I’m not a big fan of the Christopher Nolan Batman films, they were just way too serious for my tastes. Heath Ledger’s amazing turn as the Joker aside, they missed what for me is the main attraction of Batman – his innate freakiness.
Tim Burton got the character far better – and in fact Adam West was closer to my idea of Batman than Christian Bale. Sod it, so was George Clooney. He’s a rich guy who nurses a childhood trauma by dressing up in a cloak and ears, spending his fortune finding new ways to beat up psycohologically damaged people. Although he’s extremely morally dubious, Batman is not just about being ‘dark’. He should be freaky and at times, really quite funny.
The thing about Batman is that he’s not just one character, there are endless interpretations. It’s a shame cinema appears to have got stuck with the gritty mid-eighties version. So as an alternative here are a selection of my favourite weird Batbooks.
Grant Morrison breathed new life into the franchise a few years back with a run of books that tapped into the freakier side of Batman’s long history. He reintroduced an idea that had been long forgotten – Bruce Wayne has a son with the daughter of his enemy R’as Al Ghul. This son, the accurately named Damian, is raised to be a deadly assassin and returns to Daddy aged 10, deadly, damaged and extremely mouthy. Soon after Bruce Wayne is killed off, or possibly sent back in time (don’t ask) and former Robin Dick Grayson has replaced him. Morrison’s Batman and Robin books, collected in three volumes trace the relationship between this mismatched pair as they both seek to define themselves in their new roles.
They’re a breath of fresh air, owing more to the 60s Batman series than the Nolan films. Packed full of twisted story-lines, witty dialogue and amazing artwork by Frank Quitely, Batman and Robin marked my re-entry into reading ‘mainstream’ comics after years of avoidance. I’ve been hooked ever since.
In an earlier storyline, ‘Batman R.I.P.’ Morrison showed Batman on the verge of death, tipping into a total breakdown (see the Zurr-en-Arrh images above). To accompany him into the abyss, Morrison re-introduced the much derided Batmite character from the old 60s cartoon series. It was an inspired moment of lunacy, and one that sent me back to a couple of equally unhinged Batmite titles from the 90s by Brit comic geniuses Alan Grant and Kev O’Neill.
Legends of the Dark Mite and its sequel Mitefall are druggy, technicolor parodies of those oh so serious Batman stories The Dark Knight Returns and Knightfall (which both heavily influence the Nolan films). I suggest you seek these out instead, they are quite the tonic.
Nolan’s main source for Batman Begins was the brilliant Year One by Frank Miller, which is the first and last word on the Noir Batman. Once you’re done with that though, I suggest you fast forward a century to Batman Year 100 by Paul Pope and Jose Villarrubia.
The plot is similar to Year One – seeing the emergence of the crime fighter in a Gotham that is entirely corrupt and hostile to the idea of a masked vigilante. What Pope does so brilliantly is to play with the idea of Batman as a folk myth, an eternal force that retreats to the shadows, but never quite goes away – a bit like Dracula. I’m always reluctant to say that books are like something ‘on acid’ or ‘on speed’, but that seems entirely accurate here. In fact Year 100 is like Batman on speed and acid – at the same time. Yes, that good!
These tales are always great fun. But with Earth One, Johns has done something really fresh and entertaining – he’s provided the cast with entirely new personalities. So, Alfred turns up as a cynical, hard as nails war veteran, Commissioner Gordon is a cop who has actually buckled under the weight of police corruption and Bruce Wayne himself is far more callow playboy than he is terrifying creature of the night. The pleasure in the story is watching these very familiar characters find their way back into their rightful roles.
Most intriguing though is a new character, Commissioner Gordon’s sidekick. He’s a celebrity cop who bares an uncanny resemblance to a certain red hooded character from Alan Moore’s amazing The Killing Joke. We will have to wait for Volume 2 to find out whether he turns out quite so mad and bad.
I’ll finish with The Killing Joke, perhaps the definitive statement of weird Batman. Much of it’s appeal comes not from Brian Bolland’s immaculate artwork or even Alan Moore’s writing, but from the colour pallette of John Higgins. Story goes that the book was behind schedule so DC called in Higgins to colour Bolland’s drawings. The artist wasn’t happy, having imagined the tale in darker hues. As you can see from his recoloured version (above right) Bolland was wrong. Higgins brings the same vibrancy as he did with that other Moore collaboration Watchmen, skillfully muting the colours for the flashbacks and turning them up to eleven for the present day. Higgins’ colour stylings were revived in Grant Morrison’s freaky technicolour Batman and Robin stories. It was a welcome relief from the relentless darkness of Nolan’s batworld .