Thursday, October 17, 2013

Scarecrow Tales review


 As a huge fan of Russell Thorndyke's Doctor Syn novels and Nathaniel Hawthorne’s story Feather Top, I've always had a fondness for scarecrows and thus this second-tier Batman rogue. A living scarecrow is too good a visual to pass up in a visual medium like comics, and this book is thus a joy to behold in how various artists depict the villain.

 Unfortunately, comics writers haven't been as enthused about the character, and tend to stretch him too thin, mainly using him to pad out group portraits of Batman's rogues gallery, or as a convenient explanation for stories revolving around hallucinations (hallucination-inspiring "fear gas" being his stock-in-trade, though this was not always the case). Too bad, these rather haphazardly chosen stories show a villain with much potential.

 The volume kicks off with the villain's first appearance in World's Finest Comics #3, which was apparently intended as a kind of Halloween special because this was the Fall issue (being a quarterly series), this story gets off to a good start with an atmospheric splash page. Unfortunately, that's about as good as this story gets. 

 Spindly young Jonathan Crane grows up loving to frighten birds (get it, he scares crows! Ha Ha...uh...Ha), which we all know thanks to Court TV is a sure-fire sign that a person will grow up to be a sadistic psychopath. Probably wet the bed too. As an adult, Crane naturally decides to channel his psychotic tendencies into becoming a college professor; beginning what is apparently the first day of class ("Gentlemen, this term we study the psychology of fear") by firing a gun:
 Well, you can't accuse him of being a boring instructor. Seriously, Crane would be quite amusing to watch, as we see him frequently stop mid-lecture to pontificate about how profound his own words are (When describing how protection rackets work: "He makes them afraid--afraid--he makes money--lots of money--"), all while penting his fingers and smiling evilly. Stung by his colleague's rather juvenile remarks about his clothes, Crane decides to turn to crime by working as a kind of extortionist-for-hire. Naturally, he dons a scarecrow outfit because it will make him “a symbol of poverty and fear”. He also intends to spend the money on expensive books. Well hey, I can’t blame the guy. It’s easier than ordering from Amazon.

  That really is about it, with the story descending into typical fisticuffs and wisecracks action as Batman & Robin confront him. Nope, he doesn't use fear gas, he doesn't play off of phobias, he's far more practical; he just pulls a gun on people. Simple, but effective. This would carry over to his next appearance as well. Interestingly, Crane is depicted as being able to hold his own rather well against Batman, and is repeatedly shown to be quite athletic.

 What trips him up in the end is (get ready for it)…..being jabbed in the ass with a teeter-totter:
 No, it's not a good story, and bad lettering doesn't help, but it's not truly a bad story either. The idea of an intellectual deciding to work as a common thug because it's more fun is compelling. It's the kind of thing best experienced at 3: AM in a drunken stupor while reading the dialogue out loud and doing the voices yourself.

 Next up is Fright of the Scarecrow from Batman #189, which is significant for reintroducing the Scarecrow after being absent since the 40's, with his origin conveniently recapped with most of the same dialogue.

 This one is interesting in that it's the first time the villain would be depicted as a mad scientist, and this portrayal also marks the introduction of his fear-inducing equipment (here a beam), otherwise it's even sillier than the original, with the Scarecrow keeping a submarine hidden in a park pond.
 A tad better is the 70's story The Scarecrow's Trail of Fear, atmospherically illustrated by Ernie Chua, and based around the motif of Gotham's winter bleakness. Unfortunately, it's an extremely generic hero vs. villain story, and could easily have been excised from the volume. It's a masterpiece compared to the following story, though; the abysmally bad The Scarecrow's Fearsome Face-Off from issue 8 of the Joker's own short-lived series from the 70s. Here the two villains, well, face off (with the Scarecrow now using his familiar fear gas), and uh...there really is no plot besides that. While it is refreshing to read a story with no heroes, this one just doesn't work even as the frivolous adventure it's intended to be, particularly because of the childish insult humor that makes up most of the dialogue.

  Oddly enough, Crane is depicted as being fond of birds in this story, and is enraged when one gets covered with exploded cake by the Joker(!!!?). This characterization would carry over into the villain's depiction on Superfriends. At least the art is nice, particularly the facial expressions.

 So far it sounds like I’ve been underwhelmed by this volume, but then surprisingly enough it picks up considerably with Gerry Conway's superb 1981 story Six Days of The Scarecrow from Detective Comics #503. While it's a bit disappointing in that the motif of the six days isn't really used much, it's more than made up for by a superb plot where the Scarecrow actually lives up to his reputation as a master of fear by, well, demonstrating how he has mastered the application of fear, this time, by making it so that rather than being struck with fear, his victim becomes an object of fear to those around him. After being exposed, Batman finds himself alienated from everyone. 

It sounds silly, but there's real tension and pathos in how this is portrayed, with plenty of character bits mixed with some decent action, as well as the always welcome opportunity to see Batman use his brains to handle the situation. So many writers forget that Batman is a scientist and a detective rather than just a vigilante who kicks people's asses. While I've gone down as disliking the idea of sidekicks, both Batgirl & Robin figure prominently in this story, and serve as textbook examples of just what an effective plot device the concept of the sidekick can be when written well.

 It's depressing as well to contemplate that whereas the modern Batman is often portrayed as an obsessive, anti-social psycho who alienates or is mostly aloof towards everyone around him, here the entire point of the story is just how lost he is without human contact, and how lonely he feels when he is perceived solely as a figure of fear. Even his reactions from the public are explored.

  Seeing a Batman this human, this's not just refreshing, it's genuinely moving.
 As for Crane himself, artist Don Newton manages to make the villain a truly frightening figure, with much of his face and expressions obscured, this is given more impact than usual, because he barely appears in the story. The ending is nicely ironic, and even manages to make you feel a twang of sympathy for Crane.
 Put bluntly, I love this comic. And it gets better, next up is Fear for Sale from Detective Comics #571 by Mike Barr & Alan Davis. The third issue of their criminally neglected run, it's one of my favorite Batman stories. Again, given my dislike for sidekicks and my preference for macabre themes, I really shouldn't like this story, or in fact any of Barr & Davis's run, which was an intentional throwback to the Silver Age. Wisecracks, innuendo and wackiness abounded, yet theirs may in fact be my single favorite Batman run. The comics aren't dumbed down, or done solely as an exercise in nostalgia, they're just pure fun.
 This story is a prime example of how to do straight-out thrill-ride superhero adventures. Here, Batman discovers that the Scarecrow's newest scheme doesn't involve spreading fear, but killing it. Sounds harmless? Well, yes, until you realize how without fear, people can become reckless and stupid. Thus, the villain "sells" fear back to those he has deprived it from. Brilliant idea. Meanwhile, Robin must prevent a newly reckless Batman from blundering into Scarecrow's death traps after Batman ends up deprived of his sense of fear. 
Happy Batman is 100x scarier than brooding Batman
 It’s a simple premise, but is wonderfully executed. Barr's writing is crisp and witty, and Davis's art is extremely cartoony but wonderfully detailed and expressive just the same. There's some genuine suspense, a surprisingly touching (and prescient) ending, as well as some wonderful moments of black humor. While this really is a Robin story, Batman nevertheless still gets to do some ass-kicking without stealing Robin's spotlight, while Robin doesn't overshadow Batman. There's a real sense of camaraderie between the two, and though many fans disliked the Jason Todd-Robin, I found him quite likeable here. Hell, everyone is likeable, even the Scarecrow himself, who is so obviously having the time of his life while pulling off this scheme that his joy is infectious. Best of all, this story could easily be linked to modern continuity, as the fact that Scarecrow's primary targets in this story are athletes ties in with his later origin showing him to have been bullied by jocks in high school. With a prescient ending, brilliant concept for its villain's scheme and fast-paced, enjoyable storyline, this story is rightly touted as a classic, and elements of it were adapted twice for the Batman cartoon of the 90s. Sometimes, the famous stories really do deserve the hype.
When written well, Scarecrow can be as funny as the Joker

  In contrast to the previous two stories about the value of friendship, comes a disturbing yarn from Scarecrow’s own one-shot comic called Mistress of Fear.
No, that’s not what this story involves at all
 Here Crane seeks revenge on a homely young woman who thwarted him previously, but then becomes enamored with her after discovering she endured the same sort of bullying he did as a child, and then tries to tempt her into becoming his sidekick, hence the title. Portraying Crane in a comparatively sympathetic light, but still piling on some pretty disturbing moments, this one stands out as the darkest story in the collection. I quite like it, enough to consider it the best (or at least, most ambitious) story in this book even though it’s not my favorite, but that’s a pretty controversial decision considering the flack this story had garnered online; chiefly because it’s inspired a lot of poorly written fan fiction by female fans who would have been more than willing to have taken up Crane’s offer.
The collection finishes up with Fear of Success from Gotham Knights#23, which is one of those stories I mentioned earlier where the hallucinations caused by Crane are the main focus, this one is better than most by giving Crane a decent amount of panel-time and making Batman's hallucinations real emotional kickers. Damn good, but it pales compared to the last three stories.

 All in all, this collection is quite literally divided against itself; Four lousy stories versus four excellent ones. Rushed out simply to capitalize on the (fleeting) use of the villain in Batman Begins, quality clearly wasn’t going to be the main priority with this collection, but one still wonders why the editors made the choices that they did.

 Why not eliminate the lame 60's/O' Neil/Joker stories in favor of say, the 1995 Batman annual focusing on the character's origin? That was a superb retelling of World's Finest #3, giving Crane a much needed backstory that created some genuine pathos for him, included some amusing Legend of Sleepy Hollow references, while still managing to be very Batman-focused. At the very least, it provides better context for Mistress of Fear.

 Other fine choices for inclusion would have been Batman #523-4, where Crane finishes off more childhood enemies, or Batman Adventures Annual 1's Study Hall, where a reformed Crane resumes the mantle of the Scarecrow to avenge a female student's date rape, or Jeph Loeb & Tim Sale's shallow but atmospheric Legends of the Dark Knight Halloween special “Choices” (although that story gave the villain the annoying habit of spouting nursery rhymes and odd jokes).

 Still, considering the hard-to-find gems that it does reprint, I can't bitch too much about this volume. It's one of those rare collections which still manages to give you a decent taste of each era (regardless of quality), with even the bad stories not leaving an overly negative impression of the era they came from. So despite being intended as a Scarecrow collection, it's actually more of a Batman throughout-the-ages collection. 3/5.

1 comment:

  1. I got this from the library recently and I found it pretty decent. Though I do agree the last four stories are FAR better than the first four.

    Scarecrow is my favorite villain in Batman's Rouge Gallery. So any story involving him as the antagonist (or protagonist) is enjoyable to me.