BOOK REVIEW: Batman: A Death in the Family by Jim Starlin, et. al.

Batman: A Death in the FamilyBatman: A Death in the Family by Jim Starlin
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This collection gathers comic books first published in the late 80’s, telling the story of the demise of Jason Todd (the second Robin) and the rise of the third Robin, Tim Drake. There is an intriguing interactive element to the story of Todd’s death as readers were allowed to vote on whether the character would be killed off or not by way of a phone hotline. The challenge for DC was that when readers did decide to ax Todd the publisher couldn’t tell whether the decision reflected a preference for a lone-wolf Batman, or whether they just didn’t like Todd.

The reason it might have been the latter is that Jason Todd was written as a much more sassy, impudent, and disobedient Robin than his predecessor, Dick Grayson (i.e. who’d shed sidekick status to become Nightwing.) Todd’s teenage insolence can be seen in this story when Batman puts him on probation after some rash action while crime-fighting. Having found a clue that puts him on the trail of his birth mother, Todd goes on a global walkabout searching for her. With comic book convenience, Todd’s pursuit of meeting his mother brings him back across the path of a Batman who is out to stop the Joker. When Robin is asked to maintain surveillance on the Joker while Batman sets off to interrupt a convoy of poisonous gas, the seeds of self-destruction are sown.

This isn’t a Gotham-centric Batman story, but reflects the geopolitics of the 1980’s. Batman and Robin reunite in the Middle East, and the story proceeds to the United Nations as the Dark Knight attempts to end the Joker’s reign of madness. When the Iranians make the Joker their Ambassador to the United Nations, Superman is brought in to make sure an enraged Batman doesn’t do something that will cause an international incident. Superman’s role is neither extensive nor, given his vast powers, particularly interesting.

When DC was putting together this collection, they apparently thought that leaving the story with a bitter, despondent, and angry Batman wasn’t the way forward, and so they include the story of how Tim Drake becomes the third Robin. (Even though it makes for an odd narrative kink and tone shift.) Drake is a boy Sherlock Holmes. Having deduced that Batman is Bruce Wayne and noticing that Batman has become more reckless in the wake of Todd’s / Robin’s death, Drake stalks Dick Grayson in an attempt to get him to return to being Batman’s sidekick. Grayson isn’t interested in the demotion, and the guilt-ridden Batman has no desire to partner up again, feeling that he got the last one killed.

I enjoyed this collection. The fact that it includes powerful consequences gives it some emotional resonance and narrative tension. (Of course, in comic book fashion, Todd doesn’t stay dead, but that doesn’t happen until long after this run.) I found the shift to the “Teen Titans” books (i.e. the part involving Drake and Dick Grayson) makes for an odd turn-about in the story. But it’s understandable as it’s a dark story line otherwise. (I would have preferred more on the front end to show why I should care that a rash and disrespectful twit got killed doing what he was told not to. Long time readers will have some sympathies for Todd [his execution by readers was of a narrow margin, after all], but just based on this book one may feel Todd got what was coming.)

This book presents a crucial moment in the Batman canon, and should be read by any one interested in the Dark Knight’s story.

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BOOK REVIEW: Batman: Arkham Asylum by Grant Morrison

Batman: Arkham Asylum - A Serious House on Serious EarthBatman: Arkham Asylum – A Serious House on Serious Earth by Grant Morrison

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This is the third, and probably last, installment in my “Happy 75th Anniversary, Batman” series of reviews. Batman: Arkham Asylum is an attempt to convey a nightmare on the page, and it succeeds both graphically and narratively. It’s quite different from other Batman comics in style and content. It takes the dark nature of the Dark Knight’s mythology to the extreme.

There are two story-lines woven together in Batman: Arkham Asylum. The main line involves Batman entering an Arkham Asylum being run by the inmates. There he finds himself pitted against his foes: the Joker, Two-Face, Scarecrow, and others. The other is the 19th century tale of Amadeus Arkham’s descent into madness.

As is common in the Batman mythology, psychiatrists are portrayed as walking the razor’s edge between sanity and insanity. For those who don’t read comic books, this is most readily exemplified by the character of Dr. Crane / Scarecrow in the first film of the Nolan trilogy, Batman Begins. I’m not sure whether the point is to create enemies that are so strong they can bend doctors to their will, or if there is a general disdain for psychiatrists—as one might see a dislike of lawyers in other stories.

Among the nightmarish elements of this work is the fact that Batman’s face is never seen clearly. The Dark Knight is always a vaguely and/or surrealistically silhouetted. There’s a mix of sharpness and haziness in the graphics. The Joker gets his own crazy scrawl font. The graphics are as creepy and strange as can be. On my low-end Kindle, the work was in black and white, which worked well. I did look at the sample pages, and the color version uses a lot of sepia and crimson.

Batman: Arkham Asylum asks us to consider whether Bruce Wayne / Batman is sane or just a lunatic with a moral code.

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BOOK REVIEW: Batman: The Dark Knight Returns by Frank Miller

Batman: The Dark Knight ReturnsBatman: The Dark Knight Returns by Frank Miller

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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A couple of reviews ago, I covered Frank Miller’s Batman: Year One, which imagined the first year of the Dark Knight’s venture into crime fighting. The Dark Knight Returns is Miller’s take on the other end of the Caped Crusader’s career. It begins ten years after the last sighting of the Batman. Commissioner Gordon is on the verge of retirement, and there’s a mix of new and old threats rising.

There are four parts to this work. The first, also entitled The Dark Knight Returns shows the rise of a powerful gang of thugs called “The Mutants.” The way this gang’s leader is drawn makes him look like he truly is an altogether different species, but it’s his filed teeth and his bulky physique that account for his appearance. The main battle is with the “rehabilitated” Harvey Dent (a.k.a. “Two-Face,” an inappropriate moniker as his face has been fixed and his flighty psychiatrist ensures the community that Dent’s mind is fixed as well.) We see Bruce Wayne’s concern about the deteriorating state of Gotham and his eventual return to crime fighting, which is instigated by a freakish bat flying through his [closed] window. Wayne takes the bat as a sign from the universe that the Batman is indeed needed. Dent engages in a terroristic plot which the Dark Knight must try to foil.

As was the case in Batman: Year One, the story of Commissioner Gordon plays out in parallel with that of Bruce Wayne / Batman. However, in the third book, Gordon has retired and it’s the new Commissioner, Ellen Yendel, who shares the spotlight. Yendel, unlike Gordon, promptly issues an arrest warrant for Batman.

Book Two is called, The Dark Knight Triumphant, and it’s in this episode that Batman comes up against the leader of the Mutants. As in Batman: Year One, Batman arrives to the fight as an underdog. However, as would be expected, the nature of his underdog status is completely different. In Year One, Batman is a supreme physical specimen, but is green to crime fighting. In The Dark Knight Returns we see a battle-hardened veteran Batman who is a spry geriatric, not up to fighting young, mutant thugs. However, as with the former comic, the Dark Knight does redeem himself. Many of the Mutants, being fair-weather friends to their leader, form a cult of Batman in the wake of the Dark Knight’s victory over their former boss.

Besides broadening the readership demographic to retirement community dwellers, another new demographic is appealed to with Carrie Kelley, the new Robin. There are references early in the book to the profound effect that the death of Jason Todd had on Bruce Wayne. Be that as it may, Batman seems quick to bring this young girl into harm’s way given the lingering wound of Jason Todd.

Book Three, Hunt the Dark Knight, pits Batman against his ultimate nemesis, the Joker—who like Dent—has been sprung in no small part due to his lunatic psychiatrist. Miller continues the popular Batman comic disdain for psychiatrists, who are portrayed as a small nudge away from becoming bat-shit crazy (pun intended.) While the battle against the Joker provides this chapter’s crime fight, Commissioner Yendel’s war on Batman is a major part of the storyline. We also discover that time has not been as kind to Selina Kyle as it was to the men of this series. (i.e. Gordon is old but distinguished, and Batman has pretty much the same preternatural physique that he did as the young batman.)

The Dark Knight Falls is the last section, and it’s the most famous for the battle between Batman and Superman. Earlier in the book there’s a foreshadowing call from Clark Kent to let Batman know that the Superman will be out-of-town for a while. Appropriate to the 1986 issue date of this comic, a Cold War crisis is the event consuming Superman’s time. These Cold War tensions result in a nuclear missile launch that Superman diverts, but the Man of Steel hasn’t read up on the Electro-Magnetic Pulse (EMP) effect. [Incidentally, Miller didn’t read up on the use of nuclear weapons as an EMP either, or—at least—he gets it completely wrong. Perhaps, he just figured that his readers wouldn’t know the difference–and he’s probably right. At any rate, I’m not deducting stars for bad science.] The power outage caused by the EMP results in looting and societal chaos. Batman quells this with the help of the cult of Batman mentioned previously. However, this doesn’t go over smoothly with some, which results in Superman’s invasion of Batman’s Gotham turf, and the ultimate battle.

I enjoyed this work more than Batman: Year One in part owing to the serious enemies that the Dark Knight must vanquish. I’d agree with the common view that this is a must-read for those interested in the canon of the Caped Crusader.

Also, if you aren’t a comics fan but are wondering how Batman and Superman could end up fighting–as per the upcoming Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice movie–this might give you some insight. [Though I wouldn’t expect that movie to follow this work in any of the vaguest ways.] Also, there are other Caped Crusader versus Man of Steel interpretations out there, though this is probably the most famous.

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