Batman: The Return #1/Batman Incorporated #1

“Planet Gotham”

Writer:  Grant Morrison

Artist:  David Finch

Publisher:  DC Comics

Price:  $4.99

Grant Morrison (Arkham Asylum, JLA, X-Men) makes a major shift in the status quo of the Batman mythos  after he has Bruce Wayne publicly announce that he has been funding the Batman’s war on crime.  While this may seem reminiscent of Tony Stark’s revelation of being Iron Man, this actually seems to be the plan of Batman hinted at in Mark Waid’s classic mini-series, Kingdom Come.  A world of multiple Batmans and increased tech to keep the streets of Gotham safe (also the plan Batman would return to in the sequel to Dark Knight).  In other words, it’s still Batman working his same plan only thinking bigger.

Like with Batman/Bruce Wayne, Batman:  The Return pretty much declares this new vision and direction while at the same time hinting that there will be a shift in tone to the dark, brooding Batman we have come to know over the last few decades.  We see the obligatory check in with the Bat Family, starting with Dick Grayson and Damian Wayne, entrusting them with protecting the streets of Gotham.

“Starting today we fight ideas with better ideas.  The idea of crime with the idea of Batman.” –Batman

In a lot of ways, Batman/Bruce Wayne has shifted into visionary mode, a person with so many ideas that it is difficult to keep up with them.  This in and of itself is a shift from the ultra-focused Batman we’ve come to know.  This Batman is … enthusiastic.  Before, folks were swept up in his mania; now they are carried along by his passion.  And it’s too early to see if this is a brilliant or fatally flawed plan, but Morrison displays a confidence in his handling of the characters as well as the story.  Like Batman/Bruce Wayne, Morrison brings a lot of ideas to the table, not all of them are carried off perfectly, such as his extended metaphor of the wounded bat that opens the book.

David Finch’s art, interpreted by Batt, Winn and Steigerwald, was dark and moody.  His art direction is both eye catching and engaging, creating a motion to the story.

“Mr. Unknown is Dead”

Writer:  Grant Morrison

Artist:  Yanick Paquette

Publisher:  DC Comics

Price:  $3.99

At first blush, my instinct, based on experience with tie-ins to mega events, screamed that if you bought one book, you wouldn’t need the other.  That is far from the case here.  If Batman:  The Return laid out the mission statement, Batman Incorporated is the test run.  And from early on, it’s apparent that there’s a new story telling sheriff in town.

We begin with a journey to Japan and a world of Japanese crime fighters.  A global vision has to have global stories.  However, the new direction wasn’t in the setting, but in the jovial atmosphere of the book.  There is a buoyant humor, not to mention the innuendo laced, Nick & Nora-esque dialogue between Batman and Catwoman.  It seems like Batman isn’t operating from the wounded little boy who lost his parents and whose heart was set on vengeance, but that of a man who had found a measure of healing from that pain.

I was not a fan of the art.  While Yanick Pacquette and Michel Lacombe ably handle both Selina Kyle and Japan, something about it didn’t quite appeal to me that I still can’t quite put my finger on.

“No one can run from death forever.” –Mighty Lord Death Man

We know (and I use the word “we” to refer to those of the comic book intelligentsia familiar with the origins of Batman) that it is the tragic loss of his parents at the hand of a street criminal, and his subsequent thirst for Justice, that drives him into his new life.

Batman has always been a dangerously focused character. The death of his parents at the hands of a criminal gave him a mission in life, but how he went about his mission has led writers to depict him as either a revenge-driven psychopath (continuing to punish the man who killed his parents) or an ardent pursuer of justice (pursuing a higher calling and mission). So this hero’s journey has always been as much internal as it was external.

Similarly, the church already has its mission, the missio Dei, joining in God’s mission to be a blessing to the world. We are called to a mission of reconciliation: one to another and one another to God. God’s reconciling act is centered on the cross, a gift of freedom. The resurrection is a sign that the powers have been defeated, though still active. The cross transforms our condition while also providing an example of hope. A faith with present-future components: the present reality lived in light of a future one. Being united in mission is a sanctifying process. To fight injustice and oppression; ministering to neighbors; not putting up fences or moving away develops disciplines needed for growth. With the help of the Holy Spirit, we practice Pentecost and live out the Gospel. Reconciliation touches the most hidden parts of our souls. God gave reconciliation to us as a ministry that never ends.  One that we need to think locally as well as globally in terms of how we carry it out.

The change in direction heralded by Batman:  the Return and Batman Incorporated is a welcome one, a great start to this series.  Face paced, funny, and filled with a vibrant energy (words I wouldn’t have expected to describe any Batman work these last few years), I hope this direction continues this strong for a long time.

Batman: What Happened to the Caped Crusader? – A Review

Batman #686 and Detective Comics #853
Written by: Neil Gaiman
Drawn by: Andy Kubert

Published by: DC Comics

It’s always an event when comics legend, Neil Gaiman (Sandman, Eternals) returns to comics to do … anything. I can’t even imagine it being much of a discussion after “hi, I’m Neil Gaiman. I’d like to do a tribute to Batman.” This story harkens back to the classic Alan Moore (Watchmen) story, “Whatever happened to the Man of Tomorrow?” from Superman#423 & Action Comics #583.

“I guess I always knew this was how it was going to end. That we didn’t have him forever.” –Commissioner James Gordon

Gaiman manages to mine some of his favorite themes: childhood and storytelling and the magic and power of both. There’s not much action in this tale of Batman, but it’s more about someone mulling over their life and sorting through who he is and how he got there. There’s almost a bit of Canterbury Tales story structure to the story. Batman has apparently died and both heroes and villains have gathered for a funeral, giving eulogies about how they killed Batman. We go through numerous scenarios of how Batman could have died (including one version where Alfred becomes the Joker in order to facilitate Bruce Wayne’s obsession with dressing up as a bat. Every hero needs a villain to give him purpose).

“I fight until I drop. And one day, I will drop.” –Batman

The point of this story is that it really doesn’t matter how you die but rather that someday you are actually going to die. Your actions in this life have an effect that goes beyond what you may be able to see at the time. You don’t know how many lives you are going to impact, either positively or negatively. Some of the things you could learn from your funeral are: what was your life made of? Who did you impact? What did you accomplish? It boils down to how would you like to be remembered and how can you live the life to lead up to such a eulogy. And that’s something profound for anyone to mull over, even a Batman.

“Then one day someone comes along who makes sense of the madness. Who understand it. Who wants to fix it.” –Det. Bullock

To finish, strictly speaking, means to bring something to an end or to completion. In Acts 20:24, the apostle Paul writes that his own life didn’t matter to him as long as he’d “finish the race and complete the task” that the Lord gave him. For Batman it was a simple core belief, as he puts it, “I believe in laws and in right and wrong” and until he has finished the fight for justice, he lives by his credo of “don’t give up”.

The coolest part of “Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader?” was seeing Batman from various eras. Kubert’s art matches Gaiman’s story perfectly. The abstracts and symbolism, the nods to the various continuities, create such an insider brew that what’s being said gets rather garbled in the metanarrative. The story didn’t quite come together perfectly for me. This is a fitting capstone, however, to not just the Grant Morrison run on the book, but also for the recent “Batman: R.I.P.” storyline. Plus, it’s Neil Gaiman: even slightly off his game, the sheer weight of his ideas and narrative puts him head and shoulders above most everything else out there.

The Dark Knight – A Review

“To Job or not to Job”

The Dark Knight managed to do what few sequels fail to do: be better than the first (the brilliant Batman Begins). Like Iron Man, super hero movies are maturing and moving into new territory. Maturing doesn’t necessarily mean darker (as some seem to reflexively think), but rather deeper. All great movies start with a great script, and Christopher Nolan has teamed up with his brother, Jonathan (the team who brought us the classic movie, Momento), to provide a script with a depth and denseness. The drama affects us, comic book fan and non-fan alike, because the special effects don’t trump the performances nor the story. Bruce Wayne/Batman (Christian Bale) is clearly a troubled individual who struggles with his own humanity in the face of the war he wages. Now he becomes haunted by an adversary who wants him to shed his values in order to beat the devil at his own game.

Spider-Man 3 illustrated for us the folly of trying to cram too many origin stories into a movie, especially if knowing isn’t especially germaine to the storyline, character development, or theme. While several masked villains make appearances in The Dark Knight (Scarecrow, Joker, Two Face), we only see a “full” origin of Two Face (Aaron Eckhart). Continuing the pattern of forgetting about the previous series of movies, The Dark Knight corrects the travesty done in Batman Forever. In that, Joel Schumacher portrayed Two Face (I absolved Tommy Lee Jones of blame) as a mere henchmen, as opposed to his position as Batman’s number two nemesis (and, thematically, what Batman could become if he strays from his path). Only now do we get a serious examination of Two Face and in so doing, an examination of Batman, his mission, and his methods.

“In their desperation, they turned to a man they didn’t understand.” –Alfred (Michael Caine)

On the other side of the villain coin is anarchy’s clown prince, the Joker. Heath Ledger mesmerizes with his hopefully soon to be Oscar nominated, Jack Nicholson meets Johnny Depp performance as The Joker. The first thing you have to wonder is why anyone would want to be one of the Joker’s minions, after all, your time with him is always subject to random whims (read: being killed). Granted, there is a coercive element to joining his team which doesn’t command exactly loyalty or sacrifice. Also, he draws henchmen much like himself: psychotic, paranoid schizophrenics. However, the Joker is far from commonplace insanity.

“The only way to live in this world is to live without rules.” –Joker

We see a darker Joker than we’ve come to know, a truly frightening vision who sees himself not as a monster, but merely “ahead of the curve”. As Alfred points out, we’re dealing with someone who “can’t be bought, bullied, or negotiated with. They just want to watch the world burn.” A fractal personality, sort of a postmodern insanity, he creates a new persona and history each day. With no name, no alias, to deal with the pain, contradictions, unfairness, and insanity of this world fractured his personality. A super genius, the Joker is simply the embodiment of man’s capability of evil, the monster we’re all capable of being. In fact, that’s his motivation: he wants to expose everyone as being no different than him.

“It wasn’t what I had in mind when I said I wanted to inspire people.” –Bruce Wayne

And yet the Joker is a reaction to Batman. The rise of costumed super villains in a lot of ways is simply a matter of evolution. As good stands up to evil, evil in turn won’t go quietly into the night. With the arrival of Batman in Gotham City, the brand of criminals seem to rise to the challenge. The everyday muggers and mob bosses have to adjust to life among “a better class of criminals”.

The Dark Knight is not a simple meditation on good and evil. It’s a complex tale that reminded me of another story that examined the nature of good and evil, why bad things happen and how we choose to respond to them: the biblical story of Job. In the story of Job, the Satan goes to God and tells him that people only worship Him because He blessed them. So God gives him permission to test the best of us, his servant Job. First his wealth is taken from him, then his family, then his health. In the end, he chooses to keep his faith in God though he does have a few choice questions for God in the end.

Which brings us to The Dark Knight.

“Their morals, their code, is a bad joke.” –Joker

The Dark Knight follows a Batman: Year One meets the classic comic, The Killing Joke, storyline. In it we have a battle for people’s souls. The Joker, much like Satan, has a simple thesis: our morals, what we cling to as laws in our polite society are matters of convenience which goes by the wayside when times get hard. In short, everyone would be like him if they simply had a bad enough day. The Joker hopes to show the schemers—all those who seek control and make plans for their lives—how pathetic their attempts to control the events around them are. He takes the plans of those around him and turns them on themselves. He’s a walking social experiment, an agent of chaos. He continues to devise situations that test the fabric of the morality of Batman, the police, the law, and society in general, humiliating them in the process if he can.

In any social experiment there must be a choice to do right or wrong, a chance for redemption. Without that choice, the experiment is moot. In light of his personal tragedy, his parents having been killed in front of him as a child, Batman chose to devote himself to the pursuit of justice and defending the weak or defenseless. His mission was one that set an example for others who also believed in what he stood for.

“He’s a symbol.” –Brian (Andy Luther)

As solo a hero as Batman seems, he’s hardly as much a loner as we like to believe. Team Batman consists of Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman), head of Wayne Enterprises and provider of a lot of his technological toys; Harvey Dent, the face of justice in Gotham City; Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman), the police commissioner; Alfred Pennyworth, his faithful butler and the prophetic voice who speaks truth into Bruce Wayne’s life; and Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal), confidante and his personal hope for love and peace. Despite having many apostles, Jesus had his inner circle, for example, the ones he chose to witness his Transfiguration, and Batman’s circle of Gordon and Dent set the backdrop psychology of why no one wants to give up on Harvey Dent.

They face a crisis of methods. This “last temptation of Batman” was to catch a vision of what he’d have to become to stop men like the Joker, tempted by the idea of changing their ways in order to successfully fight this new band of villain. Theirs were the ways of law and order but the question proffered by the Joker was how far they were willing to go to preserve what’s right. To fight the good fight honorably or become like the Joker, without rules. The Dark Knight was literally the dark night of the soul (or as Alfred calls it, “a lesson in perseverance”) for Team Batman, but the fact that the night is darkest just before the dawn is lived in light of the hope that the dawn is coming.

“He can make the choice than no one else can. The right choice.” –Alfred

Our response to life’s trials is a choice. It is tempting to hold on to the anger and resentment that comes with life’s betrayals, becoming like the bitter monster Harvey Dent does. But part of forgiveness process is us venting our grief, frustration, and anger, only then can we continue with the healing/forgiveness process – letting go before we’re poisoned or driven insane. A Christian response is moving toward reconciliation, a forgiving of our enemy. Grace doesn’t preclude justice being done. Call evil deeds what they are: evil. We must protect the innocent. However, our actions must move toward redemption. And that was the model Batman chose to follow.

Jesus, the Christ, sets an example of revolutionary tactics in the face of madness: love, forgiveness, and sacrifice. He’s the hero we deserve and need. While the Devil may think he won, the Hero does the unexpected. He sacrifices himself for something greater. Guided by his love for Gotham city and Justice; and forgiveness of Harvey Dent, Batman chose to sacrifice himself.

“For now, they’re going to have to make due with you.” –Alfred

Batman is more than a super hero and The Dark Knight is more than a comic book movie. Both transcend their initial conception and show the possibilities of what others of their ilk can be. There simply aren’t enough superlatives for this movie. Intelligent, grown up, sophisticated, with a depth lacking from most movies period, much less super hero ones. Christopher Nolan’s overlapping and multiple storylines create (tragic) characters we come to care about. The performances, the confident sense of direction, the technical production all combine for a truly great cinematic experience, no matter how you may feel about the spandex set.

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Batman: Arkham Asylum

Writer: Grant Morrison
Artist: Dave McKean
Publisher: DC Comics

“But I don’t want to go among mad people,” Alice remarked.
“Oh, you can’t help that,” said the Cat, “we’re all mad here. I’m mad, you’re mad.”
“How do you know I’m mad?” said Alice
“You must be,” said the Cat, “or you wouldn’t have come here.”
–Lewis Carroll (Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland)

In 1989, when the British invasion of comic book writers was well underway, Grant Morrison was tasked to write a 64 page one-shot that grew into the graphic novel, Batman: Arkham Asylum. He was already making his mark, spinning imaginative stories around B-level characters (Animal Man, Doom Patrol) before going on to write a host of other great comic book runs, (DC One Million, JLA, X-Men, All-Star Superman). Before I come off as a complete fanboy, he was also prone to some truly odd ball runs ( I’m still puzzling my way through Invisibles and WE3).

Batman: Arkham Asylum is more a horror comic detailing the dark history of the Elizabeth Arkham Asylum for the Criminally Insane, this “triumph of reason over the irrational.” is where the psychologically disturbed villains that Batman faces (from the Joker to Two-Face) are consigned to between escapes. It almost has the feeling of a Lovecraftian world (one that the word “Arkham” tends to conjure), though this is equally due to Dave McKean’s (Sandman) mix of photography and painting that creates the Gothic home of the insane. In fact, this is the definitive Arkham story.

“Arkham is a looking glass. And we are you.” –Joker

Led by the Joker (the clown prince of psychosis), the inmates have taken over the asylum and have blackmailed Batman into joining them within its walls. Fighting against his own psyche, Batman must jump through their hoops, elude them, and rescue the hostages – all against the backdrop of the story of Dr. Amadeus Arkham, the asylum’s founder. The story is one of a legacy of hate and madness that explores the conceit that a finer line than we feel comfortable with separates the sane from the mad. The madness seems to be contagious as such close proximity to the insane has had an effect on some of the doctors.

“I realized that she was simply trying to protect herself from something in the only way that made sense to her … mother had been born again, into that other world. A world of fathomless signs and portents. Of magic and terror. And mysterious symbols.” –Dr. Amadeus Arkham

Madness is often associated with paradigm shifts, a change in how we see the world. Experiencing such a shift, living through it, can be quite traumatic – moreso than we might guess at first. We become invested in our worldview; often defining ourselves through them (as much as they often define us). When those (mutual) definitions crumble, so goes our grounding, our sense of reality.

The kingdom of humanity is very much a kingdom of madness. Amadeus Arkham describes his predicament way: “Madness is born in the blood. It is my birthright. My inheritance. My destiny.” He is all too fully aware of the fact that we live in a cycle of death–one of (the lie of) self-sufficiency, fear, doubt, anxiety, broken relationships–with our minds, as one of the doctors described the Joker, filled with “thoughts guided by chaos.” We have this mix of feelings going on within us. This vague confusion and longing, what Augustine called the God-sized hole within each of us. Since we have to fill this void with something, we search and even invent ideas, personas, or things to fill this inner dissatisfaction. And yet, we can’t escape the ache of emptiness.

“I run blindly through the madhouse. And I cannot even pray for I have no God.” –Amadeus Arkham

These can lead to what the Spanish mystic, St. John of the Cross, called dark nights of the soul. And it can be tough finding your way out of them. Not every painful experience falls into that specific category. It refers to something more than simple misfortune, but we can learn much about getting through stormy times by learning about getting through those dark nights.

Overall, the process looks something like this:
-we feel that God is absent and inactive; He’s gone and we’re alone.
-we’ve come to the end of our ability to be in control.
-the familiar (spiritual) practices that we had come to depend on, that usually comforted us, instead
seem hollow and ineffective
-BOOM! We hit a wall.
But it is the feeling that God is not at work, that He has abandoned us, and all of our cries
are going unanswered that causes us the greatest pain.

“I have been shown the path. I must follow where it leads.” –Amadeus Arkham

A lot of times we place our love and faith in the wrong things, or good things that aren’t
the best things – confusing our spiritual ideas with some distorted ideas of God. It’s tough to hold on to faith when all we hear is a deafening silence, yet that is exactly what we must do during such times. Sometimes the dark circumstances are the exact times that God uses to transform us. This is what Batman had to learn (a dark night for the Dark Knight).

Grant Morrison took a cliche (the inmates running the asylum) and spun a dark, satisfying tale from it. While it had become quite the fad to explore Batman as borderline psychotic–starting with Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns–Morrison seriously explores the idea. In the final analysis, this was a solid, creepy story with art that matched the mood of the book – I just don’t think it was worth the price of admission (at least the first time around. The 15th year anniversary edition features a ton of extras that nearly doubles the original’s length and includes an annotated version of the original script). In Batman: Arkham Asylum’s examination of the horror of insanity, and our fear of our own detaching from reality, this is one of Grant Morrison’s more thought-provoking and haunting works.

Batman: The Dark Knight Returns

Time and time again I am asked about comic books, often encountering skepticism and prejudice about them as a medium. Too often they are seen as the domain of children and, let’s be honest, nerds with no lives. The perception–for the most part, correct–is that they are juvenile, 4 color adventures of spandex-wearing, muscle-bound he-men and heaving-bosomed she-women filled with trite dialogue and situations. When I encounter this attitude, I issue a simple challenge. To show how far the medium has grown, I ask that the person read one or both of the following books, each written nearly twenty years ago: Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns or Alan Moore’s Watchmen. Both redefined what could be done in what my grandmother called “funny books” and developed an audience far greater than the insular and fairly small pool of comic book readers.

First collected in trade paperback form in 1986, The Dark Knight Returns changed the rules of the medium forever. In four issues, Frank Miller explored the idea, the myth, of Batman and the symbolic power he (and all heroes) represent. Put simply, heroes were beacons in a dark world and never had the world been portrayed as darkly.

Audiences, especially comic book readership, had matured and grown more sophisticated. For too long, stories risked being dismissed as naive and relegated to irrelevance. Audiences were ready for stories with adult themes and situations and the complexities of anti-heroes. For better or worse, The Dark Knight Returns ushered in the age of “dark” comics. “Gritty realism” was the phrase most tossed about at the time, now taken for granted in how stories are told. The reinterpretation of traditional heroes for this new audience soon swept industry wide. Some reinterpretations worked and some didn’t. The ones that did succeeded because the writers remembered what it was that made the heroes what they were. They retained the essence of the hero, the mythology.

Frank Miller employed a lot of the story-telling style that he experimented with in his mini-series Ronin. His art owed a lot to the cinematic style of Lone Wolf and Cub artist, Goseki Kojima. The Dark Knight Returns quickly supplanted the 60s era, Adam West’s silly TV show version, in the cultural consciousness. The popularity of the book provided the heat for the 1989 release of Tim Burton’s Batman. It is the spirit of The Dark Knight Returns that Batman Begins was filmed with (in fact, Batman Begins takes a lot of its story from Frank Miller’s follow up to The Dark Knight Returns, Batman: Year One.)

At the heart of the story, The Dark Knight Returns is about finding one’s purpose. It is the journey of a hero realizing what he was born to do and being faithful to that calling. There are other places you can go to get a detailed rundown on the intertwining storylines of the comic. The important are of emphasis lies in the study of the journey of the hero.

Batman has always been a dangerously focused character. The death of his parents at the hands of a criminal gave him a mission in life, but how he went about his mission has led writers to depict him as either a revenge-driven psychopath (continuing to punish the man who killed his parents) or an ardent pursuer of justice (pursuing a higher calling and mission). So this hero’s journey has always been as much internal as it was external.

The world of The Dark Knight Returns is indeed a dark one: run by a fascist, when not inept, government (both federal and local); societal values turned topsy-turvy (where the release of a murderous villain, the Joker, is heralded as a good thing); and Gotham City a victim of urban sprawl and decay, overrun with crime and gangs and rotting from its center – all with a “retired” Bruce Wayne/Batman as a lion in winter.

The journey of the hero is Christ’s story, the ultimate story, and the larger the hero, the more arduous his journey must be. As the story opens, Batman has been gone for ten years. There is a sense of “Messianic expectation”, as if everyone was waiting for his return. In a sense, the people of Gotham City are waiting for his second coming because their world seems too dark and without hope; and Batman offered a symbol of hope. Though gone for only a few short years, scholars re-examine him and declare him a myth; not believing that he, in fact, ever existed despite the eye witness accounts. On Bruce Wayne’s end, he meditates on (his) death, on what would make a fitting end for him. Pondering death has a way of making one reflect on their life and assess how it was lived and ought to be lived. After all, the hero’s journey isn’t complete without the final story.

To reach his end, Batman must run an escalating gauntlet of his greatest foes, foes which reveal much of the nature of his battle and career. First up was Two-Face. In Harvey Dent, former District Attorney who had the left side of his face scarred by acid by a criminal, Batman found a reflection of himself. His disfigured face, Dent became convinced, revealed his dark side. He used a silver dollar, with one side scarred, as his trademark calling card. It represented the choice each of use has to make between good and evil. Batman often sympathized with Two-Face for battling his inner demons – though it was a battle eventuating in him being consumed by them.

Next up was the street gang known as the Mutants. The Mutants were an army of petty criminals-cum-gang. They were the ever constant threat of crime in the ordinary, the faceless hordes that was the focus of most of Batman’s campaign against crime (as opposed to the occasional “supervillain” that he fought). The other thing that Batman’s mission tended to inspire was disciples called to join with him in his mission. From the various incarnations of Robin to the Mutants converted to the “Sons of the Batman”, his life called others to the mission. The shrine he kept to the second Robin, a fallen soldier in their war, reminds us of the cost of discipleship and the mission.

The rise of the super hero triggered the rise of the super villain. Thus, with the return of Batman came the return of his greatest enemy, the Joker. The Joker–the mad clown prince and homicidal genius–was Batman’s ultimate foe, the personification of evil that people are capable of doing to one another. However, ironically, the Joker was still playing the “old game” by the “old rules”, a villain out of step with the times; almost more interested in wanting to re-live old times than anything else.

Lastly, Batman faces the system itself: the “empire” seen as social and governmental impotence and as embodied by Superman. With Batman’s message spreading, the apocalyptic imagery takes on a life of its own, as if the whole book built toward some final battle. The detonation of a magnetic pulse weapon sends society into chaos. Stalled cars, crashing planes, it was like a scene out of Left Behind. In rides Batman on horseback, with bystanders only remembering the power of his voice, like a sword piercing their hearts.

In these “end times”, superheroes were essentially outlawed, not permitted to operate without license. License that Superman has and Batman does not. The idea of Batman becomes too big, too much of a threat to the powers that be. He challenges them and defeats them with unexpected methods and is thus labeled a threat to the empire. And has to die. The image of Superman and Batman entwined in battle is an interesting one. Both are messianic figures in their own right. Together they form a more complete picture of Justice – keeping in mind the verse found in Romans 11:22 (“Therefore consider the goodness and severity of God”).

The idea of Batman bears further investigation. His origins revolve around the idea of being inspired by a bat to instill fear into the hearts of criminals. He recognizes the power of symbol. The bat, during the course of the story, takes on totemic value, one that Batman draws power from. At first it seems to be just the symbol of fear, but it is actually the symbol of his calling, his destiny. On a strictly human level, Batman represents “the common man’s will to resist” crime and wrong-doing. In a lot of ways, however, this totemic bat spirit is Batman’s own messianic consciousness becoming aware of his mission.

The religious language of the book only intensifies the sense of Batman as mythic icon. Batman returns during a rainstorm, which he refers to as his baptism. His mission is often called his “holy war” against crime. An approaching storm–symbolizing Batman’s return–is described as the wrath of God. In fact, in a lot of ways, Batman embodies the wrath of God, the idea of His (punitive) Justice. Batman is comparable to Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry character, an Old Testament vision of punishment. It’s easy to forget that wrath is love in action: Batman defends the weak, the oppressed, and the “least of these”.

The story of Batman’s second coming, death and resurrection is a powerful one – a story that draws on an older one. Though written some twenty years ago, it stands the test of time, a testament to the renewing and enduring themes within the book. The Dark Knight Returns is a landmark work for any medium, so much so that it transcends it.

Like all good myths should.

All-Star Batman and Robin the Boy Wonder

“Episode One”

Writer: Frank Miller
Artist: Jim Lee
Publisher: DC Comics

The All-Star line is DC’s answer to Marvel’s successful Ultimate line. The premise is to get rid of the baggage of years of continuity and essentially start over outside the know “universe” of the characters to re-tell a lot of the old tales in a modern setting. They are trying to mine fresh stories from familiar and dated material so it becomes a game of bringing a fresh perspective, and new spins, on the classic stories. Classic stories, mind you, not sacrosanct scriptures (this is actually a reminder to myself whenever I read re-treads on tales that I grew up reading and loving). To tell the stories, the creators have to keep the essentials (the heart) of the well established mythos, while not necessarily sticking too closely to them.

The All-Star formula (much like the Ultimate line formula) is simple: take two fan favorite creators (writer Frank Miller and artist Jim Lee), team them on the book of an iconic character, and let them re-work the history and spin the mythology as they want. Frank Miller after years away from the spandex set, working on books like Sin City and 300 (which is also preparing to make the leap to the silver screen), returns to the character that he helped refocus in the late 80s.

Jim Lee remembers all the lessons that made him such a popular creator over at Image Comics, drawing beautiful, painfully well-endowed women, often posing (scantily clad) for pages on end. Not really delving into the character nor propelling the plot, but giving something for the presumed teenage male fanboys to gawk at. Though he probably takes his cues from the script that he is given.

The story is a familiar one. The circus comes to Gotham City, featuring among its acts, the Flying Graysons. The young aerialist, Dick Grayson, has caught Bruce Wayne’s attention. Vicki Vale, the Lois Lane-styled reporter, prepares for her first date with millionaire playboy Bruce Wayne, which finds her overly dressed for the circus. Vicki Vale vacillates between a ditzy dame (“I have a date with Bruce Wayne” whatever shall I wear?) And something just shy of the tough broad reporter she’s meant to be. Dick watches his parents get gunned down and Batman arrives in time to save him from a gruesome fate at the hands of the Gotham police department.

This book may not please a lot of fans. For a start, Frank Miller finds himself operating in a post Warren Ellis and/or Mark Millar runs on the seminal book, The Authority, which kind of upped the ante when it comes to the superhero genre and what passes for edgy and action. You can kind of feel Miller pressing a little too hard around the edges. Plus, this book is supposed to be accessible to new and young readers. Um, not exactly Frank Miller’s forte when dealing with the dark knight. The best you can expect is a Sin City-lite.

Once more we have a taste of the candy-coated nihilism (kind of a Nietzsche for pop consumption) that makes Batman the ultimate hardass. The book has the feel of taking place early in the Frank Miller’s Dark Knight Returns universe, though there are hints that the focus of the book will be Robin. Miller gives Robin an origin that resonates more with Bruce Wayne/Batman, witnessing his parents gunned down at the circus where they performed. However, with Batman as the uber-mensch, taking brooding intensity and self-reliance to an extreme, he’s unable to be in true relationship with others. He’s remote and often sub-human in his responses and how he deals with people. And not the best parental figure/model for a newly orphaned child. Frankly, there is a seeming creepiness to the fact that a wealthy playboy (read: single guy) is keeping his eye open for young talent. This air of creepiness is matched by his alter egos willingness to draft and train boy targets in his war on crime. It will be interesting to see what sort of Robin Miller writes: a young Batman in training/a young soldier or the comic/humanizing Robin who resists being molded in his mentor’s image.

“On your feet, soldier. You’ve just been drafted. This is war.”

In this telling of the origin of their partnership, Robin is drafted into this war, he doesn’t pester Batman to train him in order to seek justice for his parents’ untimely death. With Robin being so pivotal to the interpretation of Batman, one can’t help but address the issue of drafting one so young into this war on crime.

Many people look around our society and see that we are in both a cultural and spiritual war (one a reflection of the other). The issue that we then have to struggle with becomes the matter of how long do we wait to teach our children about the rules of combat/engagement in this war. Advertisers target kids as young as four to train them in rampant consumerism. Sexual imagery dominates the cultural media landscape to such a degree that it is nigh unavoidable, training kids up in society’s definition of beauty (self-image) and sexual relations. As corruption works its way throughout society, we can’t afford to sit on the sidelines hoping that it doesn’t get to us (or moving at the first sign that “bad elements” are getting too close to our neighborhoods). The younger we realize this and are trained in how to engage this battleground, the better off we may be.

All-Star Batman and Robin the Boy Wonder is a little uneven, probably due to the high expectations that a Miller/Lee team-up on Batman would generate. The terse dialogue wasn’t working for me, but it might be a matter of giving Miller room to develop the proper tone for the book. There is enough of a sense of intrigue and potential to let me be willing to buy the hype machine (trained since the age of four consumer that I am) and ride out at least the first story arc.

Who am I kidding?

It’s Frank Miller on Batman. I’ll be buying this.

Batman: Year One

“Year One” (issues #404-407)
writer: Frank Miller
artist: David Mazzucchelli
published by DC Comics

Book infoThe year 1986 proved to be a pivotal year in the modern era of comics. Back in the halcyon days when comics cost only 75 cents (and I remember being upset by that price jump), several books came out that changed the face of comics. Crisis on Infinite Earths. The Dark Knight Returns. Man of Steel. Watchmen. Swamp Thing. This was a great time to be collecting comic books. Frank Miller, fresh on the heels of his seminal The Dark Knight Returns, turned to the main title, Batman, to write basically a mini-series within the series called “Year One.” Between these two works (along with Alan Moore’s Watchmen), interest in comic books was revitalized, even among non-comic book readers. In fact, so much interest was stirred about Batman that the Batman movie, long languishing in “development hell”, was put onto a fast track, coming out just a few years later (1989).

Years later, this book is serving as the inspiration for relaunching the Batman movie franchise as Batman Begins prepares for its debut. (And, by the way, a Watchmen movie is currently in the works.)

This “Year One” story arc spawned a series of “Year One” issues. The premise was simple: what was it like during the first year that the given super-hero donned the tights? The issues examined the emotions that drove them to pursue the life of a hero as well as letting the reader in as they were figuring out their method. Basically, they focused on their purpose, but working it out often proved to be messy.

Miller returns Batman to his roots, including David Mazzucchelli’s Bob Kane (creator of Batman)-inspired rendition. The story is simple: Bruce Wayne returns to Gotham City after a twelve year absence after his parents’ death at the hands of a mugger; the event that triggered his war on crime. During that time, he’d traveled the world, training in martial arts and developing detective skills. The idea for Batman hasn’t occurred to him. After a botched attempt to attack the problem as “just another guy”, he’s inspired by the crashing of a bat through his window. Understanding the power of superstition, symbol, and myth, he crafts the image and legend of Batman.

However, the story isn’t about him alone. It is also about Lieutenant James Gordon, the future Commissioner Gordon. New to the Gotham City, he finds that he has to deal with a corrupt commissioner, a corrupt police force, and crime families. All while juggling his marriage to his expecting wife. So while Bruce Wayne is figuring out how to be Batman, Lt. Gordon is figuring out “what it takes to be a cop in Gotham City.”

“You’ve eaten Gotham’s wealth. Its spirit. Your feast is nearly over.” –Batman.

Gotham City, for all intents and purposes, is like man’s battle against his sin nature: all temptations and corruption. You see, there are no splashy villains in the story (though we do see Selina Kyle don her Catwoman gear in response to the appearance of a man running around as a bat). Instead there is only the corruption: the relentless, seemingly unstoppable, enemy within.

It never fails to amaze me how the stories of heroes echo the story of Christ.

Here you have a city, a world, caught up in the despair of its own iniquities. A man appears on the scene—before years of experience turn him into the cool, all-knowing, martial arts expert—who’s a “lucky amateur,” but still seems more than a man. He becomes a symbol of hope. He takes quite a beating and more than a few bullets, wounded for their transgressions. But even as he’s about his mission to “cleanup a city that likes being dirty,” he realizes that he can’t do it alone. He needs allies. A united trinity of a lawyer (a pre-Two Face Harvey Dent), a cop (Lt. James Gordon), and a vigilante (Bruce Wayne).

So, as Batman goes about his mission, others join him and in so doing, Gotham City finds out what a difference a few good men can make. Frank Miller triumphs in this bout of simple, yet powerful, story-telling.