Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Batman: The Greatest Stories Ever Told

 Hello, and welcome to Out of the Quicksand. Tonight I'll be reviewing 2005's Batman: The Greatest Stories Ever Told. Published by DC to cash in on Batman Begins, this volume isn't to be confused with the similarly named (and much thicker) 1989 volume The Greatest Batman Stories Ever Told.

 Both editions also have a volume 2. The '89 volume, naturally, includes much older material and thus has a greater overview of Batman throughout different eras. The bulk of the 2005 edition is composed of more recent material and doesn't really spotlight anything in particular.

 Still what matters is whether the stories are worthy of their inclusion. Are they? Let's see.

 The Case of the Honest Crook (from Batman #5): Batman apprehends a petty thief but is moved by the crook's motivations; turns out the man was framed by some mobsters and can't get a job to support his ailing wife. Batman then sets out to catch the men responsible. This story sticks out for it's sympathetic portrayal of the titular crook, as well as Batman's murderous rage towards the end when he confronts some mobsters who have shot Robin. Already at this early point in the series, Batman's days of killing criminals was being treated as a thing of the past, so it must have come as a shock to see him go berserk. Sadly, the story itself really isn't that good. Robin doesn't even appear much before the shooting, so we don't really get to feel Batman's rage. It just comes out of nowhere and feels forced into the story. I also really hate the lettering from this era of Batman comics, it's a real strain to read, and this is a text-heavy story. 2.2/5.

 The Secret Life of the Catwoman (from Batman #62): Catwoman joins forces with a masked criminal named Mr. X, with both intending to betray the other, but during a fight with Batman she regains memories of her life before she became a criminal, and then assists Batman and the FBI in exchange for a pardon. This story is notable for introducing Catwoman's real name and origin; here she's depicted as an airline stewardess who got amnesia after surviving a crash. It's a fairly entertaining little yarn, with some great art by Bob Kane Lew Sayre Schwartz and Dick Sprang, but it's nothing special. Truth be told, it doesn't really stick out much from other Catwoman stories of the era, where the formula was always that Catwoman would be double-crossed by her own gang and then turn to Batman for help, only to double cross Batman and then be arrested, promising she would reform someday. This story differs only in that Catwoman genuinely seems to reform at the end, but since it didn't stick (and not in that it was undone many years later, like with Two-Face's reformation, Catwoman's reformation here didn't even last into her next appearence) it pretty much amounts to nothing. Still, you gotta wonder if the depiction of Catwoman as a split personality inspired Tim Burton's Batman Returns, and if the masked Mr. X was an influence for the similar-looking 80's villain Black Mask. 2.5/5.

Robin Dies At Dawn (from Batman #156): Batman has a bizarre dream where Robin is killed by an animated statue on an alien world, but is it a dream? Most of Batman's 50s and 60s stories featuring aliens were goofy affairs, this one is famous for being pretty much the only story of its era to be played for serious drama. I'm sure the image of a dead Robin on the cover traumatized a great deal of kids. That aside, this story is only good during it's eerie prologue, as well as a surprisingly clever bit of symbolism when Batman realizes he's been dreaming. Otherwise it's pretty meh. 3/5.

The Batman Nobody Knows (from Batman #250): Bruce Wayne takes a bunch of kids camping, and they discuss what they imagine Batman to be like, and each version differs. This is a cute, lightweight story even the most jaded comics fan wouldn't bring themselves to hate. It was memorably adapted as an episode of the 90's animated series and sorta retold in Legends of the Dark Knight #94. It's worth noting that the black kid's vision of Batman in this story bears a striking resemblance to the recent Batwing character in Batman Inc. Proof comics can be fun and not intelligence-insulting. 3.5/5.

The Joker's Five-Way Revenge (from Batman #251): The Joker hunts down the men who betrayed him and kills them one by one. Notable as the story which returned Joker to his roots as a homicidal maniac. On the surface, this story is literally a generic Batman VS Joker story: Joker kills people, Batman pursues him, escapes death traps, and then they fight. What makes this work is Denny O' Neil's mood-setting captions and Neal Adam's brooding artwork, which plays with lighting and incorporates photography. It's just beautiful to look at. The images of Batman and the Joker from this story, particularly the opening splash page of the Joker laughing maniacally while driving during a storm, and the later panel of Batman galivanting across a beach as the sun rises, are for many people THE iconic images of the characters. Does this story measure up to The Killing Joke, Going Sane or The Laughing Fish? Does it even measure up to the first two Joker appearences in the 40s (of which much of this story and Fish are heavily derived from)? No, but dammit, this story still remains a damn impressive read even today. It just hits the spot, nothing more, nothing less. My only beef? Neal Adams went and pulled a George Lucas with the coloring for this edition, several moodily effective monchrome panels are given normal coloring here, and attempts to make things like running water look more realistic just look wrong, for example, the rain hitting the windshield in the splash page looks like bird shit (or worse...). Still, 5/5.

 Night of the Stalker (from Detective Comics #439): Batman sees echoes of himself during an otherwise routine robbery, both in the victims and...well, that would be telling. When it comes to Batman, most people tend to remember Steve Englehart for his "Strange Apparitions" run on Detective Comics with Marshall Rogers, but for me this story is his masterpiece, and along with Year One and Blades, my personal favorite Batman story. Rich in symbolism and mood, this story aims to capture every aspect of the character, and hits dead on with each one. What makes this miraculous is that Batman doesn't say a damn thing throughout any of this but his characterization shines through. Art and captions tell the story here. Should be held high as a supreme example of what the medium is capable of. If you only read one story from this book, make it this one. A masterpiece. 5/5.

 Death Strikes at Midnight and Three (from DC Special Series #15): A mystery story, laced with guilt and irony. An enjoyable read, mostly notable for being an entirely a typeset text story with no word balloons but intercut with illustrations. Marshall Roger's art is as good as it ever was, in fact, it surpasses his Apparitions work. Still, mostly notable just for being an experiment. A damn pretty one though. 4/5.

 Wanted: Santa Claus-Dead or Alive! (from DC Special Series #21): A crook in a Santa suit has a change of heart, but will that be enough to save him? A nice "awww" story. Oddly enough, this isn't the only Christmas story that got included in this volume, but you know what? It's a damn good read, even though Will Eisner did this same plot, and better, in The Spirit. Oddly enough (again), Frank Miller has the art chores on this story (that's why I suspect it was reprinted, this was his first work on Batman), but Denny 'O Neil wrote it. You'd have thought Eisner-fanboy Miller would have written it, but this was done long before Miller became a superstar. A lot better than it has any right to be. 4.5/5.

 My Beginning and My Probable End...(from Detective Comics #574): As Jason Todd lies at death's door, Bruce and Leslie Thompkins debate over just what Bruce's motivations are, and how they've affected those around him. I've never liked Robin, and yet, Jason Todd, the most reviled of the Robins, is my favorite. This could be because I consider the Mike Barr/Alan Davis run of the late 80's to be my favorite run, and Jason was prominent in it, but even so, considering how things would turn out for Jason, the ending inadvertantly turns this story, meant to be touching and character re-affirming, into one of the most chilling condemnations of Bruce Wayne ever written, when the entire point of the story is to shoot down those accusations. That just adds more to the ambiguity of the story though, and doesn't work against it. There have been a lot of stories where Batman has faced a crisis of conscience or ethics, but this is easily the best. Also, it features what is easily one of the best origin retellings. DC needs to collect this run. 5/5.

 Favorite Things (from Legends of the Dark Knight #79): Batman pursues hoods during Christmastime, and soon it turns personal, but why? Another great "awww" story, and one of the best stories to come out of the "Batman is a manchild" interpretation without seeming insulting or comedic, but actually heartwarming. And it was written by Mark Millar of all people. Millar? Heartwarming? This is a Christmas miracle. 4.5/5.

 24/7 (Gotham Knights #32): A day in the life of Bruce Wayne. Uh...wow. Next to Stalker, this story is reason alone to get this book. From Bruce Wayne's business deals, charity work, love life, glimpses of the people he has saved, and proof that Batman still has a soft spot for Two-Face, this is as thorough an exploration of who Batman is as you can get. 5/5.

 So all in all, this volume has some great stuff in it. The bad news is that most of the stories are vignettes of who Batman is, so there's a certain sameness to all of them. The good news is that at least they picked some damn good ones. Honest Crook and the Catwoman story however, really bog the collection down. They aren't awful, but are far from great. Surely better Golden Age stories to spotlight would be The Batman plays a Lone Hand from Batman #13 if they'd wanted to spotlight Batman's friendship with Robin, if they'd instead wanted to feature Batman intervening in domestic drama, they could have used Money Can't Buy Happiness from Detective Comics #47. There are also tons of Catwoman stories they could have used as well, or if they'd wanted to showcase a villain from a Golden Age story where they're portrayed sympathetically, any of Two-Face's 3 appearences would have been better choices. Hell, for good Golden Age stories period, The Story of the Seventeen Stones, The Case of the Ruby Idol, The Harlequin's Hoax and the first appearence of The Riddler are all fine substitutes. I really hate when Golden Age comics come off as crappy because editors choose mediocre ones at random to throw into "greatest" collections.

 Flaws aside, I give this volume 4.5/5. Also, ignore the volume 2 edition from 2008, which reprints material that can already be found in the original Greatest Batman Stories Ever Told.

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