Wednesday, October 27, 2010

If You're Going To Kill A Superhero, Do It! Otherwise, Don't Waste Our Time: Batman R.I.P.

The Good: It seemed like there was a casualty, Artwork
The Bad: Fractured visual storytelling, Distractions, Lack of character, Obvious plot/reversals, Expensive
The Basics: A disappointing anthology, the Batman R.I.P. story leads to the death of Batman. . . or not. Problematic in story and art, this teases the audience, but does not deliver.

When I started out on my exploration of graphic novels and trade paperback anthologies, I was not a reader of comic books. Believe it or not - considering that of late my reviews of books have almost entirely been limited to trade paperback anthologies (graphic novels) - I have little interest in the genre, save that so many movies of late have been made based on works in this medium. Still, as I peruse the latest titles in the graphic novel section of Barnes & Noble for the latest movie tie-in, I occasionally find one that surprises me enough to sit and read. Last year, I found myself at a Barnes & Noble in Rochester as part of a disastrous reading/signing of small press authors (basically, friends of the authors came, bought from their respective author and left, no foot traffic) with plenty of time to sit and read. So, I picked up one of those graphic novels that actually intrigued me. It was Batman R.I.P.

Batman R.I.P. was billed as the storyline that would kill off Batman and while The Death Of Superman back when I was in high school got all sort of mainstream attention, Batman R.I.P. did not. Still, of all of the superheroes, Batman intrigues me most because he's just an ordinary rich guy with his own demons and a vengeance. Batman has no superpowers, just wealth, will and intelligence. He lives by hit wits and inventions alone and that is pretty compelling. So, the idea of killing him off made me intrigued; which villain finally buries him? How does he go out? I was legitimately curious and when my signing went poorly, I was actually happy to salvage it by reading this. Unfortunately, it was not the story I - or others might hope and if you want to read a review that does not explore the most critical problem of the book, now is where you absolutely must stop reading this.

I'm not big on spoilers and I shall maintain all of the most important surprises of Batman R.I.P. Still, it is impossible to adequately criticize this work without acknowledging its basic fault. Whatever the word for "cocktease" is when referring to literature, this is it. Batman R.I.P. fails to do what the back and title promise. The reason this was not a huge mainstream draw was that once again the writers, in this case author Grant Morrison and his art team, fail to deliver on the promise of a story that will bury Bruce Wayne and the Batman. The insult to the injury here is that for the nine-comic anthology, one must pay extra. This edition is a hardcover collection that beautifully collects the nine-chapters of Batman R.I.P. and allows the reader/collector to display it all in one place. But it's all mystery, murk and when it comes time for the big bang, the book fizzles.

Suddenly obsessed with the Black Glove, Batman begins investigating the mysterious new crime syndicate that has popped up in Gotham City. As Batman becomes convinced that the key to saving Gotham City forever rests in uncovering who is involved in the Black Glove and what their agenda is, Bruce Wayne finds himself more and more in love with Jezebel Jet. Eager to keep her safe, Batman tries to encourage Jezebel to abandon him until he can figure out how to thwart the Black Glove. As Batman cleans up Gotham from new, lamer criminals operating in a power vacuum (all of the main big bads are locked up in Arkham Asylum at this point), he becomes intrigued with the lack of clues connected to the Black Glove.

But then, Jezebel is invited to the Black Glove's Danse Macabre where the leader of the Black Glove promises a true and final duel between good and evil, including the destruction of Batman. As the pair plans to spring the trap the Black Glove has set for them, Jezebel inadvertently sets Batman off by reading a trigger phrase implanted into Bruce Wayne decades prior by Doctor Hurt. Psychologically fractured, Batman flees as the Batman Of Zur-en-arrh while Jezebel is captured, the Batcave is burned down and all of Batman's allies put in jeopardy.

First, Batman R.I.P. is clearly intended to be a volume for the fans of the Batman series and saga and it is written with a strong sense that readers know the complete backstory of Batman. As a result, Jezebel Jet appears early in the book as if she has always been a part of the series. Similarly, the Thogal incident is referred to casually (no clue what that is, sorry!), Batman's illegitimate son Damian is referenced (with many questions as to who he is and what is relationship to Robin truly is), and the well-known backstory of Batman's origin (the death of his parents, etc.) is mentioned without being spelled out explicitly. While this might be great for fans of the franchise who have kept up with the comics that immediately precede this storyline, those looking to this book for anything remotely like a satisfying reading experience will be completely lost.

As well, the main narrative is annoyingly fractured in two ways. First, Batman suffers a psychological break that becomes an annoyingly presented story that is nothing short of trippy and second, the supporting characters - Robin, Nightwing, Gordon and Alfred - have long sections where their stories diverge from the Batman plot. The first problem is a serious issue that presents a narrative problem on an order unseen since the parallel storylines in opposite panels of Watchmen (click here for my review of that!). Just as the mix of Watchmen and "Tales Of The Black Freighter" is annoying in that the narrative of both stories is disrupted by the way the stories are told, in Batman R.I.P. when Batman has his psychological break, the story becomes almost unintelligible. There are parts of this which work; Wayne wandering around with the homeless man Honor Jackson and the Batman Of Zur-en-arrh accompanied by an obvious figment of his imagination who wisecracks and warns him of dangers, but the bulk of it is linked through bridges that make no sense. Has Bruce Wayne been captured by Doctor Hurt, doped up and set loose in Gotham City? Where does the Batman Of Zur-en-arrh get his costume? If just a crazed Bruce Wayne enters Arkham - is he already there in a straightjacket?! - doesn't pretty much everyone know who he is now?

Before we go into the other problem, the question of Bruce Wayne already being in Arkham is the lone problem with the artwork in Batman R.I.P. Doctor Hurt and Bruce Wayne bear a striking resemblance to one another and this is a problem for figuring out what is going on. This is the death knell of a book that is trading on reality-bending situations and the story becomes visually confusing and convoluted in the middle of the book because of this.

As for the second problem, there is no problem with exploring how the Black Glove tries to take out Batman's allies. The problem is that characters seem to be defeated and then turn up later with no explanation. Similarly, the amount of time spent on the other characters distracts from what Batman is going through and where the Batman of Zur-en-arrh is at any given time.

For the most part, Tony S. Daniel does an amazing job with the artwork. Some of the early panels of Wayne and Jezebel are beautifully drawn and are actually sensual. As the book goes on, though, there are moments when the sense of movement is off. There is a car chase in the beginning where dialogue indicates potential actions which are then not shown. As a result, the use of the medium is not as good as it ought to be. If a book's strength is in describing events so the imagination may create them, a comic book is supposed to illustrate the bridges between the dialogue so the common experience is shared. That does not happen enough in Batman R.I.P.

In its hardcover form, the story ends with an art gallery and it is fair, though a pretty common bonus feature for hardcover books like this. Still, it is not enough to justify the expense of buying this book with all its predictable twists and turns (the true villains are unsurprising) and the eventual resolution to the book is anything but satisfying. Or sensible.

For other Batman anthologies, please check out my reviews of:
Knightfall Volume One: Broken Bat
Knightfall Volume Two: Who Rules The Night
Knightfall Volume Three: Kightsend


For other graphic novel reviews, please visit my index page by clicking here!

© 2010, 2009 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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