Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Batman: Greg Rucka and Ed Brubaker Runs

When reading comics as a young kid, Marvel Super Heroes where always the comics I gravitated towards, reading many X-Men titles during the early 1990s, and jumping onto Spider-Man during the Clone Saga. Those choices where obviously informed by the cartoons I watched -- the X-Men and Spider-Man Animated series introducing me to these characters in the first place. I also equally loved another series -- Batman: The Animated Series. Batman TAS is considered the pinnacle of super hero Animation, and rightly so. Taking advantage of the popularity of the Batman movies, the Batman Animated series continued to introduce a new generation to the character. Bruce Tim and Paul Dini brought to us a noir-drenched world right out of the 1940s - using the old Superman Fleischer cartoons as inspiration. Though while I watched and tremendously enjoyed the Batman animated series - it didn't lead me to reading DC Comics.

When I was going to collage I renewed my interest in comics after a long absence. It's around this time that I gave DC Comics my first real try - picking up Detective Comics #750. It featured Ra's al Ghul on the cover, a villain I absolutely loved from the Animated series.

It's from there that I began reading various Batman-related titles. Batgirl was of particular interest, as I got absorbed into the series about the the silent and deadly, but socially stunted, new Batgirl; Cassandra Cain. The two primary Batman titles, Detective Comics by Greg Rucka and Shawn Martinbrough, and Batman by Ed Brubaker and Scott McDaniel, served to introduce me to the Bat-verse, which they made especially easy by relying on the touchstones and style the Animated Series has developed - which I recognized and helped with the transition from TV to Comic format.

The runs of Brubaker and Rucka proved quite engaging to me as a new fan, while also developing some of the most shocking and unexpected storylines down the line.

Greg Rucka's Run

These two runs are notable for taking place after the devastating "No Man's Land" story arc, where Gotham suffered a powerful earthquake, and was so ruined that it was cordoned off, and deemed no longer a part of the United States. In Detective Comics there is an interesting division between those Gotham Citizens who fled the city, and those who stayed in the city and experienced the horror of No Man's Land.

Renee Montoya and Harvey Bullock where partners in Greg Rucka's run, which often had stories involving the Gotham Police M.C.S. (Major Case Squad). This proved to be an especially comforting element in the series, as Harvey and Renee where prominent in the TV series. Rucka grounded the usually outlandish Batman world, giving details and more understanding to how the city of Gotham operated.

There where a number of outstanding stories Rucka was able to weave in the pages of Detective Comics - ranging from Batman's run-ins Ra's al Ghul, the government agency Checkmate, and the always enigmatic Harvey Dent, aka Two-Face. There where also a number of familiar re-visits to classic villains, again using the styles of the animated series as a touchstone for familiarity.

One story in particular involved Poison Ivy, and what happened to her after No Man's Land. During that time she had taken over Gotham City Park - and was keeping several children, displaced and lost during No Man's Land, and was refusing to give them up.

While dealing with Poison Ivy Batman had a new element introduced to complicate his life; as Bruce Wayne his board of directors had voted for Bruce to have a Bodyguard - a woman named Sasha Bordeaux, who immediately became a pain for Bruce work around without revealing his secret identity.

Another story line crossed over with Superman - as a joint covert operation was taken on between Batman and Superman, to undermine then President of the United States - Lex Luthor. Lois Lane even became involved. It was a cool cross-over, with a pretty simple goal - to replace Lex's Kryptonite Ring with a fake, so it couldn't be used against Superman in the future. During this trip to D.C., Sasha stumbled upon the secret that Bruce Wayne was really Batman.

Another fun story line involved the Mad Hatter cooking up an ingenious new scheme to take control of the minds of the entire G.C.P.D. - using reward coffee cards, in conjunction with nanites in the coffee, to create the mind control effect the Mad Hatter is famous for. (Thinking back, I think this must have been written around the time Starbucks was becoming so prolific.)

With Sasha now knowing who Batman was, she was inducted into his world and trained by him to be his partner. She wasn't at the level of being Robin, by any means, but seeing how Batman operated through her experience was very engaging.

Before I talk about the Batman title, I simply have to mention the art in Detective Comics. Shawn Martinbrough brought a stellar and solid style to the series - having very stiff and cartoony depictions - but which worked excellently for the more cerebral plots Rucka was writing. I was even more impressed by the choice of color -- as the series had different shades of coloring to depict each issue - sometimes just using blue and orange, or grey and green -- infusing the stories with a wonderful noir-style. They eventually did stop doing this, but for when it was there I very much enjoyed the change of pace, and willingness DC had to do something different with the art.

Officer Down

One of the first big Batman-Crossover events was the "Officer Down" storyline, which saw Commissioner Gordon near-fatally shot - launching everyone on a crusade to find the shooter. Batman did eventually find the guy, but was unable to scare him into confessing. Gordon eventually recovered, but walked with a cane and was physically weaker, and had to resign as Police Commissioner. His successor, Michael Akins, was introduced to Batman and the M.C.S., which didn't sit well with everyone. It was a changing or the guards - and was a surprising and interesting change to see occur. Harvey Bullock, though, supposedly dropped a dime on Gordon's shooter, which got the guy killed as a result. Harvey was forced to leave in disgrace. Renee got a new partner, Crispus Allen, who proved to be a very popular character introduced into the series.

Ed Brubaker's Run

While Detective Comics dealt with, naturally, more detective-based plot-lines -- the regular Batman title showed the more Super-Heroic aspect of Batman's life. Scott McDaniel had already been on the title for a while before Brubaker came on-board -- but the two seemed to mesh very well, delivering some memorable stories. I know McDaniel's art isn't everyone's favorite choice, but I always enjoyed his style. His pages where always laid out in a way to give scenes a sense of flow and action - and his talent for drawing martial arts and flying acrobatics always felt energetic and fresh. McDaniel was in fact coming off a very lengthy run on Nightwing, helping to develop that series from the ground-up with Chuck Dixion. Moving onto Batman seemed like a promotion of sorts.

Ed Brubaker's issues usually had an element of relatable human dilemmas. His first two issues featured a security guard, Samuel Jeremy, who worked for Bruce Wayne - and his sad tale of decent, going mad after his family died, and becoming a superb criminal tactician against Batman. Both Bruce, and in his alter-ego as Batman, considered this man to be friend at one point - so both Bruce and Batman struggled to give this guy a second chance when he was up for parole. Circumstances lead Jeremy back to a life of crime, as he didn't think he had anything to live for. Jeremy was specifically hired by the Penguin, as a favor to a mysterious new villain named Zeiss. A robbery plan was set up by Jeremy, but with other motives beyond simply stealing money. Instead of hired thugs, martial arts experts participated in the robberies - all designed to catch Batman in action. Jeremy was eventually killed during these activities - and Batman blamed the Penguin.

A ruthless vendetta and war was launched against the Penguin - though it was hard to strike at him directly, as the Penguin presented himself to the world as reformed and law abiding businessman, which Batman couldn't prove otherwise in court. So Batman took other avenues - like buying the property of the Penguin's Iceberg Lounge as Bruce Wayne, and threatening to tear it down. This crusade soon got out of hand, and left the Penguin extremely vengeful against the caped crusader.

Around this time there was a somewhat silly cross-over promotion going on across the Bat-books -- where in each issue coming out that month would involve Batman dying. It was a stupid idea, and served to really only waste a month's time as writers of all the titles had to work-in some dreamt-up death for the Dark Knight. Ed Brubaker used his issue well - essentially detailing the Penguin's revenge scheme against Batman - and how he'd kill him. It was all revealed to be a dream of the Penguin's, though, as once Batman was dead, the Penguin went after Bruce Wayne next.

There was a nice off-beat story that showed two kids working on a project for school, doing a film investigating wether The Batman really existed in Gotham. This was a fascinating twist to the Batman-mythos, as the more reality-based world that was being depicted prevented the concept of the police actively supporting the actions of a vigilante. So in modern-day Batman comics Batman exists almost as a legend. The Bat-signal, as it's explained to the kids, was an idea to take advantage of the legend to scare criminals. It's shown in Brubaker's run that outside of the police and the criminal element, many people in Gotham don't even think Batman exists (unless they see him with their own eyes, or are saved by him). The kid's documentary is causing no end to stress for Batman, who wants the film shut down. It's not until the Penguin intentionally suggests the kids interview inmates in Arkham Asylum - to try and lure Batman and the kids into a riot, that Batman saves them and gets them to cancel their project; he two kids are just amazed to even know Batman really existed.

The villain Philo Zeiss becomes a decided problem for Batman. The character is very fascinating - as he used these image-capture goggles, wired into his brain, enabling him to see recorded movements of his enemies in slow-motion, making his a dangerous threat to Batman. The staged fight set up the Penguin and Jeremy was done just so Zeiss could capture Batman in action, and record all of his moves. There was a duel plot involved, though, where the operation was designed to get Jeremy killed - to intentionally hurt Bruce Wayne who once considered Jeremy a friend. Why the vendetta against Wayne?

Well, details about Bruce Wayne's past came flooding back as an old crime lord, Lew Maxon, returned to Gotham - along with Bruce's early childhood friend Mallory Maxon - who Bruce had barely remembered before now, because a year after meeting her on summer vacation, his parents where murdered.

Bruce's fond memories of Mallory became tainted in the here and now, as he soon discovered that Lew's daughter was actively involved in their criminal organization. Even worse was their family bodyguard - Philo Zeiss! During this time a hit was put out on Lew Maxon, which Batman intended to stop. The assassin Deadshot took the job, and between fighting against Zeiss Batman fails, and Lew Maxon is shot. Maxon is paralyzed for life - with Mallory taking over for the family business. During the fight Zeiss' special glasses where damaged - and he needed to get them repaired.

When Zeiss returned, and made peace with the employers he had failed, he set a goal to taking revenge on Batman, who Zeiss and Mallory blamed for failing to stop Lew Maxon's shooting. Meanwhile Batman was investigating why the Maxon family had such a vendetta against the Wayne family - enough to try and hurt Bruce Wayne by getting a friend like Jeremy killed, just to hurt him. When he was friends with Mallory Bruce remembers hearing an argument between Lew Maxon and his father at a Halloween party - but couldn't remember why. Bruce feared the answers to his questions, as it involved his father dealing with notorious mobsters. It turns out to be an innocent event, though, as a crew member of Maxon's mob was shot, and they had no mob doctors available to try and save the man's life. They make a desperate plea to Dr Wayne. Even though the man he's being asked to save is a criminal, Wayne agrees to help. Following through with his hippocratic oath, Doctor Wayne saves the man's life. But he angrily tells Maxon that he swore another oath as a doctor - to report all gunshot incidents. Maxon doesn't like this, and Wayne could easily have been killed because of his defiance - but Wayne was Gotham's most public figure, so killing him wasn't an option. Once Batman learned this he regretted ever doubting his father. It was only a few week after helping that gunshot victim that the Waynes where murdered -- though not by Lew Maxon, apparently.

Batman is eventually able to take Zeiss down in a climactic fight. The ability to predict all of Batman's moves makes Zeiss a wonderful villain, and a standout addition to Batman's Rouge's gallery.

A large DC Cross-over event occurs, once again taking over the various titles. Tying in to the "Joker's Last Laugh" mini-series, where the Joker thought he was dying, and infected all other villains with an agent, making them like the Joker himself. In the pages of Batman Brubaker again used the cross-over to his advantage - taking a delusional criminal called Santa Klaus (named by Arkham guards because of his german accent), who went on a spree of attacking people he thought where naughty. He proved even more dangerous, pumped up on Joker-juice - but Batman managed to administer an antidote.

Klaus came back, though, in a Christmas issue where Batman had to work to stop Klaus from delivering exploding boxes to all the people he thought where naughty, and deserved to die. It was a fun twisted little Christmas adventure, and served as a nice calm before the big event due to take over the Batman books for the next several months.

Bruce Wayne: Murderer

Both Brubaker and Rucka's Batman runs where all seemingly leading to this - their largest cross-over event, where Bruce Wayne was framed for murder. It was an epic and startling story-line, that turned all the Batman books on their heads.

The storyline started with a special 10cent issue DC put out, to entice new readers. It didn't prove as successful as it could have been, because the most frequent question new readers had was "Who's this girl? Where's Robin?" At this point Sasha Bordeaux was regularly joining Batman on patrol, dressed in a purple outfit -- and the two where shocked when they returned home from patrol to find an old girlfriend of Bruce's, Vesper Fairchild, murdered and left for dead in Wayne Mansion. Just as Bruce discovered the body the police stormed in, arresting Wayne seemingly re-handed.

Bruce was sent to prison, along with Sasha as his accomplice. All the evidence pointed to Wayne's committing the murder -- and even Bruce's closest allies began having doubts, mostly due to the increasingly erratic behavior of Bruce. In the recent previous years Batman has continually been pushing away friends and family. This event finally pushed Batman over the edge - as he broke down in prison, no longer able to maintain the facade of being Bruce Wayne. In fact, Batman comes to the conclusion that there no longer is a Bruce Wayne; he's used Bruce Wayne as a disguise for so many years - that his true personality is in fact being Batman.

While Sasha remains loyal to Bruce, and keeps her mouth shut - even in the face of life-time murder convictions - she is seemingly abandoned when Batman escapes from prison.

Bruce Wayne: Fugitive

The next phase of the cross-over had Batman escape from prison to continue his mission. All of his friend and allies, from Oracle, Batgirl, Robin and Nightwing are working to prove that Bruce didn't murder anyone. Batman, on the other hand, is intent on leaving the identity of Bruce Wayne behind. In issue #600 Brubaker and McDaniel essentially showed Batman facing an intervention -- which lead to a huge fight between Batman and Nightwing. It all ended when Dick accidently crashed into a display case, housing the costume of the deceased Robin #2, Jason Todd. It was shocking and traumatizing to the entire supporting cast, as an angry Batman pushed everyone out of his life.

While Greg Rucka's Detective Comics, and the other Bat-titles handled the mystery of who really killed Vesper Fairchild - Brubaker gave readers a breather, presenting Batman with a more normal adventure - though also detailing the self-imposed isolation Batman was placing on himself. A new villain, Nicodemus, was taking corrupt police officers and politicians and burning them alive. Batman managed to save one victim, Thomas Hart -- thought the plot eventually revealed Hart to be Nicodemus. Nicodemus was able to get away, vowing to burn the sin-filled Gotham to the ground. The character, though, was never dealt with again, which seems a shame.

There where two issues that seemed particularly important to the "Bruce Wayne: Murderer" saga. One involved a police officer on his death bed who reaches out to Batman, wanting to give him one of his most notoriously unsolved cases: the murder of Thomas and Martha Wayne. Batman remembered the detective after the murders, and listens to the old man's story. The old man hopes that Batman might be able to solve the case he wasn't able to. He also asks Batman if he could try and find out what really happened to Bruce Wayne. The old cop describes how, when he looked into Bruce's eyes those many years ago after his parent's death - he could tell that boy wouldn't grow up to be murderer, that something else must have happened in that case.

The next issue saw Batman team up with Catwoman, where Batman struggles to save the life of a scumbag criminal - taking several point-blank shots to the chest, just to protect this man from death. Batman's powerful armor and protective gear keeps him alive - but another few rounds would surely have killed him. He got away with just bruised and broken ribs from the force of the bullets. When Catwoman asks why Batman would go to such lengths to save a criminal, it dawns on Batman that this trait, of saving anyone - no matter what they have done - isn't something he learned as Batman - it was something he had learned from his father. Batman has finally come full circle during this crisis, realizing that his identity as Bruce Wayne is important.

Finally back to his senses, Batman reconnects with Oracle, Nightwing, Robin, and Batgirl. Through their combined efforts they where able to form a theory of who really killed Vesper Fairchild. It's a fairly complicated plot, but one that made sense. See, during No Man's Land Bruce Wayne made an enemy of Lex Luthor, managing to buy out from under Lex rights to much of Gotham, which Luthor had wanted to seize for himself. (He was just taking advantage of the situation, when the city was finally being re-opened and repaired.) Now Lex Luthor is President of the United States - but he still wants to get his revenge against Wayne for slighting him. So Luthor hires the world's best assassin: David Cain. Cain proved to be an interesting choice - as when he was offered the job, he saw the face of Bruce Wayne and remembered that same young kid who had come to him, many years ago, seeking training. (As part of Bruce's training to become Batman.) Cain connected it together - that Bruce Wayne was really Batman, and thus took the job. He murdered Vesper Fairchild, setting everything up for the police to arrest Wayne for the murder -- in addition to leaving clues only allies of Batman would recognize, to make them think Bruce had really killed Vesper.

A plot is hatched to lure Cain back to Gotham, under the idea that the Government wanted him to tie up loose ends. It all leads to Batman confronting Cain in the Batcave and fighting him -- trying to find out the real reasons why Cain had taken the job. See, Cain has a significant connection to Batman's family, beyond having trained Bruce so many years ago: he's the father of Batgirl, Cassandra Cain. He was a horrible father, having trained Cassandra to be a master assassin since birth -- but he lost her to Batman, who took her in and gave her a better life. So was this all revenge, for having seemingly stolen her daughter? A test - to see if Batman was worthy of raising her? Cain was completely defeated, and in a strange form of repentance Cain gave himself up to police, revealing himself as the real murderer, clearing Bruce Wayne of all charges. This entire plot really did seem to be motivated around Cassandra -- which gave the whole experience a sense of purpose beyond simply a revenge scheme cooked up by Lex Luthor.


Brubaker and Scott McDaniel did two more issues, detailing how a major hit was put out on Cain, as Lex rightfully feared Cain might admit his connection to the whole plot. Deadshot returns to murder Cain, but Batman fights with all his might to save him. Cain doesn't completely understand - as he's willing to die, having failed and shamed himself -- but Batman appeals to Cain, to fight to stay alive for his daughter's sake. After being saved Cain willingly remains in jail, but does not reveal anything about who hired him.

Over in Detective Comics one of the biggest loose threads of the entire storyline was dealt with: whatever happened to Sasha Bordeaux? She remained in prison the entire time - and once the real murderer is revealed, it seems Sasha was stabbed and died in prison. Someone was lying, though, and Batman was determined to figure out who.

It seems a secretive government organization had taken a keen interest in Sasha while in prison. The organization Checkmate recruited her - and having been abandoned by Bruce all this time, she took the opportunity. Her skills learned under Batman served her well in her new life as a secret agent. Batman, meanwhile, was waging a unceasing war against Checkmate and all their operations in Gotham - and made it clear he wouldn't give up until he found out what really happened to Sasha.

So finally Sasha secretly rendezvous with Bruce to explain what happened. Her death in prison had been faked, as she was recruited to be an agent of Checkmate. She had never given up Bruce's identity - not in prison, and not to Checkmate either. It's painfully explained the underpinnings on their entire relationship. They both loved each other - but both their jobs prevented them from ever expressing it to one another. So Batman let his secret be discovered - to let Sasha into his world. It was all very sweet, in a bizarre emotionally screwed up way -- but it was all ruined by the events of the murder frame-up. Sasha asks Bruce never to contact her again.

Other Series...

So, these two comic runs by Brubaker and Rucka are what got me into Batman Comics. It all sort of culminated with the Murder/Fugitive storylines -- all in all it wasn't that bad of an introduction into Batman comics.

After Ed Brubaker's last Batman issue he went and took over Detective Comics (after Rucka had also ended his run). This was to make room on the Batman title for Jeph Loeb and Jim Lee's epic "Hush" storyline.

Ed continued writing Detective Comics to a while - but soon was taken off the title. He did, however, continue his seminal work on Catwoman. He completely changed Catwoman for the better - taking her from a crazy love obsessed villain, to a hardcore hero in the poorest sections of Gotham. Plot lines from his Batman run where developed in later Catwoman issues - like the return of Zeiss, who came back an even more dangerous enemy than ever.

Rucka and Brubaker also did a joint venture together - creating a critically acclaimed series "Gotham Central" - focusing on the Major Case Squad of Gotham's Police. Rucka and Brubaker switched off doing different stories during that time, developing new characters - but also continuing the plots of old characters - like Renee Montoya, who was outed as lesbian; Crispus Allen, who tragically died at the end of the series; and the surprise return of Harvey Bullock, even more down on his luck than before when we last saw him. It was phenomenal series - on par with the likes of Homicide Life on the Street. It just happened to take place in Batman's city.

Over all I was deeply impressed by the work these two writers did. I'm very fond of their run, and recently found myself re-reading Ed Brubaker's issues; that's why I wanted to go over it in this post. Their runs wildly exceeded my expectations, as it successfully built on the foundation of what I knew of the Animated Series, and expounded upon it into a far richer universe.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks on this. Just got back into batman comics late last year and after the significant trades, am finally getting into certain Writer's runs-notably the ones you're talking about here. Thanks!