Saturday, February 17, 2007

When Good Comics Go Bad: Batman #663

So what's the verdict? Good show, old boys, 'A' for effort and all that. But you're up a bit short.

Sometimes you want to try something different, shake things up a bit. In any medium where your peers and competitors are of some number, this is what is known as a "risk." For the record, I applaud risk in creativity, even when it doesn't pay off.

The Presentation
Batman #663 takes a bold leap into the risk area by presenting its story in prose ala typeset text as opposed to captions or word balloons. Accompanied by this are illustrations that are actually set pieces of 3D renderings, then photoshopped into "designy" collage. This is not completely unheard of in comics, but it is rare. Done well-- Watchmen and Cerebus come to mind-- even more rare. Of the 3D art, even more so and I've yet to see that done right in comics.

The problems that arise in this issue are that of format and form. "Type Design" is credited to Todd Kline, whose pedigree of comic lettering and logo design need not be questioned, however his book design in this instance leaves some to be desired. They type was much too bulky a font, a bold and condensed sans-serif that clogged up the page (my guess: Myriad Condensed Bold, perhaps semi-bold). Paragraphs were too wide and eratically clipped, ignoring many of the hard and fast rules large blocks of text require. I hate, hate, hate, hate to fault Klein in this instance as I know the man and respect him immensely, but the awkward type layout is the first sign of "something's not right here."

The "art," by John Van Fleet, completes the thought. Van Fleet, like Klein, is above average in his feild, tho here he eschews his traditional illustration for experiments in 3D which --while interesting and not without style-- fall short. In this day and age, if you are going to go CG, you better have your shit together. Comic readers both casual and regular are exposed to an extremly high level of computer graphics on a daily basis. Video games, movies, car commercials... everywhere. Hell, if you can't be Monster's Inc, you have to at least be Shreck. Translating that to funnybooks on the comic industry's infamous and laughably low budgets, well, that it a tough row to hoe. When people in the CG field do comic characters, they look like this:

(these images taken from very talented artists over at CG Society

Batman 663 looks like this:

Ah, Pepe Moreno, we miss you. (yes, I own Digital Justice, because 17 years ago, that shit was cool.)

The Story
Here's where things go further astray, but not in the way you would think. Morrison is one of the better comics writers (okay, I think he's one of the best) and he handles the long form just as well. Tho it was quite alot of text to get through to reach the final point which is --SPOILER-- the Joker concocted an elaborate string of murders to draw in Harley Quin, and then attempts to murder her. Batman intercedes, Joker fails, but not before Harley shoots the Joker in return.

In the story's tail end, when I realized the goings on, I was very excited about the prospect of Joker actually killing Harley, in such an odd, random, experimental way, and in the scope of only one issue. I shiver at the thought of another long, overdrawn DC "event" that would market such a thing to death. But then it hit me-- if that was actually going to happen, I really wished it would have been drawn as a traditional comic. I wanted an event like that to have the weight of Killing Joke, G.I. Joe #21, the death of Gwen Stacy... something that just comes out of nowhere and knocks you flat. And there would always be "that panel" lodged in the collective brains of comics readership, something we just don't seem to get anymore.

Alas such is not the case, and we get a small plot twist that preserves the status quo. It is doubtful that Harley's shot to the Joker will be fatal. The very story describes the necessity of Batman and the Joker's yin and yang. Harley Quin, on the other hand, is a perfectly expendable character, you may or may not recall she was only written in to current DCU continuity based on her popularity in Batman: The Animated Series. So if she dies, no tremendous loss, but who would have seen that coming?? And that would have been a good comic.

So, as I mentioned in the post previous, Batman #663 has balls. In my opinion it does not succeed, but damned if they didn't try, and that is worth something. The real shame here is that for a high concept such as this, the resources available to a major publisher were there to make it work. Somewhere along the line this thing was not shown to people who could help and instead was compiled in a vacuum. An editor with some artistic savvy, or-- heaven forbid-- an actual art director could have steered this thing into something truly unique and astonishing. Sadly I find the general design philosophy and art direction of mainstream comics terribly lacking, but thanks for trying, guys. Really, thanks for trying.

Further Reading:
Living Between Wednesdays
Comics Oughta be Fun

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