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Wednesday Comics: Batman

Earlier this week I reviewed Wednesday Comics, a rather spanking anthology from DC Comics. I kinda figured, however, it might be worth my while to break out some of those fifteen stories on their own (but not all of them) and discuss them, as it’s easy to lose sight of a particular writer/artist’s work in an anthology. And I thought that the opening strip deserved a bit of discussion, as it’s perhaps come under a bit of fire for a lot of flaws that are present through a lot of the stories collected.

Batman is the story arc which opens Wednesday Comics. Indeed, it was the story which would find itself peering out at the reader week-on-week. Perhaps it was unfortunate that Brian Azzarello’s take on the Caped Crusader went first, because it’s typically drawn a lot of criticism that the stories told failed to take advantage of the format. A lot of the criticism of the story can also be directed at a lot of the subsequence serials, but the Dark Knight draws the brunt of the negativity. Which is a shame, because – despite its conventional nature – Azzarello and artist Eduardo Risso offer a pretty effective snapshot of the Caped Crusader.

Go with a bang...

In many ways, Batman offers examples of the kind of challenges which must have faced the creative teams working with the larger sheets serialised week-on-week. For example, twelve pages doesn’t really offer a lot of room for character, so Risso and Azzarello must settle on a very particular Batman archetype for their story. The pair worked together on the character before on the somewhat divisive Broken City and Azzarello wrote the superb Joker graphic novel, so noir seems to be the logical choice. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing – how impossible would have been to skim even the surface of Batman’s multi-faceted history? that would have taken some Garnt-Morrison-style ambition (and this comes from someone not in love with Morrison’s writings on the Bat). Indeed, the still recent The Dark Knight demonstrated that the public love noir Batman, so it seems the logical choice.

However, within that framework, Azzarello is heavily confined. Noir requires a lot of breathing room for atmosphere – a chance for the audience to soak up the surroundings – so twelve pages isn’t really a lot. And I like Risso’s designs for the pages. They aren’t brilliantly ingenious, but they get the job done and look impressive. However, the fact is that Azzarello barely has time to set up his noir archetypes – the femme fatale, the dead billionaire, the hired scumbag – before it’s time to close out the tale. His story is efficient, to use a double-edged compliment. There’s a series of events which must occur in order to get the plot where it needs to be, and those things… well, they unfold.

Batman faces a ticking clock...

There’s never really any surprise to the story – anyone who has ever seen or read a noir tale before will recognise the trappings and exactly where the story is going. The cliffhangers are there, and work relatively well. They hook the reader in more on a “gee whizz!” action sort of way rather than drawing a curiosity about the way the story is shaping up. Everything is done by the book.

Which isn’t really a problem – it might make an interesting (if not essential) run on a regular Batman title – but does leave the reader wondering what’s the point of telling this format in this particular way. This story feels like a regular Batman comic, just blown up on larger pages. Even read all together, there’s no real discernible difference in pacing or structure than if the reader had simply photocopied an existing Batman story on to large dimensions.

Even I eventually needed a break from all these puns...

And, in defense of the story, what’s wrong with that? If the entire point of the Wednesday Comics saga was to return the old-fashioned entertaining pulpy format, then this is really a success. Perhaps we misjudged the ambition of the project and stories like The Flash and Metamorpho were never intended to be so ambitious. Perhaps these are just meant to be regular comics serialised and shipped one week at a time. And, to be frank, there’s a huge difference between a conventional story that’s well written (like this) and one which is poorly conceived from the get-go (the Superman strip).

The strip is fairly well put together on its own terms. I absolutely adore that first page as a composition, with the eyes open wide, the bat signal and the clock sitting between Batman and Gordon, ticking silently. Indeed, the ending of the first strip is dynamite, suggesting a conventional Batman story as Gordon turns to the vigilante for help, but then it takes a sharp left twist. The first page is genuinely mesmerising, and I can only imagine how impressive this strip worked as the front page of the newspaper-style publication week-to-week.

It's hardly an eye-opener...

Azzarello is familiar with Batman and his world. His version of the character isn’t necessarily lighter, but is probably more accustomed to his setting than some of the others. Batman isn’t exactly sprouting Chandler-esque one-liners (that would feel odd), but he certainly has a more organic wit about him than usual. And most of the small, interpersonal exchanges work. The opening observation from Gordon that everytime he turns the bat signal on, “it’s like I’m signaling failure” is a powerful one which quietly says a lot about the relationship between police office and vigilante. His dialogue mostly reads like noir, having that practiced ease. It’s a style that works with the lead character, and adds a pulpy feel to the narrative – but it doesn’t necessarily lend the strip much depth.

I have to say, I respect the decision by Azzarello to steer clear of the conventional Batman villains. It might have been nice to see the Joker, sure, but there are enough supervillains contained within (and Batman is one of the few strips not to feature talking monkeys). It’s the anthology’s answer to Sam Spade or any number of cliché private detective strip, much as Strange Adventures is a nod of the head to early pulp sci-fi and Kamandi is a hymn to the Tarzan-style adventures of yore. Batman is probably the only chance to do noir in the anthology, and perhaps it was a conscious choice to serve it up straight, rather than with any of the more conscious trappings and explorations of other stories collected.

Forget kiss of the Spider-Woman, we have kiss of the Bat-Man...

In the end, Batman isn’t a failure. It’s an entertaining enough read featuring its lead in a familiar situation. However, it’s no great success, either. It isn’t essential Batman, nor is it an effective attempt to boil the character down. It doesn’t do anything innovative with its story or with its style. It’s paint-by-numbers, which has its appeal in the hands of particularly skilled artists. However, it is prone to leave you pondering if that’s all.

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