I woke up one morning and had a dream... Could I own every single issue of Detective Comics, Batman and all of the other subtitles in the Gotham universe?
Insane? Stupid? Inspired?
This can only end in obsession and financial chaos.

Thursday, 28 July 2011

Favourites: As The Crow Flies

Been a while, since I've done when one of these. So lets do an easy one. Presenting Batman (1940) #626 to #630: 'As The Crow Flies', by Judd Winick and Dustin Nguyin.

Okay, this being a start of a creators run on a title, you expect a feeling out process with the main characters to be undertaken especially by the creators. Do the creators fundamentally change a key component of a key character? Do they use their first story as a prologue, to set the scene for their true master plan? And do they get away with it? Spoilers follow.

Great modern Batman stories are rarely about Batman, they tend to revolve around other characters, and that their story usually collides with Bruce Wayne's obsessive vigilantism. 'Killing Joke' is about Joker, Knightfall is all about why Bane has been built up as a 'main eventer', why Knightfall is all about Azrael. 'As the Crow Flies' is all about re-incarnating The Scarecrow, Jonathan Crane.

We notice right from the start that Crane is now considered to be an embarrassment to the rest of the Villain community. The contempt and disrespect that The Penguin shows Crane, at the first point is quite telling. Batman readers now see this heavyweight bad guy now fallen on bad times, humiliated and abused by someone wholly more powerful. Therefore we start to take an interest in Crane's sub-plot rather than the standard, 'Penguin-is-a-Gangster' (although, he really is written as one nasty bastard here) story. We are also dealt this nugget; subtly dropped in that, he has another skill other than producing fear inducing chemical compounds, and he doesn't want anybody else to know about it: Genetics. Could this other work be his redemption, in the eyes of the reader? A glimmer of hope, perhaps. Then, Winick throws in a potential romantic interest, and then he builds upon it. Classic hook: if the character falls in love, he might walk away from this life of villainy.

Of course, this is Gotham City. Hope, Redemption and Happy Endings don't happen here! The cleverness of the back story of Crane's new life, is just cover for his real life changing moment. That he has a double life as a Mobster Killing Hulk. With freaking Fear Gas for breath! And for me, this is a really good thing.

It's (and this is why I haven't been blogging more about Batman the last month, or so) because I've read all of Peter David's run on The Incredible Hulk this summer. It is in this title that a writer shows what happens when you take a character that has an obvious gimmick, and twist it so that creates endless possibilities and scenarios are produced. And what Judd Winick does here is take The Scarecrow, a character that hasn't changed too much since his introduction, and twisted it, mutated it, permanently, all for the better.

You see a fundamental thing for most Gotham villains is duality. Two-Face is the most obvious, The Riddler is more subtle (puzzle/answer). By making Crane less of a costumed gimmick, and more a classic dual personality (the Jekyll/Hyde monster) then the character is instantly more interesting to me, the Batman reader, as it shows evolution and invention. Crane, as the classic Scarecrow, was becoming more and more toothless over the years. He was never a physical threat to Batman to begin with, and his most dangerous weapon, fear gas, was beaten time and again by Batman (in this story, the Bat-safeguards against the Fear Gas Winick allows Batman to have, is astonishingly complete.). By the story's end The Scarecrow is turned into a physically intimidating, dangerous predator, and whose improved Fear Gas really does major damage to all those exposed to it.

One of the cheap gimmicks some Batman writers use, is that to be a true threat to Batman then his dual identity must be exposed. Sometimes this is done to great affect (The Breaking of The Bat), other times it's done really lazily ('Hush', where the secret identity was made essentially worthless by the stories end, he might have done a press conference...). Fortunately, Winick uses this gimmick cleverly. The Monster Scarecrow enters Wayne Manor, simply by following Batman Fear-induced drive back to the Cave. He attacks Alfred, but is eventually beaten. However, the Monster Scarecrow sees Batman cowl-free, in Wayne Manor. The clever bit: because Crane isn't in true control of himself, and cannot recall anything when he changes, he simply will won't ever remember being at Wayne Manor, or what he saw at Wayne Manor. This is a get-outta-jail master-stroke by a writer, it doesn't upset continuity, and presents new opportinities. Another possibility Batman now has to consider, Crane's new incarnation is proper dangerous and could he suddenly remember that night in the cave?

If I have any complaint about this storyline is that the developed characterisation of the new, improved Scarecrow, and the newly layered. down-trodden Jonathan Crane isn't fully expanded upon (curse the 22 page comic book format!). But I suppose that's the hook for the follow up story. Maybe that's the first signpost for the Judd Winick era of Batman?

By the stories end the true tragic loser is the protagonist I care about, The Scarecrow. He is betrayed by the romantic interest. He is forever changed and genetically mutated by a more dominant evil mind. He is physically beaten by The Bat. His life as the old Scarecrow is over. His redemption through love can never be accomplished now, and now he is (sometimes) a monster. As he escapes into a forest, it becomes clear that The Scarecrow's story is a true Urban Gothic tragedy.