From 'Batman' to 'Hustle': Variety is the spice

By Andrew A. Smith
Scripps Howard News Service

March 23, 2010 -- I don’t like all comics, which is a good thing. It means there’s a variety of product out there for all audiences, as this week’s sample demonstrates.

For example, Batman & Robin: The Deluxe Edition: Batman Reborn (DC Comics, $24.99) is aimed squarely at me – to my delight.

Reborn collects the first five issues of Batman & Robin, a new series depicting Dick Grayson (the first Robin) as the Dark Knight and Damian Wayne (Batman’s illegitimate son by Ra’s al Ghul’s daughter Talia) as the Boy Wonder. These substitutions were necessitated by the recent Final Crisis, in which Bruce Wayne was believed killed (temporarily).

These six stories travel on two tracks: They’re decent Batman tales, and they explore the ramifications of replacing the original Caped Crusaders with characters of vastly different temperament. Grayson, for example, is a former circus performer and punster who has trouble fitting into the dark grimness of his new role. Damian, by contrast, was raised by the League of Assassins, and despite wanting to live up to his real father’s legacy, has trouble reeling in lethal force – and his contempt for “Batman.”

This is all quite fun, as written by superstar Grant Morrison (Final Crisis) and drawn by Frank Quitely (All Star Superman) and Philip Tan (Uncanny X-Men). I will mention, as a caveat, that Morrison has so many wacky ideas bursting out of him that he sometimes doesn’t leave sufficient bread crumbs for the reader to follow him. Occasionally we must close our eyes and leap with him from one bizarre idea to another, a little disoriented but enjoying the ride just the same.

One thing I don’t usually enjoy is Peter Bagge. I find his artwork (which owes a lot to Basil Wolverton and Gilbert Shelton) to be borderline repulsive, and his stories in books like Neat Stuff and Hate to be venal, nihilistic and juvenile.

And yet, I quite enjoyed Other Lives (DC/Vertigo, $24.99), which he wrote and drew. Mind you, I still don’t like the art. But I forgot about that as I became enveloped in the story, which stars a self-loathing writer, his flighty girlfriend, a conspiracy theorist and a gambling addict, whose lives intersect in a seemingly random, and yet almost inevitable, way.

These characters are fleshed out amazingly well, each with more than one life separated by walls that begin to crumble. The story builds with deftness, and slouches agonizingly toward a denouement that the readers dread but to which the characters are maddeningly oblivious. This is good writing.

Geez, I enjoyed a Peter Bagge book. Did he grow up, or did I?

Meanwhile, I continue to absorb Dark Horse’s hardcover reprints of old comics, such as the recent Turok Son of Stone Vol. 5 ($49.95). I have nothing new to add except the confirmation of my suspicion that Turok’s companion Andar grew younger and smaller as the series progressed. I compared this volume (containing stories from 1960-61) to volume one (1954-56) and it’s evident that, for some reason, Andar was demoted along the way from partner to sidekick.

Now we’re to a book I didn’t enjoy at all: Vatican Hustle (by Greg Houston, NBM, $11.95). Hustle is a parody of blaxploitation movies, as Boss Karate Black Guy Jones deals with lethal clowns, a bar-fighting Pope, porn stars and other amusing, extravagant urban lunacy to find a gangster’s missing daughter. Funny.

But I found the art, for which Houston ought to pay Ralph Steadman royalties, distractingly ugly. And, unlike the Bagge book, I couldn’t immerse myself in the story sufficiently to forget that – it was rambling to the point of incoherence.

I’m sure there’s an audience for this, but it isn’t me.

Speaking of which, my wife loved Graylight (by Naomi Nowak, NBM, $12.95), while I found it a forgettable confection.

It’s about the meeting of two Norwegian witches, one of whom doesn’t know she is one, and (tangentially) the men in their lives. Not much really happens, and the story kind of peters out instead of ending.

The watercolor art shows both European and Japanese influence. It’s attractive enough, but its gauzy, dreamy look and pastel pallet never vary. I understand why (it reflects Norway’s ephemeral “summer” and sets the story’s tone), but good storytelling isn’t static.

However, my wife enjoyed it, which probably means it’s good in ways that simply don’t appeal to me.
And that’s a good thing.

Contact Andrew A. Smith of the Memphis Commercial Appeal at capncomics@aol.com.

Views: 193

Comment by Luke Blanchard on March 25, 2010 at 10:38pm
I appreciate your description is a decent simplification for a column, but isn't Damien technically Batman's legitimate son? Batman and Talia were married by Ra's al Ghul in DC Special Series #15 (on his boat, after he'd kidnapped Batman; its legal basis was, in his country a marriage needs only the father's consent). I thought Batman accepted the legimacy of the marriage to become Ra's son in Batman: Son of the Demon.
Comment by Figserello on March 26, 2010 at 1:03am
I too find Peter Bagge'as stories to be 'venal, nihilistic and juvenile' but that's why I love them. His stories spotlight people with those qualities, but there are plenty of such people around. Probably the majority.

There's a certain amount of understanding and compassion in his stories too. Sooner or later someone who's been acting the dirtwad in his stories will show how hurt or afraid or lonely they really are.

His artwork is suitably consistent and indiividualistic for my eye, but I wouldn't be an expert. I love that it is so removed from most other styles. There's a much sleeker finish than Shelton, and its more consistent and 'reined in' than Wolverton which is great for his kind of 'slice of life' stories.

He's been working hard at his craft (both art and story) for a long time now, so I'm not surprised his latest story pulled in even someone as 'cool' on his work as yourself.

Is Other Lives a graphic novel mmm per se or has it previosly been released in installments?
Comment by Figserello on March 26, 2010 at 1:04am
Surely the Batman and Robin book reprints 6 chapters? 2 3-issue storylines?
Comment by Jeff of Earth-J on March 26, 2010 at 9:48am
Batman & Robin: One day soon (after the release of #12, obviously), I plan to re-read the first dozen issues in a single sitting. I enjoyed the early issues, lost the story in the middle bits, but now it’s starting to get interesting again.

Peter Bagge: I fell much the same about Pater Bagge as you do. Unfortunately you haven’t quite convinced me to give Other Lives a try.

Turok: I think I mentioned last time you reviewed a volume that I’ve fallen behind reading this series. That is still the case, and whereas I do intend to rectify that situation someday, it won’t be any time soon.
Comment by Captain Comics on March 26, 2010 at 11:11am
My goodness, lots of questions!

* Luke, you ask about the legitimacy of Damian Wayne, and I confess this is a judgment call. The conventional wisdom is that Mike Barr's Batman: Son of the Demon was out of continuity from its inception until Grant Morrison introduced Damian Wayne. And I think it still is.

Morrison's origin for Batman's son is different; he told Wizard that he didn't re-read previous Son of Batman stories (including Barr's GN, Kingdom Come's Ibn al-Xu'ffasch and Brotherhood of the Bat's Tallant Wayne) before introducing Damian, relying on memory. As a result, Damian's origin differs in a number of significant particulars from the child in Son of the Demon -- including the fact that the latter was adopted by a Midwestern U.S. couple, whereas Damian was raised by Talia and the League of Assassins.

So Barr's Son of Batman and Morrison's Damian are sufficiently different that I consider them to be different characters, and for Barr's story to remain out of continuity (go re-read it and see if you don't agree with me that it doesn't jibe with current continuity very well). But is Damian legitimate? Well, since I'm discounting Barr's story, I'm dismissing Batman's brief but voluntary marriage to Talia in Son of the Demon. Which varies from Morrison's story of the conception anyway, in which Bruce describes their tryst this way: "I remember being drugged senseless and refusing to cooperate in some depraved eugenics experiment" (Batman #656, Oct 06). No marriage there!

And I don't recall the story you mention from DC Special Series, and am too lazy to go pull it out of the longboxes. But since I don't remember it, I probably dismissed it at the time for the same reason I'm inclined to dismiss it now (from your description): Batman's an American, not from whatever country Ra's is from, so U.S. law supercedes Ra's laws where Bruce Wayne's matrimonial state is concerned. And the U.S. doesn't allow involuntary marriages.

So that's my take: Damian is essentially a new character, and Morrison's own description of Damian's conception doesn't include a marriage to Talia -- it was the result of rape. So I used the word "illegitimate."

But I'm open to argument!

* Figs, you're right about the story count in Batman & Robin. It was an error, and I've corrected it. Thanks!

And I'm glad you like Bagge's work. It's not usually to my taste, but I'm always happy to see variety out there, and for it to be supported.
Comment by Alan M. on March 26, 2010 at 11:31am
I had missed the fact that the first Batman & Robin collection came out (or is about to come out?)... I shall have to keep an eye out for that one.
Comment by Luke Blanchard on March 26, 2010 at 11:37am
Thanks, Cap. That clears that up for me.
Comment by Kirk G on March 9, 2013 at 1:11pm

Damian is the result of a RAPE???!!  This doesn't clear it up for me, at all!  How could DC have Batman do this?

Comment by Captain Comics on March 9, 2013 at 1:56pm

You misread what I wrote. Batman was raped by Talia, not the other way around. At least that's what I call it -- he was drugged, and his genetic material taken involuntarily. The method by which this material was taken is unclear, but any way it was done I'd still call it rape.

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