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 going to be entirely honest. I’m not completely sure what to make of Doug Moench and Kelley Jones’ Batman: Vampire trilogy. A collection of three Elseworlds stories, all following a Batman who confronted Dracula early in his career, they initially seem like grim and dark comics from the nihilistic nineties. There’s a lot of violence, a lot of cynicism, and a lot of gore. As with a lot of Batman written around that time (and arguably beyond), The Dark Knight Returns seems like a major influence, presenting a progressively darker and unhinged Dark Knight and an increasingly brutal war on Gotham’s crime. However, there were times, reading the trilogy, that I couldn’t help but read it as a sort of an implicit criticism of these sorts of excessively dark and edgy comics.
It is worth noting that, as well as this trilogy of Elseworlds Batman stories, Doug Moench and Kelley Jones also did a lot of work on the regular in-continuity Batman books. Moench in particular served as a writer for the Dark Knight during the eighties and nineties, working on pivotal Batman stories like Knightfall. Perhaps Moench’s most influential story is Prey, a story set in the aftermath of Frank Miller’s Batman: Year One, which reads as an affectionate criticism of the direction Miller’s writing forced the character. Even divorced from that context, Batman: Vampire seems like an especially dark and brutal Batman story, but not one written without a great deal of thought and consideration.
Kelley Jones also helped define the look of the character during the nineties, adopting something close to a more gothic and monstrous style for the Caped Crusader. His ridiculously extended “bat ears” are the subject of occasional mockery, but I’m remarkably fond of Jones’ heavily stylised Dark Knight. I think that Jones pushes Batman and his supporting cast into the realm of otherworldly horror, as if trapped in a more grotesque version of Tim Burton’s Batman. I’ve always liked that sort of style, to be honest, and his work here is stunning. It’s strongest in the first instalment (Red Rain), but his work throughout is consistent and impressive.
It goes almost without saying that I would devour a collection of Moench and Kelly Batman stories, similar to the collections featuring Jim Aparo and Bob Haney, or Marshall Rogers and Steve Englehart. In fact, I can’t help but feel like the nineties has been somewhat overlooked for nice collected editions. In particular, I’d love a collection of Norm Breyfogle and Alan Grant’s nineties work. Still, I’m getting a bit off the beaten path. I’m not here to talk about Batman in the nineties, as much as that feels like it’s the subject matter of the trilogy collected here. I’m supposed to talk about Batman: Vampire.
I’ve always thought that DC undervalued its Elseworlds line. I think that Red Son is perhaps the greatest single Superman story ever told, although I am dying for a hardcover collection of Last Family of Krypton or the Flashpoint collections. A lot of fans tend to dismiss stories that take place outside of continuity or the established mainstream books as being “unimportant”, as if they don’t matter because the events didn’t unfold within the “real”life of this fictional character. I’ve always found them a bit more interesting, because the constraints of monthly publishing are lifted.
For one thing, you’re allowed to have an ending. On-going serialised narratives like comic books don’t get to have endings, and I feel that this diminishes them. I suspect that’s part of the reason that “last ever” stories tend to be considered classics – stories like Alan Moore’s Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow? or All-Star Superman or even The Dark Knight Returns. They afford fans a sense of closure that most comics don’t have. That’s why I tend to favour runs with decisive conclusions, even if they’re part of an on-going series. Morrison’s New X-Men could have been the last X-Men story ever, for example. Arguably the same is true is Joss Whedon’s Astonishing X-Men.
Even on a more practical level, you don’t have to worry about damaging the franchise. There is no mandate to leave all your characters alive, for example – a simple tool that increases suspense. More relevant to the matter at hand, though, is the fact that authors are given free rein to push a concept until it breaks. Writers can’t ever really explore the limits of these types of stories in on-going comic books – because you can’t push Batman beyond a certain point without breaking the book.
Modern Batman can’t have a truly psychotic breakdown, or make a truly massive error in judgment without undermining the franchise. For example, if an author wanted to deconstruct Batman’s brutal interrogation techniques, they can’t kill a crook during Batman’s examination, because that would make him a murderer. Similarly, Bruce could never go two far and cripple a henchman for life, because that would establish him as reckless and undermine his credibility. No subsequent author could really pull the character back from those points.
This is relevent here, because I think Moench and Jones make a point to push Batman beyond what his on-going series could recover from. Bruce Wayne was especially dark during the nineties, but here he seems almost fatalistic and depressed. “The world is dying out there,” he idly muses, “dying in darkness…” This is a version of Bruce Wayne who forsakes his humanity completely. Of course, within the narrative he becomes a vampire, but Moench and Jones seem to be making a somewhat more brutal criticism of the trends in comics at the time.
This is a Batman who forsakes being Bruce. In many ways, this seems like the half-way point between Miller’s Dark Knight Returns and Batman R.I.P., both of which explore the concept of Batman without the tempering influence of Bruce. It isn’t necessarily the healthiest construct. It’s no coincidence that Moench and Jones echo a moment from The Dark Knight Returns towards the end of Red Rain, as Bruce willingly destroys Wayne Manor. Or another later moment where the Joker firmly escalates the conflict with Batman by killing Catwoman.
Indeed, the last page of Red Rain presents a grotesques Batman reaching out toward Alfred. “Bruce Wayne may be gone… but the Batman will go on…” Batman seems content with this status quo, but both the reader and Alfred are invited to see it as grotesque. Towards the end of the third book, Crimson Mist, Batman has become nothing but a frail skeleton inside the familiar cape and cowl – the Batman iconography remains, but the work is withered and weakened. Being a vampire, it’s because of lack of blood – but Moench and Jones seem to be portraying a Batman who has sacrificed Bruce Wayne in order to further his own grim quest.
The Gotham of Batman: Vampire is a place of grim horror. We open on the murder of a prostitute in an alleyway, designed to evoke the old penny dreadfuls, the urban mythology that built up around the murders of Jack the Ripper. Moench presents a system whereby vampires have thrived for centuries feeding on the poor and disenfranchised. There are hints that Moench’s Batman is a good man, socially aware and astute enough to notice a disturbing truth that the politicians are quick to ignore.
As Batman looks out over the graves of the homeless in Potter’s Field, he muses, “Free dirt, for the poor. But had they tried to claim it while living, they would have been arrested as thieves and trespassers.” This seems like an especially cynical Batman, who has already grown disillusioned with the system that he has sworn to protect. The horror of Batman: Vampire has nothing to do with the vampires, but more to do with the darkness in the rest of the world.
Batman: Vampire seems to unfold early enough in this version of Batman’s history. He has, after all, yet to encounter Selina Kyle, while the Scarecrow is still relatively new. It’s telling that the tragedy of Harvey Dent remains intact, as it remains perhaps Batman’s greatest failure. All the villains seen here seem darker and edgier than usual. The Riddler, due to his usually camp nature, is a handy barometer for such changes.
Here he’s presented grim and gritty, with question-mark stitching across his body, no longer the harmless prankster of the sixties television show, but a cold-blooded murder. “Your riddles are no different,” Batman observes. “But you’ve graduated from robbery and extortion to drugs and murder — and, as a result, Cassandra Knight will never graduate.” Moench and Jones present the ultimate in nineties nihilism – a darker and edgier version of Batman’s already dark and edgy foes.
Batman: Vampire pushes the idea to its logical conclusion. Confronted with these greater evils, a more cynical Batman is pushed too far. The Batman saga ends the only way it could ever end, in a bloody and brutal “purge” – “the bloodbath in arkham asylum.” Even Dr. Arkham seems to note the finality of all this, as he observes, “And the final page… writ in red.” It seems like Moench is making the case that if you do push comic books too far into cynicism and nihilism, you wind up killing them, destroying what makes them fun. After all, the sort of murder and mayhem here makes the grim “kill ‘em all” ending seem inevitable.
Indeed, the plague of vampires isn’t even caused by some sinister conspiracy from Dracula himself. It’s more the bitter nihilism of human society that has affected the ages-old Vampire. Feeding off “juice-spiked blood”, among other concerns about the health of modern human blood, it’s no surprise that the prince of darkness might have gone a little around the bend. Dracula notes, “That which affects the prey eventually reaches the predator. And your blood, Gordon — the blood of all humans in this modern world — is slowly driving me mad… just as mad, I’m afraid, as your human society has become.” The vampires aren’t attacking human society, they are merely reacting to it.
There are times when Batman: Vampire seems excessively bleak, particularly on its meditations regarding faith and the afterlife. Both Bruce and Dracula seem to deny the existence of any better world after this one. “True death is nothing but darkness, a void of cold blackness,” Dracula tells us. This observation is later confirmed by Bruce, as he narrates his own undeath. “No way to know, no time here, nothing but blackness…” There is only nothingness. It seems like the characters trapped inside Moench’s alternative Gotham are doomed to a life of pain and suffering… before eternal emptiness.
Sometimes Moench’s purple prose can get the better of him, to be fair. After fending Dracula off with a cross marked in blood, Batman muses, “He glares at the precious blood, shaped into exquisite pain.” Later on, Batman is accused of being “a filthy blood-junkie.” At one point, Batman even declares, “My heart now pulses to the beat of evil, you fool!” Apparently Batman traded his humanity for a guide to camp villainy.
It’s moments like this that suggest Moench and Jones aren’t playing these dark and cynical tropes entirely straight. Jones renders early vampire!Batman in the most absurd manner possible, with vampire wings somehow extending over his cape. Batman’s Bat-mobile is a decidedly old-fashioned model, as opposed to the “kewl” newer models that were in fashion at the time. There’s just the hint of absurd campness that suggests we aren’t supposed to take all this at face value.
I think it’s possible to construct an argument that Batman: Vampire makes an effort to push the bleakness of nineties Batman comics well past their logical extreme, in a conscious effort to convince readers that this is not what Batman should be. Just like Knightfall was about illustrating that Batman could weather nineties trends towards excessive brutality and violence, and easily fend off all potential challengers. Batman: Vampireunfolds in a world completely without hope, with a Batman who seems a little too bitter and cynical even before his physical transformation begins.
Much like in his rather superb Prey, Moench plays with the idea – developed by Miller – that Batman is not well, mentally speaking. It’s telling that Batman embraces the notion and idea of vampires relatively quickly, even quicker than the occult expert Arcane. Moench contrasts Bruce with Commissioner Gordon and Alfred. Gordon is cast as the rational human being, a role that suits him well.
After one encounter, Gordon remarks, “Almost enough to make you believe in… No. That way lies madness.” He rejects the notion that vampires could exist, even after encountering Dracula himself. “Still seems like some… bad dream,”he suggests. It’s clear that Gordon is too rational to make the leap Batman can make so readily – that Gordon is still firmly anchored, tethered to reality in a way that Bruce simply isn’t. I think that Moench respects the character of Gordon for this attribute, the idea that Gordon is probably the sanest man in Gotham and the most important character in Batman’s life.
When Tanya warns Bruce that Dracula has “taken” his “friend”, Moench does an interesting thing. Bruce immediately suspects that Alfred has been targeted, identifying the butler as the most important person in his life. In reality, when Dracula chooses to strike at Batman through a “friend”, it’s through Gordon. While Bruce might be closer to Alfred, Moench seems to suggest Gordon is more strategically important to Batman, even if Bruce can’t realise it. In fact, it’s possibly precisely because Bruce can’t realise it.
Indeed, Batman: Vampire paints a pretty unflattering portrait of Alfred, but not necessarily an unfair one. Alfred is an enabler, a man devoted to his master and in allowing his master to accomplish what he set out to do. He’s loyal and unquestioning. These might seem like virtues, but only if Batman’s moral righteousness can be assured. It is Alfred, after all, who resurrects the vampire Batman to prey on the criminals in Gotham, with little thought beyond loyalty to his master. “You f-fool,” the skeletal Batman mocks the faithful butler. “What will it take… for you to abandon me?”
In all this, I seem to treat the vampires as almost incidental. In a way, they seem to be. Moench is telling a story about how Batman could become a monster, and vampires seemed oddly appropriate. After all, he tangled with them early in his career. (In a story retold in Batman & The Mad Monk.) The overlap of the iconography – the bat imagery, the gothic imagery – just fits so perfectly that it doesn’t really matter that this sort of threat is far beyond what Batman normally confronts.
In fact, the use of the supernatural seems – like the somewhat camp batmobile and batwings – like a cheeky acknowledgement that comic books would do well not to take themselves too seriously. Fans might yell about how vampires break the suspension of disbelief. Of course, Batman is a character who dresses up in a suit and fights crime as a giant bat. Realism is relative, as long as you can anchor it in the story. “But by the way,” Arcane observes, rather pointedly to such cynics, “are you aware that to some people… you are not real?”
Batman: Vampire isn’t really a classic. Or, to be fair, I’m not sure I could make the argument that it is. However, it is a rather compelling read. I can’t help but suspect that, like Prey, it is something of a deconstruction of the grim!dark!Batman who dominated comics for quite a while following Frank Miller’s iconic work on the character. Kelley Jones’ artwork looks absolutely stunning and Moench is only occasionally overwhelmed by his ridiculously purple prose. It’s a surprisingly thoughtful collection, and well worth a read for any Batman enthusiasts out there.
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