Review: Batman: The Greatest Stories Ever Told trade paperback (DC Comics)

Thursday, February 23, 2012

[Guest reviewer Zach King blogs about movies as The Cinema King]

Check Metropolis off your list because we're moving on to Gotham City this go-around for a look at Batman: The Greatest Stories Ever Told, Vol. 1.

I feel a little more qualified on this review because I've been reading Batman stories since I was three -- reading every Batman story ever written is on my bucket list [who knew? Interesting! -- ed.] -- and I like to think I have a pretty good idea about what constitutes a great Batman story. Bearing in mind the apparent requirements for inclusion in a "Greatest Stories" volume (concision, iconic status, definitive statement on the character), and recalling that this isn't necessarily a "favorites" book (if I were publishing a "Favorite Batman Stories Ever Told," it'd be closer to a multi-volume omnibus set), I found this volume more satisfying than its Superman predecessor, partly because of the strength of the character and partly because the volume is governed by a strong unifying theme which prevents the stories from straying too far.

The sum of the parts being more than the whole in this series, let's take a look at what's inside this volume.

"Origin" (Detective Comics #33, November 1939): Terse yet sweeping, it's a testament to the strength of this two-page story that it's never been significantly revised; even when Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli retold Batman's origin in Year One, they left the inciting event untouched. Setting aside the nebulous creative history (is the story Bill Finger's, Bob Kane's, or even Gardner Fox as the introduction alludes?), the panel depicting the tear-streaked face of Bruce Wayne has lost none of its punch (although the coloring, curiously, is a bit faded).

"The Case of the Honest Crook" (Batman #5, Spring 1941): I had my doubts about this story on my first read, because initially it seemed like a story where Batman doesn't do much beyond listen to someone else's story. But when Robin is assaulted by gangsters during a routine investigation, we're treated to a chilling portrait of what Batman becomes when the ones he loves are threatened. Bill Finger's script perfectly captures the transition moment, ably assisted by Bob Kane's artwork. The wrap-up, though, is classic Golden Age, with perhaps a bit too much Frank Capra sweetness for modern readers. This likely isn't a story most readers know already, but Batman's devotion to Robin has never been clearer.

"The Secret Life of the Catwoman" (Batman #62, December 1950/January 1951): It's commonly accepted that Batman has one of the greatest rogues galleries, and a lot of Batman stories are great because each villain darkly reflects some facet of the Dark Knight's own psychology. But this Catwoman story falters because it relies too heavily on Catwoman's attempt at reform by way of the Silver Age trickery of amnesia. While the twist about Mister X is clever and Batman's solution thereof not implausible, there isn't much else great about Batman's role in the story. Considering Batman's long and complicated history with Catwoman, surely there must have been a better choice out there to feature this important relationship.

"Robin Dies at Dawn" (Batman #156, June 1963): Classic and recently reintroduced into continuity by the great Grant Morrison (and also collected as part of The Black Casebook), "Robin Dies at Dawn" is the quintessential "Silver Age weird" tale and still holds up as perhaps the best of this era (although I've always been partial to "The Superman of Planet X," also in The Black Casebook). Although it's now impossible to read this story and not think of Doctor Hurt, what we have is a very convincing portrait of how fragile Batman's psyche really is, courtesy of another great script by Bill Finger (who gets four inclusions in this volume -- the most of any other Bat-creator). Simply put, I love this story.

"The Batman Nobody Knows" (Batman #250, July 1973): I mentioned in my review of Batman: Strange Apparitions that a lot of the material there felt familiar because Batman: The Animated Series has introduced me to it. Here's another example of B:TAS facilitating my Bat-addiction, with a story very similar to the "Legends of the Dark Knight" episode (and a similar chapter, "Have I Got a Story for You," in Batman: Gotham Knight [see also Batman #423, "You Shoulda Seen Him...," by Jim Starlin and Dave Cockrum]). The story is quick and contains an apparent Batwing prototype among other fascinating "redesigns" by Dick Giordano, but it's also a good examination of the question, "Who is Batman?" The ending, though, in which Bruce Wayne reveals his identity to the campfire storytellers, is a bit farfetched.

"The Joker's Five-Way Revenge" (Batman #251, September 1973): What I don't understand is why DC allows Neal Adams to rework his art before reprinting it in a volume highlighting original genius. Case in point: "The Joker's Five-Way Revenge," which is Dennis O'Neil's fine encapsulation of the Batman/Joker dynamic (including an ending on which The Killing Joke must be riffing) and restoration of the Joker to his place of moral insanity. The retouching of Adams's art is incredibly distracting and a bit awkward, looking too "contemporary" for the middle of this book, and my complaints about the collection of this story extend to the fact that the iconic Adams cover is also missing, since the "Greatest Stories" volumes regrettably don't print covers. That said, the story is spot-on, but since this is Collected Editions the collection treatment can't be overlooked.

"Night of the Stalker" (Detective Comics #439, March 1974): The relentless nature of Batman's mission takes center stage in this Steve Englehart story, which contains moments of fist-pumpingly badass Batman action -- as when Batman drops keys to a getaway car at his feet and dares the goons to grab them. Although there are no recognizable rogues in this story, Englehart does a solid job linking one particular crime to the tragic murder that birthed Batman. The art by the Amendolas is also good, but it's Dick Giordano's inks that sell this story, emphasizing Batman as a creature of shadows and of the night.

"Death Strikes at Midnight and Three" (DC Special Series #15, Summer 1978): I wasn't crazy for the prose story "Exile at the Edge of Eternity" in Superman: The Greatest Stories Ever Told, Vol. 1 by Jim Steranko, and this Dennis O'Neil and Marshall Rogers story doesn't knock me out, either. I find these stories to be more difficult to follow, especially because the word/image relationship is more uncertain here. I certainly hope this isn't a recurring feature in the "Greatest Stories" series, because it's starting to feel more like a nod to genre diversity than a collection of the greatest Batman stories. Of note -- the first major appearance of Alfred in this volume happens here, although a coloring error makes him a bit more darkly-complected than usual (but maybe this story happens on another earth?).

"Wanted: Santa Claus -- Dead or Alive!" (DC Special Series #21, Spring 1980): The title of this chapter might strike some as being unconventional Batman fare. The story is mostly forgettable, likely included here because it features Batman in an underworld disguise (though not, surprisingly, Matches Malone, who's conspicuously absent from this volume) and because the art is done by Frank Miller, whose total absence from a "Greatest Batman Stories" would have been alarming.

"... My Beginning ... and My Probable End" (Detective Comics #574, May 1987): Thus far, I'm very surprised we haven't seen more Alfred in this volume, but here we get a look at another Bat-family member: Leslie Thompkins, the physician who aids Batman off the books because of her surrogate familial tie to Bruce Wayne. Mike W. Barr offers an important "Are you doing the right thing?" conversation here, although readers will likely be tired of this, the third retelling of the Bat-origin in this volume. What's surprising here is how self-righteous Leslie Thompkins comes off when Jason Todd is wounded, but then it's not so surprising that this is the same woman who (temporarily) allowed Stephanie Brown to die. Perhaps that story might have sufficed since it had more of an impact on Batman, but this stands alone better.

"Favorite Things" (Legends of the Dark Knight #79, January 1996): With a story by Mark Millar and art by Steve Yeowell (whose work I loved on The Invisibles), I was expecting something ... well, something great. And "Favorite Things" has the doggedness of "Night of the Stalker" and the Christmas setting which oddly seems to fit Batman perfectly. But something falls flat here -- for me, it's the ending, which never quite lives up to the promise of Batman's quest to recover a precious item stolen from Wayne Manor. But it does reinforce the central theme of this volume, the divide between Bruce Wayne and Batman

"24/7" (Batman: Gotham Knights #32, October 2002): We close with the epilogue to the hit-or-miss "Bruce Wayne: Murderer/Fugitive" storyline, in which Devin Grayson smartly offers a story about Bruce Wayne doing good without the need to don his cowl. I'll refrain from belaboring the point that this is the only female contribution to this volume, but I will say it's a welcome one, a fantastic standalone which gives a rare look at an underexamined side of Batman's personality. And I love that this story (and the volume overall) closes on a splash page of the Wayne tombstone, a reminder both of where the story began and for what it strives to atone.

As with the other two-volume "Greatest Stories" (that of Superman), I'll save my discussion of what Batman stories are missing for my review of Volume Two, bearing in mind the caveat Les Daniels presents in his introduction to this volume -- namely, that any single volume anthology must necessarily exclude longer works like Year One and The Killing Joke. I will say, though, that the editors have done a better job with Batman: The Greatest Stories Ever Told, Vol. 1 than with Superman, due in no small part to the unifying theme of "Who is the real man -- Bruce Wayne or Batman?" Although not every story follows that theme carefully, there are fewer forgettable stories here and more Bat-tastic comics, making this a top-notch title for Bat-fans.

In my next "Greatest Stories" review, we round out DC's Trinity with a look at Wonder Woman: The Greatest Stories Ever Told. Stay tuned!
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1 comment:

  1. Great review. I've been interested in checking out some of these "Greatest Stories" books, but I was worried they might repeat a lot of stories that I've already read. It sounds like many of these are good stories that happen to be a bit off the beaten path, though, which is nice to see. (It's great, for example, that DC resisted the urge to reprint Detective Comics #27 for what surely would have been the millionth time.)

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