Sunday, October 06, 2013

Review: Batman: Black and White #2

This second issue of DC's 2013 revival of the 1996 miniseries of the same name features a cover by Jim Steranko, and while I don't really get the visual elements being incorporated (Batman's vague, somewhat saintly gesture and cowl of thorns look particularly strange to my eye, particularly given the ants, house and puzzle pieces, but perhaps it's just an allusion I didn't catch), hey, DC got Jim fucking Steranko to draw a Batman cover for them.

If that's not a "get," I don't know what is. I hope editor Mark Chiarello got plenty of high-fives for that.

"Manbat Out of Hell"
Written by Dan DiDio, drawn by J. G. Jones

More interesting than DiDio's writing of this story to me would be an accurate telling of how his work keeps cropping up in each of the various prestige projects it does, given that, more often than not, he's the odd man out in terms of either talent or reputation.

Naturally he's co-publisher of DC Comics, but is his inclusion conditional, like "Sure, I'll greenlight the project, if you promise to let me script one of the stories"...? Is it a particular artist asking DiDio to collaborate, because they're friends, because of some genuine admiration of DiDio's writing, or because they think it would be a good career move? Does it come from DiDio innocently mentioning in passing how he wishes he had more opportunities to write, particularly short stories,a nd an editor or artists mistaking it for some sort of passive-aggressive coercion on the boss' part...?

I don't know, but as with a few similar projects—Wednesday Comics, Batman Incorporated Special—DiDio stands out as one of the few who is neither a legendary creator nor one unlikely to ever get to play with the character in other contexts.

This short story is sort of troubling, to be honest.

The World's Greatest Detective sees Man-Bat (I didn't forget the hyphen in the story title; they did) in the process of attacking a man that works at a foster home. Batman acts to stop his old frenemy, and it isn't until they fight for a few pages that Batman notices that the foster kids in the room are actually Man-Bat's own children, that there's photographic equipment all around and that there are photos of child pornography scattered about the room (see above).

That's the heart of the story, the reversal in which Batman realizes the real villain and monster isn't the frightening-looking comics character. That, and perhaps also that the narrator isn't Batman himself, but Becky Langstrom.

In other words: Batman and Man-Bat vs. Kiddie Porn.

When Batman realizes his mistake, he cuts the bat-rope he had just tied Man-Bat down with, allowing  his long-time frenemy to go after the pornographer, telling the foster home employee gone bad, "I won't hurt you. I don't waste my time on scum like you."

Which is, uh, kind of true, given how infrequently child abuse and especially child pornography or sex crimes of any kind involving children crop up in Batman narratives (Andrew Vachss' prose novel Batman: The Ultimate Evil being a rather rare exception), but also kind of a weird thing for Batman to admit in a story that forces him into confronting it. His dismissive dialogue makes it sound as if he thinks such a heinous real-world crime is beneath him; he only deals with costumed criminals.

Siccing Man-Bat on the scum to seemingly murder him off-panel is pretty un-Batmanly behavior, but given the continuity-free nature of the stories in this project (In which the only real rules seem to be that each story must be 1.) Short, 2.) Have Batman and 3.) Be black-and-white), it's not really that weird or unusual.

J.G. Jones' photorealistic works looks great in black-and-white and, frankly, far better than it does in color, if you ask me. There's a luminous quality to all the whites within it (which probably doesn't come through all that great in these images, which you're looking at on a black and white website).
His design for Man-Bat is pretty excellent, giving the character actual head of an actual bat, and big, huge, proportionate wings (Contrast it with the werewolf-with-a-leather shawl version in the recent "Man-Bat" Villains Month issue).

I don't like the way he handles the fingers and hands of Man-Bat though; after spending a lot of time thinking about bat-wings over the last year or so, I don't think the character should have hands and wings...maybe just an opposable thumb at most (This Man-Bat has seven or eight fingers, counting the three extra ones in his wing membrane).

"Into The Circle"
By Rafael Grampa

By far the best, most interesting and most exciting story in this particular issue, Grampa's artwork is incredible, and each and every one of his character designs is bursting and crackling with an idiosyncratic life of its own. Not just the main players, but also the regular street criminals, who most any other artist would render as more-or-less generic. Grampa gives each of them a sharp and distinct design, looking a bit like they were assembled from parts borrowed and synthesized from E.C. Segar tough guys, Jamie Hewlett Gorillaz characters and old-school Dick Tracy heavies.

Each of them would normally be at least as interesting as The Joker, were Grampa's Joker not so unique. This Robot 6 headline is right—Grampa's Joker is the most disturbing one yet. (Suck it, New 52, flayed-off face Joker!)

Ironically, I sort of wish this Joker was in color, as I'm curious about his mouth. I'm assuming it's all red in varying degrees of intensity around his real mouth, and that the tooth like impressions around it are just lighter bits of red, either painted on or some element of the chemically-induced deformity, but that's left to the imagination. Actually, the exact nature of this Joker's look might be dependent on a twist in the story, but still: Awesome design.

Grampa's story isn't just a bunch of great drawings though (And hoo-boy, is that fight-scene with Batman awesome!); there's a very clever little twist to it, with great crazy-person Joker narration, and some pretty smart, proactive crime-fighting strategy on the part of Batman and Alfred.

"A Place In Between"
By Rafael Albuquerque

Batman finds himself on a skiff in the River Styx, with Deadman playing Charon. As a regular Batman reader for years, I had a pretty hard time buying some elements of Albuquerque's story—Batman not recognizing a scene from Greek myth, Batman not recognizing Deadman, Batman and/or readers being asked to believe that its not clear if superhero Batman would end up heaven or hell after death—which is probably two little road bumps too many for me in a story that's only eight-pages long.

Albuquerque sure draws the hell out of everything though, and this is another example of artwork that actually looks better in black and white than in color. He does a great job of selling a Batman-with-pupils, too, which a lot of artists have a hard time pulling off convincingly, and I enjoyed the surprise appearance of a favorite Bat-villain.

"Winter's End"
By Jeff Lemire and Alex Nino

Lemire the writer isn't really a big deal, and seems a bit out of place here, given how regularly one can find Lemire's writing in the rest of DC's line these days (Lemire the cartoonist, or Lemire the artist, however, would have seemed more deserving of inclusion here). But if someone had to write something for Alex Nino to draw, I suppose it might as well have been Lemire.

This is a pretty straight-forward, even generic story about Batman fighting ninjas in the snow while wearing the sort of arctic adventure battle-suit that a Batman toy-line might include. There's mention of Mister Freeze and The Riddler, both somewhat randomly and out-of-place, but Nino doesn't draw them and Lemire doesn't write them in story.

This is mainly just a showcase for Nino's weird, angular artwork, his thin, kinetic, occasionally tortured-looking character designs and his admirably bizarre technological and architectural elements.

"Silent Knight...Unholy Knight!"
Written by Michael Uslan
Illustrated by Dave Bullock

This is a great showcase for Bullock, an incredible artist whose work bears a striking resemblance to that of his peer Darwyn Cooke, only generally with a more detailed, illustrative quality.

This is premised as a silent movie, and the Batman who appears is the "first-appearance" Batman, with a Golden Age Bat-mobile and logo. After a page devoted to replicating the credit sequence of a movie, this is presented in a format similar to that of a silent movie, with dialogue and narration appearing on title cards between action panels.

The level of detail in the art, the irregular panel shapes, the degree of action and variety of angles all seem more modern than silent movie era though; viewed as a film, this would have to bee seen as a film aping silent movies. It's still gorgeous though.

The plot introduces a new villain, albeit one with the name of an old, somewhat obscure DC period hero) who, in a rather prevalent tradition of Batman villains, shares a great deal of origin and modus operandi with Batman, but went in the opposite direction.


Akilles said...

I saw Grampas art a while back. Couldn`t help but love it instantly. Or more like, be really freked out over its astonishing quality.

Wayne Allen Sallee said...

I honestly thought I had read it as Grandpa Joker, I guess because each story is so unique.

DiDio is trying to create a new skill set as a writer, in my opinion, in the event he's Levitzed out. MAN BAT no hyphen is on him, as well as Bat-cow having the branding of the star wrong in BIS.

Eric Lee said...

Grampa's Joker is pretty disturbing. Those teethnjust give me the creeps for some reason. Also... I would totally read a story featuring GRANDpa Joker!