Monday, December 2, 2013

Batman: War on Crime, Part One

NOTE:  I did the best job I could on the art with the desktop-sized scanner I own.  My apologies in advance for pages that seem to be cropped in strange ways.  -Doug

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

Doug:  If you're like me, you recall that period around Thanksgiving, right near the turn of the century (doesn't it sound funny to say that?), when you swept into the LCS or local Barnes & Noble looking for the latest installment of the Paul Dini-Alex Ross collaboration.  It was almost painful to have to wait those 12 months until the next treasury-sized tome arrived.  But I lasted it out, bought 'em all (six if you also consider the collection of 2-page origins -- it does contain new material in addition to reprints from the first four volumes), and really enjoyed revisiting the first book last Christmas time.  You can jump to our review of Superman: Peace on Earth, here for part one, and here for part two.  Karen and I will again divide this massive story into two parts.  Look for part two next week, and then join us for the third and fourth Mondays in December as we'll also review Shazam: Power of Hope in two parts.  We'll close December with an obscure World's Finest story.

Karen: I wasn't buying comics regularly when these books were coming out, so my introduction to them came many years later. But I absolutely adore them. I find Ross' work gorgeous and could just sit and stare at it for hours. 

Doug:  The book opens with a brief recap of the origin of the Batman, with Dini and Ross paying able homage to the Bob Kane/Bill Finger original.  The panels on the right side of the page are particularly striking, and Ross's use of color in the last panel is a surprise and really stands out from the subdued blues and grays he'd used prior.  Very moody.

Karen: Not that anyone needs to be reminded of Batman's origin (particularly anyone shelling out the money for one of these books), but Dini and Ross get across everything essential to know about the character quite succinctly. As you say, the color choices really make the whole thing. I think little Bruce looks far more frightening than the Batman!

Doug:  Many of you know that Ross lives in the Chicago area, the north suburbs specifically.  I can tell you, living south of the city but going downtown often, just about exactly where Ross set the opening two-page splash.  Hey, did Gotham City have El tracks?  In the first few pages of this tale, we get a typically-brooding Batman, establishing for the reader his mission and his perspective on Gotham and its criminal element.  There are three nice vignettes of the Batman breaking up crimes, but this Batman is a far cry from Frank Miller's brutal rendition.  This Batman seems to operate more along the lines of Michael Keaton's famous line: "I want you to tell all your friends... I'm Batman!"  This Dini/Ross Batman is a detective, and seems to be omnipresent as criminals seek to intimidate, steal, and assault.

Karen: When I see Batman presented this way, I really have to think, how could he ever exist with those brightly garbed characters in the Justice League? His world seems about a million miles away from theirs. 

Doug:  That's an interesting comment.  If we ever get to the Justice League treasury that Dini and Ross crafted, we'll see in the opening scenes how distant Batman is from Green Lantern, Flash, etc.

Doug:  Bruce Wayne is of course the other side of the Batman coin, and Dini and Ross play Wayne as we'd imagine him -- smart, good-looking, wealthy, but reserved.  This version isn't foppish or too aloof -- this version is in complete control, similar to the portrayal of Wayne by Christian Bale in the recent Dark Knight trilogy.  We're told that Bruce Wayne is fully aware that crime isn't just in the streets and alleys of Gotham; sometimes it's in the penthouses and board rooms.  So we see Wayne and a lady friend at a ball.  Paul Dini writes a great bit of characterization, as Wayne thinks to himself, "This is the world into which I was born.  Over the years I have shut out any distractions it might offer, using it purely as a source of information -- an arena to develop contacts that will help me win battles elsewhere."  Perfectly driven, but not in any way insane.  This to me is how the Batman/Bruce Wayne dichotomy was meant to be portrayed.

Doug:  I wouldn't go so far as to say this Batman isn't obsessed with crime.  He is.  But the difference is that it doesn't seem to consume him.  Wayne wonders what his life would be like if he'd given in to the life that should be his -- the money, the fame, the women, travel, etc.  What if he'd been ruled by the temptations of those trappings?  What if... he allowed the crime to rule him rather than fighting to rule the crime?  We get to the centerpiece of the plot in a board room as Bruce Wayne listens to his executive board try to sell him on the notion of building upscale housing in a rundown industrial area of Gotham.  Wayne thinks that it is a troubled area -- he's there almost weekly to try to keep the human vermin from taking hold.  He's especially encouraged by a man named Randall Winters, who fancies himself a kindred soul to Wayne.  Bruce doesn't return Winters's affinity for their common upbringing, nor for Winters himself.

Karen: That sequence felt a bit like "The Last Temptation of Batman" - perhaps condensed, but I sure hope that it is going somewhere. I want to say one thing here: although I love Ross' art, I feel a little disappointed in Bruce Wayne's appearance. He's a little too similar to Ross' Superman, all lantern-jawed and slick-backed hair. I would've liked to see a substantially different face.

Doug:  Characters in comics looking different is a relatively recent phenomenon, isn't it?  Really, the first artist I recall who really went out of his way to make the characters look differently was John Byrne, followed by George Perez.  But I think there is merit here -- and their body types?  If I recall, Batman is 6'3" and Superman's right about that same height.  So even physically they appear as twins.

Doug:  While on his nightly patrol, the Batman hears gunshots.  He speeds to the rooftop of a convenience store in the Bayside Industrial area -- the "future site" of Wayne's investment.  A gunman races out the door of the store as Batman lands.  It is only a moment later and the thug is down and bound in an alley.  Cautiously entering the storefront, the Batman finds a scene that he knew would play on his eyes -- the proprietors of the store, both slumped over the main counter, both dead from gunshot wounds.  But in moving closer, Batman hears something from the floor behind the bodies -- the sounds of crying, coming from a young teen fallen to the floor in his sorrow.  Batman is taken aback, feeling that he is viewing himself, some three decades earlier.  He lingers on top of a streetlight as the ambulance comes to remove the corpses, as the boy has lost everything and may potentially come under the care of social services.  The boy's name is Marcus, but it might as well be Bruce.

Karen: Man, these pages really hit me in the gut. The boy, staring up, the absolute loss and devastation in his eyes -Ross really knocked this out of the park. You can't look at this and not feel a lump in the throat.

Doug:  And I can tell you from living near the city of Chicago, this sort of scene plays out nightly, yet far worse on the weekends.  The total disregard for human life in our urban centers not only boggles the mind, but chills the spine.  The Batman is attached to this particular case.  He trails the police to the local precinct, where Marcus is interviewed.  The boy awaits his next move, which may come from the police in the form of temporary housing.  Batman rescued himself from the depths of crime by apprehending his parents' killer; Marcus won't have that.  Marcus will need to resist the undertow of the crime in which he lives.  Batman goes undercover the in the next days, watching as gangs make a move on the now-abandoned convenience store.  He watches as the turf is marked, fully replacing the life that once was in the Bayside area.  Big business used to dominate this part of town, and it thrived.  However, when those businesses moved on, the locals were faced with a rapidly-changing economy.  Some found crime as a way to heal those wounds brought on by the declining dollars and cents.

Karen: Batman's concern for the boy is touching. Dini and Ross do a great job in showing the reader that Batman's whole 'war on crime' is not about an obsession to punish the criminal but to save lives.We see how crime ruins lives, of the victims, the perpetrators, and everyone around them. Although Superman is usually thought of as a big Boy Scout,  Batman in his way is just as much a do-gooder.

Doug:  This is a very humanistic story.  As we approach the halfway point, it's certainly going to be about the now-orphaned Marcus.  But Bruce Wayne/Batman sees the people of Bayside as individuals.  He moves among them, hidden, hearing their stories and watching their lives.  He monitors those who think of tearing apart the neighborhood for the re-development and plans on how to sidestep those coming events.  Wayne sits in a diner to collect information and watches the waitress -- an attractive young woman who he knows well.  She's a habitual criminal, and he's collared her on several occasions.  She works at this greasy spoon, hoping to "go straight"; he knows that it won't be long until she's back to the dark side.  As he pays his bill, he tips her $100 -- maybe it's his way of sustaining peace in her life for just a short time more.

Doug:  I love these books!  Paul Dini, with plotting assists from Alex Ross, really takes us inside the minds of definitive versions of these characters.  I know many of our readers complain that Ross's depictions of heroes are almost god-like.  I hate to tell you, but I think it's supposed to be that way!  This is our mythology, friends -- modern heroes in the same vein as Hercules, Gilgamesh, Thor, et al.  These are our larger-than-life characters, and they do swoop down from the heavens to try to make our lives easier.  Are they always right?  I think we saw in our review of "Peace on Earth" that no -- they aren't.  But then, that's not out of line with stories we know from the Greeks, the Nordic lands, etc.  Alex Ross brings all of this to a wonderful 2D realization, and for my money it's incredible.

Karen: My partner just summed up my feelings, and did it very well! Ross month is off and running!


Greg said...

Nice post Karen and Doug. I've never read this as I'm not a big DC guy, but it looks nice and I like the artwork. Nice to see the focus on the boy and the toll crime takes on its victims. I agree about Ross' art, I think its supposed to be large than life even if we're dealing with street level stuff.

Garett said...

Happy to see you reviewing these Ross/Dini books! They would be a hilight in any era of comics. I like how you're focusing in on the characterization of Batman--so important, as he's had so many different interpretations. These books are my favorites by Ross, with Shazam and JLA being my faves of the series.

One criticism is that I prefer word balloons instead of an all-caption story...the JLA story uses word balloons.

Edo Bosnar said...

Well, I'm glad Karen mentioned it first: I clicked the links to your Superman reviews from last year and also noted the striking similarity between Bruce Wayne and Superman.
Anyway, the art's still not doing anything for me, but this story as you describe it sounds pretty good. Also, the description of Batman as driven rather than obsessed, and still being a do-gooder deep down is perfect. That's my Batman as well.

Doug said...

Garett -- I think the narrative form is used in the four solo books due to the non-conversational aspect. If memory serves (I always say that; it usually doesn't), all four books are told 1st-person, with no interaction. So the narration boxes would be like thought balloons. In the last story this month, which was written by Chip Kidd, the same style is used.

Here's a general question for anyone and everyone, as Karen and I are still trying to wrap our minds around those who don't care for Ross's art: someone commented over the weekend on the Sinister Six lithograph (it's currently on our masthead) that they didn't like "realistic" art. Do any of you then not like the superhero movies? Because all of those contain actual people in actual costumes. Curious...



Doc Savage said...

Never been a fan of this type of Batman. His best buddies are Robin and Superman. He's a nice, friendly guy. This version is just repulsive to me.

The art just makes me feel like I'm at Madam Tussaud's.

MattComix said...

What I like about Alex's work is that while he does do the realism thing it's not at the total expense of the fantastic. Before Miller came along the moniker used to be "The Dark Knight Detective". I like that while Alex does make Batman "dark" he doesn't forget the "knight" part nor the "detective" part.

When Alex does superheroes they are still allowed to be larger than life and to wear their costumes rather than have the fantasy of it apologized for with lots of armor and seams. I think sometimes the quest to make the heroes "relatable" turns into people just wanting to yank them out of the sky and drag them through the mud. They want to shackle the idea down to the point of absurdity.

I don't think Batman's world in incongruous to the rest of the DCU. It's just that in his city the threats are more ground level. Not many cosmic overlords and would be world-beaters have an interest in Gotham. Batman fights the good fight on the ground while many of his colleges are fighting battles in the sky, space, or mystic realms.

This contrast is ideally part of why putting Batman into the mix with the Justice League is interesting. Because he is smart and resourceful but still in a bit over his head.

But rather than let this contrast happen naturally writers either want to hang a lampshade on it or worse, over-compensate for Batman being the guy who has no powers by making him the guy who has already read the plot before the adventure even started.

MattComix said...

Just an addition here but I really think the appeal of Alex's work is that when he's really on (and yes sometimes he's off), it's less about "make it real" than it is "bring it to life".

Edo Bosnar said...

Wow, Matt C., repulsive, really? For the most part, based on Karen & Doug's description of this story, he seems a lot like the Batman from the Denny O'Neil and Steve Englehart stories of the 1970s. That may not be to everyone's taste, but that's not a Batman I'd call repulsive...

MattComix, in response to your point about Ross "bringing it to life," I have to say that's where I disagree. To me, his hyper-realistic style has almost the opposite effect.
And that allows me to segue into Doug's question: 1) as I've said many times before, I don't mind "realistic" art - I like Adams, J. Buscema, etc., etc. as much as the next guy; 2) the superhero movies: it's simply a different medium, i.e., live action, so I have different standards for judging it. I will say this, however: given the choice between reading superhero comics or watching superhero movies, I'll always take comics.

MattComix said...

Edo, well different strokes and all that but I can meet you almost half-way on this one. I'm reminded of a quote by Bruce Timm who once said "I love Alex but I wish he'd throw his damn camera away".

I actually see where Bruce is coming from on that because there are instances of where in books I have seen both the rough sketch and the finished piece and it is the sketch that had more life to it simply because it was made before the model was brought in.

I admire his work a lot but loosening up a bit wouldn't hurt him at all IMO.

Doug said...

Matt Comix -- I couldn't have said it better myself! You summed up how I feel in words I didn't have. Thanks!

Edo, thanks for your comments as well. I'd choose comics over film as well. However, like many others have said, I am so glad that we have the movies now. Who'd have ever dreamed?


Doug said...

Clarify -- my last comment was to Matt's first comment (I hadn't scrolled to the bottom and seen his second one yet). That being said, I think Paul Dini is on to something, yes.


Murray said...

Amidst all this scholarly discussion on Ross' artwork and such, I have to pipe up with a more fan type comment. Batman and Superman being the same size and body type is a legacy stretching back generations. I grew up with one or the other stepping in to impersonate his pal when needed.

It always takes me a page or three to adjust to Alex Ross artwork. It is great, but the realism takes a moment, especially with Batman. Seeing Batman's eyes just ain't right. Once I get into the plot and flow, with a good story like this, I'm a content reader.

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