The Ten Best ‘Batman: Black and White’ Stories (So Far)
A new volume of Batman: Black and White kicked off last week, continuing the DC Comics anthology's tradition of high quality. Debuting in 1996, the original Batman: Black and White series quickly set the comics world ablaze with a collection of short, powerful tales told by some of the industry's finest. Edited by Mark Chiarello, the four issues gathered sixteen original eight-page black and white stories from a who’s who of influential creators, including Archie Goodwin, Joe Kubert, Howard Chaykin, Brian Bolland, Bill Sienkiewicz, Neil Gaiman, and several more. It won the Eisner Awards for “Best Short Story” and “Best Anthology,” inspired a ton of great statues (one of which you can win), and two follow-up volumes in 2002 and 2007, mostly made up of backup stories from the Batman: Gotham Knights series.
In celebration of the new series, I read all three volumes of Batman: Black and White (I also did other stuff, I have a life), and after poring over all 600-plus pages, I can confidently say that these are the ten best stories from the original volumes, presented here in chronological order.
TWO OF A KIND – BRUCE TIMM
Batman: The Animated Series designer Bruce Timm writes and draws a story that is both unnerving and desolate. A successful plastic surgeon rehabilitates Two-Face with facial reconstruction and psychotherapy, falling in love with him in the process. The pair seem headed on the road to happiness, until it turns out the doctor has a twin sister who happens to be a little nuts, and hijinx ensue. Wait, sorry, not hijinx. Betrayal, murder, and surrender to a black hole of despair. That's what I meant.
GOOD EVENING, MIDNIGHT – KLAUS JANSON
While Batman rushes to save a school bus of children in danger of falling off a bridge (a daily occurrence in the DCU), Alfred commemorates Bruce Wayne’s birthday by reading a letter Thomas Wayne wrote for his son. A quiet, moving story with subtle shades of hope and regret, this was Klaus Janson’s very first time writing for comics, and he knocked it out of the freaking park. Makes you wish for more double-duty work from the veteran artist.
AN INNOCENT GUY – BRIAN BOLLAND
A self-proclaimed “good person” details his plan to commit a random murder, just so he can experience what it’s like to do something bad. His target? Batman. A convincing and compelling look at a sociopath disconnected from emotions, consequences, and reality. Excellent art as always by Bolland, who broke out of his familiar role as cover artist to write and draw this eight-page gem.
HEROES – ARCHIE GOODWIN AND GARY GIANNI
The second of two stories written by the legendary Archie Goodwin, this is something of an Elseworlds tale, portraying Batman fighting Nazi fifth columnists in Gotham during WWII. Beautifully illustrated by Prince Valiant artist Gary Gianni, in short order, the story manages to make a complete statement on the relationships between fathers and sons, and the very nature of heroism. This was the tale that nabbed the Eisner for "Best Short Story," and it's wholly deserving of the award.
CASE STUDY – PAUL DINI AND ALEX ROSS
Two doctors at Arkham Asylum discuss the case of the The Joker, and whether or not the supervillian is truly insane. Dini makes a compelling argument, and Ross turns in some of his best work ever, with fractured layouts and beautiful gray-washes to compliment his intense photorealism. A complex, inquisitive look at one of comics' most dynamic characters from a fascinating new perspective.
BROKEN NOSE – PAUL POPE
Early in his career, Batman gets his first broken nose, and heads out to exact his revenge. Now, I know what you’re thinking: doesn't sound like much of a story. Unlike most of the other entries, there’s no twist, there are no layers, there’s barely even a beginning, middle, and end. But Paul Pope, as usual, makes up for the lack of story with a style and exuberance that few other creators can match, and this one just squeaked in the Top Ten. Poppy, kinetic fun from the industry's premier comics destroyer.
THE LESSON – JULIUS SCHWARTZ, DAN RASPLER, AND CHRISTIAN ALAMY
I always hate myself a little when I describe a story as “haunting,” or “chilling,” but I can’t recall reading a comic where those descriptions were more apt. Co-written by Julius Schwartz and Dan Raspler, with stark, moody art by Christian Alamy, “The Lesson” builds up an expectation of one kind of story, then flips and unfolds, revealing itself to be a different kind of story altogether. A swift punch of a story that reminds us of the most basic aspect of Batman's personality: the guy's a little crazy.
THE DELUSIONS OF ALFRED PENNYWORTH – DANIELLE DWYER AND SCOTT MORSE
Another story with Alfred as the main character, that portrays the surrogate father to so many with all the heart and pathos he deserves. Produced shortly before Jason Todd’s return in Hush, “The Delusions of Alfred Pennyworth” examines the loss that lingers within Alfred, and conveys an important message: just because someone's lost doesn't mean they're gone. A moving exhalation of a story beautifully illustrated by Scott Morse with his elegant version of comics deco expressionism.
I’LL BE WATCHING – ED BRUBAKER AND RYAN SOOK
After Batman gave him a second chance, a reformed crook tries to live honestly, always mindful of the Caped Crusader's presence looming over him, ready to dole out punishment if disappointed. Typically great character work by Ed Brubaker, illustrated by Ryan Sook, whose command of the form is on full display. Sook imbues his characters with intensely emotive eyes, blocks out inventive layouts in moody blacks, and surrounds the narrator with shadows that threaten to come in and overtake him. An absorbing examination of Batman as an agent of change.
URBAN RENEWAL – WILL PFEIFER AND BRENT ANDERSON
The second of two architecture-inspired stories in Black and White Volume 3, “Urban Renewal” focuses on a writer who wants to make a coffee table book about Gotham City’s past, when buildings were shaped like typewriters and cash registers. A subtly meta-textual script from Will Pfeifer that embraces nostalgia and Batman’s oddball side, with fantastic brushwork from Astro City artist Brent Anderson. The final story in our Top Ten reminds readers that, even when he's in black and white, Batman doesn’t always have to be dark and brooding. Quite often, he can be a lot of fun.