July 2005

Bill Baker


Where to Begin with Batman

By now a fair number of you have seen, heard, or read about the recently released Batman Begins film. I enjoyed it both as a critic and a fanboy and found it to be a generally solid and entertaining film -- despite a few very minor missteps that really aren't worth addressing here. Even those trifling problems are largely negated by some nicely drawn and delivered plot twists and revelations, the fine cinematography and design work, and a group of performances which were enjoyable, often delivered with real brio and relish, and which were at other times marked by a startling, subtle simplicity of being there in the moment. Pretty damn good for a "comic book movie" when all is said and done. Better still, this appears to have the makings of a movie that will reward repeated viewings, a fact that bodes well for the feature's future release on DVD.

All of which, hopefully, will lead not only to a greater awareness of the essential nature of this long-lived character among a large portion of the non-comics reading populace, but also trigger an interest in discovering the rich and varied source material that this and the other filmmakers tapped into when creating their own versions of the Batman. And when those hordes hit their local comic shops and bookstores, or jump online looking for some great material featuring the exploits of that infamous millionaire playboy Bruce Wayne and his notorious alter ego, DC Comics will be ready and waiting to supply a steady and strong flow of collections and original graphic novels to satisfy even the most jaded of readers.

The best place for those interested in discovering the true roots of the Dark Knight Detective to start would have to be The Batman Chronicles. Released to coincide with the new flick's debut, this well packaged, low cost softcover edition boast beautiful reproductions of both story and covers, and provides the perfect entry point into "The Bat-man" mythos. This is the first volume in a series, and also marks the beginning of a major pop culture preservation project -- namely, the reprinting of each and every Batman story in chronological order in affordable trade editions. All of the earliest tales, from his very first appearance in Detective #27 [May, 1939] up to and including the contents of Batman #1 [Spring, 1940], are presented in this volume. The stories themselves range from the archetypal -- such as "The Joker" in the inaugural issue of Batman, which introduced that devilishly childish embodiment of an indifferent, capricious, and often cruel universe -- to some that adventures that almost verge on the blasphemous for some die-hard fans of "The Bat."

[Insert Batman Chronicles interior pages here]

Consider, for instance, "Professor Hugo Strange and The Monsters," another tale from Batman #1, which has a somewhat desperate Batman not only using a gun to stop criminals, but also knowingly killing individuals who are essentially innocent of willful wrongdoing. Today, that kind of moment would become a "Major Publishing Event" and take up an entire summer, all the while consuming the page count of an entire line of comic books, to unfold. Here, it takes place over the space of a few pages and, aside from the hero's brief outburst of regret and an unspoken pledge to never do the like again, the entire incident is largely forgiven and forgotten. You'll see little or no modern emphasis on the angst of the hero or other characters here, despite the later inclusion of his traumatic origins, although there is plenty of meat and potato characterization and storytelling -- which can be either a blessing or a curse, depending on how married one is to the modern manner of realistic characterization and presentation.

Still, The Batman Chronicles is worthy of attention for more reasons than the historical. Quite simply, each one of these stories -- even with all of their rough edges, rawboned narrative pacing and sometimes spastic characterizations -- still have the power to charm, enthrall and entertain readers of all ages. And at $14.99 for 190 pages of full color comics, you really can't beat it as a means of meeting the Batman in all his original homespun glory.

Of course, not everyone will want to submerse themselves into the Batman legacy, or might want a wider sampling of stories from the character's library featuring six-plus decades of noir-tinged superheroics. And it's precisely those readers, folks who generally prefer to sample a wide variety of approaches to a theme or character, who will probably be best served by Batman: The Greatest Stories Ever Told.

While it's true that each fan would compile their own sort of Reader's Choice, it's pretty hard to argue with the tales included here. Ranging literally across the spectrum, from the earliest days of the strip to an issue of the spin-off title Batman: Gotham Knights published in late 2002, each of these tales provides a real and telling look into the character and his world, and, by extension, that particular tale's creators and their worlds. Whether it's the righteously angry avenging angel of Bill Finger and Sheldon Moldoff's "Robin Dies at Dawn," the tormented good man pondering the price others must pay for his dedication in Mike W. Barr and Alan Davis's "...My Beginning... And Probably My End" or the tightly wound, nearly manic Batman envisioned by Mark Millar and Steve Yeowell in "Favorite Thing," driven to do anything and everything in a last ditch attempt to literally recapture a nearly lost piece of his lost childhood, the Dark Knight proves to be as much a mirror of his times as it is reflective of the start of the medium or even his current creators' sensibilities. And, even if you're not interested in such niceties, each one of these is a real winner, and entertaining at worst.

And finally, for those who are more taken by the sheer spectacle and symbolism of the character, for those more interested in the design and presentation aspects of the comic book medium, and for those readers who are just looking for a book chock-a-block full of beautiful and evocative and arresting and just plain cool images, DC has just released Batman: Cover to Cover. Subtitled The Greatest Comic Book Covers of the Dark Knight, this is a hefty tome featuring many of the most important covers that have adorned covers of the various Batman family of books over the years. Created more with the casual reader and art book crowd in mind than someone looking for hard and fast illustrated factual information, this slickly designed package can be read straight through, or dipped into randomly and sampled as the mood takes you. Either method will deliver any number of rare and common delights, visual and otherwise.

The covers are displayed thematically rahter than chronologically, which could well prove a bane to some, and might well drive hard core fans and historians away. But they'd be cheating themselves of some truly tasty art featuring the Dark Knight, his friends and foes, as well as incisive and revealing commentary by a large number of creators directly connected with Batman --artists Jerry Robinson, Neal Adams and Alex Ross, writers Geoff Johns and Neil Gaiman, and even folks like Adam West, who played Gotham City's Favorite Son on TV in the '60s -- on what makes a particular cover or image so important to them. These anecdotes, combined with the clear and elegant presentation of the sundry excellent covers, and the occasional caption with nuggets of historical and other information, make this an irresistible book to both read and look at. I've repeatedly found myself returning to this book time and again since giving it a thorough reading, and I have yet to find myself unsurprised by some new aspect of it. I've come to realize that even some of the more patently ridiculous of these cover image concoctions often have a real, if rough beauty and rightness to them, while some others are seem to strike a chord that's so deeply buried in my psyche as to almost seem monolithic and a natural product. Now that's good, entertaining design work.

If there's any downside, aside from the lack of an index, to this otherwise excellent collection, it's that it might have been more fully captioned. I say this because it's hard not to notice how many of the illustrations are missing anything beyond artistic attribution and publication date information, as opposed to some historical or continuity nuggets of interest or note. It would have been nice to see more of this throughout, and ideally for each piece chosen, rather than for a select number of images. Still, that's really a niggling point, and probably not a concern for most readers who will be interested in adding this fine art book to their collection.

The Batman Chronicles by Bob Kane, Bill Finger and various
DC Comics
ISBN 1401204457

Batman: The Greatest Stories Ever Told by Bob Kane, Bill Finger and various
DC Comics
ISBN: 1401204449

Batman: Cover to Cover
DC Comics
ISBN: 140120659X