Ten More Of The Best ‘Batman: Black & White’ Stories (So Far)
If you're getting a sense of deja vu right now, that's because you actually have read this article before. Right before the latest volume of Batman: Black & White began back in 2013, ComicsAlliance published a list of the ten best stories in the celebrated anthology series. But the fourth volume was really, really good, and included some stories strong enough to be considered among the very best.
Making a new version of that same list with just a few replacements would be cheating you, and require me to read my own writing (ecch). So instead, we're just going to stick with the 'ten best' thing. Here are the highlights from the latest volume of Black & White, and a few that were barely edged out of the first list. Will there be another version of this article after the next volume? You bet your ass. We're gonna stay here until we get this right, people.
As the first story in the latest volume, "Don't Know Where, Don't Know When" set a ridiculously high bar for the rest. There are very few modern comics artists whose work has a timeless quality to it, as though they could be dropped into the medium in any era and be considered one of the best. Though his sequential art resume is relatively short, Michael Cho is undoubtedly one of those rare talents. With one foot in comics and another in pop illustration, Cho's artwork caroms through this retro-styled story about Robin and Superman teaming up to find a missing Batman. At that very least, this fast-paced and energetic eight-pager will leave you yearning for more straight comics from Cho.
When you read a plethora of Batman: Black & White in a relatively short span, three things become abundantly clear: the most popular villain to use is the Scarecrow, the most popular theme is violence to children, and not everybody can write short comics. There are a lot of comics I'd like to include as the best on the strength of their art, but they're just not very satisfying stories, lacking the hooks, twists and buttons you need for short comics. John Arcudi, who has contributed to volumes two, three, and four, could teach a class on the lost art. "Welcome To Gotham" is a simple, structurally perfect throwback comic, in which a newcomer to Gotham writes a postcard to his mother about the first time he sees Batman. It helps that this particular Arcudi tale is illustrated by Tony Salmons, another one of those masters of the medium you wish would do more actual comics. With his claustrophobic framing and dynamic lines, he conveys the chaos and confusion of a fight with mere gestures of ink.
After hundreds of pages of Black & White stories, one finally got around to one of Batman's most-underused, weirdest, and straight-up creepiest villains, The Ventriloquist. Stop laughing. Batman's rogue's gallery is all about psychoses, and Arnold Wesker is probably the most peculiar, a victim of childhood trauma who carries out his crimes through his dummy, Scarface. In "Head Games," the Ventriloquist, separated from his proxy, carves a bloody swath through the underworld until Batman can stop him. Mackie expresses something essential about each character in this psychological crime story, illustrated by Samnee with the lighting, shocks, and pacing of a modern Johnny Craig.
In the course of the his career, Batman has been exposed to mind-altering substances more times than Syd Barrett (respect.), but in a way, "Here Be Monsters" is the Platonic version of that story. Attempting to stop the mysterious Madame X from spiking the Gotham water supply, Batman is hit with a dose of the psychotropic chemical, taking him on a journey into madness. Paul Grist and Darwyn Cooke are a dream match-up for the ages. Over the last few years Grist has become better known for his nostalgic superheroes, but before the inimitable Jack Staff was Kane, a bittersweet detective noir, and "Here Be Monsters" comes from the same damaged but optimistic perspective. Darwyn Cooke is...Darwyn Cooke, and he Darwyns the Cooke out of every inch of this story. I have no idea why I didn't include this on the first list. I'm rarely sober, and I need help.
"Into The Circle" -- Rafael Grampa, from Volume 4
Rafael Grampa might be the most invigorating talent to emerge from South America in the last decade, and that's saying a lot. "Into The Circle" stamps his lysergic maximalism on the world of Batman, transforming Gotham into an inky Victorian tumor, with ghoul-faced hoodlums terrorized by a hulking and sagging Dark Knight. Grampa is also an excellent writer, and he strings the reader along through a labrynthine story in which the Joker recruits a gang to rob the most unlikely of targets: Wayne Manor. An eerie and unpredictable menagerie of weirdness from an ascending creative force who may have only scratched at his potential.
"Petty Crimes" -- Howard Chaykin, from Volume 1
In his contribution to Black & White, Howard Chaykin channels all of his black sense of humor and viciousness into a quirky story about the perpetrators of everyday crimes. Batman is on the trail of a murderer the media have dubbed "Civic Virtue." A serial killer who only goes after the rude and entitled, "Civic Virtue" kills bad drivers and movie talkers, gaining more sympathizers with each supposedly-justified extermination. Funny and biting, rendered in his hallmark sense of graphic design and textured shading, "Petty Crimes" is Chaykin at his compact best.
"She Lies At Midnite" -- Adam Hughes, from Volume 4
Selina Kyle lies paralyzed in the hospital, and the Dark Knight teams up with private investigator Slam Bradley to exact vengeance on the parties responsible. While doling out various beat-downs to Gotham scum, it becomes apparent that not everything is as it appears, and Slam and Bats are just patsies in a rigged game. Besides getting points for nailing the conundrum at the heart of Batman and Catwoman's relationship, and the correct use of Frank Miller monologue, "She Lies At Midnite" is probably the best-looking comic that Hughes has ever produced.
Silent movies were undeniably an influence on Bill Finger and Bob Kane's creation of The Batman. One silent film in particular was especially formative: the 1926 film The Bat, from which the pair took several elements that defined the Dark Knight. (See this "web page", which looks like it was created by a sixteen-year-old in 1999, for more.) In "Silent Knight...Unholy Knight!," Uslan and Bullock acknowledge that influence with a silent-film-with-a-comic that really manages to capture an odd mood; a synthesis of the silvery flicker of film and mechanics of sequential art. As an era-appropriate Bat-Man hunts down the villainous Unholy Knight, Bullock's copious use of brilliant white space, delicate brush-lines, and nuanced sense of light and shade really seem to give these pages a little of the fuzzy shimmer of the early silver screen.
No matter how mean-spirited and weird he gets, at his core, screenwriter Alex Garland (28 Days Later, Sunshine, The Beach) is a sentimental, and in "Sunrise," he embraces it unabashedly. While Batman catches a breather on a elderly woman's roof, they form a unique bond watching the sun rise. Illustrated by Phillips, a master of the subtlety of facial expression working in a story where facial expression is all you have to go off of. Quiet and measured, "Sunrise" is authentically heartwarming without being saccharine, exploring a side of Batman we rarely get to see.
"To Beat The Batman" -- Dave Johnson, from Volume 4
Hoo boy. As the final story in the latest series, "To Beat The Batman" ended Volume 4 on a dark note. Dave Johnson, who is best-known as a cover artist, is apparently a pretty good writer as well, delivering a bleak, surprising story that feels totally new to the Batman legend, yet totally at home. A common street criminal recounts his various losses to the Batman throughout the years, each one more devastating than the last, and you know it's going to end badly. Some might have hated it, but I loved it, and felt it was not only a great way to finish the latest volume of Batman: Black & White. See you back here next Bat-anthology time, same Bat-anthology channel?