Saturday, October 2, 2010

Batman: International (comics)

Writers: Alan Grant, Mark Waid
Artists: Frank Quitely, Diego Olmos, Arthur Ranson
Collects: Batman: The Scottish Connection, Batman in Barcelona: Dragons Knight, Legends of the Dark Knight #52-53

All the great stories of Batman outside of Gotham are good examples of just why Batman is easily one of the best - if not the best, period - characters ever created. You can dump him into almost any kind of story, genre or locale and he'll work in it; most of the excuse for him to be anywhere is already provided in the fact that he traveled the world before he became Batman. He's one of the most adaptable characters ever made. This volume is a theme collection in that vein, focusing on international intrigue as Batman finds himself in several different countries, dealing with threats unique to the country he finds himself in.

Personally, I love these kind of stories. I love a good Gotham adventure as much as anyone, but we tend to get those every month. Such makes the scattered times we see Batman abroad feel special, so much so that it can prop them up even if they aren't the best written stories to ever carry a Bat logo.

Anyways, this collection rounds up a few of those type stories. Most of it's old material; The Scottish Connection in particular was an original graphic novel from clear back in 1998 while the Tao story is an old one from the defucnt "Legends of the Dark Knight" series. Both are written by Alan Grant; though, Scottish Connection is notably drawn by Frank Quitely before he was a big deal. The only recent material is the Batman in Barcelona special written by Mark Waid that is sandwiched between the two Alan Grant stories; though technically it's only recent by way of when it was published, as I believe it was an inventory story that was never used before they decided to give it a one-shot.

Where The Scottish Connection takes place is probably obvious. Bruce Wayne attends a reburial of an ancestor in Scotland and notices that the coffin top had been vandalized. Now, this is a guy who decided that the proper reaction to witnessing his parents death was to dress like a Bat and smack criminals around, so of course he's not going to go party elsewhere in Scotland. That just isn't how the Bat rolls. Before he knows it he's wrapped up in an ancestral plot that sees the descendant of a family Batmans ancestors had wronged seeking revenge.

To tell the truth, it's not the best story Alan Grant has ever written. It's perfectly competant and relatively interesting, but late in the story Grant seems to get in DBZ mode, having Batman announce what he's doing. Which is fine for old comics back when that was just how they were written; but you know, even back in '98 I'm pretty sure a character shouting things like "Explosive Pellets" or "Knock-Out Gas" as he uses said tool had more or less been phased out.

The real draw of Scottish Connection is that the whole thing was drawn by Frank Quitely. At this point, his style hasn't truly developed yet, but some of his later hallmarks are still present, such as some of the sort of kinetic fight scenes he later perfected. His depiction of Bruce Wayne in particular is something I found interesting. His Bruce Wayne is practically a bulky giant that towers over most of the regular people; it's a major contrast to the lean, athletic Batman/Bruce Wayne that most artists draw. I kind of like it. The way Quitely draws him here, Wayne is a mountain of a man who looks like he could bust just about anyone up easily. Though I will note that I didn't care for how he drew the Batman costume; aside from the cape and cowl, the whole thing looks like a solid gray jumpsuit with nothing breaking it up aside from the yellow oval Bat symbol and the belt. Say what you want about the post-Return of Bruce Wayne costume, but it's still a hell of a lot better than the Scottish Connection costume.

The middle of the book is the Barcelona special by Mark Waid. While they're all pretty consistently decent stories, this one is probably written the best of the three. Killer Croc is dosed with hallucinogens by the Mad Hatter and Scarecrow before being led to believe he's the reincarnation of a dragon from Barcelonian lore. Crock seems to buy it all hook, line and sinker, so he busts out of Arkham and heads to Barcelona for a snack. Of course, Batman can't let Croc roam free in a foreign country, chowing down on innocent maidens. That's just not the proper way to treat a lady. So naturally, Batman's on the trail. Shenanigans ensue.

If there's a problem with this story, it's that it's never made clear why the inciting incident - Scarecrow and Mad Hatter screwing with Croc - happened in the first place. Why would the two honestly give a crap about Croc, much less the fact that he's more of the two-bit thug of the Batman rogues? Why did they fill his head with the story of St. George in particular, of all things? It's unfortunately never explained, leaving a question mark over why the story happened in the first place. Even a line saying that they did it just to be pricks or something would have sufficed. After all, we're talking about about a couple of Gotham's resident whackos here; when Gotham villains fill out their resumes they tend to put down "professional douchebag".

Other than that, the story's good. It's illustrated by Derek Olmos, the artwork a stark contrast to Frank Quitely before him. We're back to a leaner Batman, for instance. The colors are darker as well; there was a lightness to the coloring of Scottish Connection that I liked.

The last story present is Tao. It's another story written by Alan Grant; dude apparently liked spicing up his Batman stories with a little ethnic culture. It's generally concerned with the Chinatown district of Gotham, with some flashbacks to Bruce Waynes journeys abroad providing context for the fight against his rival. This one is a bit better written than the Scottish Connection was and while I enjoyed both stories, this one had fewer annoyances than the earlier one. The artwork is solid, feeling like a mixture of the DC house style back when it was published mixed a bit with Kelley Jones sensibilities. It's good, detailed work and definitely holds it's own with the rest of the books contents. Which, when Frank Quitely is one of the artists your work is chillin' with, isn't easy. Also, I can't explain why, but I do love me some late 80's, early 90's coloring. Wish they still did it like that on occasion.

The Score: 7.5 out of 10

Surprisingly, the quality doesn't waver much from story to story. The stuff contained in International isn't going to knock your socks off or challenge you intellectually, but they're pretty decent stories that present Batman in the sort of places we rarely see him. At the very least, it's worth a look to see some early Frank Quitely work.

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