Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Review - Batman: The Killing Joke

Batman: The Killing Joke Written by Alan Moore; Art by Brian Bolland 1989 Eisner Winner for Best Graphic Album 1989 Eisner Winner for Best Writer 1989 Eisner Winner for Best Artist
So how does one follow up the creation of what is generally considered the high water mark of a medium? Orson Welles created another masterpiece only to have the studio bosses hack it to pieces behind his back. Alan Moore fared a bit better since he took the same concepts he worked with in Watchmen and applied them to Batman. The result is one of the three Batman stories that I think are exceptional (the other two being Miller's bookends to the character Year One and The Dark Knight Returns, naturally).

I'm sure you're familiar with Batman and The Killing Joke follows the familiar beats that kept the character in continuous publication for seventy years. The mad clown known as the Joker escapes from the asylum that holds him in order to do terrible things. Batman chases the Joker down where they hit each other until the Joker gets sent back to the asylum to start the cycle over again.

The first clever bit of this story is that Moore acknowledges that Sisyphean cycle. The Killing Joke opens with Batman going to visit the Joker in his cell to try to break it by reaching out to him. The Joker has already escaped and it attempting to break the cycle by escalating it to the level of a suicide pact. The conflict this time isn't about a climactic fist fight (though that's in there too); it's about one man trying to pull the second back from the abyss and the second trying to pull the first in.

This leads into what I think is the only misstep that Moore makes in The Killing Joke. It's not entirely his fault; when you're the man who sets the trends for the medium you can't take blame when others over use your techniques and do them badly. The sequence is the maiming of a long standing female cast member followed by a sexual assault. If it existed in a vacuum then it would just be a disturbing sequence that established that the Joker was trying to mentally break Batman. Unfortunately in the years that followed this exact kind of method has been used often for cheap shocks and lazy writing. Moore didn't invent it but he brought the concept of using this level of brutality against female characters as an emotional hook to comics and these days it seems like every other woman in superhero comics winds up being abused like that.

Besides that it also has an unfortunate affect on the conclusion of the book. There's some unpleasant connotations that are raised by the last few pages given the earlier events.

The Killing Joke uses this shock to tie Batman and the Joker together thematically. Moore flashes back to a possible origin of the Joker as a decent man who had one very bad day and snapped and now the Joker is trying to replicate that. It's the classic hero and villain are closer than they seem theme but it's executed very well.

So Moore's story is extremely good. You'll notice that his partner Brian Bolland won an Eisner of his own for this book and it wasn't because he was swept in by the popularity of The Killing Joke. There's several points in the story where the action becomes a textless montage. It's a challenge to carry the narrative without text and Bolland does it perfectly. All of his storytelling ability is on display through the book. thing that makes his artwork truly spectacular is how he depicts the Joker. The nightmarish grin has never been depicted so gruesomely. Bolland's Joker doesn't always smile but when he does the face distorts in a way that is unnerving. The gums show more than is natural, the chin distends, it looks like his whole jaw fractures to make the smile taller.

The Killing Joke is a an alchemical fusion of the perfect writer for a subject and the perfect artist for a subject. Together Moore and Bolland created a masterpiece. If you like Watchmen then I recommend reading it as a companion.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Review - Grendel: Black, White, and Red

Grendel: Black, White, and Red
Written by Matt Wagner
1999 Eisner Winner for Best Anthology
"Devil's Advocate"
Art by Tim Sale
1999 Eisner Winner for Best Short Story

There are times when I know that I am not the intended audience for a book. The run of YA novels that have won the literary awards are a good example of this. And still I have rarely felt as unwelcome as I read than I did with Grendel: Black, White, and Red. Not only was I not the target audience for this book, Wagner was clearly uninterested in approaching anyone other than that audience.

I had never read Grendel before. I was generally aware of the series and I knew vaguely that it was about a super assassin. Wagner was unwilling to make any kind of concession to new readers in Grendel: Black, White, and Red. After reading this book I'm even less likely to try Grendel.

Black, White, and Red is an anthology of eight page stories most of which spin out of a facet of the original story. Consequently I got an vague understanding of the original with none of the emotional context that would be necessary to appreciate the story. It turned this book into a slog that was only occasionally brightened by a story that stood on its own.

"Devil's Advocate" (all of the story titles start with "Devil" which got on my nerves quickly) is the first story in the book and it is the best one. It's a simple story of a lawyer who is blackmailed by Grendel into working for the mob. I felt it was just too short, though. Eight pages were not enough to explore the subject since it leaps forward quickly without letting the beats of the story sink in. It feels like it's missing huge chunks of the story and conveys all of the concepts in exposition instead of letting Tim Sale's artwork express things. Still it wasn't actually bad, just abrupt.

All of the stories, there are twenty-one in total in the collection, are abrupt. There's two or three that use the short format well to give just a tiny window into things. Those are the stories that I enjoyed. You would think that a super assassin would have a built in format for such short tales but there is very little in the way of assassination in the book. Instead the stories are mainly character moments for characters that Wagner never bothers telling the reader who they are.

The best aspect of this book is the art. Each story features a different artist and there isn't a weak link in the bunch. They range from the incredibly cartoony style of Jason Pearson to the detailed sketches of David Mack to Bernie E. Mireault's nearly abstract designs. All of the artists match the tone of their stories well so even if the stories weren't interesting to me I could appreciate the pictures.

The book is, as the title suggests, in black and white with occasional splashes of color to punctuate each page. For the most part it's effective though in some stories it seemed to be more of an afterthought than a different method of presentation. I appreciated when the technique was used to play with perspective but it was much less effective when its only use in the story was to mark a character.

There was a lot of things in Black, White, and Red that turned me off of Grendel in general that I haven't mentioned because I lack the context from the original. Still it is worth saying that I disliked the vast majority of stories in this book and that's enough for me to say that I don't recommend it. On the whole they just weren't very interesting even as eight page stories; they seemed to be relying on the reader's familiarity with the characters in the place of characterization. Perhaps fans of Grendel may enjoy this anthology than I did for everyone else it is not worth their time.