After having been firmly ensconced in the DC-Kirby comics for a few weeks, I was excited to return to more familiar territory. “The Shelf” didn’t disappoint, with Batman presenting himself in the next trade I was to read. This particular book collects some of Batman’s earlier encounters with Ra’s Al Ghul, the leader of the League of Assassins.
Like most people, I’ve seen The Dark Knight trilogy, so I had at least heard of two of the main characters featured in these stories, Ra’s and his daughter, Talia. I was happily surprised to see, however, that while the specific events in the movies aren’t featured in the comics, some of the characterization is strikingly similar. Ra’s is depicted as very calm and collected, able to outwit Batman and evade capture time and time again. He avoids death on numerous occasions and has immeasurable resources at his disposal. He is, in many ways, a great counterpart for Batman; similar personalities, similar mannerisms, and a similar disregard for the established rules.
Talia, on the other hand, is very emotion-driven, particularly when it comes to Batman, as she reveals time and again when she saves his life. She professes her love for the caped crusader numerous times throughout these issues, and it seems the feelings are not exactly unrequited. Although often on opposing sides of the law, Batman and Talia are drawn to one another. While this is not the first time Batman has fallen for the bad girl (see the first appearances of Catwoman in the 1940’s), Batman and Talia’s story is presented in a more realistic way that makes their bizarre flirtation feel more natural.
There is more than one story-arc presented in this trade, as it spans nearly a decade worth of comics. The shift in storytelling technique is still noticeable though. Twenty years prior, storylines rarely continued from issue to issue. Each was self-contained, and while characters might make multiple appearances, their story began and ended with a single issue.
This is not the case for the comics presented here. These storylines span numerous issues and make a handful of references back to previous events. The cohesion of the Batman stories into a single universe is not perfect, but it is obvious it’s come a long way from its humble beginnings as standalone issues.
As with the stories themselves, the artwork continues to see a shift as well, much to its and the reader’s benefit. The marked change is most pronounced in Batman’s many action scenes:
Earlier Batman comics almost always focused on having Batman front and center in the panel, often with his face clearly visible. I understand from a storytelling perspective why they would want to do this; it keeps the character at the forefront of the story and keeps him easily recognizable.
By the 1970’s however, comic artistry was clearly changing and evolving into something more closely resembling the comics of today. Rather than look like the newspaper funnies, comic books were allowed to tell a fully realized story, with panels that draw the reader in and make them feel like part of the action. Whereas earlier issues make you feel like an outsider, the newer comics put you right in the middle of the action and make you feel like you’re actually there in the dark alley, watching Batman beat a criminal to a pulp. This sensation is heightened by the fact that Batman is often shown with his back to the reader, or isn’t the central focus of the panel. This technique gives the reader the sense that they’re actually participating in the scene, making the action feel that much more realistic.
While the artistic styling has made enormous leaps and bounds since the character’s initial appearances, I’m glad to see that at least at this point, Batman still maintains some of his sass. It was all too evident when, after risking life and limb to rescue a clergyman from certain death, the man refuses aid, saying he will not bow down to intimidation:
These scenes are sometimes few and far between in the Batman comics, but that’s what makes them so great. The stories have a dark, somewhat sinister tone to them, and yet every so often Batman will crack a joke or make a smartass remark. These brief comments inject a touch of humanity to the character, for wouldn’t we all respond just as Batman does in many of these situations? I know that eventually Batman will develop further into the silent, brooding type, but I have a feeling when that day comes I’m going to miss these sarcastic comments.
One other point I must touch upon briefly is this: A handful of the stories in this book were illustrated by Neal Adams. I’ve already read Volumes 1 and 2 of his collected Batman works, and Volume 3 is next on “the shelf”. I was amazed, however, to see how easy it was to denote which stories he illustrated versus other artists. From page one I would notice a marked shift in the artwork, and would flip back to the table of contents to see if Adams had illustrated that issue. Sure enough, he had every time. I knew his artwork was distinctive, but I’m surprised (and yes, just a tad impressed with myself, thank you very much) that I’m able to recognize his work so clearly. I won’t linger on this, as I’m sure I’ll have plenty to say about his work in my next entry, but I couldn’t ignore this point here.
All in all I was thoroughly impressed with this collection. This was the first Batman trade I read that unified stories based on a villain, rather than, say, a time period or a specific writer or artist. I found this method to be a great way to gain a background on Ra’s Al Ghul and his daughter Talia, progressing their story rapidly rather than meeting them intermittently over the course of a decade. Based on the written introduction included in this trade (and the fact that they’re key characters in the friggin’ movies) I can easily deduce that these villains will appear in a number of Batman storylines to come. Based on what I’ve read here, they are certainly intriguing enough to power a host of storylines to come.