Thursday, January 19, 2012

Comic of the Week - Serious Fun

One of the big divides in comics, particularly superhero comics, is this idea that they have to either be grim and gritty or fun. The legacy of Watchmen and Dark Knight Returns was an over reliance on the grim and gritty to the point of becoming absolutely ridiculous. It's only been in the last several years that the fun has really started coming back. But the question that arises, in my mind, is whether or not we can't have both, even in the same story. Can we get a story that is serious, harrowing, has ramifications, is "realistic" and yet, is still fun? Well, the answer is yes. Of course it is. And while I'm sure there have been other comics that have accomplished this, the idea really struck me as I read Batman #5.

There's a long history of stories, particularly on TV shows, where a character (or characters) is trapped somewhere. Could be a meat locker, storage container, or some other place that won't be checked for several days, making it a survival thing. For some reason, this is what I thought of, in a good way, as I was sucked into this issue. Batman has been trapped in a labyrinth by the Court of Owls for about 8 days now. He is slowly losing his mind, possibly because the only source of water is drugged, but also because the mind games he is enduring are likely taking a toll. In addition to the trapped motif, this reminded me of British show The Prisoner. Every time Batman thinks he's got an answer, some new trick is played putting further from escape and deeper into madness. Meanwhile, out in Gotham, we have scenes of the people in Batman's life dealing with his disappearance. Seeing the way people like Gordon, Alfred and Damian worry was, to me, more poignant than anything we saw a couple of years ago when Bruce "died."

But, as I said, this book manages to take all that heaviness and somehow keep it fun. How? By making the book in such in a way that it puts you in the labyrinth with Batman. The book is essentially printed in a spiral formation. Pages start normal enough, but at a certain point, they are printed side ways, requiring a turn. Then, you turn again and it takes you a second to realize the book is now actually upside down. It's actually quite disorienting because by this point, you're just sucked in to the story, so your first instinct may have you reading out of order, which only adds to the subjectivity of this method. When the book finally turns again, the image is a shock to the system. All of this, while taking you deeper into madness, makes the actual reading a blast. Snyder and Capullo masterfully kept the story serious while playing with the medium itself in a way that never feels gimmicky.

And about Capullo: Wow. Any reservations I had when I read the first issue of this series are more than gone. I read on Twitter that the whole turning the pages thing was his idea. Clearly, he's not just drawing here, but is a storytelling partner to Snyder. Aside from the playfulness of the flipped pages, panel to panel, there are no missing steps. Batman takes comfort in the darkness while in the labyrinth and Capullo draws him, almost dripping in and out of the shadows, his cape dragging like ink as he tries desperately to disappear from his tormentors. Seeing Batman actually afraid would be one thing, but this is also about madness and duality. His masked ripped, one eye is exposed, looking like the eye of a man wracked with fear. Capullo is basically acting out this role for us. Not only are we never lost in terms of the action (unless he wants us to be, in the labyrinth) but we can feel what the characters are feeling.

I've said about all I can about Snyder at this point, in previous posts. He has done no wrong as far as I can see. I know he gets sort of pigeonholed as a horror writer, but I think this series is proving, more than anything else he's written, that he can do much more than horror. I'm not saying I want him off Batman any time soon (or ever, at this rate), but I am curious to see what he will be doing after Batman. Can he take on an actual "superhero"? I'd like to see him try.

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