Monday, December 9, 2013

Batman: War on Crime, Part Two

Batman: War on Crime (November 1999)
Paul Dini-Alex Ross

Karen: We're picking up right in the middle of this gripping tale by Paul Dini and Alex Ross. In his civilian persona, Bruce Wayne has been approached with investment opportunities in the Bayside area, but they would mean pushing out the poor folks who are clinging to life in the crime-ridden area. He's been especially affected by the situation of one Bayside youngster in particular, Marcus, who lost his parents in the course of a robbery. Batman decides to start spending more time in Bayside, first in the daytime, in a series of disguises so as to gather information, and then at night, looking to stop the criminals. One of those nights he perches on a rooftop, watching an electronics store about to be robbed. He sees an adult man and three teens breaking into the store, and a younger boy standing outside as a lookout. Batman jumps onto their van and lobs smoke bombs into the alley. There's panic, of course, and the Dark Knight uses that to his advantage, easily taking out the crew. He walks out of the smoke towards the lookout, only to discover it is the orphan, Marcus. Seeing the fear on the boy's face, he decides to let him run.

Doug:  I guess we'll find out if my desktop scanner can accommodate what I think is a great perspective shot (hey, not bad Old Man!  Hope you all like it, too).  Ross's angle from above and to the right of the Batman and onto the burglary scene is striking; the white getaway van really makes the setting pop -- a wise choice to contrast the usual dark colors of the night.  As we remarked last week, this isn't Frank Miller's Dark Knight.  This one is as calculating in his moves and movements, and anticipates that fear will be the result of his actions, but he isn't out to maim or disfigure.  Instead, subjugation is his goal -- let the police do the mop-up work.  Ross hits another homer with the emotion on Marcus's face as he wheels to flee; he's just as good in showing us the seeming-paralysis on Batman's face.  Did our Caped Crusader let Marcus flee, or was he so taken aback by Marcus's presence that he found himself unable to react when needed.  It's an interesting question to consider, given the aforementioned calculations inherent to the Batman's characterization.


Karen: Later in the Batcave, Batman works out and wonders to himself if it was only his wealth that kept him from going down a path that lead to crime. On these pages, Batman strips off his top and Ross shows us the toll Batman's body has paid for his war on crime: his back and arms are covered with scars. The next morning, Wayne rises from bed after a fitful sleep. Marcus has haunted his sleep. He feels some sense of responsibility towards the lad. He thinks perhaps he has been too focused on the criminals and not enough on their victims.

Doug:  This scene creates a real problem for me.  I know what Ross is going for with the scars, welts, etc.  I get that.  But it's just not practical.  First of all, why wouldn't the Batman have an equal number of these blemishes (some look to be of the very serious, raised/bubbly variety) on the front of his body?  Ross does draw some scars on Wayne's chest and arms, but not to the degree that we see on the posterior of the torso.  And concerning his back, wouldn't the cape in some fashion shield his body from these sorts of attacks?  Additionally, given that Bruce Wayne has had a dalliance or three along the way, wouldn't a young lady have serious concerns about seeing/feeling these wounds?  It just doesn't fit for me -- I guess I wouldn't deny that in a hero's line of work there'd be some collateral damage concerning one's body, but I just feel there's more to it than just a passing image.  And I suppose, given what I believe to be the source material (there are famous photographs of American slaves and the wounds received from repeated floggings), it's perhaps just a bit offensive to draw this comparison of pain.

Doug:  But not to be a total downer, I want to pose a sort of fashion question to our readers.  I like the depiction of Batman's utility belt hanging over Alfred's arm in the image we've included.  How do you like your utility belt:  pouches, cases, or vials? 

Karen: Wayne meets with Randall Winters again to hear more about his development plan for the Bayside district. When Wayne expresses an interest in improving conditions for the people living there, Winters essentially scoffs and says the smart people got out already. Cleaning up the area is what the police and Batman are for. He knows some cops who will drive out "the undesirables" if Bruce is worried about security. Wayne would like nothing better than to punch Winters in the face but he restrains himself so he can get more information.

Doug:  I found the bedroom scene, with Alfred throwing back the drapes at noon, sort of interesting.  Given that Bruce Wayne probably wouldn't generally turn in much before the pre-dawn hours, I'd have assumed his bedchambers would have nearly opaque draperies.  I like the light, though, as a nice contrast to the rest of the book's much darker palette.  Paul Dini writes a great line just ahead of Wayne's meeting with Winters:  "As Batman, I'm more concerned with criminals than victims.  Maybe it's time I started effecting changes without the mask."  Another, which you allude to:  "I return Winters's smile and fight the urge to pummel the man."  Wonderful!

Karen: Once he's back in his lair, Batman decides if Winters wants Batman to clean up the area, so be it. He studies every street and building in the neighborhoods until he has it all memorized. But now he needs to know the names of the players. He decides to go out and get them. He starts by going to a club owned by a supposedly straight former gang boss. He applies that cold steely Batman stare and the thug pops and tells the caped crusader what he wants to know -names and addresses. Then the Dark Knight begins a one-man war on the streets, hitting the drug dealers and thugs hard. What he sees going on makes him angry, and he harnesses it and uses it.

Doug:  Did you ever notice that guys like Batman had Internet capabilities far earlier than the rest of us ordinary shmoes?  Certainly when this book was published we all had access to the Web, but if you think about how wired Avengers Mansion is, or the various JLA headquarters, or the Baxter Building -- guess you had to be or know someone...  Batman's initial approach to this "former gang boss" is classic -- as he scowls at the don, five of the guy's heavies lay unconscious on the fringe of the scene.  And when he indeed makes this rogue "pop" with the info., you can just about feel the piercing eyes of the Batman.

Doug:  I have to say that I am really impressed with Alex Ross's ability to paint in such muted tones (as in almost all of the night scenes in this book), but with a tremendous amount of detail.  People can argue all day about Ross's use/overuse of photography in his work, but to me his finished products come out looking like a photograph.  It's a tremendous talent to make us believe that these watercolors are not photos. 

Karen: One night he stakes out a boarded-up paper factory that's been turned into a drug lab. It gets under his skin that this was once a place that provided gainful employment for the people who lived here, and now it's providing employment of a sort by the gangs who run things. He bursts into the place and attacks the gang members. He actually uses the cocaine to create a smoke screen -boy, that's a lot of blow! As he finishes wiping out the gang bangers, he hears the sound of a gun hammer being pulled back. He turns and sees a familiar face -it's Marcus, standing tiny and scared, holding a gun on him. The boy tells him to go away. Batman faces the boy and tells him that what he's doing right now isn't him. That this doesn't have to be his life. He says that he lost his parents to a man with a gun, too. He understands Marcus' pain, but he tells the boy that he can rise above this. He doesn't have to get sucked up into this world. "Don't become what killed our families." Marcus relents and hands over the gun, collapsing against the Batman, who wraps a protective arm around him. It's a powerful scene, very well told.

Doug:  The Dark Knight better have used his Bat-noseplugs!  It is a great scene, from the moment Batman turns to face Marcus to the full image of Marcus with the gun -- I could feel him shaking as he tried to level it at the cloaked giant before him.  That last panel needs no words, a wise choice by Dini.


Karen: Now Batman moves in on another front: in his Bruce Wayne persona, he buys out the old paper factory and puts it back into full production, providing jobs for many in the community.  He pays a visit to Randall Winters while he hosts a pool party at his home. Wayne tells Winters he's going to invest in the people already in Bayside. Winters calls him naive, and Wayne smiles and says maybe that's true, but that's his call. As he leaves we see Commissioner Gordon and the police entering the party -they have some questions about cops taking kickbacks from his project. Things are not looking too good for Winters.

Doug:  I had to laugh when reading this a couple of weeks ago and now again on the reread.  Back to the "photo realism" of Ross's work -- I think I'd rather be his model for the Batman than his model for Randall Winters!  What a scrawny guy, and a great contrast to the well-built and well-dressed Bruce Wayne.

Karen: Our tale wraps up with Batman standing tall over his city, looking out and musing that his war on crime may be a war he can never completely win, but there are enough small victories to keep him going. "If I can win back one child, there may be hope for many others. If it starts with one person, and then a neighborhood, then perhaps redemption can spread through an entire city, and finally back to me."

Doug:  I found this to be a wonderful sort of sequel to Superman: Peace On Earth, in that we get a second chapter in an inspection of the motivations of these iconic heroes and their realizations that they can do their utmost yet still meet with failures.  Victories, however large or small, can be fleeting.

Karen: I liked this take on Batman, and why he fights his war on crime. It was very personal and good to see him portrayed as a human being, not some Terminator-like figure. It seems like over the years Batman has been built up to be a) an obsessed jerk, and b) an unbeatable fighting machine. Thankfully he's neither of these things in this story. A couple of things I noticed, mere trivia but interesting to me at least: I'm not really comfortable seeing Batman's eyes - I prefer the white eyes. Also -where was the Batmobile in this story? We never see it. That surprised me. But perhaps it's because they wanted to de-emphasize the gadgety side of Batman and stick with the more realistic, human side. In any case, this story really worked for me.


Edo Bosnar said...

Another good review, Karen & Doug. Based on your summary, and the panels provided, it does indeed look like a solid Batman story. However, I can't help thinking it would be so much better if the artist had been Neal Adams, or Jim Aparo, or even, given that Dini collaborated with him on the animated series, Bruce Timm. In other words, Ross is still not doing it for me. Sorry...

Edo Bosnar said...

Oh yeah, I forgot to answer the fashion question about the utility belt: I like the vials.
Also, Doug, you make some good points about the scar tissue on Batman's body, which bother me as well - and it comes up in other stories as well (e.g., in the Batman/Catwoman team-up in Brave & the Bold #197, Selina is initially shocked by the scar tissue on Bruce's back). Given how most of the physical confrontations in the Batman stories play out, I would think the bulk of the scar tissue and bruises would be on his frontal torso and face. Also, your point about the similarity to flogging wounds is pertinent: it looks like most of the bad guys Batman fights are brandishing whips or steel cables, when in fact he usually gets shot at, or is attacked with blunt objects, or he gets punched or kicked.

Doug said...

Edo --

I have that B&B story reprinted in The Greatest Batman Stories Ever Told. Count on it for my Friday reviews after the 1st of the year! I loved Joe Staton during the All-Star revival (and on the Huntress stories), and it's always a pleasure to feature his work here.

Concerning the utility belt, I also like the streamlined look of the vials, but the pouches or cases seem so much more practical.


Karen said...

Thanks Edo for jumping in to share your thoughts here. The more I think about it, the less sense the scar tissue makes, although the shock value is certainly strong.

As for utility belts, my main issue here is Ross draws the belt so big, I don't know how Batman could possibly jump around and perform any act that required agility with that huge buckle sticking into his ribs! I prefer a sleeker belt with pouches.

MattComix said...

I have to agree with Karen in regards to the size of the belt. It has the unintentional side effect of making Batman look fat when put up against the huge frame Ross gives him. Almost as if he were trying too hard to evoke Adam West.

But put me down as being one in favor of the vials, although I like the compromise Ross has of the packs being metallic rather than just lumpy cloth packs. Batman's utility belt should never looks like something you can get at Home Depot or the Army/Navy surplus.

As for the scars I think it's a bit overkill but a good dramatic device but for a much older Batman than the one presented here. But as I've mentioned before modern writers in general seem to have a problem with wanting to lampshade the fact that he has no powers while also making him invincible and at times even seemingly all-knowing.

Garett said...

Nice choice of images and good review again. One thing I notice about Ross's art is the lighting. He usually uses a bright white light, so that it looks like an overexposed the closeup on Bruce Wayne's face here. I think it's interesting that Ross's parents are an illustrator and a minister. I wonder if the bright wash of light is like the light of god, from the influence of religious images Ross may have seen growing up? Or maybe it's just that he uses bright lights in his studio to photograph the models. Anyway that aspect stand out to me when I compare him to other painters.

david_b said...

Agreed on the scars as 'dramatic device'. There's no question his artwork is fantastic on par with Rockwell, but I'm more delighted with the story and characterizations, as Doug highlighted.

This isn't a 'Miller/Dark Knight' approach. You see much more compassion with this Batman, much more calm and wisdom from what you'd expect a crime-fighting icon would possess.

Edo Bosnar said...

Doug, I think I've already mentioned before that I'm a big fan of Joe Staton's art, and that story from B&B 197 is one of my favorite Batman stories ever. It certainly is among the greatest Batman stories ever told - I'm thinking maybe I should get that book...
Anyway, all that means I would love a review of that story.
Back to the story at hand: Karen also pointed out something that additionally turns me off of the art here - Batman's eye. I prefer the white, opaque look as well.

Doug said...

If we want to talk cumbersome belts, I'd have to nominate the Vision for "most obstructive way to hold up one's superhero panties". What's his belt, about 14" high?


Anonymous said...

I like the look of Batman's utility belt drawn here by Ross.

Yeah I'm with Doug on this - we see a more human Batman in this story than in previous incarnations. Instead of simply showing up and beating up the bad guys, we get a more intimate look into the people involved with crime. It does a nice job of showing the reader that crime has many victims.

As for high belts, what the heck do you call that thing Hyperion from the Squadron Supreme/Sinister has on his midsection?

- Mike 'my belt is just about to fall off' from Trinidad & Tobago.

david_b said...

Doug, the Vish is actually WELL-deserving of a huge belt.

If you gaze at his early Bronze Age Avengers masthead drawing, standing with his arms crossed on the upper left corner, you'll typically notice he has.. a well-defined package.

No wonder Hawkeye got the shaft.

(yes, pun intended)

"..I'm just sayin'......"

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