Tuesday, December 15, 2015

DC Batman crossovers that worked — and one that didn't

DC crossing over with another comic-book publisher isn't a new thing. In fact, the six-ssue BATMAN/TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES series is the latest in the Dark Knight crossing paths with a wide variety of famous characters published by other comic-book companies. (Issue 1 -- reviewed here at CCC -- is out now.)

In the mid-1990s, Batman teamed up with or battled various top-tier characters in one-shot graphic novels or two-issue limited series. As odd as many of the combinations are (Batman versus Dracula and Predator in separate adventures!), most of the stories are fun to read and hold up well after all these years.

One of the more unusual combinations that is a great read is the two-issue BATMAN/ALIENS, co-published by DC and Dark Horse Comics in the spring of 1997. With a story by Ron Marz and great art by Bernie Wrightson, the Dark Knight fights for his life and those of a search party looking for a missing Wayne Enterprise geologist in a jungle at the Mexico-Guatemala border.

What works so well is Marz focuses on Batman's detective skills and his drive to survive, while just as importantly embracing the creepy horror of the first two "Aliens" films. Grade: B+

The two Batman-Spawn team-ups are the exception to the idea that two big-name comic book characters should be a natural fit.

Art from SPAWN/BATMAN by Todd MacFarlane
Image Comics was the primary publisher of the DARK KNIGHT RETURNS-era story in the SPAWN/BATMAN graphic novel. Although the second one-shot, BATMAN/SPAWN: WAR DEVIL, also is a joint publication, DC essentially is the primary publisher. WAR DEVIL is much more enjoyable, but honestly is as equally forgettable as the other. It's written by the three greatest writers of Batman adventures at the time, Doug Moench, Chuck Dixon and Alan Grant, with pencils and inks by Klaus Janson. WAR DEVIL grade: C

With wonder boys writer Frank Miller and artist and Spawn creator Todd MacFarlane teaming up for SPAWN/BATMAN and the characters that were red-hot in the 1990s, the stories sounded like they should have been a home run.

Sadly, none of it works — although MacFarlane's art is a feast for the eyes. The dialogue is cringe-inducing and clumsy. The characters come off as schmucks, they never gel and each graphic novel proved that not everything with the names Miller, MacFarlane, Batman and Spawn on it are proven winners. SPAWN/BATMAN grades: Art: A; Story: D

On the other hand, Miller may be on the way to redeeming his two back-to-back mishandling of Batman, including the ill-advised three-issue series BATMAN: THE DARK KNIGHT STRIKES AGAIN

He is co-writing the RETURNS-era MASTER RACE limited series. Judging by the first issue (out now), this fan says that thanks to co-writer Brian Azzarello and killer art by Andy Kubert with Janson's inks, Miller may have rediscovered his Batman mojo. Just in time to end his DARK KNIGHT RETURNS trilogy.

Back to Batman crossover collaborations that work.

Writer-artist John Byrne knocks it out of the park with BATMAN/CAPTAIN AMERICA, published jointly by DC and its distinguished competition, Marvel Comics, in 1996.

For one thing, Byrne doesn't just pencil the graphic novel, he inks his own work and does all the lettering. Having drawn one of the most iconic takes of Captain America ever, he's a natural at depicting Cap, Bucky and the Red Skull, but Byrne -- being John Freakin' Awesome Byrne -- is equally great at drawing Batman and Robin.

Of particular note is the detail which Byrne gives the Batcave in the splash page halfway through the graphic novel. He gives "special thanks to Dick Sprang," but Byrne's multi-layer design of the Batcave is unique and one of the coolest I've ever seen.

Just as important as the characterization and utmost respect Byrne has for Marvel and DC's Dynamic Duos (who pair off with the other's partner as the story reaches its climax), the writer-artist extraordinaire handles their archenemies, the Red Skull and Joker, with equal dignity.

The villains are as nasty and crazy as you'd expect, but Byrne makes the interesting choice of having The Joker (the "weakest" looking of all of Byrne's characters) eventually being disgusted at working for The Red Skull because he's a Nazi, not because of his diabolical plan. I guess it takes a special kind of insanity to see just how insane the Red Skull is ...!

Byrne sets the story in January 1945 and aside from a mild bit of rivalry between Robin and Bucky, he makes it clear Batman and Captain America aren't just aware of each other, they respect what the other does.

When the government suspects Bruce Wayne of providing major funding of the mysterious "Gotham Project," Steve Rogers is assigned to be the millionaire's bodyguard. (Naturally, Byrne makes the men as handsome as DC and Marvel readers have come to expect!) Rogers is bored stiff at following Wayne's socialite and philanthropic lifestyle, but eventually Byrne has the two characters fight it out -- in their secret identities in Wayne's private Wayne Enterprise office. It takes just a few panels over two pages for Wayne and Rogers to know his opponent is his equal (although interestingly, Wayne thinks Rogers "seems almost to have a slight edge"!) and the two are smart enough to recognize who the other man really is. And their bond is further cemented. Grade: A

Another must-read, Batman-based DC/Marvel crossover is BATMAN/SPIDER-MAN. Published in 1997, the story is written by J.M. DeMatteis (one of the finest Cap writers ever!) with art by Graham Nolan, whose stellar work on DETECTIVE COMICS in the 1990s with Dixon is insanely underrated and underappreciated. Karl Kesel's inks complement Nolan's clean art.

Just as Byrne does in his Batman-Captain America team-up, the name of the game is respect and equally challenging villains: Ra's al Ghul and the Kingpin (aka Wilson Fisk).

I'm not sure if the Powers That Be at Marvel and DC made the editorial decision about who Batman and Spider-Man should face, but the choice is perfect. I'll give credit to DeMatteis, who is just that brilliant to choose two supervillains who complement each other so well.

Who knew Fisk and Ra's had so much in common until they were in the same comic book? They are power-hungry men used to getting their way and have a vision for what their worlds are and aren't. Just as screenwriters are figuring out with villains in superhero and action films and TV series, Ra's and Fisk think they are the heroes and saviors of their own stories.

But it's the women in their lives -- Talia al Ghul and Vanessa Fisk -- where DeMatteis really strikes writing gold. (His and Nolan's Talia is the stunning femme fatale she was created to be, not the murderous, power-hungry, cold-hearted b**** she has been for the last decade or more.) The Demon Head's daughter and Fisk's wife know the men in their lives are dangerous, but they stay loyal respectively to Ra's and Fisk -- even as they fear them.

And in yet one more eerie parallel, those same women are the only weakness that the Kingpin and Ra's have (aside from their overinflated egos). Keeping with that parallel motif, Nolan designs a genius splash page which splits Batman and Talia's faces, paralleling the Dark Knight describing Ra's as "madman" as his daughter shares why he's "a visionary."

Spider-Man and Batman shine too, albeit in more subtle ways. DeMatteis delivers a Spidey who is ready with a quip without ever making him obnoxious. Webhead's energy is a nice foil for Batman, the straight man in the story.

It's Spidey who lays what should be the foundation for the collaboration of any heroes with different M.O.s: "Y'know, we could spend all night waltzing around the rooftop -- or we could cut to the chase and stop playing games with each other."

DeMatteis delivers a lean story in which the heroes know how to work well together. He gets to the heart of both Batman and Spider-Man. Not to mention their archenemies and the women in their lives. Grade: A  

2 comments:

  1. I am not a fan of the Batman/Captain America book. John was starting his slide into sloppy artwork, and I just couldn't handle seeing this happen. After witnessing his high on Superman and various books and projects for DC in the late 80s, following him back to Marvel and then his own title of Next Men was a series of disappointments.

    I am a huge Simon Bisley fan. I know you have limited space, but I have to give my support for the Batman/Judge Dredd title painted by Bisley. I read somewhere at the time that his artwork was deemed priceless by a museum in Britain, though I can't find a record of that statement today. It is fantastic, and to have Batman team up with a small publisher was, at the time, phenomenal.

    Batman is a terrific vehicle for storytelling, and should be compatible with so many other characters.

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  2. Aside from Byrne's artwork, did you enjoy the story? Obviously I did/do; I think it captures the magic of the Golden Age — but without the cheese factor.

    I too enjoyed the Batman-Dredd stories. Not really a fan of Simon Bisley's art in general, but it works in the Dredd universe.

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