I'm pretty neutral towards the matter, Bane is an interesting and pivotal character from what I've seen, but he came around in comics published after my time, so I can't really judge Tom Hardy's casting. Catwoman is a character who never really did much for me in a non-TnA way. Personally, I always felt the femme fatales of Will Eisner's The Spirit were much more interesting than her. Anyway, I'm interested in how Anne Hathaway will interpret the role. Who knows, it may be her chance to break with her good girl image.
Anyway, this has inspired me to pull out a few TPB anthologies collecting the appearences of the various Bat rogues. Besides, I've wanted to do some comics reviews for a while. First up, may as well start with Batman's most famous foe; The Joker.
The Greatest Joker Stories Ever Told:
The Joker must have personally picked out this collection, and it's later follow up Joker: The Greatest Stories Ever Told, because it seems to have been someone's idea of a joke. The first collection, published to coincide with the 1989 film's release, seems to eschew recent appearences of the character in favor of predominantly older comics, meaning a good chunk of the contents is made up of goofy stories from the mid 40's-late 60's, where the villain was primarily a harmless prankster, while I prefer him in a more sinister light. In either case, this collection must have come off as bizarre to newcomers who picked up the book after seeing the film.
The newer volume, while recognizing modern achievements, and thus, mostly stories which portray the Joker as a psychotic killer, seems to have chosen the stories completely at random, and one doesn't really get a taste of each era.
The strange thing? I much prefer the first volume, simply because it reprints some of my favorite stories featuring the character. Standouts include his first appearence from Batman #1, an eerie horror story whose only weak element, in fact, is the appearence of Batman himself! Up until then, it feels like something straight out of an old dark house murder mystery, drawing a clear inspiration from films like The Gorilla(1939) and(ironically) The Bat(1926). What's fascinating is how much of the story remained intact in the film The Dark Knight. Then there's The Great Clayface-Joker Feud from Batman #159, which is so silly you can't help but love it. This is the good kind of camp that fans who prefer more lioght-hearted takes on Batman often wax poetically about. The odd thing? With it's attempts at character bits, the story seems to have been intended to be taken seriously. Sometimes you really gotta question the "purity" of the "good 'ol days".
Then there's The Joker's Five-Way Revenge from Batman #251, which could be described simply as "The Joker kills people one-by-one, then Batman chases him, gets put in a death trap, then catches him and beats him up" without missing a beat. But you know what? Thanks to Neal Adam's magnificent artwork and some mood-setting captions by Denny O' Neil, this comes off as a genuinely chilling read at times. It would be easy to call this an overrated story because it's so simple plotwise, because it's mostly famous for returning the Joker to his homicidal roots, because this one shot of Batman pursuing the Joker on a beach is often swiped by other artists, and because most of my positive feelings about it come from reading it as a kid, having nightmares for a week and then bragging to all my friends about how I'd found one of the scariest comics ever, but somehow this story just hits the spot.
It also has a shark in it. Everything's better with sharks.
So while this early volume is bogged down by some crap, there's still a lot of goodies to round it out. The second volume boasts some gems like Slayride from Detective Comics #826, and the New Year's Eve chapter from Jeph Loeb's overrated, bloated and self-indulgent The Long Halloween. This New Year's Eve chapter is one of the stronger bits, and boasts some clever moments of black humor, such as when the Joker tells a dead flight attendant that smoking is hazardous to her health. Otherwise, the volume's contents are real headscratchers for inclusion.
One story, from Batman #66, seems to have been reprinted solely because of it's online infamy for overruse of the word "Boner". Reprinting something simply because of a lame internet meme? Real classy DC.
The first story, with Batman in Asia on the trail of a criminal named Dr. Darrk and his encounter with Al Ghul's daughter Talia, has a great pulp atmosphere, so too does the first appearence of Al Ghul in the second, which is justly celebrated as a classic. Well-plotted, beautifully drawn, building up layer and layer of intrigue about Ras Al Ghul and his daughter, and best of all, giving Batman an actual chance to act as a detective, this one's a keeper. Only problem is, it's too good, so good that it's humorous ending seems abrupt and unsatisfying.
Al Ghul and Talia continued to appear for several issues as wild card supporting charatcers who may or may not be evil. Ultimately, writer Denny O' Neil appeared to lose interest in developing the characters, and their characterization become spotty, with Batman unarguably considering the Al Ghul's allies, but treating them curtly and attacking their henchmen even though they fight for the same cause. Then, when Batman finally becomes aware of their villainy, it comes across as extremely unconvincing.
Batman has no trouble with the shady and sinister actions the two have taken, many for frivolous purposes, such as seeing whether Batman is a suitable boyfriend for Talia by kidnapping Robin and threatening to expose Batman's secret identity, and he surprisingly doesn't seem too disatisfied with both of them killing, either.
What alerts him to Ra's villainy? Because Ras harvests a murder vicitm's brain to probe it. Okay, that is pretty disturbing, but it's only to obtain essential information for solving a case. Batman blows a gasket, and immediately decides that Ras is his "arch-enemy" and sets out to destroy him. Now, probing dead brains isn't exactly something a good guy would do, but look at some of the things Batman himself has done to interrogate criminals! To be fair, the brain is depicted in agony, and Batman puts it out of it's misery, but just because someone is inhumane doesn't automatically make them "a modern-day Hitler"(a term Batman uses repeatedly to describe Al Ghul). Possibly Batman concluded that Al Ghul had comitted the murder to obtain the brain himself, but we never actually see him make that conclusion or learn if that's the case.
So basically Batman's entire reason for concluding Al Ghul is an evil monster who has supplanted the Joker and Adolf Hitler was based on jumping to a conclusion. He also misconstrues a line Ras delivers about making the world a better place to mean he intends to conquer it and forge it into a utopia, without any proof Ras means such a thing. Yeah, we're expected to believe that Batman has never made a similar statement or heard it from one of his superhero buddies, but when the creepy foreign dude with a hot asian-looking daughter makes it, he's a megalomaniac that has to be put down at all costs.
Really, really, unfortunate implications going on here.
So what does Batman do to take down these sinister, inhumane, untrustworthy former allies of his? He...hires sinister, inhumane, untrustworthy people as allies. Makes sense...no wait it doesn't. Batman's team is made up of a whiny, reluctant professor who pretty much proves useless, a gangster named "Matches" Malone who shoots himself accidentally and whom Batman then impersonates from thereon, a member of Ras Al Ghul's cult who Batman recruits with absolutely no reason to believe he's trustworthy and who spends two issues attempting to either back out or kill him. Why, why would Batman hire these worthless, untrustworthy, squabbling fools? If Ras is such a potential threat, why not ask his Justice League buddies for help? Okay, that would seem to obvious or too anticlimactic. So why not recruit some obscure heroes like the Creeper? Or since O' Neil apparently wanted to make Batman's anti-Ras team interesting and edgy, why not recruit some of his more sympathetic villains like Catwoman, Two-Face or Man-Bat? Nope. The storyline goes downhill from there, although Batman's sword-fight with Ras at the conclusion of the 'saga" is one of the best art jobs of Neal Adam's career.
The rest of the book's contents are made up of random stories where Ras pops up, the best of which is a one-issue story illustrated by Michael Golden where Ras marries off Talia to Batman while he loots the city. It works as a frivoulous adventure, nothing more.
All in all, while I appreciate the obvious pulpish influences that went into the concept of Ras, making him equal parts Fu Manchu, John Sunlight and the Hammer films version of Dracula, and while the character has been used to much greater effect by other writers, here in these original stories(up until that marriage story), we never get a sense or even confirmation of him being much of a threat, and certainly not a great threat worthy of usurping the Joker as Batman's archfoe.
At best this "saga" comes off as an occasionally entertaining story about a stupid Batman misjudging a man and turning out to be right by the dumbest of coincidences. At worst, it come soff as a an attempt to create a great villain that tries waaaay too hard at times, and waaaay too little at others. And while it sounds like I'm being too harsh on Batman's characterization, really, if he was real it's his own damn fault for trusting a guy whose name translates as "The Demon's Head" then realizing the guy is bad news over something so stupid. Still, get this collection for the artwork alone. Neal Adams, Bob Brown, Michael Golden, Don Newton. How could you go wrong?
And I have to admit for all my problems with the story, I do like it.