Eight pounds (at least) of Batman

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After reading four recently published collections, this writer is ready for Bat-detox. But I did discover the wonderful work of Dick Sprang, and the weird cat-butt art of the Knightfall series.

Some imp of the perverse must have caused me to request all these Batman books from the publisher. I certainly had no idea what I was getting into, although the word “omnibus” should have clued me in that I was in for a lot of Batman – more than one non-fan might be able to handle.

Let me clarify; it’s not that I’m a “non-fan,” exactly. But I haven’t quite kept up with the Bat-ventures of the last, oh, three decades. I’ve barely paid attention to the goings-on of Bruce Wayne & co. in the pages of his various DC mags, though of course I know the movies. Even in my teens I was only an intermittent reader of the comics, though I have kept up with a few “event” titles (Arkham Asylum, The Killing Joke, Frank Miller‘s The Dark Knight, etc) in the intervening years.

So let’s get to four new collections of old Batman comics, and what you can expect, going in the order that I read them.

First, The Golden Age Batman Volume 2 (DC, softcover, 416 pps, $39.99CDN). I have to admit, I just skimmed this one, owing mostly to the unwieldy wordiness of the scripts. Nearly all the stories are written and drawn by Batman co-creators Bill Finger and Bob Kane, respectively, and are from the early forties, shortly after the character made his first appearance (in Detective Comics #27, 1939). The panels are crammed with exposition and dialogue (stilted at best), the plots are formulaic, and Kane’s art is a cut above rudimentary (though it does improve as the months tick by). The volume, which collects stories from Batman #4-7, Detective Comics #46-56, World’s Best Comics #1 and World’s Finest Comics #2-3, is most notable for containing a few firsts, including the first appearances of the Batmobile and Scarecrow. The latter is a villain who has survived into the modern age (Cillian Murphy portrayed him in Christopher Nolan‘s Dark Knight trilogy.) It’s also a handsome volume, with a cover by Michael Cho and vivid colours inside (though some of the stories’ art have survived reproduction better than others).

Then there’s Batman: Knightfall Omnibus Volume 1 (DC, hardcover, 940+ pps, $131CDN). I mean, WTF. This thing is HUGE. I think I was expecting a much smaller volume, with art by Kelley Jones, a favourite of mine. Jones does contribute, but mostly covers (including a sexy Poison Ivy cover). But man, this is over 900 pages of Batman (and Robin, and some dude named Azrael), in a story arc from 1992-3 that pits the increasingly weary protagonist against the then-new villain Bane.

Batman 495 cover art by Kelley Jones.

If that name rings a bell, it’s probably because Nolan tapped the mountainous bad guy for the last of his Dark Knight flicks. The thing about the Knightfall Omnibus is that the stories and art vary wildly. I could barely get through the issues by writer Doug Moench and artist Jim Aparo, which comprise nearly half the book. Moench cut his teeth at Marvel Comics in the 70s, and he has carried over the old-school comics tradition of explaining things ad nauseum. Aparo’s art is simply not, to put it kindly, exceptionally dynamic.

However, the Knighfall Omnibus (Vol. 1, don’t forget, although Vol. 2 hasn’t been announced) does contain some good stuff, particularly the stories by Chuck Dixon. (Dixon and Moench basically alternated stories in their respective issues of Batman and Detective Comics, where these stories originally appeared in 1992-3.) Dixon’s stories are much more imaginative and streamlined, with little unnecessary exposition or dialogue, and with the occasional bon mot (“One of the lesser maniacs,” Batman thinks as he delivers a stomach kick to a bad guy named The Cavalier.)

The first collaborator assigned to Dixon was Michael Netzer, and his art is a weird counterpoint to Aparo’s – the way Netzer is inked by Scott Hanna, for instance, everything that is shaded for depth look like an asterisk, or more to the point, a cat’s butt. Seriously. However, there are some solid comics in this bunch, particularly in later issues when Dixon is teamed with artist Grahan Nolan. Unfortunately, it’s the Moench-Aparo team that handles key issues, like the famous scene where Bane breaks Batman’s back (used in The Dark Knight Rises), and the final confrontation between the two adversaries. I was as exhausted as Batman by the time I reached the end.

A much more pleasant surprise was Batman: Golden Age Omnibus Vol. 3 (DC, hardcover, 784 pps, $99CDN). After The Golden Age Batman Vol. 2 I wasn’t expecting much, but then, I hadn’t counted on Dick Sprang.

In the early to mid-forties, Sprang was one of the artists who occasionally took over drawing duties for Batman from Bob Kane, and his work is a pure delight. His clean, fluid lines, succinct storytelling, and innovative techniques (he liked silhouettes. A LOT) make several stories in this volume worth seeking out by fans of the medium, no matter what their feelings about Batman or DC or mainstream comics. I feel like I’m probably late to the game in my discovery of Sprang, but this book will definitely take pride of place on my bookshelf just based on the two dozen or so stories drawn by the artist that have been collected in this volume (which covers the Batman/Detective Comics/World’s Finest Comics issues published 1943-4). I should note, however, that not all of the subtleties of Sprang’s art survived the Golden Age comic-book-making process; occasionally, an inker with a claw for a hand seems to have been assigned to go over his pencils.

Sprang isn’t the only guest artist in this volume; there are a few others, including most notably Jerry Robinson (who is credited with creating the Joker, although no one drew the arch-villain like Sprang). Quite a few different writers contribute as well, with the result that some stories are more fun and inventive than others, though nearly all suffer from a surplus of exposition and dialogue. But that’s to be expected of comics from this era.

Finally, for dessert, I feasted on Batman ’66 Meets Steed and Mrs. Peel (DC, hardcover, 144 pps, $33.99CDN). With the corny zip of the sixties Batman TV show and the dash of Britpop TV sensation The Avengers, this is pure pop-culture mash-up nonsense, and thoroughly enjoyable for it. Written by British comics writer Ian Edginton, the team-up of the sixties TV icons is a hoot from start to finish, with lovely covers by Michael Allred and wonderful interior art by Matthew Dow Smith. After the heaviness (literally and figuratively) of Knightfall and the word-tonnage of the Golden Age comics, this slim, attractive lark of a book (it collects six issues of a comic by the same name) almost left me wanting more Batman. Almost.

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