22 November 2009

Reviewing The Black Casebook

Batman: The Black Casebook is marketed as the stories that inspired Grant Morrison’s issues of Batman magazine, and the direction he’s driven DC’s leading character since 2006. But really it’s the best collection of weird-ass Batman and Robin adventures from the 1950s and late 1960s now on the market.

There’s some overlap with Batman: The Greatest Stories Ever Told (“Robin Dies at Dawn”), Batman in the Fifties (“Batman: The Superman of Planet X”), and other, less widely available collections. But half of these tales haven’t been reprinted before. Indeed, these stories—of interdimensional travel, inexplicable monsters, and alternate Batmans—have had a bad reputation in comics fandom since the overly hyped “New Look” of 1964 wiped them out of continuity.

A little over half of these tales were written by Bill Finger, the Dynamic Duo’s co-creator. Edmund Hamilton scripted the two adventures of Batman’s counterparts from other countries, and France Herron told the tales of Batman filling in for other crimefighters in other lands. Almost all the pages were penciled by Sheldon Moldoff, Bob Kane’s usual ghost artist in this period. But the big name on the cover is Morrison’s—though all he wrote is the introduction.
It would be nice if the collection had been edited better. One might think it hard to mishandle a book that consists simply of reprints with a new introduction from a practiced writer. But let’s look at that introduction.

It begins, “Back in 1995 when editor Peter Tomasi approached me about writing the monthly BATMAN comic…” Actually, Tomasi approached Morrison in 2005. DC Comics obviously didn’t fact-check its own recent corporate history.

Later Morrison writes of two stories in the collection:

I’ve only ever seen the cover images for these stories and haven’t actually read them, so I hope I’m in for a treat.
Since the covers were more influential than the stories themselves, it would also be nice if we could see those covers in this volume. But they don’t appear, even in the little space at the ends of stories, which are instead filled with the Batman logo. As a public service I’ve included the images here, courtesy of the Grand Comic-Book Database.
The Black Casebook cover might be yet more evidence that this volume was hastily assembled. Rather than showing an evocative new image of Batman and Robin, or a historic one, it’s made to look like a leatherbound notebook—a design assembled from type, texture, and that Batman logo again. On the plus side, that plain cover means you can carry The Black Casebook to the office without anyone outside the fandom tumbling to the fact that you enjoy weird-ass Batman adventures.

These stories were originally published for a young audience when the Comics Code was in effect. They thus lack things that we expect in comics today, such as significant female characters and psychological consistency. On the other hand, they’re perfectly appropriate for kids of all ages who appreciate the oddball side of comics. And, strange as they are, they hang together better than Morrison’s Batman R.I.P.

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