Some Batman Comics You Might Not Have Read.
(Full inspiration for this column goes to Amy Brander, who writes as The Frog Queen. We were chatting about Batman comics and she said she was bored of the regular recommendations….)
I hope Milo Manara is spending the Marvel Money on Coke and Whores, myself.
Anyway. Holy Lists, Folks, its Batman. I thought since this is BatBirthday year, I’d highlight some Batman comics you might not be aware of, since Lord knows I’m sick of the usual LongHallowDarkKnightEarthOneYearOneDarkVictoryKillingJoke that get pulled out every time. There’s nothing wrong or bad about any of those comics, they just get a bit…well, familiarity breeds contempt, you know? So here was my criteria: Pick ten comics or runs that would be easily accessible to someone who’d only seen the movies or cartoons. No worrying about NU-52 stuff, crossovers, continuity glitches or such. You could open he comic armed with knowledge that there’s’ a rich bloke called Bruce who beats up people dressed as a bat after his parents were killed and lives in Gotham.
Oh, before we start. Let me make it clear this is an exercise in Taste, more than anything else and if you’ve been reading me for a while, you’ll know my enjoyment runs towards the esoteric and wrong. I’ve not read every Batman comic ever because life is short enough If you want to call me out on a factual error, like I’ve said Dave Gibbons drew Batman:Year One, that’s fine. If you want to go into ‘My taste is better than yours.’ then…No. That kind of viewpoint is the sort of thing that makes talking about comics not fun, but just another stream of fossilized academia or quasi-religious zealotry that demands one has read ALL of ‘Knightfall’, all the way through to Knightsend AND all the tie-ins before you’re allowed to talk about anything Gotham related. It’s BATMAN, For Zod’s Sake.
This run was such a massive relief for me. After years, literally, of Bane, Azrael, Bruce being tired all the time, general falling over by everyone, visions, five o’clock shadows, magic ninja spine fixing sequences and Tim Drake whining more than Lisa Simpson, Bruce beats up Azbats, gets a new costume (celebrated with an embossed cover where you could …touch Little Bats. If you wanted. Seemed fair. DC had put out Catwoman 1 a year or so previously with Embossed Selina Touching Options.)
The Moench’Jones run returns the set up to Bruce fighting a series of insane and amazing villains, essentially a tour de force of Kelley Jones’s amazing, Wrightson/Mignola art. Batman fights Monsters in a big brooding Gotham City free of outside continuity. This run not only has J.H. Williams III as pinch-hitter fill in artist, but also introduces us to Agent Chase, one of the more interesting characters DC created in the 90’s. Her ongoing only ran a few issues, but is well worth checking out, being the story of a Government Agency designed to keep tabs on Meta-Humans. If you want a Batman comic that’s outright fun, start here.
Really, I could have picked any of the Animated DC comics here. They’re such a world apart in terms of quality from the regular DC titles and have been from their inception back in the mid 90’s. I’d really have no problem if DC Editorial said ‘Okay, we;re using this approach for all of our DCU Books from now on.’ They follow the simple formula of clean, simple but clever artwork, stories working on multiple levels that can be read independently of any of the other books and have an awareness of the overall DC Continuity without ever being bogged down by it. I imagine doing a cartoon book is a much easier gig for a freelancer (and more fun when you don’t have to deal with wondering if you can use The Joker because he had his face torn off and is meant to be hiding in the sewer according to last month’s Detective.) which is why there’s been such a high quality of contributors doing stuff there over the years, and critics of Mark Millar are invited to check out Superman Adventures 41, which features an astounding tour through every aspect of Superman’s life in 22 one page stories drawn by…well, you’ll see.
Batman: Brave And The Bold was the peak of that. The cartoon is my favourite Batman thing that has happened in a very long time, with the possible exception of Lego Batman 2. It’s very, very silly and I have no idea if anyone beyond people who’ve spent far too long reading DC Comics are getting half the jokes in there (And if I ever meet the person who wrote the baseball short featuring Batman giving a pep talk that concludes ‘We have to do this. For…for Little Julius Schwartz and Frankie Miller!), I’ll buy them a drink. Batman: B&B is a fun run through the history of the DCU featuring all the good characters without having to worry about Flashpoints, Zero Hours or Crisises.
Also recommended: L’il Gotham.
Superman/Batman: World’s Funnest. (No, not the claymation thing.)
Heh, alright, this one breaks all my rules about being accessible, but I’m hoping a mention here will kickstart someone at DC to consider reprinting this. Here’s the pitch. Mr Myztyplk and Bat-Mite get into a row and try to one up each other tearing through the DC Multiverse. That’s it. Written by Evan Dorkin, this is an extended episode of Itchy & Scratchy. What makes it worth reading is the amount of utter…love poured into this. Evan’s frightening knowledge of the history of DC’s publishing os on full display as Myzty and Bat-Mite go through The Dark Knight Returns world (As drawn by Frank Miller). Kingdom Come (Art by Alex Ross) the Animated Universe (Bruce Timm pencils here.) and a fair amount of Universes drawn by Ty Templeton. Jaime Hernandez, Frank Cho, Doug Manhke, Phil Jiminez and Dave Gibbons all show up to provide pages also. It’s either as deranged an introduction to the DC Universe you could possibly wish for or a haunting realization of just how much you know about very silly comics featuring some daft superheroes.
This is just gorgeous.
Quite possibly overlooked when DC realised they were onto something with ‘Elseworlds’ and flooded the shelves with as many Elseworlds as we could handle, Batman/Houdini is one of the amazing Mark Chiarello’s very, very few forays into drawing interior covers. He’s one of those people who really ought to have had his own Solo book and I almost wish DC would stop Mark being an Art Editor and make him draw some more bloody comics instead.
Saying that, thanks to Mark, we did get Wednesday Comics, Solo and Batman: Black & White. The story of how he actually got Jim Lee to draw ‘Hush’ with Jeph Loeb is also worth finding out, although I’m not telling it here, as I suspect it might be a bit legal now. This particular prestige format Batman is daft, camp stuff. Somebody’s kidnapping kids and Batman teams up with Houdini to find out who;s doing it Written by Howard Chaykin whose attitude towards superhero comics drips from every line of dialogue Harry utters. I can only assume that this was written with a mindset that declared ‘Forget it. They’re all going to be looking at the art and it doesn’t matter what I write.’
A couple of years previous to this on shot being published, Alan Grant and Kevin O’Neill decided to bring back Bat-Mite in his 1st Post Crisis appearance. Bat-Mite shows up in Legends Of The Dark Knight 38 and harasses a junkie called Bob Overdog who blames a massacre on Bat-Mite’s actions. Given this is the proper super serious DCU where things like Bat-Mites, Arm Fall Off Boy or Supergirl having a relationship with a lad who turns into her horse just don’t happen there, nobody believes Bob, who goes to prison. As with most of Legends Of The Dark Knight stories, it was an entertaining story that no one had reason to think would go anywhere. After all, the only other LDK story that had impacted on the regular Bat-Books was ‘Venom’, and that didn’t really turn out too well for anyone.
Well, er…turns out we were all wrong. ‘Mitefall’ is a plain unreasonable parody of Knightfall and contemporary comic cliches featuring Bat-Mite. Either you’re going to laugh coffee out of your nose at this kind of thing or think it’s some kind of evil, spiteful dig at Batman. I think it’s both. That’s why I like it.
It was a toss-up between this and the first one, which features amazing Simon Bisley art, but Die Laughing (Painted by Glenn Fabry) added Victor Meldrew as a guest star, so that wins out instead.
Probably the most well-known on the list. While some of us had seen Mike coming a while back on his Cosmic Odyssey mini and, oddly, a fill in issue of X-Force. But nothing really prepared any of us for this. ‘Gotham By Gaslight’ was the first DC Elseworlds comic, a story of a Victorian era Gotham featuring Batman taking on Jack The Ripper. Mignola draws the hell out of this dark and lurid thriller. Not for the squeamish, but a great read nonetheless.
I can hear your inner monologue already.
So, let me stop it there by answering the two criticisms I always hear whenever I dare say I really, really like Frank Miller’s Dark Knight Strikes Back.
1) ‘It’s shit.‘
Yeah. The thing is, we haven’t quite reached the point where anyone’s subjective opinion is recognised as an absolute judgement just yet. Art isn’t a light bulb that can be deemed ‘on’ or ‘off’. I’ll accept that my tastes might not kick off your genitals, but to dismiss things that aren’t your cup of Black Forest Hot Chocolate as rubbish is to suggest every single thing ever created only has merit if it appeals you personally, which sounds incredibly arrogant to me. No two people are ever seeing the same thing, and one man’s trash is another’s treasure. I’d literally trade every X-Men related comic published this century (Alright, maybe not the first series of Wolverine and The X-Men.) to own a page of art from The Bulletproof Coffin. (Preferably one featuring Ramona, though.)
2) ‘I wasn’t expecting…this!
Really? Well, you weren’t paying attention, then.
The thing that made Dark Knight Returns so distinctive in the first place was how totally out of left field it was when it first appeared. Batman was a bit grim in his regular comics, but social commentary? Being old and drinking? An old Catwoman? Bats looking vulnerable? Punching Superman in the face? The idea that The U.S. Government would use Superman as a military deterrent? Holy Unheard Of In 1986, Old Chum! Sure, that kind of idea of how superheroes would touch upon Humanity had been touched on previously (Most strikingly and effectively in the early days of Miracleman.) but never in something as big a deal as Superhot Frank Miller doing Batman in a Prestige Format series.
If you’d not been paying attention to anything Frank had done since Dark Knight Returns, then I could see why you thought you were going to get more of the same, but it was obvious from things like ‘Tales To Offend’, ‘Hard Boiled’, ‘Spawn/Batman , ‘Give Me Liberty’ or the hallucinogen issue of ‘Sin City: Hell And Back.’ that his mindset had changed from the gritty to the ridiculous and he was more interested in the use of characters as symbols and avatars rather than depicting every last fold of Batman’s cape. Beyond that, I can never take people who see a thing with a preconception in their head of what it ‘should’ be too seriously. This seems to be the thought process of ‘I have this idea in my head of what this comic/film should be, and if it doesn’t match up to that, then it has FAILED ME!’
I love Dark Knight Strikes Back because it is clearly taking the piss out of everyone’s expectations. (Chucking away the Batman/Superman rematch people had waited over 20 years for in the first place was a hell of a start.)It’s also about what defines Bruce’s motivations beyond all the trappings of the Batman character, it’s hugely imaginative redesign of the DC Universe looks stunning. Frank got some flak for the change in his art style, but I like it because it’s representative of ideals. Concepts of heroism bursting through an amazing bombardment of noise and clutter. There’s a pretty good explanation for why the shift in his art in the much recommended (by me, anyway) Eisner/Miller.
Also, in the same way that Dark Knight Returns predicted the next few years of society and superhero comics, I have to say, considering there wasn’t a Twitter, an Instagram, a Buzzfeed or such when he put DK2 together, he didn’t do a bad job of predicting a total stimulation future, also, his explosion of colour isn’t too far off how comics look now (particularly Image, Dark Horse and IDW.) A great tale of Batman. Possibly better enjoyed after reading what you can of All Star Batman.
If there’s one thing that bugs me more than people presuming to be The GateKeepers Of Taste, it’s the last 40 years of listening to people attempt t justify liking comics. ‘Oh, it’s not “just” a comic, it’s really a book about The Holocaust told in…GRAPHIC NARRATIVE format!’, ‘Really, The X-Men are a metaphor for so many other things!’, ‘Ah, THIS! This issue of adoration And Nukes is finally, finally the one that shows Comix can be as deep or meaningful as anything in Books or Films!’
Which is essentially shorthand for ‘Look, I know most people think comics are odd, but please don’t think I’m..you know..one of them.’ And honestly, as a community, we need to get over the effects of the Batman TV Show From 1966 now, for two reasons:
1) I realise there was a bloody long period of stupid people assuming that ALL comics were exactly like the Batman TV Show. Yes, it was annoying. It was ignorant, it was also a daft assumption that doesn’t work when you use it on other mediums (‘Did you watch “Utopia”?’. ‘No. All television is like Eastenders.’) and it led to a deep-seated, self-esteem crippling shame across the comics industry that I still see to this day. That shame is what’s led to all this horrendously earnest effort to validfy the whole bloody medium. Green Lantern isn’t just a space copper fighting evil and governed by Blue Midgets In Red Dresses anymore, now he has to have a DUI because social relevance, innit? We’re just as capable of knocking out overpriced autobio nonsense or terrible forays into ‘Why Everyone Is Horrible Except Me Who Is Lovely!’ Of course having a whole wealth of adult and interesting material alongside yer ‘POW| BIFF!’ stuff, but there was never a need to make everything quite so bloody po-faced and grim. Watchmen was meant to be a comic that utilised the full possibilities of the format, not a model for how everyone was meant to approach the super-hero genre for the next thirty odd years.
Take some pride in your entertainment choices. Do I like the Adam West Batman? No, I bloody love it. It has a great theme tune! It has its own dance moves! Frank Gorshin portrays The Riddler like a kid who’s been given ALL the sugar! There are terrible puns! Cesar Romero wears Joker make-up over his moustache! How sexy are Catwoman and Batgirl? It’s daft FUN and Batman’s a big enough character that there can be an Adam West Batman, a Scott Snyder Batman, a Lego Batman, an Alan Moore Batman, a Grant Morrison on, etc, etc. It’s alright. It’s not blasphemy. You ran around your back garden with your towel around your neck singing The Batman theme tune as a kid, or even at the last comic con. It’s just fun, not a sacred text that Adam West and Burt Ward have blasphemed against, and besides….
2) Most other media isn’t any better..
Come on. It is. The problem with this whole ‘We need to validify comics as a legitimate art form’ nonsense is that you’re trying to appeal to people who consume total crap to start with. Do you seriously need to run your collection of The Metabarons or The Boondocks against a populace who made ‘Friends’ one of the most popular TV Shows ever made? Whose critical faculties apparently totally elude them whenever Justin Bieber farts out a new song? I’m writing this on Jack Kirby’s birthday, and the popular thing is the #ReadAComicInPublicDay hashtag, but really? Is that a thing where in 2014 we feel embarrassed to read the new Sex Criminals, Stray Bullets or Dark Horse Presents in front of people reading Dan Brown novels or pre-ordering tickets to see 22 Jump Street or whatever South Park knock off Seth MacFarlane is hacking out next? Am I being unfair? Hey, if comics is going to be judged by its worst habits, then I claim full right to shout ‘DALE WINTON, THO!’ whenever somebody tries to tell me how amazing TV is today. These are just my personal examples, obviously. Feel free to replace with your own symptoms of nullifying mediocrity.
Batman ’66 is simply how it sounds. It’s a comic based on the TV Show. It runs a new episode on three weeks of the month on Comixology, then those three digital bits are published in hard copy form on the final week of the month. There’s a running sub plot concerning Dr Harleen Quinnzel going on, but beyond that, every issue is like a Poptastic new episode that can be read on its own. It has that Mike Allred/Troy Nixey/Joe Quinones look to it that screams Warhol and The Archies and has featured literally the greatest sound effect pun about Russia ever. With the possible exception of Batman:Black And White, the greatest DC comic this decade.
With all this free publicity I’ve just given DC, it only seems fair to encourage people to check out Legends Of The Knight screening. It’s a film about various people who’ve used Batman as an inspiration to better their own lives, The screening is a fundraiser for both Refuge. and Action Duchenne.
That about wraps things up for this week. I don’t claim to be a Batman expert or anything and I’m sure there are dozens of Gotham related things I’ve never read. Hit me up with your suggestions in the comments.