Thousand Faced: Under The Hood: Volumes 1 & 2

Under The Hood: Volumes 1 & 2
Writer: Judd Winick
Artists: Doug Mahnke, Paul Lee
Inked by: Tom Nguyen and Cam Smith
Published by: DC Comics

It’s always raining in Gotham City. There is always a fight going on above the streets. This story begins with Batman and some guy on a roof in a red hood really giving him a hard time. The guy doesn’t rattle. He cuts away the utility belt. Batman is unmasked. Then the man in the hood unmasks and a horrified Bruce Wayne reacts with, “Oh God.”  I’m hooked.

Here we are at my tenth installment of this column and back at a Batman story. It’s no coincidence. For decades now if DC wanted to assure that one of their flagship titles is going to do well they better keep top notch writer/artist teams on it. The same might be said for Superman but he doesn’t collect such a talented and ardent bunch of followers. Years ago in Batman #400, Stephen King said that Bats is more fun than Superman because it’s hard to identify with a Kryptonian but anybody with the heart, will, and the money for the coolest toys might be The Batman. His adventures for the most part just seem so much more plausible. So there’s always great talent knocking on the door to do a Batman story. I have enjoyed many of them. This series is a pure grab you by the short and curlies and make you fly along with the pace.

By the way it should be mentioned that on July 27th Under The Hood will be released by Time Warner as an animated movie. I have seen trailers and they do look really good and seem to follow this story arc very closely.

After the mutual unmasking scene we are flash backed to five weeks before. A fourth Robin has been lost in the campaign against crime that is endless and wearing. Wayne Industries Research and Development division headed by Lucius Fox has succumbed to a hostile takeover by a mysterious buyer. Crime is ramping up and the streets are getting bloodier. There is no time for grieving. A mystery man shows up and takes over the Gotham street drug sales by putting the heads of every gang leader’s lieutenant in a bag. It works.

Next scene, my favorite Batman villain Blackmask is being told he’s losing ground to the guy in a red hood. He shrugs it off. When life gives him lemons he’s the one who takes the opportunity to make toxic lemonade. Blackmask is old school crime boss with a sense of style and wit. He is also a ruthless psychopath that likes to remove people’s faces when he can. If you were casting for this guy in a film it would have to be Dennis Leary. He might be a terror but he’s a funny prick. “I really prefer burning a whole house down than trying to root out a few rats. It’s extreme, but y’know I’m not a very nice person.”

The pacing of the action in this is so cool. Nightwing (the original Robin, Dick Grayson) appears early on working with his old mentor. Together they are trying to track what Blackmask is trying to acquire.  The Red Hood has already intercepted one hundred pounds of kryptonite and is trying to cut a deal with Blackmask. Batman and Nightwing find Amazo in a box. Yes. Amazo. The killer android that duplicates most of the Justice League members’ powers. With teamwork and fast thinking two guys with no superpowers take Amazo out. It’s a thing of beauty to read.
By now The Joker is found, restrained and savagely beaten by a crowbar and by now I know exactly who The Red Hood is. Fan boys like me will note that The Red Hood is how The Joker started out committing crimes until Batman kicked him into a vat of chemical waste. Jason Todd, the second Robin, has returned from the dead taking the first identity of the man who killed him. Ordinarily I would be pissed off, I voted to off the little wise ass bugger years ago and delighted in it happening. You think teenage boys are fun? Try having one. I think parental votes put the Robin deathwatch over the top back when. Now the little douche is back? Well hold on a minute….this is a good story and the Red Hood is brutally killing his way to the top of the Gotham underworld. By now this is causing all sorts of pain-in-the-assage for The Batman. I love the guy but I love watching him squirm even more because he doesn’t shake up easily. This non-execution story is so well executed I just had to go with it. I don’t do “continuity porn” for it’s own sake.

There is a scene between Blackmask and Deathstroke while watching The Hyena’s ass and wondering whether the villain they hired is male or female. It’s priceless dialogue between two of the cooler villains in the whole DC universe.
There’s a scene between The Joker and the Red Hood that makes me chuckle when I think of it.
The Joker
Didn’t I kill you once?
The Red Hood
We agreed not to talk about that.

See? I can see how well that will play out on the screen. It’s going pretty well inside my head. If you enjoy a good Batman yarn this is it in big dripping expletives. The guests are great and in keeping to their relationships to Batman, Superman, Green Arrow, Deathstroke and a bunch of others. An ex-Robin murders a super-Nazi by frying of the brain. Oh yeah, gimme more o’ that action. Now we find out just how lethal somebody trained by The Batman can be with no moral compunction against killing. Pretty damn lethal from where I sit.

Because I’m a writer I always want to talk story. Well this one just goes and goes. There have been a handful of great Batman writers and Winick has gnawed his way to the few who lead the pack. This tale is so logical within the context of what Batman is and where the stories have gone since Jason Todd’s fan-selected death. I won’t even bring up how DC disgusted me with The Death of Superman and the big blue boy scouts return from the grave. Even Superman deserves better than market-driven lameness. Here’s an example. After Jason Todd got beaten by a crowbar and then blown up his body is found by Talia, Ras-Al-Ghul’s daughter and mother to Damien who fancies himself Batman’s son. She raises Jason from the dead in the Lazarus Pit because it never occurs to her that the same treatment has also made her father a megalomaniac with murderous tendencies. Why would she? This is what comes of psychotics doing good deeds.

This also has a worthy conclusion that adds to The Batman legacy. Just how “bad ass” is Batman? He’s just what he needs to be when he needs to be it. It comes so fast it almost leaves a tang of Deus Ex Machina in the air but you think about it and go …well, sure that’s exactly how it should be. Or as once said, “Now there’s a Batman!”

The artwork puts the frosting on this bad-ass cake.  Telling story with facial expressions is where a lot of illustrators fall short but here’s a good one. When The Joker and Jason Todd are trading insults a good dig is gotten in on The Joker. The laser-guided accuracy of the observation makes the man who laughs look rueful and taciturn at being found out. It’s very,very nice. And I don’t think we’ve ever actually had one before.

by Bill Hilburn

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