Sunday, September 7, 2008

Review: Batman Confidential

I stopped reading Batman comics pretty much after I moved back to KL in September 2005. Don't know why. I got caught up in all the Nu-Marvel fever and got on the Bendis books. Started with "Alias" and moved on to "Daredevil", "Ultimate Spider-Man" and the countless "New Avengers" tie-ins. About the only "Batman" book I read was the one by Grant Morrison – "Batman and Son" but I didn't really like that very much. Melvin was with me when I picked up that book. He kept quoting from it –"The Apocalypse is cancelled until I say so!" It was funny for the first 159 times. But that's Melvin and we all love him for that anyway. [The 160th time he said it was when La Tey and I were trying to order food in C-Jade Restaurant at Mid-Valley Megamall or something, if I recalled correctly...]

I had a haircut yesterday and my wife said that it was the same stupid haircut that Guy Gardner had in 1987. My kids laughed. Then my wife went out to get a birthday cake for my eldest daughter (it's her 11th birthday today) and I went to MPH. I had two MPH vouchers with me and used it to get two Batman books: "Rules of Engagement" and "Lovers & Madmen". I was also pretty interested in the Harley Quinn volume but I couldn't afford it. Only thing I could afford after that was the cheap-bootleg "The Dark Knight" DVD.

Anyway, I went home, watched "The Dark Knight" DVD with my wife and kids (actually I was watching most of it alone since my wife hated the movie more than I did and the kids were just disinterested throughout). In the evening, I read the two Batman books and found them to be far more satisfying than the much-lauded film.

The two books collected the first year's worth of a new Batman series (Batman Confidential #1-12). The first arc was "Rules of Engagement" (#1-6) and the second one was "Lovers & Madmen" (#7-12). Batman Confidential is a new series that explores untold stories set in the early years of the Batman's career. The first storyarc explores the first meeting between Batman and Lex Luthor, the partnership of Bruce Wayne and Lucius Fox as well as the first Bat-plane. The story is written by up-and-coming Brit-writer, Andy Diggle and drawn by Whilce Portacio. Diggle was the editor of 2000A.D. in the year 2000 and is the current "Hellblazer" writer. Thankfully, he did not write in that obnoxious Brit-style here in "Rules of Engagement". In fact, the story read like a very straightforward US comic - full of over-the-top action, smart dialogue, fun character interplay, etc. It's an interesting enough story that I'll be rereading. In fact, it's downright brilliant. I loved the conflict between Batman and Lex Luthor in the final parts of "No Man's Land". This story is about their first meeting. Honestly, it's funny that it took DC so long to produce this story. Batman vs Lex is 1,000 times more interesting than Superman vs Lex. In a way, the two are equals. They come from the same world of superscience, privilege, industry and business that the super-farmboy from Kansas will never understand. They are both human beings who work to realize the best in their human potential. Luthor is written in a very Blofeld manner (complete with a Hair Treatment Institute in the Swiss Alps even) and his motivations are explored in an even more interesting way than Brian Azzarello did in his pompous miniseries ("Lex Luthor: Man of Steel"). It's been said that a good writer explores his characters by finding out WHAT THEY REALLY WANT. Diggle understands Lex Luthor. He wants a world of MAN - not Supermen. In fact, Diggle captures the essence of Lex in four words of exasperated dialogue from the man - "God, I hate superheroes!" Lex then proceeds to take over the US in true "Big Brother" fashion by taking over the military. Enter: Batman on his new Bat-plane and the rest is pure comicbook goodness. As for the art by Whilce Portacio, well, if you're familiar with the man's work (Punisher, Heroes Reborn: Iron Man, Wetworks), it's nothing new here. He still can't draw faces or cheeks. His characters come with funny hair and eyes. But he's damn good with the action scenes. Portacio's work is never beautiful (although in the early Image days, a lot of his faults were covered up by the studio's inkers - in the generic Scott Williams manner). What is good about his art are the layouts and perspectives. For instance, he deliberately draws Bruce's and Lex's first confrontation from the top-down view to show their antagonism. The two are chatting and smiling but it's obvious from the art that they are rivals - equals perhaps but antagonistic rivals nonetheless. Then there are the action scenes. I've never been a big fan of the Bat-plane but here, Portacio made me fall in love with it. His Bat-plane is awesome and dangerous - whether in the scene where it was taken over by Lex's programming to destroy the Bat-Cave or when Bruce pilots it into Lex's lair to destroy his robotic army. All in all, this is a really good, straightforward, fun comicbook that I'll be rereading again and again over the years.

I proceeded immediately to the second book after finishing "Rules of Engagement". It was somewhat of a mistake. While "Rules of Engagement" was fun, "Lovers & Madmen" is so bloody good that it almost wiped the first story from my mind. "Lovers & Madmen" is an instant classic! It explores the origin of the Joker and fleshes out the Joker far more than "The Dark Knight" film. Heath Ledger's Joker wasn't a character so much as a force for chaos and anarchy. Here, the Joker is a person. Now, there's an argument that the Joker is the one character that does not need an "origin story". I find myself agreeing with that point of view over the years (even when I read Alan Moore's "The Killing Joke"). But once you've read this book, you'll probably change your mind. The story is written by Michael Green (he wrote some episodes of the "Heroes" TV series) and drawn by veteran artist Denys Cowan.

[Interlude: Some weeks back, Pltypus was showing off his knowledge of "comic art" by pontificating about Klaus Janson and Lynn Varley. For some unknown reason, he doesn't seem able to wrap his thoughts around the fact that Lynn Varley is really a colorist and NOT a penciller. Frank Miller drew "Elektra Lives Again" NOT Lynn Varley. She colored the damn thing for her husband, Miller. When we discussed Klaus Janson, I mentioned Denys Cowan, the rough-edged, gritty artist who teamed up with Dennis O'Neil on "The Question" and Sam Hamm on "Batman: Blind Justice". Pltypus gave me a blank look. I knew that he knows nothing about "The Question" so I tried to explain that it's a Steve Ditko creation based on Ayn Rand's philosophy. Blank look continued. As usual, my views are dismissed simply because he couldn't connect with them or find a familiar reference point within them. Hahahaha!]

Anyway, Denys Cowan's art for "Lovers & Madmen" is what made the whole thing worked so well. Countless other online idiots with blogs are complaining about Cowan's rough-edgedness and messy-looking lines. Same idiots also complained about Klaus Janson's art in "Batman: Death And The Maidens". They never grew up with Janson or Cowan. They grew up with the digitally-polished stuff by Greg Land (at Nu-Marvel). Cowan is a storyteller whose subtle lines are able to show the growth and maturity in the young Batman still learning his ropes to the increasing insanity in "Jack" (Joker) from one panel to the next. As for the writing by Michael Golden, well, if DC is reading this - please put this guy on the ongoing Batman book and throw out Grant Morrison! In today's decompressed storytelling style, Golden's scripts are unbelievably dense. Took me far longer than usual to read the 144-pages. Every line had something to say. Every internal monologue. Every line of dialogue. Every caption box. Golden KNOWS how to write. If you've enjoyed the tightness of "Heroes", you'll love his work here. He even threw in tiny nuggets like showing the first meeting between Jack and Harleen Quinzel (we know how these two will become lovers one day as Joker and Harley Quinn). Jack even paid for Quinzel's tuition fees in medical school! So in other words, the Joker "created" both Dr Quinzel the psychiatrist AND Harley Quinn, the insane sidekick.

As for the Batman, we see him falling in love with a girl from the art gallery. The story begins at the end of his first year as Batman. Teaming up with Gordon, they literally cleaned up much of the crime in Gotham City and he was kinda letting his guard down a little (so much that he allows himself to fall in love with a girl) because he thinks that he's at last understood the criminal-mind, and hence, is able to stop any potential criminal. Everything is logical. Everything is in the criminology and detection handbooks. Then he meets someone who short-circuits everything he thought he knew about crime. He meets someone who is criminally-insane and he couldn't understand that. We see him consulting a young Dr Jonathan Crane (who'll one day become the Scarecrow) and Dr Crane telling him that the Joker is INSANE. Batman was shocked. He was so busy trying to figure out the wires in the Joker's mind in order to prevent his next crime. He was busy looking for a pattern that he missed the most obvious thing that everyone else can see. There is no pattern because the Joker is INSANE. There are no wires to connect because all the wires in the Joker's head have been disconnected long ago! When Joker nearly killed the girl he loves, Batman too went insane. Some readers have complained about this particular plotline but it really makes a lot of sense. Batman realizes that the Joker's unpredictability is what is really scary to him. So he too decides to do the unpredictable - he teams up with Gotham's underworld and gets them to hunt down the Joker. Now, if only Christian Bale's Batman was half as brilliant as this - then we probably won't see him being manipulated by the Joker at every turn! [As a bonus, we also get the origin of the Bat-Computer devised by Alfred and initially named the "Dupin" - after C. Auguste Dupin from Edgar Allan Poe's "The Murders in the Rue Morgue", Bruce's favourite book.]

As for the Joker, we see a man who was an expert at opening safes, crippling bank alarms, etc. but hating the "orderliness" of his work (his "gift"). He much prefers the chaos of a ringing bank alarm bringing in the police and a chaotic gunfight. When he finally meets Batman, he saw simply a man who was really crazier than himself! An idiot barking out commands and threats to criminals while dressed up in a ridiculous costume. When Jack finally snaps, we see how his insane mind works. He sees a bunny in the moon and at that point he "knows" that he's insane already. Then he goes on to call Batman "bunny" (I laugh every time I read that). In a way, that was even scarier and funnier than Heath Ledger's "You complete me" line! Golden brought out all the psychosexual tension between the Batman and the Joker (previously hinted at in Miller's "The Dark Knight Returns" and Morrison's "Arkham Asylum") more than anyone else. When the two caught each other in a death grip and stabbed each other with knives, Denys Cowan made it look more like an embrace than a fight. The stabbing too was very sexual and the Joker was laughing all the way at the Batman who just can't resist him!

In the end, we see Bruce Wayne breaking up with his girlfriend and devoting his life to hunt down the Joker every time he threatens Gotham. See the parallelism? Joker stabs the girl that Batman loved. Batman later abandons the girl and turns all his attentions to the Joker. That was precisely what the Joker wanted - Batman's undivided attention (affection?). The subtlety of the work, the character interplay, the art, the humour, the brokenhearted girl, etc. All these elements add up to make "Lovers & Madmen" to be among the best Batman stories ever written. Who are the "Lovers" and "Madmen" in the title? It's obvious that the title was pointing to Batman and Joker being "Lovers" and fellow "Madmen".


pltypus said...

Manyak dosa besar goblok muk ni jual Elektra Lives untuk loti. Buat geram aje pikirkan. Nanti tengah malam gua hantar Darkness Antoo-Antoo bagi gigit-gigit pantat sampai lebam. Nah, jadi lah!

(tu lah pasal gua tak ingat-ingat isteri miller tu. Buku gua kena colek si pantat gemuk!)

Uncle Screwtape said...

Hahahaha! I see that you *got* the joke. :)

~ Edmund