Comic News: Bats and Oracles – More News and Thoughts on the DC Relaunch

Batman Detective Comics Issue 1 Cover Art Tony Daniel DC Reboot The Joker

The major news of the DC Comics September relaunch from last week has been bouncing around the comic-obsessed areas of the internet like wildfire, and we’ve now got a much clearer idea of what we’re dealing with. A dizzying amount of information has been released – creative teams have been announced for plenty of titles, we now know what a fair number of the 52 issue 1s that are hitting in September will be (from various Green Lantern, Batman and Superman titles to Wonder Woman (who’s staying in her most recent costume change), Animal Man, The Demon, The Fury of Firestorm, Aquaman, Green Arrow, Swamp Thing, Justice League Dark, and many, many more – a full list of the currently confirmed titles is up at BleedingCool.). Certainly, DC are going out of their way to make this an accessible jumping-on point for new readers, but contrary to early reports, they’re not going for quite the complete ground-up reboot we thought…

Wonder Woman Issue 1 Cover DC RebootThe fact that this is all happening after the alternate timeline shenanigans of Flashpoint meant it would have been possible to basically press a big button and reboot the whole DC superhero mythology, but what DC are aiming for does seem to be a mix of major changes and careful tweaking. After all, while they’re keen to get new people reading comics, they don’t want to completely annoy the long-time readers by telling them all those comics they’ve been following don’t count any more. Well… strictly speaking, superhero comics do this kind of thing all the time (It’s the nature of continuity reboots in long-running titles), but this would have been doing that kind of thing to the entire line of DC comics, an extreme move in anyone’s book.

Thankfully, it seems like DC are being sensible and saying in certain cases that if it ain’t broke, there’s no point in fixing it. Some characters do seem to be getting ground-up reboots in the DC Relaunch (like minor Justice League player and Brightest Day cast-member Firestorm, whose upcoming new comic definitely doesn’t sound like it follows current Firestorm continuity), and it looks like Superman is getting some major changes – one of which is strongly rumoured to be that his long-running marriage to Lois Lane may be history (meaning he’s ended up in the same boat as Spiderman and Mary Jane Parker in recent Spiderman comics, although at least we’re talking parallel universes and not incredibly unconvincing deals with the devil…), along with a worryingly revamped costume that brings back vague and scary memories of the fashion disaster that was the Nineties ‘Electric’ Superman

Batman Greg Capullo Art Cover DC Reboot Issue 1However, not every single bit of the DC Universe is being fiddled with – the Green Lantern franchise (which I’m not a huge fan of – I can understand the appeal of colourful space opera action, I just find multi-coloured spandex-clad space police with their own personal rhyming oaths a bit difficult to take seriously) isn’t being touched, simply rebooting its number and starting up a new story (with the aftermath of current event War of the Green Lanterns presumably being finally wrapped up in August). The only one I was really concerned about was Batman – or, more particularly, Grant Morrison’s run on Batman, which was absent from a number of the recent press releases (one of which announced the fact that ex-Robin Dick Grayson, who stepped into the role of Batman a couple of years back while Bruce Wayne was lost in time, would be returning to the role of Nightwing, while Bruce Wayne would be back as the only person in the Batman cowl).

Batman 683 Alex Ross Cover Grant MorrisonI’ve been enjoying the hell out of Morrison’s run on Batman – it’s had its fair share of ups and downs, but he’s done some seriously adventurous things with the character, and it’s the kind of wild storytelling that you can get away with in comics and which simply wouldn’t work elsewhere. (There have been moments where I liked to imagine Christopher Nolan going completely insane and saying “Oh, the third Batman film? We’ll be referencing Batman R.I.P., Final Crisis and The Return of Bruce Wayne, complete with the Batman of Zurr En Arrh, Bat-Mite and time travel.”) Of course, it’s had its fair share of detractors and critics, especially from trad-Batman fans who don’t hold with the comic being anything other than dark gritty action on the streets of Gotham (when there are multiple Batman titles, and most of them deliver exactly that) – and the one thing that Morrison’s run isn’t, especially now that it’s in its final phase in Batman Incorporated, is new reader friendly. Instead, it uses massive amounts of continuity in a really interesting way, finding a way of treating the entirety of Batman’s seventy-year history as the life of one man (most memorably in the brilliantly surreal post-R.I.P. two parter ‘The Butler Did It/What The Butler Saw’), while also utilising a large cast of characters and exploring different areas of the DC Universe (especially thanks to Bruce Wayne’s current globe-trotting adventures).

Not the kind of thing that’s easy to boil down into an accessible issue 1, of course, and while simply saying “Well, let’s cancel it and bring the Batman stories in line with the relaunch” would have been a dumb corporate idea, it would hardly be the first time storytelling in comics has been dictated by dumb corporate ideas. However, they’ve ultimately been sensible – Batman Incorporated is being split into two ‘seasons’, with the first concluding in August with issue 10. Then it goes on hiatus for a while (with Morrison working on a ‘yet to be announced’ project), and returns in early 2012 with season 2 of Batman Inc, which’ll be a 12 issue epic and will wrap up the whole Morrison run. And presumably mean I can start saving for the absurdly expensive omnibuses that DC will undoubtedly be doing of the run at some point in the future…

DC Reboot - Nightwing Issue 1 Cover Batman Dick GraysonThat’s got me relieved, and it’s nice to see it’s been handled well. Certain aspects are a bit disappointing – unlike some, I actually enjoyed the whole ‘two Batmen’ concept, and having Dick Grayson in the role opened up plenty of storytelling possibilities that hadn’t been there before (especially with his relationship with the fabulously grumpy Damian Wayne, Bruce Wayne’s 10-year-old son and the new Robin), but of course superhero comics are all about the illusion of change, and it also makes sense for an accessible relaunch to get the comic back to a general perception of Batman that doesn’t have to start with the sentence “Well, you see, it was all because Batman got hit by Darkseid with the Omega Sanction back in Final Crisis and everyone thought he was dead…” I’d have been happy for those stories to continue for longer, but I’m impressed we got as many as we did. Not sure if ‘demoting’ Dick back to his role as Nightwing will create many interesting stories, but I guess we’ll have to see.

DC Reboot - Batgirl Barbara Gordon Issue 1 CoverThen, though, there’s the one decision I’m less than comfortable with – the fact that they’re bringing Barbara Gordon back as Batgirl. To non-comic readers, that’s probably not going to sound like a problem, after all Batgirl (the BG version) is pretty iconic after all these years thanks to her countless animated appearences, the Sixties show, and she even survived the terrible, terrible ignominy of being played by Alicia Silverstone in Batman and Robin. Trouble is, back in the mid-Eighties, in Alan Moore’s legendary Batman graphic novel The Killing Joke, Barbara was shot in the spine by the Joker, paralysing her from the waist down (an event which was, like the rest of The Killing Joke, supposed to be outside of continuity, but has since been adopted as part of the DCU history). Since then, for over twenty years, she’s been in a wheelchair, but has still played a significant role in the DC Universe as Oracle, the all-round JLA information source and master computer expert, as well as acting as the head of the Birds of Prey, a female group of superheroes.

Oracle Barbara Gordon DC Reboot - Ryan Sook ArtShe’s essentially ended up as a much stronger and a far more interesting character as a result of this – especially since she’s held her own in a very major way in a universe full of incredible dangers without having any superpowers. There aren’t exactly many disabled characters in superhero comics, and it’s hard to think of one that’s been as long-lasting or been presented as well as Oracle – a tough, intelligent woman who doesn’t let a crippling injury stop her from helping people in any way she can. Of course, there is the fact that in an anything-can-happen universe like the one presented by DC, where people rise from the dead and do the impossible every other week, it shouldn’t be beyond likelihood for Barbara’s injuries to be eventually healed, but DC have kept to presenting that reality for a long time, with the result that Barbara Gordon has now having spent longer as Oracle than she ever did as Batgirl (and has actually acted as ‘advisor’ to the two subsequent versions of Batgirl who’ve turned up in Batman continuity over the last decade-or-so – Cassandra Cain, and Stephanie Brown).

Come September, however, and that’s all over. In the post-Flashpoint DCU, Barbara Gordon will officially be back as Batgirl – I’m guessing that she may be one of the characters who’s being aged down slightly, as Barbara has been allowed to get a little older over the years (comic book ageing in superhero comics is always odd and rather elastic, but it does happen – in the same way that Dick Grayson has distinctly aged since his first appearence as Robin). I’m hoping that possibly they may keep aspects of the Oracle storyline as part of her background – that maybe in this rewritten version of history, the injury from the Joker’s bullet wasn’t quite as bad. It’d give a nice ‘overcoming adversity’ edge to the character, as well as allowing at least certain aspects of her life as Oracle to still be around, but I fear it’s more likely that it’ll get wiped from history – which is a shame, and I don’t think DC realise exactly what they’re throwing away with this. I understand exactly why it’s happening; the Barbara Gordon version of Batgirl is well-known, and if you’re trying to make the DC Universe as accessible to new readers as possible, and you want a Batgirl title, you need the most recognisable version of the character there. I understand the reasoning completely, but the fact is that they’re throwing away the Oracle part of Batgirl’s history for the sake of brand recognition, and simultaneously upsetting the hell out of any wheelchair-bound comics readers who considered Barbara-as-Oracle as a hero and a character that they care about (And it’s ironic, considering that DC are attempting to make lots of noise about having a more diverse and representative superhero universe, that they’re hanging this reboot on casually writing out a character’s disability). There’s an opinion piece at Newsarama that talks about this much more powerfully and eloquently than I ever could – all I can say is that while I know reboots are a natural factor of comic book storytelling, I really think this one is happening for the wrong reasons, and the DC Universe will be less interesting without Oracle in it.

So, September is the month. I’m impressed DC are going ahead with this, although I’ll be honest – not many of the announced titles have really made me think “Wow! That sounds INCREDIBLE!!” Plus, no matter how big a marketing push and how much they try and stretch out onto the new digital frontier, it’s all going to come down to the stories. These are going to have to be really good comics – all eyes are going to be on DC come September, so they’d better not mess this up…


Comic News: Reboot In Your Face (Major restarts coming in the DC Universe…)

Justice League Issue 1 Cover Jim Lee Geoff Johns Relaunch Batman Wonder Woman Cyborg Green Lantern The Flash Aquaman Superman

There’s been a lot of rumours about what’s coming up in the DC Comics superhero universe, the home of heroes like Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman and Green Lantern. The current big DC event comic Flashpoint, where the whole DC universe is transformed into a dark alternative, is supposed to be leading to yet another one of those moments where ‘things will never be the same!’ On top of this, it was initially announced that in the last week of August, DC would be publishing exactly one comic – the fifth and final issue of Flashpoint. Considering DC normally has around a dozen titles coming out every week, this is a pretty major route to go for – and while it’s now been modified slightly (there are two comics coming out, rather than one), it’s clear that DC isn’t messing around.

Now, DC has started releasing official news of what they’re doing… and it’s pretty big. In a press release that’s turning up in lots of places, they’ve announced that they’re basically rebooting their whole line of superhero comics, and renumbering everything. In September, there’s going to be 52 issue ones, all of which are apparently designed to be accessible jumping-on points for new readers (and considering some of these titles are things like Action Comics, which recently crossed the 900-issue mark, this is quite a big move). Added to which, it does seem like there’s a certain amount of tweaking going on – artist and DC bigwig Jim Lee has apparently done redesigns on over 50 superhero costumes, the word ‘contemporary’ is being bandied around a lot, and it does seem like this is definitely going to be a different take on the DC Universe (with, for example, plenty of characters being aged-down into younger models). Considering that this is following Flashpoint, an event where the DC Universe is altered beyond recognition (meaning it might still be a bit different when it gets put back), it does seem like they’re going for permanent alterations to continuity, and the status quo. And, on top of all of this, every single one of these comics is going to be available day-and-date as a digital comic, through the Comixology platform that DC’s been using up until now.

The easiest bit of this to take on is the digital decision – it was obvious that at some point, one of the ‘big two’ was going to jump into the digital world with both feet (and considering DC are still running second to Marvel at the moment, it’s not a loopy idea). It’s big, and despite that they’re apparently going to run some incentives for comic shop retailers, there are going to be some unhappy people out there. Trouble is, digital isn’t going away, and this could be a very healthy move as well. The day-and-date comics will probably be exactly the same price as print (which is a tad steep for a digital comic), but it’s still a major step forward. For the first time, people who torrent comics because “Oh well, I want them on the day, and only a few titles are done day-and-date” aren’t going to have the excuse. Don’t know if it really will make piracy go down, but it’s a major step along the way to having a good legal digital alternative to piracy.

It’s the rest of it that is… interesting, if not completely convincing. Comic book continuity is a massive double-edged sword – it creates fascinating, intensely complex sagas, worlds that you can get lost in, interlocking stories that can be unlike anything else out there… but then, it can also make it impossible to keep up, especially if you’re not aware of all the tiny pieces of comic-book continuity that the story is tying into. Last week, I read the first two issues of Marvel’s The Mighty Thor, which is a relaunch of the Thor title done to tie in with the release of the Thor movie, and yet if I was a random cinemagoer who’d seen and enjoyed Thor, those two comics would have perplexed the hell out of me. (There’s a lot of reasons why comics have drifted away from being self-contained, and many of them actually only work now collected as trade paperbacks – it’s a complicated problem, and is slightly compounded by the fact that modern comic storytelling doesn’t let you easily put in narrative captions that bring everyone up to date.) And part of this problem is that the majority of the people who buy comics are the die-hard fans, who know the continuity and don’t want to read stuff that ‘doesn’t matter’ (which is one of the reasons why the brilliant out-of-continuity comic Thor: The Mighty Avenger got cancelled after eight issues, despite being a fun, all-ages and thoroughly charming adventure comic).

So, there’s a certain logic in DC’s move… but the fact that they’re going for such a drastic reboot leaves me slightly perplexed. What I’ve seen of the new costumes (shown above in the cover for Justice League issue 1, by Jim Lee) doesn’t exactly fill me with confidence (especially that ‘styled up’ version of the Superman logo, which brings back worrying memories of the Nineties ‘Electric’ Superman redesign), and the statement that they’re doing “younger, cosmetically changed versions” of these characters immediately opens up questions as to what’s in and what’s out continuity-wise. The various dark events in the Justice League’s history in Identity Crisis? Batman being presumed dead in Final Crisis (leading to the current activity in Batman Incorporated)? There’s all sorts of knots they could tie themselves in, especially with ongoing series like Grant Morrison’s Batman Inc, which certainly doesn’t feel like it’s going to end in about three months. (And what about the notoriously delayed David Finch-drawn Batman series The Dark Knight? We’re barely onto issue 3 (after it being launched in November) and now they’re bringing in filler artists – is that going to get a relaunch, or will it just stagger to issue 6 and then get quietly cancelled?)

Another question – violence. DC Comics have been getting ridiculous in terms of violence and pretty damn unpleasant adult content recently (the biggest and most ridiculous of the lot being issue 3 of Rise of Arsenal, which plays like somebody read Alan Moore’s Watchmen and took every wrong lesson from that book that it’s possible to take). Is this going to continue? If DC are looking to bring new readers in, are we still going to get showers of gore, brutal violence, and incidents like the infamous rape of character Sue Dibney?

Also, there’s the Justice League. At the same time as Flashpoint issue 5, we get issue 1 of Justice League – a relaunched version of the comic that’s often been one of DC’s biggest titles, with DC bigwigs Geoff Johns and Jim Lee at the helm (although considering how notoriously late Jim Lee can sometimes get with his art, it remains to be seen how long he’ll be staying on it – this is one comic that can’t afford to ship late). And a new line-up, taking us mostly back to the Grant Morrison era JLA, where he took the then-pretty-ballsy move of actually putting DC’s biggest guns together – we get Superman, Batman, Green Lantern, The Flash and Wonder Woman. Oh, and Aquaman. And… er… Cyborg. (I mean, really? Cyborg? They seem to be making a lot of finally trying to make the DC Universe look a little more multi-cultural, after some very unfortunate examples of ethnic ‘legacy’ superhero characters meeting horrible ends and being replaced by their previous white alter-egos, but that’s the guy you promote to DC’s A-list? That’s the guy at the forefront of DC’s new ‘contemporary’ style – a character who fit in with the Teen Titans back in the Eighties and Nineties, but doesn’t exactly look tremendously sensible now?)

It’s possible, of course, that Flashpoint might act a little like the Time War in current Doctor Who continuity – a way of buffering the new continuity from the old. Old Who continuity is still there, and while there have been tweaks and rewrites (hello, new Cybermen) it hasn’t been completely up-ended in the way a new version of Who could have relaunched everything. There’s any number of ways they could be doing things – the fact that DC are potentially transforming their core universe into a version of the Marvel Ultimate universe (which was originally created as a jumping-on point for new readers, and a more ‘contemporary’ take on the characters) is certainly brave. The potential for messing this up is pretty big, of course, but modern-day mainstream comics certainly need new approaches, and anything which might free them up from the constraints of selling to the direct market (to fans who regularly bitch about event comics and getting more of the same, and yet only ever seem to buy big event comics and ignore the new, riskier titles) has got to be a good thing…

Comic Review – Batman : The Return of Bruce Wayne (Deluxe Edition)

Writer: Grant Morrison ~ Artists: Chris Sprouse, Frazer Irving, Yannette Paquette, Georges Jeanty, Ryan Sook, Lee Garbett ~ Publisher: DC Comics ~ Year: 2011

Return of Bruce Wayne Deluxe - cover[xrr rating=3.5/5]

The Low-Down: The return through time of the original Batman is as mindbending as you’d expect from the pen of controversial comics creator Grant Morrison. A wild, colourful and inventive journey through pulp storytelling, The Return of Bruce Wayne has some serious consistency problems and is in no way a ‘jumping on’ point, but the combination of adventure, mythmaking and experimental storytelling makes for a heady and entertaining brew.

The Backstory: He witnessed his parents’ murder when only eleven years old. Up until recently, multi-millionaire Bruce Wayne secretly used his resources, training and cunning to fight crime on the streets of Gotham under the costumed identity of the Batman – but after an apocalyptic confrontation with the god-like Darkseid, Wayne was apparently killed, and ex-sidekick Dick Grayson took over the mantle of the Caped Crusader.

What’s it About?: Bruce Wayne is far from dead. Displaced in time by the ‘Omega Effect’, he’s now lost in history, his memory in tatters, facing untold dangers in timezone after timezone, fighting to find his way back to the present day. Along the way, he’s also discovering dark secrets of the Wayne family, as well as clues to the identity of Dr. Hurt, the arch-criminal behind the organisation known as the Black Glove. Nothing is going to stop him from reaching his destination – but Darkseid already planned for this, and if Bruce Wayme arrives in the twenty-first century, it could mean destruction for everyone…

Return of Bruce Wayne #1 - Page 30The Story: There are some superhero stories where you can easily leap into the fray… and there are some where it’s a really bad idea. Grant Morrison’s comics have always been demanding and heavily interlinked, but his epic run on Batman has taken things to another level. Since 2006, he’s been telling a sprawling, ambitious novel-like story (which has also stretched into series like Final Crisis and Seven Soldiers of Victory), and just to make matters even more complicated, much of The Return of Bruce Wayne fits closely together with stories in his acclaimed run on Batman and Robin (especially ‘Batman vs Robin’ and ‘Batman and Robin Must Die!’ in volumes 2 and 3). So, if you’re looking for traditional, easily accessible superhero action – move along, there nothing for you here.

That’s not to say that The Return of Bruce Wayne doesn’t have plenty to offer, just that like ‘Batman R.I.P’, this is a smaller portion of a much larger work. Throughout his run on Batman, Morrison has been deliberately embracing the crazier elements of Batman’s lengthy history (most notably, working many of the overly camp 1950s-published sci-fi Batman stories into the fantastically twisted and disturbing ‘Batman R.I.P.’), and The Return of Bruce Wayne is the most extreme he’s gone yet. At first glimpse, there shouldn’t be anything further away from a traditional Batman tale than a crazy time-warp adventure that includes such memorable sights as Caveman Batman, Pilgrim Batman and Pirate Batman (although it has to be said, the story’s brief pirate persona for Bruce Wayne isn’t anywhere near as fun as Andy Kubert’s ludicrously brilliant cover illustration).

Batman Return of Bruce Wayne #3 - thebatrangerAnd yet, what Morrison has done is strip Batman down to barest essentials and rebuild him, while also putting Bruce Wayne in his proper context as a pulp hero. Each chapter of the story gives a new twist, exploring a different aspect of the character, pitching him against the ultimate enemy – History itself – and the end result is a deliriously barmy adventure that stretches a mystery across time, and raises the Batman to a truly mythic level.It also links back in surprising ways with ‘Batman: R.I.P’ and ‘Final Crisis’, layering in a massive amount of detail and pulling off some truly mind-expanding moments, especially in the Jack Kirby-esque science fictional final chapter.

It’s also true, though, that Morrison does throw a few too many ideas into the mix at times, and the book overall doesn’t always hit the fantastic highs of the brilliant Stone-Age-set opening chapter. There’s also the fact that we don’t really get the complete finale of Wayne’s time-travel adventures and Morrison’s uber-storyline here – the rest appears in the stories to be published in the upcoming Batman and Robin volume 3 – while DC’s decision not to reprint the key Batman issues 701 and 702 here (the atmospheric story ‘R.I.P.- The Missing Chapter’, which perfectly bridges the gap between ‘R.I.P’ and ‘Final Crisis’) means that it’s even harder to play catch-up than before. However, for those willing to try and keep up, what this collection lacks in consistency, it makes up for in adventurousness, creativity and sheer pulp pleasure.

Batman Return of Bruce Wayne Frazer IrvingThe Art: The plan was for each issue of this six-issue miniseries to be handled by a single artist, most of whom had worked with Morrison before (except for Chris Sprouse) – unfortunately, delays and production problems threw a spanner in the works, which means that the first half of The Return of Bruce Wayne is a very different visual proposition from the second. In the first three issues, we have Chris Sprouse’s clean and classical pulp stylings in the Caveman issue, the moody and lush digitally painted work of Frazer Irving on the Pilgrim issue, and the atmospheric pencils of Yannick Paquette on the Pirate story.

Sadly, Cameron Stewart dropped out of doing issue 4, the Western chapter, and while Georges Jeanty (best known for his work on the comic book ‘Season 8’ of Buffy the Vampire Slayer) pulls off some strong moments, his storytelling gets murky at times. The remaining two issues also see a major amount of work from fill-in artists, which is especially frustrating in the massively ambitious chapter 6. It often feels like Morrison is cursed to always see his most adventurous scripts plagued with production issues (similar problems affected the final volume of his Vertigo series The Invisibles), and The Return of Bruce Wayne is left halfway between being a major artistic showcase and a slightly rushed patch-up job. This Deluxe Format edition means the art looks as good as possible on over-size pages, and at its best, its an artistic jam to match the eclectic styles on show in Seven Soldiers of Victory – but there’s still a slight sense that not all the issues got the consistently great art that they deserved.

The Verdict: It’s not quite the rousing success it should have been – but even Morrison’s near-misses are fascinating, adventurous stuff, and The Return of Bruce Wayne is best read as simply one chapter of Morrison’s sweeping, genre-defying, experimental Bat-epic.

[amtap book:isbn=0857682148]

News: The Bat, The Cat and the… Bane?

Dark Knight Poster Batman

No longer do we have to make completely random and ill-structured guesses about the third Batman film based on vague rumours and hints. Now we can make our random and ill-structured guesses with information that’s rock solid!

Of course, today’s the day that we’ve found out official casting on Christopher Nolan’s simmering third Batman film, now titled The Dark Knight Rises. Aside from Christian Bale (and the presumed presence of Michael Caine, who’s ended up even more of a Nolan fixture than Bale has), the only confirmed name we had was Inception and Bronson star Tom Hardy:

Tom Hardy Inception

(Yes, he also played Picard clone Shinzon in the diabolically awful Star Trek: Nemesis, but I’m willing to forgive and forget). I was happy when I heard about this – Hardy is continuing to impress, and was one of the best things about Inception (managing to make the fact that Eames the Forger really wasn’t much of a role seem completely irrelevant, and being hugely engaging as well). And we didn’t even know who he was playing.

Well, now we do. The guesses flying around the internet said ‘Hugo Strange’ (a psychological lesser-known Batman villain, obsessed with the Dark Knight to the extent of actually wanting to be him), but it turns out Strange is in the new Batman: Arkham City game that’s on its way soon. Instead, and rather surprisingly, he’s playing this character:

Bane - Batman art page

Bane – who didn’t feature in any guesses, simply because you don’t instinctively look at Tom Hardy and think “There lies a man who’ll look fantastic in spandex and a Luchadore mask”. He’s a Latin American criminal genius who used to be fuelled by a highly addictive super-strength inducing drug called Venom, and is probably best known for being responsible for crippling Batman during the epic ‘Knightfall’ comic saga back in the mid-Nineties. Since then, he’s had a fairly complex history, and now regularly appears in Gail Simone’s highly acclaimed comic title Secret Six. No, the costume isn’t ideal, and neither is the fact that Bane has actually appeared onscreen before, in the hypnotically awful Batman and Robin in 1997, when he looked like this:

Bane - Movie Costume

I don’t think we need to start worrying, though – Bane wasn’t the first potential villain that leapt to mind, but dodgy costume aside (and Nolan’s films have happily redesigned costumes and looks – just look at the Joker…) I can see a tweaked version of him fitting into Nolan’s universe. In fact, I’d lay bets that they may be using ‘Knightfall’ as one of their loose starting points (In the same way that Batman Begins played with some aspects of Batman: Year One, and The Dark Knight echoed both Batman: The Long Halloween and Batman: The Killing Joke without being actual adaptations). It’s a story I enjoyed the hell out of back in 1994 – not without its problems, but it was a damn sight more exciting than any Batman films we’d had recently (especially after the headache-inducing Batman Forever). The setup is that Bane, hungry to take control of Gotham, targets Batman as a ‘fitting adversary’, works out that he’s Bruce Wayne and then sets about systematically destroying his life, culminating in a brutal fight in the Batcave where he breaks Batman’s back. I don’t expect to see any of that directly in the film, but considering that the Nolan version of Batman is already an official fugitive from justice and being directly hunted by police, echoes of ‘Knightfall’ could potentially play very nicely.

Catwoman Adam Hughes

We also got the not-very-surprising revelation that Catwoman is in – considering she’s about one of the only remaining members of Batman’s gallery of villains who’d fit smoothly into Nolan’s steely take on the Dark Knight mythos, it really wasn’t a case of if they were going to announce it, but when. Again, it’ll fit the Batman-on-the-run vibe, probably throwing the two of them together on the wrong side of the law. And we’ve got an actress cast:

Anne Hathaway

Anne Hathaway, the one thing that prevented me from trying to claw my own eyes out while having to review the grotesquely horrible live action Shrek wannabe Ella Enchanted (for SFX, many moons ago…). Hathaway is a really good actress – she was one of only a couple of names on the ‘shortlist’ flying around on the internet a while back who I looked at and thought “Yes, that’ll work”. While she has appeared in her fair share of souffle-light chick flicks and she’s not exactly a physical chameleon (Let’s just say – her attempt to look plain in the early scenes of The Devil Wears Prada weren’t going to nab her any Oscars), she’s an extremely good actress, and I’d offer up Rachel Getting Married as proof.

She’s really, really good in the film, carrying off a chain-smoking ex-junkie in a note-perfect and brilliantly emotional turn, and I think there’s the potential for a really interesting take on Catwoman from her. It’s one of those roles that everybody has a view on, and there’ll be tons of debate on her suitability over the next eighteen months until the movie opens, but considering how different and daring and yet utterly true to the character The Dark Knight’s take on the Joker was, I think we can safely rely on Nolan throwing a few curveballs in and not giving us a replay of Michelle Pfieffer in Batman Returns (not that many would complain about that), or a safe, watered down version of Catwoman. And whatever happens, whether Nolan does manage to trump The Dark Knight or not – she’s going to make a much better Catwoman than Halle Berry…

Catwoman Halle Berry

(*shiver*)

Shadow of the Bat

As an intermission from the somewhat downbeat (if understandable) current nature of this blog, here’s some thoughts that have been burbling around in my head, and which spun out of The Dark Knight…

I was a very craze-driven child. An idea would spark in my head, and I’d follow it completely. My first craze was SF, and most particularly Doctor Who, but eventually I would spread out – and some of my crazes would sometimes surprise me. I can remember thinking “Good lord, those daft metal Citadel Miniatures figures are ridiculously expensive – you’d have to be a complete idiot to be into that”, and barely a year later I was knee deep in them and slapping paint on them like there was no tomorrow. I can also remember thinking the same thing about American comics – I was raised on a diet of Doctor Who Monthly and 2000AD, and the bright, four-coloured universes of American Comics seemed completely alien to me.

Then, however, a few things happenned. I worked out that the same person seemed to have written a lot of comic strips I liked – and his name was Alan Moore. I knew he was writing this US comic called ‘Swamp Thing’- I looked at a recent issue, and it didn’t really look like my kind of thing. Too garish, too comic-y, lacking the grit that made 2000AD work. But then, I picked up a nice black-and-white collected edition of Swamp Thing: Volume Two, and it nearly took my head off. This was creepy, weird and beautifully done stuff, and then I was noticing that a name I recognised from the introductions of various Swamp Thing graphic novels, and a name who’d also written various film reviews in a magazine called Space Voyager (including one about Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, which led to me watching what was to become my favourite film) was also now writing comics. In fact, there was this new one that had just come out – I didn’t know anything about it, but I loved Dave McKean’s artwork and he’d done the cover, so I thought ‘Why not’? and gave issue 1 of Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman a try.

The thing which opened out the world of comics, however, was The Killing Joke. The combination of Alan Moore and Brian Bolland was more than my brain could take – I already knew Bolland for being the artist on the original (and best) Judge Death strips in 2000AD, and his work and craftmanship was simply amazing, resulting in comics that seemed to leap off the page at you. As a result, picking it up for £1.95 seemed like a slam-dunk, and it was the first ‘prestige format’, square-bound and glossy comic I’d ever read. It was also one of the most amazing, even though it took a couple of reads to completely get all the nuances. The main thing to remember about The Killing Joke is that, at the time, to anyone outside the world of comics, you said ‘Batman’ and the instant result was Adam West. The show had been repeated regularly, and was heavily ingrained in pop culture. It didn’t matter that Batman wasn’t originally like that – that was the most recent screen iteration, and that’s what stuck. And I think that’s one of the main reasons why the ‘Graphic Novel’ craze in the late Eighties happenned – while Watchmen attracted plenty of attention (and has, arguably, ended up with more longevity), it was The Killing Joke and especially The Dark Knight Returns that grabbed the limelight, simply because this was a take on a character we simply weren’t used to seeing. Going from Adam West and Burt Ward dashing around a garish Gotham and battling with Cesar Romero’s hilariously overacting Joker, to a pretty-damn terrifying Joker crippling Batgirl, abducting Comissioner Gordon and putting all his effort into trying to drive him insane – it was a major conceptual leap, and there’s a mythic aspect to both Knight and Joke that plays into it as well. It’s seeing what had succesfully been played as a self-aware joke suddenly turned straight – neither side was necessarily wrong (the Sixties Batman show is, while repetitive, also hilarious fun), it was the shock of the new, it was seeing something familiar in a brand new light. I went on to read The Dark Knight Returns, but while Frank Miller’s style and bombast was impressive, it was the insidious creepiness of The Killing Joke that stuck with me, and the way it managed to make the Joker both fearsome and tragic.

It was probably this that meant I went to see 1989’s Batman (as did most of civilisation at the time), and came out thinking “?” Let’s not mince words – the 89 Batman movie is a triumph of production design, but it”s really not a particularly good movie. Tim Burton is a great stylist but as a storyteller he’s hugely dependant on the script, and it also doesn’t help that he’s far more interested in the freaks than Batman himself – a problem that became especially apparent in Batman Returns. The 89 original has a couple of decent moments, and certainly opened up the idea of a darker interpretation of the Batman mythos, but it’s not a particularly exciting movie, and Jack Nicholson’s turn as the Joker is a shamelessly lazy bit of overacting – a performer who obviously knows his best work is behind him getting paid obscene amounts of money to have fun on a film he wasn’t too keen on making in the first place. It was the first event movie where it didn’t seem to matter how good the film was but how universal the merchandising presence was, and I remember feeling like they really hadn’t gotten it. There were brief aspects of the darker, creepier version of Batman there, but the whole thing was cartoony, played broad, and simply never felt like it completely meant it, combined with the virtual absence of a plot.

The film series spiralled downwards into Shumacher hell with Batman Forever – one of the few films to genuinely give me a migraine – while I went through some serious comic phases, and even picked up Batman itself regularly during one of the OTT multi-issue crossover ‘events’ that were so prevailent back in the early Nineties. Knightfall, where Bruce Wayne is driven to the edge and crippled, and an unbalanced new Batman takes his place, was rough around the edges but had a sense of drama and reality that the films were completely ignoring. It was good, action-packed stuff, even if my attention drifted away as the series started inevitable heading back towards the status quo. I was sensible enough to avoid Batman and Robin at the cinemas – I once attempted to sit through it on video, and only made it about half an hour in before I had to switch it off. The fact that the rest of the world seemed to feel the same was reassuring, in a way, but then the series became mired in development hell, and the idea of anything decent coming out of it seemed absurd.

It was Christopher Nolan who got me interested again. I loved Batman Begins when I first saw it – I still like it, but some of the cheesier dialogue and the ‘blockbuster mentality’ of the final half hour is rather hard to swallow. Most of all, it was a relief to see a Batman film that was actually about Batman, and which approached the whole mythos from a rigidly realistic perspective – taking you in step by step, showing Bruce Wayne finding his way towards being Batman, and making it somehow convincing and believable that a billionaire playboy is dressing up in bat-themed military-spec gear and going out to beat the crap out of criminals. Christian Bale was near-perfect casting – he’s not the warmest actor in the world (it’d be nice, if unlikely, to see him in a comedy) but he completely nails Bruce Wayne as an actual character, and the film served up a whole collection of talented character actors, and a low-key but excellent villain in Cillian Murphy’s Scarecrow. It’s a far more consistent film than the fun but over-rated Spider-Man 2 – it just didn’t quite get where it needed to be, and there was the sense that a really, really impressive film was trying to get out from behind all the obvious notes from the studio and blockbuster quips.

Well, it turns out that that impressive film has come out – it took Batman Begins to get to The Dark Knight, and it’s an upgrade that makes the increase in quality between X-Men and X-Men 2 look hilariously mild by comparison. It’s not perfect – there are elements in The Dark Knight that are a little tricky, I’m not completely fond of Harvey Dent’s look as Two-Face (It’s suitably grotesque, but feels just a little too extreme and comic-book to fit with the otherwise rigidly realistic world Nolan has created), the plotline with Gordon’s fake death was bewildering and unconvincing (it’s not like they were ever going to kill Gordon off- or even if they did, they wouldn’t do it in such an off-hand manner) and some of the action sequences could do with being a little clearer and less frantically edited – but as superhero movies go – and frankly, movies in general – this was amazing stuff. What’s most astonishing is that, essentially, it’s an epic crime thriller, it’s Batman done as a Michael Mann film, and the simple excess of “Oh my god, they’re not going to – THEY DID!!” moments is something to behold. It’s a 2 1/2 hour movie that doesn’t really drag, and it’s also one of the most fantastically bleak blockbusters I’ve seen – it’s seriously unforgiving, amazingly violent, and with a tone and reach that had me sat there, in my IMAX cinema seat, amazed. (As a note – the IMAX version was amazing, but it was a little distracting at times – the switch between formats would sometimes happen for a single cityscape shot, and I can’t help feeling it would have been better if they could have kept it purely for specific sequences).

And then, of course, there’s Heath Ledger. Watching an actor who’s died young is always a faintly morbid experience, especially in this case as it’s hard to deny that Ledger is anything other than absolutely phenomenal in this role. Together with the screenplay, this is a version of the Joker that’s the closest I’ve ever seen to The Killing Joke – not a capering, quipping rent-a-villain with a fake smile, but a sick, twisted and utterly psychotic clown who’s near-unstoppable simply because of the fact that he doesn’t care about anything except chaos – and yet they actually managed to take the character even further. I know there have been complaints about the level of violence in The Dark Knight – it’s certainly the tough end of the 12A, and yet most of it is in tone rather than visuals, and frankly, it’s a Batman film. It’s a dark story, and if it doesn’t tackle some dark and disturbing stuff, it’s not doing its job properly. Ledger is incredible in this, nestling comfortably in the top-ranks of cinematic villains. It’s tragic that he’s gone, but as last complete performances go, this is a hell of a note to end on.

The success of The Dark Knight is somewhat amazing, considering how pitilessly bleak it is – and it’s rather concerning that as a result of that success, one of the Warner Bros production heads has said that they’ll be marching lots more DC heroes into production, and aiming for the same kind of dark tone as that’s obviously what people want. It’s understandable from a business point of view, but it’s also a major mistake. Bryan Singer’s dour and misconceived (but still occasionally majestic) Superman Returns may not have relaunched the franchise the way WB hoped, but I can’t even see the point of a dark, hard-edged Superman film. The whole principle of Superman is that he’s the yin to Batman’s yang – together they’re the day and night of the DC universe. Superman Returns failed because it was too faithful to the wrong bits of the original Superman films – instead of capturing the fun, Singer went for the angst and the slow pace, and ended up with a film that’s really not that enjoyable (I feel sorry for Brandon Routh – he’s genuinely excellent in Superman Returns, but doesn’t get the film he deserves). Superman needs to be bold, colourful and brassy to work – Superman II is, despite being a hodge-podge of Richard Donner and Richard Lester, superbly entertaining and gets almost all the notes right. And they should also beware, as superhero comics themselves went ultra-dark as a result of The Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen – suddenly you couldn’t move for vengeful, driven heroes and dark, unpleasent stories. And people got bored.

Dark works with Batman – it’s not going to work with everything. The Dark Knight returns hasn’t made over $500 million at the US Box office because its dark, or even because Heath Ledger is dead. It’s earned it because it’s a very, very good film thats packed with enough good stuff to warrant a re-watch, and if they can remember that when they green-light their next superhero flicks maybe- just maybe- they’ll have a chance….