Batman Black and White is one of the best concepts to ever come from the 2000's era of DC Comics. It’s an anthology series derived from works of various creators, some who are familiar with the Dark Knight (Darwyn Cooke, Neal Adams, Klaus Janson) and some who aren’t, (such as two of the creators in this issue). It was a chance to tell timeless, brief done-in-one tales that didn’t strictly hinge on continuity yet evoked several elements of the Batman mythos to tell the most creative stories outside of the main books. The stories originally ran in the pages of Batman: Gotham Knights as a back-up feature, and have since been collected in a three volume trade paperback.
Personally speaking, it’s one of the best ways Batman stories have been told since the passing of Denny O’Neil as editor of the Bat-Books. The idea is so promising of potential, I’m honestly dumbfounded as to why the same hasn’t been done for Superman, as both characters benefit from the multi-angle point of storytelling.
This first issue of the relaunched series does the title justice, as absolutely nothing has changed from its original format. A writer and artist (sometimes both in one) tell a brief story, credit is given to the team, and we move on with the next. No mention of the New 52 is anywhere near the book, nor are there any references to heavy storylines or characters that go beyond the familiar. The specific eras are all varied, but they do little to intrude on the story, only serving it.
“Don’t know where, don’t know when” is a World’s Finest team-up (Batman, Robin and Superman for the uninitiated) harkening back to the Golden Age during the 40's and 50's. One night, Batman calls for Robin to meet him on a rooftop, but the Caped Crusader never shows. Dick enlists the help of Superman to learn of his partner’s whereabouts, where they eventually find him teleported in Korea. Michael Cho’s style certainly evokes the Darwyn Cooke flavor of World War II era pulp heroes, but where Cooke’s ends and Cho begins is in the characteristic details. Particularly whenever Robin has his mask off, and we see the young boy taken in by his wacky billionaire mentor is when real humanization peaks through the Old-School trappings of yesteryear. That’s what makes this first story my favorite. I love stories of the original Batman and Robin team, especially during the Golden Age, and this is right up my alley. Strictly speaking, the story isn’t stated to take place in the 50's nor does it need to. The characters all speak in what can easily be modern language, and the only aspects which are dated are the technology in the Batcave. This can serve as a flashback tale for Dick Grayson taking place in any era of Batman (except New 52 of course), because the story is about the characters more than its era. Chip Kidd’s handle on Dick, Bruce and Clark is spot on. Dick’s still about 12 or 13, new to the role of Robin, so we see self-doubt and insecurity as well as the character’s trademark positivity and determination. Clark is strong and upbeat, while Batman is a bit rougher around the edges but still more than willing to thank his ward and Superman for finding him. This type of characterization makes the story timeless, which is how the best stories stand the test of time.
Neal Adams “Batman Zombie” story is far less nuanced, but all the same interesting enough. Bruce has a dream in which he can’t assist the people of Gotham as Batman due to being a zombie, but is more than capable physically to beat up Gotham’s rogues gallery. He wakes up with a renewed sense of social purpose. The story is right out of the Green Lantern/Green Arrow run that Adams did with Denny O’Neil in the 1970's which famously addressed social issues in then-modern society. As it was there, it’s laid on a bit too thick to earn the emotion it’s going for. The most OTT aspect is Adams’ pencils, which employ facial expressions and body language that hinge on cartoony and oversell the message of the story. It’s about as subtle as a punch to the face, but that doesn’t mean it’s bad. I like stories where heroes decide to help in ways that don’t require their costumed identity, and for what it’s worth this one was interesting enough that it gets a pass from being a total PSA.
“Justice is Served” by Wicks and Quinones reads like a missing episode of Batman: The Animated Series in the third season, where Paul Dini was coming up with script after script of wacky Harley hijinks. Were it not for the credits, I would have believed this was done by Dini. Wicks’ story incorporates much of the humor and tongue-in-cheek nature of his Harley scripts, keeping in a bad guy plot for Batman to get involved in. A burger chain in Gotham has been poisoned, and Harley’s hyenas have been affected. Why Ivy says she had nothing to do with it, the two along with Batman track down the real culprit, who was a former college of Pamela Isley. Like most of the stories, it’s lightweight but amusing. Quinones’ artwork is reminiscent of Stephane Roux and works great in a Harley story. The only slight drawback is that this story is the longest of the five, and unnecessarily so in my opinion. Most Batman: Black and White tales last for about four or five pages on average. This had a total of eight, with many panels in each page. Again, that’s not a mortal sin. The story’s still good, I was just surprised when reading it that it hadn’t been wrapped up by page six. Your own mileage may vary.
“Driven” by Arcudi and Murphy is a cute story concerning Batman and his love for the Batmobile. Bruce works on his car in intermittent scenes while chasing Roxy Rocket as Batman. Nothing much more to it than that, and it’s probably my least favorite of the five stories. It didn’t interest me as much as the others, and the artwork I felt by Sean Murphy was a bit too gritty in style for the light fare it was detailing. Again, it isn’t bad by any means. It just isn’t not my personal pick for the best.
“Head Games” by Howard Mackie and Chris Samnee is probably the most “traditional” Batman story in that it involves a super villain and a murder mystery, while providing a subplot for Bruce Wayne and his life as CEO of Wayne Enterprises. It’s very straightforward and deceptively simple, but Mackie and Samnee are such pros that it reads terrifically. Mackie’s dialogue and Samnee’s pencils serve to make this a perfect nourish tale without getting bogged down in the aesthetic. Both are Marvel Comics alumni, with Mackie most notable for writing Spider-Man for year in the late 1990's and Chris Samnee currently drawing Mark Waid’s Daredevil. Mackie’s Spider-Man work was at its best when telling a street level, pulp style story, so the two are at home here. As a result, the story just sings. The black and white format of the book works best here, where the bifurcated tone accentuates the theme of the story, that being dual identities and their balance by one living soul. It also adds to the action. There’s a murder scene told chillingly in one page over the course of a few panels which is scarier than any from a modern book in how little detail we see. The character’s dialogue, the imagery and the on-screen, off-screen execution give us all that we need so our minds can come up with the rest. This story would have made a great one-shot if extended a bit, and secures its place for being the best appearance of a villain in years. This was my second favorite, right up there with Kidd and Cho’s story.
Overall this relaunching of the Black and White series is an unmitigated success. Nothing was changed, and the stories and their creators rose to the challenge to brings us some of the best Batman tales of the year. If you are a fan of the character, you owe it to yourself to buy this comic. $4.99 is a steep price, but for once it’s worth it.
Batman: Black and White #1:
Reviewed by Donovan Morgan