November 22, 2009

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Tales of the Multiverse: Batman--Vampire

Written by Doug Moench
Illustrated by Kelley Jones, John Beatty, and Malcolm Jones III
DC

One of the nifty things about DC's decision to have more than one universe again is their reprinting of this set of three Elseworlds stories featuring a world in which Batman fights vampires.

I could probably just end the review here and most folks would know right away if they were interested in reading such a story. Those who like their Batman purely grounded in reality will hate seeing him blend into supernatural horror while those who enjoy seeing familiar faces in strange roles will revel in some of the twists and turns Moench employs.

And then of course, there's Kelley Jones, a lightning rod in and of his own right. You either love the guy or hate him, it seems, as he morphs the human form and defies reality with his desire to add visual effects to stories. He is in fine form here, crafting demons for the Dark Knight to fight and creating some absolutely horrific images that manage to capture the feel of Moench's script in ways a more traditional artist could not.

There's also the fact that a Moench script tends to be just a bit on the side of purple prose, which can be a bit of a problem in places, particularly when he ham-fists just a bit on the idea of good and evil. You can tell he cut his writing teeth in 1970s Marvel horror comics and never quite grew out of the habit of really hammering the point home, whatever that points happens to be. It can be a problem in places, particularly when Bruce is monologuing, but doesn't ruin the overall atmosphere of creepy, over-the-top horror running throughout these stories.

The first act features Batman plagued by dreams of a woman while Gotham faces a new mass-murderer that's being kept under wraps. Throats are being slashed amongst the lower classes, and it's up to Bats to save the day. But what happens when the foes you fight are stronger than you and seemingly can't be killed? It's time for a man of science to become a man of faith and accept a desperate transformation to stop the ultimate evil (which is saying something for Gotham, let me tell you) from taking over his city. Can even Batman stop Dracula?

I realize this was designed as a fun wromp, but I have to admit, I rather disliked the idea that Bruce gives up on science to accept that only by giving in to the myth of vampires can he save the day. He doesn't even really try for a technical solution, and that's not the Bruce Wayne I know. I also don't quite get why there's a stupid amount of acid rain on Gotham--it's like a lost political statement that didn't fit with the rest of the gothic horror elements. Neither are enough to stop me from enjoying the story, but it is a weird decision on the part of Moench.

Artistically speaking, Jones is a bit restrained in the first section, though a careening Batmobile with trailing Batman cape is probably my favorite "only Jones draws like this" moment. He does some amazing Batman shots, refusing to just allow him to stand there--Bats is always creeping, crouching, or using his cape to strike a pose. I really appreciate that Jones doesn't allow a pedestrian scene be pedestrian--he adds life to it. Along with the viscious features on the faces of the vampires, angled action shots, and impressive use of shadow, this is a visual treat for Jones fans.

It wouldn't be a Batman book without the Joker, and he shows up in Act 2, finding the remains Dracula's followers and turning them into an army of criminals, preying on the wealthy this time to live life large. Naturally he and Batman will cross paths, but not before another familiar player enters the scene--Selina Kyle, who ends up getting a makeover herself. The Joker plots and schemes while what's left of Bruce Wayne tries to catch up. In the end, it comes down to just the two of them, and despite all he's strived for as a "good" vampire, will it be the Joker himself who can finally take Batman down to his level--that of a killer?

This is by far the best of the three stories. Moench's tendency to overwrite the drama works perfectly as we see a Batman who's falling apart despite his best efforts. He can barely keep his vow not to kill together and every page tempts him further. His Joker lines are spot-on for the situation (humor in the juglular vein, as the Joker puts it) and show that he's still one of the most dangerous men in the DC universe, no matter which earth it is. Every character Bats faces taunts him and the final moments of the comic are a natural conclusion to all that Moench built from the beginning of this part of the trilogy. By the time we see Alfred and Gordon at the end, standing by their friend through everything, it all makes perfect sense.

It's just about perfect scripting, with Jones complimenting it every step of the way. His Joker calls back to Lon Chaney, Sr., an appropriate reference, and one of the vampire closeups is definitely patterned on Lugosi. He draws a Batman that's both amazed with his new powers and horrified by what he's becoming, at moments doubtful and at others wearing a leering grin that could put the Joker to shame. Jones also puts shadows to good use and does a bit more of his trademark living cape effects. His impact on the quality of the story should not be discounted, and given a great script from Moench, the results are a pleasure to look at.

By the time we get to the last of the trilogy, it's 1999 and being as violent as possible is all the rage. Unfortunately, Moench slips into this mode early and often for a story that's just not as good as the others. Gotham has slipped into total depravity in the absense of the Batman and all of his villains have taken to killing in ways they never did before. A callback to Gaiman's Secret Origins, story, perhaps? A commentary on a comic book world that lost its taste for subtlety? An attempt to stay relevent? It's hard to say which of these motivates the plot.

Loyal butler Alfred, who has seen Batman to hell and back, feels that only one man--dead or not--can save Gotham. The Dark Knight is back, but he's darker than ever. His only solution is to kill those that would kill others and try not to become as evil as those he preys upon. But is the disease worse than the cure, and can an unlikely group of allies stop the bleeding?

This is the final story and I'm glad for that, as the idea definitely gets played as far as it can go. Moench may have been playing with some meta concepts--the idea of Batman making a final solution to Gotham's villain problem, Bruce's no-kill pledge, and Alfred's faithful devotion--but in the end this just feels like a bloody romp without the tight plotting and natural progressions that made the first two acts so good.

Jones gets some really good scenes to draw, though, as the increased horror of the tale allows him to really cut loose. Batman is downright demonic in stretches, with bulging skeleton and hell-red eyes. The villains all get a more horrific makeover, and little death icons pop up in the margins. He does a great job rending this new, even darker world that Moench puts together for the finale.

Overall, this is a fun read that I'd recommend for Batman fans and horror comic aficianados. Though the last part isn't as good as the first two, it's still a solid collection that I'm glad DC got back into print.