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Tony Daniel’s Run on Batman – Battle for the Cowl, Life After Death & Eye of the Beholder (Review/Retrospective)

To celebrate the release of The Dark Knight Rises, July is “Batman month” here at the m0vie blog. Check back daily for comics, movies and television reviews and discussion of the Caped Crusader.

Tony Daniel’s Batman is a decently entertaining book, one that has clearly been put together with a great deal of skill and care by an artist and writer who seems to be not only enjoying himself, but keen to learn on the job. Handed the unenviable task of writing Battle for the Cowl, the three-issue miniseries designed to link Grant Morrison’s Batman run to his Batman & Robin run, Daniel was given an assignment that would make even a seasoned writer blush with uncertainty – tasked with writing connective tissue between two densely-layered Grant Morrison series, it’s hard to imagine a writer who would have managed anything that much better than the somewhat limp mess that Daniel produced. Still, DC was keen enough to grant the artist not only on-going art chores on the Batman series (rapidly approaching its seven-hundredth issue), but also to let him write it. While it’s hardly the most iconic or memorable tenure on a Batman-related title, it does have a number of charming and somewhat redeeming features. The most impressive one is that Daniel seems willing to learn and to improve as he goes.

Some men just want to see the world burn…

Artists-turned-writers represent something of a risky gambit for a major comic book company. We’re all familiar with the success stories of John Byrne’s Fantastic Four, Frank Miller’s Daredevil or Walt Simonson’s Thor, but those are very much the exception rather than the rule. Writing and illustrating are two very different art forms, and it’s hard to find people who excel at both. While I doubt that Tony S. Daniel’s writing career will ever eclipse his quite simply amazing pencil-work, it’s surprisingly solid – and I think the most endearing aspect of it all is that Daniel seems to be willing to learn as he goes, adopting imitation as the most sincere form of flattery.

Daniel worked as an artist with Grant Morrison throughout the writer’s run on Batman (most memorably in Batman R.I.P., but also returning for The Missing Chapters, collected with Time and the Batman). Reading Batman, one gets the sense that Daniel has been paying attention to Morrison, studying how that writer composes his stories, and trying to offer a familiar variation on the core themes. It means that Daniel isn’t afraid to embrace the multiple facets of his lead character, or to present his own vision of the character to the exclusion of everything else. While he lacks the bold and grandiose ideas that Morrison brought to the table (and some fans would suggest that’s a good thing), there’s no shame in learning from somebody who knows so much about comic book storytelling. There are worse models to follow for writing a (relatively straight-forward) Batman adventure.

Face to false-face…

So he references obscure back story and drafts in characters long gone from the pages of the Batman books. He resurrects the Reaper, an iconic one-time foe of Batman and Robin created before most comic book readers were born. Black Mask’s sinister cabal is composed of various villains new and old, cultivated from a variety of sources, while Daniel seems to relish using old-school foes like Dr. Death and Hugo Strange. He even features Mario Falcone from Dark Victory. It reminds me of the way that Morrison resurrected the Club of Heroes and featured Simon Hurt modeled on an anonymous doctor from an issue forgotten by most. There’s even a priest featured in Battle of the Cowl who seems like he could be a member of Morrison’s Black Glove, and a flashback to Batman’s trip to “the Shifting City of Nanda Parbat” during The Resurrection of Ra’s Al-Ghul. Hell, Two-Face crawls out of his own grave in a scene constructed to mirror the climax of Batman R.I.P.

It’s not nearly as nuanced as Morrison’s work, but it does create the impression that Daniel is drawing from an incredibly vast history in a time of relative uncertainty for the character, with the cowl transitioning between Bruce Wayne and Dick Grayson. Hell, even some of the dialogue sounds like affectionate homage to Morrison’s distinctive scripts. “Don’t just stand there looking Goth,” Hugo Strange admonishes Dr. Death at one point, sounding like the sort of bitchy pop-conscious villain dialogue that Daniel’s former writer excelled at providing.

Nobody gangs up on Batman…

There are other attempts at symbolism that are a little bit too blunt, but I genuinely like – better to make an honest attempt at depth than to churn out the same old generic “Batman” stuff that anybody could draft in their sleep. From reading it, it seems like Daniel isn’t content to churn in a half-assed script and try to salvage it with superb artwork – from my reading of it, he’s trying to learn how to script a better Batman story, which is something I really appreciate in a mainstream writer. Even in the muddled Battle for the Cowl, which is given an almost impossible task, there’s a moment or two that work really well, like Daniel’s use of three Batmen. Tim Drake wears the bright blue we associate with Neal Adams or even Adam West, the lighter Caped Crusader; Jason Todd wears an outfit seemingly designed to remind readers of one of Morrison’s “three ghosts of Batman”; and Dick wears the traditional outfit – compromise between extreme light and extreme dark. It’s not poetry in motion, but it’s well-thought-out.

In fact, Battle for the Cowl is the weakest part of the run. I’d recommend any reader looking to follow Grant Morrison’s run moves directly from Batman R.I.P. to Batman & Robin. I don’t think Morrison handled the transition well (beginning Batman & Robin with Dick in the suit), but Battle for the Cowl has too many fundamental problems to ever work. Not only is it stuck introducing plot-points like the Black Mask’s attack on Gotham, but it also has to create drama from what everybody knows is an inevitability, while Daniel has to dance around another writer’s work. It feels strange to see Jason Todd used here, when he’d pop up only a few months later in Batman & Robin. While I think a lot of good stuff emerged from Batman R.I.P., I do feel the editorial direction was just a bit mangled – even Paul Dini struggled to find his feet on Streets of Gotham.

Behind the Mask…

In fairness, once Daniel takes over the main title, things get better. I am really fond of Life After Death, even though it has several significant flaws. In many ways, it feels like Daniel is writing a more traditional Batman story, as something complimentary to the more avant-garde work that we’re seeing in Batman & Robin and Batman Incorporated. This is very much a “Batman in a battle for Gotham City’s soul” sort of adventure, featuring any number of iconic and recognisable faces and references. The mind control drugs Daniel uses here are quite distinct from the “addiction you can catch” that we saw in Batman & Robin, while mobsters and goons in gas-masks make for more conventional foes than “Batman Zombie” and “The Circus of Strange.”

It feels, at times, like Daniel is consciously channelling Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight, which is quite a compliment. After all, Nolan’s movie is arguably among the best things to happen to the character, and one that has had a massive impact on mainstream culture. Ignoring such an iconic and recognisable piece of popular culture would be pointless – especially when comics need to engage more with the mainstream. So, as if offering a book you could hand to somebody coming out of the cinema, Daniel gives us scenes of the National Guard keeping the peace in Gotham, hints of “fed-up citizens playing dress-up hero” in support of Batman and the resurrection of the mob – with a name that will even sound familiar to fans of Batman Begins. It’s an example of how Daniel is trying to tie all these different ideas of Batman together, and I think that’s why I’m quite fond of his take.

A flock of Batmen…

In fact, Daniel seems to lean pretty heavily on all the early Batman stories, the key texts in what might be described as “the Batman canon.” His final arc, Lost Pieces, might as well be a direct continuation from Loeb and Sale’s The Long Halloween, with Gilda Dent returning to Gotham, Harvey dent facing off against the Falcone family and a general nostalgic vibe. I do like the way Daniel flirts with the open-ended nature of Loeb’s mystery. In a coy little piece of dialogue, the Riddler confesses to Gilda Dent, “But I owe you – even if I don’t recall every last detail of our previous arrangements.” In fairness, it might not just be the amnesia that left things sort of hazy – though this, plus Gilda proving quite handy with a gun, lends credence to the theory that Gilda was (at least one part of) the Holiday Killer. After all, surely the Riddler “owes” her for not killing him?

It helps that Daniel has a clear and recurring theme that anchors Life After Death and – to a lesser extent – Battle for the Cowl. It’s the idea of a Gotham City that is passing from one generation to the next. The Penguin and Two-Face, two of the more iconic and recognisable Batman foes, are driven from power by a new upstart. It’s all about legacy. Dick Grayson is following in the footsteps of his adoptive father, much like Mario Falcone has sacrificed his own life outside the family to assume the title held by his late father. Kitrina suggests that it would take some level of insanity for anybody to want to follow those role models, and she’s right. “You’re sick in the head, Mario!” she yells. “Everyone knows it!” Can Dick Grayson be that much better?

Somebody made a grave mistake…

Not only do we get the next generation of Batman and the mob, but we get the next generation of Black Mask, a villain opting to wear a mask left vacant by the death of its former owner. Again, insanity is discussed and suggested, with the host of the Mask convinced to give up his identity by the assurance that the Black Mask will bring “order to chaos.” (Much like Dick took the cowl in order to stop Gotham slipping into chaos.) More than that, there’s the construction of a new Arkham Asylum for a changing and shifting world. Hell, Daniel even dares to propose the “revitalization” of Crime Alley, suggesting a washing away of Batman’s birthplace. The Riddler even introduces his daughter.

For the most part it works, and Tony Daniel gives us a broader sense of the context of the transition from Bruce to Dick, suggesting that Gotham changes along with Batman.  I even like the idea that Dick is collecting his own “trophies” (although the Black Mask hardly measures up to a robotic dinosaur or a giant penny.) The idea’s not developed as well as Scott Snyder would handle it in The Black Mirror, and it’s significantly undermined by two huge flaws, but it’s a solid central idea.

Everything burns…

It’s also comfortable, Tony Daniel cushioning the rise of the new Gotham with familiar old clichés, like the inevitable supervillain team-up, the tried-and-true familiar gimmick of the mainstream superhero comic book, complete with the standard dialogue. “You should know,” Poison Ivy warns the Black Mask, “I follow no one.” Despite knowing a line like that must have been coming, the Black Mask can’t offer anything but a time-honoured response, “And look where that’s gotten you, Ivy.” The more things change, the more they stay the same.

There’s another really obvious “it only happens because it’s a Batman comic” moment that strains my disbelief, where the Penguin and Mad Hatter kidnap Batman and brainwash him into killing the Black Mask. Now, I know they think he’s going to die anyway, but – given their past history with Batman – why not take off the mask? It’s not as if the Penguin buys into the same “Batman is his true face” schtick that the Joker does, and it’s something that only barely works because it’s an old-school Batman storytelling device, despite how lazy it might seem.

Rain of terror?

In fact, Tony Daniel’s art reminds me of the (very) occasional comic book my parents would pick up for me in the nineties, so that’s probably why I am so fond of his style. A lot of people have made the criticism that Daniel’s artwork feels very static, but I’d argue it lends the book an almost stately feel. There are more experimental books out there, but this looks, to me, like a Batman book – or, at least, what I remember a Batman book looking like. Daniel’s art is genuinely impressive, and I think that a lot of his ideas work so well because he’s translating them to the page. I don’t think Daniel is anywhere near as strong a writer as he is an artist, but that’s a phenomenal bar to set for anyone. I think that, under Tony Daniel’s stewardship, Batman genuinely felt like a “classic” Batman title in a time of uncertainty – I think how responsive the reader is to that inherent conservatism will dictate how they respond to Daniel’s work.

That said, there are quite a few weaknesses which undermine some of the nicer ideas. On one level, it’s nice to see Daniel bring back all these old plot threads for his Batman epic, and I think he makes more sense of them than Morrison did with his own work on the title. (Now that’s gonna be a controversial observation!) However, Daniel’s appeals to continuity lack the nuance of Morrison’s, which makes stuff like the Reaper seem gratuitous. More than that, I’m not convinced that we needed a “Catgirl” to stand as a “next generation” Catwoman, particularly as another branch on the already-convoluted Falcone family tree. It doesn’t help that Kitrina is never really properly characterised, instead getting into and out of impossible situations and refusing to resolve her plot thread. She feels like a concept, not a character, and one who eats a disproportionate amount of page-time. (It doesn’t help that Daniel gives her “total radical” dialogue like “I had this under control, Bat-Dorks!”)

Don’t fear the Reaper…

The other major problem with Daniel’s run is the way he handles the Riddler. The Riddler is a tough cookie for any writer to deal with – he’s essentially a character coasting on the appeal of a portrayal by Frank Gorshwin nearly fifty years ago. There comes a time when that just isn’t enough. Paul Dini made a bold attempt to reimagine the character in his Detective Comics run, which at least offered an interesting story idea or two. However, Daniel reverted this characterisation, turning the Riddler back into a cackling super-villain. Truth be told, I understand that comics are an inherently static medium, but what bothers me about all this is that Daniel seems to have no idea what to do with the Riddler. I don’t blame him, but it seems pointless to bring the Riddler into your on-going narrative when you have no idea what to do with him.

Perhaps it’s because the Riddler arc isn’t handled by Daniel on art chores, or perhaps it’s because the story is a rushed two-part magic-mystery-noir adventure involving people-turning-into-trees, but it never feels like this is an iconic or important Riddler story. If it wasn’t for the wonderful cover with the Riddler infected with Joker toxin, or the sheer absurdity of the tree thing (which seems infinitely more ridiculous than the magic that’s at the core of The Eye of the Beholder arc), I’d have forgotten it already. Daniel has enough other elements at play in the book, and the Riddler requires so much time for Daniel to work with, that it feels more than a little bit pointless to shoehorn it on top of this – especially when you’re trying to regress the character in an era that’s all about moving forward and trying new things.

Riddle me this…

These are very serious complaints, and they do hold the run back from becoming a personal favourite. But Tony Daniel is making a genuine effort, and he does score some wonderful character moments. I think he drafted my favourite “Dick being accepted as Batman” moment when Gordon has to remind the new Caped Crusader, “Batman doesn’t need to ask my permission.” Even in the midst of Battle for the Cowl, we get a nice posthumous moment between Bruce and Jason Todd, when Bruce suggests, “You were broken and I thought I could put the pieces back together. I thought I could do for you what could never be done for me. Make you whole.” It reflects the suggestion that Jason was far too much like Bruce for their partnership to have worked, with Bruce’s darkness only amplifying the sinister impulses in the child. Jason has been reduced to a shallow two-dimensional villain (and the rest of the miniseries doesn’t help), but that line sums up the potential depth of the character.

I also admire the honesty of Life After Death. as it was coming out, a lot of people criticised it for being too obvious – the identity of the Black Mask was easy enough to work out if you were paying attention. I respect Tony Daniel for building a “fair play” mystery, where the suspects are introduced and the evidence is suggested, without resorting to a cheap cop-out like “it’s Jason!” or “it’s the Joker!” People would have complained had the solution come out of nowhere, and I think this approach took more skill.

Cat me if you can…

More than that, though, Daniel has a good eye for a Batman story. While there are some flaws with the execution, the idea of Two-Face losing his coin is an interesting hook for a Harvey Dent story, and it’s fascinating to see Batman mess with some Oriental mysticism. I don’t think Daniel has produced a “classic” or even a “very good” story, but they are solid. Part of the problem is the little elements that Daniel uses to tie it all together – he relies on some cheesy unspoken plot contrivances to get Harvey out of his grave, just as it seems strange (and kinda pointless) to tie Lucius to ancient conspiracy around a powerful mystical artifact. These are just a little bit cliché, and they do undermine the rather interesting premises that Daniel uses to tell his stories.

Still, despite this, I have a fondness for Tony Daniel’s Batman. It’s not amazing, and it’s not as good as some of the Batman stories being published at the same time (Batman & Robin, The Return of Bruce Wayne, The Black Mirror), but it’s perhaps the most “classic” in style and execution. there’s nothing wrong with that, and there’s a sense that Daniel is keen to learn his new trade, and has studied under a very impressive master. There’s a lot of potential here, helped by some truly great artwork. It’s an enjoyable Batman adventure, even if it’s not quite an iconic or especially fantastic one.

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