The other day, I took Merriweather Jr down to the local library for ‘Bookbugs’, a sort of pre-school jamboree involving singing, hollering and general high-jinks. Afterwards, we tarried a while, and he selected a few cardboard books to borrow that he especially liked the taste of.
I decided to get in on the borrowing action, too, but the thought of all the many, many unread books on my shelf at home deterred me. Free time is at a premium these days, and I’m lucky if I can finish one novel a month, let alone one a week. But then I spied the graphic novel section. “Aha! Picture books! Something I can read in one sitting while the babe naps – just the ticket!”
I helped myself to various pictorial tomes, including a couple of Batman volumes: Batman R.I.P. and Batman: Gotham Shall Be Judged. The former is a particularly famous Grant Morrison story, where Batman’s mind is driven to the point of no return by a group of ne’er do wells walled the Black Glove. But in a delightful twist, Batman has already prepared for this eventuality and has developed a ‘back-up personality’ in the form of the ‘Batman of Zur-en-arrh’. One of my favourite aspects of Batman is the idea of a master detective with a mind so finely honed that he plans for every possible outcome, so I love the idea that he even plans for what happens if his mind is destroyed.
But otherwise Batman R.I.P. left me cold – being part of the mainstream Batman canon, every other sentence contained tortured references to various other things that happened in previous issues and other comics. As such, it felt like walking into a movie halfway through – a problem that plagues mainstream DC and Marvel comics. It also felt very ‘comic-y’ in the sense that it was incredibly cheesy and silly – one of the villains is a mime artist for chrissakes. Altogether it came across as a bit naff, save for the clever/ridiculous idea of Batman’s back-up psyche.
Gotham Shall Be Judged was a bit more interesting and more up my street. It features Azrael, a sort of holy version of Batman with magical swords and a set of ancient, sentient armour. But unlike Batman, Azrael is willing to execute those he deems to be wicked in the eyes of God, and the mixture of superheroes and religion works very well. There are still too many annoying cross-references with other comics for my liking, but overall I thought it was much better than Gotham R.I.P.
Both graphic novels were a bit of a mixed bag really, but then again I’ve always found Batman stories to be a bit patchy – as prone to veering off into theatrical nonsense as to generating moments of genuine pathos. In a way it was unfortunate that the first Batman graphic novel I read was The Dark Knight Returns – by going in at Batman’s high point, everything I read afterwards could only disappoint.
But I’ve always loved how versatile Batman is as a character – his story can be moulded in all sorts of ways and still work, whereas by comparison, his DC stablemate Superman feels quite one-dimensional. Batman is essentially an absolute nutcase, which is what makes him compelling.
One version of the Batman mythos that has consistently hit all of the right notes is that of the Arkham series of video games. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that the Arkham games provide the definitive version of Batman – sufficiently grounded in reality but with snatches of the fantastic, as well as the best ever version of The Joker, voiced by Mark Hamill.
After reading through the Batman stories above, I was itching to get a bigger Batman fix, so I finally took down Batman: Arkham Origins from The Mantelpiece and began playing. I’ve been putting off playing it until now because I know it will take a while to complete (and time is at a premium these days), and because it garnered lukewarm reviews at the time of release, with most reviewers arguing that it’s essentially ‘more of the same’.
Well, sometimes more of the same is just what’s needed, and immersing myself in Arkham Origins felt like stepping into a comfortable old pair of slippers. Oooh, those slippers are comfy. So nice and snug. Mmm-mmm.
Origins is very similar to Arkham City, but that’s no bad thing – and it’s been so long since I played that game that I relished the chance to glide through the streets of Gotham again. The plot is also pretty good, with a few unexpected twists here and there, although I think they went a bit overboard with the Riddler trophies this time around. Sometimes less is more, right guys?
Anyway, I’m enjoying my mini Batman renaissance – and I’ve already been back to the library to snag a few more Batbooks. One of them is Batman: Year 100, which I think might have actually overtaken The Dark Knight Returns as my favourite Batman story. The artwork by Paul Pope is just fantastic, and I love how he re-imagines the character in a very different setting where he seems more vulnerable than ever before – and he even leaves open the question of whether the main character is actually Batman. Brilliant stuff.
So, what’s your favourite Batman tale?
Buy Batman Year One Hundred from Amazon UK.