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Batman – Full Circle (Review/Retrospective)

23rd July is Batman Day, celebrating the character’s 75th anniversary. To celebrate, this July we’re taking a look at some new and classic Batman (and Batman related) stories. Check back daily for the latest review.

In a way, Mike W. Barr and Alan Davies’ Full Circle feels a bit like Steve Englehart and Marshall Roger’s Dark Detective. It’s a cap to a run on the character, something of a forerunner to DC’s recent “Retroactive” initiative, reteaming classic creators on a particular character in an attempt to recapture past glories. Like Dark Detective, Full Circle doesn’t quite work. It’s a direct sequel to Barr’s Year Two – albeit with recurring gags and characters thrown in from the rest of his Detective Comics run – and it seems to exist solely to make sure the reader understood what Barr was doing with Year Two.

Given that Year Two was hardly the most subtle of comics, Full Circle occasionally runs the risk of bludgeoning the reader into submission.

It's a Boy Wonder he doesn't get killed...

It’s a Boy Wonder he doesn’t get killed…

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Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo’s Run on Batman – Zero Year: Secret City & Dark City (Review/Retrospective)

23rd July is Batman Day, celebrating the character’s 75th anniversary. To celebrate, this July we’re taking a look at some new and classic Batman (and Batman related) stories. Check back daily for the latest review.

It takes considerable bravery to craft an origin story for Batman in the wake of Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli’s Year One.

Superhero origins are constantly being tweaked and re-written and re-worked. Superman has had a half-dozen comic book origins (in- and out-of-continuity) since Crisis on Infinite Earths rebooted the DC universe. There’s John Byrne’s Man of Steel, Kurt Busiek’s Secret Identity, Mark Waid’s Birthright, Geoff Johns’ Secret Origin, J. Michael Straczynski’s Superman: Earth One and even Grant Morrison’s Action Comics run.

It's only a pale moon...

It’s only a pale moon…

In contrast, Batman has been relatively undisturbed, with only Geoff Johns’ Batman: Earth One positing an alternate origin story for the Caped Crusader. A large part of that is down to how sacred Year One is. Written by Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli, Year One is considered to be one of the best Batman comics ever published. It recently topped Comic Book Resources’ high-profile fan poll for the character’s seventy-fifth anniversary.

In many cases, an “if it ain’t broke…” mentality applies. Having a universally-beloved comic book story that is easily accessible as the origin story for a particular character is not a bad thing at all. You can hand Year One to anybody and they can read and enjoy it. Although undoubtedly a product of the late eighties, the comic remains relevant and compelling to this day. Indeed, we have not moved so far from the eighties that it’s hard to reconcile a Batman origin grounded in that social context.

Talk about falling so far...

Talk about falling so far…

However, Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo are the creative team working on the Batman book for the character’s seventy-fifth anniversary. The duo have enjoyed a tremendous run – managing that rare intersection of critical and commercial success in mainstream comics. There are legitimate criticisms to be made, but Snyder and Capullo’s Batman work does hold up as some of the best Batman comics produced in quite some time, and one of true success stories of DC’s “new 52.”

So, if there was ever a time to go back to Batman’s origin, this was it. A well-loved creative team, a significant anniversary, a clear distance between this time and Year One. The risk associated with Zero Year is phenomenal. It is an incredible gambit. Even though the story is not in competition with Year One, comparisons are inevitable. The result is a very satisfying and exciting tribute to an iconic comic book character that doesn’t quite surpass Year One, but is clever enough to be clear that it isn’t trying to.

Getting into the swing of things...

Getting into the swing of things…

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Grant Morrison and Chris Burnham’s Run on Batman Incorporated – Demon Star & Gotham’s Most Wanted (Review/Retrospective)

23rd July is Batman Day, celebrating the character’s 75th anniversary. To celebrate, this July we’re taking a look at some new and classic Batman (and Batman related) stories. Check back daily for the latest review.

Between September 2006 and July 2013, Grant Morrison crafted his epic Batman saga from the ashes of Infinite Crisis. Over the course of seven years, the Scottish author re-worked and re-imagined the Caped Crusader, boldly trying to condense the character’s convoluted and sprawling history into a single narrative. Morrison pulled elements from across the character’s continuity – including stories believed wiped out by continuity reboots and existing as alternatives or “what-ifs.”

To describe Grant Morrison’s Batman epic as ambitious doesn’t begin to do it justice. It is a story that pushed the character out of what had been his comfort zone since the eighties and nineties. He made Bruce Wayne a father; he killed Bruce Wayne off; he banished Batman to the dawn of time and forced him to fight his way back to the present; he made Dick Grayson into Batman; he turned Batman into a franchise so that it might fight twenty-first century crime.

Beware the Batman...

Beware the Batman…

These are all seismic shifts to the status quo, and don’t necessarily conform to what people think about when they imagine a typical Batman story. The character of Bruce Wayne and his world changed dramatically. The very first issue of Morrison’s Batman run featured Batman capturing the last of his classic villains, allowing the Caped Crusader a change to face larger and more existential threats.

It is quite telling that Morrison’s storytelling became the driving force of Batman continuity, with DC spinning books and stories off from his central premise. Scott Snyder’s first Batman epic was The Black Mirror, a story featuring Dick Grayson as Batman, as part of Morrison’s status quo. When the company relaunched Batman & Robin as part of the “new 52″, it featured Damian Wayne as Robin, another innovation introduced by Morrison.

It's all connected...

It’s all connected…

Despite this sense that everything was changing, it seemed inevitable that everything would inevitably be reset. You can only change an iconic character like Batman so much, after all. If you bend Batman too far out of shape, he must inevitably snap back into his classic mould. It’s not inherently a bad thing – “Batman and Robin will never die!” to quote Batman R.I.P., and the characters endure because they revert to archetypes – but it does lend a sense of tragedy to everything.

Coming in the wake of the “new 52″ reboot that represented an attempt to reset DC continuity back to its most archetypal configuration, it makes sense that Grant Morrison and Chris Burnham would write the second volume of Batman Incorporated as a tragedy. Morrison would announce his intention to step away from mainstream brand-name superhero stories in the wake of Batman Incorporated, and you can sense some of that fatigue in this story about how everything eventually gets set back to zero.

Everything falls apart...

Everything falls apart…

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Legends of the Dark Knight: Shaman (Review/Retrospective)

23rd July is Batman Day, celebrating the character’s 75th anniversary. To celebrate, this July we’re taking a look at some new and classic Batman (and Batman related) stories. Check back daily for the latest review.

Given the success of the Batman line in general and Year One in particular, a comic book like Legends of the Dark Knight made a great deal of sense. First published in 1989, the original objective was to tell stand-alone stories that could be positioned at any point in the life of Batman. As such, the book was not tied on any status quo at the publisher or any demands of the on-going Batman or Detective Comics books.

These were continuity-light stories that would allow writers to tell any story they wanted, unhindered by the larger editorial direction of the Batman line. Legends of the Dark Knight filled a pretty great niche in the Batman line. In a superficial way, it allowed the comics to reconnect with the success of Frank Miller’s Year One, giving the company the option of publishing more comics set in the rough early days of the Caped Crusader.

A dark night...

A dark night…

However, the continuity-hopping nature of the title meant that Legends of the Dark Knight could welcome all sorts of creative teams for short runs without tying them down. Batman and Detective Comics were traditionally books where creative teams would enjoy “runs”, with the occasional fill-in. In contrast, Legends of the Dark Knight could rotate through creators, allowing for different flavours at different times.

More than that, free from the burden of having to tie into a larger context of Batman, many of these Legends of the Dark Knight stories were friendly to casual readers who did not care about the on-going titles. Eventually Legends of the Dark Knight found itself tying into events like Knightfall and No Man’s Land, but the bulk of the run was accessible on its own terms. Featuring a varied assortment of creators free to tell the stories that they wanted to tell, Legends of the Dark Knight was a great idea.

I am the lord, your Bat-god!

I am the lord, your Bat-god!

As a whole, the two-hundred-and-fourteen issue run of Legends of the Dark Knight holds up remarkably well. The run contains a number of genuinely classic Batman stories like Gothic or Prey or Faces or Blades or Hothouse or Going Sane. The first twenty issues of the title are remarkably strong, and there is a very series argument to be made that the anthology nature of Legends of the Dark Knight made it the best Batman comic book of the nineties.

However, when it came to launching Legends of the Dark Knight, it made sense for Batman veteran Denny O’Neil to write the first story. O’Neil had been an essential part of the Batman line since the seventies. He was a prolific creator who had contributed an incredible amount of material to the wider universe of Batman. During a short run on Batman with artist Neal Adams, O’Neil had helped to restore some of the character’s darkness and mystery following the bright and colourful sixties.

The mask comes off...

The mask comes off…

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Batman – Arkham Asylum: Living Hell (Review/Retrospective)

23rd July is Batman Day, celebrating the character’s 75th anniversary. To celebrate, this July we’re taking a look at some new and classic Batman (and Batman related) stories. Check back daily for the latest review.

There is something absolutely compelling about witnessing the surreal and the impossible through the eyes of ordinary people. In the middle of the first decade of the twentieth century, DC seemed to take a novel approach to the larger Batman mythos. Acknowledging the absurdity of the world inhabited by the Caped Crusader, comic book fans were asked to look at that strange world from the perspective of the ordinary people inhabiting it.

Greg Rucka, Ed Brubaker and Michael Lark all collaborated on Gotham Central, the wonderful police procedural that offered a new way of examining the streets of Gotham. As observed by the members of the Gotham Police Department’s Major Crimes Unit, Gotham’s population of heroes and villains seemed particularly unsettling and ethereal. It is one thing to imagine the weird and wonderful world inhabited by the Batman and the Joker and the Mad Hatter. It is another to imagine sharing that world.

He knows how to make an entrance...

He knows how to make an entrance…

Launched a few months after the first issue of Gotham Central, Dan Slott and Ryan Sook’s wonderful Arkham Asylum: Living Hell is a six-issue miniseries that invites the reader inside the eponymous institution. As glimpsed through the eyes of white-collar criminal Warren White, Arkham Asylum is a place that defies explanation – a macabre and horrific environment that is home to all sorts of depravity and brutality.

Batman himself barely appears in Arkham Asylum: Living Hell, existing at the fringes of the book as he does with Gotham Central. However, despite these limited appearances, it remains clear that Warren White has found his way to the other side of the looking glass.

We all face our demons...

We all face our demons…

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Non-Review Review: What If?

“Can men and women ever really be friends?” is so familiar that it’s practically a cliché. The line that exists between platonic male-female friendship and romantic entanglement was the engine that drove When Harry Met Sally, one of the best-loved romantic comedies ever produced. What If? covers familiar ground, charting the awkward friendship that develops between a young animator in a long-term relationship and a medical school drop-out working through his own issues.

To be fair, the tension between “romantic entanglement” and “platonic friendship” is somewhat undercut by the fact that What If? positions itself as a romantic comedy. The movie plots a familiar arc, hitting the expected plot points along the way. The structure is very clearly that of a romantic comedy, right down to the somewhat contrived (and inevitable) third act obstacles. Imposing the genre constraints of the “romantic comedy” upon a film like this cannot help but suggest an obvious answer to the  driving question.

What If? works despite the familiarity. That is largely down to the charm of its two lead performers. Daniel Radcliffe and Zoe Kazan play well off one another, creating a wonderfully intimate dynamic that suggests genuine affection rather than simply superficial attraction. What If? is a light comedy, but one that is executed with sufficient charm and wit.

Why can't we be friends?

Why can’t we be friends?

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Batman – Year Two (Review/Retrospective)

23rd July is Batman Day, celebrating the character’s 75th anniversary. To celebrate, this July we’re taking a look at some new and classic Batman (and Batman related) stories. Check back daily for the latest review.

Batman: Year Two is an… interesting read. It’s much-maligned by comic book fans, and there are a lot of reasons for that. Most obviously there’s the fact that it really doesn’t make a lot of sense, but there’s also the fact that it was published by DC as a way of capitalising on the success of Frank Miller’s Batman: Year One. Year One is a classic comic book story, one of the greatest origins ever written, and one that endures to this day, where even Scott Snyder felt intimidated in writing over it more than two decades after it was published.

Batman: Year Two is not that sort of classic.

In fact, it’s not any sort of classic. However, divorced from context, it’s an interesting read. It feels like writer Mike W. Barr is consciously and gleefully subverting absolutely everything that worked so well in Miller’s Batman: Year One, rejecting the notion of a version of Batman anchored in something approaching the real world, and getting right down to the comic-book-y-ness of the character. Positioning it as a sequel to Batman: Year One feels odd. It would almost read better as a rebuke.

Welcome to the late eighties...

Welcome to the late eighties…

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