Comics - John C. Kirk
Feb. 19th, 2010
01:49 am - Comics
I've been re-reading some of my Batman/Superman comics recently, partly so that I can decide whether they're worth keeping. For the most part, I'd say "no"; I don't think that my tastes have necessarily matured in the last few years, but I do have a stronger sense of my own preferences, rather than feeling that I ought to like something because it got good reviews elsewhere, or revering stories for their historical significance. Having said that, some of these are useful to demonstrate storytelling technique. That's partly because I still aspire to create my own comics at some point, and also because of a quote from The Unwritten: "I learn about how stories work for the same reason that soldiers learn how to strip a rifle. You should, too."
Batman: Year One
This is written by Frank Miller: I liked his work on Daredevil, although Sin City doesn't appeal to me. It's a good story, and it's less cynical than "The Dark Knight Returns" or "The Dark Knight Strikes Again". At the end, Gordon sees Batman without his mask, but claims that he's pretty much blind without his glasses on; it's nicely ambiguous as to whether he's telling the truth or not, given that he would recognise Bruce Wayne if he saw him. I'm glad I bought this, but I think I've now read it enough times that I'm not going to get any more out of it.
Batman: The Long Halloween, Batman: Dark Victory
These are both from the same creative team: written by Jeph Loeb and drawn by Tim Sale. Both books were highly recommended by various internet reviewers, but I'm not really keen on them. I still bought "Dark Victory", though, because I assumed that I must be missing something in the first one that everyone else appreciated. Looking at it now, I wonder whether these simply had novelty value: they're mainly about Mafia families, i.e. guys in suits rather than costumed villains. (Also, they're set soon after "Year One", so they may have inherited some goodwill from that.) They're both murder mysteries, but I don't think the writer plays fair, i.e. there isn't enough information for the reader to solve the mystery until it's revealed.
This isn't really a Batman comic as such: it follows the Gotham City Police Department as they investigate crimes, so it's more like a police drama that you'd see on TV. I've only read the first paperback, but I'd like to read more. One of the interesting ideas here is that the police really don't like using the Bat-Signal, because it's an admission that they can't handle the job themselves. (The "No Man's Land" story picked up on this later, when Gotham was closed but Gordon couldn't get a job anywhere else because other cities didn't think he'd be able to run a police department by himself.)
Superman For All Seasons
This is another comic by Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale. The story isn't particularly interesting, but I do quite like the artwork. Whereas the Batman art was quite gloomy, this is a bit more colourful, although in a quiet way. I particularly like the double page spread right at the start, showing the Kent farm in Smallville: it's not cluttered, but there are lots of nice details, e.g. the pair of boots outside the door (one on its side), the pie cooling on the windowsill, and the chickens in the yard. It's not perfect; in particular, I think the water butt would work better if the drainpipe was attached to it! Still, this serves as a good example of composition.
Batman: The Killing Joke
This is a fairly short comic (a "graphic novel" rather than a collection of monthly issues), written by Alan Moore: his comics tend to be thoughtful rather than just punch-ups. It's mainly significant because the Joker shot Barbara Gordon (formerly Batgirl), paralysing her from the waist down. However, the comic isn't really about her: it's about Batman, Joker, and Commissioner Gordon. The key question is whether one really bad day can push someone over the brink, and make them abandon their morality. It's not Moore's best work, but it's worth reading.
Batman: Turning Points
This is a set of stories set at various points in Batman's career. The creative team do a competent job, and I enjoyed reading it, but five days later I don't really have anything to say about it, so it didn't leave a lasting impression. It's worth reading, and I bought it cheap in a sale so I don't begrudge the cost, but I don't think it's worth keeping.
Batman: A death in the family
The death in the title refers to Robin; more specifically, this was the second Robin (Jason Todd), who got the job after Dick Grayson went solo as Nightwing. This story is quite well known, mainly for the "behind the scenes" aspect: DC ran a phone vote to decide whether Robin should live or die, and the result was narrowly in favour of death. In case you're wondering, the Joker was the one who did it: he beat Robin with a crowbar, then left him tied up in a room with a bomb about to go off, and locked the door from the outside. So, it's significant for its implications: specifically, this left the way clear for Tim Drake to take over as the third Robin.
However, what if that the vote had gone differently, and Robin had survived? The following issue was already written and drawn, so there was just one page that had two versions. In the final issue, Joker is appointed ambassador for Iran (sorry, "Qurac") and Batman wants revenge despite the diplomatic immunity; presumably this would have been much the same either way, with just a few lines of dialogue changed, and Robin recovering in hospital off-panel. In that hypothetical scenario, the story would basically be the same, but it wouldn't have the same significance. Would it still be worth reading? Personally, I'd say no. Granted, I think that this is the only story I've read with Jason Todd, so it may have had more impact if I was attached to the character, but the plot itself is badly written. For instance, it revolves around Jason Todd trying to track down his mother, after he discovers from his birth certificate that he was adopted, but the name on his certificate is smudged. As several other people have pointed out, he's been trained by the world's greatest detective, so looking for the city's copy of the certificate might have been better than dashing round the world following his father's address book!
By contrast, one of my favourite comics is "Spider-Man: The Death of Jean DeWolff" (written by Peter David). At the end of chapter 3, Spider-Man realises that the Sin-Eater (the killer) is en route to J. Jonah Jameson's house; Jameson is out of town, but Betty Brant is there visiting Jonah's wife. So, Peter phones the house with a desperate warning, but when Betty answers the phone she looks up to see Sin-Eater standing across the room, pointing a shotgun at her. She doesn't say anything, so Peter gets quite frantic:
"Hello, Betty? Betty, is that you? Betty, say something! Are you there? Betty, you're in danger! Get Marla and get out! Betty, Sin-Eater is still loose! He's coming there! You've got to get out! Betty, do you hear me? Get out of the house! Get out of the --"
At that point, Sin-Eater opened fire, blasting a hole through the back of the chair that Betty was sitting in, and the final panel was just black. Now, it turns out that Betty survived, by ducking under the desk at the last moment, and I know that because I've read this story several times before. However, even knowing that, it still gets my pulse racing every time I re-read it, and I have a lump in my throat. So, a good comic can build tension without actually killing characters off, but a bad comic is still boring even when a character does die.
Batman: Sword of Azrael
This is the story that introduced Azrael (Jean-Paul Valley), who later took over as Batman after Bruce Wayne got his back broken (during "Knightfall"). Again, it's significant in terms of the ongoing Batman continuity, and Joe Quesada (who went on to run Marvel) did a good job designing the two versions of Azrael's costume. Unfortunately, it's very badly written: Batman and Alfred are amazingly cavalier about the whole "secret identity" thing, and there's a lot of expository dialogue which doesn't fit the characters' speech patterns. (There are a couple of points where other characters ask "Why are you telling me this? I was there!")
The most annoying thing is that sentences in captions are frequently split across two panels. For instance, looking at p35:
Panel 4 (picture of crashed helicopter):
Alfred: "Do you know what happened, master Bruce?"
Batman: "Yes. As we were about to land, I caught the gleam of sunlight on metal on a ledge part way up the --"
Panel 5 (picture of two guys on mountainside):
Batman: "-- mountain. Looked like somebody aiming a rocket launcher. I'd bet the Wayne fortune that someone's named LeHah."
In a situation like that, the word "mountain" could easily fit into the previous panel. I can see what the writer is trying to achieve, because this corresponded to the change in location between panels, but it really irritated me. So, I'm inclined to say that it's worth keeping this book around, just as a reminder of "What not to do"!