Donny reviews a na na na na na na na na na… Anthology!
Batman, Black and White
Volume 1 (issues 1-4)
Series editor: Mark Chiarello
If I had to choose just one Batman book to take to a desert island with me, this would be it. It’s a collection of twenty, eight-page short stories (plus covers and pin-up art) by a gathering of the best artists (and a few great writers, too) working in the business in the mid-90’s.
Black and White came out of a dinner conversation between editor Mark Chiarello and a handful of “famous comics artists.” The question came up as to which was the greatest comic series of all time, and a number of them settled on Creepy, the old, back and white, horror anthology from the 1960’s. First edited by Jim Orlando (you may remember him being mentioned in Watchmen as the supposed creator of the “Black Freighter” comic) and then flourishing under the writing and editing of Archie Goodwin, it featured many of the best cartoonists of the era: Orlando, Neil Adams, Wally Wood, Steve Ditko, Frank Frazetta, Carmine Infantino, and Alex Toth among them. Prior to writing a story Goodwin would ask the artist what type of story or setting he would like to work in and then play to their strengths. (Neil Gaiman later adopted this technique when writing Sandman.) Goodwin also wrote a considerable number of adaptations of classic horror works now in the public domain.
Chiarello was then inspired to put together a black and white anthology that would feature a line-up of the best cartoonists he could get. He choose Batman as the vehicle because, of all the top tier superheroes, noir-inspired Batman best lends himself to a black and white world, plus he’s a character that has already had numerous different interpretations. DC green-lighted the project even though (being in black and white and an anthology) no one expected it to sell well. However, the series was such a hit, it led to DC doing a regular 8-page, back and white, back-up short story in the monthly Gothem Knights comic. The Gothem Knights features were later collected and reprinted (in 2003) as Batman, Black and White volumes 2 and 3, which are also quite good, but not quite as great as the first series.
Almost any writer will tell you that it is harder to write a good short story than a decent novel. The economy of short story telling demands that every choice count; there’s little room for slip-ups and no room for fluff. The confines of the 8-page story are part of the strength of this series. In place of complex plots, we get powerful parables and wonderful (sometimes disturbing) vignettes.
Another part of the greatness of this book is that it gives many different interpretations of the malleable Batman character. Being “Elseworlds” stories (outside the canonical DC continuity), the artists had almost complete liberty to do anything they wanted with Batman and re-cast him any number of ways.
However, the real glory of this book is the art! As with limiting the writing to 8 pages, limiting the art to black and white forced the cartoonists to boil their visions down to the essence. This comic is a textbook in great pen-and-ink drawing. Back in art school, I set myself a task of reproducing one panel from each of the 20 stories. I didn’t finish, but even still, I learned lot.
Just start with the original four covers! Jim Lee at his best, Frank Miller at his most hyper-macho, Barry Windsor Smith being intriguingly minimalist, and (pictured above) Alex Toth (my personal favorite) being just graphically beautiful. (I’d certainly hang a poster of the Toth cover on my wall.)
Then you have the eight pin-ups, including: Moebius (France’s greatest cartoonist), Michael William Kaluta (doing his Art Deco thing), P. Craig Russell (a weird, German Expressionist-come-Film Noir camera angle), Marc Silvestri (drawing the “wet drapery” cape), an ink wash painting by Alex Ross, and the great Neil Adams (the man who re-invented Batman for the Bronze Age – for many, Adams’ Batman is still the definitive look).
Then you get all these stories. Not every story is 5-starts, but in a work with 20 stories, most of them are great, and none of them are bad. If I may be allowed to gush like a fan-boy, let me enumerate some of the highlights:
Ted McKeever kicks the series off with this prefect little piece about Batman performing an autopsy to identify a Jane Doe, drawn in a rough ink brush. Bruce Timm, the man behind the look of the outstanding 1990’s Batman: The Animated Series, gives us an almost Twilight Zone-like piece about Two Face. Old school Joe Kubert draws lots and lots of bats in “The Hunt.” Howard Chayken (American Flagg) does his boxy, classic American illustrator thing perfectly.
In the far-flung future, Walt Simonson, most famous for his work on Thor and other myth-inspired comics, gives us a re-working of the “sleeping king” motif, with the Batman as a “Once and Future King” type warrior who will always rise again when Gothem is in need. In sharp contrast, the unflinchingly real “Monster Maker” story by Corben and Strand pits Batman against a street gang of preteens with guns. It’s one of the most disturbing and depressing pieces. Kent Williams then does some of his beautiful, painted brush and ink work.
Neil Gaiman admitted that he didn’t know how to write Batman or have any interest in the character… so he gives us an interesting “cheat” (drawn by over-the-top Simon Bisley of Judge Dread): a meta-story in which Batman and the Joker are depicted as actors, conscious of the fact that they are making a comic book.
“Good Evening, Midnight” is awesome (either it or “Heroes” is the best in this collection), and it was Klaus Janson’s first time writing! Janson is known as the best inker in comics and had worked with Frank Miller on Daredevil and Dark Knight Returns. His “Good Evening, Midnight” intercuts Batman out doing his thing with Alfred reading an undelivered letter Thomas Wayne wrote to his son when Bruce was still three years old.
Matt Wagner (Grendel) goes zip-tone crazy in the Pulp Fiction-like “Heist,” and visual genius Bill Sienkiewicz (Elektra: Assassin, Stray Toasters, Jimi Hendrix: Voodoo Child, Moon Knight, the New Mutants) does this disturbing piece about child abuse: “Bent Twigs.”
Denny O’Neil (Batman’s primary writer and group editor for most of the Bronze Age) does two stories: a really fine Christmas story with the idiosyncratic Teddy Kristiansen (Sandman) and a pulpy Noir visual extravaganza with Brian Stelfreeze. There’s Brian Boland (The Killing Joke)… there’s fan favorite Kevin Nolan… and there’s a surreal tale by manga master Katsuhiro Otomo, whose landmark Akira is still hailed as probably still the greatest anime film of all time.
Archie Goodwin (who wrote Creepy back in 1965-69) contributed two stories here: a horror story about the “Devil’s Trumpet” illustrated by Jose Munoz, and “Heroes,” set in Golden Age 1939 (when Batman first appeared), with gorgeous, old school, pulp illustration by genius Gary Gianni. “Heroes” won the 1996 Eisner Award for best short story – and Black and White won for Best Anthology.
A common conversation for geeks is what Batman comic would you give someone who had never read a superhero comic before, and the standard answer is, “Well, Frank Miller’s Dark Knight Returns, of course.” I disagree. DKR is a great book, but you also kind of have to have read some run-of-the-mill, pre-1986 superhero stuff in order to understand what’s so subversive and deconstructive about it. No, my choice, if I’m handing someone their first ever Batman book is Batman, Black and White volume 1. I can guarantee there is going to be something in there (probably a lot in there) to excite your imagination.