Batman: Masque by Mike Grell and André Khromov
Another entry in the Elseworlds series, this time from 1997, it was the one that I had read about for years and despite my love for both Batman and Phantom of the Opera, I’m afraid the cheesiness of the cover put me off for awhile. To my surprise, Masque is not a simple retelling of the familiar elements with Batman pasted in; the writer and the artist have obviously seen the affinities in the two mythos and have gracefully threaded them together. Also of value are the beautiful, rather phantasmagoric panels which flow nicely and also evoke the 1890s-1910s style of line drawing (with crosshatching, etc), as well as newspapers and the Lon Chaney film, that aid very much in setting this in a Gotham of the early 20th century, much in the way the 2004 Phantom film is set in a make-believe 1870s in France: familiar, yet strange.
The genius of Masque is that it allows both Bruce Wayne and Harvey Dent to share the Phantom’s role, since both have obvious connections to it. Bruce Wayne transforms into Batman in a costume that, in the true spirit of irony, seems to have been copied in the Faust scene of Batman Begins; he reaches Gotham from his underground lair (which looks at least as much like Dr Jekyll’s laboratory as it does any version of Erik’s secret house that I know of) via horse and carriage. Gotham’s opera house (theatre?) is putting on Poe’s Masque of the Red Death, though I suspect this particular version is a ballet-only piece, and it looks very Palais Garnier-like. So far, so good. Masque of the Red Death stars Harvey Dent and Juliana Sandoval (the harmless Carlotta character), with the dancer Laura Avian as understudy.
Outside the theatre, Commissioner Gordon and his Police Chief O’Hara double for the role of the managers and ask Batman to pursue a thief on Gotham’s rooftops. Unfortunately, in the midst of the fight scene, Harvey Dent’s costume catches alight—in my mind, looking a lot like the flaming head of the Ratcatcher, or the specter who pursues the hapless fireman, in the original novel—badly burning him. Afterwards, Bruce brings flowers to Laura—in effect, fulfilling both the Phantom and Raoul role, which is quite original. Bruce and Laura try to persuade Harvey to become a dance instructor, but he refuses. Lucky Laura then gets approached by two mysterious figures, one who dances with her and one who saves her from robbers. This latter one takes her underground, where she cleverly guesses his dual identity.
Laura and Bruce’s fantasies of a happily married life (like Christine and Raoul’s) are thwarted by two things, one being Bruce’s fear of commitment, and the other—well, let’s just say Harvey has decided to take a page out of the Don Juan Triumphant / “Point of No Return” book. “She doesn’t belong in your world!” shouts Harvey. “She belongs here, with me!” There’s a spectacular falling chandelier scene, culminating in Laura getting the life not even Raoul would have granted Christine. You see, as Erik always reaches the end of the story alone, so too must Bruce always remain isolated by his calling.