Sunday, September 21, 2008

Batman the Greatest Stories Ever Told vol. 2

I didn’t really know what to expect from this volume. I mean, what’s the criteria for a great Batman story? Is it the art or the writing that takes precedence? I know for myself, it’s the writing, by a narrow margin. I’m sure in every “greatest of” collection there must be at least one work by the masters, the originators, Bob Kane and Bill Finger. For characters like the Scarecrow, about whom less than two dozen stories have ever been written, it can’t be that hard to separate the wheat from the chaff. But in the long history of Batman?

I began to think that for this volume, they were picking the weirdest, most far-out of all Batman stories. I wouldn’t rank them in the best category, but they certainly push the envelope. Secret Origins Starring the Golden Age Batman from 1986 is drawn and written competently by Roy Thomas and Marshall Rogers respectively. Young Bruce Wayne as a teenager and college-age student is firmly rooted in the 1920s. He smokes a pipe, does gymnastics, loves the theatre (the Pimpernel strain), and falls in love with an actress named Julie Madison. As usual, Batman’s first attempts at being the caped crusader go dismally, but he learns, improves, and pretends to Julie (like Nolan!verse Batman did to Rachel Dawes, until the end of Batman Begins) that he’s just a “playboy.”

I don’t really know what the point of Professor Hugo Strange and the Monsters is, other than it’s from Batman #1 from 1940. It’s mostly a rehash of King Kong with Frankenstein thrown in. I do like that Bob Kane has helpfully drawn numbers in the corners of each of his panels so that the readers know in which order to read them! Similarly bizarre is The Career of Batman Jones from 1957, drawn by Sheldon Moldoff. The censoring laws must have come into effect, as the story is by turns bland and ridiculous. As if Robin the Boy Wonder wasn’t cheesy enough, because Batman saved a new mother’s and baby’s lives, they name him Batman Jones, and Batman contributes a “bat-coop” crib for the child to play in! It’s a big publicity ploy for Batman that goes wrong when the kid dresses up as a mini-me and gets himself into all kinds of trouble. Frankly, the whole thing is ludicrous, but the art is the epitome of ‘50s pop art.

Prisoners of Three Worlds by the same team, from 1963, is certainly as weird as the two titles that preceded it, but it anticipates the same vein of science fiction we’ll see about three years later in “The Daleks’ Master Plan.” One’s tempted to even say that Doctor Who inspired it, but it was written some months before “An Unearthly Child” was broadcast. Kathy Kane is lamented for being a beauty and not having married--yet unbeknownst to everyone, she is secretly Batwoman! That’s right, Batwoman! Her niece, Betty Kane, is Batgirl. Unfortunately these predecessors of Catwoman and the Barbara Gordon Batgirl have really naff costumes and, as we will see, mostly rely on their male counterparts to do the work. Nevertheless, I guess if I were a girl in 1963 who stole boys’ comics books, I might find role models in the two Kanes.

The plot concerns an alien named Karn--quite literally a little green man--stealing silver. When the fearsome foursome try to stop him, he teleports Batgirl and Robin to a planet that could be from Terry Nation’s imagination and Batwoman and Batman have split into two beings, one half teleported to a different planet and one half still on Earth! Uber-weirdness. When I first flipped to this particular page of the comic, I thought Batman had been split into his yin and yang components--male and female! What a trip! It’s strange, imaginative, and utterly ludicrous, but part two ends with Batman confessing his love to Batwoman as they kiss! Batgirl and Robin also snog! The ending makes Batman into one conceited jerk, however: BATWOMAN: “I did hear you admit that you loved me!” BATMAN: “Well--er--Batwoman--I thought we were going to die--and I wanted to make your last moments happy ones!” She should have kicked the crap out of him for that one.

How Many Ways Can a Robin Die? by Frank Robbins, Irv Novick and Dick Giordano from 1972 features some good detective work from Batman as he races against a madman released from death row for Robin’s life. The title page includes a set of grisly “deaths” for Robin that makes quite a thrilling opener (all of this poignant in light of the fact one of the Robins eventually dies, and that comic-book readers were given the choice--and killed him off anyway!). There are some fun panels, including one where Batman uses a trash can lid to shield himself from three swords flung by a sideshow swordman. There are some excellent settings, as well, including St. Elmo’s Graveyard (for seamen not buried at sea) and a waxworks museum. For me, I could well picture something similar in the Orlando Ripley’s Believe It Or Not! It was fun.

Batman’s Last Christmas by Mike Barr and Jim Aparo from 1982 turns up the weird factor again by, again, channelling Doctor Who even if doesn’t know that it is. As is explained to us by the narrator, There are at least two Earths in the multi-verse, existing on separate vibrational planes . . . Earth-1 heralds the Justice League as its champions, while Earth-2 is the home of the Justice Society! In Earth-2, Bruce Wayne died and left us with his daughter, Helena/Huntress, who sort of recycles Batwoman’s costume from 1963, and who calls our Batman “uncle.” (I know. It’s weird.) Anyway, it’s Christmas, and apparently it’s a hop, skip, and a jump from Earth to Earth, which is why Helena visits Batman. When you’re able to look beyond all that stuff, though, it’s a somewhat sweet story of Bruce not being able to come to terms with the fact his father may or may not have been as corrupt as some of the criminal dirt bags Batman sends to jail. There’s also a Merry Christmas to All of You at Home from the entire DC Staff.

All My Enemies Against Me! is a bit reminiscent of a recent Tenth Doctor comic by, I think, Roger Langridge from the pages of Doctor Who Magazine, in that it does what it says on the tin. The Joker (muhahahaha) brings all of Gotham’s super villains (such as they are in 1983; there’s no Poison Ivy, obviously no Harley Quinn, and the Cavalier’s a bit different from the one I’m used to) together for to beat Killer Croc to the punch and destroy Batman. In that way it’s got a sweeet opening panel lineup with all of Batman’s foes in stunning theatrical color (though Two-Face’s ’70s plaid is ghastly). Gerry Conway and Don Newton do themselves proud with this story. (Hey, how can I not be amused if the Joker’s wearing purple gloves and purple pinstripe trousers? He also starts singing “Trouble” from The Music Man. He gets called a “dandified freak”--didn’t the Master call the Doctor that, or vice versa?--also “chalk face.” I quite like how Conway sums him up: Rule One: Trust no one. Rule Two: If anyone is fool enough to trust you--destroy them at the first conceivable opportunity.)

Batman’s allies are involved as much as his foes, including some girl in red named Thalia and an early version of Catwoman. She’s still named Selina and still has the hots for Battsie, but her costume is naff, naff, naff. Oh well. Robin (the original--Dick) is involved as well as Barbara Gordon’s Batgirl--quite a strong outing for her, actually. It’s an important story for more than the fun factor--Bruce adopts Jason Todd, the circus troupe teenager whose parents were killed by Croc, and eventually our second Robin. In the meantime, there’s a bad-@$$ female editor named Vicki Vale who reminds me of Sarah Jane Smith a bit, but her story doesn’t seem to go anywhere--perhaps in later stories. All the super villains squabbling amongst themselves is comic gold, the Riddler calling the Mad Hatter a “overstuffed hat-rack.” The final showdown is in a brewery (!).

As I was reading this collection I thought how nice it would be to have a story about Alfred, long-suffering advisor that he is (Michael Caine gives him personality in the Nolan!verse), and suddenly I came upon Of Mice and Men by Alan Grant from 1999. It’s brief, drawn in an anime-esque style by Scott McDaniel, but I quite like it. The young Alfred even looks . . . dashing.

I also really like Cave Dwellers by Scott Beatty, Chuck Dixon, and Marcos Martin. The style is fresh, fits its 2003 writing date, but at the same time not as anime or cartoony as some. It’s how Batgirl comes to know Batman and Robin (a possible lead-in from the BTAS comic version or an alternative version). Batman is his typical jerk self while Robin, who figured out her identity long before, is nicer (even though she keeps teasing him about wearing pixie boots--as long as he’s not wearing kitten heels!). Strangely, Batgirl’s voice somewhat resembles a less bitchy version of Harvey Tinkle from The Dark Side of the Moon--but that’s another story. Alfred taunts Batman with voyeurism accusations as well as questions his ethics. Robin is also quite witty. Yes, quite fun and well-drawn, too. Citizen Wayne (2000) is six pages of sheer fan wank, basically viewing Batman through Orson Welles-colored glasses, but it’s fun. The Rosebud revelation at the end is great, as well.

A mixed bag, overall, but I can’t stop reading this stuff. I’m addicted!

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