Reviews of trade paperbacks of comic books (mostly Marvel), along with a few other semi-relevant comments / reviews.

30 April 2016

Showcase Presents Batman, v. 6

Collects: Detective Comics #408-26 and Batman #229-44 (1971-2)

Released: January 2016 (DC)

Format: 584 pages / black and white / $19.99 / ISBN: 9781401251536

What is this?: A chunk of early ‘70s Batman stories, mixing the first appearance of Ra’s al-Ghul and the League of Assassins with forgettable stories.

The culprits: Writers Dennis O’Neil, Frank Robbins, and others and pencilers Neal Adams, Bob Brown, Irv Novick, and others

When I reviewed Showcase Presents Batman, v. 5, I said the Bat-titles of the era were on the brink of something exciting. Batman and Detective Comics had shaken off the lingering funk of the Silver Age and were heading toward something much greater. So I was eager to read DC Showcase Presents Batman, v. 6 — well, as eager as a person can get for a book after four years when you thought the book line was cancelled.

And — good news! — v. 6 is better than v. 5. But it’s only an incremental improvement, and the Bat-titles reprinted in this volume still feel like they are poised to become something different, something greater. They just aren’t quite there yet.

Showcase Presents Batman, v. 6 coverYes, the Ra's al Ghul / Legion of Assassins story is sprinkled throughout the volume, but few other members of Batman’s rogue’s gallery appear in the thirty-plus issues. Man-Bat and Two-Face each appear in one issue — with Two-Face beautifully drawn by Neal Adams — but each gets only as many issues as the embarrassing Ten-Eyed Man. Most of the stories are single-issue mysteries, often with a supernatural tinge, that go nowhere.

Those mysteries, whether they have a supernatural element or not, are v. 6’s biggest problem. Some of them (mostly those with occult touches) are set in exotic locations, like Waynemoor Castle in northern England; some of them are set in the gritty streets of Gotham. Unfortunately, whether Batman is taking on circus freaks, hicks, or Shakespearean actors in Gotham or elsewhere, these stories become monotonous. Despite being solidly constructed mysteries, their flaws become more readily apparent than their virtues after the third or fourth in a row. All the ghosts and haunted castles Batman investigates have as much real supernatural content as the average Scooby-Doo episode, which takes some of the suspense out of the story. Issues that try to be socially relevant, dealing with youth gangs and urban crime, devolve into over-the-top action sequences, like when a group of teenagers threaten to blow up an apartment tower to get their demands listened to.

As a side note, O’Neil’s frequent asides asking readers whether they picked up on whatever clues Batman used to solve the crime annoyed me — not because of the device itself but because the clues are so rarely available to the reader. If your mysteries aren’t fair play, you don’t get to taunt readers that they aren’t as smart as the detective.

That being said, the Ra's al Ghul stories are classics for a reason. Beautifully drawn by Adams and full of menace, Ra's is the one villain who seems to worry Batman, the only adversary who requires the World’s Greatest Detective to have long-term plans. Adding a new dimension to the stories is Talia al-Ghul, Ra's’s daughter, a love interest who presents a puzzle Batman can’t solve; despite his undeniable attraction to her, she is the daughter of the Demon as well as being ruthless and a remorseless killer herself. Additionally, these stories knock the Batman canon of this era out of its unmoving, unchanging placidity. Although the League of Assassins stories don’t affect the continuity of the rest of the book, the storyline’s progression gives the book a sense of passing time the stories don’t have otherwise.

Of course, it would be helpful if the cliffhangers in the League of Assassins storyline were followed immediately by their conclusions, but those issues are usually followed by unrelated issues from the other Batman title. I understand chronological order is important, but in a book like this, story coherence is more vital.

The art in v. 6 is outstanding. Adams provides covers for almost all the issues, and he draws about a quarter of the stories. This is Adams’s work at its finest: perhaps not as explosive as his work on X-Men a few years earlier, but each panel is beautiful, fully adapted to Batman’s world of shadows. The concessions he makes to Batman’s more grounded world makes his artwork tighter, more focused. Most of the remaining issues are drawn by Bob Brown and Irv Novick, both of whom worked with Adams on the previous volume. Neither is Adams’s equal, but both are solid artists with outstanding storytelling and an ability to fit the story into a many panel layout.

 coverScattered among the work by Adams, Brown, and Novick, the three issues drawn by writer Frank Robbins stand out, and not in a good way. Robbins is a good artist for a writer, but that’s as far as I’m willing to go. (Robbins was primarily an artist in his career, but he splits the writing chores in v. 6 with O’Neil.) His style has a thick line and lacks the fluidity of the rest of the artists; even if he were a better artist, his work wouldn’t fit in v. 6.

One warning about this book: although it says it contains sixteen issues of Batman, that’s misleading. Two of the issues, #233 and #238, have only the cover reprinted because their contents are reprints. The covers of other issues of Batman and Detective promise back-up stories featuring Batgirl, Robin, or some other hero, but those aren’t included even though at least some of them are original stories.

On average, v. 6’s quality is only incrementally greater than v. 5. However, it contains so many iconic and important moments that it feels a great deal better at times. Nothing in v. 5 compares to shirtless Batman dueling Ra's al-Ghul, the first appearances of Ra's and his daughter, the first time Ra's is resurrected by the Lazarus Pit. I’ve read these issues before, in color, in Batman: Tales of the Demon, which was superior to v. 6 — and not just because Tales of the Demon was in color. Learning the context in which those Ra's stories initially appeared makes them more impressive, since the League of Assassins stories are nothing like the rest of the era. But actually reading those non-Assassin stories makes reading v. 6 feel like a chore at times, a bit of self-education that is unnecessary.

Still: shirtless Batman vs. Ra's al-Ghul. That fight was pretty awesome.

Rating: Batman symbol Batman symbol Batman symbol Batman symbol (4 of 5)

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Blogger Marc said...

I'd love to be able to look at this book side-by-side with the Batman by Neal Adams Omnibus at some point; that book seems as though it's been almost completely redrawn from the original pencils. I can't help but wonder if similarly "remastered" versions of Green Lantern/Green Arrow and Deadman aren't on their way in the future.

Anyway, I ought to check out this Showcase for all those historically contextualizing non-Ra's issues, even if they're not as good. And for shirtless Bats, of course.

10:38 PM  

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