Thousand Faced: Batman-War On Crime

Batman-War On Crime
Written by Paul Dini
Illustrated by Alex Ross
Published by DC Comics

I know just how The Joker feels. The Batman is the man I love. I should be disturbed by that admission. For just about all my reading life he’s been my favorite. Fourteen columns and three of them deal with him out of the hundreds of characters out there to be read about. After this I’m prescribing about a year’s Bat rest for him. Although we may take a look at other residents in Gotham in a few months.

The Batman created by Bob Kane and Bill Finger is not the first dark avenger of his era. That would go to The Shadow created in 1931. In a lot of adult ways, The Shadow is a more complex character. Yet for over seventy years The Batman has endured and even flourished. The Shadow had cool toys and great help including sexy women who call him “Master.” The Batman in a lot of ways has the same. So that’s not it. Let’s drop the lot’s of money factor. Lex Luthor had it, became President of the United States during the Bush years using it and will never be considered a hero. That’s not it; though many people will tell you it’s part of the vicarious gratification that comes with being a fan of this character. Those that tell you that are psychologists and aren’t to be trusted with sources of fun or spiritual issues. They are flat wrong. This is what makes The Batman resonate since his creation. Despite some wild story lines this character is kept human. Batman will always be just a man that you can count on. Every time. This is the part of this particular mythology given examination in this second book of the Dini/Ross collaboration of this five issue maxi series published 1n 1999 and 2000.

Once again the cover is an extreme facial close-up of the character iconic-ally rendered by the loving hand of Alex Ross. The black cowl frames the face emerging from the folds of the cape. You can barely make out the infamous pointy ears. Look harder and you will notice you can see his brow is furrowed even through the cowl. In many Batman drawings his eyes are depicted as demonic white slits but this showing of them makes him even scarier. They are narrowed in cool scrutiny, calculating. The square jaw is set so hard you can almost hear teeth grinding. This is a face hinting there is an ass-kicking to come very soon. It doesn’t matter who the recipient is or how powerful they are. They are about to go deep into “the hurt locker.”

Turn the page. It’s the next instant and The Batman has his “war face” on. Some poor son-of-a-bitch is going to be severely beaten. Oh yeah, Babee!

When I was a kid I loved his toys. The Batmobile (a stylized GTO muscle car) was the best thing about the 60’s TV show. Okay that and Julie Newmar as Catwoman. As I grew older and studied harsh reality, I fell in love with the idea that justice can come out of the darkness that criminals think themselves cloaked in and no legions of lawyers or tainted justice system can save them from The Batman’s wrath. We all ache for retribution to come and punish evil.

Dini’s powerful story begins with a montage of the origin story in the blue of washed-out moonlight. There is the classic image at the top of the page of Batman crouching on a Gotham City gargoyle as bats fly past him. Beautiful. You see the murder of The Waynes and the boy on his knees making a solemn vow with the same eyes as the man on the cover. The stage is set.

Once more the story is told in a first person narrative by the character. It is also a tale with no super villains. We see them in passing as part of the montages but this is not about them even though The Batman’s rogue gallery is one of the best around. This is what is written on the label. It is a war on crime. It is down and dirty and at the street level where the vast majority of The Batman’s work is done. He comes out of smoke and shadows and is the epitome of “shock and awe.” He needs to be; this man has no super powers. If he has any advantage he must press them with maximum efficiency.

I read an interview with Grant Morrison, one of the best writers in the business and a veteran Batman storyteller. He describes how Superman can relax and explore his humanity so as not to lose touch with people. He gets to enjoy the human condition. Well, yeah; he’s Superman. He can afford a jaunt of tourism into humanity. He doesn’t see himself as fighting a war, so much as lending an invulnerable hand. The Batman has little time for that. Even out of costume, Bruce Wayne is used as just another mask he wears to get his mission of fighting crime accomplished. Morrison also admits, this is what makes The Batman a far sexier character to write about and read. They say Batman has everything he could possibly want. Everything but more time.

So this is what makes this story more than another Dark Knight on a testosterone rampage story. No matter how facile he is at wearing masks to fight his war, it is the man beneath the mask that is required. During his nightly patrol, Batman comes upon the scene of a robbery turned double homicide. Huddled behind a grocery store counter in terror and grief is a boy named Marcus who just saw his parents gunned down and had his life brutally ripped away from him. Batman does what he can in the circumstance but it is too little, too late and he knows it. He can’t stop wondering what he would have turned out like had his situation been different. Marcus gives him several opportunities to consider this as the boy winds up participating in crimes. There is a belief that crime itself can be done away with if just the fear of being caught can be made dire enough. Other than out right summary executions on the street; it doesn’t get more dire than Batman suddenly exploding into your existence.

In fact, Marcus is a little boy absolutely terrified of The Batman having seen up close and personal what can happen to those he takes down. Fear is not the answer anymore than raw strength was able to deal with the issue of world hunger in the previous Superman story. What must happen is the mask must come off and the real man beneath it must be brave enough to expose his humanity enough to reach out to this horribly emotionally injured boy.

There is also a side story involving Bruce Wayne and a sleazy real-estate developer, Randall Winters. The man is what Jim Morrison used to call, “A less for fuck salesman” who wants to tear down neighborhoods and displace people and further add to the urban blight of Gotham City. This is also important because although the man clearly deserves a well-placed boot to the head, Wayne restrains himself and sets up the repulsive little yuppie so he can end his livelihood with a well-placed phone call to the cops and the Feds. This time it is the real Bruce Wayne acting as a citizen that brings this piece of wannabe wealth down.

It is a fine Batman story told deftly by Paul Dini. The illustrations are breathtaking paintings that reveal the complex emotions driving the characters. I love a good Dark Knight beat down as much as anybody. This book took me somewhere else. Usually when stories try to get touchy and feely I want to run because it more often than not becomes a morality story with all the flavor left out in order to  force the lesson of the day upon me. I live vicariously through the simple elegance of rage articulated by one of the smartest men in the world by using his fists. If he can’t find another way to deal with problems who am I to take the high ground? Hey, I’m not Gandhi over here. That’s the beauty of the really good work. It will involve you to the point that you’ve come to another destination other than the one you expected and I for one want to shake the creator’s hands for doing that to me. Well played, sirs. Well played.

Next week: Wonder Woman

by Bill Hilburn

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