Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Death and the Batman

Batman: Gothic (Deluxe Edition) (1990/ Collected 2015): written by Grant Morrison; illustrated by Klaus Janson: Writer Grant Morrison's second major foray into the world of Batman (after 1989's Arkham Asylum) hurls the Dark Knight into a literary hellscape of nods to Faustus, Don Giovanni, Lord Byron's Manfred, Fritz Lang's M., Lewis's The Monk, Maturin's Melmoth the Wanderer, and a host of other horrific antecedents. There's even an exquisitely detailed, Rube Goldbergesque death trap for Batman to escape.

Batman faces an enemy from his past -- his past as a schoolboy at a private school, that is, in the days before Bruce Wayne's parents were murdered and Bruce's journey towards being Batman began. But the enemy threatens Gotham's major mobsters as well, whom this old enemy hunts for revenge. Klaus Janson supplies lots of moodiness and doom as artist. It's one of Batman's most nightmarish adventures, even with the typical splash of Morrisonian postmodernism. This would make a terrific Batman movie, live-action or animated. Come on, DC! Highly recommended.

Death: The Deluxe Edition (1989-2003/ Collected 2014): written by Neil Gaiman; illustrated by Chris Bachalo, Mark Buckingham, Mark Pennington, Mike Dringenberg, Malcolm Jones III, Dave McKean, Jeffrey Jones, P. Craig Russell, Colleen Doran, and others: Neil Gaiman's goth-chick Death gets her solo adventures from The Sandman, two miniseries, and several other places collected here in over-sized hardcover. 

I'd read them all before, but it's nice to catch up with Death, the friendly and understanding embodiment of, well, Death, one of Gaiman's seven Endless personifications of natural forces (the others being Dream, Destiny, Desire, Delirium (nee Delight), Despair, and Destruction because the universe speaks English and enjoys alliteration). 

The bulk of the volume is occupied by two three-part miniseries, Death: The High Cost of Living and Death: The Time of Your Life. I'm partial to the first above all others in this volume, playing as it does with the form of the 'quest' and possessed as it is of a grumpy, teen-aged protagonist saddled with the name Sexton Furnival who goes out one day to commit suicide, instead falls into some garbage, and is rescued by the human avatar Death creates for one day every century so as to experience life among the living. It's one of Gaiman's finest pieces of writing, amplified by the lovely, slightly twee artwork of Chris Bachalo and Mark Buckingham.

The other stories are fine as well, though Bachalo disappears halfway through the second Death miniseries, leaving Mark Buckingham and Mark Pennington to finish up the job without moving too jarringly away from Bachalo's style. That miniseries reunites us with several characters from The Sandman arc "A Game of You" a few years down the road. It's solid as well, though Death is much more of a supporting player this time around. Death's answer to one character's enquiry about The Problem of Evil is glib and shallow, but that may be the point -- she's trying to comfort somebody who isn't very bright, not offer a comprehensive solution to theodicy. 

The volume also includes Death's first appearance in The Sandman, in which she tries to cheer up her mopey Byronic brother Dream, and a standalone issue in which Death is called upon by a very minor DC superhero (Element Woman, or possibly Element Girl) who doesn't know how to die. 

A handful of stories (including one in which Death and John Constantine talk about safe sex!) and a length series of illustrations by various artists round out the volume. There's also an oblique introduction from Tori Amos, reprinted from a 1994 collection: one of the oddities of most of DC's new Deluxe editions is that they contain very little 'new' material. Highly recommended.

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