22 October 2011

"The Greatest Batman Stories Ever Told" by Various

The Greatest Batman Stories Ever Told
Various Writers & Artists
Trade Paperback published 1 September 1989
Cover Price: $15.95
327 pages
Currently out of print

DC Comics published this anthology in 1989 to commemorate Batman's 50th anniversary.  As explained in the foreword by Mike Gold, there were some seemingly obvious choices that were excluded for various reasons.  For instance, some stories had been reprinted and made available in other collected editions and they didn't want dedicated Bat-fans to feel they were re-buying a lot of the same content.  I've had this collected edition in my library for several years now (I can't even recall now how I came to own it), but never quite got around to it until recently.

The night that I agreed to enter the hospital to treat my depression, we were informed that I was allowed to bring books so long as they weren't bound by spiral rings.  I haven't had the concentration to read an actual prose book in months, so I decided to take some comics.  The only one I got to was The Greatest Batman Stories Ever Told.  (I would have taken Batman: Arkham Asylum if I owned it, just because that's the kind of sense of humor I have.)  You can imagine, then, what it was like to begin reading Golden Age and Silver Age tales of Batman and his rogues gallery of lunatics while in a mental health facility.  I don't know what it says about me, but I found it rather comforting.

Because the aesthetics of each creative team vary, and because the prevailing editorial direction of a given era also varied, there can be dramatic changes in tone from one story to the next.  This has the effect of making some stories--particularly in the middle of the collection--feel a little simplistic.  Still, I'm the kind of fan who digs the Adam West TV show as much as The Dark Knight, so I'm up for just about any incarnation of the mythology so long as it's interesting.  Other fans, however, might find a lot of these stories somewhat tedious and dissatisfying; particularly readers who may have only recently begun reading with the New 52 relaunch.

There are too many stories for me to review individually in a single blog post and I'm not interested in making this a whole sub-series so here are my personal favorites.  Oh, and one complaint: I wish DC had reprinted the cover art with each story.  Some are scattered throughout the introductory and concluding notes, but it's just not the same.

"Batman Versus the Vampire" Parts One & Two
Originally presented in Detective Comics #31 & 32 (1939)

Essentially a re-telling of Dracula with Batman, this story rocked my socks off!  Gardner Fox's narrative may be straightforward, but it's far from simplistic.  Likewise, Bob Kane's art may be primitive by today's standards, but there's something genuinely sinister about it.  There's a panel in the second part of Batman swinging through some trees in Transylvania that's one of the coolest images in the entire collection, and the climax of the story was something I honestly didn't anticipate.  I absolutely loved this story and it's probably my favorite of the entire anthology.

"Dr. Hugo Strange and the Mutant Monsters"
Originally presented in Batman #1 (1940)

Just what the title suggests: Batman versus some mutant monsters.  It sounds rather silly, but there's something about Kane's artwork that keeps it firmly in the realm of darkness; credit also to Bill Finger, whose narrative takes itself seriously and does not invite us to chuckle.  This story clearly took its cues from King Kong, among others, and it works surprisingly well.

"The Origin of the Batman"
Originally presented in Batman #47 (1948)

We all know how Bruce Wayne became Batman, but this early telling leads up to a startling payoff that I don't think has often been retained in subsequent variations of the story.

"The First Batman"
Originally presented in Detective Comics #235 (1956)

A follow-up, really, to "The Origin of the Batman" in which Batman learns there was even more to his parents's murder than he originally suspected.  I can only imagine how stunning this revelation must have been for longtime readers when it was published eight years after "The Origin" story.

"Man-Bat Over Vegas"
Originally presented in Detective Comics #429 (1972)

I've never really been into Man-Bat stories, but this one worked for me.  Perhaps it was because it was the basis for the Batman: The Animated Series episode, "Terror in the Sky" so it was familiar, or maybe it was because after such supernatural stories as "Batman Versus the Vampire" and "Dr. Hugo Strange and the Mutant Monsters," I was into the milieu but this one worked quite well for me.  I'm not qualified to say whether it's one of the "greatest" Batman stories ever told, but it was one of my favorites from this anthology.

"The Batman Nobody Knows"
Originally presented in Batman #250 (1973)

We've seen variations on this premise for years now, but here's the original: three kids all share very different ideas of who Batman really is.  It's a short story, but I'm a sucker for the paradigm.

"Bat-Mite's New York Adventure"
Originally presented in Detective Comics #482 (1978)

This is a short, meta-fiction story in which Bat-Mite pesters the DC Comics staff into writing a Bat-Mite story for the Batman Family comic series.  I dig Bat-Mite and meta-fiction so long as it's well done and I thought this was a nice little inclusion.  "Greatest Batman Story Ever Told?"  I can't imagine it is, but it's a nice addition to this collection regardless.

The final two stories in the collection, "To Kill a Legend" and "The Autobiography of Bruce Wayne" are both quite well done but I must caution new readers that there are some continuity entanglements that may be confusing out of context.  In the former, Batman is given the chance to go to another Earth where Thomas and Martha Wayne have not yet been murdered and to prevent it.  It's got a sort of Star Trek vibe to it, but the imagery is dark and it ties in neatly with "The Origin of the Batman" and "The First Batman."  "The Autobiography of Bruce Wayne" is a wrap-up to the original, Golden Age Batman whose continuity was abandoned when DC revamped their entire universe with "Crisis on Infinite Earths."

I think what surprised me most about the stories I enjoyed in this collection is that I really responded to the supernatural ones--which, typically, I don't favor with Batman.  Maybe it's because the first two stories ("Batman Versus the Vampire" and "Dr. Hugo Strange and the Mutant Monsters") set me into the state of mind to get into such content, but if you'd told me going into this anthology that I would encounter a lot of these kinds of stories, I might not have even opened it.  What this really makes me want to read are the Archive Edition collections of the Golden Age stories; there's an earnestness and darkness to the early stories that I find I really enjoy.

Also, I got the strong sense that when the time came to begin developing Batman: The Animated Series that Bruce Timm, Paul Dini, et al revisited this collection for inspiration.  Maybe not, but it's the feeling I got while reading.

One wonders whether DC can even create a second volume spanning Batman's second 50-year period, given how few standalone stories have been told since the publication of this anthology.