Monday, December 8, 2008

top ten- top ten batman comics

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    Top Ten Batman Stories
    Obviously, The Dark Knight propelled me into Batman obsession. It’s the Batman of the comics, of the Nolan!verse, and of the Batman: The Animated Series that I’m primarily interested in, and again I am deeply indebted to Swansea Central Library for having so many of the recently published Batman titles. I wouldn’t call myself an expert, but I have made a significant dent into the most famous and most highly regarded of the comics, enough to have preferences as far as writers and artists are concerned. Batman as a fandom and a mythos is similar to Doctor Who in many ways, and as such its universes diverge into diverse territories. Here are some of my favorite individual stories that I’ve read in the last six months.

    10. Mistress of Fear (Peter Milligan/Duncan Fredego) This Scarecrow story (1998) is from the volume Scarecrow Tales. Long before I fell for the Nolan!verse Joker, I was a Jonathan Crane fan girl, and this is one of his best stories. The art by Duncan Fredego is gritty and in a palette of Halloween brown. 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.” Most of the comic is dark and stylish; while Crane is younger than in chronologically earlier stories, he’s no 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.” But of course she rejects him, saying she’d rather die. Fortunately Batman is there to rescue her from the Scarecrow’s rage.

  • 9. The Bet (Paul Dini/Ronnie del Carmen) “The Bet” is purely for amusement purposes. From Harley and Ivy, this is one of the very first Batman stories I read, and I retain great affection for it. Paul Dini and Bruce Timm created Harley Quinn in Batman: The Animated Series, and most of the time her character brings an element of silliness to otherwise grim Gotham. Neither Harley nor Poison Ivy even don their costumes in this quickie. They’re both stuck in Arkham, Harley is boy-crazy, and Ivy bets Harley she can kiss every single man in Arkham. When you’re a green skinned sex-kitten with poisoned blood, this isn’t as far-fetched as it sounds. Both of the villainesses are appealingly drawn, and the whole thing is just fun. The punchline is really sweet.

  • 8. Bent Twigs (Bill Sienkiewicz) 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. This story, from Batman Black and White 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 . . .”

  • 7. Kinda Like Family (Paul Dini/Don Kramer) No one writes Harley like Dini. I could do without Don Kramer’s interpretation of her drawing-wise, as like most comic book women she has helium balloons where her breasts should be. Arguing the Joker had her in the throes of the Stockholm Syndrome, Harley asks for early parole from Arkham Asylum. She’s broken out by the female Ventriloquist, who appeals to Harley’s sense of “a woman scorned.” It’s written fast and furious, with most of the good lines going to Harley. She successfully beats the Ventriloquist and her posse at their own game. And for her sincerity in wanting to make good, Harley is granted parole. There— a Harley story that ends happily, and she’s proven she’s not an idiot, nor is she just the Joker’s stooge.

  • 6. Untitled (Mark Verheiden/Patrick Broderick) From the great Two-Face collection, Batman vs Two-Face. There are at least two levels of narrative going on at the same time. Despite wearing half of a bell-bottomed, checked atrocity, this Harvey Dent is amazingly sympathetic. Grace, Harvey’s wife, is shrewd enough to compare Two-Face to Batman in his need for disguises and detachment from the self (I love how all these Batman villains are so like Batman himself in some ways). Phantom-y angst to the max: “I love you. I hate you. Kiss me.” I love this story.

  • 5. Catwoman: Selina’s Big Score (Cooke) Darwyn Cooke worked on Batman: The Animated Series, and his collection Ego was one of the first Batman comics I read. Included in it was this story, which won the Best Graphic Novel of 2002— and it’s easy to see why. It’s fast-moving, beautifully drawn, brutal, and populated with fascinating— if amoral— characters. Heist stories seem to fascinate people, and this is one of the best I’ve seen. An intimate knowledge of Selina Kyle— aka Catwoman— is not required, as Cooke draws and writes her beautifully. She is made to look like a cat-eyed pin up of the ‘50s— yet she is clearly a bad-ass, modern (anti?)heroine. Her ex-lover/partner Stark is a great character, as is Jeff, Cooke’s self-proclaimed “Chow Yun Fat” of Hong Kong crime. The locales are suitably picturesque— Las Vegas, Morocco, Miami, and of course Gotham (though Batman does not show up). The heist itself has the exuberance of Firefly’s “The Train Job.” It ends in tragedy, however, with Selina as lonely and angsty as Batman.

  • 4. Slayride (Paul Dini/Don Kramer)In the Phantom phan-verse, we used to have Christmas-themed writing contests, always a bit tricky considering the morbid subject matter. It’s equally ludicrous in Batman, but that doesn’t stop Dini from injecting some madcap holiday spirit into a surprisingly good Robin comic. The Boy Wonder gets hauled into a car on a snowy night, only to be confronted with the Joker wearing a Santa hat saying, “ ‘Sup?” In flashback Robin tries to justify the Joker’s insanity, while being forced to watch as the Joker tries to run people over. Robin outwits his tormenter: the Joker allows himself to be thrown off an overpass by a mack truck in some spectacular art from Kramer. How’s that for the Christmas spirit? I’d buy the book just for this strip, though I haven’t done it justice.

  • 3. Catwoman: When in Rome (Jeph Loeb/Tim Sale) Why does Catwoman get all the best stories? Both of these gentlemen are known from their work on Heroes among other things- in the past I have found Sale’s art either enormously brilliant or rather strange. I love the conceit of this— it makes for hilarious writing and fantastic art. Selina manages to be Audrey Hepburn, Sophia Loren, and Halle Berry rolled into one— ergo, she’s super-cool and super-sexy, ergo, Rome is the perfect setting for her. The relationship between Edward Nigma (aka the Riddler) and Selina/Catwoman is my favorite part of the plot. Sadly, all the handsome, hyper-masculine (yet I’d call them pretty boys) hitmen-type characters who try to resist Selina’s charms but ultimately fall in love with her don’t seem to last long, including the amusing and hulkish Christopher Castillo. These also feature six gorgeous covers by Sale.

  • 2. Love on the Lam (Paul Dini/Joe Chiodo) So far, Dini’s been paired with good, competent artists, but nothing prepares you for the rainbow explosion of Joe Chiodo! Gorgeous, gorgeous watercolours, this is high art. I don’t really know that it makes a lot of sense, the story, as it involves somewhat useless disguises, but it’s got those Phantom-y elements— mirrors and Two-Face— and this is my favorite comics version of the Joker, complete with two-toned shoes. It’s very funny, quite hip to the times, with Harley defusing a deadly situation between Two-Face and the Joker, preventing a shoot-out and a nitro explosion. Poison Ivy appears at the end to take in the rather pitiful Harley and help her with a heist. Chiodo makes Bruce Wayne and even the Robin kid look hubba-hubba, quite a feat. Robin and Harley even work together. As it’s a Harley story, it’s a lot less grim and therefore is a lot of fun.

  • 1. A Black and White World (Neil Gaiman/Simon Bisley) Again, from Batman: Black and White. The truth is, all the stories in this collection have amazing art. 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 writers are better paid.”

    Also worth checking out:
  • In Dreams (Andrew Helfer) from Batman Black and White 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.
  • Two of a Kind (Bruce Timm) 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!!
  • The Face Schism/Schismed Faces (Doug Moench/Kelley Jones). Batman is a blur, a painted watercolor of the folds of cloak and exaggerated bat “ears” that look more like horns. Light and dark are both stylized and vividly imagined. You could hardly believe that Jones’ Harvey Dent was ever good-looking, but there is something troglodytic, Hyde-like, about him. That a huge role is played by half-criminal, half-blameless sideshow “freaks,” including Deadeye Dagger (whose inability to hit Batman with a knife is a source of constant amusement), Skeletor, and Mega-Max the Modern Sampson, clearly impresses me. There’s certainly a vibe of Tod Browning running through this story, especially as its protagonist is Mal and Cal Skinner, an improbable three-eyed, two-headed, three-armed conjoined twin, are exploited by a justice-obsessed Two-Face. That Mal and Cal speak like they’re from Firefly is a bonus. Everyone in this story is Gothic and grotesque, including Batman, who in flashback refuses to cooperate with an overzealous Dent. Two-Face also clearly gains some dress-sense in this story as he puts on the pinstripe.
  • Batman: Year One (Frank Miller/David Mazzucchelli) has long been touted as one of the best stories in the genre for its reinvention and kick-start given to the origin story. It’s long been cited, too, as one of the major influences for the Nolan films, and in reading it, it’s easy to see the connection. It’s telling that Batman encounters no super-villains. He is truly alone, pursued by petty crooks whose lives he’s spared, prostitutes he’s rescued, crooked cops, and a dogging media, so he doesn’t need a larger-than-life flamboyant madman to deal with (though, just like in Batman Begins, mention of the Joker as a future menace is included at the very end). Miller is indeed an excellent storyteller. He cuts the fat and goes for the jugular, and his view of Gotham is extremely grim—it would not have passed the censors of the ‘50s and ‘60s, as almost the entire city police force is corrupt and vicious, and the people really have no hope until Batman and Jim Gordon join forces (though Harvey Dent has not yet become Two-Face and is therefore fighting the good fight in the DA office). So for all this, you may wonder why I didn’t put it in my top ten. Well, without thinking too much about my disappointment with the way Miller’s Batman stuff went after this, though I can recognize its quality, the tone is not really for me.

    Anyway, that should get you started should you ever want to take up the Batman comics universe!

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