August 12, 2009

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Batman: Masque

Written by Mike Grell
Illustrated by Mike Grell
DC

I love "What If..." stories, and am quite proud of my near-complete collection of both runs of the title. (I haven't gotten any of the newer ones, but I appreciate they exist and will probably get to them eventually. So many comics, so little time...) Therefore, I am also a big fan of DC's Elseworlds line, which shows up so rarely anymore it's criminal.

Most of the Elseworlds I've read involve either Batman or Superman or both because they're so iconic it makes them adaptable into other properties. In this case, it's Batman in the world of the Phantom of the Opera, with the usually wonderful Mike Grell providing art and script.

Now I realize I'm a reviewer and not a professional writer, so I try not to judge, but I think Grell missed a great opportunity here. What if Batman was the Phantom, haunting a corrupt theatre that killed his parents? Sounds pretty cool, and that's definitely what the cover implied.

But inside, we get a fairly standard Batman story that's just set in the world of the Phantom of the Opera. Batman patrols the night as the story opens, assisting the TV version of Gordon and O'Hara. He possibly causes a well-renowned actor to be badly disfigured and the next thing you know, the theatre is haunted by...well, a familiar Batman villain who leaves his change at home for this one.

Things follow the Phantom plot for a bit and then a fight scene ends the day, with Bats feeling like he cannot do anything but be Batman, just like in the "real" DCU.

A good alternative story takes the characters and shakes things up a bit or creates a situation that is familiar but changed by the world around them. An actor hurts himself and thinks he's Batman. A lawman can't beat Al Capone so he dons a mask to fight crime a different way. Power corrupts a good man and his quest for justice ends badly as he becomes worse than the foes he fights. Heck, maybe there's an evil Batman who can only be foiled by the heroic Joe Kerr.

My point is that for an Elseworlds story to work for me, there has to be something that changes the dynamic sufficiently to make it interesting. In this case, there is nothing in the plot that makes it necessary for this to be set anywhere but in "our" Gotham and so I'm left wondering why they charged $7.00 for what could have been, with a few less splash pages, 2 issues of Legends of the Dark Knight. (Keep in mind this is 1997 dollars, so we're looking at what could have easily been two $2.00 issues instead.)

It doesnt help that Grell doesn't seem to have put his strongest effort into either the artwork or the dialog. While the outlines of the characters are vintage Grell (and quite pretty), the work inside the lines is filled with, well, lines. Was he running out of ink the month he worked on this? The inking is so stuck with lines instead of actual inking, I thought maybe someone else had done it. When faces look like they slept on a pair of corderoy pants, it's distracting.

The dialog is similarly stilted, with Batman moping about as stererotypically as possible and the other characters spouting lines like, "And frankly, most of my men have the climbing skills of a water buffalo...on roller skates." Another example: "His death was a waste, Mr. Wayne...but his LIFE wasn't."

I've read as much Green Arrow and Jon Sable as I can get my hands on, and I really like them. This is not a case of me disliking the creative team so much as expecting more from someone as talented as Grell.

Batman: Masque is not a bad comic, or even a bad Elseworlds. It's just average, with some spots that are below average. For those who immediately recognize Mike Grell's name and body of work, that's going to be disappointing. Only those really jonesing for more Grell or more Batman should seek this one out. There's definitely better Elseworlds work out there.