Monday, August 18, 2008

batman: black and white / cancer vixen

This anthology collection of short, eight-page black and white stories featuring luminaries of the art and writing world in comics is the brainchild of Mark Chiarello and Scott Peterson, and while Chiarello claims everyone at DC Comics told him “no one likes anthologies,” I propose it’s an excellent place for the Batman comics rookie to start. There’s such a range of styles and material, you’re really spoiled for choice. The writing is less varied in tone, owing to the inherent grittiness in black and white stories, but there were several stories that really knocked me out with their inventiveness.

In a way, the whole thing reminds me of fan fiction contests. Sometimes you can end up with authors who have an axe to grind, but usually you find spectacular self-contained stories in the niches you never even saw in the mythos of your particular fan hang-up (see the Phantom of the Opera Morbidity Contests at these links:
The Midnight Run
The Nacken's Song
The Perfect Gift
Her Wedding
Let No Man Put Asunder
The truth is, all of these stories have fabulous, amazing art. How you rate the artists is more your personal preference rather than their level of skill. The writing is a bit more uneven. Sometimes you get the sense the writers are just letting loose in order that the artists can do their thang (sometimes artist and writer is one and the same) which, well, fair enough. But the most striking stories are a perfect marriage between strong story and art.

Neil Gaiman’s name has been mentioned up there with God’s and “A Black and White World” is the first thing by him I’ve ever read. It doesn’t really matter who does the art (though for the record it’s Simon Bisley, whose edgy, frenetic style is not really my cup of tea but works fine for this narrative) because Gaiman’s writing is so far out of the box, it will really revise your way of looking at comics. I love meta-fiction, and the clever, humorous, ultimately grim conceit at the heart of this is like Beckett, but better. I don’t want to ruin it for you, but it does include this exchange: “Is that a joke? I’m the Joker, for Chrissakes. Roseanne’s funnier than me.” “I think her writer’s are better paid.” I think even Nolan!verse fan girls will like this Joker, and he even gets to do a crossword!

I have a feeling that, left to my own devices, my comics might look something like Bill Sienkiewicz’s. He doesn’t seem too bothered about straight lines, neatly delineated panels, and though his art is scratchy, jumpy, cartoonish and yet strikingly humanistic, his characters do a lot of talking. He does his own lettering, and he writes this story, “Bent Twigs,” which is beautifully conceived from beginning to end. It’s compassionate and keening and its characterization of Batman rich, overwhelmingly sympathetic, and I ache for him. Amazingly, this is all done in one setting, with four characters: Batman, a boy, his father, and a dead cat. “Blaming others for our ills is easy. Pulling a trigger is easy. Victimizing ourselves and others is easy . . .”

Many of the stories in Black and White deal with children. Another one is the retro “Heroes” written by legend Archie Goodwin and drawn by Gary Gianni. Gianni is a perfect choice for this story set somewhere on the cusp of the 1930s and ‘40s, steeped in comic book heroes, Errol Flynn, and Joe Louis. It’s about respect for a distant but ultimately heroic father. There are Nazis, a giant blimp, and any minute the Daleks are going to slide down that Art Deco elevator. Gianni’s art is on par with Charles Dana Gibson’s, which really completes this story.

There are two stories having to do with Black city gang kids dying young and trying to cap Batman, but the more enjoyable is Jan Strand’s “Monster Maker.” I keep reading in Batman over and over how the best intentions can create monsters, which is the price the Doctor of course has to pay, but “Monster Maker” is chillingly relevant. Harvey “Two Face” Dent’s story is filled with pathos, but it is, forgive the pun, child’s play compared to the eleven-year-olds mowing each other down in Richard Corben’s fantastic art, which makes use of white and negative space in a way I’ve never seen before. “Get ‘em young—give them a ‘family,’ and attitude, and permission to kill—that’s how you make a monster.”

“In Dreams” by Andrew Helfer leaves you with a warm feeling inside; you feel Batman has just hugged you instead of Karen, a woman with a buried past who keeps having nightmares about Batman. The art by Tanino Liberatore is beautifully realistic—oh, this one is just lovely. I love Bruce Timm, of course, because he co-created Harley—but I was curious as to how his drawing would come across in black and white. He goes for a really retro style, almost akin to Darwyn Cooke’s but more designed, more like animation (duh). Timm (and Harley co-creator Paul Dini) seem hung up on twisted love, and Timm returns to it in this story about Two-Face. It’s a bit Phantom-y, and I really like Timm’s approach, stylistically and character-wise. But imagine Phantom-izing yourself twice!!

I found Klaus Janson’s “Good Evening, Midnight” a big confusing at first, but by the end I was amazed at the simplicity of it, with no dialogue, three parallel storylines, and futuristic art that’s also as much in debt to Gibson’s as Gary Gianni’s. It’s sad and very sweet, with an emphasis on Alfred and, à propos of the whole collection, a father/son relationship.

“Petty Crimes” has a wonderful ‘50s feel to it though it does seem to be set modern day. A vigilante called Civic Virtue is as engaging and fabulous an adversary as the Cavalier from Tales of the Batman. It’s another wonderful excuse to re-examine Batman’s motives and methods, as Civic Virtue punishes those who don’t follow the Golden Rule, capping two hoods in a movie theatre, slamming a bank guard for closing early, etc. Howard Chaykin’s art is also wonderfully expressive. “Your self-righteousness get in the way of a simple fact of life—the world turns, and life changes. The god old days are fantasies—just screened memories.”

Archie Goodwin also wrote “The Devil’s Trumpet,” which takes us back to the Jazz Era of the 1920s. It’s a delightfully circumlocutious story, but really, it could belong to any universe—there isn’t much to pin it to Gotham, though José Muñoz’s art is just right. The rest of the art, by the likes of Tim McKeener, Joe Kubert, Walter Simonson, Kent Williams, Matt Wagner, Teddy Kristiansen, Brian Bolland, Kevin Noland, Brian Stelfreeze, and Katsuhiro Otomo, is spectacular, but I find the writing somewhat pedestrian, if not downright confusing (“The Third Mask” and “Slaying Song Tonight” both left me scratching my head). There is no doubt, though, that the book is a tour-de-force effort.

There are two women involved in this project of over 40 participants. One is a translator (Jo Duffy), one is a letterist (Ellie Deville). Before I put on my broken record spiel, let me tell you about Cancer Vixen, a graphic memoir by Marisa Acocella Marchetto I read in one sitting. Missouri Review had it up there with Persepolis and Maus as one of the greatest graphic memoirs. Marchetto proves that not only can a woman write and draw her own comics, she can sell them to the New Yorker, she can marry the man of her dreams at 43, and she can successfully foil cancer. Don’t be put off by the fact Marchetto seems somewhat Sex and the City, she is a funny, inventive, tough chica and artist. Her art and writing move fluidly, and her unique vision of the world is both appealing and realistic. If anyone has to face more rejection than a writer, it’s a cartoonist. Marchetto is no-nonsense about the lack of women in her field and she is quick to admit to her own irresponsible behavior when she allows her insurance with the Writers Guild to lapse. But she is extremely sympathetic, and I can relate to her in so many ways. I don’t know if a man would read Cancer Vixen in the same way, but for me it’s one of the most powerful books I’ve read all year.

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