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Batman/Planetary: Night on Earth (Review)

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.

Warren Ellis gets Batman. He gets all of Batman. he gets the Caped Crusader, the Dark Knight, the Knight of Vengeance, the Bat-Man and more. He understands that the various pop culture iterations of the character, from Bob Kane’s gun-totting vigilante to Adam West’s “peace officer” to Frank Miller’s one-man army, are all just different facets of the same idea, reflected differently in various takes on the character. It’s hard to reconcile all of these different interpretations – in fact, I’d argue that Grant Morrison’s Batman run suffered for making the attempt – but Ellis does it with remarkable style, without every seeming like he’s cramming too much in or leaving too much out.

I am Batman. All of them.

Batman/Planetary: Night on Earth is almost a celebration of the DC Universe, as written by Ellis – an author who is renowned for working best on his own properties with absolute freedom. Indeed, some commentators might describe Ellis as a bit of a cynic, but I think that’s quite unfair. I don’t dare to rush to the other extreme and describe him as  a romantic, or anything, but there can be a lot of warmth in his work – even for the concepts one might least expect. You could make the case that his superb Planetary is the story of how superheroes effective stagnated comic books, following the emergence of the Fantastic Four in 1961. However, despite his rather accurate and valid criticisms (tempered as observations), you can detect a certain respect and appreciation for the work of Marvel and DC in his work.

Here, for example, he celebrates Crisis on Infinite Earths, conceding that the DC multiverse quite resembles the snow-flake-shaped multiverse that his team patrol. The difference, of course, was that DC first limited the scale of their multiverse (to a single universe in the wake of Crisis on Infinite Earths and to 52 in the wake of Infinite Crisis), while Ellis acknowledges that the whole wonder of a multiverse is lost if it’s rendered finite. The whole story reflects on interactions between alternate universes, which Snow himself points out somewhat reflects what happened the year that Crisis on Infinite Earths was published. “What happened in 1986?” Jakita asked. “Partial multiversal collapse,” Snow explains. “Several universes got folded into one — multiple Earths occupying the same space.” Notice that, unlike DC’s version of events, it’s only “several” universes, not “all” universes. I’ll discuss my thoughts on Crisis on Infinite Earths at a more appropriate time, but – while continuity might have needed to be streamlined – it seemed crazy for DC to wipe out the nexus of infinite possibilities the multiverse represented.

Birth of a legend…

Despite the fact that the story is relatively short, Ellis still manages to cover quite a lot of ground related to Batman before directly engaging the character. I especially like Snow’s observations about Gotham. “Old as New York, founded on the East Coast and originally designed by English masons on opium… Exacerbated by absinthe-fiend local architects in the twenties, basically not suitable for human habitation…” That really sort of sums it up, doesn’t it? After all, it’s a city that actually has a locale that is universally referred to, if not actually named as, “crime alley.” It would take  mad person to dream up a city like the hell hole that Gotham is today, a far cry from the city as portrayed in the old days, when Snow would ride into town with the “Challengers of the Uncanny.”

Even the relatively small character work he can do on recognisable faces that aren’t Batman is appreciated. Dick Grayson, the first Robin, shows up, as does Jasper, who has a remarkable resemblance to a certain monster clown. I do like the idea that, in a world where Batman didn’t exist, Dick Grayson and the man-who-would-be-Joker would get along. After all, Dick is a circus person, and the Joker is a clown. That was one of the reasons that the dynamic worked so well in Morrison’s Batman & Robin, and it’s nice to see it sort of suggested here, in a small cameo from the pair that does offer a wonderful bit of commentary.

Spare the Kane, spoil the child…

And then we reach Batman himself. All of him. Shifting through the multiverse in pursuit of a killer, the Planetary team are confronted with a seemingly endless parade of Batmen, each modelled on a very distinctive iteration of the hero, and each instantly recognisable. It’s to the credit of Ellis and Cassaday that they can get so much into so little space. We barely have a moment with each version of the hero, and Ellis is able to pretty much give us the core of that iteration in a matter of panels.

There’s the charm of the Adam West Batman, who offers concerned advice like, “Stand aside, citizen. There’s a miscreant on the loose in Gotham City.” He’s a gentleman in a bodystocking, who refuses to punch a girl, instead offering his “Bat-apologies” as he sprays her in the face with “Bat-Female-Villain-Repellent.” He might be cynically described as “some kind of weird transvestite hooker”, but there’s a sense of affection in the portrayal – one that never seems more vicious or aggressive than the television series itself ever was. There’s no way that West and Ward weren’t aware of the camp subtext, and hamming it up, so the sight of a brightly coloured Batman who doesn’t want to play with girls is the sixties show captured perfectly.

Holy 60s homage, Batman!

It’s a shame Ellis’ Batmen don’t interact, because I would have loved to have seen him interact with “Miller Batman”, complete with Bat-tank. I think that would make for the perfect buddy cop dynamic, light and dark. this Batman doesn’t so much give concerned advice as thinly-veiled threats. “I am very busy tonight,” he states. “You are costing me valuable time. And protecting a lunatic.” As Jakita approaches from behind, he makes the situation clear, “From this position, there are nine different ways to take you down. Six of them kill you outright.” Cassaday even introduces the character in a very “Frank Miller” pose.

Then there’s the Denny O’Neil version of the character, who actually seems kinda balanced. Sure, he puns a bit, advising a crook to “look both ways before crossing the street”, but he’s also effective and not-to-be-messed with. He’s fun, but still a bit grim. It’s this version of Batman that really makes explicit the core of the character, asking a very revealing question about the criminal he has chased. “What happened to his parents?” It’s telling that this comes from the O’Neil version of Batman which really got overshadowed with the release of The Dark Knight Returns, and did a great deal to make Batman a more serious character after the Adam West show.

It’s Miller time!

For bonus points, Ellis even throws in the forties Bob Kane Batman, complete with big pointy ears… oh, and with a gun. It’s amazing how much one character can shift, isn’t it? Imagine coming into this without any knowledge of Batman, and being told that each and every one of them was Batman. It’s genuinely impressive to think about. And through all that, the motivation remains the same, even if the methods and the attitude and all the other details are prone to shift. “Crime doesn’t pay. Crime mustn’t pay.”

It’s telling that, in every iteration, Batman is a little boy who lost his parents, in every shift into the multiverse. The story bleeds through the architecture of Gotham, feeding into the Drummer. In fact, the character’s history is so connected with tragedy that I am inclined to believe that the Bruce Wayne of the Planetary Universe was more likely to have been killed with his parents than to have lived a happy and well-adjusted life. But we’ll never know. Ellis hits on the heart of the character, his goals and his beliefs – suggesting that all his actions are intended to “stop the world from making more people like us.”

Shadow of the Bat…

Given how easy it would be to adopt a cynical approach to Batman’s fantasies, Ellis is remarkably sensitive to the character. You could make the case that Batman is psychologically broken, trapped in a pattern of acting out revenge fantasies and unable to escape the past – and perhaps he is. However, Ellis shows a genuine affection for the character, painting him as a tragic and sensitive hero, forever linked with one of those eternal childhood fears – the loss of a loved one we are unable to prevent.

Truth be told, this should have been included in the Absolute Editions, but I won’t complain. The deluxe hardcover comes with the script, and that does help take the sting out of an inflated price for what amounts to a one-shot comic book. However, it’s a great story, and one that rewards long-term fans of the character. It might seem a bit rushed and jumbled to a new comer, but any reader with an interest in the various media portrayals of Batman can’t go far wrong.

Read our reviews of Warren Ellis’ Planetary:

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