Saturday, November 28, 2009

Review: Batman: Monsters

I puzzled over seeing Batman: Monsters (DC Comics) on a recent Diamond shipping list a lot longer than I should have.

It’s a collection of three short story arcs from the Batman: Legends of the Dark Knight title, consisting of seven issues all together. They’re by three different writers, two of them at least being “name” ones able to move some paperbacks by their bylines alone.

I wasn’t quite sure why these stories, though, and why these stories now. Even the binding theme of “monsters”—how is it that that’s never been used fort he subtitle of a Batman trade paperback before?—was a little shaky. One story involves a pretend werewolf, another genetically engineered soldiers, the third supervillain Clayface.

It seemed if one wanted to put together a bunch of Batman fights monsters stories—even if one were limited to issues of LDK—one could find ones that fit better into a “monster” theme. And if one wanted to simply put together short Batman stories written by James Robinson or Warren Ellis, well, there’s certainly enough material floating around that a Batman by Warren Ellis or Batman by James Robinson would be do-able.

But, like I said, I was over-puzzling over the matter. Monsters is essentially just another serviceable, evergreen Batman trade, something of a random sampling of short arcs from LDK, almost the entirety of which could be plundered to put together loosely thematic trades like this.

The first story is “Werewolf,” a three-issue arc by James Robinson and John Watkiss. The title is something of a red herring (Sorry if I’m spoiling the story at all; it is 14 years old though), although it pretty directly frames the leading suspect in a group of vicious murders in both Gotham City and London—a werewolf.

The truth is insanely complicated—animatronics and hallucinogenic gas are involved—and the mystery elements are even more convoluted, but for the most part it’s a rather fun read, and Robinson does a decent job with it (And compared to his more recent superhero work, “Werewolf” might as well be Watchmen).

The appealing elements of LDK included the fact that its Batman was more realistic, that he was divorced from the greater DC Universe and much of his own continuity, and that he was younger, weaker, more fallible and more human. All of that is in evidence here, as Batman journeys to London to get to the bottom of the werewolf killings, and finds himself contending with the cops and robbers of that country.

Watkiss’ art is dynamite, featuring big, thick lines that look like brush strokes, and a tall, slim Batman with highly expressive eyes (despite their lack of pupils). Watkiss’ werewolf design in particular is a great one; it’s gigantic, almost twice as tall as Batman, and bearing paws that could wrap around our hero’s waist. The face isn’t even all that lupine—it’s basically just a huge smile full of teeth.

One year and ten issues later came “Infected,” a two-part story written by Warren Ellis and illustrated by Hitman artist John McCrea.

The results of a top secret military experiment to breed perfect soldiers have escaped into Gotham City, and since they’re pre-programmed with war games that make them bug-fuck insane, they essentially go on a killing spree. Batman stops them.

It’s a rather Warren Ellis-y story. There’s some neat super-science ideas in it regarding the specifics of the super-soldiers—gross-looking, organs-on-the-outside, H.R.Giger-y guys who can fire bullets made out of their own bones from guns built right into their wrists—and the exploration of those ideas seem to dominate Ellis’ attention.

The climax contains two events that should have been pretty big deals for Batman—he uses a gun on his opponent, and he takes his opponents life—but neither gets much more than a passing acknowledgement in the narration that Batman would rather not have to use a gun, and that the dude he ices was essentially dead already (For a guy who hates guns and only reluctantly picks this one up, Batman sure is a crack shot).

McCrea’s one of my favorite superhero comics artists, although I’m not sure he’s the best fit for Ellis. Even when operating in a more serious vein as he does here—McCrea tends to modulate the cartooniness of his art from story to story and sometimes even character to character—there’s a fun sense of exaggerated reality to his designs that make his Batman, with his Simon Bisley profile and long cape with curling scallops, if not quite out of place in the story, then not perfectly at home either. (Sorry, that’s a really long, shitty sentence. But what are you gonna do? It’s free, right?).

The final story is the one that sticks closest to LDK’s original mandate of telling untold tales of Batman’s past (or re-telling previously told ones for post-Crisis continuity). This is the story of Batman’s first encounter with Clayface II, the shape-shifting Matthew Hagen Clayface rather than the Golden Age Clayface, and it happens awfully early in Batman’s career.

In fact, Batman says it’s only the third week of his mission, but he’s already tangling with his second Clayface? That struck me odd mainly because the story is written by Alan Grant, who wrote the “Mud Pack” storyline (which really oughta be in trade, DC) and pretty much every Clayface appearance up until the end of the nineties (after which point DC and its writers wouldn’t even bother distinguishing between the various Clayfaces, but just assume the only one was the one from the cartoon).

Grant probably wrote more Batman stories than anyone else in the ‘90s, although I was still sort of surprised to see him here, as his name isn’t quite the draw that Ellis’ or even Robinson’s is at the moment. His story is probably the best one in the book however, as it’s the only one that pretends to be concerned about anything other than the Batman + Badguys = Conflict formula that drives the earlier stories.

This 1997 two-parter was called “Clay,” and while Hagen is the villain, Batman’s main conflict is his reaction to his first encounter with this Clayface.

Batman takes a severe beating, and witnesses Clayface smashing a man’s head between his powerful hands. The image shocked the young Batman, and he can’t get it out of his mind. He spends the rest of the story in a mild state of shock over the gruesome image, and struggles with thoughts of his own mortality throughout.

Okay it’s still not Shakespeare, but Grant’s focused on telling a story about Batman’s inner life as well as his running around getting in fights, so there’s something to that. It’s nice to see shocking violence treated as shocking violence—that’s mature, sophisticated storytelling, rather than violence for violence’s sake (Reading the two-panel sequence, in which we see an image of Clayface’s hands squeezing his victims head in one panel, and the next cuts away to Batman reacting as he’s splattered with bits of gore from off-panel, and a big red “SPLORCH!” tells us what happened, I realized that today we almost certainly would have seen the head being popped on-panel).

Grant is working with Quique Alcatena, an artist whose extremely detailed artwork was so often the very best part of the Batman stories he was drawing in and around that time. His Batman is “first appearance” style Batman, with big, thick bat ears pointed at angles away from the cowl, rather than sticking straight up.

Alcatena is a perfect horror artist, and he draws the story like a horror story. We see every drop of clay on the oozing, undulating surface of the villain, who has a thick, stocky build and ponderous way of moving that suggest a man in an elaborate costume from an old black and white horror movies.

Alcatena gives Batman’s face a shell-shocked, worried look, and Hagen’s a slightly crazed one. He draws every brick in the walls of the underground settings, and every hair on the bats that fly through the Batcave. And when Grant gives him a fever dream of Batman’s about death and violence to cut loose on? Well, I wish I had a scanner to show you.

That’s three stories ranging from pretty good to pretty great scripts, with art that ranges from great to Holy shit, look at how awesome this panel is!, so I guess this collection’s existence isn’t really all that puzzling after all.


LurkerWithout said...

Maybe they'll collect Grant's Clayface family arc when the singles aren't clogging up back-issue bins everywhere. I helped my ex-roommate cull his longboxes (including the 3 full ones someone gave him as part of their space clearing). He had EIGHT copies of one of the issues from that story. Thats just nuts...

H. P. L. said...

Hi, first comment here. But I've been reading you for a long time. (Actually, I remember your letters in the pages of Batman, in the Moench-Jones days).

I concour with you: Alan Grant's story is the best. I remember fondly both this story and The Mudpack which run through Detective, guest starring Looker.
I thought this collection would be a good place to reprint a much beloved story from LOTK: Bad, the 3-parter by Moench-Kitson. After all, it was a man-monster even that. But too subtle for today's standards, maybe...

Kid Kyoto said...

Maybe they should have called it Batman and Robin Versus Monsters and Veterans.

Oh well they can always do that for the sequel.