Tuesday, April 30, 2013

On Moonstone's Black Bat, and the importance of comic shops

This is one reason comic shops are so important.

You're all familiar with the old pulp character The Black Bat, right? He was introduced in 1939 and was featured in Black Book Detective, and his origins apparently informed at least two major superheroes who are still kicking around. He wore a cowl and bat-wing shaped cape like Batman, and was a lawyer who was blinded in an accident, giving him enhanced sense, not unlike Marvel's Daredevil.

I had first read about him several years back in an old encyclopedia of superhero characters (the name of which I've forgotten), and like so many of the masked men of the 1930s and 1940s I knew only by a name and a few potent images, I was intrigued by the character.

So a few years after that, when I read that Moonstone was publishing a Black Bat graphic novel as part of their "Return of the Originals" event—which seemingly involved resurrecting the handful of Golden Age masked crimefighters that Dynamite hadn't already resurrected for their Project: Superpowers project, I was pretty excited to check it out.

All I had to go on was the title (The Black Bat), what little I had gleaned of the character from reading an entry in an encyclopedia about him, and a pretty swell-looking cover, in which hero seems to be interrupting a coupla bad guys who are about to do something quite horrible to a scantily-clad woman.

The week of release I was disappointed to find out that the comic shop I was patronizing at the time, the only one within driving distance I knew of, didn't order any copies of it (This is the shop that generally only orders rack copies of Marvel and DC comics, and if you wanted something from a small, independent publisher like, oh, Saga #1 from Image Comics, you'd have to special-order it. And they may or may not remember to ever get around to ordering a copy for you).

So I added Black Bat to that long, ever-growing list of trades I plan to order from an online book-ordering service someday, and it lingered on that list for about, oh, maybe a year or two before I found myself ordering other graphic novels and needing an eight-dollar one to push me up over the $30 mark in order to qualify for free-shipping.

Man I wish I could have seen it in a shop though, so I could have been able to flip through it, see the quality of the interior artwork versus that of the pretty strong cover (by Tom Grindberg, as it turns out) and read a few lines of dialogue, rather than simply buying it sight unseen.

Because this comic is not very good at all.

The $8.99, 80-page trade is in the same basic format as DC's old "prestige format" ad-free comics with spines, although it's in black and white rather than color.

It contains five different stories with extremely generic titles ("Black Death," "In The Dark," "Hung Jury," etc) and they are all by the exact same creative team of writer Mike Bullock, artists Michael Metcalf and letterer Josh Aitken...with the exception of one drawn by Fernando Peniche.

Of these stories, two of them are illustrated prose stories, although the prose appears in big, comic book lettering font over gray pages decorated with slightly darker gray blood splotches. Large, horizontal drawings fill the tops of the pages. I didn't read these, as they looked unreadable—that's not a knock on their quality, just the presentation. They didn't look like things I could force myself to read. Not when I had a stack of comics including Marble Season, Unico and 1,500 pages worth of old DC comics in the form of Showcase Presents collections just sitting there, waiting for me to set down Black Bat.

Of the others, one stars the title character, another stars Bullock's original character Death Angel ("Also Starring Death Angel," the cover does blurb) and the third sees them team-up.

Black Bat looks a lot less batty then on the old Black Book covers. His cowl lacks eye-holes, which is fine since he doesn't really need to see out of it, but while Grindberg draws it as a smooth mask, Metcalf and Peniche draw it so it's all veiny and knotted, so it's difficult to tell that it's even made out of some sort of material, and not that his face is just sorta fucked-up.

He retains the bat-wing shaped cape, but it doesn't flare as dramatically or Batman-like as it does on that cover, and in many panels looks more like he has a pair of folded umbrellas under his arms. The suit looks more practical and tactical, as well. This is, by all appearances, Ultimate Black Bat.
The other character, Death Angel, is a huge winged, clawed, skull-faced grim reaper-looking antihero, one that uses technology to make herself look scarier through some sort of electronically induced mild mind-control. And yes, I said she, so the parallels to the title villain in Batman: Mask of the Phantasm really couldn't be much stronger (Here's a quibble: The woman who is Death Angel, Rebekah Killian, was "raised in a seedy Catholic orphanage" where "The Reverend brutalized Rebekah physically, spiritually and sexually on a routine basis." Why was their a reverend working in a Catholic orphanage, instead of a priest?).

The stories are pretty rote and, despite the precise vintage of the Black Bat, seem extremely derivative of Batman comics; Bullock sure didn't go out of his way to distinguish this bat-themed crimefighter from the more popular one, and must have known that even if plot elements that occurred in the stories of both characters occurred in Black Bat stories first, as far as most readers are concerned, Batman is the the more familiar story. Technically some of this isn't ripping off Batman comics, but it can easily read that way.

So Black Bat, who here suffers from multiple personalities who play the roles of attorneys and a judge, so that he acts out trials for his victims while fighting them (If they're guilty, they get summarily executed; guns are another way this Bat is distinguished from the other guy who rocks a serrated bat cape). He fights some dudes and flashes back to his confusing, muddled origin, which evokes that of Two-Face, even though the whole acid-to-the-lawyer's face thing happened in a Black Bat prose story over a decade before it happened in a Batman comic.
Then, Death Angel kills some dudes.

Then they are in a bar fight together, and both kill some guys.
The end.

Despite the similarities to The Phantasm and The Reaper character that inspired The Phantasm, I do kinda like the Death Angel character's design, which looks extremely early Image, although the image is iconic; it's a Medieval vision of death as filtered through an early Spawn aesthetic. Metcalf's art seems to be at its best during scenes featuring this character too; perhaps its merely an attempt to reflect Death Angel's light-based, electronic "powers," but there's a lot more white space and thus fewer scribbly black lines in Death Angel scenes. The effect is brighter, poppier art work.

Black Bat, naturally, gets a lot of scribbly black lines in his stories, and the busy re-design work saps him of any unique imagery. Rather than some weird mix of The Shadow, Batman and Daredevil, he looks a bit like G.I. Joe Beachhead in all-black.

The stories and dialogue are all superhero 101; dark, violent, self-important and derivative. Were this my first, fifth or fifteenth superhero comic, I probably woulda liked it okay, but at this point, it's nothing I haven't seen before, and it's not saying anything that hasn't been said better before a billion or so times.

Ah well. According to Wikipedia, Dynamite is working on a Black Bat series of their own now, and I see there is a collection of the old pulp prose stories available. Perhaps one of those would be a better way to sate my curiosity about the character.

In the mean time, I'm going to look at this is a teachable moment regarding why it's almost always better to buy comics from a brick-and-mortar store, where you can give them a flip-through first, rather than through a book-selling website.


Anonymous said...

Sorry to hear about ComicsAlliance, Caleb. :/

Any idea what incited the shutdown? I heard the site was performing better than ever, so the closure is confusing news.

Caleb said...

Yeah, I was sorry to hear about it as well.

I was just a (rather occasional) contributor to the site, and don't have any real insider information to share.

What you've probably heard is the same as what I've heard, and the things former editor Laura Hudson tweeted and long-time writer David Brothers blogged and the Robot 6 report all jibe with that (it wasn't performance so much as AOL rejiggering some of their sites; a music one I never read was also shut down).

For info from people who know a lot more than I do, I'd recommend following editors Joe Hughes, Andy Khouri and Caleb Goellner on Twitter (@JoeHughes28, @andykhouri and @calebandrew).

TSOG said...

Stumbled into this post during a search...Have you given the Dynamite version of the Blac Bat a try? It's only two issues in, but it looks like it's going to be a quality read.

Masks by Dynamite has also been good, but The Black Bat is not a major character in that one (in case you missed it).