Seasons of the Bat

Let’s take a look at some graphic novels featuring everybody’s favourite caped crusader.

Batman – Haunted Gotham

Written by Doug Moench, illustrated by Kelley Jones & John Beatty

This extended story is set in a reality where Gotham is isolated from the rest of the world, albeit in a peculiar manner (people can visit, but nobody resident can leave), and has become the hunting preserve of demonic entities who prey on the souls of good people when they die. Bruce Wayne’s parents are members of a group that works behind the scenes to preserve some sort of status quo, and when they are killed he learns the truth of Gotham and what his father has been training him for all his life, taking on the mantle of the bat as predicted when Bruce was born. His first task is to save the soul of his mother from the demons, and in this he is helped by various allies, including Commissioner Gordon and the mystic Cat Majik, while among the things they must contend with is an attack on Wayne Manor by a horde of zombies. Well, the Batman has always veered towards the dark side, which is probably why I like him so much, and in this story Moench puts the horror centre stage, while the illustrators pull out all the stops to bring his grisly creations to lurid life on the page. What we get is an entertaining and interesting variation on an old theme. It feels rather like Batman crossed with the grisly EC Comics of yesteryear, complete with yawning graves and severed limbs, and is immense fun to read, though I did have some slight reservations about the back story and how Gotham came to be such a liminal realm (though I guess that was always in the cards too, given how far out there the city is in the ‘proper’ comic).

Batman – Unseen

Written by Doug Moench and art by Kelley Jones

Another macabre offering from the Moench and Jones team, but this time set in the Batman universe rather than some ‘imaginary’ alternative. Old nemesis the Black Mask is back and making Batman’s life a misery, but the real menace here is a rogue scientist he finances. Dr. Nigel Glass is working on a formula for invisibility, and as he gets closer to his goal various layers of his body turn transparent, making Glass a meat man monster who goes on a rampage driven insane by the changes in his chemical and psychological makeup. Glass is a man with serious issues, and regards Bruce Wayne as an enemy, so when full on invisibility is achieved he heads off to Wayne Manor to settle scores. Again, I had some reservations, such as the Black Mask’s ability to finance Glass’ research (I imagine invisibility doesn’t come cheap), but overall this was an excellent reboot of Wells’ concept with the bonus of a Bat in the works. Glass’ madness is both convincing and horrifying for the way in which it plays out, the absence of consequences for his actions and the sense of superiority that gives rise to. Moench adds some extra frills, as with the Mask’s comic cutout henchmen and Batman’s concern that he may have lost the edge he had through the fearful hold his bat persona had on Gotham’s criminal fraternity (you can only get hurt so often before the reputation for invincibility takes a knock). The end game, with Batman using the landscape and other tricks to counter his opponent’s advantage is pleasing and credible. It left me wanting to watch the old Universal film of The Invisible Man again.

Batman – Private Casebook

Written by Paul Dini, illustrated by Dustin Nguyen & Derek Fridolfs

This volume gathers together several adventures which presumably originally appeared in one or more of the comics, though provenance isn’t given. Batman takes on a resurrected Ra’s al Ghul. He battles the Wonderland Gang. He delves into the history of the Suit of Sorrows. In a two parter he takes on animated dummy Scarface with a little help from the sorceress Zatanna, and there’s more than a hint of attraction between the two, playing counterpoint to the relationship between Scarface and his handler. In a story with cameos by Catwoman and a reformed Riddler, Batman tracks down a serial killer. Finally, there’s a brief solo outing for Zatanna, driving a criminal gang mad with her hallucinations. There’s a bitty feel to these stories, and mostly they’re to be read in a pass the time sort of way with no sense that any major events are taking place or story arcs being moved on. Filler would be the best description. The exception would be the Scarface story, mostly for the growing chemistry between our two hero(in)es and what we learn of the back story of Peyton Riley, Scarface’s handler. Unlike the others it feels like a story with consequences and impact. The artwork throughout is striking, except for the serial killer story, where the Batman spends too much time in front of a computer screen (a novel approach to moving the story on that didn’t work as well visually), and we have a Robin who looks like crossed sticks on which a silly costume has been hung.

Batman – Battle for the Cowl Companion

By Diverse Hands

With the Batman dead, allegedly, all the creeps come crawling out of Gotham’s woodwork and it’s up to a ragtag army of heroes, some of their efforts co-ordinated by Oracle, to keep a lid on things. Commissioner Gordon singlehandedly takes down Mr. Freeze, making you wonder why he’s needed Bat backup all these years. Manbat goes on a rampage when Dr. Phosphorus abducts the wife of his human alter-ego, with keeping his savagery under control the biggest challenge he faces. A flawed do-gooder and descendant of its founder, guides us through the darker recesses of Arkham Asylum. With a new Batman killing criminals instead of capturing them, the Riddler, Catwoman and others investigate the mystery of his identity. Finally Oracle and her network take on the machinations of Hugo Strange, with the morals of the Huntress put to the test. There are some great ideas on display here; for example in the Hugo Strange story we get a variation on the who dies and who lives gambit used in The Dark Knight while the Arkham Asylum story shows that those beset with mental health issues are not necessarily monsters, despite AA’s reputation for housing criminals. Individually the stories work fine, but I don’t really get the sense of any grand design. Rather it feels like a mish mash of adventures that got parcelled together under a flag of convenience. Individual artwork is often striking, and thanks to the prevailing dark mood there’s a feel of aesthetic unity, a gestalt if you will, regardless of the many contributors. I enjoyed it, but not as much as the graphic novels in which one continuous story arc is pursued.

Batman – Heart of Hush

Written by Paul Dini, illustrated by Dustin Nguyen and Derek Fridolfs

This is perhaps my favourite of these five Bat offerings, mostly because the story’s arch villain is in so many ways the mirror image of Batman, the path not taken. As children Bruce Wayne and Tommy Elliot were best friends, members of Gotham’s privileged plutocracy. But while the death of his parents spurred Bruce on to become the Batman and battle crime, Tommy’s parents were abusive monsters who drove him to ‘redemptive’ violence and taking on the identity of Hush. As an adult he hates Bruce Wayne, the shining example constantly held up to him by a manipulative mother, and sees Wayne as his sworn enemy. He is a ruthless opponent who knows all of the Batman’s secrets and will strike at him through those he cares for, adding an extra frisson of menace to the plot. I loved everything about this story, not least the way in which important details of Bruce Wayne’s past are filled in, and the horrendous threat to Selina ‘Catwoman’ Kyle. There are some wonderful little touches, such as Hush’s constant quoting of Aristotle, not least in the early scenes where he tackles another villain by the name of Doctor Aesop, who uses fables in his MO. We learn the role of Peyton Riley and the Scarecrow in helping to shape Tommy Elliot, and we see Zatanna’s interest in Batman’s love life. There’s an effective interlude where Batman has to tackle a young boy infected with Bane’s venom, and Catwoman’s reckoning with Hush is handled magnificently. The overarching plot is engrossing, with what we learn of related matters and the psychological depth of Hush’s characters’ development only adding to the appeal. Hush is a monster, but there is an element of tragedy to his story so that is possible to empathise with him to a degree even while deploring his actions. He is not simply a one-dimensional bat villain of the week. The artwork is moody and evocative, capturing perfectly the tone of this story of two friends who have fallen out, showing the attendant triumphs and reversals of fortune as the plot unrolls. I have one minor quibble – why do the artists insist on portraying Robin as a scarecrow with too large a head? He looks ridiculous and entirely unconvincing as a costumed crime fighter. That aside, I loved everything about this graphic novel, which was originally serialised in Detective Comics #846 – 850.

So what Batman graphic novels do the rest of you like, if any? Anyone read Arkham Asylum and/or The Killing Joke and care to offer an opinion?

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