November 14, 2010

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Batman Gotham After Midnight

Written by Steve Niles
Illustrated by Kelley Jones
DC

Every once in awhile these days, I need to scratch my Batman itch. That gets harder every time, because DC comics and I have not exactly gotten along all that well lately. I'd known about this series for some time, but opted to trade wait it. When the distinctive Kelley Jones art stared at me from the library shelf, I figured it was time to give it a try.

This is a Batman series that, while set in more or less current times (Catwoman is in a really badly rendered version of her Darwyn Cooke outfit), could have easily been released in 1996, when artist Jones was going against all conventions and drawing a super-exaggerated Batman to the unique scripting of Doug Moench.

Had this been a mid-90s comic, I'd have been all over it. This is one of those epic Batman stories that involves as many of his rogues as possible, from Scarecrow to the Joker. The battles are writ large on the comic page in a way that actually makes the splash pages look worthwhile, not sloppy storytelling. Niles' script is right out of the standard Batman playbook. He's torn between Bruce Wayne and Batman. Alfred is his rock. Gordon relies on Batman to save the day, despite the wishes of the mayor. Everyone speaks as though their speech must be as urgent as possible, to heighten the drama. Heck, we even get a plethora of new Bat-gear to solve every problem, just in time for the Christmas toy line.

The trouble is, it's 2010, Niles's dialog feels like he's copying older, better writers, and I've seen the "new villain is someone close to the hero" plot so many times, it's like a drinking game at this point. Batman can't seem to solve the crime, but the reader has by about issue two. The World's Greatest Detective has an excuse, but frankly, it's a bit lame, and not even an Alfred monologue at the end can make it seem reasonable. The key deception is one that would play well in the 1990s, but today felt as antiquated as reading a Victorian mystery.

This is not to say that everything Niles does doesn't work. Batman being able to walk the streets of Gotham on Halloween and wince at the Joker costumes was a nice touch. He doesn't do badly with the trope of Bruce vs. Batman, and actually gives it an interesting twist. it's just that for the most part, I've read it all before, and in hands of people that I think were better writers, like Moench and Alan Grant, to name two. Had he been writing along with them, instead of with them as looming Bat-shadows, I think I'd have taken it better.

Niles's echoed writing style made for a bit of a disappointing read, but then again, I wasn't exactly drawn to this one for the script. Gotham After Midnight is basically an excuse for Kelley Jones to be as insane as he can manage every 22 pages. While I didn't care for his work when I was younger, now I can appreciate his utter disregard for proportion and perspective. Reading a Kelley Jones comic is entirely about watching what he does with positioning and turning the ordinary into the extraordinary.

Take this image of the Joker, for instance. The Clown Prince of Crime has several body problems, but look at how he's leering AWAY from the reader, instead of front and center. See how the pumpkins form skulls and the completely unbelievable tree is holding a treat bag. Everything about this image is completely disconcerting, and there's plenty of them in the course of the story.

See Batman fight Clayface in a giant robot suit! Watch as the Dark Knight rides a motorized unicycle! Check out what happens when the Batsignal goes off in Gotham City or when Scarecrow gets a whiff of his own gas, providing Grant Morrison with inspiration. There are plenty of times in Niles's story where it almost feels like he was indulging Jones' creative mania. It makes for amazing visuals, but doesn't exactly help the story.

Unfortunately, Kelley Jones unrestrained is sometimes as spectacularly bad as it is amazingly cool. Jones' women are almost flat on the page, and he should never be allowed to draw Catwoman again as long as he lives. Bruce Wayne's face shifts from panel to panel and there are quite a few times that Jones' art just doesn't do anything other than distract from the movement of the plot.

Then you see him make Eisner-like splash pages or showing Batman doing the Frankenstein opening (one of several homages to the classic movie) while sitting Indian-style, and (almost) all is forgiven.

Overall, Batman Gotham After Midnight is one of those books I think I would have raved over had I read it even a few years ago, when I was more into superhero comics. Now it's more of a mixed bag for me, as I wrestled with whether or not I liked the book. On the one hand, it's mindless fun featuring Batman and his bad guys with crazy ears and capes and buildings. On the other hand, it's a story I've read countless times with some clunky dialog and really bad depictions of human beings.

Whether or not you want to read this one probably depends entirely on you patience for brilliant/terrible art, because the script is just so-so. It was more of a nostalgia trip than anything for me, as well as a reminder that while I still love the characters dearly, my desire to read the same story again and again has faded over time. Unlike the story, which turns back to an awkward status quo, books like this one remind me that I'm probably ready to move on.