In the mid 1980's DC decided to clear up fifty years of continuity in their universe by putting out a series called A Crisis On Infinite Earths. As someone who didn't know too much about DC characters and storylines when I initially read it, I found it a confusion of huge events involving too many characters. My opinion of that title has changed over the years, but I still think it would be a terrible place to start reading comic books.
What followed Crisis was the rebooting of several of DC's most popular characters. The most successful of these was Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli's Batman: Year One.
The story opens with Lieutenant James Gordon moving to Gotham and joining their police force, while Bruce Wayne returns to Wayne Manor after twelve years abroad. And it follows the two as Gordon fights Gotham City Police Corruption, and Bruce Wayne dons the cowl for the first time. We also see a prostitute named Selina Kyle transform herself into Catwoman. And when the Gotham Police Department goes under investigation, District Attorney Harvey Dent is called on to the case.
If this storyline sounds a bit familiar, it's because Year One was one of the main sources for Christopher Nolan's Batman Begins. The story also involves The Falcone crime family's attempt to keep a tight grip on Gotham, mostly by controlling police commissioner Loeb (no relation to Jeph , as far as I can tell).
Mindy Newell and JJ Birch's Catwoman: Her Sister's Keeper is a companion piece to "Year One", which focuses on the Selina Kyle storyline. I recommend reading it just after Year One while the story is still fresh in your mind. There are a couple of scenes that appear in both books. And it's always interesting to see a scene drawn by two very different artists. Mazzucchelli employing a very comic-noir style while Birch's work looks like it would be at home in early Sandman comics.
It's also interesting to see how the two handle dialog. Miller has a "gritty" cop drama style with characters speaking with no flash or style. There's no sense of him trying to be witty, it reads like real people in a real situation. Newell, on the other hand, employs a lot of 80s snappy patter that, much like old paper, has yellowed a bit over the years. It's not bad writing, it just includes the occasional pop culture reference that is no longer in the vernacular. "You're a better nun than I am Gunga Din" is a "Where's The Beef" for movie nerds. It's still a solid story, and an important character study of Selina Kyle.
So this was the easy entry. Where to begin. How to become familiar with the early characters. We've established Bruce as the Batman, Selina as Catwoman, James Gordon as a flawed but well intentioned police officer, The Falcones as the family you least want to fuck with, and we've met Harvey Dent. We also have Gordon mentioning that there are more Falcones back in Chicago that he has a history with. And, as the story comes to a close, he stands on the roof, waiting for Batman, so he can tell him about a new criminal in Gotham; The Joker.
Batman Year One: Story 5/5, Art 5/5 with some back matter by Mazzucchelli.
Catwoman Her Sister's Keeper: Story 4/5, Art 3/5
While the character of Bruce Wayne the Batman is one of the most revered, and interesting in all of comics, my favorite Batman stories are the ones where we see how others react to The Dark Knight.
Batman And The Monster Men, originally a mini-series written and drawn by Matt Wagner, introduces us to modern age versions of Batman characters, and shows how they are changed by their first encounters with him.
In a roundabout way the center of this story is Sal Maroni, one of the top men in the Falcone Crime family. He joins together the two subplots of the story by 1.) bankrolling and extorting a scientist named Hugo Strange, and 2.) bankrolling and extorting prominent businessman, Norman Madison, whose daughter happens to be dating Bruce Wayne.
Hugo Strange is your typical mad scientist bent on changing the world. He uses Falcone money to create a series of mutants (the eponymous Monster Men). When Maroni sends musclemen to pressure Strange into paying his debt, Strange unleashes his Monster Men on one of Maroni's underground card games, thus stealing Maroni's money, and using it to pay Maroni back. When Batman gets involved, Strange fixates on what a perfect specimen he is, and vows to either capture or kill him. When things don't go according to plan, he decides, rather than hiding from Batman underground, to become a public expert on Batman, going on television and tlaking about how disturbed he is.
Norman Madison's tale is a little different. As a prominent businessman from the Gotham elite, he believes himself superior to Maroni and his thugs, and refuses to see them as a threat until they threaten his daughter, Julie. To protect her, he asks her to find a place to hide, and not tell him where it is. He demands the Falcone thugs take him to Maroni directly. While there, the Falcone compound is attacked by Strange's Monster Men. He is ultimately rescued by Batman who addresses him by name, and tells him to leave. The issue ends with Norman sitting in front of the TV, watching Hugo Strange tell a reporter that Batman is a relentless, insane vigilante. He is visibly sweating, thinking to himself "He knows my name." There's also a neat panel about halfway through the trade, where we Norman Madison's face shrouded by the Gotham skyline, suggesting that Wagner is using Norman as a metaphor for Gotham City's troubled relationship with both crime and Batman.
When her father asks her to go into hiding, Julie Madison rushes to Wayne Manor to tell Bruce, who responds by drugging her (Wayne is easily one of the worst superhero boyfriends in comics. I once saw Hank Pym shaking his head at Wayne, muttering "At least when I hit Janet, she knew that I loved her."). When she wakes up, a day and a half later with a Roofie hangover, Bruce tells her that her father's debts are taken care of, and she continues to be all starry-eyed over her mysterious playboy lover. She doesn't know that (dun dun dun) her life is soon to be completely altered by her involvement with Batman.
We also get to see Lieutenant James Gordon come into conflict with the new police commissioner, Grogan, over Gordon's alleged connection with Batman.
Even Alfred gets some face time in this book, when he lays his eyes on Bruce's new crimefighting car and quips "I'm actually surprised that you didn't add winged fins to the rear fenders and make it a true 'Batmobile!' Oh good lord! You're actually considering it!"
DC has placed a #1 on the spine of this book, and a #2 on Wagner's follow-up story "Batman And The Mad Monk". While the two stories are related, there are definitely a number of Batman stories that take place between the two collections. It's actually odd that DC has numbered them at all, as they rarely put any sort of label on any trade paperback that isn't part of some giant crossover.
I've seen other reading lists that place The Joker: The Man Who Laughs as the book that immediately follows Year One, as it features The Joker who LT. Gordon mentions on the final page of Year One. While I do think that Miller intended the next story to feature the joker, and Brubaker certainly intends for The Man Who Laughs as the first Joker story, I think the chronology works better if we get to know Batman better before introducing his greatest villain. There's also the issue that Gordon has grown comfortable enough in Gotham to call it "my city" early on in The Man Who Laughs, and he has not arrived at that point in his life at the end of Year One.
Story: 5/5, Art 5/5
One of my friends majored in Media Studies. His homework included watching as much popular television as he could find time for and study how it worked its way into the lexicon. He already had experience with a lot of the shows that make up today's established pop culture: Lost, 24, Battlestar Galactica, Futurama, The Office, Scrubs, American Gladiators 2007. But, surprisingly, he had no experience with Buffy/Angel or Doctor Who.
That's not entirely true, he'd seen parts of a few Buffy episodes when we were roommates. He'd scoffed at scenes that he had no context for, and after a few months, he treated walking into the room while I was watching Buffy with the horror most people would reserve for walking in on their grandmother naked with a jar of banana marmalade and an underage squirrel monkey.
Two years later, he would call me to discuss the finer points of season six, and how much he appreciated Jonathan's story arc.
When he realized it was time to tackle Doctor Who, he didn't just pick up with Christopher Eccleston, he went all the way back to the pilot episode and watched the entire series. When discussing the Russel T Davies era Dr. Who, he talked about how, whenever there was an event, Mr. Davies "throws a lot of Daleks at the plot until it cowers in fear at the corner of the episode".
A lot of lesser comic writers, when they are asked to helm an event "throw a lot of Daleks at the plot." Super-villain team ups are generally a nifty idea that doesn't pan out. Villains don't work well together, they're villains. And often their schemes cross purposes.
In The Long Halloween, Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale manage to include a majority of the major villains in the Batman pantheon without making them feel superfluous.
It helps that the costumed villains aren't the focus of the book, rather this is a return to the crime families from Frank Miller's Year One. The story opens at a wedding ceremony for one of the members of the Falcone family. Bruce Wayne has been invited, in hopes that he will help them in their quest to be financially supported by Gotham City Bank, which Bruce is a trustee for.
Meanwhile nosey district attorney, Harvey Dent, is in the event's parking garage taking down license plate numbers. He gets jumped by Falcone's men.
Later on in the evening Batman interrupts Catwoman breaking into Falcone's safe while Harvey Dent and Jim Gordon discuss their differing methods in gathering evidence.
A lot of what makes The Long Halloween work as a story is that it's one of the few modern era Batman stories that's actually a self-contained mystery. In 2010, Grant Morrison has been writing Batman and Detective as a long running mystery but it, if not requires, is greatly assisted by knowing all seventy years of Batman continuity. The Long Halloween requires only that you read The Long Halloween. Tim Sale litters the book with clues that you can piece together to solve the core mystery: Who is Holiday?
At the end of the first chapter, two members of The Falcone family are killed by an unseen assassin. Harvey Dent is also targeted, and he and his wife are believed dead.
Chapter two throws Solomon Grundy (born on a Monday) into the mix, and a whole nother mess of Falcone men are slaughtered at a Thanksgiving dinner.
The third issue focuses on an insanely jealous Joker who feels that Holiday is stealing his spotlight, and he pursues Holiday's identity as vigorously as Batman, Gordon, and Dent (albeit with very different methods). And while Batman is foiling Joker's New Year's Eve Massacre plans, Falcone's own son is murdered by Holiday.
The fourth chapter opens with Gordon and Dent going after their prime suspect in the Holiday case: Bruce Wayne. There's an excellent scene where the two of them are turned away by a deftly devious Alfred who politely inquires as to whether they've remembered to get their wives Valentine's Day presents. Holiday wreaks absolute havok on Falcone's business while Poison Ivy gets thrown into the mix.
Ivy has had a tryst or two with Batman before, but this time she's targeting Bruce Wayne for the Falcones. Their plot is foiled when Catwoman comes to Bruce's rescue.
Catwoman's dubious relationship with Batman (mirrored by Selina Kyle's relationship with Bruce Wayne) is one of the intricacies that makes this story work. This isn't just a hodgepodge of villains gathered to take down Batman. Villains are working purely for their own selfish reasons, they just happen to occasionally overlap. The exchanges between The Scarecrow and The Mad Hatter that take place in chapters nine and ten, where The Scarecrow speaks only in nursery rhyme, and The Mad Hatter speaks only in Lewis Carrol verse are fantastic.
By the time we get to chapter eleven, Roman Holiday, we've seen The Riddler, The Scarecrow, Mad Hatter, and The Calendar Man join the fray. More Falcones keep dying, and both Batman and The Riddler are forced to throw out theory after theory as to who Hoilday is. After his own father is killed, Sal Maroni, Falcone's chief rival turns himself in to Harvey Dent under the ruse of bringing down Falcone. But when it comes to give his testimony he throws acid at Dent's face, and, voila, we have the origin of Two Face.
Two Face rounds up all the villains from the story (plus The Penguin) to confront, and ultimately kill Falcone, thereby ending the old school mob rule in Gotham, and bring forth an age of super villains.
In the end we have a couple of surprise reveals regarding Holiday. Both of them much cooler than the usual suspects (sorry Grant Morrison fans, it's not The Joker). Often when you get a last chapter reveal it's either glaringly obvious or else it contradicts an important aspect of a character. Both reveals regarding Holiday caught me by surprise the first time I read the book, despite one of them being telegraphed by both Loeb's dialog and several panel clues by Tim Sale.
The art in any Batman story is as important a character as any villain. Whether it's Miller's television paneled layouts in The Dark Knight Returns or Dave McKean's creepily shadowed Arkham Asylum. Gregory Wright's muted colors are a key player in The Long Halloween. Apart from some vibrant reds when The Joker is involved, the art is intentionally flat, and occasionally just grays. Whenever I see the art from this book I think of Boyz II Men videos. Their director always tweaked the colors, sometimes washing out their bright red suit jackets, other times shooting in black and white, and then coloring in blue jeans.
I doubt it's an intentional metaphor, but the lack of backgrounds throughout most of the panels really drew me into the action. Sometimes a busy background distracts me from the story as my eyes vacuum in all the extraneous details. Everything Sale has drawn into this story is purposeful. It provides the perfect pacing for Loeb's story.
There isn't really a flaw anywhere in this collection. The only drawback to it from the perspective of putting together this Bat-chronology, is that it's a year long story. Each chapter taking place on a holiday (Halloween bookending the year). A lot of the books that will follow take place during The Long Halloween. Were I attempting the absolutely insane project of trying to do the chronology by issues instead of trades, I would space this collection out amongst some of the other stories.
Story 5/5, 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