Sunday Slugfest - Batman / The Spirit

A comic review article by: Keith Dallas, Kevin T. Brown, Jason Sacks, Caryn A. Tate, Ray Tate, Thom Young
“Crime Convention”

Kevin T. Brown

This is a very tough review to write. Not because the subject matter is tough, but because it’s so good. So good in fact that it’s not easy to put into words just how much I enjoyed this book. While in the past I’ve deemed certain books “the best book to come out this year,” this one truly is. Let me emphasize that point: THIS IS THE BEST BOOK TO COME OUT THIS YEAR. PERIOD.

I don’t know how my fellow reviewers feel about this book, but for me it was like being a kid in a candy store and then being told everything is free for an hour! I’m a huge Spirit fan. I collected all the reprints that Kitchen Sink published decades ago; I bought every single collection I could get my hands on throughout the years. My favorite such collection is The Spirit in Space (which also featured Wally Wood assisting on the art). More recently, DC published a trade collection titled The Best of the Spirit (another effort which I wholeheartedly recommend to anyone who is a Spirit fan), but DC should have waited to include this story. This story can stand side-by-side with any that Will Eisner ever did. I can pay this book no higher compliment. Eisner was correct in his instincts to allow this to happen.

Jeph Loeb really outdid himself here. He somehow was able to channel Eisner and write a story that embodies the looniness and fun that is the Spirit, while maintaining the seriousness that is the Batman. There’s no way these two characters should be able to work together and keep it relatively believable. Loeb did it though. He took everything, blended it all together perfectly, and we get a team-up that will never be matched. He not only brought together Batman and the Spirit, but their worlds, their commissioners and their villains seamlessly. So while the story itself offers nothing new in terms of what occurs, it’s how it’s brought together, in how it’s constructed that makes it so special. And not only is the Robin in this story Dick Grayson, but it was also great to see a pre-Oracle, pre-Batgirl Barbara Gordon make an appearance as well!

If Loeb was able to channel Eisner in the writing, Darwyn Cooke, along with J. Bone, is channeling the artistic Eisner. Every page has some sort of Eisner-ism there. The most inventive one is when we see one of Eisner’s tricks of placing the “logo” of the Spirit somewhere among the buildings or the shadows. In this case, Cooke is able to honor the memory of what Eisner did in an equally inventive way, and it falls together perfectly. While Will Eisner is obviously the best Spirit artist of all time, Cooke can easily be considered the second best now. (Yes, even above Wood.) You can tell he loves to draw these characters. I was already waiting impatiently for the new on-going Spirit title, but now it’s unbearable. The only tiny, itsy-bitsy, teensy-weensy nitpick I have is how Cooke drew the Joker. It was just a little “off,” but not nearly enough to ruin my enjoyment. While there’s many to choose from, the best two pages are the final ones of the story. Not only in the interaction between the two heroes, but that final page shows us that the Spirit is truly back and in damn good hands.

I could easily go on and on and on about this book, but, since this is a Slugfest, space needs to be left for my fellow reviewers to voice their opinion. Suffice it to say, if you pass up this book, you’re passing up a true classic. Will Eisner would be very proud to see his creation in such good hands.

Jason Sacks:

I’m a huge fan of The Spirit, and a huge fan of Darwyn Cooke’s New Frontier graphic novel. So when I heard Cooke would be creating a new Spirit comic book, it seemed like a match made in Heaven. It may still be a match made in Heaven when Cooke begins his Spirit solo comic in December, but first we have to pass through the purgatory of the Batman/Spirit
one-shot, a gloriously illustrated but weakly written bit of comics storytelling that is illustrated by Cooke but co-written with Jeph Loeb.

The art, by Cooke with the assistance of longtime collaborators inker J. Bone and colorist Dave Stewart, is as glorious as anyone might want. As might be expected, Cooke delivers page after page of gorgeous artwork. Cooke draws spectacular action scenes and even more wonderful characters. His pastiche of the traditional Spirit splash page is positively inspired both in the way he sets it up and the wonderful way he executes it. There’s an equally wonderful splash page for Batman as well.

Cooke draws people fantastically well, too. His female characters are fantastically sexy - his depiction of Poison Ivy is stunning, and his P'Gell is a bombshell. He’s also a master at drawing male characters. Cooke’s Spirit is fantastically expressive and often very funny, and he draws a fantastically mean Joker. So Cooke’s art absolutely carries the book.

The problem is in the story. It’s simply too crowded and uninteresting. Commissioners Dolan and Gordon go to a police convention in Hawaii. Unfortunately for them, criminals from Gotham City and Central City decide to go as well. What results is a extremely crowded comic book that contains many characters getting one quick line and then shuffling offstage. It reminds me of an all-star sports event or one of those charity concerts where bands get to play two songs each. The characters seem to act the way we want them to, but they then shuffle off backstage and readers are just not satisfied with the act. I wanted to read more about Catwoman’s encounter with the Spirit and see Killer Croc and the Spirit fight. Instead, readers just get short scenes that only serve to whet the appetite.

I wanted to absolutely love this comic book. Instead I got something with gorgeous artwork and a mediocre story. Still, any time I get to savor Darwyn Cooke’s gorgeous line work, I’m a happy guy.

Caryn A. Tate:

Never having read any The Spirit comics, I was hoping this little one-shot would make it easy for me to jump in on the character and his supporting cast. Thankfully, it was, and more importantly, it surprised me with how purely fun the entire issue was.

As the story begins, James Gordon (from Gotham City) and Commissioner Dolan (from Central City, where The Spirit hails from) get together and reminisce about the time that Batman met The Spirit. As they remember, we see that there was a policeman’s convention in Hawaii to which many capable police officers were going to attend (including, of course, Gordon and Dolan). In Central City, The Spirit gets concerned that most of the rogues from the area have skipped town; Batman shared the same concern in Gotham. Before long the two heroes have figured it out: the villains from Gotham and Central City have taken a trip to Hawaii with the plans of spoiling the policeman’s convention. You can guess where things go from there, and you’d probably be partially right, but there are a few twists thrown in that are unexpected and welcome.

The feel of this story is very classic, from the way that characters speak to the look of the cars, clothes, and design of buildings. It’s a refreshing take on Batman and Robin, since typically his books utilize a modern setting. Notably, Robin speaks like the Robin from
the ‘60s TV show: “Holy _____!” At least he doesn’t usually add “Batman” at the end of his exclamation. At first, I was a little dismayed by this; but the more I read of the comic, the more I liked it. He doesn’t say it constantly, unlike the Robin from the television series, and he does have his own voice in the story. So in the end, I can say that I actually enjoyed it.

The characterization was accurate and humorous; a couple of times in the book, The Spirit asks Batman who he really is, and Batman states simply: “I am Batman.” It’s accurate for his character, but most of all it’s entertaining—and not your run of the mill Batman story. The Spirit, as I stated above, is brand new to me, so I can’t speak for his characterization—but I can say that, for my first exposure to him, I’m intrigued. He seems to be fairly lighthearted, but a dedicated crime-fighter like Batman, and I’m interested to read his back story to understand his origin.

We get a fair amount of Catwoman and Poison Ivy in this story, too. Their characterizations were completely traditional, and I have to say I generally like it better that way. They’re portrayed here as seductive villains, similar to the way they were portrayed in Batman: The Animated Series, and when properly orchestrated as it was here, it feels like a nod to the classic comics in which the characters originally appeared.

Mr. Cooke’s art is, as always, gorgeous. The sleek, animated look of his pencils is simple at first glance, but then appears more complicated with more study. In that way it reminds me somewhat of Bruce Timm. The action scenes are dynamic and powerful, and each panel flows into the next.

I admit that I balked a bit at this comic’s $4.99 price tag, but there are nearly twice the number of pages of a normal comic. The bottom line is that, after I finished reading this one-shot, I felt that my $5 was well spent. It’s a great story with vibrant art, and unlike way too many comics these days, was lighthearted and entertaining (no deep, dark, sad comics here).

This comic was a great example of how a one-shot should be done.

Ray Tate:

For some, the name Jeph Loeb instills terror. Some consider his Superman/Batman run the worst of all the World’s Finest projects. I haven’t an opinion on that series. I never read it, nor have I ever wanted to read it. What I have read from Jeph Loeb generally pleased me, but I suspected Superman/Batman wouldn’t really turn out very well. Loeb works best with an artist who creates his own visual universe. Case in point, Jeph Loeb’s many team-ups with Tim Sale are memorable because they seem to be distinctive from DC’s still broken continuity.

Batman/Spirit lies far, far outside of DC’s mish-mash. Loeb and Cooke arrange their universe so that the reader recognizes it immediately. Batman is Bruce Wayne. Robin is Dick Grayson. Every Batman villain seen in Batman/Spirit appeared on Batman: The Animated Series. Harley Quinn is the Joker’s henchwench. Jim Gordon is the Commissioner of Gotham City. A widower, Jim Gordon has a teen-aged daughter named Barbara. Batman operates in a cave beneath “stately Wayne Manor.” You'll find no mention of Hush in these pages, nor will you find Kathy Kane, lesbian. Nightwing is non-existent. Nobody’s heard of Vesper Fairchild or the black dude in purple that Batman knew. His name escapes me. It might have been Generic Man. Likewise, the Spirit deals with P’Gell and the Octopus, just to name two. Ellen Dolan, the daughter of the Spirit’s friend Commissioner Dolan, is the Spirit’s love interest. The Spirit haunts a secret nook beneath his grave.

The continuity for Batman/Spirit is remarkably uncluttered. Loeb and Cooke set the story of the crime fighters’ encounter in the past not because doing so allows for a freer universe to explore. Even if set in the past, one would have to question the appearance of Killer Croc and Scarface, who wasn’t introduced until after Jason Todd was dead and before Tim Drake took over the tights. Instead, the creators use the device for a much more satisfying reason. Setting the tale in the past permits the creation of a timeless tale that can be revisited again and again. Think of Batman/Spirit as a bejeweled beetle frozen in amber.

The story opens with reminiscing between Dolan and Gordon, who have reunited in the present day, relatively speaking, at the Kipling Club. The memories take the two commissioners back to a convention of law enforcers; a party crashed by Batman and Spirit ne’er-do-wells. Batman and the Spirit through different means uncover the plot and head in the same direction to combat the villains and save their friends, not to mention every other law official present.

Loeb and Cooke complicate the story with smart characterization of the villains, who anticipate the masked vigilantes’ interference and indeed plan for it. Their schemes cleverly exploit the Spirit’s and Batman’s unfamiliarity with each other’s foes. Loeb and Cooke also account for Batman’s superior skill and knowledge that lead him to be ten steps ahead of everybody else. By the story’s end, the reader sees a change in the very nature of the plot originally presented. The villains have never been afraid of commissioners, cops, detectives and inspectors. It’s Batman and the Spirit whom they feared. Batman and the Spirit were the only ones standing in their way. The entire convention then serves as a lure for the assassination of Batman and the Spirit. The dead policemen will simply be to quote Spock “sauce for the goose.”

Loeb and Cooke incorporate a number of team-up standards in their story, but they do so in a non-traditional way. Loeb and Cooke through Batman’s acumen, for instance, employ Robin in a way that hasn’t been used since his original adventures with the Dark Knight. The typical misunderstanding between heroes that leads to a punch-up occurs in the dark; Batman’s original team-up with Superman had them in the darkness as they shed their alter-egos of Clark Kent and Bruce Wayne, and in the light they stood revealed as heroes. The crafters also avoid the expected. Catwoman and P'Gell, for instance, will not be secret aids to Batman and the Spirit. They are with the others and out to get rid of them.

The cover to Batman/Spirit offers the reader a clever reversal where a grim Batman stands in the light and the cheerful Spirit stands in the dark. This does not actually represent what the reader will find in the book. Loeb and Cooke give the reader the characterization she expects. Batman is dark, but he’s not that dark. Cooke and Loeb instead present Batman as “the world’s greatest detective” and an Olympic level athlete who uses the mystique of the bat and the brawn of the man to strike fear in the hearts of criminals. The Spirit, while not anywhere near as sharp as Batman, accomplishes the same feats through hardboiled tactics, stamina and willpower; if given a Green Lantern ring, Denny Colt might have just been the most powerful and successful Lantern of all.

Cooke, J. Bone and Dave Stewart illustrate Batman/Spirit as if it were an unseen cartoon targeted for a more mature audience, which is not to say that a twelve year old wouldn’t thoroughly enjoy the action-packed story. Cooke and Bone I believe were both alums from various Timm animated series. Their influences show up in the cels, and the animated techniques are evident in the panels. One though should not expect an exact duplicate of what was voiced by Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill, yet you can easily hear them speaking the dialogue. Cooke’s Batman is lanker and lither than the barrel-chested model from the Timm series. Cooke’s Spirit is also different from the Will Eisner source. As time went on, Will Eisner often drew the Spirit as a very tall slab of beef, but Cooke again trims down the Spirit to about his original proportions. Cooke’s ladies both good and bad are luscious, proportionate dolls that were prevalent in the movies of the thirties and forties and far more attractive than the typical waif-like, hungry women with bad fashion sense portrayed in the comics of today. Incidentally, Catwoman is indeed wearing her smart Emma Peel leathers. Surprisingly, the Joker is the character that most sharply delineates Batman/Spirit from the adherence to the Timm style. Cooke’s Joker almost seems to have a Jack Lemmon influence to his face.

Cooke’s experience with animation informs Batman/Spirit. This is not a book filled with talking heads. It’s instead filled with the illusion of motion. The smoke coming from Gordon’s and Dolan’s pipes seems to flow. The Spirit seems to be realistically struggling as he heads for the inevitable caption that will spell out his name; Cooke uses a similar and traditional flourish for Batman’s fluid introduction.

The expression of emotion comes easy for Cooke’s characters even when they’re not particularly emotive. Babs looks full of life, and there’s a spring in her step. Batman, when you can see his face, exhibits very subtle changes to reveal his mood. The Spirit, on the other hand, is much more of an open and jovial sort, a feeling that becomes particularly important during the dénouement.

All the villains of the piece look in their own special way smug. They think they’re going to win. From the looks of serene triumph the reader can tell that they think they have a foolproof plan. When these plans sour, Cooke masters looks of individual disgust on their visages but leaves the readers of Batman/Spirit with smiles.

Thom Young:

Batman/The Spirit is, of course, a gateway story for establishing Will Eisner’s character in the DC universe—in much the same way that The Shadow was established in the 1970s with his appearances in Batman #s 253 and 259.

For months now, I’ve been looking forward to the introduction of The Spirit to the DC universe—despite the fact that DC already owns the old Quality Comics character, Midnight, that Jack Cole created after Quality stopped reprinting Eisner’s Spirit
stories in 1940. If you’re not familiar with Midnight, look him up on the Internet and you’ll see that he’s a dead ringer for The Spirit.

Anyway, I wasn’t exactly disappointed in the way that Jeph Loeb and Darwyn Cooke established The Spirit in the DC universe. However, neither did the story excite me the way I was hoping it would. I guess the word that best describes this story for me is anachronistic—and it’s the anachronisms in the story that have underwhelmed me.

Of course, we’ve had anachronistic Batman stories before that have worked quite well. For instance, the so-called Dark Deco style of Batman: The Animated Series in the early 1990s featured contemporary elements (such as cell phones) mixed in with 1940s-styled automobiles and clothing styles, et cetera.

As with Batman: The Animated Series, the anachronisms in Batman/The Spirit don’t impede the enjoyment of the story—and I must admit that they will probably be a non-issue for most readers who will enjoy Cooke’s work. The look of the illustrations evokes a sense of the late Golden Age to early Silver Age of comics—not by mimicking the illustration style of the comic books of that period, but by mimicking the commercial magazine illustrations and overall sense of design of the late 1940s to early 1960s.

I greatly enjoy Cooke’s stylized drawings, and I initially thought his work was going to make this book succeed regardless of what Loebs did in the story. For instance, if the same script had been illustrated by one of the hyper-realistic illustrators working in the Image Comics house style (such as Michael Turner), the story would have been a complete disaster. (I realize, though, that Loeb might have scripted a story with a different tone if he had been teamed with such an illustrator.)

In the end, I guess Cooke’s illustrations worked too well for me in evoking the late 1940s or early 1950s—which ended up making some of the story elements not work as well for me. For example, while I know that even some men in the early 1950s slept with women in their hotel rooms during out-of-town conventions, seeing Commissioner Gordon in bed naked from the waist up (and probably from the waist down as well) as he tells P’Gell to “come back to bed” . . . well, that just didn’t work for me in this context.

Cooke’s style evokes a time when comics were more innocent when it comes to sex. Okay, maybe they weren’t actually more innocent, but they were more covert about it. Let’s say that they were probably more subtle in how they implied sex. Fifty-five years ago, instead of seeing a shirtless Gordon in bed imploring P’Gell to come back, we might have seen a slightly disheveled P’Gell fixing her hair in a mirror while Gordon stands behind her holding a cigar.

I admit that Gordon having sex with P’Gell isn’t much of a complaint, but the scene just struck me as being slightly off even though I’m quite certain P’Gell could easily seduce Gordon. In the end, though, I suppose I liked this story more than I do most contemporary comics.

I think it’s unfortunate, however, that the story is clearly establishing The Spirit in the contemporary DC universe (and current continuity). I think having this story set firmly in the late 1940s or early 1950s would have made it work much better. However, since this one-shot is setting up The Spirit’s new DCU series, I understand why they didn’t set this story 60 years in the past (and, besides, superhero series set in a historical time period generally don’t succeed in the long run).

One final note, given that The Spirit’s home base is “Central City,” and given that we get a cameo appearance by Superman at the end of the story, it would have been a nice touch to have a familiar red blur running through the streets in the background of one of the Central City scenes. If not that, then maybe Commissioner Dolan could have walked past a door at Central City police headquarters that had the name “Barry Allen” stenciled on the glass.

Oh well, this story was easy on the eyes and was a fun read—the comic book equivalent of a song that has a good beat and is easy to dance to.

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