Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Micro-Reviews - TALES OF THE BATMAN (Part Two)



“Museum Piece” by Mike Resnick
Another entry that plays with the narrative; this isn’t a story, but a documentation of various exhibits in the Gotham Museum.

It reads as a clinical recounting of various battles between Batman and the Joker, but no real narrative emerges.

Meaning, there’s no coherent line from one exhibit to another.  It’s not a meta-commentary on the evolution of the characters, and there’s no connection from one exhibit to the next.

The final entry does indicate that the Joker attempted suicide in the last documented case, which could be interpreted a variety of ways, but the revelation comes out of nowhere.

Not a bad hook for a piece, but it would’ve been nice if the entries didn’t come across as arbitrarily selected bits of stories.

“Wise Men of Gotham” by Edward Wellen
Oh, lordy.  Where to begin on this one?

At times, it’s a fairly standard Batman vs. Riddler story.  It’s fine, as far as that goes.

The riddles hinge on an English fairy tale I’d never heard of, the Wise Men of Gotham: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wise_Men_of_Gotham

Published in 1995, I’d wager this was written sometime in the late ‘80s.  Batman is still free to crack jokes, homelessness is the pressing issue of the day, and there’s a reference to the Japanese buying up American properties.

“Another Day in Paradise” was surely playing in the background as Edward Wellen clacked away on his IBM Lotus Pro.

Continuity’s clearly no priority here.  Previous stories featured the Bat-phone, but in this installment, Gordon only has the Bat-signal as a means to summon Batman.  Gordon acts as if he doesn’t think the signal will work, but why does he have the thing in the first place?

Another bit of absurdity -- Bruce Wayne appears at a costume party dressed as Batman, in one of his actual Batman suits.  He even has a conversation with Commissioner Gordon, who doesn’t recognize him at all.

And Bruce Wayne jeopardizes his secret ID once again when he consults with a female professor/potential love interest on the nature of the Riddler’s clues.  Is everyone in this story just flat-out oblivious?

But the dumbest moment occurs at the end, when a homeless man runs into Batman and notices something in his eyes.  The vagrant follows Batman around, and inadvertently falls victim to a bullet meant for Batman.

His final words?  I’m not making this up:

“The eyes…the eyes of the kid…who watched me…knock off his folks…in the stickup…”

Yes, Joe Chill is the random homeless man Batman happens to bump into!  And he somehow remembers Bruce’s eyes!

(Never mind that they’re white slits when Batman’s in costume…)

That’s as dumb as anything Gotham has tried to pull off.  And, yup, that’s saying something.

And is there any payoff to this?  Does it add to the story in anyway?  Nope!  It’s just tossed in during the final two pages.  Unbelievable.

You might defend the editor for not enforcing strict continuity, but how did THAT bit slip through?

Would it be so hard to say, “Let’s not introduce the killer of Batman’s parents as a random bum during the story’s wrap-up, kill him off, and not explore the idea in any way”?

“Robber’s Roost” by Max Allan Collins
Collins might be the only participant who’s actually written Batman comics before.

Collins presents us with a secret society of Gotham elites who are obsessed with owls.  Absurd!

Okay, they eat rare owls and other endangered animals, so it’s not quite the same as the Snyder comics.

Although I dislike the lazy class warfare element (Bruce is the only decent rich man in town, of course), I enjoyed the story.  Batman chases the Penguin for several hours, but later teams up with him to stop the grotesque practice.

We also have Batman’s awkward speech in front of a parole board, arranged by Gordon, which doesn’t end well.

“Brothers in Crime” by William F. Nolan
Why would you publish two Penguin stories right next to each other?  Especially when the first one ends with Batman deciding to let the Penguin go, and the second one opens with him in prison?

Every editorial choice made on this anthology is mystifying.

Anyway, this is the story of Penguin’s half-brother, who’s assigned as Penguin’s cellmate.

Told from the brother’s POV, he details Penguin’s various manipulations, and their falling out that ends with him saving Batman’s life.

There is a nice twist at the end, but we have another chatty, joyful portrayal of Batman, and a plot convenience that has Penguin easily taking down Batman.

I recognize that Batman as a character is open to interpretation, but alternating between pre and post-Miller Batman is irritating.

“Death of the Dreammaster” by Robert Sheckley
This one is…maybe?...set in the future.

It opens with Batman inadvertently killing the Joker, although he later returns to haunt Batman as a hallucination.

The tone here is bizarre -- chatty, friendly Batman again, but the story opens with Joker standing over mutilated, dismembered corpses, ready to kill a little girl.

The story’s filled with odd choices, like Batman having a publicly known girlfriend named Vera.  And I don’t mean Bruce Wayne’s girl -- Vera is specifically known as the girl Batman is seeing socially.  How does that even work?

We also have Batman adopting a fully formed alternate identity, millionaire playboy Charlie Morrison.  There’s a payoff at the end, but this just doesn’t read as a Batman story.

It’s also around 20 pages too long, and the tone shifts from horror to espionage to near-camp.  Not a great entry.

“On a Beautiful Summer’s Day, He Was” by Robert McCammon
The Joker’s origin, by way of “Stand by Me.”  Actually, it’s closer to King’s darker work.  (Yes, I know McCammon predates King.)

The Joker as a kid -- John Napier, Jr. -- abused by his mentally unstable father, kills his childhood neighbor.

All of the standard, over-explain-everything origin story moments are here.  Joker’s father is a mentally unstable chemist stuck working a job as a traveling salesman.  He’s obsessed with laughter and smiles, doesn’t understand why he can’t find happiness, and abuses his wife in horrifying ways.

Junior is ostracized by most of the kids, carries bones in his pocket, and we discover, is experimenting with animal corpses.

It’s as unpleasant as it sounds, and there’s nothing here to balance out the bleakness.  Also, playing coy with the identity of “Junior” is just ridiculous.  Clearly this is meant as a Joker origin story.

“The Joker’s War” by Robert Sheckley
Another “short” story that’s around 20 pages too long.

The premise has Joker in Europe in 1940, plotting to steal Italian art before the war spreads.

Through the course of the story, he falls in love with a German socialite, becomes a close adviser to Hitler, irritates the mafia, and uses Hitler’s astrologer Obermeier as a pawn in his schemes.

The premise is, uh, unique, but the Joker rarely feels in-character during the story.  He’s neither funny or sadistic, is capable of genuine romantic love, and doesn’t view crime as vehicles for practical jokes.

Instead, he’s a master criminal and manipulator, the greatest alive.  But he rarely feels like the Joker.

And Batman’s not even mentioned in the story, outside of Hitler stating his admiration for the way Joker handles the “beefy Batman and his catamite boyfriend Robin.”

“Endangered Species” by Greg Cox
Was there a law saying only Joker & Penguin could appear in this book?  A reminder of the days before TAS firmly took hold of the public’s perception of Batman, perhaps.  The three standout villains from the Adam West series were Joker, Penguin, and Catwoman (with Riddler as a close fourth), and that seemed to influence most interpretations of the mythos until TAS had been on the air for a few years.

And this interpretation of the Penguin is, unfortunately, dreadful.  It opens with him bathing people in literal acid rain.

I’m not saying the Penguin would never kill, but most of his murders seem to be of the “incompetent henchmen” variety.

I’ve certainly never viewed him as outright sadistic, which would be Cox’s interpretation.  Penguin’s scheme is to kidnap a pair of rare Japanese owls from the Gotham Zoo, not to preserve them for his own collection, but to threaten their death and hold them ransom.  He kidnaps the story’s narrator, a Japanese vet named Sumi, and bullies her into keeping the owls alive until he can collect his ransom.

So, the traditional view of the Penguin as a sincere bird lover who’s deluded himself into thinking he’s a part of the upper-class -- that’s gone.  He’s just a sadist kidnapping rare owls for ransom, unconcerned if they die.

Making this more irritating, a previous story showed Penguin as an earnest conservationist who teamed with Batman to save other rare birds.

That was only a few stories ago!  C’mon, this is well past sloppy.

“Copycat” by John Gregory Betancourt
After 382 pages of Joker/Penguin/Nobody villains, Catwoman finally appears.

And the premise is insane.  Catwoman has been framed for the murder of Bruce Wayne.  Upon investigating, she learns that the copycat killer is none other than Bruce’s ex, Vicki Vale.

Okay, John Gregory Betancourt.  You’ve got me interested.

The story turns out to be Bob Haney-level nuts from beginning to end.  You can poke a million holes in the plot, but it’s absurdly entertaining, and the story manages to use the two standard Batman love interests in a creative way.

Ignoring the ending, which has Catwoman swallowing cyanide, this would’ve been a nice TAS episode.

“A Harlot’s Tears” by Ed Gorman
So they wanted to shove all of the Catwoman stories at the end of the book?

I swear this book was assembled by a Random Batman Story Generator and not an actual editor.

After a zany piece inspired by the Silver Age, we’re abruptly thrown into a vulgar tale of Catwoman aiding prostitutes targeted by a serial killer.

Casual drug use, repeated f-bombs, it’s all very Vertigo.  (And I guess this beats Batman V Superman’s R-cut as the first time “f**k” appeared in material featuring Batman.)

I’m not a big fan of Catwoman’s retconned past as a hooker, or inserting patently adult material into these concepts, but the story of Selina looking out for girls on the stroll starts off strong.

The ending, however, which has her taking the killer home with her overnight so that he can TALK ABOUT HIS FEELINGS with his intended victims, is laughable.

Nice writing, in general, evoking a gritty late ‘80s feel, but the ending is irritatingly absurd.

“Reformed” by John Gregory Betancourt
Oh, great.  Another Penguin story.

The anthology includes several stories previously published, which likely explains why John Gregory Betancourt has two contributions.  Why they were placed so close together, however, is beyond me.

I have an immediate gripe about this one -- Penguin shouldn’t be in Arkham Asylum.  Traditionally, he isn’t played as insane.  I think the Animated Series slipped up once and placed him in Arkham, but usually he was shown in Blackgate Penitentiary.  

And he never comes across as insane in this story, outside of his obsession with Batman.  It’s a generic Penguin story, without even a bird-themed crime, and there’s not much to it.

Vulture - A Tale of the Penguin by Steve Rasnic Tem
The closing entry…and heaven help us all, it’s another Penguin story.

It’s also another “short” story with a funny definition of the term.  Sixty-two pages long.

This time, Penguin is in normal prison, not Arkham.  (Even though this story presents a more credible argument for his instability.)  He’s spent months in a high-profile hunger strike.  It’s all a part of an escape plan, and I’ll admit, Tem’s scheme is clever.

Free from prison, and now unrecognizably skinny, Penguin explores the outside world and realizes just how much the culture has changed.  Death is no longer taboo, “freaks” walk around in daylight, and kids idolize horror movie monsters.

Declaring himself a performance artist, Penguin rechristens himself The Vulture, adopting a new criminal persona.  He commits small crimes throughout skid row, until he learns of Gotham’s new serial killer -- The Bird of Prey.

Penguin dedicates himself to stopping the killer, and the story evolves into straight-up Dexter.  Penguin turns out to be a mediocre vigilante, however, and remains clueless in romance.  Batman appears at the end, and Penguin welcomes incarceration.

“Vulture” is one of the strongest stores in the anthology; if only it were the ONE Penguin story in this thing.  Who thought we needed around six hundred of them?

And if you've noticed the 2 villains prominently featured on that cover image, remember this was released in 1995.

 It's also a cheap stunt to pull -- only ONE Riddler story and ZERO Two-Face stories.

Now I'm wondering if the endless Penguin stories were initially commissioned as BATMAN RETURNS tie-ins?

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