Tuesday, 20 October 2015

The Many Fathers of Batman

Batman, as I’m sure you’re aware, has himself some Daddy issues. Seeing your parents gunned down as a child will do that to a man. A Freudian would say that he’s frozen by trauma at the point where he still sees his father as a god, so when he becomes a man and hence becomes his father, he tries to become the same. We all know how that turns out.

The main way that Bruce’s loss of a father expresses itself, aside from the whole Kevlar Dracula thing, is in the vast collection of surrogate fathers he collects around himself. Bat-books have been rolling off the presses for 75 years now, and in that time Bruce has collected a truly staggering number of older gentlemen to raise him. From Zatara to Wildcat to Henri Ducard, each has imparted some nugget of dubious wisdom to shape the frightened billionaire child into the clown punching ninja we know today.
Long Halloween, Jeff Loeb and Tim Sale
I’m going to dig into three of the best-known of these fathers. These are all men who have played an instrumental role in moulding the Caped Crusader, men he's turned to as replacements for the late lamented Thomas Wayne. Two of them have done a poor job, in completely opposite ways, and one of them is just the father that he needs. 

Before we begin, let me just say – I understand that this is fiction. These aren't real people with internal worlds, and anything that could be said about them can be immediately countered with “but that’s necessary for the story to work” or “but that’s just comics.” Those things are certainly true, and I’ve employed them often enough myself, but let’s be honest here – they’re not very fun. I want to take a scalpel to these characters, and that means pretending that they’re real people whose actions have motivations and consequences. I hope that you can come along with me.

Another thing – yes, this is all about fathers. It’s not like Bruce didn’t have a mother, but unfortunately her role in most versions of the story is to turn up and get shot. Her pearls are better known than she is. There have been a few stories that attempt to flesh her out - Greg Rucka’s excellent Batman: Death and the Maidens and Andrew Vachss’s terrible Batman: The Ultimate Evil leap to mind - and you can even see the pre-nu52 Leslie Thompkins as a replacement maternal figure for Bruce. In the end, it’s the male role model that writers have chosen to focus on, so I’ll be following suit.

Batman  686, Alex Ross
First up - Alfred Pennyworth. Legal guardian and manservant to Bruce, faithful right hand to Batman. This former actor and British intelligence agent comes to serve as the Wayne family’s butler after his own father passes, and adopts the paternal role after the death of Thomas and Martha. He's been there almost from the beginning, first appearing in 1943's Batman #16. though he was originally a rotund bumbler and comic relief before being revitalised by William Austin's slender, moustachioed portrayal in the Batman serial later that year. Today he serves as Batman's mission control, quartermaster and faithful right hand in his war on crime. 

Alfred's role in shaping Batman cannot be underestimated. It was his strong hand that got Baby Batman through those first dark days, teaching him that there was still goodness in the world even after the most important people in his life were snatched away. Without him there would be no Batman, even if he might prefer to see young Master Bruce settle down with someone nice instead of going out in the rain every night to catch his death of cold.

Batman RIP, Grant Morrison and Tony Daniel
A stalwart ally, and a fine father figure, it’s true, but consider: this is a man who allowed a traumatised child to grow into a man who spends his evenings clenching his teeth on gargoyles and falling in love with literal cat burglars. There have been many versions of the Batman origin story, but when Bruce takes on the mantle of the Bat, Alfred is usually shown to briefly protest and then go along with things completely. He’s utterly indulgent of his ward, incapable of exhibiting any sort of control or limitation, until his entire life becomes focused around another man’s flying-mammal-themed monomania. His initial resistance to Bruce’s obsession dissolves into little more than the occasional cutting remark and reminders to eat and sleep. He’s completely without self, a trait which reaches its logical conclusion in Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns, which has him dropping dead the instant Bruce retires from crime fighting.

Alfred might have Bruce’s best wishes at heart, but a father needs to set boundaries, and he is incapable of doing so. Despite his wealth of personal experience, he accepts that Bruce knows better than him in virtually every circumstance, putting his charge’s needs before his own regardless of the cost. Don’t get me wrong – I’m not saying that Bruce should lose the cape and get to a therapist’s office, though maybe sticking his head in now and then wouldn’t help – I’m saying that it’s unhealthy for Alfred’s will to be completely subsumed by Bruce’s.

What’s at the opposite end of the spectrum to Alfred? Who is the father that demands everything and gives nothing? Well, that would be Shirtless Duel Enthusiast and all around bad person Ra’s al Ghul.

Batman #244: The Demon Lives Again, Denny O’Neil and Neal Adams

First introduced by Denny O’Neil in 1971, the man known as the Demon’s Head is an immortal Middle Eastern (despite every live action casting choice) warrior who leads the League of Assassins, an organisation which has variously been a cult, an army and an ecological terrorist groups. His motivations shift from writer to writer, but generally he pursues his own brand of brutal, uncompromising justice, with no qualms about killing thousands in pursuit of the greater good. His brilliance and resources, combined with the belief that his personal trauma gives him the right to reshape the world, makes him a perfect foil to Batman. Ra’s has often expressed the desire to see Batman join him in his mission, either as his right hand or even his successor.

Son of the Demon, Greg Rucka and Jerry Bingham

More than once, Ra’s has been placed in a position to guide Batman onto a darker path. His daughter Talia is one of the Caped Crusader’s most persistent love interests, and the Demon has regularly expressed the desire to see the two of them mated – it’s hard to live a few thousand years without developing an interest in eugenics, after all. He demands everything from Bruce and Talia, and sees them as nothing more than pawns for his eternal mission. This gets literal more than once -  in The Return of Ra’s al Ghul he tries to take over the body of his grandson Damian (gross) and in Batman Beyond he pulls it off with his own daughter (GROSS!). In Son of the Demon Batman goes to live with Ra’s in his Bond Villain Ice Fortress for some reason, and Christopher Nolan’s version even trains him in the way of Frozen Lake Ninjutsu. On TV, Batman stand-in Oliver Queen submits himself to Ra’s tutelage as well - I haven’t finished season 3 of Arrow, but I assume that he finds an appropriately shirtless way back to the righteous path.

Batman always pulls himself back onto the side of the angels, but it's been a near thing more than once. There's something very seductive about what Ra's offers him - a chance to truly change the world, to alter whole economies and governments instead of stopping crime one mugger at a time. The price, however, is too high. Even an indomitable will like Batman's can't take take charge of the League of Assassins without becoming a killer - after all, it's right there in the name. Ra's might see him as a son, and certainly respects him more than he does anyone else, but he cares nothing for Bruce's moral code. He doesn't even delight in trying to make him violate it, in the way the the Joker so often does - it simply doesn't doesn't matter to him. Nothing matters to Ra's except for Ra's.

So we have two fathers – one who gives too little, and one who gives too much. One who cares only for his own will, and one whose will has been completely subsumed. There has to be a middle ground, doesn’t there? Someone who can provide guidance while still allowing his charge to flourish, someone who represents a structure that Batman can press against, but grow and learn in the process?

That’s where this guy comes in.

Battle for the Cowl: Commissioner Gordon, Royal McGraw and Tom Mandrake

Police Commissioner James Gordon debuts all the way back in 1939’s Detective Comics #27, the very first Batman story. We actually see Gordon before we see the man himself. Jim is Gotham’s most stalwart guardian, doing with a dirty trenchcoat and a six shooter what Bruce does with a billion dollar budget and a superpowered alien best friend. He’s a man with a strict moral code, one that he’s flexible enough to bend when circumstances demand, and arguably the man that Batman respects the most, excluding those who changed his diapers. In most versions of the story, he’s the one that Batman goes to first when he starts looking for allies, recognising that vigilante work on his scale is impossible without the help of the one good man in Gotham's corrupt police force.

Most importantly for our purposes, he’s a man of the law, something that Batman definitively works outside of. Gordon is at first deeply reluctant to work with this masked stranger, and Batman has to prove that he’s on the side of the angels before the grumpy old cop will trust him. Different versions of the story show this unfolding very differently, with the Nolan version taking his side almost immediately, while Snyder's Zero Year gives Gordon a deeply antagonistic relationship with both Bruce and Bats before he slowly comes around. In the process, Gordon’s moral code becomes Batman’s, or at least serves as one of its guiding lights. 

Batman #0, Scott Snyder and James Tynion III

Gordon calls out Batman when he needs to be called out, talking straight to the scariest man in the city. Bats might not always listen, at least not at first, but in the end he comes around. He needs the structure that Gordon provides, much as he might sometimes rage against it, or see himself as being above it. Much like a child, he might want to be able to do whatever he wants, but it's when placed within a set of rules that he respects and understands that he flourishes. The Gotham legal system, as broken and corrupt as it might be, is that structure. Batman isn't judge and jury, and he certainly isn't the executioner - that's why captured criminals wind up trussed up on the steps of the police station, rather than being directly punished by Bats himself. (usually - we can talk about Ten Nights of the Beast another time) In both a direct, character sense, and a broader narrative sense, Gordon represents this truth.

Batman: No Man’s Land volume 4, Greg Rucka and Rich Burchett
Gordon provides Batman with legitimacy. Because he accepts Batman, working with him as closely as he can, Batman is able to operate in his city relatively unmolested. Without that support, his mission would be near-impossible, something we see in stories like Zero Year, Year One or the animated series episode Over The Edge. Batman ignores Alfred’s wishes and fights against Ra’s al Ghul’s, but Gordon’s are paramount to the success of his mission. He is the father that Bruce cannot ignore, and his is the trust that he cannot do without..

The Dark Knight Returns, Frank Miller

How much does Gordon trust Batman, you might ask? How certain is he that this masked rubber fetishist isn’t going to turn on a dime and start collecting heads? Completely. After all, he trusts him with the most precious thing in his world - his daughter. Gordon’s eldest child, Barbara Gordon, aids Batman in his war on crime, first as Batgirl and then as Oracle and eventually as Batgirl once more. She’s the high flying computer genius that Batman needs, and though the idea doubtless terrifies him, Gordon lets her choose her own path.

Okay, technically, Gordon doesn’t know. But let’s be real: he’s the second greatest detective in the city. He’s extremely close to his little girl. He see’s Batgirl all the time. He knows. Like the best sort of father, he does what he can to keep her safe, but he lets her make her own choices. Just as he does with Batman - he might wish deep down that he'd take off the mask and pick up a badge, but he understands that his strange, growly-voiced son is doing things his own way, and he's learned to respect that.

The New Batman Adventures, Over the Edge (episode 12)

Batman: The Killing Joke, Alan Moore and Brian Bolland
The trust between Gordon and Batman is strong, but it isn’t unconditional, and that’s important. Gordon understands that Gotham needs Batman, and he works as closely with him as he can, but that’s contingent on Batman’s hands remaining clean, or at least clean-ish. Batman goes where the law can't, and uses morally grey tactics that Gordon wouldn't, but he doesn't kill. This is for his own moral reasons, of course, but it serves a functional purpose as well. Bruce knows that if he were to ever cross that final line, he would lose his greatest ally on the spot.

The more you think about it, the clearer it becomes that Gordon is the key to understanding Batman. Alfred and Ra's represent two possible failings for Batman - a collapse into complete self indulgence on the one hand, or an abandonment of everything that sets him above his enemies on the other. Gordon is the father figure that keeps him on the straight and narrow, letting him be himself, but not so much that he forgets the needs of others. Gordon’s guidance is healthy, and Gordon's fatherhood is the most necessary, quite simply because it leads Batman to be his best and truest self.

The New Batman Adventures, Holiday Knights (episode 1)

Thursday, 3 July 2014

I know that there's been no new content for a while, friends, but perhaps you'd like to read something that I wrote about video games? The Ladyist Experiment was kind enough to publish some of my thoughts about the new Supergiant Games release, Transistor, called Transistor: Voice, Agency and Enormous Swords. The rest of the blog is a great read, all about the presentation of women's narratives in all forms of art, and well worth going through when you're done with my scribblings.

Friday, 13 June 2014

The Conversation That Led To: Death of Wolverine's Covers

MARVEL GUY 1: So Wolverine's gonna die.
MARVEL GUY 2: Well not like DIE die, but yeah, die.
MARVEL GUY 1: Should have fancy covers for this.
MARVEL GUY 2: Foil holograms?
MARVEL GUY 2: Blood?
MARVEL GUY 1: Listen. Wolverine is basically just his claws, right? He is literally just his claws
MARVEL GUY 2: I'm not sure that...
MARVEL GUY 1: So the covers are his claws exploding into blood. BLAM.

MARVEL GUY 2: They explode
MARVEL GUY 1: Just straight up explode. Then his hand. A new bloodsplosion on every cover. BLAM.
MARVEL GUY 2: Do we see what makes them explode?
MARVEL GUY 1: And we end with a metal bone fist. It's so metal.
MARVEL GUY 2: Don't you think that that's, I don't know, a little derivative?
MARVEL GUY 1: Of Terminator? I think that we can swing it.
MARVEL GUY 2: No. Event books with covers that have more blood each issue.
MARVEL GUY 1: I can't think of any others.

MARVEL GUY 1: Nobody read Watchmen.
MARVEL GUY 2: Oh. I kind of feel like...
MARVEL GUY 1: Literally nobody. 
MARVEL GUY 2: Okay well what about superhero event comics...
MARVEL GUY 1: Been plenty of those
MARVEL GUY 2: That end in a death...

MARVEL GUY 1: Never with a hand, though.
MARVEL GUY 2: Ugh. No. Never with a hand.
MARVEL GUY 1: So we're great!

Friday, 6 June 2014

More for Less - The Best of the Comic Book Miniseries

Comics are an unusual medium, my fellow traveler. I don't imagine that I have to tell you that, as both an art form and an industry, comics do a bunch of things that you just don't get anywhere else. One of those things - and I'm primarily looking at company owned superhero joints here, though you get it in a few creator owned books as well - is the fact that these stories are meant to be indefinite. This gives rise to a lot of strange narrative tics, including the extremely temporary nature of death and the occasional reality warping reboot that only one person remembers (I'm talking about you, Psycho Pirate), most of which we consider pretty much part and parcel of comics. But what happens when you throw that out? What happens when you write comics with a limited run, comics that by their nature get to wrap things up instead of being trapped in the perpetual second act of your Batmans and Uncanny X-Mens and what have you?

That's all a rather convoluted way of saying: there are some really great limited run comics in the world, and I want to talk about them. These aren't reviews as such, but I would certainly encourage to check out all the titles mentioned below. I should point out that some of them are still running, though they're all far enough along that I feel confident in giving you the thumbs up to jump on board.

Before we jump in - I know you're not stupid, reader. If you haven't read Watchmen and 300 and V for Vendetta and all those, I'm sure that they're on your list. You don't need me to tell you that they're essential reading. You're here because you want to find something that you didn't already know about. Lets just assume that we've already talked about those giants, and dig down into the interesting stuff, shall we?

Joe the Barbarian, Morrison and Murphy
First up is a Vertigo miniseries that pretty much vanished right after it came out, which was a real shame because I think it's a corker. Joe the Barbarian, from Grant Morrison and Sean Murphy, typifies a lot of the sort of thing that you see in limited runs. It’s got a unique, original premise that wouldn't really hold up for an ongoing book, but is perfect for a short run like this. In a nutshell, the titular Joe is a kid with very severe diabetes who fails to take his insulin while alone at home and promptly goes into a hypoglycemic shock and begins to hallucinate. He finds himself in an fantastical world populated by his toys and action figures, as well as his pet mouse and all sorts of other things that leak out of the real world and into the dream. The story intercuts his dreaming quest with his real-life struggle to find a source of sugar in his house. Seeing King Death closing in on Joe's dream self, and knowing that this means the end is close for him in the real world, makes for an incredibly powerful tale, and the epic scope of the fantasy world combines brilliantly with the urgency of his real world danger. Morrison has name-checked Lord of the Rings and Alice in Wonderland in terms of inspiration, but the things that made me think of when reading it were the movie The Labyrinth and large portions of Neil Gaiman’s Sandman, in particular my favourite story arc, A Game of You. The art is simply gorgeous, popping with detail and expression and life - Murphy’s style is a combination of sketchy and detailed that I simply adore, and this isn’t the only time that he’ll be appearing in this list.

The entire run of Joe the Barbarian is available from Comixology in a single bundle.

Hard Boiled, Miller and Darrow
Hard Boiled is easily the oldest miniseries here - it came out from Dark House all the way back in 1990 - but I want to include it to highlight the way that a limited series like this can be a great way to introduce a new talent to the world. Then-up-and-comer Frank Miller brings us an incredibly visceral, violent little work here, a dystopian nightmare that would easily be at home in the pages of something like Heavy Metal. It doesn’t make a great deal of sense, but it’s a hell of a ride, and Geoff Darrow provides obsessively, lushly detailed images of carnage and mayhem. It's abstract in the most nightmarish sort of way, and that's something else that you can really only get away with in the short form - something that would become wearing and finally if it were to come out week after week stands as a savage, mean-spirited little kick in the guts when it only goes for three issues. The amount of detail on offer in the art is easily the best part, with Darrow making me think of greats like Moebius or Frank Quitely on more than a few occasions. There are more than a few pages that one could become completely lost in, picking out every last piece of twisted metal, shattered glass and torn flesh. Hard Boiled is not for the faint of heart, not by a long shot, but if you've got a strong stomach and don’t mind style coming well before substance, it’s worth seeing where one of today’s biggest stars first made his name.

Hard Boiled hasn't made its way online just yet, but you can pick up an ink-and-tree copy at The Book Depository.

The Private Eye, Vaughn and Martin
One that has been chugging along in between other projects from the creator is Brian K Vaughan’s The Private Eye - he writes a little book called Saga that you might have heard of? Anyhow, it's a direct-to-web series slated for ten issues, with six out so far, on a pay-what-you-want for which the impoverished scribes at Notes From Crime Alley are deeply appreciative. There's a deliciously high concept, "ripped from tomorrow's headlines" setup at the core - the complete death of privacy. A few years before the story kicks off, every private detail for everybody in the world got dumped online. Every embarrassing search, every anonymous message, every secret little purchase. Everything. Now, privacy is the most precious commodity in the world, and people adopt dramatic public personas in order to protect it. The story itself is relatively straight forward - the main character is a paparazzi photographer, one of the foulest criminal occupations in the new world, and he finds himself wanted for the murder of his latest client. Nothing you're not familiar with if you've read any detective story ever, but It’s the wonderful details that go into this thoroughly fleshed out world that make it worth reading - cops are now called journalists, photographing someone without their consent is a federal offence, and the mask and costume businesses are booming. Marcus Martin's art is a touch simple for my taste, but it burns with vibrant colour that’s perfectly appropriate to the technicolor, hyperreal future. Plus, it's all formatted for the screen, in landscape view, something that not enough digital works are doing. It makes a real different to the experience of reading it, not having to scroll up and down a portrait view page just because that's how pen and ink books do it.

The Private Eye is sold directly by Panel Syndicate from their website.

Criminal: Lawless, Brubaker and Phillips
Criminal, from Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips, doesn’t exactly fit my established model, but I’m going to jam it in here anyway because I love it so dang much. What I mean when I say it doesn't fit is that it's not one miniseries but six, each linked in with the others to one degree or another, but also standing on their own. It's best to read them in publication order, but you could pick up whichever comes to hand and get a complete story. They’re crime books, as you might have guessed from the title, grimy and realistic stories with neither the hysterical, cartoonish pathos of your Sin Citys nor the fantastical elements of Powers - just broken, brutal, lost people going about their lives as best they can. The art is jagged and rough, a snarling mix of muted colour and pitch blackness that perfectly present these savage, beautiful tales. Each of them is based around a standard crime trope, like the drug deal gone wrong or the man who goes back to his hometown to seek revenge, but these well-worn premises are rehabilitated and given fresh like by the expert craftsmanship of Brubaker’s writing. That sort of metanarrative thinking isn't necessary to enjoy Criminal, though, as what really sets it apart from other crime stories is the detailed, compelling characterisation that goes into them. Too many crime stories rely on the lazy archtypes of the genre, especially once you get into the noir end of the spectrum. In Criminal, everyone is vibrant and unique, not to mention broken in their own special ways. My recommended starting point would be Lawless, but you could pick up any of them that you come across and find yourself immersed in this sleazy, provocative world.

All of the Criminal stories, as well as some deluxe collections, are available at Book Depository.

The Wake, Snyder and Murphy
The Wake, by Scott Snyder and Sean Murphy (again) is a story with a very unusual bit of trickery involved, that I'm going to do my best to not spoil for you if you haven't read it yet. Suffice to say that it starts out as one thing, and though it gives you hints that there’s something else under the surface, it's not until you hit the the halfway mark that it turns on a dime and transforms into something else entirely. The story starts out very simple and very low key - it’s basically a horror book set on the ocean’s floor, with a ragtag group of scientists trying to survive an encounter with terrifying merpeople - very much something that James Cameron would have done back when he made good films. Just as you think you know what you’re reading, though, EVERYTHING changes, and the the scale expands suddenly expands exponentially, swapping out the tight, claustrophobic setting for a global stage. Snyder is one of the fastest rising stars in comics today, and The Wake is as good an example of any for why this is; he pulls off the transition with aplomb, and while the sudden change in cast and scenery is jarring at first, looking back it’s really the only way that the tale could have played out. It’s also something that could only have been done in this sort of limited series - an ongoing might shake things up, but it has to return to something resembling the status quo sooner or later; when you’ve got an end in sight from the very beginning, you can throw everything out and have it stay that way for the duration.

Comixology has the first five issues - everything up to that big twist I won't talk about - available in a great value bundle right now.

High Crimes, Sebela and Moustafa
One more and then we're done, but this is a good one. I've talked about a few MonkeyBrains books in the past, and in many ways their creator-owned, straight-to-web model is perfect for the miniseries, allowing as it does people who haven’t quite committed to full time comics work to get their stuff out there even if it only lasts a few issues. Written by Cristopher Sebela and drawn by Ibrahim Moustafa, High Crimes is a crime story (I know, another one) with a wonderfully unique setting, taking place as it does in Kathmandu and on the slopes of Mt Everest. The obvious comparison is to The Eiger Sanction - yes, I really am that old - and the similarities are there, but there's a lot of unique stuff going on as well. The main character is a washed out Olympic snowboarder living in a haze of drugs and alcohol and working in an incredibly shady business, locating corpses on Mt Everest and selling them back to their families. The story kicks off when she stumbles across the wrong body, one that comes with a very suspicious diary and the obligatory roll of microfilm, and brings a team of black ops killers down on her head. Most of the story takes the form of a chase, one that rolls through the streets of Kathmandu and eventually, inevitably, up onto the slopes of Everest itself - the one place that she has an advantage. While the tale itself isn't the original thing in the world, the climbing details and Kathmandu setting are well researched and used in such a way to lend the proceedings a great deal of authenticity and originality. The art is sharp and simple, and the layouts do an excellent job of conveying the momentum necessary to keep the chase sequences taut, punchy and easy to follow. Moustafa also has a great knack for faces and facial expressions, which is important in a comic like this, with a large amount of back-and-forth banter between characters.

The first issue is free on Comixology, so what are you even doing still reading this?

So there we have it! As usual, I went on for a little longer than I meant to, but at least there were pretty pictures, right? One of them even had a cow in it. Cows are cool. Have you read any of these? What did you think of them? Are there any great comic book miniseries that I haven't picked up, and if so, what are they? I hunger for your comments, dear reader.

Thursday, 8 May 2014

Futures Unpleasant - The Worst Trend In Comics

Can we talk about something, dear reader? I usually use this space for reviews, for analysis, for something that at least pretends to be objective and informative. Today, I'd like to unload some junk, to have a quick rant about something that bothers the hell out of me.

I am sick to goddamn death of possible futures, alternate timelines and dimensional whatevers whose only purpose is to show our heroes getting brutally killed.

Escapist adventure in Kingdom Come
Comics are a weird, recursive field, and this is one of the most bizarre trends that could have come out of it. Think about it, though, and I bet that you can name a whole bunch off the top of your head. The Incredible Hulk: Future Imperfect, where the Hulk rules like a king and the heroes have all been killed. Batman: Red Rain, where Batman becomes a vampire and everyone gets killed. Kingdom Come, where the heroes have been supplanted by a new breed of violent assholes and...well, you get the idea. The worst of the bunch is almost definitely Punisher Kills The Marvel Universe, a book whose title gives away the entire plot and is basically Garth Ennis wallowing in all of his worst, most shock-tactic tendencies. Not to mention that fact that essentially every Marvel "What If..." story can be answered by the question "EVERYBODY DIES BECAUSE REASONS."

What's wrong with these stories, you ask? These people lead violent lives, surely a story that won't be a part of continuity has the freedom to show the logical conclusion of that? That's true enough, but the fact of the matter is that the books mentioned above, as well as the rest of them (Justice League: Rock of Ages, Old Man Logan, Ultimatum, Flashpoint, Age of Apocalypse, that weird issue of Spawn where he goes to hell and Batman and the Hulk are there, Wanted for all intents and purposes) is that they don't actually tell a story. They're nothing but gratuitous shock-fests, catering to the giggling 14 year old boy who wants to see Poison Ivy get beheaded or Spider-Man get shot in the face while pleading for his life. The readers who think that that makes comics ‘adult’ or ‘edgy’ when all they really are is gross and exploitative. They don't take the characters in any sort of interesting, alternative directions, and many of them (like Punisher Kills...) don't even tell a coherent story. They're exercises in shock and excess at the expense of character and story, also referred to as “THE THING MOST WRONG WITH COMIC BOOK STORYTELLING FROM THE EIGHTIES TO NOW.” 
The Dead Hero Pit of Old Man Logan

I don’t want to paint myself as some shrinking, hand wringing Pollyanna. I love gore, and violence, and horror. I thought that Animal Man was one of the best new series coming out of the New 52, precisely because it was so sticky and bloody and gross, and I love the blood drenched pages of American Vampire and Locke and Key alike. Thing is, those stories have violence that contributes to the story, violence that actually makes you feel something besides occasional disgust. The story is served by the fangs and dismemberment and carnage, rather than existing as a delivery mechanism for them.

There's one story that I haven't mentioned yet, firstly because it's the story that all of these others are ripping off, and secondly because it's actually not terrible. That story is Uncanny X-Men: Days of Future Past. Yes, it's angst-ridden and overblown and totally Claremont in all the best and worst ways, and yes it hasn't dated very well, and yes we see various heroes (including the normally unkillable Wolverine) get killed. But here's the thing: it matters. Days of Future Past is the most well-known appearance of the Sentinels, the villains who best  represents the mindless bigotry and hatred that the X-Men fight. It's the origin of multiple X-Men characters who would go on to play major roles in future comics, including Bishop and Rachel Summers. Most importantly, though, it's a really powerful and entertaining story, one that adds real stakes and gravitas to the X-Men setting in a way that readers hadn’t seen before, and in a way that virtually every other story listed here is trying to emulate. Hell, Age of Apocalypse is basically the exact same thing, using the exact same characters, only in reverse, so that it's about the bigotry of mutants and not humans which dooms the world. Way to miss the point, guys.
The original and still the best: Days of Future Past

To my mind, Days of Future Past is powerful because it says to the reader - "here is what happens if the heroes fail." It’s set in a worst case scenario, a world where all the major X-Men are dead or on the run and the foulest sort of human bigotry has taken charge of the world. Released in 1981 and set in the not-too-distant future of 2013, this grim vision of a possible future placed the characters under a cloud that would motivate their struggle for years to come. All of these other possible futures - Old Man Logan, Future Imperfect, Kingdom Come - are just things that kind of happen. Yeah, they can be prevented by stopping Superman from flapping his wings and starting a hurricane or whatever, but that's it. They don't provide an ongoing vision of the terrible future for the heroes to push back against in the way that Days of Future Past does, and even if they did they would just be a retread of that great tale.

Let’s round this out with a look at the complete opposite of Days of Future Past. Last weekend, just like you I imagine, I went out on Free Comic Book Day and stood in a ridiculously long line in order to get a handful of free comics that are basically just ads and are definitely also available online. Some of them were good and some of them were bad, but one of them was just bafflingly, overwhelmingly, terrible. That book was Future's End #0, the setup for the upcoming DC event where Terry McGuinness (of Batman Beyond) escapes to the present day from a terrifying dystopian future where - you guessed it - EVERYBODY DIES. 

This is a brutal, nasty book. Batman gets shot in the back. Peoples hands and limbs get chopped off. Superman is half robot and completely mind controlled, and Frankenstein HAS BLACK CANARY'S LIVING, OPEN MOUTHED HEAD IMPLANTED IN HIS CHEST. People talk about women being used as objects in other mediums, but only comics take it to such a literal, horrible extreme. I’m not joking when I say that every page in Future's End #0 contains a superhero dying, dead or mutilated into some new cyborg form, some of them horrible and many of them incredibly bizarre. Batgirl, for example, is now the Bat-signal from the waist down. I don't even know how to make a joke about that. There is simply nothing fun about these twenty-odd pages, just as there has been almost nothing fun about DC comics for maybe a solid decade now. 

Here’s the thing – none of this matters. One the last page, Terry travels back in time to the present day (or, I guess, “FIVE YEARS FROM NOW” because time travel stories when  you use a floating timeline are hard) with the mission of averting this all from happening. So why did we need to see all of this brutality? Sure, we need to know that the future sucks and we need to avoid it, but slaughter on this scale is nothing but murderporn. It completely misses the point of what made Days of Future Past great, dropping all the significance and leaving us with nothing but a smear of meaningless violence that doesn’t tie into ANY of the established themes of either Batman stories or DC in general. The worst part, of course, is that a) this story is apparently going to tie into every fucking DC book this year, and b) this is the free book that DC is using to draw in new readers. When you see Frankenstein wielding Black Canary’s sexdoll-blank face as a living weapon, remember, THIS IS WHAT THEY THINK WE WANT.

My recommendation - don't waste your time with this issue, because even for free, you're still only going to have so many years on this earth and you could be reading LITERALLY ANYTHING ELSE in that time. Don't waste your time with Future's End the series, either - if you're hungry for some future-Batman action, check out Batman Beyond, or Batman Year 100, or god help me Batman Digital Justice. You have options, and DC will only learn if you exercise them.

 I just don't need to see any more heroes get dismembered, you know?

Wednesday, 23 April 2014

Redemption and the Bat

Today we’re going to be dealing with a reader question, from Friend Of The Blog and all around good guy @goblinpaladin: “Does Batman's abhorrence of firearms and imposed restriction of no killing mean he believes in the possibility of redemption?”

Good question! Let me begin by answering it quickly, and then going into a bit more detail: Batman believes THE HECK out of redemption. It’s basically his whole deal. It’s why he’s not the Punisher. It’s why he doesn’t kill, why he sends his villains to an asylum, a place of healing. You might also say, "but Alex, isn't Batman also kind of a suspicious guy? Can't he sometimes also be kind of an asshole?" And you'd be right, for the most part. Here's the thing: Batman accepts the capacity for redemption in all people as a concept, but he basically never believes in it when he sees it.

There are a few caveats that I want to get out of the way before we dig into the nuts and bolts, and the first one is that you can find a Batman story to prove anything you like. The guy has been in print for seventy five goddamn years now, often in as many as six books a month, all by different writers, all of whom have their own idea of how the ‘real’ Batman behaves. There's gonna be done variance, and at the end of the day he’s a fictional character, so getting at what  "really" believes is always going to be a problematic endeavour. That said, there are degrees. Let me put it this way – there’s a difference between a story where Batman lets Catwoman come hang out in the Batcave, which is out of character but not impossible, and a story where he teams up with the man who killed his parents, USING THE GUN THAT KILLED HIS PARENTS, which is totally goddamn insane. Both of these things happened (Hush and Year Two, respectively) and both of them are terrible, but the latter is a far greater deviation from the ‘proper' Batman, for lack of a better word. That concept is also pretty subjective, and if you have a different perspective, well it's not like you're paying for this.

Let's just move right along...
The second caveat is that, of course, nobody who prances around the Gotham rooftops in a fancy costume in Gotham is ever going to reform their ways, not even the ones who got stuck with terrible names like Sportsmaster or Killer Moth, no matter how long they spend in Arkham Asylum. This is for the same reason that none of them ever stay dead, not even when they get burned to ashes and have those ashes spread into space, as happened to Ra’s al Ghul in “Messiah of the Crimson Sun.” It’s just the nature of serialised storytelling – one writer might genuinely intend for a character to have a resolution, but the next guy in line is still free to tear all that down and bring them back to status quo. Batman doesn’t know this, though, just as he doesn’t know that his sweet cape is actually the work of artist, colourist and inker, so in analysing his behaviour we have to work under the assumption that it might be possible for one of his rogues gallery to properly and permanently give up the life of crime. There have been a few stories to dig deep into the workings of Arkham and look for an in-story explanation for why any actual healing or reform is impossible there – Arkham: A Serious House on Serious Earth and Cages (from Batman Annual #2) spring to mind, but they’re both a little outside today’s scope.

"Cages", by Scott Snyder and Marguerite Bennett
To work, my friends, and let’s keep this simple. We’re going to look at a single set of stories that cover the length and breadth of the Batman mythos, a series that is consistent enough to be considered a single text but broad enough to form a microcosm of the larger Batman universe. You know what I’m talking about. The greatest appearance of Batman on television, Batman: The Animated Series. We're going to use the series to look at how he puts criminals away, how he treats them when they're released, and even what he thinks about the nature of their incarceration.

To my mind, the clearest examples in The Animated Series that demonstrates Batman’s belief in redemption are “It’s Never Too Late” and “Paging the Crime Doctor”. There are a lot of common threads between the two episodes, though “Paging the Crime Doctor” comes later and builds a lot on the setup of the first. “It’s Never Too Late” is essentially a reworking of the A Christmas Carol / It’s a Wonderful Life setup, with Batman taking an aging crime boss named Arnold Stromwell around Gotham and showing him the fruits of his misdeeds, encouraging him to turn state’s witness and end a destructive mob war with rival Rupert Thorne. It’s powerful stuff, culminating in Stromwell flashing back to the childhood tragedy that set him on the path of destruction before breaking down and vowing to change his ways. “Paging The Crime Doctor” runs in a similar vein, with Batman seeking to save Thorne’s brother instead of his rival, a doctor named Matthew Thorne who has been compelled to operate an illegal practice for his Thorne’s henchmen. Not only does Batman rescue him from Rupert’s machinations, he also pays for a top defence lawyer for him and testifies as Bruce Wayne, all in the name of getting him a more lenient sentence. This is despite Matthew having endangered the life of one of Batman’s closest friends, Leslie Thompkins, something that would usually earn you a date with a rope and the underside of one of Gotham’s higher gargoyles.

"Paging The Crime Doctor"
What’s the common thread here? Batman can tell the difference between those who are completely consumed by evil – Rupert Thorne, in both cases – and those who have a chance to be better people. Arnold Stromwell and Matthew Thorne have both made bad choices and done bad things, but they still have good in them, and Batman can see that. That’s not to say that they don’t get punished, since both characters end up facing jail time for their crimes, but Batman understands that if someone just reaches out a hand to them, they may well walk a different path in the future. Within the confines of his mission to help the helpless and bring down the guilty, he also does what he can to be that hand. He’s here to make Gotham a better place to live, and reforming those who can be reformed is absolutely a part of that.

But what does Batman do with those who have reformed, or at least claim to have done so? After all, there are several episodes which open with an Arkham regular being released and announcing their intention to go straight. Does Batman believe them? Like hell he does. Let’s break it down, starting with “Riddler’s Reform.” It opens with the Riddler’s apparent cure and release from Arkham, something that should be good news, but of course Batman doesn’t trust him. A truck full of question mark crates seems to bear this out, and of course Bats breaks this up, only to discover that it’s part of a shipment of games. Not deterred, he keeps following Riddler around, threatening him, disrupting his activities and accusing him of all sorts of crimes. He turns out to be right, of course, because a Riddler who goes straight isn’t nearly as interesting as a master criminal, no matter whatever comics of late oughts might try to make you believe. The point is, a criminal tells the world that he’s going straight, and Bats just can’t accept it. He wants criminals to give up their ways, but when they try, he doesn’t believe that they have. He’s complicated.
"Riddler's Reform"

This isn’t the only time, either. Poison Ivy even gets married and adopts a couple of kids in “House and Garden”, but when there’s a string of plant-based murders Batman is right there, knocking on her door and trailing her all around town. Another instructive example appears in “Birds of a Feather”, in which it is the Penguin who is released and makes a try for the simple life, albeit in his own disgusting way. Batman once again gets involved, first accusing him of being involved in a mugging which he was actually breaking up, and later assuming that he was stealing a statuette which he was in fact returning to its owner. This time, Batman actually starts to come around, starting to believe that the Penguin is genuine in his desire to go straight before the cruelty of others drive him back to his criminal ways.

Then there’s Catwoman, and I’ll be honest with you folks, it’s hard to get a read on where she fits into the whole question of redemption. Yes, Batman looks out for her when she’s not actively involved in stealing enormous statues of Isis, and he even saves her from becoming a walking Deviantart at one point, but the fact that he’s so very attracted to her means that he’s got as much personal motivation in turning her around as he does a legitimate belief in her capacity for good. It’s also worth noting that when she is paroled from prison in “Cat Scratch Fever”, just as with the Riddler, Batman doesn’t believe that she could have possibly gone straight, and sets out to keep tabs on her. Unlike Ivy or the Riddler, though, she’s telling the truth, and when circumstances find her imprisoned once again, it’s Bruce Wayne who pops up with bail for her release.
"Tyger, Tyger" - not what you'd call a "good" episode

One last example of a reform story before we move on, that his is a more complex version that I want to pay particular attention to. “Harley’s Holiday” has Harley Quinn being released from prison and goes on a shopping spree, only to be caught up in a series of misadventures that begin with her walking her rabid hyenas down the street and end with her accidentally kidnapping a socialite. It’s worth noting that the whole thing stems from the people of Gotham assuming that they know that Harley must be up to no good, coupled with her complete inability to behave in public. She does end up causing quite a bit of wanton property damage, and Batman brings her down and sends her back to prison, but here’s the thing: he understands. He doesn’t condemn her as a no good criminal, and he doesn’t say that she shouldn’t have been released. What does he say, then? “I had a bad day once too.” Harley’s not a bad person here, she’s just poorly socialised and unable to fit in. Yeah, she’s done terrible things, but that’s not who she is. This episode is largely pitched towards humour, but the producers also have something to say about ex-convicts and recidivism, namely that those who struggle to escape from a life of crime could do with an understanding ear, even if it does come from a grim figure of the night.

"Harley's Holiday"
So we see how Batman goes about bringing down particular criminals, and how he behaves when they’re released, but what about the time in between? What’s his attitude towards those who are incarcerated? For that, we need to turn our attention to an excellent episode with a terrible villain, “Lock-Up. This episode is about Lyle Bolton, the brutal head of security at Arkham Asylum. When Batman discovers the lengths that he goes to in order to keep the Arkham inmates under control, including intimidation, beatings and torture, he’s horrified. Under the Bruce Wayne persona he sets up a hearing into Bolton’s behaviour which leads to his termination, whereupon he reacts like everybody in Gotham reacts to anything that happens to them and becomes a costumed vigilante.

Now, It’s never stated precisely why Batman is upset about the treatment of the inmates, especially since they’re all guilty of terrorism, murder and abuse of theming several times over, but the likely explanation is that he feels they’re capable of reforming. At the very least, it indicates a support for due process and for the humane treatment of prisoners, which would indicate a position that the prison system is there to reform, not to punish. That might be a stretch, but seen in combination with the previous examples, it seems to be clear proof of Batman’s commitment to reform and redemption among Gotham’s cowardly, superstitious lot.

So there we have it! Batman believes that people can reform, but when it comes to individual criminals actually trying to do so, he tends to be kind of a dick about it. Agree? Disagree? Let me know, and be sure to follow along on Twitter at @CrimeAlleyNotes