Friday, August 15, 2008

why so surprised?

Batman: Scarecrow Tales

We’ll take a break from the Joker-centric to my original Batman baddie, Jonathan Crane, the Scarecrow. This is a wonderful collection as it spans 8 Scarecrow tales, including the very first one from 1941, written and drawn by legends Bill Finger and Bob Kane. The comics from 1941 are, er, more comic-like. You couldn’t call “Riddle of the Human Scarecrow” a graphic novel by any means. It’s fascinating to look at Batman in the same context one might look at Doctor Who—still relevant after 45 years (over 60 in Batman’s case) because it constantly reinvents itself. The university where Professor Jonathan Crane teaches in 1941 is populated by male professors and male students. The illustrations of people in this world are rather stylized and caricatures, á la Beano. The criminal psychology of the era pins sociopath behaviour on Crane because he liked to frighten birds as a boy. As a professor, he is mocked because he spends all his money on books rather than clothes. He decides that if he turns to crime, he can finance all of his worldly needs. Natch.

He believes that the Scarecrow is the perfect symbol of poverty and fear. The writing is quite overwrought and dated, but that’s part of the fun. Batman’s constant companion is the adolescent Robin, who I’ve always found incredibly lame—but then again, he belongs to another era. On the other hand, though Batman Begins is based quite heavily on the graphic novels Batman: Year One, Scarecrow: Year One, and The Long Halloween, you can find seeds of the 2003 Scarecrow story all the way back in 1941. The Scarecrow causes a riot in a department store in order to ensure that his client, the rival store owner, is satisfied. The riot looks like the one in the Narrows in the 2003 film. “Stupid pack! Pushing, crowding against each other! Like frightened animals!” the Scarecrow exclaims with disdain reminiscent of his movie persona. It’s claimed that the Scarecrow has little skill in hand-to-hand combat, but he licks Batman pretty good through most of the comic. There’s a really wonderful double-double bluff before the Scarecrow is defeated by . . . a swing set?

“Fright of the Scarecrow” from 1967 shows little change in art design—another Bob Kane effort—as Crane’s backstory is summarized. The university still teaches just boys, and Robin spends his time on the jungle gym as “a playground instructor.” According to this story, not only do Batman and Robin have “lightweight summer costumes,” they can don them post-haste in an ice cream truck! The Scarecrow has a mini-submarine (!) , and somehow since it’s the ‘60s, I’m not surprised that the Scarecrow possesses hallucinogens that scare Batman and Robin (again, another component that worked its way into Batman Begins). Since it’s the ‘60s, there’s also the “Bat-Computer,” which is, as you guessed, it large enough to fit a room around. This is a punch- card computer, such as the ones used by the Doctor in The Key to Time. Ha. It is rather fun that the latter half of this one takes place on a floating prop called the Ark. The Scarecrow arranges for Batman and Robin to be torn to pieces by big cats while forcing their neuro-chemicals to make them think they’re blind. Is this the first time they’ve been referred to as “the dynamic duo”? (And “the Boy Wonder has been in his own slam-bang action”?!)

The Batman of Ernie Chua and Dick Giordano’s 1975 story is particularly statuesque. It earns a vote of “Cor blimey” as it’s set in an amusement park! The Scarecrow has killed a man using fear pheromones, and the script is actually quite articulate in places. Though it continues to use overblown phrases such as “His superbly trained body reacted instantly...” The end has the Scarecrow begging for his life—it’s quite a nice little story, self-contained.

“The Scarecrow’s Fearsome Face-Off” from 1976 pits the Joker against the Scarecrow—certainly a pairing rich for exploiting. The art, by Irv Novick, may be extremely cartoony, but the script, by Elliott S. Maggin, is very witty. The idea is that just by invoking the idea of the Scarecrow, the Joker—by donning a disguise as the Scarecrow—can easily scare his way into enraging both the Scarecrow and the police and Batman. “Fear’s almost as good as laughs,” the Joker notes. The Scarecrow gets a sidekick raven and a mini-helicopter (?!) as his fear-gas competes with the Joker’s laughing-gas. Unfortunately both have struck Metropolis rather than Gotham, so Batman doesn’t actually appear in this story. The Joker, though artistically bearing no resemblance to his Heath Ledger counterpart, nevertheless has the wonderful, dastardly character traits that wowed me—er, audiences. “Shut up, or I’ll miss hearing my name over the radio!” He spends half the comic trying to seize a hyena mural from the local zoo (!). “You aren’t kidding, kiddies!” Meanwhile, the Scarecrow is up to the challenge—“Your men are deserting you, Joker! Am I bad company?” And, “You’re a crazy man who tries to make everyone else crazy!” The most laugh-out-loud funny bit, though, is when the Joker says, “Two points for the guy with the retarded tailor.” Kettle? Pot?? When the Scarecrow’s pet raven attacks the Joker’s face, he whips out, “You’ve ruined my classic facial features!” The best bit is seeing the Scarecrow succumb to laughing gas at the end!

“The Six Days of the Scarecrow” by Gerry Conway from 1981 is perhaps closest in tone to Batman Begins. Lucius Fox features, as does Batman’s illicit love for Selina Kyle aka Catwoman. Batman gets shot with a dart that makes everyone afraid of him, even Alfred, Robin, and Batgirl (again, Barbara, Gordon’s daughter). It’s actually quite sad, really, as poor Batman gets angsty about the whole thing. “Has Batman become so fearful a figure—he terrorizes even the innocent? Am I to become a prisoner of my own mystique?” The art here is still a bit old-fashioned but it’s rather nice—Robin has gone from innocent adolescent to bodybuilding, fast car driver! “Never underestimate the Scarecrow!” Mature baddie Betty Lunden is a bit like Miss Winters in “Robot”—and Batgirl kicks her butt! Wonderfully creepy panel of a Batman-scarecrow rigged up to scare crows—again, Doctor Who in the form of “Mark of the Rani” this time. Gordon gets to take a swipe at the Scarecrow—only to find he’s a cunning double. If he only had a brain, indeed! “Power over another human being is a very intimate experience . . .” The story ends with what Crane really deserves . . . locked up in Gotham, “even afraid of himself.”

By 1987, in “Fear for Sale” by Mike W. Barr, we can see the styles become more like that of the modern graphic novel—the story’s an interesting one, though again Robin looks prepubescent for some reason. We go to the racetrack, that is, the speed-racing automobile racetrack, as a famous race car driver nearly careens to his death. Bruce Wayne rightfully suspects something’s tipped the balance on the driver’s judgment. That something would be another chemical compound of the Scarecrow’s. To remind new readers of Crane’s background, we go through the familiar story—though by this time, it’s Crane’s female students who deride his old-fashioned, shabby appearance (much more like the world I unconsciously evoked in my Crane-fics). Even Robin, the ever-empathetic, feels sorry for Crane. Crane’s chemical compound makes the artificially fearless race car driver jump out the window. That is soooo Crane. It makes very amusing and deadly spectacle when Batman gets hit with the same compound, making him so reckless he nearly gets himself killed.

My favorite story, though, is unsurprisingly “Mistress of Fear” by Peter Milligan. The art by Duncan Fredego is gritty and in a palette of Halloween brown, with some of the dirt and smudges of League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. There’s a fantastic teaser-opener, and I guess what I like best about it is that Becky Albright, the only person brave enough to testify against the Scarecrow and get him behind bars, looks exactly like a mish-mash of how I imagined my two female characters in the first Crane-fic I wrote, “Cold Shower,” Susannah from Crane’s high school, and Colleen, one of his patients. The opening sequence in the Gotham suburb of Greenvale, which Crane reduces to chaos as ordinary citizens fight each other, is both reminiscent of Batman Begins and some of the Joker’s antics in The Dark Knight. Although the Scarecrow has employed the Blues Brothers for some reason, the rest of the comic is dark and stylish. There’s been a redesign of the scarecrow outfit as well as Crane himself who, while getting younger, is nowhere near the cool gorgeousness of Cillian Murphy. In fact, he is believably weird and grotesque-looking. The Scarecrow sequences are suitably freaky, but obviously what I like best is that it isn’t colleagues tormenting Crane, it’s an abusive, cruel childhood. Sharing with Becky a background of pain, Crane actually cries—and wants to make Becky his “mistress of fear.” He even constructs a rather Sally the Rag-Doll-esque costume for her (and this is 1998, so I can actually make the comparison!). But of course she rejects him, saying she’d rather die. Fortunately Batman is there to rescue her from the Scarecrow’s rage, but seriously, is it any wonder he’s so messed up? We’ve definitely moved toward the origin story he’s given in Scarecrow: Year One.

The art in Devin Grayson’s “Fear of Success” is gorgeous and bold, and the story is trippy and rather amusing—Crane is taken out of Arkham in order to give a corporate lecture on the fear of success, rather like those team and character-building sessions big businesses give. Crane is starting to look like Adrien Brody, so it’s not too far to go to Cillian Murphy. J In any case, the story is more about Batman’s fears anyway. I really, really enjoyed this collection.

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