Monday, February 23, 2015

Writing and Drawing the Dark Knight

Writing and drawing are two very different crafts. When a creator takes it upon himself to do both, the resulting fusion of art and storytelling can take the reader to unexpected places.

In Batman: Odyssey (2010-2012), Neal Adams attempts to show up James Joyce by making Bruce Wayne his very own Leopold Bloom. Like his modernist predecessor, the DC veteran takes a great deal of liberty with classical tropes: catabasis and cyclops make the cut, empowered female characters do not. The Homeric journey is stretched to cover less familiar territory where the reader meets Neanderthals, trolls, mutant Egyptian gods, and jive-talking mages.

(Matt Fraction’s gender-swapping Ody-C exhibits radically different sensibilities).

Thematically, the product of this collision between ancient inspiration and the modern male power fantasy is predictably uneven. At times Odyssey reads more like a retrospective of Neal Adams’ contributions to the Batman mythos than anything else: Deadman, the League of Assassins and Man-Bat all feature very prominently. As a spectral guide to the underworld, Deadman’s responsibility to Batman and Robin is like that of Virgil’s to Dante. The underworld in this case is a hollow earth overpopulated with dinosaurs, a fantasy cliché which, while satisfying in a gee-whiz sort of way, cannot help but remind the wary reader of Neal Adams’ climate-change denying theories of Earth’s expansion.

While Odyssey is all over the place when it comes to plot, themes and characterization, its narration is certainly very consistent: every episode is introduced and narrated by beefcake Bruce Wayne sitting across a table from an unseen interlocutor whose point of view the reader shares. Inexcusably, most of the frame story’s dialogue takes place in front of a computer-generated backdrop which could not have seemed less contrived even at the height of the nineties. Adams’ layouts masterfully integrate text, the flow of which is most easily intuited on his splash pages. The writer/illustrator's script is unfortunately not on the same level as his artistic vision: I frequently found myself looking back to previous frames or pages for fear of having read them out of sequence only to find out my confusion stemmed not from misleading layouts but rather from awkward or repetitive pieces of dialogue.

Diversity score:
:  None of the series’ fourteen issues depict a woman who is not under the direct and complete control of a man. Even Talia al Ghul is merely a pawn in her father's schemes.
0: The series is not explicitly LGBTQA-inclusive.
ππ: While Sensei, Ra's and Talia Al-Ghul all have significant impacts on Odyssey's plot, they tend to conform to the common stereotype of the scheming "oriental" mastermind. Moreover, the physiology of the craven primitives whom Batman and Robin must beat into compliance is worryingly reminiscent of caricatures based on racial stereotypes.

. . .

Walter Simonson's The Judas Coin (2012) tells six stories happening around the same cursed object: one of the thirty shekels of Judas Iscarioth's reward. The first tale is but a brief introduction, an account of Judas' last days which, instead of making a religious statement of any kind, focusses on the convoluted circumstances through which the coin came to line the pockets of a murderer. The second story skips 40 years forward as the coin travels to Celtic Europe by way of Roman legionnaires; the third takes place some 900 years afterwards, when Northerners go a-Viking on Welsh shores. The fourth episode follows the coin upon the High Seas during the golden age of piracy; the fifth, featuring Bat Lash, has the cursed piece of silver land in the Wild West. The sixth takes us at last to the "present day," where Batman has a run-in with Two-Face at the Gotham Historical Museum. The seventh and last tale, something of an epilogue, tracks the coin into the far future when it crosses paths with a certain Manhunter.

Simonson uses each self-contained story as an opportunity to explore a radically different artistic style. The sixth episode especially is a bit of a formalist experiment, forcing the reader to view the album at a 90 degrees angle and interspersing comic frames with ersatz newspaper clippings. Every story exhibits the creator's concern for setting: where Adams would be content to use a blur in lieu a background, Simonson gives us careful recreations of historical environments.

Diversity score:
:  Two of the seven stories show women exerting agency: in the second, we meet Ardra, a leader of the Celts;  in the seventh, the thieves Ledora and Fenette give Manhunter a run for his money.
0: This graphic novel is not explicitly LGBTQA-inclusive.
0: People of colour are alluded to once in flashback sequence, but are not otherwise represented in this graphic novel.

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