“You wanted me . . . Here I am.” Five Best Batman Comics of All-Time Part 1

With great power comes great responsibility . . . Yes, I know that quote comes from the universe of Spider-Man and not from our man of the hour: the Caped Crusader, the Dark Knight, the World’s Greatest Detective . . . the Goddamned Batman. Yet, the only time I ever feel the urge to pull my hair out—only to join the ranks of the prematurely balding—is when the critical responsibility of canonizing is placed upon my shoulders. To begin, I love Batman. Tim Burton’s film adaptations put my six-year-old self on a path that would begin with Caped Crusader toys, trading cards, and comics and still continues, twenty-two years later, with a dissertation, a tattoo, a pair of Batman Chuck Taylors (you know you’re envious), and a set of tickets to the midnight showing of The Dark Knight Rises. I admit that I do not have the same level of all-encompassing knowledge that my friend and Batman scholar Prof. Will Brooker has (the guy wrote what is probably the first dissertation on Batman and turned it into an excellent book entitled Batman Unmasked which now has a sequel entitled Hunting the Dark Knight), which is why I asked him to discuss my selections for the five best Batman comics of all-time and offer up a few of his own.

DREW’S TOP FIVE

5. Batman: Arkham Asylum  (A Serious House on Serious Earth). Grant Morrison, Dave McKean

Drew: I would describe myself as a distant admirer of Grant Morrison rather than a fan. Morrison’s eyes are often—philosophically and artistically—bigger than his stomach when it comes to his Batman work (the biggest disappointment I’ve felt in a story arc during the past five years was from his “Batman R.I.P.”). For instance, Arkham Asylum begins with a hell of a premise: the Joker has orchestrated a riot at Arkham Asylum and is holding members of the staff as hostages. He threatens to kill the hostages unless Batman checks himself into the facility and joins his prisoners.

One of the main thematic linchpins of the title is that a thin line separates Batman from the sociopaths he obsessively pursues. Like the Joker of Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight notes, “Don’t talk like them. You’re not, even if you’d like to be. To them, you’re just a freak . . . like me.” Yet, the wheels slowly come loose from Morrison’s narrative cart once Batman has to run through the gauntlet of Arkham’s villains (which is one reason why the comic loosely inspired the acclaimed video game series), causing the title to lose focus. The book is at its best in the early stages and is especially noteworthy not for Morrison’s script but for Dave McKean’s artwork. McKean—long known for his cover art collaborations with Neil Gaiman—takes a mixed media approach to the panels, bringing in splatters of paint to capture the murderous mania of the Joker and swatches of fabric to produce an eerie mix of realism and abstract expressionism.

Will: I think this book is better in concept than in execution. The recent “deluxe” edition, with notes, sketches, and annotations, suggests that the artist and writer didn’t see eye-to-eye (Morrison’s comments about McKean’s “artistic integrity” are subtly scathing), and intriguingly, hints that a parallel-universe version of Arkham Asylum, drawn by Morrison himself, might have been more effective. McKean’s mixed-media collages were very much of the moment and set the tone for countless Vertigo books in the late 1980s and 90s, but they fail to communicate Morrison’s dense, intertextual script clearly. Looking back, it was nobody’s fault: two young creators, given free rein, showing off and trying to outdo their contemporaries, but working at odds rather than in sync with each other. It’s an interesting document of what superhero comics were doing, and where they were going, at this point in history.

4. Batman: Blind Justice. Sam Hamm, Denys Cowan, Dick Giordano

Drew: Written by Sam Hamm, one of the screenwriters behind Burton’s film, Blind Justice was penned to celebrate the 50th Anniversary of Batman. Yet, the irony of the title is that it is does a better job of capturing the conflicts that his alter-ego must face. When Bruce Wayne refuses to allow his company to engage in mind control experiments, he is accused of being a Communist, put on trial, and nearly killed in an assassination attempt. To make matters worse, Henri Ducard, one of Wayne’s former combat mentors and a man who has deduced Wayne’s double identity, is called to testify against him in court. The remainder of the arc is structured around Wayne’s balancing act between saving himself, his company, and continuing to keep watch upon the city that has begun to grow dubious of him.

3. Batman: The Dark Knight Returns and Batman: Year One (TIE)Frank Miller; Frank Miller, David Mazzucchelli

Drew: Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns is notable for multiple reasons. First, the book—along with Watchmen and Maushelped vault comic books from low to high art in America during the mid-1980s. Secondly, it semi-reinvented the legacy of Batman, bringing him closer to his roots as a murderous avenger while placing an aged version of him within a world that no longer has a desire for his presence, making it clear that comics and Batman are not simply “for kids.” The success of Miller’s reinvention arguably led to the Hollywood green light of the Burton film, which further fueled Batmania. The Batman of The Dark Knight Returns is a fascist who puts his cowl back on to clean up a violent society that has turned its back on superheroes. Thus, Batman not only faces off against old, “rehabilitated” villains like Two-Face and the Joker, but against the police force, the media, the government, and Superman. His only companions? Alfred and the new (female) Robin, Carrie Kelley.

Yet, despite the historical significance of Miller’s Dark Knight Returns—which also features some of the most memorable layouts and character designs in the history of the hero—the title is more than a little unwieldy (particularly in the book’s third-act, which brings in the Russians, the American government, Green Arrow, and Superman). Miller’s other beloved contribution to the Batman mythos, Year One, is a much stronger, focused tale that provided the inspiration for Nolan’s gritty realism. Year One sketches out the parallels between Bruce Wayne’s first year as Batman and James Gordon’s first year on the Gotham City Police Force. Together, the two men take on the corruption in the city brought about by mobster Carmine Falcone. While it lacks the operatic qualities of Miller’s work on DKR, Mazzucchelli’s pencils strip things down to the bare essentials while capturing the nuts and bolts (sometimes literally) of Batman’s wonderful toys.

Will: Drew and I are clearly seeing the late-80s Batman in a different personal context. For me, the 1989 movie mostly missed the point, and epitomised the post-Miller, grim-and-gritty, “mature readers” aesthetic and approach—”mature” in the way a 15-year-old boy is more mature than a 10 year-old—which would dominate the superhero genre for the next decade or so.

That Drew refers to “wonderful toys” is telling; the line is Joker’s from the Burton film, and it signals the start of that “toyetic” period when Batman, his props, vehicles, outfits, and supporting cast start looking like action figures and Transformers. In that sense, Burton’s Batman directly enabled Schumacher’s—some fans try to claim Burton’s as a serious, purist interpretation compared to Schumacher’s campy trash, but a binary distinction between the two is hard to sustain. Batman comics and movies were not “high art” in the late 1980s. That they sometimes thought they were, and that people sometimes made that boast, actually seems to amplify their sense of camp—of the ridiculous treated as serious. As such, looking back now from 2012, the late 80s Batman has a great deal in common—far more than it would like—with the Pop Art, TV version of the late 1960s.

On the other hand, Dark Knight Returns seems too different from Year One for both titles to be grouped together in a tie. Dark Knight Returns, with all its crazy genius, bears more of a family resemblance to Dark Knight Strikes Back and All-Star Batman and Robin than it does to the more downbeat, small-scale Year One. Year One looks back to Miller’s street-level, hard-boiled work on Daredevil , while Dark Knight Returns is the more operatic, big-screen, larger-than-life Miller who unfortunately seems to have taken this aesthetic to undisciplined extremes in all his more recent offerings.

Drew: I would agree with Will that Burton’s films, in retrospect and when placed in dialogue with Nolan’s interpretations, are not particularly “grim and gritty” or mature. Re-watching the first two films last summer after not having seen them for about a decade, I was overwhelmed by just how goofy—particularly Batman Returns—they can be. They don’t hold up well, nor do I think they completely capture Miller’s work. I do, however, stand by the statement that the success of Miller’s books gave Warner Bros. the confidence to provide the financial backing for the 80s and 90s cinematic incarnation of the Dark Knight.

2. Batman: The Killing Joke. Alan Moore, Brian Bolland

Drew: Alan Moore and Brian Bolland’s The Killing Joke is more of a Joker origin story than a Batman title. The book weaves together two thematically similar stories: the events that led up to the creation of the Joker and the Joker’s attempt to drive Commissioner Gordon insane. In the flashback sequences, Moore tells us the story of the unnamed man who will become the Joker. A former chemical engineer who attempts to change careers and make a living as a stand-up comedian, the man’s life begins to crumble when his career change doesn’t pan out and his wife becomes pregnant. With his back against the wall, the failed comedian turns to a life of crime and attempts to rob his former employer, falling into a vat of chemicals while fleeing from Batman in the process (adding to that thesis that Batman and the Joker are symbiotic characters). Much like the Joker of Nolan’s The Dark Knight, Moore’s Joker seeks to prove to Batman that a bad change of fate can ruin anybody’s life, even Gotham’s Whitest Knight . . . which he attempts to prove by shooting Barbara Gordon in the spine. Moore and Bolland phenomenally weave the stories together, using graphic matches to provide continuity while providing a chilling design of the Joker, complete with a fang-lined rictus.

Will: This is one of my least favorite Batman titles ever; or rather, as there are so many substandard, lack-lustre, badly-crafted Batman stories from the last 73 years—inevitable, when you’re producing so many stories every month—I think it’s the worst of the prestige, polished, and celebrated Batman texts.

Yes, it’s well-made, technically; and for me, that somehow makes it worse. Moore rehearses and experiments with the showy scene-changes and wordplay that would reach a more mature expression in Watchmen; Bolland exercises his usual painstaking line work and detail, but never really succeeds in capturing a sense of motion or fluidity, rather than a series of mannequins frozen in a pose and arranged in neat boxes.

The story is at best sneeringly clever, rather than intelligent, thoughtful, or interesting. There are puns, showtunes, flashbacks, conjuring tricks. It offers approximately the same psychological complexity as the last scene of Psycho: dime-store stuff to justify the charismatic villain and give him a shallow motivation. Its shock value lies largely in shooting a young woman in the spine and stripping her naked.

And this is what I dislike most about The Killing Joke, and don’t think I can ever get over. This story about Batman and Joker uses Barbara Gordon, who by that point had been in continuity for two decades, and violates her to illustrate the love-hate relationship between two male antagonists. Moore’s return to scenes of rape and sexual violence in so much of his work is becoming increasingly creepy—it features in every volume of League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, and of course also in Watchmen—but to use a long-standing female character as a pawn (actually, as porn) in a bigger game, to prove a cheap point about the similarity between Batman and Joker, and to change that character’s continuity for the next twenty years for the sake of that one story, is reprehensible.

1. Batman:  The Long Halloween. Jeph Loeb, Tim Sale

Drew: Set in Frank Miller’s Year One universe, The Long Halloween chronicles Batman’s continued battle against the Falcone family . . . this time with assistance from Jim Gordon and Gotham’s new District Attorney, Harvey Dent. The three men vow to take down the family’s organized crime interests, agreeing to bend but not break the laws of society. Their investigation is challenged when a mysterious killer lacking their moral compass begins killing off members of the family, one by one. The three men begin to suspect one another of the murders, each of which occurs on a holiday, providing the killer with his name: Holiday. Loeb folds in the usual peanut gallery of villains to the mystery plot, allowing the Joker and Poison Ivy to come along for the ride, while he and Sale show us how Harvey Dent became Two-Face. The story is as much a gripping mystery as it is a beautifully designed gangster epic (complete with not-so-subtle homages to The Godfather) that just so happens to take place in Gotham City and it is at its best when it analyzes how moral choice intersects with the bonds of masculine friendship.

Will: I enjoyed the Loeb and Sale partnership from the first Thieves’ World graphic novel adaptations in 1985, and still greatly admire their work on Daredevil Yellow, Spider-Man: Blue, and Superman For All Seasons, but Loeb in particular has really lost his charm for me.

The Long Halloween worked fine as a monthly series, running throughout the year like a calendar through Christmas, Valentine’s, and the Fourth of July. Its gimmick was successful in that context, helped by Sale’s decorative, themed covers.

But as a book, I think it shows the fundamental flaw in all of Loeb’s longer narratives, as well as the problem with his narration and writing as a whole. In terms of longer-term story arc, his plotting is inherently episodic. Each chapter of Hush, Dark Victory, and, to a significant extent, Long Halloween, introduces a monster-of-the-month, giving Sale an opportunity to show us his version of each character; it’s like a dark ride through a theme-park Gotham City, with a different “rogue” in each room. The doors close behind Joker, and this month we’ve got Two-Face. Next, Scarecrow has a cameo, his guest slot wrapped-up by the end of that episode. There’s an underlying mystery and some good, smaller-scale, noirish moments with the non-costumed cast, but Sale’s stories feel too much like trick-or-treat with the big-name guest stars. Yes, Drew’s term “peanut gallery” hits the mark, too. Loeb’s longer Batman stories are a night at the circus, a Muppet Show, a panto.

On the more immediate level of script, he falls back too often on the device of giving each character a distinctive dialogue schtick—nursery rhymes, quotations from Alice, popular songs—and relying on that in place of personality. Batman, as narrator, has the task of ploddingly recapping each episode, using fragmented captions in the poor-man’s-Miller, “hardboiled” mode. “Two-Face. Harvey Dent. Once a District Attorney. Now . . . He’s deadly.”

Sale’s work here, to be fair, is often remarkable, with a striking  use of shadows and angles, a feel of 1940s cinema and a distinctive take on all the regular cast—including the huge Bruce/Batman himself. I’d happily flick through and enjoy individual panels and splash pages, and there’s no denying that these books were a useful influence on Nolan’s film trilogy. But I feel no inclination to read this, Hush, Dark Victory, or the Catwoman spin-off, When In Rome, again: they’re just not as fun as you remember them from the first time.

READ PART TWO HERE.

2 comments for ““You wanted me . . . Here I am.” Five Best Batman Comics of All-Time Part 1

  1. Jeff
    January 22, 2013 at 11:49 am

    What? No Death In The Family? Even as an honorable mention?!

  2. LeMasquerader
    January 24, 2013 at 3:11 pm

    Tie-ing Year one & TDKR together was a silly thing to do, not making TDKR second was your next silly move because although I love TDKR I think the long Halloween deserves #1 spot. and the killing joke isn’t that good. the artwork is especially boring.

    at least the knight-fall saga wasn’t in this list (reading it all now, it ‘ain’t so hot)

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