Friday Double Feature Comics Show: The Bat-Man

Welcome to this week's edition of the Friday Double Feature Comics Show, The Long and Shortbox of It's tribute to that most abstract, underrated and misunderstood quality of comics- pulp. This week: The Bat-Man.

In some ways, Batman is the most pulpy figure in all of comics. He's the world's greatest detective, he's trained to physical perfection, he's rich enough to maintain all sorts of useful gadgets, and, as a matter of official policy, he doesn't exist. It's almost as if he's Sam Spade, Doc Savage and the Spirit all rolled into one cool bat-package, as if he was created to take some of the most popular features from all of the pulps and use them to complement each other.

In other ways, though, Batman has a sheen that makes attempts at adding a little grit to the character fall flat; this is, I suspect, a result of the campy television series featuring Adam West as the Caped Crusader. For a long time, this is the vision of the character that held sway. Then the 80's happened, and grime came back to Gotham, and, while sometimes the two visions of the character manage to coexist (notably in Tim Burton's movie), Batman's pulpier side has been winning ever since. Even the campier parts of the Batman mythos- like the Batman of Zur-Ehn-Arrh- have been pulped a little bit in the recent past, and, as a result, are both a little more serious and a little more wild than those elements were originally.

In this context, then, the presence of two very pulpy Batman-related miniseries makes a great deal of sense. Both Brian Azzarello's First Wave and Grant Morrison's The Return of Bruce Wayne are pulp rewritings of DC history, with the former combining the various worlds of characters like Doc Savage, The Spirit and the Blackhawks with that of the Caped Crusader, while the latter suggests that Batman is sort of an every-hero, at least as far as pulp standbys are concerned: cavemen, cowboys, puritans, detectives, pirates, etc. Both ideas are fascinating, and both series are pretty good, if also flawed, and last week's releases are pretty good examples why.

The Return of Bruce Wayne #4, which is officially titled "Dark Night, Dark Rider" but which everyone is calling "The One With Cowboy Batman", is, in terms of its self-contained story, the clearest entry in the mini-series yet. Everything about this issue, in and of itself, makes complete sense: there's a clear narrative arc, we understand each character's motivations, there's no difficult to understand sci-fi mumbo-jumbo that will prove unnecessary because of a much simpler explanation later and, most importantly, it all connects back into itself. The story is Grant Morrison at his absolute tightest, if not his absolute best (there's nothing mind-blowing here, just comics in a grand style); others have found the inclusion of Jonah Hex a mite superfluous, but in giving us Hex rather than some random bounty hunter, Morrison gives us a clear idea of his intentions for the part Hex has to play and of the story's stakes. This makes "The One With Cowboy Batman" an extremely satisfying single issue- it successfully tells its own story while also moving the larger picture along, giving us hints at what's to come and revealing just enough to make questions about what's in that box with the Bat Symbol just as intriguing as any possible answer. As this series goes on, the way Grant Morrison sees Batman becomes increasingly clear, and I suspect the revelation he's building towards is going to indicate, in a much more decisive way than I have above, that Batman is the ultimate pulp hero.

Georges Jeanty's art, although rushed, has its moments too- there's a particular image of smilin', batarang throwin' Batman that comes to mind, but there's nothing all that special about it, nor anything particularly pulpy. It's not like Jim Lee's art, for sure, but there's nothing grimy or ever slightly so gratuitous about it- it's just solid and business like.

Something similar could be said about Rags Morales' art in First Wave #3 although I'm curious how a color scheme without the same texture as Nei Ruffino's would affect the way the book is interpreted. Morales' pencils are appropriately grim and his characterizations are strong but, surprisingly given the way DC is selling the book, it doesn't seem to be particularly pulpy.

Azzarello, too, runs into some problems here- it's hard to distinguish between the different narrators, and the scenes, short and choppy as they are, sometimes make it difficult to follow the story in any real coherent way. Azz is just trying to do a little too much here, and the book's every other month schedule doesn't help matters. He is, however, letting his intentions for the book's tone show on his sleeve and, even if his story isn't great, the characterization is pretty good: Batman is skilled and dangerous but new to the life of a man of mystery, The Spirit (whom, of all the characters, Azzerello seems to have the best handle on) is goofy but ever so serious in just the right way, the Blackhawks are hellbent on completing there mission, Doc Savage is determined to figure out what's going on and there's a mystery afoot, one which is going to bring all of the characters into the vortex of a deeply scary group with utopian intentions. This book's headed deep, deep into pulp territory and, if Azzerello can reign himself in, it could end up a truly great comic, one that's proud of its influences- influences that are nothing but pulp.

These two books together make a good barometer for where the understanding of Batman is as at the moment, or at least of the understanding that DC is trying its hardest to push, and it is a pulpy vision indeed. I'm interested to see where these books go, and the ways in which they intersect and diverge in the future. Hopefully Morrison's ending lives up to its potential and Azzerello finds his way, because they are two comics that could go a long way to adding a little grit into superhero fare, into bringing a little pulp back into style.

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