Monday, September 16, 2013

Review: Batman: Black and White #1

Now here's an extremely welcome DC Comics project driven by 1990s nostalgia. While so much of the publisher's time, energy and expense seems to be devoted to capturing the 1990s financial successes of other publishers (hiring Marvel's editor from that time, gimmick covers, Rob Liefeld, etc), this Mark Chiarello-edited project seeks to capture the creative success of particular DC project from the 1990s (It's a strange irony that the output DC Comics in the second decade of the 21t century looks more like what one might expect when they think of comics in the nineties then that of the publisher during the actual nineties).

The idea of the original 1996, miniseries (which spawned a sort of continuation as a back-up feature in the generally excellent Batman: Gotham Knights* series) seemed to be not only to present the publisher's most popular—and most easily adaptable into color-less comics—character in the color scheme of the sub-title, but also to corral as many of the greatest artists possible to do Batman stories, artists who might not even have the time or inclination to do an arc or single issue of Batman: Legends of the Dark Knight, but could probably find the time for an eight-page short story, or, in some cases, just a cover or pin-up.

And so readers got to read Batman comics from the likes of Brian Bolland,  Howard Chaykin, Neil Gaiman and Simon Bisley, Teddy Kristiansen,  Joe Kubert, Ted McKeever, Kevin Nowlan, Katsuhiro Otomo (!),Bill Sienkiewicz, Walter Simonson, Jan Strnad and Richard Corben, Bruce Timm and Matt Wagner, plus more-or-less regular Batman creators like Chuck Dixon, Denny O'Neil, Brian Stelfreeze and Klaus Janson.

Pin-ups came from the likes of Mike Allred, Moebius (!) and P. Craig Russell, and covers from Jim Lee,  Frank Miller (!), Barry Windsor Smith (!!) and Alex Toth (!!!).

Not all of the stories were great, and, in fact, some were rather thunderous disappointments, particularly given the expectations of the creators involved. The short gag comic Gaiman offered was a particular let-down to young, teenage Caleb, I remember; particularly given how good the only other Batman work of his I had read at the time was.
(Fun fact: Gaiman's Riddler story, probably the best "last" Riddler story ever, was penciled by Bernie Mireault, inked by Matt Wagner  and colored by Joe Matt!)

So yeah, that seems like a good thing to try again 17 years later, especially with Chiarello (of Wednesday Comics) editing. (As with Bizarro Comics and Bizarro World, the similar Let's Get The World's Greatest Cartoonist To Do Whatever They Want For a Few Pages anthologies, Batman: Black and White is one of those series I wish DC would do if not as an ongoing monthly, then at least as a quarterly or annual).

This first issue bears a cover by Mark Silvestri, who actually had a pin-up in the original volume of the series. Here's one great thing about the format: It really flatters the work of pencilers, particularly ones who either aren't fast enough, interested enough or (and I beg Mr. Silvestri's pardon here) good enough to do great, compelling sequential art. Silvestri's a dynamite image-maker, but not so hot at drawing comics. And hey, with no coloring—especially the effects heavy coloring that predominates today—you can really see and appreciate his linework.

(According to the table of contents, there are two variant covers. One is by Phil Noto, the other is a "DC Collectibles Variant Cover" which I'm curious about, as it sounds like it's a photo of one of those expensive statuettes DC sells...?)

There are five stories in this pricey ($5?! And you didn't even have to pay for color?) but ad-free, 40-page book (There's actually more pages, including ones devoted to creator bios, but only 40 story pages). Let's do 'em one at a time.

"Don't Know Where, Don't Know When"
Written by Chipp Kidd, drawn by Michael Cho

Kidd, who recently wrote the rather excellent original graphic novel Batman: Death By Design, teams with Michael Cho, who has a highly animated, slightly blocky style that will likely evoke the work of Darwyn Cooke in the eyes of many readers, working from what looks like Dick Sprang versions of the character.

There's not a whole lot to Kidd's story, which is more of a collection of events than a statement of any kind, but it does give Cho the opportunity to draw Batman, Robin, The Joker and Superman, and that's more than enough for me.

"Batman Zombie"
By Neal Adams

I'm not really sure why there hasn't been a zombie extrapolation of Batman yet, with DC's Blackest Night being their closest attempt to get on the zombie bandwagon (Although I've heard writer Geoff Johns and others refer to Black Lanterns, zombie-looking superheroes and villains wearing black rings, as something quite distinct from zombies, they're basically just zombies with rings and spandex).

Adams' story is on the preachy and obvious side, but Neal Adams deserves the right to be as preachy and obvious as he wants. The premise is basically that while Batman is good for somethings—fighting Batman's villains for examples—there are many real-world problems like homelessness and the three-strikes laws which he is powerless to stop, which render him, more-or-less, nothing more than "a lifeless burden."

Goddam can Adams draw though, and his zombie Batman is a sight to see (In addition to Batman in his virile, vital form and Zombie Batman, Adams also takes the opportunity to draw The Joker, The Penguin, The Riddler, The Mad Hatter and The Scarecrow.

Adams eschews inks entirely, so his drawings are just straight pencil on paper. It's awesome-looking if, again, there's not a whole lot to it.

"Justice Is Served"
Written by Maris Wicks, drawn by Joe Quinones

I suspect this story will end up being a lot of folks' favorite in this particular installment, as it is basically just an original episode of Batman: The Animated Series condensed into eight pages**.  Harley Quinn (and her pet hyenas) and Poison Ivy appear in their Animated Series Designs and with their Animated Series personalities and relationship in place, while Batman plays something of a supporting role. The conflict involves a fast food additive that turns anyone who eats at Gotham Burger into a big, green blob of their former selves, sprouting little leaves (The Joker makes a brief cameo, purely for actual comic relief).

Wicks' interpretation of the cartoon is so right that I imagine whether or not one likes the story will depend on whether or not one liked the cartoon. This really could have appeared in an issue of Batman Adventures, save for Quinones' art being quite a bit more detailed (The designs are the Timm-derived ones, but they are much fuller, richer and more finished than what one normally sees from the "Animated" style).

I don't think this story was necessarily screaming to be in black-and-white though, and Quinones seems to have "colored" it in black and whites, given the many shades of gray and lighting effects worked into it (Like Batman's glowing white eyes, for example).

She's not credited with it, but clearly Wicks drew at least one panel of the story:
I've no idea what the upcoming Harley Quinn comic written by Jimmy Palmiotti and Amanda Conner will be like, but reading this makes me think Quinones would have been a pretty good choice for artist; maybe the editor will keep him in mind for fill-ins.

Written by John Arcudi, drawn by Sean Murphy

Actually, the table of contents puts it as written by Arcudi and "illustrated by" Murphy, but I've been using "drawn by," as "illustrated" has some different connotations. The story itself bears the credits "John Arcudi, Script" and "Sean Murphy, Art and Concept," which is quite a bit different than either.

This story actually also features a Paul Dini-created bat-villainess, the much-less-popular Roxy Rocket. The concept Murpy's come up with is a pretty neat one, providing him the opportunity to draw an extremely dynamic car chase involving Rocket's souped-up rocket car and a fairly massive and intimidating race car version of the Batmobile, that looks equal parts Nolan's Dark Knight and Animated Series, while continuing to cut back to Bruce Wayne's after-action repairs on his car, as he recounts the adventure to Alfred.

It's a gag comic, with a punchline ending, but it's a clever one, demonstrating what an obsessive crazy-person Batman can seem (or, I guess, how "driven" he is). And goodness gracious can Murphy draw. The black and white format offers a pretty incredible look at just how incredible Murphy is, with just his black ink lines on the white paper.

"Head Games"
Written by Howard Mackie, drawn by Chris Samnee

The little biography of Samnee notes that it has been the Daredevil artist's lifelong dream to draw a Batman comic, and this is his first time doing so. That struck me as strange, only because it seems like Samnee's career must be getting awfully close to the "write his own ticket" stage, if it's not there already (I have the feeling their may be some bad blood between DC and Waid for some reason—maybe just because everyone who has stopped writing for them in the last few years usually notes the existence of bad blood—but imagine the current Daredevil team on a Batman miniseries, huh?).

This is a sort of murder-mystery that the reader can't really be expected to solve, but the Bat-villain's appearance comes as sort of a surprise, half-way through. It's a very, very dark take on the character, one that sort of breaks the character, I think, but it's forgivable given the one-off, out-of-continuity nature of the project and hey, given the weird revision this character's gotten in The New 52, it was nice to see some form of this version again.

As one might expect, Samnee's Batman is excellent, his portrayal of the character alternating from a mysterious silhouette with white, triangle eyes to something big and imposing or lithe and athletic, depending on the scene (In the first four panels, I saw a panel that looked Mignola-esque, another that looked Breyfogle-esque, and a touch that could have come from either an old Neal Adams or an old Norm Breyfogle comic).

Interestingly, Harvey Bullock appears in the story, and his depiction is taken almost directly from The Animated Series (although he's exchanged his TV toothpick for his comic book cigar). I don't know how true it holds for Bat-fans in general, but, based on this issue alone, great cartoonists sure seem to love The Animated Series iteration of these characters.

*Not a comic book about a Gotham City sports team

**I was wondering the other day about how odd it seemed that the only cartoon DC continues in comic book form is the shortest-lived, least-influential one, Batman Beyond. But, while wondering, I came to the conclusion that it probably has something to do with how far away that cartoon is from the regular Batman comics. As different in design and aesthetic all 14 or so Batman books are from Batman: The Animated Series, they at least still feature Bruce Wayne as Batman and are set in the present, for example. 

Look for the Batman: Black and White (But Mostly White) Variant cover!


Akilles said...

I have wanted Murphy to draw a Batman-story ever since I saw the statue he designed, and the Batman & Wonder woman pic he drew.

I`m absolutely going to get the TPB of this series.

You were right about one of the variants having a pic of a statue. Coicdentally, it`s by Murphy.

the belligerent monkey said...

I LOVED that Riddler story in the Secret Origins special. I thought his line "the Joker is killing people for god's sake" was great. I need to find that issue and reread it now.

Keith said...

I was a little confused by some of the stories. Is it correct that in "Justice is Served," the bad guy survived being turned into a puddle? The punchline of Driven also had me rereading the comic a few times to confirm what I thought was the gag (it was). The book is great though and I look forward to more.

Caleb said...


If you click on the "Sean Murphy" tag below my post, you'll find a review of a Batman/Scarecrow series he did a few years back. And if you liked the Wonder Woman/Batman pin-up, you'll dig his story, as it is also black and white and all about automotive gear.


I'd have to rereard to confirm if the dude died or not...I'm assuming not, as Batman gave the girls slaps on the wrists, and that WOULD be in keeping with the Animated Series inspiration, I guess...

SallyP said...

Samnee drawing Batman is a dream come true. Of course Samnee drawing ANYTHING is a dream come true.

And Neal Adams may write bizarrely, but Gawd, can that man draw.

Akilles said...

I know he did. But his art is even better these days.

David said...

I remember hearing at one point that Bob Harras hates Mark Waid just about as much as it's possible to hate another human being. It came up in one of those "Why isn't Mark Waid EIC of DC" twitterfests.

I think the Black Lanterns would be wights or revenants in D&D parlance. Other good options are Deadites from Evil Dead 2 or Harrowed from Deadlands:The Weird West(Best RPG ever).