In 2009, Chris Claremont began the odd alternate timeline series in the Marvel Universe called X-Men Forever. The series picks up from Claremont's 1991 X-Men run, and presents the timeline as he would have written it, had he not jumped ship to Image comics. While it's completely ridiculous, it's a focused examination of the X-Men by one of the series's premiere writers. Batman Confidential is a DC series that focuses on stories from early on in Batman's career. It's written by several long-time DC writers like Peter Milligan, Sam Kieth, and Royal McGraw. I included one of the story arcs, Lovers and Madmen in a previous entry, but Rules Of Engagement helped clinch my decision to not include any more of the Batman Confidential series as part of this project. If something contradicts the chronology it needs to be at least fun, and this series seems more an exercise in frustration.
Rules Of Engagement is about Bruce Wayne/Batman's first encounter with Superman's nemesis, Lex Luthor. The plot outline: Lex Luthor sets up WayneTech to look dangerously inept in front of a group of defense contractors, all in the name of world domination! The evil, hand rubbing, mwa-ha-ha-ing bald guy attempts to take over the world because he doesn't like superheroes. Batman, of course, takes him down in the end. While the story is fun, the dialog is...questionable, and Whilce Portacio 's art is trapped forever in 1991. This was the first book that I had to struggle to finish.
Story: 2/5, Art: 2/5
If Nancy Reagan was as devout a Batman reader as Barack Obama is a Spider-Man fan, her favorite collection would probably be Venom. It's the first time in continuity that we encounter the designer drug, Venom, a pill (and later inoculant) that shows up repeatedly in Gotham.
After failing to save a little girl from drowning in the sewer (a girl who's father happens to be the creator of Venom), and then tearing a deltoid muscle during a workout, Batman gives into temptation and begins taking Venom to bulk himself.
It's not long before the now super-strong Batman has his senses dulled and starts making dubious decisions. He goes so far as to drive Alfred away, and is then asked to kill Jim Gordon. The conversation around taking Gordon down has one of my favorite continuity nerd jokes when Batman refers to Gordon as "Lieutenant or Captain or whatever he is".
Spoiler alert : Batman doesn't kill Gordon. But every character introduced in this story dies by the end. The curious omission in this story is that it feels like it should be the origin of Bane. Venom is the drug that enables this future villain to bulk up and battle Batman. And the island that the villains retreat to is Santa Priscia, which is where Bane grows up.
This is a well-told introduction to Batman's relationship with drugs.
Story: 4/5, Art 4/5
J H Williams III is one of my favorite Batman Universe artists of all time. His work on Detective Comics is one of the most beautifully rendered pieces of art I've seen in comics. But before he ever laid a pencil to page in Detective, he wrote a story arc for Legends Of The Dark Knight along with Dan Curtis Johnson that's collected as Batman: Snow. The story focuses on two important events: Batman's first foray into working with sidekicks, and the origin of Mr. Freeze. Much like the much maligned movie, Batman and Robin, the author chooses to borrow Freeze's origin from The Animated Series (the episode, Heart Of Ice, won one of the series's two Emmys).
The Freeze origin is the most tragic of the villain origins in Batman's rogues gallery. But this story intersects with the fascinating story of Batman assembling a team of experts to help him fight crime. After Jim Gordon declines to assist Batman on an investigation, he recruits an awkward technology expert, an unsatisfied FBI investigator, a journalist famous for profiling criminals, and two rehabilitated criminals to serve as the brawn.
His strategy to get the team to bond is to turn them against him, which is a terrible strategy utilized by angry middled aged losers guilted into coaching Little League Teams, and antagonistic old men. It is sort of working when Mr. Freeze (sans terrible puns about the cold) gets involved. By the end of the issue the team has decided to disassociate with Batman (but hint that they may continue on their own), and Batman tells Alfred he is thinking of trying another strategy. On his kitchen table is a newspaper mentioning a circus featuring The Flying Graysons. The Robin is coming soon teaser is used in several different books, including Year One, and The Long Halloween. The way I choose to fit it into chronology is that he misses the circus when it comes to town during Year One, but that this story, as well as Rules Of Engagement and Venom, coincides with The Long Halloween. There are several references in each of the stories about working with Harvey Dent (who doesn't actually get any face time, just gets his name dropped), who is a major player in The Long Halloween, after which, well, he doesn't work with Batman anymore.
Story: 4/5, Art 5/5
It's been teased at the end of several collections. Ads for The Flying Graysons in newspapers, Circus billboards, Bruce discussing taking dates to the circus. Finally, in Dark Victory, Dick Grayson debuts. But, uh, not just yet.
The volume opens with the new DA (who replaces Harvey "Don't Call Me Harvey Anymore I'm Two Face Now" Dent) catching us up with one of the villains from The Long Halloween (which was also created by Jeph Loeb, Tim Sale, and Gregory Wright): Holiday. The crux of this story is the rise and fall of the next generation of Maronis and Falcones, Carmine Falcone and Sal Maroni having been killed during The Long Halloween. Carmine's daughter, Sofia, who was paralyzed after plunging out of a building makes a deal with Sal's sons to go after Harvey Dent.
The plan is to cause chaos at Arkham Asylum by freeing assorted villains, including Solomon Grundy (born on a Monday), Calendar Man, and Poison Ivy. Holiday, Alberto Falcone, chooses to stay behind, earning him an early release with the help of the new DA. But during the madness, instead of killing Two Face, they allow him to escape.
The main theme of this book is improving reputations. Mario Falcone returns from Italy to try and clean up his family business, going as far as locking out Sofia when he learns of her criminal plans. Jim Gordon tries to get back together with his wife Barbara who left him and took custody of his children. Bruce Wayne tries to establish a solid romantic relationship with Selina Kyle. Catwoman tries to earn Batman's trust. And Two Face tries to clear his name when a new serial killer, The Hangman tries to improve The Gotham City Police Department's reputation by killing a corrupt cop on every major holiday.
Once again, Loeb and Sale throw in pretty much every major villain that's been introduced: the Joker, The Penguin, Poison Ivy, Mr. Freeze, The Mad Hatter, and The Scarecrow all end up in the mix. But, as in The Long Halloween, their individual motives flow logically into the story.
In the midst of the story, Bruce finally ends up at the much teased circus, and watches as The Flying Graysons plummet to their deaths when a Maroni underling named Anthony Zucco frays the wires for their trapeze act.
Bruce Wayne adopts Dick Grayson, but it's Batman who sees Grayson outside one night, prowling for clues. Batman and Grayson run into each other again when Grayson goes to the circus to research his parents' killer. The boy is badly beaten, and Batman takes him to the Batcave to care for him, and reveals that Batman and Bruce Wayne are the same person.
I don't want to ruin the end of this for you. Yes, you do get to see Grayson don the original, short pants Robin outfit. You also get a great wrap up of a storyline that began with Year One. but there are still some loose ends, including the fact that Two Face is still missing.
I can't stress enough that Sale's pencils and inks, and Wright's colors are an integral part of Loeb's script. The combination of visual narrative and dialog is what takes the Loeb/Sale/Wright trilogy from great Batman story to Classic Work Of Art.
Story 5/5, Art 5/5
Chuck Dixon picks up the dangling threads from Dark Victory for Robin: Year One. We get to see how Robin is perceived by a befuddled Jim Gordon, an ambivalent Batman, a loyal Alfred, and the angry criminals of Gotham. There's honor in being taken down by the Dark Knight, but a little kid in pixie boots, short pants, and a yellow cape? That's gotta hurt.
After busting some small time criminals, Robin finds himself entwined with The Mad Hatter's scheme to kidnap and brainwash some young girls (his usual M.O.) and sell them to a diplomat named The Generalissimo. In a startling development for a Batman story, it turns out Robin knows one of the victims from school (Jenny Noblesse), and she has a crush on him.
Robin ends up saving the day with some help from bumbling millionaire Bruce Wayne, who happens to be on The Generalissimo's yacht for a cruise.
The next villain up to be taken down by The Boy Wonder is The Killer Moth, whose story takes up a whopping seven pages before Robin takes him down. There's also a three page battle with Blockbuster (who will end up being one of Dick Grayson's major villains years later) before we get to the main villain in the story: Two Face, who's been on the run since the end of Dark Victory.
Two Face has decided that the easiest way to bring down Batman is to take out his new sidekick. He also decides to enact revenge on the judge who presided over his trial during The Long Halloween. While Batman and Robin are on the case, Jim Gordon expresses his concern that Batman has taken on such a young sidekick. And when Two-Face later tells Gordon that he's killed Robin (Spoiler alert: he hasn't. After taking a beating, Batman takes him to Leslie Thompkins's clinic to heal.), Gordon convinces Batman to retire him. Grayson isn't too keen on retiring from being Robin (poor kid got forty years in pre-Crisis continuity, and he's barely five comic issues into being Robin in modern continuity, and he's already being let go), and when Mr. Freeze steals the blood supply from the hospital where Grayson is being rehabilitated, he throws on his mask (but not the rest of the outfit) and goes out to take Mr. Freeze down.
Once Grayson foils the Freeze plot, he sees a TV report that Two Face has escaped from police custody, and debates how to handle it when he's jumped by a group of junior assassins run by one of Ra's Al Ghul's assassins, Shrike. Grayson decides to infiltrate the gang to get back on Batman's good sign, as well as learn new fighting techniques. After a successful mission to determine Robin's loyalty, the junior assassins are sent to kill Two Face. Given the opportunity, Robin opts to let Two Face live, and ends up battling Shrike, who falls on his sword and dies. During the battle, Two Face escapes.
One of the details Dixon works into this collection is the relationship between Alfred and Grayson. Alfred taking care of Bruce after his parents died was noble, but could be attributed to his loyalty to the Wayne family. There are a couple of occasions in Robin Year One, and will be many more in the future where Alfred puts Grayson's health and feelings over his loyalty to Bruce. Dixon will revisit the importance of this relationship several times in the Robin ongoing series, and even Nightwing.
Story 5/5, Art 4/5