Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Comic Book Adventures

So, I've been reading me some Batman comics. Surprised? I don't put them down in my "Books I've Read This Year" list because I have my dignity, you know? Anyway, it's been a very, very long time since I read an actual honest-to-goodness comic book. But I like Batman so much that it seemed high time to delve deeply into the actual, um, literature. Graphic literature.

So far I've focused on the iconic entries of the eighties and nineties. I think my favorite is Year One (1987) by Frank Miller, David Mazzucchelli, et al. I love the way it drops the Batman story into the gritty urban reality of a Scorsese film. It was obviously inspired by Taxi Driver at several points. It also reminds me of Serpico. The art is awesome: clear, dynamic, and distinctly noirish, with dark, muted colors and free-flowing hand lettering. I much prefer it to the polished, digitized look of more recent comics. And the part where Batman battles the police in a bombed building and calls bats to make his getaway is super cool.

I also think Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns (1986) is really great. It cracks me up, actually. With its over-the-top TV segments and epic brutality, it reminds me of Paul Verhoven's satirical sci-fi actioners, especially RoboCop (of which I'm rather fond). Its Batman is like a humongous, creeptastic Dirty Harry; the girl Robin looks about the size of his thigh. I know it's a polarizing comic. Personally I don't care much for the art. But as for the general plot, I think that Batman and Superman are big enough to take a little satire. Some people need to take a chill pill. It's got a storyline of almost mythic proportions, with tank battles, atom bomb detonations, apocalyptic showdowns, and Batman retreating to the underground with a creepy race of mutant followers at the end.

Another fave is The Long Halloween (1997) by Jeph Loeb, Tim Sale, et al. It's got more of a slow-burning mystery plot, using the origin story of Two-Face to describe the descent of Gotham from merely crime-ridden to downright maniacal. The story, though suffering a bit from serialization (and the apparent need to work just about every single villain into the plot), is supremely engrossing. And the expressionistic art, with its big pools of black, snaky pen lines, and dynamic linear perspective, is simply beautiful. Every page is a joy to behold.

One thing that gets on my nerves a little bit is its constant use of one-liners from the Godfather movies. Do it once or twice, and it's a sly allusion. More than that, and it gets cute. All the time, and I start thinking that maybe the writer hasn't done all that much homework on the Mob. Halloween also takes a lot from The Silence of the Lambs. In general, I've noticed that comics are much more open to lifting material from mainstream sources than, say, books or movies. Not that that's a bad thing, as William Blake says in my sidebar. But it has to be done artfully.

Still, The Long Halloween is a monumental piece of work, and the chief inspiration for what's probably the greatest superhero movie ever made: Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight.

A more recent entry that I've enjoyed, though not nearly so much, is Hush (2003) by Jeph Loeb, Jim Lee, et al. The art is beautiful, though so polished that I find it a bit boring at times. It does have lots of heaving bosoms, rippling muscles, and gritted teeth, if you like that sort of thing. The story is OK, too; it just suffers from expanded universe syndrome.

You see, unlike practically every other fanboy in the galaxy right now, I prefer my superhero stories to be self-contained. I avoid Marvel movies for that reason. They're like sitcom crossover episodes, or The Jetsons Meet the Flintstones. Ugh. To me it makes the superhero concept too familiar. I like Batman to exist in his own dark little universe, where you never quite lose the surprise and wonder that there is such a person as Batman. Bring Superman into it, and superhero-dom starts to feel like an exclusive yet chummy clubhouse.

But I do very much like Superman on his own turf. I'll probably delve into some of his comics before long, though I'm more familiar with them from of old. For me, Batman represents the mythologizing of hardboiled fiction and film noir, the melding of gothic horror with urban drama. Superman, on the other hand, seems to more akin to John Carter, Tarzan, and the supermen of early sci-fi. Both are inspirations in my own writing.

Oh, last but not least, I also read The Killing Joke (1988) by Alan Moore, Brian Bolland, & Co. A little sadistic for me, but I like the way it explores the weird love-hate relationship between Batman and the Joker. Its "origin story" for the Joker, presented through flashbacks in a delightfully noirish, nightmarish style, is distinctly underwhelming, but then again the Joker himself undercuts its reliability at the end of the comic. And the ending about as artful as they come. I mention this one mainly because the animated film, starring the voice talent of Mark Hamill, is soon to be released. I watched Batman: The Animated Series every day after school when I was in junior high, and, to me, Mark Hamill is the Joker. (Never knew it was him at the time, though.)

So, what's next? Do I venture into the New 52? I don't know if I'm ready for that yet, especially with all the dithering about DC has been doing lately. There are still a few titles from the eighties and nineties that I have my eye on.

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