Sunday, October 19, 2008

batman: city of crime

You wouldn’t think so, but I’m beginning to see how Batman the franchise and Doctor Who the franchise are alike. They both have a revolving cast of assistants to help the central hero, a revolving cast of regular villains to frustrate them, and the format of both is so malleable, they are able to constantly reinvent themselves and stretch the boundaries of the universe in which they inhabit. It probably makes sense, then, why I am drawn to both.

I say this as a preface to this graphic novel collection, taken from issues 800-814 of the Detective range in 2005-6, because it represents the one extreme. Batman can go toward the humorous, cartoony side, a la BTAS. Nolan!verse Batman tries for the ultra-realistic. Push that a bit further, and you have David Lapham’s vision. City of Crime is so realistic, in fact, it’s disgusting. Paul Dini’s Death and the City was in that vein, but somewhat stylised, Gothic. Lapham’s packed narrative panels are somewhat reminiscent of the energy of Bill Sineciwicz, but Ramon Bachs’ pencilling, Nathan Massengill’s inks, and Jason Wright’s colors are a bit closer to Tim Sale.

Lapham is a good enough artist to provide the original comic covers, and his sense of space and suspense reflect this. City of Crime is sprawling and overarching and very frightening. It’s an unrelentingly grim, sordid story set half in Bruce Wayne’s exclusive penthouse parties and half in Crown Point, equivalent to Albuquerque’s downtown or Martineztown. (That was a bad joke. It’s worse than Albuquerque’s downtown, I assure you.) While the tangled web involves the Penguin, Mr. Freeze, and the Ventriloquist, the real villain here is a semi-supernatural force called The Body. (Not be confused with Steve Austin.)

There’s an omniscient narrative voice that at first I found annoying and intrusive, but its occasional flashes of dark humor make up for it. As Batman and Robin go into a burning apartment complex, Robin displays his recurring dry wit: “Did you wear the Nomex suit?” “Yeah, yeah, asbestos boxers and all.” The narrator adds, “Like a panther, he moves fast and low. In truth, more like a raccoon or a ferret. But don’t tell him that.” The Penguin, who I remember vaguely from the Batman movies, always seemed a bit absurd in the abstract. Of which the narrator is certain: “Oswald Chesterfield Copperpot. Known in certain circles as the Penguin. But don’t laugh. It could get you killed.”

The Penguin is presented here as loathsome as possible and is drawn that way, too--though he did make me laugh, when referring to Mr. Freeze, “This is what happens when you work with freaks.” I’m not quite sure what Mr. Feeze’s role in the story is--he kidnaps a pregnant teenager, puts her in a meat locker and forces a priest to perform a marriage ceremony, but what this has to do with the main “body” of the plot I’m not sure. In characteristically brutal style, however, the force of Freeze’s gun is illustrated with disturbing realism.

Bruce Wayne snubs a Paris Hilton-like spoiled little rich girl at a party, and then feels really guilty for the rest of the comic when she dies of a drug overdose. I still haven’t quite figured out how her death is connected to the exploding apartment complex full of pregnant teenagers and runaways, but that’s obviously because I’m slow. Taking the cue from Frank Miller, when Bruce infiltrates Crown Point, he dons his most Pimpernel-esque disguise yet. Intelligence gathered, he returns to the neighborhood as a union construction worker, Donnie Malloy. In his initiation fight with the foreman, Raffi “The Moose,” I’m reminded of “The Forgotten” from BTAS.

When Raffi befriends “Donnie,” we see a truly disgusting world of half-starved drug-peddling children, Raffi’s abused wife Siran, and about every other kind of perversion you can think of. Meanwhile Robin and ex-Commissioner Gordon are holed up in Gotham Mercy Hospital with slightly deranged cop Frank Ivers and Wekser the Ventriloquist (in a coma). And the Body is after them. It’s a good set-up. There’s wonderful interplay between nightmare and reality as we think Bruce and Siran kiss, with Raffi on the rampage killing both of them. The truth is both stranger and more prosaic.

Is it a coincidence that the City Waterfront Project, of which Raffi is foreman and which exudes a terrific force of paranoia and madness on whoever gets near it, looks exactly like Rassilon’s tower in the Death Zone? I think not! I wonder if the underground cathedral Batman finds is the one in Gothic? Batman defeats the Body’s Hydra heads and its many sources, before Robin and Gordon can kill each other (apparently, under the Body’s influence, the former thinks the latter is the murderous puppet, and the latter thinks the former is the Joker.)

As in The Dark Knight, City of Crime sees Batman nearly giving up his struggle against the weight of a city that is so virulent with pestilence and evil. In both cases he manages to remain true to his calling, but at a terrible cost.

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