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Geek Girl’s Fictional Junk Food-O-Rama “The Greatest Batman Stories Ever Told”
The first Saturday of May is Free Comic Book Day. It’s no secret that it’s one of my favorite days of the year or that I can, in true Geek fashion, get a little bit single-minded about it as it approaches. Comic books have always been something that I have loved, from the time I was a little starry-eyed sprocket asking my mom if I could please get the latest issue of Jughead from the magazine rack at the grocery store. You’d better believe that I knew where every magazine rack that had comics in it was within a thirty-mile radius of my house.
When it comes to my movies, I tend to gravitate towards escapism, and while I’m not as adamant about it when I read, I won’t deny that I like escapism there, too. Still, while I love action and superhero movies, I’m less inclined towards superheroes in comic books. I don’t have any kind of rational explanation for that preference, or at least nothing that I could specifically point towards as an “Ah-ha” moment. I just know that I didn’t really like them all that much. Time has gone on, and that preference lingers. When it comes to my comic and graphic novel collection, superheroes are the exception rather than the rule.
One of the standout exceptions in my collection is also one of the graphic novels that I can be found dependably rereading at least portions of on a yearly basis. I bought it at a big chain bookstore when I was on a vacation. Yeah, I’m one of those Geeks. I wasn’t really sure that I was going to like the book, but when I picked it up and flipped through it, I could see a hodgepodge of different drawing styles and at least one lengthy piece of prose. For reasons I’m still not entirely sure that I can explain, I decided that it looked interesting. I suppose most of my interest was due to the fact that I wasn’t quite old enough to watch the Batman movies just yet, and I was curious to find out what everyone else seemed to be talking about. I couldn’t see what was so great about a guy running around in a black rubber suit.
I started reading the book in the car. I know that this wasn’t a surprise to anyone around me. Of course, there was the ever present origin story. No superhero can possibly be complete without knowing why they became a superhero in the first place. The artwork style was simpler than what I had been accustomed to seeing in modern comics. It wasn’t as complex as the work of Walt Kelly, but there was more definition to it than the average Peanuts comic. That simplicity of line work didn’t bother me much at all. Instead, I was engrossed in that first, tragic tale of a young man orphaned in an alley by a theater and where the decision to enact vengeance took him.
What I found between the covers of that first graphic novel I ever bought (and yes, it’s true, The Greatest Batman Stories Ever Told was, indeed, my first graphic novel purchase) was an anthology style collection of stories that ran the gamut of Batman’s evolution, right up until the modern day. It was even more of a mishmash of art work than I’d initially thought it was.
The fantastic thing about the book, though, is that it isn’t stuffed with a huge, overreaching story arc that feels like it’s been stretched to fill up the pages. The stories were selected to give even the uninitiated, casual reader like myself a good overview of who Batman is and what he does. They’re all primarily one-shot stories that introduce key players in the Batman universe, illustrate connections between important characters, and build a comprehensive picture of Batman. It’s a fantastic, well thought out, and carefully constructed buffet.
Naturally, there were stories with the Joker in them, because what is Batman without the Joker? Of all of the hero/nemesis pairings to be introduced into the world of comics, there are very few that could be considered as iconic or recognizable as that one. I also learned that Batman’s universe wasn’t strictly a land of demented clowns. Through The Greatest Batman Stories Ever Told I discovered The Scarecrow and Deadshot Ricochet and learned The Penguin’s real name (Chester Cobblepot, for anyone who’s keeping score).
I saw remarkable consistency for particular aspects of Bruce Wayne and Batman’s character and remarkable fluidity for others. Girlfriends came and went and Robins were selected and died. Alfred’s age increased and decreased until eventually stabilizing into the somewhat elderly gent we see most often. The bat toys got more and more technologically advanced and unattainable, but the Batman was and has remained a self-made superhero. I think that is what appeals about him most to me. There are no gimmicks with Batman. Simple bad luck set him on his path, and no bizarre workings of fate or random exposures to radiation or industrial accidents made him. Batman became Batman through dedication and hard work.
The Greatest Batman Stories Ever Told charts the devolving of comic book artwork, steadily declining through the sixties to the gruesomely awkward proportions and blurry coloring of the seventies, which is nowhere better illustrated than in the story “Man-Bat over Vegas.” At its heart, the story is a modern day fable about science conducted without ethics, but it owes almost all of its existence to the cheaply produced, badly drawn pulpy horror comics of the era. It felt, more than anything else, as if some corporate executive guy said “Look, horror comics are popular with the kiddies right now. Put Batman in a horror comic, all right?” And someone did it. That doesn’t make it a story that I didn’t enjoy, but it does make it an example of what happens when genre-blending takes a turn for the worst. However, it is also memorable, which is probably one of the chief reasons for putting it into the book.
One of my favorite stories in the book, though, involves a character that I hadn’t even peripherally known about until I purchased the book. The story involves Bat-Mite. Bat-Mite appears to be the Great Gazoo of the Batman universe. He’s a little guy in a ill-fitted suit who is there primarily to annoy the heck out of Batman. He succeeds, fantastically. It’s also the only time that I can think of where a Batman story was intentionally funny. I absolutely loved it and loved seeing Batman break that debonair facade, if for only a few pages, to just be annoyed with the little twit like any normal human being would be.
If I were asked to choose a favorite superhero, I would answer, without hesitation, The Comedian, but if the field were narrowed to the classical cadre of long-running superheroes, hands down I would go with Batman. I think, as they intended, The Greatest Batman Stories Ever Told does a great job of illustrating why.