Batman Comics Canon: Year One & The Man Who Laughs

So it’s time for a reread.

If you’ve checked out our page titled “Andrew’s Batman Comics Canon,” you know I’ve been working on a little project for a while now. The project is simple enough in concept, if not at all in execution:

Build a canon of Batman comics that creates the kind of narrative arc I want from the character. For every great Batman comic out there, you can probably find at least three utterly mediocre ones, and at least one really awful one, too.

We shouldn’t have to put up with that shit. We’re busy people, and we’ve got other comics to read. Among other things.

In this reread of my Bat-library, I want to write at least a few thoughts on each comic in the series, taking special note this time around of how each author characterizes Batman and whether that fits with my ideal interpretation of him. Sometimes Bruce Wayne can be a real asshole, and that’s okay as long as he learns something from it — on the other hand, I’m looking to construct a more compassionate, enlightened version of the character, one who learns from his mistakes (like a real person) and who gradually pulls himself up out of the darkness and trauma that gave birth to the Bat. And I’m not looking to create an emotional “bootstraps” story, either — he will need help from Alfred, from the Bat-family, and even sometimes from his Super Friends. Any suggestions are very welcome!

Disclaimer for you DC nerds out there — because the Flashpoint event radically altered a lot of the DC Multiverse’s stories and characters, and usually in a way that distances them pretty drastically from previous post-Crisis, 1986-2011 writings, this collection will probably not include many titles post-New 52. Notable exceptions are the final two volumes of Grant Morrison’s Batman Incorporated.

On to the comics, starting with — shocker! — Frank Miller’s Batman: Year One.


Batman_Year_OneLet’s the get the elephant in the room out of the way first: this comic was written by Frank Miller, and as such we can already see the seeds of The Dark Knight Returns taking root in Year One.

Well, we need to nip that shit in the bud straight away. DKR is a landmark series, hugely influential, blah blah blah, but it represents a much grimmer, meaner Bruce Wayne who for whatever reason didn’t have the moral fortitude to get over his shit and keep fighting the good fight for the good reasons. I love the climactic burly brawl — there’s something so tragic and yet compelling about these two old friends beating each other senseless over their equally idiotic, hyperbolized politics. It’s brilliantly executed and brilliantly written, containing what may be Frank Miller’s best writing of Bruce Wayne.

But my Batman would never let things get that far. He’s way too smart for that.

When Year One opens, Bruce Wayne is overconfident and arrogant. Returning to his ancestral home after long years training abroad, he thinks to himself, “Wayne Manor. Built as a fortress, generations past, to protect a fading line of royalty from an age of Equals.”

WTF does that mean? It’s an unbearably classist sentiment that feels more like weird Frank Miller commentary than something Batman would actually think. Bruce Wayne’s money is a means to an end: while it’s important to consider how his wealth separates him from the rest of Gotham City and how it affords him a position of extreme privilege, it’s also important to me that he doesn’t harbor any overt notions of superiority that are based solely on his inheritance.

Luckily, this one time, I think I can pass off his “fading line of royalty” comment as sarcastic. Because this scene happens, and it’s one of the two most thrilling moments in the Year One series:

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FUCK. YEAH.

One thing Frank Miller has always understood about Batman — in Year OneThe Dark Knight ReturnsThe Dark Knight Strikes Again, and now in The Dark Knight III: The Master Race — is that he’s not about upholding the law. He’s not even necessarily about justice — at least, not in the sense of justice as a conception of fairness that we debate and agree upon as a society. After all, in that sense Batman is categorically a criminal. The above scene, on the other hand, perfectly distills what Batman really is:

Batman is a monster.

He’s a bogeyman, the creature that lives under the bed, the thing that goes bump. But unlike other folktale bogeymen, whom childish grown-ups have largely invented to terrify their children into obedience, the Batman preys on other monsters. And unlike other superheroes, the monsters Batman preys upon are generally pretty real.

And those monsters aren’t always on the “wrong” side of the law, either. In 1986 Frank Miller had Batman kicking the shit out of cops. Thirty years after the fact, I think it’s hard for us to realize how transgressive that probably was in the world of superhero comics, after decades of Batman’s chummy relationship with Commissioner Gordon and even having been a deputized agent of the law in certain comics and TV shows.

Cops, lawyers, corrupt politicians, police commissioners, along with all the usual shady businessmen, pimps, drug dealers, and gangsters… The Batman just don’t give a fuck. He has declared to the world: You hurt people or victimize people in Gotham City, and you’re asking for it.

“None of you are safe.”


Batman_-_The_Man_Who_LaughsI’ve come to think of Batman: The Man Who Laughs as a fifth act to Year One. It’s got the same gritty, crime-noir tone and picks up pretty much right where Frank Miller’s landmark series left off. There are some minor continuity issues between the two (they were, after all, written about 20 years apart), but they’re not terribly jarring or important.

Bruce has come off his high horse just a little in this one, partly I’m sure because Miller didn’t write it. Ed Brubaker takes off running with Batman’s unrivaled detective abilities and really nails the introduction of the Dark Knight’s nemesis. Joker’s got a very Mark Hamill/Batman: The Animated Series feel in this comic, but with a little more of the wickedness and cruel humor we find in Batman: Arkham Knight.

Anyway, this comic ups the ante. Year One‘s antagonists are all very real-world and pedestrian: crooked cops, pimps, gangsters, etc. But the grisly opening scene of The Man Who Laughs tells us we’re dealing with something completely different now. And Batman knows it too — the comic is peppered with his trademark characteristic of being relentlessly self-critical and hard on himself when he can’t save everybody from the likes of the Joker.

I also love the last scene at the Gotham reservoir. Batman proves for the first of many times that he’s a master strategist, capable of thinking well ahead of even his most unpredictable of enemies. And, reinforcing several moments from Year One, Batman refuses to kill — even this most depraved member of the human race. When Joker’s beaten and bloody at Batman’s feet, he says “I’ll kill them… some other time…” And Batman replies:

“No, you won’t.”


Next  up: Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale’s collaborative trilogy, The Long HalloweenDark Victory, and Haunted Knight!

Black Panther #1/The Mustachio

(Get a load a that bomb-ass title page!!)

It’s been way too long. I think Batman v Superman got my superhero juices flowing again, but this comic really sealed the deal. Tuesday morning MPR aired a story about women and people of color in sci-fi/fantasy fiction, and they kicked it off by mentioning that Atlantic columnist, author, and all-around smart dude Ta-Nehisi Coates is relaunching Marvel’s Black Panther series.

I first encountered Coates in the interview segment of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart in July of last year, speaking about his new book Between the World and Me. This guy’s clearly got one hell of a journalistic acumen on him, but what really struck me about his comments and his writing at that time was his thoughtful, compassionate approach to the complexities of modern American life, especially at the intersections of race, social justice, and politics. The moment I heard Coates was writing a comic book, it took me only half a second longer to decide that I was going to buy that comic.

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I’ve been craving some diversity in my comics lately, both in the creators and the characters. On that count, too, Black Panther delivers. The cast is entirely people of color, women, and even two characters of non-straight sexual orientation. Contrasted with the world of T’Challa, Batman v Superman‘s parade — or should I say funeral procession? — of angry, angsty white orphan boys feels almost unbearably dated, woefully behind the times. And while Marvel still stubbornly refuses to inject any genuine social or political commentary into their Cinematic Universe, they are killing DC in their representation of the diversifying faces of America.

Brian Stelfreeze (Shadow of the BatDomino) draws and Laura Martin (JLA: Earth 2Universe X) colors the first issue of the relaunch. Let’s fix ourselves a Mustachio and talk about the comic!


The Mustachio

1.5oz Kentucky straight bourbon (I use Bulleit)

1oz Cointreau

.75oz Campari

.5oz lemon juice

lemon twist

Shake all ingredients over ice; strain to a rocks/Old-Fashioned glass. Garnish with a lemon twist and serve.

So “The Mustachio” is the closest recipe I could find to the drink I actually make, which goes 2:1:1 on the spirits and omits the lemon juice. I’ll be trying it with this recipe soon enough, but so far I’ve been mixing it my way because that’s how it was first served to me at Bathtub Gin & Co., a speakeasy in Seattle’s Belltown neighborhood. I’m not sure why the “official” recipe calls for lemon juice; it’s already got the sour element in the Cointreau, rounded out by the bitter and sweet of the Campari and bourbon. In any case, I’ve been meaning to write this one up for a while, and this is what I was sipping on while reading Black Panther #1.

(On the one hand, it’s too bad we’ll find no mustachioed villains in this comic. On the other — we know we can expect much better from Mr. Coates!)


Black Panther #1

This comic was a breath of fresh air for me. I was completely unfamiliar with T’Challa/Black Panther going into it, and while I’d say that hasn’t changed a whole lot in the pages of one comic, I really enjoyed reading a “new” character for the first time and being able to recognize the personal and emotional distances between T’Challa and me.

Anyway, I do know a little something now about Wakanda, the African nation over which T’Challa rules — or fails to rule, as it happens. As the comic opens, T’Challa has returned to govern his country after the death of his sister, Shuri, who had ruled in his stead while he was off Being a Fucking Hero or some such whatever. Wakanda is one of the most technologically advanced nations on Earth thanks to its large deposits of “vibranium,” the fictional metal from which Captain America’s shield, among many other Marvelous things, are constructed.

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Well… the people of Wakanda ain’t pleased. In the comic’s first panel T’Challa has been clocked on the noggin by some kind of projectile — presumably a Rock, the patented projectile weapon of Angry Mobs everywhere — and his honor guard of dudes with magic laser-spears start shooting back. Turns out Laser beats Rock, and so does Black Panther. We’re meant to understand that the Angry Mob is under some kind of psychic influence, as indicated by the Angry Mob With Glowing Eyes Effect(tm). More on that later.

In this comic, T’Challa seems completely uninterested in being king of anything. Coates alludes to this in his NPR interview with Audie Cornish, explaining that T’Challa is “in a position where he felt committed to do certain things, but in his heart was really not there, it wasn’t really who he was.” Coates relates to his protagonist on this level, feeling as though other writers and thinkers have tried to turn him into the “one person everyone should go to to know about all things black.” It’s always promising when a writer feels some insight into their characters, like they can get inside their fictional heads.

But the similarities between writer and hero seem to end there. Where Coates is humble and thoughtful, T’Challa is brash and even a little arrogant. He narrates in archaic metaphors with a haughty, detached air of entitlement reminiscent of characters like Boromir in The Lord of the Rings or Leonidas in 300. This is no criticism of Coates’ writing — on the contrary, it further signifies that T’Challa is merely playing a part he didn’t ask for.

He’s really only interested in being a superhero: he jumps, he punches, he runs really really fast — and he gets pretty much nowhere, story-wise. Coates has created some compelling tension between “soldier” and “king,” to use the comic’s own words — the guy who leaps into the fray, and the guy who should look before he leaps. There’s a sense that T’Challa occupies a strangely conservative position in relation to the other characters and to his country; he has grudgingly accepted his role as king, but doesn’t want to adapt to that role and its responsibilities. He’s stuck in the past — to a rather extreme extent that I won’t spoil for you here.

Meanwhile, the supporting cast — Ayo, Aneka, Ramonda, all black women — set up some familiar questions around law and justice. The “psychic influence” on the people of Wakanda comes from a woman named Zenzi, who seems to be in league with a surprisingly large band of dissidents. Her motivations are unclear so far, but she occupies somewhat of a populist position in relation to the unilateral power of T’Challa/Black Panther. Wakanda seems to be headed for a conflict between a populace with legitimate grievances but questionable leadership, and a ruler with (more or less) absolute power who has little experience with ruling (and apparently no desire for it, either).

To be sure, these are all questions that the superhero genre has been asking for decades, but something about the setting, the characters and the artists in Black Panther #1 seems to promise answers we haven’t necessarily seen before. I’m really looking forward to the next issue — I feel like I can trust Coates to treat these questions and these characters with the complexity and care I’ve come to expect from him in other media.

wp-1460143958929.jpegBrian Stelfreeze and Laura Martin are pulling their weight, too. Their collaboration really shines during an emotional moment between Ayo and Aneka, two of Black Panther’s elite royal guard. Stelfreeze draws the two women only as silhouettes while the light of a campfire dances behind them, and Martin’s coloring is bold, vivid without destroying the peace or intimacy of the scene. Coates’ dialogue is strong as always, but in these several panels the art leapt forward to perform the more meaningful storytelling.

Go grab this comic! I’m totally on board with this team of artists and their cast of characters. I’ll definitely be picking up issue #2 on the day it comes out, too.

— A

Black Panther #1 is here!

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Behold! The very first Marvel comic book I have ever purchased: the relaunch issue of Black Panther!

I know only the most basic of backstories to the character, but he seems like the kind of guy who will appeal to me.

But really, let’s be clear — it was writer Ta-Nehisi Coates who convinced me to swing by Comic Book College tonight and pick up issue #1. Review plus a cocktail forthcoming; stay tuned!

In the meantime, here’s an interview with Coates from NPR correspondent Audie Cornish:

A Reluctant King: Ta-Nehisi Coates Takes On Marvel’s ‘Black Panther’

Overture to a Classic

 

The Sandman: Overture is finally at an end. It was a long, agonizing wait—and now that it’s done I’m not sure what to feel. Part of me wants more, but the other half just wants to dive back into the original series. Gaiman has scripted an engrossing prequel that will feed The Sandman’s legend, and J.H. Williams III has depicted that story with incredible images that push the limits of what comic art can be.

At first, the series felt like little more than an Easter egg for Sandman fanboys. Considering the richness of The Sandman’s universe, that isn’t much of a criticism. Much like the original, The Sandman: Overture celebrates the power of stories to shape our world. In doing so, the series also celebrates comic books. As the Sandman’s realm encompasses all dreams in existence, its landscape is littered with the debris of childhoods spent reading comics. Dream’s librarian was first imagined in DC’s Weird Mystery Tales, his raven was once a man in the pages of Swamp Thing, and Batman can be spotted lurking in Dream’s library. With Gaiman’s previous nods to DC titles, it only makes sense that The Sandman: Overture should celebrate Gaiman’s classic title and add depth to its universe.

While Gaiman may have intended readers of The Sandman: Overture to be left itching to read the original, the story stands strong on its own; I can imagine it being a fun introduction  to The Sandman for the uninitiated. It also highlights the eye candy possible when a truly gifted writer collaborates with a uniquely talented artist. J.H. Williams III has been wowing me since Batman: The Black Glove, and each issue of the new Sandman takes eye-popping comic art to new heights. Fold-outs transport you through the universe, figures fluidly blend with the action, and panels coalesce into ethereal landscapes. Together, Gaiman and Williams revel in the medium’s interplay of language and pictures. It’s this willingness to play with form that truly makes the story fresh. The Sandman: Overture did not need to push boundaries to be good, it merely had to uphold the legacy of the original. Instead, it envisions new ways for artists to bring stories to life. Most of the series’ memorable cosmic action sequences eschew frame-by-frame formatting and complicate traditional comic art’s linear narrative approach. It makes for exciting storytelling that brings The Sandman universe to life like never before.

In the introduction to the special edition of The Sandman: Overture #6, Vertigo Executive Editor Shelly Bond suggests we “raise a choice glass of liquid” to this prelude to a classic. I concur, and might I suggest my new favorite cocktail recipe:

The Chancellor.

The Chancellor

2 oz Single Malt Scotch
½ oz ruby port
½ oz dry vermouth
1 dash Peychaud’s bitters
Combine scotch, port, vermouth, and bitters in mixing glass. Fill glass with ice and stir well. Strain into chilled coupe.

I stumbled  upon The Chancellor in Food & Wine’s Cocktails 2014, but it all started with a bottle of Laphroaig Dale had collecting dust on his bookshelf. Scotch fanatics everywhere are sure to recognize the name of this single-malt and gnash their teeth at the idea of using it in a cocktail. Laphroaig, described to me by C’n’C co-conspirator Matt Chartrand as”the Scotchiest scotch Scotland could scotch up,” was my first experience with the spirit aside from Johnnie Walker, which I’d still prefer to avoid. Finding Laphroaig’s intense smokiness too abrasive, the bottle was gifted to me after I found myself asking for another taste every time I visited Dale’s. Slowly but surely, I warmed to its uniquely earthy and peaty flavors.

Food & Wine describes The Chancellor as “a nicely dry variation on the Manhattan.” Making the drink with Six Grapes Reserve Porto, the chocolate and cherry flavors of the port danced beautifully with the salty, peaty, and smokey character of the Laphroig. When I switched to Glen Moray, I found the drink quieter and much closer to the dry Manhattan description, but no less delicious. In both cases, the 50-50 mix of port and dry vermouth balance with the scotch and showcase its best flavors. I can imagine sipping this drink in Dream’s library enveloped by the musty smell of old paper and leather. The Chancellor begs to be explored with different scotches, ports, and vermouths, much likeThe Sandman: Overture invites readers to explore The Sandman and its influences.

And make no mistake: I will definitely be exploring The Sandman series a second time. While my first foray into Gaiman’s world was American Gods as a pre-teen (which showed me you can write great fantasy without setting it in a world of castles and dragons), reading The Sandman shortly after college rekindled my passion for comics and cemented my Gaiman fandom. Prose and poetry demanded most of my attention as an undergrad, and Dream’s adventures helped heal the rift between my inner English major and pre-teen comic book nerd by imagining a world where “literature” and comic books share equal footing. Denizens of The Dreaming not only include obscure characters from the pages of DC  comics, but myths, legends, and literary figures. While The Sandman reminds us comics can be every bit as rich and powerful as timeless fairy stories, The Sandman: Overture reminds us there are always fresh ways to read both. I’m looking forward to returning to The Dreaming of ’89-’94 with The Chancellor as my companion.

Adams’ Reserve #3: S7

After reading Chirs Claremont and Frank Miller’s original Wolverine limited series, I was surprised to see Claremont’s name while sorting through my old collection. I vaguely remembering reading somewhere that Sovereign Seven was the first creator-owned series DC published, but never realized Chris Claremont was the writer behind it.

My love for Claremont’s work on Wolverine is well documented on CnC, but I have yet to read any of his extensive (1975-1991!?) Uncanny X-Men . Still, given his legendary work at Marvel, I find it curious I’ve heard so little about S7 over the years. How does a heavy-hitter like Claremont defect to DC without sending shockwaves of debate throughout the comic-nerd-world for decades to come?
My only hope was that Sovereign Seven #1 might give me a clue…

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A quick, light-hearted read, the first issue of S7 didn’t pack nearly the punch I was hoping. It felt as much like the opening session of a Dungeons and Dragons campaign as the beginning of a comic series: Party of heroes transported to strange new place. Random encounter. Rest at the Inn. Random encounter followed by the arrival of a mysterious and powerful new character to drops the slightest hints of backstory. Break.

Even if Sovereign Seven #1 wasn’t the gripping first issue I was hoping for, it hooked me. It didn’t reel me in, but it did get me on the line. Whether or not I buy a collection of the 36+ (36 plus a few annuals and specials) issue run will depend on what happens when I revisit issues two and three. Like a good Dungeon Master, Claremont spun just enough story into the action to make you want to come back.

The other compelling thing about Sovereign Seven #1 is its self-conscious nod to Jack Kirby’s  Fourth World stories. The opening page includes a prominent dedication to Jack Kirby:

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The opening of page of S7 #1. Yes, that is an advertisement for a Batman vampire story opposite.

Had I never been given the first three S7 comics, I still might not have known that Darkseid and the New Gods were Jack Kirby’s gift to DC after his own defection from Marvel. This discovery was particularly fun revisiting S7 after reading Grant Morrison’s Final Crisis and Batman run. However, there is a key difference between Claremont’s series and Kirby’s: Sovereign Seven has not been revisited in DC’s continuity. Even if it could, I’m not sure it would. Anything good enough to be immortal as Darkseid I expect to grab me right out of the gate. Sovereign Seven #1 doesn’t quite do that. It makes you curious in all the right ways and sets up an intriguing start to a story, but it isn’t gripping. It’s just good fun. That’s a damn great start, and I’ll definitely be finishing the issues of the franchise I already have in my collection: #’s 1-3, 9, and 12. Maybe it’ll be worth buying the trade paperback. If not, I can save the cash on Jack Kirby’s Fourth World omniubs. One way or another, Chris Claremont and Sovereign Seven have increased my knowledge of DC comics lore, and I can’t help but like anything that deepens my knowledge of comics.

Adams’ Reserve #2

I was lying when I said I’d stick to writing about singles from my collection. It’s hard to resist a good mini-series, especially when it’s about a particularly nasty villain. Who doesn’t love to hate a good bad guy? Larry Hama and Mark Texiera’s Sabretooth: Death Hunt delves into the backstory of one of Marvel’s worst.

Sabretooth Death Hunt 1-4
Sabretooth Vol. 1, No. 1-4.

As evidenced by #2’s missing cover, these were some of my favorite comics growing up. Besides being one of few complete stories in my collection, this mini-series introduced me to the art of Mark Texeira, whose work I’ve previously raved about in my Essential Wolverine post. All four covers sucked me in, and they still mesmerize me today. Inside, Texeira’s art is among the grittiest I’ve seen in mainstream super-hero comics. Some of the most disturbing panels actually remind me of Ralph Steadman with their violent lines and ink splatters. Tex’s style is perfect for a cruel evil-doer like Sabretooth. The foil sociopathic foil to Wolverine, Texeira’s frightening depictions of Sabretooth work wonderfully with Hama’s balance of absurd action and insightful character development.

In Death Hunt, Hama shows us Sabretooth at both his rawest and most vulnerable. Digging into Sabretooth’s past, Hama reminds us that even evil villains are still human. More importantly, by turning Sabretooth into a protagonist, Hama crafts a narrative in which the purest evil becomes a blend of unchecked wealth, power, and hatred. By the end of the story, I almost feel bad for Sabretooth, a ruthless thug caught in a world of even more ruthless oligarchs and spies. Unfortunately, Hama makes his story work by falling back on a tired plot device all too prevalent in the early Wolverine comics I grew up with: kill the woman to hurt the man. RIP, Birdy. You deserved better than to be brought to life only to be treated as collateral damage.

While this is a comic trope that needs to be put to rest, I don’t want to entirely dismiss Hama’s story. Usually, the Women in Refrigerators cliché is the cheap way for an author to hurt the hero. In this story, I’m not sure that’s the case. There are no heroes in Sabretooth: Death Hunt. The only good character removes himself before the inevitably ugly conclusion. Instead, Sabretooth 1-4 show the comic world’s seedy underbelly of masterminds and henchmen and reminds us the biggest evil isn’t always the thugs and murders: sometimes it’s the rich CEOs pulling strings behind the scenes. While this doesn’t make it any less tragic, Birdy’s death makes sense in a story where both the protagonist and antagonist are evil misogynists and the entire world is rotted through with hate and corruption.

Despite this lurid violence, or perhaps because of it, Sabretooth: Death Hunt subverts superhero comic tradition by injecting a hardboiled cynicism into the normally kid-friendly, idealistic X-Men world.  At a time when today’s mutants were being reinvented, Hama managed to complicate well-worn “mutants vs. society” themes. Typical mutant stories depict their struggle from the lens of the Xavier-Magneto rivalry. While the X-Men fight for justice by protecting the society that hates them, Magneto and his cronies kill to overthrow that system. Sabretooth is apathetic to this struggle, saying of the X-Men, “I can’t keep track of that pack o’ goody-two-shoes!” By the close of Death Hunt, Sabretooth witnesses how prejudice and hate come to be and is forced to look in the mirror and live with the reflection. While perhaps not as enduring as a classic X-Men tale, Hama gives us something more realistic and disturbing:  a story of  how evil is born and why it never dies.


To fuel my latest journey into the comics that shaped me, I needed a drink as bold as Texeira’s covers and dark and bitter as Sabretooth’s heart. I found that drink at the taproom down the block from me and my wife’s apartment: Burning Brothers Brewing. Burning Bros. is a 100% gluten-free brewery, and as a baking enthusiast and gluten-freak, I must admit I was initially skeptical. Thing is, it’s hard not to get curious when the brewery is literally half a block from home. After trying it, I realized Burning Bros. makes good beer. Not good gluten-free beer, but plain ol’ good beer. Their flagship brew Pyro is a crisp, golden, pleasantly hoppy American Pale Ale with a hint of citrusy sweetness. The growler I sipped from for this post, however, is my favorite of theirs and a fixture in the taproom: Roasted Coffee Ale. As you might expect, it’s dark and rich, but with a crispness you can’t find in a thicker stout, allowing the toasty coffee bitterness to mingle with the floral citrus hops flavors. Burning Bros.’ Roasted Coffee Ale was a refreshing companion to the  grim pulp darkness of Sabretooh: Death Hunt. The only possible better pairing? Martell VSOP, Mystique’s drink of choice, as seen on the cover of Sabretooth #2.

Sabretooh #2, 1993. A prelude to Sabretooth avec cognac, en flambe.

 

Cracking open the Adams’ Reserve…

I don’t remember a time before I liked comic books. Probably the obsession started with Bruce Timm’s Batman: The Animated Series. I am certain my love of reading started with comics. When I was 9 or 10, I was given a family friend’s old collection. Frank had been collecting Spider-Man, X-Men, and Wolverine, but wanted to start fresh with the brand-new Sovereign Seven series.

Many of those original comics have since been lost or destroyed. But not all of them! I added to that collection since the day it was handed down to me all the way up through high school. I’m still adding to it today, but all my college and post-college comics have a separate box and much less nostalgia less mystery. My first collection has been sitting in a couple of boxes at my parents’ since roughly the summer of 2008 until Thanksgiving 2014. Now it’s back with me, and it’s finally time to begin the Great Comic Re-Organization of 2014. But what’s a comic collection if you’re not going to read and enjoy them? What can I say, I’m a terrible collector. It’s time to take that bottle of Adams’ Reserve from the back of the cabinet and crack it open. Every month, I’ll share a sip: one comic from my dog-eared collection. To start things off, let’s dip into the macabre. This murderous, malodorous, and malignant little page-turner is part of a line of re-prints of 1950s EC Comics. The company responsible for Tales From The Crypt, they also published Weird Science, The Vault of Horror, and Shock SuspenStories. Without further ado, this terrifying ghost of comics past is…

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What makes these comcis so legendary? Judging by Tales From the Crypt #14, it’s a demented sense of humor. A prospector smiling his greedy murderer to death. An old uncle who turns out to be a cannibal. It’s melodramatic and the narration is redundant (or is the art?), but this comic still puts a smile on my face because it’s self-conscious of its own ridiculousness. The comic’s final feature, “The Witch’s Cauldron,” exemplifies this with the introduction to a story called “Mournin’, Ambrose…”

You know why they give me this spot? ‘Cause I’m the most horrible! Don’t worry! My idiot editors know a bad thing… The fire is lit under my you-know-what, and I’m ready to dish out another of my putrid portions of pulsating pleasentries! This little laddle of lurid loathsomeness will definitely whet your appetite!

The real horror in Tales From The Crypt #14 ? No official author or artist credits. Comic books have come a long way since the 50s. The only credits I can find in  are the pencillers’ loopy signatures hidden in strategic corners of each story’s opening page. Reading this now, it’s easy to see why comics were disparaged as trash throughout the 1950s: the short stories in this comic are clearly produced for the biggest shock value. That said, there’s a surprising amount of zany artistry here. The first story, “Gas-tly Prospects,” is extra bizarre thanks to the dialect of the hillbilly narrator. “Mournin’, Ambrose…,” drips with the florid prose you’d expect from one of H.P. Lovecraft’s cosmic-horror-pulp stories.

Predictable as the twists in these stories are, it’s worth the ride to see how the stomach-turning shocks unfold. Not only does the story whet my appetite, it makes me wish I knew more horror comics– I guess it’s time I ponied-up for the Walking Dead compendiums. Anyway, Lovecraft reader that I am, it’s fun to see how his influence plays-out in an early horror comic like Tales From the Crypt. It makes for a hilariously dumbed down read as the grotesquely descriptive narration eliminates most need for illustration. Upon re-reading, a final, terrifying question nags at the deepest, darkest recesses of my imagination: did the creators of these stories actually collaborate, or was the writing and art thrown together wantonly, with no regard for the insanity it would spread among mankind? This irreverant comic certainly helped corrupt my young mind. It no doubt helped send me down the path of pulp horror, midnight movies, and trashy rock’n’roll.

I wouldn’t have it any other way.

P.S.
For your listening enjoyment, I leave you with another gloriously raunchy piece of art accused of causing juvenille deliquency in the 1950s: Link Wray’s “Rumble.”

Aspects of the Knight II — Gotham as Failed City-State

“Crime. Despair. This is not how man was supposed to live. The League of Shadows has been a check against human corruption for thousands of years… Every time a civilization reaches the pinnacle of its decadence, we return to restore the balance… You are defending a city so corrupt, we have infiltrated every level of its infrastructure.”

Ra’s al Ghul asserts Gotham City’s inefficacy and impotence to his former protegé Bruce Wayne while his agents begin their operation to terrorize and destroy the city. The scene evokes two warlords, verbally sparring over disputed territory: on one side stands the legacy of Wayne, bypassing (and even scorning) the official authorities of Gotham but also adamantly maintaining the city “isn’t beyond saving… There are good people here”; on the other, (allegedly) a far older and more violent cult of cyclical destruction, who believe they are a necessary evil akin to “a purging fire” that is “inevitable and natural” (Batman Begins).

B_23Their conflict eventually comes to actual blows, but the fact that the fate of millions hangs on the outcome of this single conversation confirms, at the very least, that something is truly rotten in Gotham City. What kind of society gives rise to a figure such as the Batman, and attracts the deadly attention of an international terrorist organization? And why does the audience implicitly authorize the Batman’s use of force in the fictional Gotham, where they would likely condemn such actions in any real-world American city?

Max Weber (1864-1920) contends in his essay Politics as a Vocation (1919) that the monopoly on the use of legitimate force is the defining characteristic of “the state.” Though this argument is ethically problematic given that, without modification, it essentially boils down to “might makes right,” it has since been used as a key criterion of the “failed” state — that is, a government that has failed in many or all of its basic responsibilities and whose legitimacy is therefore called into question. Though the criteria and even the term itself have evolved over the 20th century, modern definitions of the failed (or “fragile”) state still prominently include “the monopoly on the use of legitimate force” (Fund for Peace). Further, the concept has expanded to accommodate the existence of failed governments at a regional or municipal level — including, in our case, failed cities.

In Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, Gotham is a failed city-state according the Fragile States Index published by Fund for Peace. The failures of Gotham’s “legitimate” government have fractured the city into several warring factions — the primary combatants being the Falcone crime syndicate, the League of Shadows, and the Batman. As in the real world, the ordinary citizens, elected officials, and law enforcement of Gotham align themselves with every faction, but often have little real power in any of them. Though many of the FSI’s “Indicators” apply to Gotham, a few are especially relevant:

gotham_batman2003_3
Gotham’s slum — “the Narrows”

Economic Decline: Early on, Bruce’s father Thomas tells us “the city has been suffering. People less fortunate than us have been enduring very hard times” (Batman Begins). Roughly two minutes later in the film, both he and Bruce’s mother Martha are dead at the hands of Joe Chill, an impoverished, desperate gunman. Six minutes (read: fourteen years) later, assistant district attorney Rachel Dawes lectures Bruce on how little has changed since his parents’ death:

“Look beyond your own pain, Bruce. This city is rotting. They talk about the depression as if it’s history, and it’s not. Things are worse than ever down here. [Carmine] Falcone floods our streets with crime and drugs, preying on the desperate, creating new Joe Chills every day” (Batman Begins).

The film uses Chicago’s multilevel streets to great effect here, as Rachel drives she and Bruce down to a lower street where poverty and vice are painfully evident. Fund For Peace lists “growth of hidden economies, including the drug trade, smuggling, and capital flight” as one of the warning signs of a fragile state; this indicator will become even more important in The Dark Knight Rises (FFP).

State Legitimacy asks, “Are federal and/or local officials considered to be corrupt?” and “Does the government have the confidence of the people?” (FFP). In Gotham, corruption is the status quo. Judges accept bribes from convicted felons, even to the point of becoming an accessory to murder; police detectives steal from street merchants and moonlight as low-level enforcers for the mob; prominent psychiatrists perjure themselves for money and torment their patients to ensure the secrecy of drug trafficking operations. As for public confidence, Police Detective James Gordon quips, “In a town this bent, who’s there to rat to anyway?” (His partner is the mob enforcer mentioned above.) Near the film’s climax, when Dr. Crane’s fear toxin has poisoned the streets and Arkham Asylum’s inmates run free among the general populace, even a little boy (representative here of Gotham’s poorer classes) recognizes it is the Batman, and not the GCPD, who will set things right: “Batman will save us. He’ll come” (Batman Begins).

BD-10844RFinally, and most importantly, External Intervention. As applied to nations, this typically refers to aid received from other countries or organizations in the form of economic assistance or military support. In Gotham, though, it is the Batman who intervenes: he is “an external actor… responsible for many government functions and not at the behest of the government” (FFP). The Batman stops crimes in progress, he secures evidence against the perpetrators, and presses the police department and the district attorney’s office to prosecute; in short, he enables Gotham’s judicial systems to function as they are intended. He is also the only one capable of combating Ra’s al Ghul and the League of Shadows, who have “infiltrated every level of [Gotham’s] infrastructure” — especially, it seems, the city’s SWAT teams and riot police (Batman Begins). The legal authorities of Gotham are helpless against these invaders, while the Batman is not; in fact, he is the only one protecting whatever tenuous sovereignty Gotham’s legitimate government still holds. These factors seem to indicate that the “state” of Gotham City has effectively defaulted its monopoly on the use of force to the Batman, a state of affairs confirmed by the film’s final scene, in which Jim Gordon signals for the Batman from the roof of GCPD Headquarters.

Returning to the question of “audience authorization” — I believe most viewers would point to the above reasons for our implicit approval of the Batman’s actions, even if unable to employ the specific vocabulary; Fund for Peace’s Fragile States Index simply gives us a framework for trying to explain Batman’s origins. Interestingly, the FSI seems to also strengthen the notion that Batman, more so than any other comic book hero, is as much a product of his environment as he is of his own personal trauma.

What the FSI clearly does not do, however, is give us any readings on the morality of donning cape and cowl and slugging it out with Gotham’s lawless underworld. “Legitimate” is already a slippery enough term without lighting the Bat-Signal. In subsequent posts I will examine Batman’s code of ethics, especially compared to Gotham’s police and judicial authorities.


Batman Begins. Warner Home Video, 2005. DVD.

“CAST Conflict Assessment Framework Manual (2014 Reprint).” CAST Conflict Assessment Framework Manual. Fund for Peace, 2014. Web. 24 Dec. 2014. http://library.fundforpeace.org/cfsir1418

Weber, Max. “From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology. Bahasa Melayu Translated, Edited, and with an Introduction, by H. H. Gerth and C. Wright Mills.” From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology. (Open Library). Oxford University Press, 1946. Web. 24 Dec. 2014. https://openlibrary.org/books/OL6498314M/From_Max_Weber_Essays_in_sociology.

Aspects of the Knight

“A vigilante is just a man lost in the scramble for his own gratification. He can be destroyed, or locked up. But if you make yourself more than just a man, if you devote yourself to an ideal, and if they can’t stop you… then you become something else entirely.”

“Which is?”

“Legend, Mr. Wayne.”

Uttered within the first five minutes of Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins, these lines neatly summarize one of the enduring tensions through 75 years of Batman comics, films, and TV shows, as well as the pivotal question of Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy: In appointing himself protector of Gotham, how can Bruce Wayne rid the city of the evil that took his parents’ lives and yet remain a symbol of hope — without becoming merely a police-sanctioned thug, an extrajudicial killer, or even the harbinger of permanent martial law?

Where is the line between the vigilante and the legend?

Batman has always been a character of contrasts. Bruce Wayne is the playboy billionaire “Prince of Gotham,” the hot topic on every gossip talk-show and in every tabloid by day; by night, he is a “weird figure of the dark” that preys upon the criminal underworld as the mysterious, terrible Bat-Man (Detective Comics 1937 #33). Known and unknown; light and dark; hope and fear; these contrasts have kept the character vital through the decades.

Batman's origin story in Detective Comics (1937) #33
The very first rendition of Batman’s origin story in Detective Comics (1937) #33

But the duality in Ra’s al Ghul’s words to Bruce Wayne — the merely mortal vigilante versus the immortal legend — has nowhere been illuminated more clearly than in Christopher Nolan’s films Batman Begins (2005), The Dark Knight (2008), and The Dark Knight Rises (2012). The tension between these two figures, these aspects of the Batman, drives Bruce Wayne’s saga while elucidating his relevance: his is the dramatization of an ordinary human being’s search for an ethical, meaningful response to a world plagued by apathy, senseless tragedy and willful acts of evil.

The word vigilante derives from the Spanish for “one who is vigilant”; a guard, or watchman. In modern parlance it describes an individual who pursues and punishes wrongdoers without legal authority to do so. Vigilantes, bounty hunters, and lynch mobs all cast long shadows over American history and fiction, from the fanciful (such as Zorro) to the pseudo-historical (Wyatt Earp, “Wild Bill” Hickok and other mercenary lawmen of the late 1800’s) to the completely real and despicably violent legacy of white supremacy in the American South.

Much of Bill Finger and Bob Kane’s inspiration for Batman can be traced to Zorro, the dashing pulp hero of the early 20th century, and the Scarlet Pimpernel before him; DC Comics writers have often acknowledged this lineage by writing that Thomas and Martha Wayne took their son Bruce to see The Mark of Zorro (1940) on the night of their murder.

cbj2-BatmanTDKR1_022_The_Dark_Knight_Returns-c
Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns

On this basis, “vigilante” means at least this much: he or she takes action against injustice (real or perceived) where legal authorities can not or will not, employing some degree of violence. Contextually speaking, a vigilante may also violate alleged criminals’ due process and be subject to legal action themselves.

Though comic writers’ characterization of him has differed wildly over the years, the Batman always fits these criteria neatly. He relies on martial arts training, detective work and technological superiority to bring his personal vision of justice to Gotham’s criminal underworld. The vigilante ignores due process, violates suspects’ civil rights, and in Nolan’s trilogy he resorts to increasingly unethical methods as his campaign against Gotham’s organized crime escalates. This Batman forever lingers in the shadow of his parents’ death, locked in an ultimately futile struggle to prevent others from suffering similar pain and loss. According to Brooker, this crime-fighter extracts “a merely personal catharsis from beating up petty thugs like the one who killed his parents, rather than attempt[ing] to alter the society which produced those criminals” (27).

The other aspect of the Batman is less tangible. Until now we’ve referred to him on Ra’s al Ghul’s terms: a legend, “an extremely famous or notorious person, especially in a particular field.” While this also quite accurately describes the character, it isn’t necessarily very helpful for our purposes. If Bruce Wayne was interested in fame or notoriety, he’d announce on national television that he is the Batman. And yet if he desired complete anonymity, he would not have chosen such a distinct and theatrical guise.

In terms of setting up Bruce Wayne’s vision of this legend in the making, the following scene seems most relevant:

 This aspect of the Batman, the symbol, strives to save a city strangled by its own lawlessness and corruption, to inspire in its citizens a revival of the civic engagement and altruism he learned from his parents before their murder at the hands of an impoverished, desperate mugger. This Batman believes without reservation that the people of Gotham City are basically good; they just need “dramatic examples to shake them out of apathy” (Batman Begins). The symbol is “incorruptible, everlasting,” hiding behind anonymity to imply that “Batman could be anybody” (Batman Begins; The Dark Knight Rises). The symbol’s function is to transcend the individual’s limitations — “as a man… [he] can be ignored… destroyed” — while dramatizing the individual’s will to act against injustice (Batman Begins).

Following the films’ lead, I will continue to refer to these alternate personas of the Batman as “the vigilante” and “the symbol.” Both address separate and sometimes conflicting concerns of their unifying alter-ego, Bruce Wayne, but they also rely on each other; frequently, the vigilante creates the dramatic examples on which the symbol thrives, while the symbol inspires Gotham’s law enforcement officers and public officials to pursue the city’s crime syndicates more actively, despite fear of reprisals.

And though these two Batmen seem to mesh fairly well in Batman Begins, the vigilante becomes increasingly problematic and unethical in The Dark Knight, damaging the Batman’s symbolic power almost beyond repair. As a result, one of the primary aims of the trilogy’s finale The Dark Knight Rises is the restoration of Batman as an icon of individual commitment to moral action; after abandoning the vigilante’s questionable motives and methods, the Batman returns to the role he devised for himself early in the first film: a hyperbolic, theatrical display of the “ordinary citizen standing up for what’s right” (The Dark Knight).

Whether Bruce Wayne, the billionaire “Prince of Gotham” counts as an “ordinary citizen” is also a question we must address, especially with The Dark Knight Rises, which incorporates contemporary American perceptions of economic inequality and class warfare into its narrative. Can anybody be Batman? Of course not. But we should also be careful of applying a purely Marxist lens to a film (and character) whose background and ambitions are significantly broader than merely a reprised version of A Tale of Two Cities with Batman thrown into the melee.

Over the course of many posts I will examine Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy with a focus on not only the tensions between “symbol” and “vigilante,” but also the ways in which these aspects of the Dark Knight intersect with issues such as corruption, mass surveillance, terrorism, and class warfare.


Batman Begins. Warner Home Video, 2005. DVD.

Brooker, Will. Batman Unmasked: Analysing a Cultural Icon. London: Continuum, 2000. Print.

Finger, Bill, and Bob Kane. “The Batman Wars Against the Dirigible of Doom.” Detective Comics 1.33 (1939). Print.

Miller, Frank, and Klaus Janson. Batman: The Dark Knight Returns. New York, N.Y.: DC Comics, 2002. Print.

The Dark Knight. Warner Home Video, 2008. DVD.

The Dark Knight Rises. Warner Home Video, 2012. DVD.

“I’m the best at what I do…”

Wolverine Limited Series #1 (1982)
Wolverine Limited Series #1 (1982)

“…But what I do best isn’t very nice.” Wolverine announces this at the beginning of his first solo adventure by Chris Claremont and Frank Miller. “I’m here on business,” he tells us. “To hunt. To kill.” The opening two pages of this comic remind us immediately that Wolverine is a different breed of super-hero: he is a killer and he makes no apologies. But from this stark opening, Chirs Claremont and Frank Miller immediately contrast the familiar image of Wolverine as warrior-wild-man with Wolverine the lawman. Before we see him take on any evil ninjas, assassins, or samurai, we witness him take a beer mug to the face from a drunken poacher. We’re spared the details of the ensuing fight, and instead told of the poacher’s subsequent arrest. Wolverine not only spares the reckless the hunter’s life, he skips bragging about the violent details.

Marvel’s 1982 four-issue Limited Series Wolverine is without a doubt the best of the character’s stories I have ever read. It’s a tightly crafted little tale of love, betrayal, and honor. Wolverine’s monologues lend a distinct flim noir vibe, and between that and the kung-fu flick backrop I can’t shake the feeling that Quentin Tarrantino read this as a young man. Frank Miller’s sequences of Wolverine cutting down ninjas have the look and pacing of a melee from Kill Bill. Claremont keeps the dialogue smart enough and short enough to depict Wolverine as a thoughtful, vulnerable man searching for his place in life. It breaks up the machismo action sequences and creates a more vibrant, realistic character.

What sets Claremont and Miller’s Wolverine apart from others I’ve read is simplicity. Unlike the monthly and later twice-monthly Wolverine comics, there was no need for filler to meet the publishing schedule. Instead, you get a story that examines Wolverine’s natural berserker tendencies and asks how they fit the noble super-hero mold. The story provides Wolverine numerous chances to prove his control, cunning, and honor. The berserker may be useful as Logan goes up against swarms of assassins, but when threatened by more ambitious and merciless enemies like Lord Shingen, it’s Wolverine’s restraint that proves his most powerful weapon. Leading up to the final showdown in issue #4 (titled “Honor”), Wolverine does his best work without killing. Instead, he exercises more creative and stealthy modes of combat against hoods and henchman, reserving his full skillset only for his tormentor and the story’s arch-villain.

Wolverine has become my new obession since reading this four issue series. I’m still startled how dumbed down Wolverine seems to have become since his solo beginnings.  It’s possible this impression is an unfair and baseless assumption formed from Marvel’s recent X-Men movies (and I must admit I haven’t watched the Wolverine Origins movie). IMDB reviews, and more importantly, friends and fans of the comic, tell me it’s neither worth watching nor faithful to the source material. Either way, what I’ve read of the comics so far and what I remember of them growing up is that they were never as intriguing or well-written as Claremont and Miller’s. I suspect this has something to do with the business of comic book publishing: after releasing something as badass and action packed as the original Wolverine Limited Series, Marvel must have had a huge demand for the character by the time they launched his first ongoing series in 1988. Filling that void with stories twice a month must have been a huge challenge, and it shows in the character’s slow unraveling throughout the 2nd and 3rd volumes of his original series. Wolverine was allowed to grow only gradually between churning out new adventures for the grueling publishing schedule. His history is revealed so slowly Marvel eventually spawned yet more Wolverine titles.  Today, the Wolverine section of the new comics shelf is an overwhelming jumble. It’s enough to drive a fan away, but now I’m hooked on what a good Wolverine story can be. The character’s checkered past (both in his own universe and his publishing) makes him all the more interesting.  You can bet you’ll be reading more of my Wolvie readings in the future. In the meantime, I’m sure all this criticism has made you thirsty.

Ever since my past Wolverine post, I’m stuck on beer cocktails. But since boilermakers hardly count as a cocktail, I was happy to find a recipe like Aisha Sharpe’s Beggar’s Banquet on Liquor.com. It’s a more creative take on the always effective whiskey+beer combination that pairs flavors in truly complementary ways. The syrup, lemon juice, and bitters bring out the best in the bourbon without smothering the unique maltiness of the Old Speckled Hen. The recipe originally calls for Maker’s Mark, but I prefer the cheaper, stronger, and more interesting Wild Turkey 101. I’ve stuck with Old Speckled Hen because I love it, and because it’s beautiful color and biscuity, yeasty flavor provide a nice complement to the sweet vanilla notes and bite of the Wild Turkey. It’s intoxicating, a little bit mean, and deliciously infectious–it tastes something like (one of) the best Rolling Stones’ album sounds.

Another beautiful thing about this drink: even with the 11.2 fl. oz. bottle, you have to flip the record (or open a new comic) to finish the beer. You get slightly more mileage with the pint cans. You get some bang for your buck with this drink–not unlike the Rolling Stones’ discography. Similiarly, I’m excited to try this drink with different bourbons. American blues has many flavors. Perhaps it’d be just as fun to try this recipe with different English ales, eh Bub? The Beggar’s Banquet is a well-balanced, velvety drink with a bubbly bite.

P.S.
Just in time for your All Hallow’s libations, here’s a gorey variation of the above cocktail. I give you…

Wulf, of Bryan Baugh's Wulf and Batsy. Image from Baugh's website, www.cryptlogic.net
Wulf, of Bryan Baugh’s Wulf and Batsy. Image from Baugh’s website, http://www.cryptlogic.net

Werewolf’s Blood

Peychaud’s Bitters
0.25 oz. lemon juice
0.75 oz. honey
2 oz. rye whiskey
Newcastle Werewolf Blood Red Ale
1 orange half-wheel or wedge for garnish (preferably blood orange)

Just as with the Beggar’s Banquet, add all ingredients except beer to a shaker and fill with ice. Use as many dashes of Peychaud’s as you like. Shake, then strain into a highball glass filled with fresh ice. Top with your Werewolf, then garnish with an orange.  If you’re really a gorehound, use a blood orange–they’re just starting to come into season by Halloween.

Werewolf and rye are good buddies ’cause Werewolf is brewed with rye malt instead of barley. Together they make for a funky-sweet, slightly musty character. Peychaud’s was made for rye (well, really it was made for brandy, but we can skip the sazerac history lesson), and it adds to the drink’s bloody hue. Honey provides the sweetness without the strong maple flavor, keeping the rye flavors up front. Ultimately, this drink is sweet, complex, and every bit as balanced its bourbon-based, non-spooky progenitor.  Happy Halloween!

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