Tuesday, May 25, 2010

The Batman Chronicles: Vol. 1

The Batman Chronicles seems so obvious an idea that I’m amazed DC didn't think of it earlier: reprint every Batman story in order of appearance, merging Detective Comics, World’s Finest and the solo Batman title into a single series of trade paperbacks.

The first volume collects a brief but special time in Batman’s history: his days as a dangerous (and clearly insane) vigilante. There are few superhero fetishes present in the stories during Batman’s real “Year One.” He keeps his bat costume in a steamer trunk, drives around is a red sports car and kills without a second thought (or even a first thought, for that.)

This is the Batman that inspired Frank Miller’s tales, the violent vigilante more interested in stomping criminals than stomping crime. When the villains of these early tales land in jail it’s usually by mistake. This version of Batman would just as soon break your neck than turn you over to the cops.

The artwork in this first volume carries a lot of weight, with each panel having to convey more than modern readers might be used to. In The Dirigible of Doom, a blimp lays waste to the as-yet unnamed Gotham City, toppling skyscrapers with some sort of energy cannon. It’s one of the most powerful images of these early stories and Bruce Wayne is even shown — for all of a single panel — helping to pull survivors out of the wreckage. These old stories cover a lot of ground in just a little space, so a little more care and attention is needed to fully savor them.

The Dirigible of Doom also illustrates some of the problems with these old stories. As impressive as the threat is, the badguys are sometimes a little goofy. The man revealed to be behind the killer blimp is some dumpy guy with a “Napoleon Complex” (having him dress as Napoleon is an incredibly literal — if stupid — way of interpreting that particular mental disorder.)

These early stories also tend to rush their endings, as though Bill Finger or Bob Kane realized late in the day that they’re running out of room. It’s common to see a story rocket along, only to tie up as many threads as quickly as possible in the final page.

Some of the earlier villains still interest me, though. Dr. Death, the Mad Monk and Hugo Strange are as creepy as ever, though few writers have ever been able to bring these characters part-and-parcel into modern settings. These characters would be right at home in Sandman Mystery Theater and are strangely perverse, sadistic figures.

Batman is also shown frequently carrying a gun in these Pre-Robin stories, though he rarely uses it. Some of this “gun art” looks to be cribbed from art in The Shadow pulps. Given Bob Kane’s contributions to history’s “swipe files” this seems pretty likely. In fact, there is little to no difference between Bruce Wayne and Lamont Cranston in Batman’s early days. His villains eventually set the two characters apart.

The first volume also features the brilliant first appearances of Robin and The Joker, as well as Catwoman’s barely recognizable debut. Those have been written about at length elsewhere so I won’t drone on about those famous stories too much. They still hold up tremendously well, though. And it’s impressive how much The Joker’s first two appearances contributed to his interpretation in The Dark Knight film.

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