Monday, March 26, 2012

Year One: Batman 406

Batman #406 (April 1987)
"Black Dawn"
Frank Miller-David Mazzuchelli

Doug: The plot is certainly thickening as we move into the second half of this mini-series within a series that redefined (for better or worse) the Batman in the post-Crisis DC Universe. Today's fare is chock full of action and suspense; I wouldn't say that any of the outcomes are unpredictable, but there's a certain page-turnability to this story. Before we get to examining the plot, I would like to say that I think the cover to Batman 406 seems out of place beside the other three in the series. We've remarked that David Mazzuchelli's art is at times minimalist; here we have something that's very busy. While it certainly foreshadows events within, it's just a wholly-different design in comparison to the rest of the covers he did for this storyline.

Karen: I hadn't thought about that, but looking at the covers, you're dead right Doug.

Doug: When we left off, the Batman was hiding in a tenement building when one of the GCPD fascists dropped a bomb on it! As the building exploded around him, we felt somewhat assured that no one could survive. Of course we were wrong. Batman falls from his perch as fire ignites all about him. Chemicals in his utility belt catch fire and he has to discard it. One of the things we find out about this novice hero is that he's much better prepared than his 1966 television counterpart; this Batman keeps some back-up utensils in his boots and cape! We also see that death is very real in Frank Miller's Gotham City; as Batman plummets he spies a homeless man in the midst of the flames. Batman somewhat callously thinks that he has no time to save that man. Lighting on the floor, the Dark Knight sees a large steel door marked "Danger: Electricity 80,000 Watts". Seems like a safer place to be than a burning building, so he removes a pick from his glove and jimmies the padlock.

Karen: Just goes to show how differently people can interpret things. I took Batman's thoughts, where three times he says he can't help the old man, to indicate his frustration in his inability to save him.

Doug: I've included the panels in question, above. Upon a reread, I do see that Batman's comments about the homeless man seem filled with regret. My original take on it was that he was so focused on the mission at hand that he couldn't tolerate any deviation from the necessary. Readers?

Doug: We then cut to the apartment of Selina Kyle, who obviously shares it with the young prostitute Holly (and about two dozen cats). Holly is trying to awaken Selina to tell her about explosions and fires burning across the city. Selina reluctantly rises, but takes the time to feed her cats. She tells Holly to turn on the television news, and then they get dressed to check it out. At the scene, Gordon's pretty banged up. He barks out some orders as Detective Essen is loaded into an ambulance, having sustained injuries from last issue's high-speed accident. The sadist Branden and his SWAT commandos are going into the building. Of course it looks like a war zone, but you know what struck me immediately? Where's the fire?

Karen: I was struck by that too. Even if the fire was out (how?), it still should have been plenty hot in the ruins. But the SWAT team enters it almost nonchalantly. And after all these years, I still wonder about the relationship between Selina and the very young Holly. Nothing is shown exactly, but it still leaves me a bit creeped out.

Doug: Branden's men quickly deduce that the Batman must have gone into the steel trap door, so they pump it full of bullets first and then open it and proceed down some steps. But as they descend, a gloved hand emerges from a broken brick duct and lays a Vulcan nerve pinch on one of the police goons. Now in possession of the guy's radio, Batman tells Branden that he has him right where he wants him. Even at the earliest times, intimidation is a hallmark of a Batman adventure! Batman then drops some gas pellets down the shaft in which he was hiding, but Branden's men are prepared for it.

Karen: Yup, that was definitely a Vulcan nerve pinch. I smirked when I saw that. Although Batman is ordering Branden around, he's also trying to reason with him -"Too many people have died already." This Batman is still concerned about protecting lives, even those of crooked cops.

Doug: Surface-side, Selina and Holly arrive on the scene and Holly strays across the police line. In the sky the Commissioner circles in a helicopter wondering why this hasn't been ended yet. Inside the building, Batman puts a tourniquet around his thigh and takes cover in the shadows. With dawn coming and no roof on the structure, the sun now becomes his worst enemy. That, and a stray cat who suddenly leaps away from him, drawing attention. Well, desperate times require desperate measures, and as the situation is beginning to look hopeless, the Batman plays his final card -- an experimental sonic device that he's created for Wayne Electronics. The bats beneath Wayne Manor, in the cave. They will come to his aid.

Karen: The bat-signalling device in the heel of his shoe verges on Batman TV show territory. It's played very straight, and the imagery is great, so it works, but I felt that it was out of place. To connect Batman and Selina, we have both of them commenting on Siamese cats and how they won't be quiet. Nice touch.

Doug: Using a blow gun, the Batman puts a dart into Branden's neck. All that does is stir up his men, who now commence firing. This forces the Dark Knight from his hiding spot and puts him on a run for his life. Amazingly he picks up the cat that had tipped the cops to his whereabouts and shields it from the automatic gunfire. The cat is tossed out a window and soon leaps into the arms of Selina Kyle, near the police line. Back inside, Batman has taken shelter behind a large column. As the police move in, we see our hero reenact a scene from the first issue, when he was training himself on the grounds of Wayne Manor. He gives a mighty kick to the weakened beam, and literally brings the house down. Surprisingly there's still some fight in the GCPD thugs, but as Batman battles the bats arrive -- enough to blot out the sun. In the chaos, the Batman is able to commandeer a motorcycle and make his getaway.

Karen: I'm sure modern audiences would find Batman's rescuing the cat to be ridiculous, but I loved it. This Batman is a good guy, even if his methods are sometimes harsh. We saw him save the kid on the balcony in the last issue, and now, he saves the innocent cat -maybe because he could not save the poor homeless men who were squatting in the building. The visuals of the fight between Batman and the squad were very exciting. This whole series has had a cinematic feel to it.

Doug: While a fitting end to the story, Miller gives us quite a long coda. Gordon narrates the lion's share of it, debriefing the reader on the fall-out from the bombing/bats episode. We then see him working late (again), in his office with Det. Essen. Gordon's trying to find a way to pin the whole Batman thing on Bruce Wayne. Wayne, it seems, has left Gotham City and has been on a month-long ski vacation in the Alps. Allegedly he's broken quite a few bones in a bad fall. Essen puts it together quickly that the injuries sustained by Wayne would roughly match-up with injuries believed to have been sustained by the Batman. And, she knows the background on the murder of Wayne's parents and thinks he might have motive for his alleged vigilante behavior.

Karen: It's kind of funny, after so many years, to see the idea of Bruce Wayne is Batman laid out so easily. It does seem like any detective worth a damn could figure it out, especially since Batman's equipment would require considerable funds to obtain or build.

Doug: The way Gordon and Essen are on the case, Batman's about as thin a disguise as... oh, I don't know -- a guy wearing black-rimmed eyeglasses?

Doug: The book ends with five quick vignettes: Bruce Wayne is indeed skiing, but it's more to rehabilitate his injuries and his mind, and to refine his mission. He surmises that he cannot do what he wants without an ally -- Gordon. Selina Kyle punches out Holly's pimp and yanks her away by the hand -- Selina has an idea. Gordon and Essen do what they've been doing lately -- having coffee late into the evening, after work. It's becoming way too personal for Jim Gordon; as they leave out into the rainy night to catch a cab, they duck into a doorway where they exchange a mutual kiss. Selina has spent a bunch of money on a catsuit. She leaps out into the night despite Holly's protestations. Gordon sits at the foot of his bed, having had yet another fight with his very-pregnant wife Barbara. His life is not going well. He feels like he needs an ally -- the Batman.

Karen: I recall being so mad when Gordon crossed the line with Essen. With some years behind me though, I can look on this and see how Miller was showing us a Jim Gordon who wasn't perfect -or boring. The mutual realization that they need each other promises interesting developments.

Doug: I agree -- it was disappointing to me as well. I take it for what it's worth, and isn't this a heaping dose of Marvel into the formerly staid DC Universe? Talk about clay feet.

Doug: This story continues to pay-off. Miller's brought us deeper into the minds of Bruce Wayne and James Gordon. As one of our commenters remarked (was it sarcastically?) in our first review, this could just as easily be called "James Gordon, Year One". I don't have a problem with that. I used the line "parallel lives" last week -- it's all that. And it moves the story along quite nicely, seeing these two men working against each other but on a collision course where it's now evident that they must work together to accomplish each other's goals. I think this story holds up just fine.


Roygbiv666 said...

Sorry, I've gotta call BS on "as Batman plummets he spies a homeless man in the midst of the flames. Batman somewhat callously thinks that he has no time to save that man". I read it as he was really pissed off/sad he couldn't save him, not that he was callous. He repeats the phrase "can't save him" a few times - sounds like regret to me.

Anonymous said...

I call BS on the idea that Batman would have time to think anout the homeless man at all. Anyone who's been in a combat zone can tell you, there's no time for conscious thought, just for your training to (hopefully) save your life.

Lemnoc said...

...Regret... but also reminding himself to focus on the task at hand.

IIRC, Bruce reminds himself of the "rules of the game" at lot through this run. Focus... "only at night, Alfred," etc.

As described, a very cinematic installment, and one of the most exciting I can recall from that period. It seemed to me they were doing hyper-realism on the Punisher title in and around this time period, and it all had a kind of freshness to it.

Hadn't (yet) been overworked.

Inkstained Wretch said...

Doug, gotta disagree with you on the idea that Batman's sonic bat thingy was too TV-Batmanish. I thought it was one of the most clever ideas Miller had in the series and didn't seem out of place at all. If anything, I think Miller went a smidge too far with the realism in the series and the occassional reminder that we were in a comicbook universe was warranted. Plus, man was it a cool visual ...

The thing that startled me the most about the series at the time was the retconning of Catwoman as a prostitute and/or dominatrix. It seemed wholly gratuitous to me, a kind of adolescent sex-fantasy thing. I mean, it doesn't add much to the story of Batman's origin that I could see ...

Doug said...

Inkstained --

You'd actually be disagreeing with my partner.

I am fully endorsing of the use of such things as Bat-Shark Repellant. -Not-.


Anonymous said...

i'd rather see Adam West and his Bat Shark Repellent. The problem with "realism" in this comic book is that we're dealing with super heroes. Nothing about it is or ever will be realistic until we get the issue where Batman gets shot, falls down, and is then executed by the gang he's chasing.

Lemnoc said...

"Nothing about it is or ever will be realistic..."

I grant the point; but much of the appeal of Batman as opposed to other costumed heroes is that he operates in that shadow realm of the "almost-possible." I've always had a sense that regular Batman readers were more of the Sgt. Rock, Green Hornet, Jonah Hex, Challengers of the Unknown temperament; less of the Man of Steel, Plastic Man, wallcrawler, eyebeams and magic rings, "Hulk is strongest one there is" temperament.

I mean, you have to give up A LOT to prefer Batman heroics over Superman heroics, and the payoff is a certain gritty verisimilitude, if you see my point.


I had the sense in the Late Bronze Age that Gordon had largely figured out the identity of Batman and understood the issue did not bear up under a great deal of scrutiny, yes? A knowing kind of imposed ignorance. And so you had scenes where the commissioner would bounce ideas off Wayne, confess his concerns to him, etc., all under the hunch this information would get back to where it would be useful.

YO really builds on that, especially IIRC in that Gordon actually sees Wayne's face in the final installment.

"I'm going to forget I saw that," seems to be the gist of it.

Fred W. Hill said...

I agree with Lemnoc regarding the greater touch of realism in Batman. My tastes are broad enough to embrace both ridiculous fantasy and the more ultra-realism, slices of life of Harvey Pekar's American Splendor. Heck, with just about all superheroes, any decent detective should easily figure out the secret identities of pretty much all the long established Golden & Silver Age heroes. I was thinking of the absurdity of the early Iron Man stories, where Tony Stark had to wear that metal plate around his torso at all times to keep himself alive but was still acting the part of the playboy, romancing numerous women, none of whom, we're expected to believe, embraced him and then asked in shocked tones, "Tony, what is that metal thing under your shirt? Are you, gasp, Iron Man???"
At least Batman's costume likely never gave Bruce that sort of problem, although it is goofy as hell for no one to figure out who Robin is (or was) with that flimsy domino mask for a disguise.

Fantastic Four Fan 4ever said...

I wish that Miller and Mazzachelli had the chance to work on year two. Perhaps they didn't think they could top this story. I remember the "Legends of the Dark Knight" book on specialty paper was launched soon after. The first story was drawn and inked by Klaus Janson. That was as close as we were going to get to a Miller-esque Batman.

I was greatly let down when I saw the Dark Knight sequel years ago called "The Dark Kight Stikes Back"
The project was poorly drawn and thought out. You know that Miller was just fulfilling his contractual obligation on that one.

His "Holy Terror" was supposed to be a Batman story, only DC refused to publish it. Seeing the first few pages, you can easily see why. It wasn't Batman. At least not the one we saw presented in the Dark Kinght Returns.

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