Reading The Batman: Three Influential Story Arcs

After seeing The Dark Knight Rises, I realized that while I’m aware of certain aspects of the Batman mythology, I’m not familiar with much of the source material surrounding the Caped Crusader.  I dabbled a bit in Batman early in my life–he was an early favorite before I discovered Spider-Man via the Electric Company.  And while I’m an ardent fan of the animated series (still the best super hero series–animated or otherwise–of all time), I didn’t have as much exposure to some of the more respected and cited story arcs from the comics.

Seeing some of these influential stories in graphic novel form at my local library, I decided I’d pick them up and give them a chance.   Here are a few thoughts on three big story arcs from that influenced not only the Nolan films but also were pivotal in the world of comic books.

Batman: The Dark Knight ReturnsBatman: The Dark Knight Returns by Frank Miller

How do you review something as iconic and influential as The Dark Knight Rises?

On one level, I suppose you could ask whether or not this four-issues mini-series lives up to the hype and accolades heaped upon it over the years? That answer is, yes. And the fact that it revolutionized not only Batman but all of comics is another major feather in its cap.

It’s influence on the Christopher Nolan trilogy of films can’t be denied–especially elements used in this summer’s The Dark Knight Rises.

All of that said, while I can respect this comic’s place in the history of comic books, I didn’t really enjoy it. And for me, that’s one of the fundamental things a comic book or graphic novel should be in order to be “perfect.” It should be something that I enjoyed and that I want to read again.

Unfortunately, neither of those things is the case here.

Don’t get me wrong–this is a very good story and it’s an influential one. I just wish I’d loved it more than I did.

Batman: Year OneBatman: Year One by Frank Miller

When DC decided it was time to retell the origin story of its some of its iconic super heroes, it was decided that while Superman and Wonder Woman’s origin might need some freshening up, the mythology surrounding the origin of Batman worked without any tweaks or revamps. Instead what the origin of Batman needed was a different take on the classic origin. The result is Frank Miller’s highly influential, much revered four-issue work Batman: Year One.

Going back to the early days of the Batman saga, the story chronicles the rise of not only Batman but also Jim Gordon. A disgraced officer from another city, Gordon comes into the corrupt world of Gotham politics and starts trying to make a difference. At first, he’s willing to hunt down the vigilante who is cleaning up Gotham’s streets but over the course of the year he realizes that there could be something more to the Batman. Meanwhile, Bruce Wayne is taking is first tentative steps toward becoming the savior that Gotham needs and trying to avenge the death of his parents.

If you’ve seen Batman Begins, you’ve seen elements of this story realized on-screen. However, while that movie is good, it’s always fascinating to go back to the source material and see how its not only similar but also different. Year One works extremely well because of the parallel view points of Gordon and Bruce Wayne. It’s easy to see why this four-part series is so influential and so cited as one of the great story arcs in comic book history. It easily earns all its accolades and then some.

Batman: A Death in the FamilyBatman: A Death in the Family by Jim Starlin

I didn’t read the “A Death in the Family” storyline when it was first published, but I was certainly aware of it from the media coverage surrounding it. D.C. decided to allow the fans to determine whether the current Robin, Jason Todd, would live or die following a devastating attack at the hands of the Joker. Readers voted to let Jason shuffle off this mortal coil (though apparently it wasn’t for long. I’ve heard he comes back down the line). There was an outcry in the media about the direction comic books were taken and how they weren’t for kids anymore.

It’s just too bad some of the outcry wasn’t for the story itself leading up to and following the death of Jason Todd. Deciding that Jason is too emotionally unstable to continue being Robin, Bruce Wayne puts him on sabbatical. While wandering the streets and brooding about this, Jason wanders by his old apartment where conveniently enough the land lady has found a big box of stuff Jason left behind. Included in the box is his birth certificate and his dad’s address book. Guess what? Turns out the woman Jason thought was his mother was only his adopted mother and that there are three other women in the world who could be his mom. Jason uses the Bat computer to find where they are and sets out on a world wide quest to figure out which one is his mom.

Meanwhile, the Joker has escaped yet again from Arkham Asylum and needs to replenish is dwindling bank account. He’s got a nuclear missile that he’s willing to sell to any terrorist group that will give him the funding. Batman is in hot pursuit across the globe and it turns out–lucky us!–that each of the locations the Joker goes is somewhere and somehow connected to Jason’s quest to find his mother. (That sound you heard was your suspension of disbelief snapping!)

And so it is that Jason tracks down his mom, who has a connection to the Joker. One minute she’s betraying him to the Joker, the next minute she’s saying what a great son and how sorry she is. Of course, it helps that Jason is trying to rescue her betraying self from a building that is rigged to blow up in sixty seconds.

But wait, it gets better. After blowing up Jason and his mother, Joker is approached by the Iranian government to become their ambassador to the United Nations. He agrees so he can have diplomatic immunity, thus making sure Batman can’t come after him for the death of Jason. Oh and Superman shows up to make sure Batman knows all this.

The more I read, the more my head kept shaking with complete and utter disbelief. Here’s a pivotal event in the Batman mythology and it’s let down by one of the most inane storylines I’ve ever read. Even worse is the fact that the death of Jason Todd barely registers on a emotional level. I found myself comparing it to the famous death of Gwen Stacy in the Spider-Man books and it comes up woefully short. That storyline had emotion to it…this one just feels like a huge marketing ploy and an excuse to see just how much insane bat-guano the readers will swallow and still buy the next issue or issues. Seriously–the Joker is a U.N. ambassador?!?

And I haven’t even addressed how much re-hashing of the plot-so-far takes place in each installment. Clearly the writers expect one-off readers to drop by because of the hype surrounding Robin’s death and so we are treated to a four to five page recap in each issue. I understand these comics were made to be read a month or so apart, but collected together and it stands out even more like a sore thumb.

This collection is rounded out by a five-part storyline in which Tim Drake takes over as Robin. It’s moderately better than “A Death in the Family” but that’s really damning with faint praise. The concept that Batman needs a Robin is an intriguing one and hopefully gets explored in future arcs and by other writers.

It’s too bad a pivotal moment in the world of comic books is part of such a ham-handed and terrible storyline.

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