September 23, 2020

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Batman Tales: Once Upon a Crime

Batman Tales Once Upon a Crime
Written by Derek Fridolfs
Illutrated by Dustin Nguyen
Lettered by Steve Wands
Published by DC Comics

Riddle me this: What's the best Batman book of 2020? 
Answer: It's this one!

Proving that a good set of characters can be adapted to any story, Batman's family along with the Dark Knight himself find themselves cast into famous nursery rhymes for a variety of reasons (my favorite being Alfred drinking spiked tea), including Damien as Pinocchio, Harley as a princess with a very valuable pea, Alfred in Wonderland, and Bats in a very loose adaptation of the Snow Queen.

Each story has a different tone to it, and it's amazing how well Fridolfs fits the characters to their stories. The Joker and Harley running the place that turns boys into donkeys is brilliant, as is their later turn as the Queen of Hearts and the Jabberwocky.  Or is that Jokerwocky? Alfred is perfectly "cast" as both Jiminy Cricket and Alice, with both stories doing a great job of having little cameos by other villains.

And to answer the obvious question, yes the Mad Hatter has a role in Wonderland. As does the Cheshire Catwoman and my personal favorite, the Copplepillar.
You're reading this as Burgess Merideth, too, aren't you?

The stories are an absolute treat, written in that perfect all-ages style that also makes it something an adult can also enjoy, without being the focal point. (Jeff Parker, Jeffrey Brown, and Paul Tobin are all masters at doing this.) What's even better is that not only are the character swaps inspired, they also work incredibly well once you get past the obvious ones. These may be fanciful versions of Gotham's heroes and rogues, but they're still on point: The Joker wants chaos, Harley wants to get away with crimes, Ivy doesn't see herself as evil, Damien is over-ambitious, and Batman is driven to help people, no matter his role in the story.

Plus at one point, there's Joker and the Batstock.

It's really amazing stuff, and Nguyen's painted art really makes all of the visual jokes work. The characters are recognizable, and in some cases, really beautiful as pieces of art, like this one with Ivy and Bats:

This could be in a fine art gallery

The framing of this page is just sublime, and the idea of Ivy-as-mythical-figure, who blends into her plants, is really inspired. A far cry from some depictions I can name. And let's not forget Wands' lettering here, which is in just the right spot to make the whole picture work. Move those down into the lower flowers and this whole page takes on a different, less centered, look.

How good is Nguyen? He can even make Harvey Bullock look adorable:

Hug a Harvey Today!
This is such a fun book and I could pick out so many different illustrations and references, but I don't want to ruin the fun of encountering them yourself. As it is, I've probably said a few more than I should have, but it's just because in a really crappy year, reading this book did what any good fiction should do--it took me out of my world and into a place of myths and legends and a story where the Royal Flush Gang just plays themselves.

Read and enjoy, folks. You won't regret it.