09 September 2015

Faster than a DC Bullet: Project Gotham, Part VI: Batman: Four of a Kind

Comic trade paperback, 207 pages
Published 1998 (contents: 1995)

Borrowed from the library
Read September 2015
Batman: Four of a Kind

Writers: Alan Grant, Chuck Dixon, Doug Moench
Artists: Brian Apthorp & Stan Woch, Kieron Dwyer, Bret Blevins & Mike Manley, Quique Alcatena
Colorists: Linda Medley, Richmond Lewis, Stu Chaifetz
Letterers: Ken Lopez, Albert DeGuzman, Willie Schubert

Year One, November - December
This book collects four "Year One" annuals from 1995, each chronicling Batman's first encounter with one of his famous foes: Poison Ivy, the Riddler, the Scarecrow, Man-Bat. I wasn't expecting much from these, actually, my suspicions being they were cheap cash-ins on the "Year One" brand in a year of cheap cash-ins on the "Year One" brand (I think every DC annual in 1995 was a "Year One" story). So imagine my surprise when all four stories turned out to be very enjoyable!

from Batman: Shadow of the Bat Annual #3
First up is "Poison Ivy: Year One" by Alan Grant and Brian Apthorp & Stan Woch. Though Grant's story is fine-- it's one of those typical Batman stories where a villain interrupts a rich person's gala to get some quick cash-- what really makes it shine is the artwork by Brian Apthorp and Stan Woch. (Honestly, for a view of what makes Poison Ivy tick, you'd be better off with Neil Gaiman's Secret Origins tale.) Woch I've heard of, but I was amazed that I hadn't Brian Apthorp. His work is incredible! Good storytelling, good capturing of the "Year One" aesthetic established by David Mazzucchelli without being derivative, and most importantly, an attractive and seductive Poison Ivy. She is one of these characters where it's important to get that right, as part of her whole schtick is being attractive. Apthorp nails that, but not via the typical comic book approach of butts and boobs, but through facial expressions: her face is just inviting. It's really well done, and I'm surprised the world hasn't seen more from him, though I did note he went on to do a 1997 Batman: Poison Ivy one-shot. I'll have to pick that one up!

Next is "The Riddler: Year One: Questions Multiply the Mystery" by Chuck Dixon and Kieron Dwyer, which takes the form of the Riddler narrating his early days while in a cell in Arkham Asylum. Like Apthorp, Dwyer captures the "Year One" aesthetic well without being derivative, and again, I'm surprised I haven't heard of him before. The Riddler is honestly a villain I hadn't thought about very much before-- he usually seems to turn up as a tangential figure in Batman stories I read, like when he weighs in on who the Holiday Killer is in The Long Halloween-- but he was very entertaining here, a man tormented by how easy things can get when you cheat, leading to his increasingly convoluted schemes to put some excitement back in his life. An enjoyable tale.

Doug Moench and Bret Blevins & Mike Manley provide "Scarecrow: Year One: Masters of Fear" (not to be confused with the Year One: Batman/Scarecrow miniseries from a few years later that was collected in Batman: Two-Face and Scarecrow: Year One, which we'll get to in a few weeks). Though Doug Moench seems to have no idea how academia works (I think Scarecrow goes from undergraduate to professor in the space of a year, and an open tenure-track position has a mere seven applicants!), this story does a good job of utilizing both the scarecrow and Sleepy Hollow parts of Jonathan Crane's conceit, and building a compelling backstory for someone who's almost an anti-Batman in the way he approaches fear. Again, Scarecrow is a character who often features as a sideshow in other villain's tales (including Moench's own Prey), but this brought him to life for me. The art of Bret Blevins and Mike Manley make the Scarecrow's spindliness a source of fear as well.

Finally, there's "Man-Bat: Year One: Wings" by Chuck Dixon and Quique Alcatena. Man-Bat has always struck me as one of Batman's lesser villains, seemingly devised by someone going, "What if Bat-Man fought... a Man-Bat!? Genius!" As far as I know, Spider-Man has never fought a Man-Spider, nor Animal Man a Man-Animal, so we've been spared the dubious continuations of this line of thought. But Man-Bat turns out to be pretty cool in this story (which also details the creation of Batman's Bat-Glider), not a villain but a man who took a crazy chance and had it backfire on him horribly, more a tragic overreacher in the Frankenstein mold than anything else. The only other Man-Bat comics story I can remember was one by Marco Palmieri where he meets Oracle, and that had a similar tragic tone. So count me won over, and I hope I encounter the character again.

Next Week: We revisit Batman's earliest days in Shaman... Merry Christmas, Batman!

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