly covered not only in Batman: Year One, but also in Year Two and “Year Three”. Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale covered all seven of the Halloweens that occurred during Batman’s first three years on the job (wait, that can’t be right) in the three Legends of the Dark Knight specials collected in Batman: Haunted Knight and in maxiseries Batman: The Long Halloween and Batman: Dark Victory. All are highly recommended for Sale’s gorgeous designs of Batman’s rogues, particularly his Scarecrow, Mad Hatter, Poison Ivy and Penguin. The mystery aspects don’t really make all that much sense, but the stories also explain how Gotham crime transitioned from traditional gangsters to costumed madmen, and I admit to laughing out loud almost every time I read Robin’s first in-costume appearance at the end of Dark Victory.

Almost the entire run of Legends of the Dark Knight was also devoted to telling tales of Batman’s first year. Some of my favorite arcs include Matt Wagner’s “Faces” and Grant Morrison and Klaus Janson’s “Gothic". The new title Batman Confidential also tells tales set in the beginning of Batman’s career; I’ve only read the first issue and it was awful, so I can’t recommend the series thus far.

BATMAN HISTORY: These are the stories you have to read to know what’s what in Batman’s very troubled life. Batman: The Killing Joke tells a possible origin of the Joker, features the crippling attack on Barbara Gordon which prevented her from ever becoming Batgirl again (and paved the way for her becoming Oracle) and interior art by Brian Bolland. Batman: A Death In the Family is perhaps the most essential Batman story, featuring the epic story that saw the Joker brutally murder Jason Todd and Batman’s highly unhinged response (this is the story that would establish Batman’s “Dark Knight” direction for almost the next 20 years, and this is, incidentally, the story Judd Winick un-wrote in his dumb ass “Under the Hood” story arc, in which Superboy-Prime punched Todd back to life). Jim Aparo, one of the most definitive Batman artists of all time, provided the pencil art. Batman: A Lonely Place of Dying sends civilian boy detective Tim Drake into crazy-ass, self-destructive Batman’s life, and the two storylines collected in Robin: A Hero Reborn show how Drake becomes the third Robin.

But because nature abhors a happy bat, things get worse and worse. In “Knightfall,” newcomer Bane engineers a mass break out of Arkham Asylum, pushing Batman to his breaking point and then literally breaking him over his knee. Bat ally-in-training Jean-Paul Valley becomes the new Batman, while a wheelchair-bound Bruce Wayne pursues his captured girlfriend, Dr. Shondra Kinsolving. Her metahuman powers employed to heal his back, he returns to Gotham City to forcibly retake his mantle from Valley.

He briefly vacations, leaving Dick Grayson to fill-in as Batman, finally returnging (with an all-new, all-black costume) just in time to face a deadly plague and a cataclysmic earthquake before his greatest challenge, Gotham City being declared a federal “No Man’s Land,” with no law or justice beyond what he and his allies can provide.

Other big events would follow—“Officer Down,” “Bruce Wayne: Fugitive,” and “War Games”—but none of them were very good, and the changes to the status quo have mostly been ignored and/or undone since. Batman: Face the Face set up a new status quo for Batman, Alfred and Robin. Of the rest of his allies, Batgirl went batshit insane in a poorly-written arc of Robin (which is currently being un-done in Teen Titans), Oracle isn’t speaking to him because of some dumb reason that doesn’t make any sense (See War Games: Act Three, but only if you must) and Nightwing moved to New York to suffer a series of sucky stories.

BATMAN AND FRIENDS: Batman’s best friend among the superhero set has always been Superman, and the pair have ven shared titles before, including World’s Finest and the current Superman/Batman. Their early meetings have been chronicled in Man of Steel and elsewhere, but among the best and most thorough explorations of their relationship are probably Batman/Superman: World’s Finest, a ten-part series by Karl Kesel, Dave Taylor and others that checked in on the team once every ten years of their history, and the almost-identically titled (and unfortunately out of print) Superman/Batman: World’s Finest, by Dave Gibbons and Steve Rude, which confused me like never before about DCU geography.

Batman teams-up with Superman and Wonder Woman in Matt Wagner’s superlative Trinity series (Seriously, check that shit out). The first and best real “Trinity” story was Alan Moore’s classic “For the Man Who Has Everything,” which Crisis knocked out of continuity, but Infinite Crisis may have knocked back in. Either way, it’s a fun story, and is available in DC Universe: The Stories of Alan Moore.

Batman and Wondy also bond during the first story arc of Phil Jimenez’s excellent run on Wonder Woman, when Ares’ children possess some of Gotham’s villains, and the Bat-family and Wonder Woman family unite against them in Wonde Woman #164-#167. Joe Kelley posited something beyond friendship between the two, when a kiss during a battle in “The Obsidian Age” has them considering a romantic relationship through JLA #90. Greg Rucka saw them more as reluctant enemies, at least in Wonder Woman: The Hiketea.

For a lone wolf, Batman has put in a rather remarkable amount of time with the Justice League, including time with the Detroit-based team and the Justice League International team, which Superman and Wonder Woman mostly steered clear of. The story of his joining the team for the first time, as well as his motivation for doing so, is told in JLA: Incarnations #2, but that may not be in continuity anymore (It was post-Crisis but pre-Infinite Crisis, so Wonder Woman wasn’t on the team, but Black Canary was).

JLA: Year One also addressed Bruce Wayne’s relationship with the League, but, again, it seems to have been knocked out of continuity by Infinite Crisis. As for Bat-focused JLA stories, “Tower of Babel” is perhaps the strongest, as it kicked off several story arcs dealing with the League’s trust issues.


Tom said...

Hey, people read these, or atleast I do... Every single entry since I found your blog. Maybe I am the only reader, who knows. I always look forward to your Actual Essential Storylines.. even if I have read a good chunk of what you or dc has recommended.

Mory said...

I think the emphasis on fear in Waid's origin story was a way of tying it to Batman Begins, in which fear as a theme was a central part of his beginning.

Jacob said...

"As for Bat-focused JLA stories, “Tower of Babel” is perhaps the strongest, as it kicked off several story arcs dealing with the League’s trust issues."

Thereby setting us on the long, dark path to "Crisis of Conscience". I used to think that "Tower of Babel" was a flawed but fundamentally cool and exciting story. You could see Waid trying to graft his aesthetics onto the "big screen action" Morrison had defined as the title's role, and the result was a lot of fun.

But since the Meltzer Age started, simultaneously making trust-and-secrets the dominant themes of the JLA's life and screwing with the continuity status of this arc and its successors (if every super-hero in the DCU since the Silver Age has known every other hero's secret identity, down to Black Lightning knowing Superman's, then the arc in which everyone regains everyone's trust post-Babel by revealing their identities doesn't really make much sense) I view it with much more distaste. I'm now so tired of inter-League distrust stories that I take it out on all of them. I think that we're supposed to think Identity Crisis and its aftermath helped make Batman paranoid about the League and contributed to his creation of the anti-Leage protocols that showed up in Babel, but... oh, never mind. Shiny happy new post-IC OYL DCU means we don't have to worry about this stuff anymore, right?

Great job, as always.

Anonymous said...


I do read these, but don't usually comment.

Your reactions do get a bit... hate filled.

Which causes me normally not to comment.

The Midnight Gardener said...

Caleb, I read your blog all the time--sorry for not taking the time to tell you how much I enjoy it...or how valuable your "Essential Storylines" posts can be to someone who's relying on the occasional TPB purchase for entertainment these days!

Thank you, and keep up the great posts!!

Caleb said...

Thanks for all the posts, gang!

Jacob, I started writing about the post-Identity Crisis League stories (i.e. the fall out of the mind-wipes) a coupla times, but it all go so damn confusing and made so little sense that I gave up. Likewise I was gonna throw in something about the recent-ish Hal Jordan/Batman rivalry, but I guess they've patched things up and moved on, so I figured I should too.

Anonymous said...

I read them as well (for the most part).

arch 14

Tony said...

It took me a couple of days to clear off time in my schedule to read this, but I did read it. It was kind of cool to be reminded of stories I liked (and even some I didn't -- Batman/Spawn, I'm looking at you).

Siskoid said...

I just discovered Every Day... recently and am going back-back-back in time through the archives, and I can't wait to read them all.

I find publishers' Essential lists pretty meaningless much of the time. They want to move product, and that's the product that's filling their warehouse or pointing to a product they have going (such as Monster Men, etc.). What they don't want is for you to fill comic book stores' pockets by buying stuff that they've already sold them. [/cynical]

As for the stuff you recommend, well, is it ALL essential? I would personally keep the Knightfall stuff off the list, especially since it's largely inconsequential. It's like it never happened.

There are two "essentials" really: Essential as comics work (of high quality) and essential storylines (needed as a context for current comics reading). 1st appearances of villains and supporting cast would fit here and any important changes in their lives and Batman's.