Friday, July 30, 2010

Batman: The Black Casebook (comics)

Writers: Bill Finger, Edmond Hamilton and France Herron
Artists: Sheldon Moldoff, Dick Sprang and Lew Sayre Schwartz
Collects: Batman #65, #86, #112-113, #134, #156, #162; Detective Comics #215, #235, #247, #267; Worlds Finest #89
Introduction by: Grant Morrison

This is another theme collection - the other of which I reviewed here - released in wake of events in Grant Morrisons run on Batman. The difference is, unlike Strange Deaths of Batman, The Black Casebook actually has a bit more purpose behind its existence. Whereas Strange Deaths was a collection with a loose theme of death, The Black Casebook is actually a collection of the Silver Age stories that Grant Morrison refers to and draws from in his long running Batman epic. Grant even penned an introduction for this collection, where he explains each choice, why he drew from them and what they meant to him.

This collection actually has a good bit going for it aside from the obvious. For one thing, roughly three quarters of the collection happens to be stories penned by Bill Finger, whom is basically the "forgotten" Batman creator (long story, not necessary for this review). The collection also features the work of Dick Sprang on a couple issues, who - while not as much so as Curt Swan was for Superman - is probably the closest thing Batman's Silver Age has to a defining artist. So it's a nice little bundle of work from some of the earlier creators in Batmans stories history.

The subject matter can vary wildly from issue to issue, but as a collection this actually holds together better than Strange Deaths did. All of the material is combed from a thirteen year period in Batmans history - 1951 to 1964 - so there's a lot of consistency to be found here. The stories aren't as different in tone, structure or look as the contents of other collections might be (the kind that will pull one story from the fifties, another from the nineties, one from the seventies and so on).

Make no mistake, some of these stories are strange stuff. Quite honestly it's not surprising - this is the Silver Age were talking about here, not to mention stories hand picked by Grant Morrison - and in it's own way it's endearing. Many early collected stories deal with heroes inspired by Batman who join the Club of Heroes while later ones start delving into the strange and surreal. We get the issue Bat-Mite first appeared in, for instance, another where Batman is turned into an ape creature, a fight against a Rainbow monster in South America and another where Batman is brought to another planet to basically play Superman. It's some damn odd stuff, but that's part of the fun.

As a result of the stories all being taken from a specific time period, the quality of the collection is much more consistent than most. Almost all of them are good in their own way. But whether the collection will appeal to a given person or not depends largely on their likes or dislikes. These stories are very old fashioned in structure; many of them have a case of clip-show-itis* and the downright oddity of the stories might not be for everyone. Also, in the days these stories were written continuity wasn't a huge deal; aside from the numerous appearances of the Club of Heroes there isn't much connectivity between them or references made. All this aside the stories within are gems, for the most part, with perhaps the only loser of the bunch being the opening "Wingman" story; both Superman of Planet X and Robin Dies at Dawn, however, are standouts.

As for the overall presentation of the collection, it leaves a bit to be desired. I can understand why lower grade paper would be used - this isn't exactly something that's guaranteed to set the sales charts on fire - but the complete lack of the covers of every issue collected is just ridiculous. Having the covers of the issues collected somewhere in the collection should be trade composition 101 by now. This was also an issue with Strange Deaths of Batman, so I honestly don't get what's going on here. It's a dumb omission.

Also of note is that I was hoping for a little extra oomph from the presentation. The front and back covers are just great, carry a worn look to it that makes the collection look sort of like a casebook that's seen a lot of use. A little more of this kind of detail would have put it over the top. As I was reading, I couldn't help but think perhaps they should have commissioned Grant Morrison to write some actual Black Casebook excerpts to place between each story, giving modern day Batmans thoughts on each of his strange adventures from this era. Something like that would really have set the collection apart and given some extra incentive to pick it up. Not to mention cement it's status a bit more as a worthy companion piece to Grants run. I can see why they wouldn't go this extra mile, but I can't help feeling it's a lost opportunity here.

The Score: 7.5 out of 10

Personally, I found a lot to like here. Many of the contained stories are gems and probably the better stories of Batman's Silver Age. But there's no getting around the reality that it's not for everyone. Some people just cannot stand Silver Age Batman and if you're one of those, steer clear because that's what the entire collection consists of. For the rest of us, however, there's some old school fun to be had here that makes it worth the change and the read. A part of me just wishes the presentation had been taken that extra step.

* Clip-show-itis is how I refer to the way these old stories were written. Most of the old school stories wrap within an issue or even half of one, but the trade-off is that a lot of the time you're basically just looking at static panels with no real flow. Like, say, one panel Batman's on the roof and the next he's at ground level punching thugs with a lot of exposition in each panel explaining how we got from point to point. Or basically a lot of telling, not showing. Some people who decry decompression long for the days things wrapped in an issue or two, but to be honest this way of doing things sucked. You're pretty much just drug through the story - which might be otherwise interesting - and nothing is given the attention it might need. Screw clip-show-itis.

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