Recommended Reading: Comics

Comic book film adaptations are all the rage. With unsurprising expertise in nerdiness (nerdocity?), the Bureau Staff suggests source material for the new Batman and Hellboy films.

Kevin

Batman Begins is shallow and tiresome upon repeated viewings, but origin stories are often sacrificial lambs for excellent sequels. I think this grim, psychologically murky envisioning of Batman is more appropriate for the screen than anything portrayed by, say, George Clooney. The Dark Knight has more potential as a superhero film than anything since Spider-Man 2.

To celebrate, I’ve been borrowing Batman comics from the library.

Courtesy of the American Memory Project

Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke features the Joker as the main character (though still not much of a protagonist). The story opens with the Joker escaping from Arkham Sanctum, showing up at Commissioner Gordon’s home, and paralyzing his daughter by shooting her in the spine. Critics have argued that the scene is reprehensibly sexist. (After all, Barbara Gordon is Alicia Silverstone Batgirl.) But as appalling as it is, this is the best piece in the book. In the hands of a less talented writer, it would be gratuitous, but Moore’s got a finger on the pulse of the Joker’s psyche.

Unfortunately, as with much of his work, The Killing Joke begins better than it finishes. This is a frequent issue I have with Moore’s work. Without spoiling details, the ending is frustratingly ambiguous, relieving The Killing Joke from taking any chances or risks. Moore is regarded as one of the best comic book writers around, but personally, I think all of his work–bar the brilliance of Watchmen–is overrated. (And please, no emails about V for Vendetta; I’ve read it.)

But some have hailed The Killing Joke as one of the best Batman stories. The Dark Knight director Christopher Nolan has referenced Moore’s depiction of the Joker as the basis for Heath Ledger’s character, so maybe it will translate better than Arnold Schwarzenegger as Mr. Freeze telling everyone to “chill out.”

Compared to The Killing Joke, Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns is a stronger miniseries. In fact, it’s one of the best Batman comics I’ve read.

Gotham City is in pretty tough shape ten years after Batman’s retirement. Harvey “Two-Face” Dent’s release from Arkham spurs Bruce Wayne to suit up again, but the time away has done major damage to his public image. For the first time, Gotham questions the ethics of Batman’s vigilante justice.

The Dark Knight Returns also shows traces of Moore’s Watchmen (a sharp critique of the Cold War) and Mark Waid’s Kingdom Come (Superman and Batman at ideological odds). But that’s not to say that Miller’s own vision lacks originality. This is a larger critique of personal morals, media influence, mob mentality, and fear.

And though I may not be the number one fan of Batman Begins, Nolan’s film understood that Batman’s weapon of choice is not high-tech gadgetry or the Batmobile, but how we could instill that fear in the criminals of Gotham City. Let’s hope that The Dark Knight picks up on the best of Moore and Miller.

Courtesy of the American Memory Project

Nick

Seeing as how Hellboy II: The Golden Army topped last week’s box office, now seems as good a time as any to recommend the comic on which it was based, Mike Mignola’s Hellboy. Mignola creates a dark, labyrinthine world of vampires, Nazis, myths, and mystery, as deep and intricate as any in the genre. Into it he drops the wry, brutish Hellboy, who’s determined to smash the complexity out of this twisted reality with his great stone fist. Hellboy is a perfect read because it offers indulgence in its snarky superhero fist fights, and erudition in Mignola’s nearly academic fantasy writing. The ancient Women of Thessaly will summon the Witch Queen Hectate to resurrect a rotting Romanian vampire who plans to create an unholy army to serve three ex-Nazis led by the ghost of Rasputin who wishes to instigate Ragna Rok, and then Hellboy blows up “about a bazillion pounds of old munitions” while diving out a castle window. Great stuff.

Unfortunately, like Neil Gaiman’s fantastic Sandman series, Hellboy suffers from a mediocre first volume. While Mignola did the story, characters, and artwork, the actual script was penned by old-school comic writer John Byrne. His stilted, cliche-ridden work clashes badly with Mignola’s unique setting and art. I know it sucks to miss an awesome character’s origin story, but I recommend just brushing up on Wikipedia and skipping to Wake the Devil, the second volume.

And speaking of Mike Mignola’s art, well, it’s what makes the series a true classic. And don’t think you’ve seen it in the movie trailers. In a recent Wired interview, Mignola said, “I’m a less-is-more guy and [Hellboy director Guillermo] del Toro is a more-is-not-enough guy.” Mignola’s art isn’t exactly minimalist–some panels are quite detailed–but it is flat, abstract, and evocative. Like Katsuhiro Otomo in Akira, Mignola can draw a thousand-word expression with just a few lines and circles. He can also stun you with swaths of shadowy noir mystique or bursts of bright, frenetic action. This combination of captivating artwork, rigorous storytelling, and buoyant characterization is rare in any comic, let alone in a single person. Don’t miss it.