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.
I’m a big fan of Paul Dini. He was perhaps the finest writer on staff for the superb Batman: The Animated Series and he wrote a superb run on Detective Comics (culminating in the rehabilitation of a modern villain in Heart of Hush). He’s one of few writers out there who genuinely has a firm grip on the characters that inhabit the world of Gotham. I was quite looking forward Streets of Gotham, the Batman title that Dini would be writing in wake of Batman R.I.P., promising a unique perspective on Gotham and its guardians. Unfortunately, the end result feels relatively slight, with the series never truly finding a comfortable niche, and bouncing around somewhat inconsistantly.
I don’t subscribe to the idea the every book needs to have a unique little niche in order to justify its existance. Batman sells, so it makes sense to produce a wide range of books featuring the Caped Crusader and the world he inhabits. While they tackle unique plots and have their own themes (and are worlds apart in terms of quality), it’s hard to argue that Tony Daniel’s Batman fills a void that Scott Snyder’s Detective Comics doesn’t. The problem with Streets of Gotham isn’t that it fails to offer something new, it’s that it can’t seem to decide what it’s offering.
The title of the book seems to suggest we’d be seeing something like the superb Gotham Central, a crime-and-punishment procedural looking at what life is like for those who live and work on the streets of the Dark Knight’s city. Dini doesn’t focus on cops, but the series seems to work best when it pulls back from the superheroes a bit, giving us the stories of those who are tangentially involved in Gotham’s biggest industry: crime. The Caped Crusader’s city has to count as one of the most well-explored fictional locations ever created, even if the specifics are liable to get lost from one issue to the next. It’s a compelling and haunted locale, and one that seems to have a life of its own. One could argue that Gotham has had as many lives and iterations as Batman himself, drawing from real-world locations to Art Deco to fascist gothic and beyond. No other comic book city can really compete with that.
Dini’s book is at its best when it’s exploring that rich tapestry, sketching the outline of a living and breathing Gotham, giving us a sense of the city’s rich cultural landscape. The best issues focus around the people who skuttle in the background, doing the sort of dirty work that logically must take place, but we never see. We’re introduced to the Broker (who fences properties for the novelty criminals) and the Carpenter (who fashions death traps for them). A new hero, looking for tools of the trade, seeks out somebody who “makes things”, discussing his subject like an urban myth, suggesting she’s “someone I’d heard about, someone I wasn’t sure even existed.” Streets of Gotham is fascinating when it takes these ideas and runs with them, giving us the idea of a city where super-crime is actually a grim little industry.
We get hints of the economic and political history of the city, which Dini uses as a means to address the question of how the hell Gotham has so many abandoned amusement parks and aquariums and other novelty venues. Being honest, once villains like the Joker appeared, I imagine the city would have done well to demolish any of those old derelict buildings along those themes. Dini seems to recognise that the sheer volume of such locations is a bit of a strange plot contrivance, and he does his best to offer an in-story explanation for so many freaky villain-ready locales.
“A hundred years ago they called it the Wonder City,” he explains. “Modern-day Vegas, Orlando, forget it. Nothing could touch Gotham in its heyday. In a city where the two major industries were manufacturing and crime, the people often needed something other than liquor to take their minds off their miseries.” As such, he offers a fairly fascinating and well-thought-out explanation for how a city like Gotham might actually have developed, somehow rationalising years of comic book plotting with a hint of logic. It kinda makes sense of how the Riddler can alway find an abandoned amusement park. “By the mid-fifties, Gotham boasted no less than three zoos, five amusement parks and I don’t know how many wax museums and reptile farms.” Once Dini explains how these locations were built, it’s simple to explain how they became abandoned – Gotham was hit by a recession after all.
There’s a strong sense of history to be found in the pages of Streets of Gotham, as Thomas Elliot reopens the Monarch Playing Card company, which has played a large role in the franchise’s long history. “Through the years,” we’re informed, “this facility has been home to the Monarch Playing Card Company, the Ace Chemical Plant and, varying accounts claim, was also the birthplace of the notorious Joker.” We also see the refurbishment of the Monarch Theatre, where Thomas and Martha Wayne were gunned down by Joe Chill years ago. There’s a sense that Gotham is eating itself, that these old locations are being renewed and recycled, as if Gotham’s length and breadth has expanded as far is it can, and we need to dig deeper into it.
The problem is that this isn’t really a consistent thematic point for Dini. It’s brought up, and the author flirts with it, only to push it away for another few issues. Part of the problem is that Dini was unable to contribute to all twenty-one issues of the series (with several fill-in writers used, and the back-up feature taking increasing space), but it’s also a problem with the issues that Dini did write. the series isn’t sure what exactly it wants to be: is it another anthology featuring stories starring Batman and Robin? is it a view of Batman as he’s seen by those who live and work on the street? is it an exploration of the social history of Gotham? is it a collection of vignettes featuring little-known villains like Zsasz and Firefly?
It’s all these things and more, but seldom from one issue to the next, which makes it a massively frustrating read. It doesn’t help that the book feels the need to tie into the new Batman status quo just as its finding its feet, with the Black Mask and his cronies popping up during a crime wave with little context or explanation – simply building off Tony Daniel’s run on Batman. Such things don’t really work well, especially for a series that is wrestling with any number of distinct identities. It’s a showcase for Dini’s new hero, “Abuse”, which feels like an attempt to shoe-horn in another hero into Batman’s already expansive cast, but it also gives us an arc focusing on Damian Wayne and then one wrapping up the Thomas Elliot plotline that’s been dangling since Heart of Hush.
The problem is that we’re left with a series that feels more like a collection of individual elements than an adventure in its own right. That’s not to say that these components aren’t smart or well-written, but that they feel somewhat awkwardly assembled. Even within The House of Hush, Dini’s follow-up to his acclaimed Heart of Hush, the flashback story exploring the history of Gotham doesn’t tie together too well with the plot currently unfolding. One can spot the elements at play – Dini’s attempt, for example, to craft his own Joker origin – but they never seem to coalesce into an organic plot-line. We can see how these moments fit together, but there’s no sense of flow to it.
It’s a shame, because Dini really is a great Batman writer. He gets Batman and his villains in a way that few writers do. Batman is a comic book character who has one of the deepest and most complex selection of foes in comic book history – to the point where my parents can rhyme of Batman bad guys – but they aren’t always the easiest group to write. Dini cut his teeth on the Animated Series writing for the most popular, so it’s interesting to see him explore some of the low-tier and more recent creations, the types of character who will never see the light of day on animated television.
It’s telling, for example, how many members of Dini’s cast can trace their roots back to Sam Keith’s celebrated Arkham Asylum: Hell on Earth miniseries, which gave us a variety of new characters that never really took off. Here, Dini borrows Jane Doe, Humpty Dumpty and the Great White Shark, giving each a fairly significant role in events. He also writes the pyromaniac Firefly (who, though he appeared on the show, was hardly child-friendly) and the serial killer Victor Zsasz. Dini writes each of these characters with practiced ease.
In particular, I think Victor Zsasz is a member of Batman’s foes that never really got a chance to shine after Alan Grant left the title in the nineties. He’s a particularly strange super-villain, in that he’s essentially just a psychotic serial killer, but he arguably feels right at home among Batman’s foes. Dini seems to understand the character, as we’re treated to disturbing glimpses into how he sees the world. Asked if he ever wanted to do anything “big”, Zsasz replies, “I like to hurt people.” I also like the idea, suggested by Dini, that Zsasz is saving his own throat as “the last hatch mark” he uses to keep score, with the cut he’d use to end his own life adding one more to his total.
It goes without saying that Dini writes a very good Thomas Elliot. While Jeph Loeb’s Hush was big on spectacle, it hardly granted Batman’s newest foe a lot of personality, and I think Dini deserves a lot of credit for rehabilitating the character and turning him from a one-note gimmick character established as an excuse to bring Batman’s foes together so Jim Lee could draw them into a credible threat with his own pathology and methodology. Dini writes a wonderfully dark and cynical inner monologue for Hush, and I wouldn’t mind if Elliot served as the series’ focal point – but instead he’s absent for most of the middle of the run, despite playing a large part at the beginning and the end.
Which brings us, I suppose, to Paul Dini’s take on the Joker. The character only appears in flashback throughout the adventure, but it’s fascinating to consider Dini’s unique take on the character, which seems like a rather firm rejection of Grant Morrison’s “the clown at midnight.” Morrison writes the Joker as a character constantly revising himself, reinventing his personality every so often, as a means of explaining countless radically different portrayals of the villain. To Morrison, there is no single definitive Joker, he’s a character who can be whatever the author needs him to be.
Dini seems to reject this idea out of hand, dismissing the idea that Joker is a raving lunatic, instead suggesting he’s a highly organised psychopath. In many ways, Dini’s view of the character seems to fit with that presented by Ed Brubaker in The Man Who Laughs, a character who holds on to the life he had before he changed, extracting a cold and bitter vengeance for wrongs made against his previous persona. Dini does tackle the issue of the Joker’s ever-changing personas, suggesting the Joker wasn’t so much reinventing himself time-and-again, but finding his feet. “First rumours made him out to be some kind of playful clown, more of a flaky performance artist than a crook,” one goon suggests. “It was like he was still working out the kinks in his act.”
In what little we see of him, the Joker seems more like Mark Hamill’s crazy mobster than Grant Morrison’s fourth-wall-breaking monster clown. There are several moments where you can almost hear Hamill’s voice. “But you know what they say, ‘Dead men tell no tales,’” he warns one captive, only to reconsider, rationally. “Hm. Which doesn’t help a man trying to build a reputation in this town.”We even catch glimpses of an origin for the character, as a sexually abused orphan – one which set shim up as a fitting counterpoint to Bruce. Truth be told, I’m not mad about the idea of an origin for the character, especially not one that provides a motivation for anything he does after the transformation, but it’s ambiguous enough that it doesn’t intrude too much – it just feels like a strange plot element to include.
We also get a few glimpses of Dini writing Bruce Wayne, which is always fun – it always sounds like Kevin Conroy, who is my own favourite Batman. In the relatively limited insights we get into Bruce, we see that Dini has it all figured out. I do love the hint of responsibility that Bruce clearly feels for those around him, feeling obligated to scope out new bad guys rather than letting his allies go in blind. “Still, with the appearance of each new self-styled villain,” he muses, “I need to get a sense of the creeps myself before sending the others after them.” There’s also the small fact that Bruce enjoys this. “And besides, I’d be a liar if I said I hadn’t missed this.”
Grant Morrison gets a lot of credit for reinventing the “fun” Bruce Wayne after over a decade of the grim near-psychotic loner we got after The Dark Knight Returns – with the returnof Silver Age touches in the wake of Infinite Crisis. Still, I think Dini actually gets the character pitch perfect. There’s that underlying seriousness, but there’s also a hint of an inner child behind this as well. I love the moment where Bruce whips out his phone to take a picture of a sleeping Penguin as he sleep-loots. “Heh,” he monologues. “One for the trophy room.”
Dini doesn’t do quite as well with Damian Wayne, although he does do better than most. Bruce’s spoilt brat of a son can be a difficult character to write, because he’s only ten years old and yet a deadly assassin, but Dini does quite well… in general. There are some nice moments that indicate the writer has honed in on Damian’s underlying insecurity, like a scene where he mocks the meagre Christmas gifts that Dick used to receive from Bruce. “You get better stuff if you’re a real son,” he advises Dick, trying to assert his worthness by virtue of his bloodline, playing into his insecurities. There are also some interesting thoughts as Damian faces Zsasz, wondering, “How could my father allow a creature like Zsasz to live?! Was it weakness that always stayed his hand, or guilt?”
However, Dini seems to have difficulty writing Damian interacting with his own creation, the new hero “Abuse.”The character of Damian doesn’t lend himself to public displays of affection, and certainly not respect. Dini attempts to rationalise this (at least internally) as an attempt to win a new ally, but it doesn’t wring true. After all, Abuse is arguably just another rival for his father’s affection, like any costumed hero in Gotham – especially a younger one. While he’s not an adopted son like Tim Drake, Damian has to know that the kid harbours fantasies of working with Batman, and it seems out of character for Damian to support and embrace him like that.
Dustin Nguyen continues to be a personal favourite artist of mine, and I love his Batman work. His murky style suits the Caped Crusader’s world perfectly, seeming almost expressionist. It helps that he’s actually better at keeping a monthly schedule than his writer is. Part of me wonders if my fondness for the partnership of Nguyen and Dini is because it creates a comic book that looks like the Animated Series that I grew up with.
In conclusion, Dini and Nguyen continue to make a great team, but Streets of Gotham is hampered by the fact that it niever really figures out what it wants to be. It’s a lot of things, but it never really manages to make anything truly memorable of them.
Filed under: Comics Tagged: | batman, Batman: Streets of Gotham, batman: the animated series, dc comics, detective comics, Dini, Dustin Nguyen, gotham, gotham central, House of Hush, Joe Chill, joker, Martha Wayne, paul dini, Streets of Gotham, The House of Hush