Batman by Doug Moench & Kelley Jones: Vol. 1

There wasn’t much of a break between Batman comics on “the shelf”.  Then again, there never really is.  Mistah J’s Batman collection is rather extensive, so I know I’m never far from stories of the dark knight in my comics travels.

This collection features the beginning of writer Doug Moench and artist Kelley Jones’s run on Batman.  As has happened on previous trades, I was only able to read about half of the stories collected here, as the remaining stories take place later on in the continuity.  It makes it a tad difficult to write about a trade when I haven’t technically completed it, but the issues I haven’t read are collected elsewhere in other trades on “the shelf”, so at least I’ll get to them eventually.

Moench’s stories are fairly self-explanatory.  With Bruce Wayne having finally returned as Batman, we get to see what changes have occurred within him as he faces off against old and new villains alike.  These issues tie into the events of Nightfall rather frequently, without lingering too long on past events.  We witness Batman trying to find the perfect balance between “darkness and obsession”, as he puts it: embracing the night and fighting evil while still remaining rational and aware of the world around him.

It’s a fine line for Bruce, and one we haven’t seen him address before.  I’m enjoying this more self-aware Batman, as it makes him seem more real and imperfect.

He faces off against a number of famous foes, including Two-Face, Killer Croc, and Scarecrow.  His battle with Scarecrow was especially intriguing.  I’ve always been on the fence when it comes to issues featuring Jonathan Crane: there are certain instances where he comes across as a whiny character with little to no real power (such as in Batman: Four of a Kind).  When handled by a more skilled writer (such as Moench), the character develops into something else entirely, with his nuanced characteristics highlighted and emphasized, making him a far more complex villain.

When Scarecrow’s psychological torments are coupled with Batman’s introspective musings, it makes for an extremely engaging story.

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I loved the fact that Batman comments that Scarecrow is, in a way, a manifestation of the fear he uses against his own enemies.  These comments were well-placed and thoughtful, without ever digressing into psychological self-analysis.  Enough hints are given for the reader to pause and consider their meaning without ever pandering to the audience and explaining everything outright.  It’s a fine balance that not every writer can master, yet Moench handles it quite deftly.

Of all the stories that I read in this collection, my favorite was easily the Killer Croc/Swamp Thing issue.  I’ve been a fan of Swamp Thing since reading the first two trades in Alan Moore’s run.  I wasn’t expecting him to show up in a Batman comic though, considering he’s not actually a villain and he lives in a Louisiana bayou, hundreds of miles away from Gotham. (At least I think it’s hundreds of miles. I just always assume Gotham is New York, or right next door to it.  I need a DC universe map.)  Through a well-placed storyline , Batman chases Killer Croc all the way to the swamps of Louisiana, where we get to see an odd but rather enthralling confrontation between Swamp Thing, Killer Croc, and Batman.

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Swamp Thing (aka Alec Holland) offers Killer Croc refuge, away from the world that has shunned and tormented him his whole life.

Batman is against this idea, believing Croc to be a killer who deserves to be imprisoned for his crimes.  Holland makes a rather compelling argument in Croc’s defense, claiming that he has devolved to little more than an animal, and that to send him back to Arkham would only worsen his life.  By letting him remain in the swamp, Holland argues, he will be able to keep constant watch on him while allowing him to finally find some sort of peace.

This was a surprising but entirely satisfying issue.  Not only did I love seeing this strange interaction between characters, but the story gave us an altogether different sort of ending.  Batman didn’t exactly get the justice he was seeking, but even he acknowledged that this solution seemed the best fit.

Moench makes the gray areas of justice a prevailing theme in his stories, pointing out repeatedly that Batman must make split-second decisions which may not always result in an ideal outcome. Instead, he is forced to decide what would be the best decision overall, be it saving a victim at the expense of letting a killer go, or allowing a criminal like Croc to seek peace in his isolation, away from humanity.  These subtleties are a newer concept to the Batman comics, and something that I’m coming to enjoy very much.  These issues felt so much more complex than stories of old, and I found myself wishing I could keep reading.  I was desperate to find out how Moench would present other characters in his stories, and what subtle hints he would lay for readers to pick up.

Unfortunately I’ll have to wait to read more of these stories, as there are other comics that come between this and the remaining collection within the continuity.  I can only hope that other writers pick up Moench’s skill for subtlety and nuance, so that Batman and Co. may  become more fully realized and well-developed characters.

-Jess

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