Review: Batman: The Greatest Stories Ever Told Vol. 2 trade paperback (DC Comics)

Monday, December 31, 2012

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

After Superman got his sequel, Batman's back with Batman: The Greatest Stories Ever Told, Volume 2. You'll recall the first volume was something of a success for me, with a strong Bruce-or-Batman theme holding the book together, and in some ways a second Batman book is more unsurprising than the second Superman volume.

Unfortunately, Volume 2 doesn't have a strong unifying hook like the question of his identity in Volume 1. What the book does have, however, are a few odd editorial choices (a recurring problem with this series) but many very good stories that, while not first choices for "greatest," still prove entertaining reads for the discerning Bat-fan.

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

"Secret Origins Starring the Golden Age Batman" (Secret Origins #6, September 1986): Rather than simply dive in like the second Superman trade did, and rather than reprint the first origin story -- and recognizing, perhaps, that Year One is unexcerptable -- the editors choose this offbeat tale which delivers the origin of the pre-Crisis Batman of Earth-Two. Roy Thomas selectively retells the first Batman stories, playing up Bruce Wayne's theatrical training and his love affair with Julie Madison; the update works, retaining some of the original lines (especially my favorite, "A fitting end for his kind") with Marshall Rogers lending decidedly more modern artwork to this strong retroactive origin story. Smartly distinguishing itself from Year One, "Secret Origins" is a surprise but ultimately wise choice to open the book.

"Professor Hugo Strange and the Monsters" (Batman #1, Spring 1940): The stalwart of Arkham City, Hugo Strange, makes his first appearance in this story, which is a good representative sample of Batman's Golden Age -- evil scientists, horroresque beasts, Batman's own inventive gadgets, and the Dark Knight's cavalier attitude toward killing his foes ("He's probably better off this way"). Bill Finger's story is still entertaining but doesn't quite live up to the Matt Wagner remake Batman and the Monster Men, in part because Bob Kane's artwork, while stubby and unrefined in a nostalgic way, is crammed into panel structure that is both puzzling and frustrating. Additionally, the story isn't quite fulfilling because it ends on a cliffhanger, but as a first encounter with one of Batman's greatest foes the story almost makes up for its faults.

"The Career of Batman Jones" (Batman #108, June 1957): This is one of my favorite Silver Age stories, and whenever a friend balks at my idea to name my firstborn son "Batman" this is the story I cite. Recently reintroduced to pre-New 52 continuity in Battle for the Cowl, Batman Jones decides to take up his namesake's crusade against crime and actually gets in a bit of training with the Caped Crusader and Boy Wonder. While Finger's story wraps a bit too quickly for my tastes, Sheldon Moldoff's artwork is quintessential Silver Age, with wide eyes, dimpled cheeks, and strong shoulders. It's almost a shame that this character was only used this once, since the story is so enjoyable.

"Prisoners of Three Worlds" (Batman #153, February 1963): If only because it wasn't included in The Black Casebook, I'm grateful to see this reprinted, and it's a good counterpoint for "Robin Dies at Dawn," which was included in the first Batman volume, in that both are (ostensibly) Batman's most famous encounters with the Silver Age's extraterrestrial population. While the science behind this story is tricky at best (I had a difficult time tracking which space-rays did what to whom), the concept by Bill Finger is intriguing and literalizes the mind/body dynamic examined in the first trade. What this story is most remembered for is likely the emotional moment between a dying Batman and Batwoman; though it's brushed away by a rather sexist final panel, Grant Morrison wasn't wrong in picking up that there was certainly something deeper with Kathy Kane. A hokey story, but saved in its earnest execution.

"How Many Ways Can a Robin Die?" (Batman #246, December 1972): Unfortunately, this Frank Robbins tale is rather forgettable, such that I forgot, in writing this review, that it wasn't "Robin Dies at Dawn." The inclusion of this story in this volume seems to be a kind of wink/nod at the perennial peril in which the Boy Wonder has been placed over the years. Here Batman is tricked into chasing wax dummies of Robin into death-traps, but the villain is never quite compelling, nor is his plot ultimately intelligible. A better choice might have been "Daughter of the Demon," a similar Robin-in-danger story which introduced a certain Demon's Head to the canon.

"The Batman's Last Christmas" (The Brave and the Bold #184, March 1982): I mused in the last review that Batman seems oddly at home in Christmas stories, and here the editors test that theory again but layer on a multiversal wrinkle by teaming Batman with the Huntress of Earth-Two, his own daughter/niece (however you want to reconcile their relationship). While it's an interesting idea to team these two, the case they investigate is overly complex but with a surprisingly simple answer; the real problem is that this doesn't quite feel like our Batman. He doesn't mind being called "Uncle Bruce" while taking down a mugger (shouldn't this be a superhero faux pas?), and he quits the heroing game without investigating claims of his father's corruption. While the Jim Aparo artwork is strong, Mike Barr's story never quite catches on, but then I was never a fan of Year Two either.

"All My Enemies Against Me!" (Detective Comics #526, May 1983): If the Batman "Greatest Stories" trades have seemed a little light on the famous Rogues Gallery, this oversized story more than atones for that sin of omission (as does the fact that The Joker gets his own Greatest Stories volume). Orchestrated by The Joker (and writer Gerry Conway), all your favorite rogues team up to take down Batman once and for all. Really, other than Ra's al Ghul and any character created post-1983, they're all here. At first, it seemed that would be incentive enough to include this as a "Greatest Story," but the story quickly becomes more important once you realize that the young boy helping the Bat-family is Jason Todd ...  and his parents are the ones spying on Killer Croc. Don Newton's artwork is gritty but a real treat to see what he does with each of the villains. "All My Enemies" is a surprise inclusion, one that probably wouldn't have made my personal list, but it's one I'm more than happy to have in my collection now.

"Of Mice and Men" (The Batman Chronicles #5, Summer 1996): I'm a fan of Alan Grant's work and Scott McDaniel's art, but there's something about this story that never quite feels right. Here we have Alfred bonding with a young Bruce Wayne over -- what else -- comic books and what it means to be a hero. But there are problems; Alfred is too glib about his calling, and Bruce's pivot from last angry boy to champion of the oppressed never feels natural. While it's not a bad idea to include stories where Bruce Wayne is the ostensible star (last volume did it quite well with "24/7"), there must be better stories out there than this one, which closes on a groan-worthy forced reference to the inevitable fate of the Waynes.

"Cave Dwellers" (Batgirl: Year One #4, May 2003): Here's a choice that's curious on several levels. For one, it's a Batgirl origin story, which leads me to wonder why it wasn't included in Batgirl: The Greatest Stories Ever Told. For another, Batman's a peripheral figure at best; there's even more Boy Wonder than Caped Crusader. But on one more level, the story serves as an interesting counterpoint to "Batman Jones," in that here we see how Batman has evolved from the Silver Age's avuncular father figure with a man-cave full of cool gadgets to today's highly distrustful guardian of his city who has a lethal-response training room in his basement. That said, it's asking a lot for the reader to intuit why this story and not some more apparent choice. I'm a huge fan of Batgirl: Year One, but I can't help feeling this trade would have benefited from a more Batman-centric choice.

"Citizen Wayne" (The Batman Chronicles #21, Summer 2000): Who knew Brian Michael Bendis ever wrote a Batman story? Or ever worked for DC, for that matter? Best known as the guy who reinvented Spider-Man in Ultimate fashion for the House of Ideas, Bendis remodels Batman as a Citizen Kane homage, with Wayne as Kane, and familiar faces like Jim Gordon, Dick Grayson, Selina Kyle, and The Joker filling in roles from Orson Welles's masterpiece. At six pages, the story is economically tight, and the levels of allusion demonstrate one of my favorite elements of the Batman mythos -- just how malleable the subject matter truly is, how the "idea' of Batman always works regardless of the setting.

Are these the greatest Batman stories ever told? In short, no, but then the honest-to-goodness greatest stories -- Year One, The Killing Joke, The Dark Knight Returns, and any of the long story arcs from the "triangle era" -- wouldn't fit in a single trade with other stories beside. In fact, I'm not sure that this volume is better than its predecessor; some of the stories are less memorable, and some aren't quite Batman stories. But as a "runner-up" volume, it's not all bad. There's plenty to like, although there are still a few stories I'm sorry to see didn't make the cut.

For one, I'm flabbergasted that "The Man Who Falls" is missing from these trades, since it meets all the apparent requirements -- brief, iconic, and not widely reprinted (you'll have to go to either the Batman Begins trade or Secrets of the Batcave). And after seeing the DC Animated Universe represented in other "Greatest Stories" collections, I'm sad to see no love for that era in the Batman trades, particularly since I know I can't be alone in thinking that those comics contributed to what was for me one of the definitive portrayals of the Dark Knight. It was recently pointed out to me that Jeph Loeb and Jim Lee's Hush is essentially "Batman: The Greatest Stories Ever Rewritten" with every classic Batman moment included (the fight with Superman, the death of a Robin, the moral dilemma of killing the Joker), so it's a bit surprising not to see it represented, either.

But all told, I'm a sucker for Batman stories, and so I'm inclined to give Batman: The Greatest Stories Ever Told, Vol. 2 a thumbs-up as I did with the first volume. Certainly the lack of a thematic link allows a few oddball choices to slip through, choices which might have made more sense if we'd been given an introduction to answer the question, "Why these stories at this time?" But none of these stories ever dips below the level of forgettable; there's nothing offensively bad (i.e., Lovers and Madmen) or ridiculously out-of-character (The Dark Knight Strikes Again), and even casual Bat-fans will find something to enjoy in this trade -- and I'm betting it's "All My Enemies," the surprise hit of the collection.

Next time, we get our second team-up of the series when we take a closer look at the Worlds' Finest partnership in Superman/Batman: The Greatest Stories Ever Told. Stay tuned!

More Greatest Stories reviews: Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern, Flash, Justice League, Shazam, and Batgirl.
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2 comments:

  1. Great review, have a happy New Year!

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  2. Agree with your review on the most part. This is not as strong as the first volume. I think the unifying theme for the volume though is the "Batman Family." Each of the stories seem to show a member of that extended crimefighting family. Shame there are no Tim Drake or Spoiler stories included, though.

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