Monday, September 12, 2016

ALL STAR RECOMMENDS BATMAN DAY SPECIAL



Batman. 
At least a dozen times a year I mouth off about how he's the most versatile, flexible character ever created. I'm pretty sure I've even said it here a couple of times before, but it does bear repeating-- try and think of any other character who has been proven to work so well in so many different genres. Written correctly, Batman's as capable of being a romantic lead as he is a detective, as perfect a warrior fending off an alien invasion as he is a literal vampire. Have there ever been as many differing incarnations of another character as there have been of Batman? And if so, have these different visions worked as well as (the majority) of Batman's have either artistically or commercially? He's the greatest superhero ever published.

With Batman Day right around the corner (this coming Saturday), it's time once again to celebrate the caped crusader -- 77 years young he is. Have a think about what kind of Batman you want to take home with you. There's a Batman, or several of them at least, for everybody. To prove it, here are a few of my favourite Batmen


COMIC OF THE WEEK : THE BATMAN ADVENTURES VOLS 1&2
By Kelley Puckett, Mike Parobeck, Rick Burchett, Ty Templeton & friends
Published By DC Comics

In the current mainstream comics climate of big, explosive, epic, ongoing storytelling, the fine art of the done-in-one is sadly becoming something of a bygone relic. I love a sprawling epic as much as the next reader, but there's something to be said about the single issue story and just how difficult they are to do correctly in mainstream comics - balancing the needs of forward motion and action with enough character moments and tying everything up in the prettiest of bows.

Writer Kelley Puckett seems to have all but disappeared from comics, which is a real shame as I'm not sure if there are many comics scripters on the planet as adept at crafting satisfyingly whole single issues stories month in and month out. Puckett’s stellar work on the Cassandra Cain Batgirl series, a character I'm surprised was not immediately relaunched upon the advent of the New 52, and especially on this week's book, The Batman Adventures, demonstrates a particular gift for carefully constructing clever, fun, simple and whole single issues. Puckett's plots are stripped back and minimal - he sets his stories in motion immediately and brings his characters out to play from page one. He somehow manages to squeeze in open action sequences for his artists to run riot in, terrific development of and interaction between his characters and uses his cast to further the plot, chase down the mystery and tie everything up neatly.  In the case of The Batman Adventures, this feat is even more impressive for the fact that, as an all-ages book, ease of reading and simple, uncluttered pages are an absolute must and that, in dealing with Batman, the status quo cannot be altered. Granted, Puckett gets off to a fairly slow start with his work, taking some time to settle in (I found the same with his Batgirl), but by issue #4 The Batman Adventures finds its feet and never, ever loses them.

Obviously spun off from the beloved Batman: The Animated Series created back in the 1990s, The Batman Adventures under Puckett's hand brought the cartoon's aesthetic and episodic nature to comics with seeming ease. The characters are as they act and appear in the show and the characterisation and dialogue is so on point you may well find yourself hearing the voices of Kevin Conrad as Batman and Mark Hamill as The Joker as you read.

The heavy lifting in making this particular Batman's transition back into the medium that originally spawned him is not Puckett's but his artists. Luckily for the writer, he was blessed with an astounding crew who hit the drawing table to bring his scripts to life. Ty Templeton kicked the comics series off, inked by the criminally ignored Rick Burchett (who I once met at in a bar after a crime fiction convention -- he is a lovely man) and together they capably begin distilling the TV shows elements and putting them on the page.

As handsome as the first handful of issues are, it's when Puckett and Burchett are joined by penciller Mike Parobeck that the series really hits its stride. Parobeck brings a bouncy sleekness to the title. His clear infatuation with the work of John Byrne marries so beautifully with the pop-noir of this particular vision of Gotham and the blocky, Alex Toth-esque design of the TV show's characters. Burchett fits his penciller perfectly, providing lush thick lines and textures that enhance Parobeck's slick and dynamic figures. Not only are the characters always in motion they are often in anatomical positions most artists would not even attempt to draw as they leap oddly or crumple upon impact with walls. Parobeck's arrival, with issue #8, makes an immediate visual impact and is also one of my favourite tales collected in the first two (of four thus far printed) trade paperback editions of the series thankfully now available.

Issue #8, "Raging Lizard," sees Batman on the hunt for Mandrake, a mobster from Chicago coming into Gotham to muscle in on local boss Rupert Thorne's turf. Batman tracks Mandrake to an underground fight club, where Killer Croc just so happens to be fighting. Croc's battling confidence issues after getting resoundingly smashed by a hulking opponent named The Masked Marauder and subsequently doubts that he has what it takes compete. Puckett, Parobeck and Burchett do a wonderful job of actually making Croc a sympathetic figure as well as humorously evoking the film noir cliché of the washed up boxer.


Another highlight is issue #13, "Last Tango in Paris," in which Batman and Talia team up to foil a nefarious plot and during a trip to Paris actually convincingly rekindle their strange romance, over the course of a mere four pages, before crime, manipulation and motive inevitably rear their heads again and force the pair apart once more. Between the Croc issue and the Talia issue alone there's more actual depth given to Batman's rogue gallery than in recent years of the main in-continuity book which seemed much more focussed on establishing villains as figures of cruelty and horror than as actual humans. Sympathy and tragedy are crucial to understanding not only many of the rogue’s gallery's motives but also reinforces exactly why Batman doesn't treat them with equal cruelty or even lethal force. Puckett also gives an origin (of sorts) for Scarface's speech impediment, reveals Scarecrow as nothing to be feared without his mask and even introduces a recurring character called Mr Nice who teams up with fellow white collar crims The Perfesser and Mastermind for crime sprees but cannot ever overcome his essential goodness and truly "break bad" no matter how hard as he tries.


The creators constantly pepper little jokes in throughout the issues. From two characters at a costume party dressed as Jaime Hernandez's iconic Maggie and Hopey ("who are you supposed to be?" a party-goer asks them) to a university student reading Samuel R. Delany's bizarre SF-porn classic, The Tides of Lust in class, to Puckett, Parobeck, Burchett and co. appearing as themselves being fired from the in-series comic "Gotham Adventures," there's a witty little sight gag virtually every issue, but they never get in the way of the plots or the action. Ripping through the rogue's gallery at a fair clip, the first two volumes alone feature Joker, Penguin, Clayface, Killer Croc, Talia, Ra's al Ghul, Scarecrow, Man Bat, Harley Quinn, Catwoman, Poison Ivy, Sacrface, The Ventriloquist along with assorted small timers, mobsters and murderers.

Preceding the "Bruce Wayne: Murderer" storyline by nearly a decade is Puckett, Burchett and guest penciller Brad Rader's "The Third Door" which sees Bruce arrested for murder. "The Third Door" is a beautiful and wry homage to Hitchcock and Welles virtually winking at readers all the way and Rader fittingly injects some Steve Ditko into Timm/Dini The Batman Adventures aesthetic, making the jailhouse scenes in particular feel like an old school crime comic.


Filled with masterfully condensed, beautifully illustrated stories, The Batman Adventures collections are a must for Bat-fans. I began revisiting the series when I put together the special all ages column months back and I had forgotten just how special so many of these stories actually are. Bruce Timm and Paul Dini may be regarded as the fathers of the look, the tone and the characterisation of the animated series, but Puckett and his artists, along with fellow veteran Martin Pasko, who guests on a couple of scripts within volume one, prove that "inspired by the series" is not just a marketing phrase slapped on the cover. The Batman Adventures aspires to the quality of the animated series as well as the genuine love that Dini and Timm poured into their work, and does it proud. Some of the best Batman stories of the 1990s are here, created by a team of vastly underrated craftsmen. Consider The Batman Adventures this Batman Day. I cannot imagine you'll be disappointed.


WEBCOMIC OF THE WEEK : BATMAN: PERPETUAL MOURNING
By Ted McKeever

I defy you not to be moved by this beautiful little short comic from the recently retired Ted McKeever. Originally published in the terrific Batman: Black and White anthology mini series, "Perpetual Mourning" sees Batman conducting a forensic post mortem on a murder victim. He's as thorough and clinical as you'd expect, but McKeever also shows the degree to which Batman deeply cares for the victims of crime, every single one of them.

McKeever's Gotham is a shadowy, industrial nightmare, a cold dark place of dilapidated vehicles, old buildings and trash filled alleys. The warmth of the place is with Batman himself and it's McKeever's vision of Batman as an ultimately human figure and a symbol of light and empathy in the darkness of all the surrounding squalor and violence that strikes most profoundly. Not just that, but he's also revealed to be a living memorial, a receptacle forever containing the memories of the city's dead.

It's a story that's as far away from the pop-noir cartoonishness of The Batman Adventures as you can get, but it works just as beautifully. Maybe even more so. "Perpetual Mourning" is a wonderful, wonderful little character study from yet another creator whose body of work is not held in anywhere near the regard that it should be. Nobody made comics like Ted McKeever not even, as proven here, corporate work for hire comics.



COMICS VIDEOS OF THE WEEK : 
BATMAN: STRANGE DAYS: BRUCE TIMM'S 75TH ANNIVERSARY SHORT


BATMAN BEYOND: DARWYN COOKE'S 75TH ANNIVERSARY SHORT

Returning, sort of, to the style and tone of Batman: The Animated Series is this three-minute short by that show's aesthetic mastermind, Mr Bruce Timm. Created as part of 2014's 75th anniversary specials, "Strange Days" dials the noir factor all the way up and sees a very retro looking Batman in action against both Hugo Strange and a particularly monstrous henchman. This is pretty much Bruce Timm channelling Batman creator Bob Kane's early look, short gloves, oversized bat-ears, and giving it the smoky, almost monochrome appeal of an old RKO film. It's wisely all-action and squeezes quite a few fisticuffs and Bat-gadgetry and explosions into its short runtime. Really cool stuff.

From here, you can also watch a Batman Beyond short that the late, great Darwyn Cooke made for Batman's 75th year, if you're in the mood. At a little over a minute long, it's not as stylish or attractive as the Timm feature, but featuring Batmen of all styles and eras it perfectly visualises my earlier argument about the multiplicities of Batmen we have access to and, looking at them all lined up, it's hard to find fault with any of them.

Timm:

Cooke:

See you next week. Love your comics.


 

Cameron Ashley spends a lot of time writing comics and other things you'll likely never read. He's the chief editor and co-publisher of Crime Factory (www.thecrimefactory.com). You can reach him @cjamesashley on Twitter.

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