In a lot of ways, Paul Pope’s weirdest Batman work was probably this
, the fifth issue of five-part, 2001 series Batman: Turning Points. It wasn’t set on an alternate timeline, it wasn’t part of a one-off project and it wasn’t set up as a showcase for Pope’s unique style and storytelling sensibility. It was an in-continuity, non-“imaginary” story that Pope merely provided the pencil art for, working from another writer’s script and having an inker finish his art.
Turning Points came out during that very structured period of Bat-comics I had mentioned the other day in discussing Gotham Knights, between the conclusion of “No Man’s Land” and before “Officer Down,” and the slow unraveling of the line that followed.*
Writers Greg Rucka and Ed Brubaker took turns writing issues of Turning Points, with Chuck Dixon stepping in to handle #4, which focused on the Jean-Paul Valley Batman, a storyline that predated Rucka and Brubaker’s Bat-work but coincided with Dixon’s.
As the title implies, the series focused on the major beats of the Commissioner Gordon/Batman relationship, the moments when that relationship took a turn for the better, or worse: There’s a “Year One” era story where they make tentative steps toward a personal relationship in addition to a professional one, the introduction of the first Robin, Batman’s withdrawal after the Joker murdered Jason Todd and attacked Barbara Gordon, Batman electing to have Valley replace him without mentioning it to Gordon, and then the then-current “status quo.”
DC eventually collected it all into trade, and it’s a pretty solid endeavor, particularly the Rucka and Brubaker issues. (I’d highly recommend it to Batman fans; although I suppose it does make for a decent primer on Bat-history for those who might not have read all the stories it responds to, like Batman: Year One, The Killing Joke, Death in the Family and Knightquest).
The art is consistently incredible, coming from Steve Lieber, Joe Giella, Dick Giordano, Brent Anderson and Pope, with covers by Javier Pulido, Ty Templton, Joe Kubert, Howard Chaykin and Pope. (The trade features a new cover by Tim Sale).
Rucka was back on scripting duty for the final, Pope-drawn issue, which wasn’t really about a “turning point” so much as where all the turns lead, the then-current relationship between Gordon and Batman. The plot is a sort of callback to the first issue, in which the bad guy from that story, Corbett, returns to Gotham with an insatiable desire to face Gordon and Batman—to thank them for stopping him back in #1, and setting him on the path to his current happiness.
Pope’s pencils are inked by Claude St. Aubin, and it’s so damn weird to see a somewhat toned down and subdued version of Pope’s Batman in the “real” Gotham. The spinning, ballet like fight moves, the balled-up posture, the full lips—this is clearly Pope’s Batman, but it’s the turn-of-the-21st-century Batman of Batman, Detective and Gotham Knights, complete with Gordon, Renee Montoya, Detective Crispus Allen, the laser-light Bat-signal and the peculiar GCPD uniforms familiar from Gotham Central.
Now let’s take a look at some of the art.
Here’s page two, in which Batman comes to the rescue of a couple being attacked in an alley:
It takes him just two panels to knock out all three of the muggers. It’s interesting to look at this Batman of Pope’s after reading about his thoughts on Batman’s costuming in the Batman: Year 100 trade. Now we know what Pope thinks of various elements of Batman’s costume, but he’s not 100% free to tweak it as he wants; this is the costume Batman was wearing at the time—the same one he’s been wearing since “No Man’s Land,” actually (Black and gray, no yellow oval, with bulky pockets on the utility belt).
Pope gives Batman’s shorts more of a swim trunk cut than the man-panties cut he was wearing when most artists drew him, and he gives the boots discernible treads (Gotham Knights penciller Roger Robinson was also drawing Batman with realistic sole and tread-having boots back then).
Also, Batman’s costume is clearly fabric, not body paint and plastic; his tights bunch, his jersey stretches across his torso, little wrinkles appear in his gloves and boots at the wrists and ankles.
Here’s another action scene a few pages later, during which Batman swoops to the rescue of Gordon, Allen and Montoya:
I love the various expressions on Batman, Allen and Montoya’s faces in those last two panels. This is apparently Allen’s first time seeing Batman.
“He’ll get over it,” Batman responds two panels later, after one panel of staring at Allen in silence.
Later, Gordon is pouring himself a cup of coffee in his darkened kitchen, and goes out to his garden, where he knows Batman is waiting; checking up on him as he has been ever since Gordon’s wife Sarah Essen was killed by The Joker at the end of “No Man’s Land.”
Rucka has the two joke a little bit before talking business, and there are some really interesting choices in the staging. When Gordon sits on a bench, Batman crouches down near him, and…bites his thumb?:
That seems very un-Batman-like to me, which actually makes it kind of neat. Batman’s now so comfortable with Gordon that he doesn’t have to pretend to be a mysterious monster man around him, but can feel free to nibble on his glove (which has honest to God seams on it!).
On the next page, there’s some more interesting body language choices:
Their conversation is interrupted by the Bat-signal, and they convene on the roof of police headquarters, where Corbett has turned on the signal to lure them there. He wanted them to meet his new family, which leads to this darling scene between Batman and Corbett’s daughter:
And that, as far as I know, is all of Pope’s Batman work.
I would say I would like to see him doing more of it, even if just on a penciling basis (especially considering the appalling state of the Batman monthly at the moment), but, honestly, I’m really looking forward to more Thb and the upcoming Battling Boy, and, as much as I enjoy seeing Pope take on Batman (or Spider-Man, or The Fantastic Four or—some day—The New Gods), my favorite work of his has been his original stuff, like Escapo and Heavy Liquid.
Perhaps what I’d really like, then, is to see more artists draw the regular Batman books who are good in the same ways that Pope is good—capable of realism that serves rather than subverts a highly individual personal style, possessing a basic understanding of drapery and anatomy, having a passion for design that shows through in every drawing, and excellent “acting” skills.
*Just in case I need to justify that statement: Back then, there were three Batman monthlies, each with their own look and focus, plus a fourth in Legends of the Dark Knight which sometimes focused on present continuity and sometimes told stories set in the past, plus satellite books for supporting characters Robin, Nightwing, Catwoman, Batgirl and Barbara Gordon/Oracle. Now there are just two Batman monthlies, each defined by a strong writer with his own vision of the character, but little in the way of month-to-month visual continuity, and Batman Confidential has replaced LDK as an anthology title focused on different, past eras of Batman’s fictional history. Catwoman and Batgirl have lost their books, Birds of Prey has been refocused away from the Bat-line, and Robin and Nightwing have been a wee bit…chaotic, creatively over the past few years. The latter seems to have settled down for now, however.