5/29/2009

Batman In Barcelona: Dragon's Knight

In short, the comic is Bruce Wayne checks out some awesome Gaudi architecture and sorta tries to bang some Spanish chick and by night, as Batman tries to stop the Killer Croc’s serial killing of women—Croc’s attempt to reflect the dragon St. George slew for doing the same thing hundreds of years ago.

Like most Batman plots, it stumbles trying to wrap itself up, but this is a sort of inherent problem in detective stories and even seems like a prerequisite, because ultimately, it’s the journey to the “solution” that matters. And here, it really is something of a journey, not only because Batman travels to Barcelona, Spain, but because Waid actually uses the city and some aspects of its history in the comic.

The Gaudi architecture—a notable presence in Grant Morrisons’ Doom Patrol, which writer Mark Waid edited—is in there because it’s the sort o thing Wayne the aesthete would be into, but also because it connects to the dragon/St. George stuff (Gaudi’s work is windy and scaly, like a dragon or Killer Croc) and because it parallels the Modern Gothic style that’s always defined Gotham City--Gaudi’s work is a less “savage”, slightly smoother variation on Gothic architecture.

None of this though, despite the attention I’ve afforded it, bleeds into the comic unnecessarily, we only hear of Gaudi when Wayne’s on a tour and it’s sort of tossed-in there, and left up the reader to figure out or go and research. The subtle parallels between Barcelona and Gotham though are also fun because most of the comic’s taken up with the always fascinating issue of how differently Batman is treated in another city. For example, in a fight with Killer Croc, the police fire on him with the same degree of force as Killer Croc—both are weirdos are far as the Barcelona police departmen’s concerned.

This is a smarter way of highlighting Batman’s absurdity—out of his element, he’s seen as only an insane vigilante—that doesn’t go to Alan Moore (or now, Chris Nolan) extremes (has it struck anybody else as absurd that Alan Moore, who dresses like a medieval peasant and wears retarded-ass rings on all his fingers loves to make fun of “grown men in costumes”? Just saying…). Not that Waid’s use of “Batman out of his element” is brilliant or innovative, but it’s really well-done and cleverly spun.

That’s the thing about a character like Batman, reinventing him isn’t exactly hard, working with the well-worn clich├ęs of the character and demeanor and flipping them is way harder.

Rather than finding one more new way to show how emotionally confused the Batman character makes Bruce Wayne, Waid returns to the conflicts that arise out of lying to his current beau, in this case an especially bright and awesomely aggressive women named Cristina Llanero.

Llanero alternately accuses Wayne of being a liar, a playboy, and a rich fuck-around and Wayne’s just kinda gotta take it because he is lying and from any conventional perspective, the assumption wouldn’t be “Well maybe he’s stalking around the city at night fighting crime and that’s why he sometimes forget to call.” That Llanero’s drained of any of the whiny girlfriend stuff that even smart Batman stories stumble into, makes this seen-it-before sub-drama work and a line like “What will the history books say about Bruce Wayne” actually stings instead of being uh, sorta cunty.

And visually, artist Diego Olmos similarly balances traditionalist approaches to the character with occasional, pitch-perfect changes. The art reminds me of the animation art for Batman: Gotham Knight (which along with the “Batgirl” story arc in Batman Confidential is the only good Batman thing in a long time)--lots of thick lines, minimal detail but a core, hard-to-explain kinetic energy, even in the down-time.

Especially notable is Olmos’ use of action panels with no dialogue or sound effects. It gives you time to take-in the panel or page-spread, but it also just sort if hits you viscerally, like you’re in the action sequence, because you don’t get pulled out of it by in-fight quips or extraneous sound effects.

Surely, partial credit for this should go to Waid, but it’s Olmos that pulls it off, because he doesn’t employ some basic comic book grammar but doesn’t let his page look bare or incomplete. This terse rejection of comic art expectations, this comfort with not always following the formula, results in some really invigorating art.

There’s a panel where everyone’s running from Killer Croc and Olmos draws a screaming woman’s face a little too big and kinda distorted and it adds some inexplicable horror to the scene.

An image of Batman standing alone, oddly posed in a fighter’s stance, in full costume but missing his gloves (his hands wrapped in boxer’s tape), right before he’s about to fight Killer Croc—a strange moment of nervous calm before the fight begins.

It’s not ten steps removed from say, Tony Daniel’s work, but it’s got an alternative, lived-in, lumpy feeling that’s preferable to perfection or “grittiness” pretty much every time.

Contrary to popular belief, it's been a real bad year for the "Batman" franchise. Monetarily sure, The Dark Knight broke box office records but it's pop nihilism is well, the kind that breaks box office records and nothing more.

And the mess that is/was "R.I.P" and "Battle for the Cowl" too, undermines the core of the character without doing much else. As of late, Batman's been thoroughly deconstructed, a whole bunch of bets-hedging "This ain't your granddaddy's Batman!" type junk to really no end, and so, Batman in Barcelona, a back to basics, feels-like-a-classic-Legends of the Dark Knight story, from Mark Waid is refreshing in its traditionalism.

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