Friday, October 16, 2015

Recommended Reading for 10/16: Tales of the Multiverse- Batman: Vampire

Batman can trace  his literary roots back to a lot of different sources. The pulps are a major source, especially The Shadow and Zorro. But going deeper in, there are two Victorian characters who are hugely influential: Sherlock Holmes and Dracula. I discussed Batman's meeting with Holmes nearly three years ago to this very day. And Batman has met Dracula as well, in the fist of a trio of original graphic novels we'll be discussing today.

The three volumes, Batman/Dracula: Red Rain, Batman: Bloodstorm, and Batman: Crimson Mist were all written by then Batman writer Doug Moench, with art by Kelly Jones, who had been doing covers for Batman for some time, and during the years the trilogy would be released over, would spend some time as regular penciler on the title. It's a tale of horror and superheroics mixed and about the downfall of a good man to the curse of the vampire, as we watch Batman fall into the trap Nietzsche laid out, about those who fight  monsters being careful to not become monsters in the process.

The Batman: Vampire trilogy came out at the height of Elseworlds, DC's tales of heroes in unfamiliar circumstances, and is by far one of the most popular and successful, having spawned one of the 52 Earths of the current DC Multiverse. And while these stories take place in a Gotham nearer to the one we're familiar with in monthly comics, one not as removed as the Victorian Gotham of Gotham By Gaslight or the church-ruled one of Holy Terror, it is a Gotham of even darker corners, and of a constant red rain falling from the sky, pollution run rampant that now portends the coming evil.

Batman/Dracula: Red Rain, the first in the series, seemed to be written to be a stand alone novel. In it, Batman finds Gotham's homeless being murdered, and their throats slashed, and learns that the cut throats are to mask the telltale vampire bites. He comes into conflict with the hordes of the undead and their leader, Dracula, and is aided by a group of reformed vampires, those who drink a serum that satisfies their bloodlust, led by the beautiful Tanya, who had been turned by Dracula himself and after years of being his consort, realized the horror of what she was doing and vowed to stop him. Tanya gifted Batman with her blood, giving him vampire powers without the weaknesses, but at the story's end, Dracula's bite finishes the transformation, and a vampire Batman is born. 

The story is itself a wonderful horror yarn, with the vampires mostly monstrous bloodsucking creatures with no mind or soul, with the traditional weaknesses to sunlight, stakes, crosses, etc. Batman is himself at a loss at the beginning of the story, outmatched by the vampires' powers, and only through becoming more like them is he finally able to stop them. It's a gorgeously gothic landscape as only Kelly Jones could craft, but I'll spend more time on the art later.

The world of this book is interesting in the slight differences between it and the Gotham we are accustomed to. There seems to be no Robin or other superheroes of any kind in the world, making it a world of a more lonely Batman. This is a Batman who, as committed to his principles as he is, is somewhat darker, not having that grounding in his humanity. While Alfred and Jim Gordon are still there, this Batman seems less emotionally involved with either of them, but whether that is his nature or a part of his vampiric transformation remains a question left to the reader.

Moench's Dracula isn't the cape and amulet wearing Bela Lugosi version, or sympathetic either. His Dracula is a mad, monstrous creature who knows nothing but his hunger for blood. Not as mindless as his spawn, his goal is simply to build an army of vampires and feed. While there aren't a lot of levels there, it works very well with Dracula as a character; he is bloodlust incarnate. Tanya is a character with an... interesting design. No traditional vampire wife of Dracula, she's in a one piece purple bathing suit with knee-high purple boots for much of the story; how very '90s. But she's a sympathetic character; she is completely driven to destroy Dracula, even at the cost of her own life, but does it to prevent anyone else from falling to his curse, making her an interesting parallel to Batman, who reacts the same way to his traumatic experience; he is willing to sacrifice himself to stop crime in the same way she is to stop vampirism.

Red Rain also spends some of its time pursuing far more real world issues than either of its successors. The fact that he victims are all homeless, and that the mayor actively tells Gordon to keep a lid on it because he doesn't want to start a panic and who cares about these people anyway is an indictment on society in general's treatment of the homeless. Also, signs throughout the issue in the background of scenes are for vaccinations, and so the idea of vampirism as a disease is eased out; published in 1991, at the beginning of the time when AIDS was coming into the forefront of social consciousness, it's not hard to link vampirism and blood borne illness either, and also to hear Dracula ant about how mankind has poisoned its blood with disease and drugs adds to this elemen.

Bloodstorm, the second volume of the trilogy, begins bringing in figures from the established Batman mythos, as the Joker uses his wiles to become leader of the remaining vampires and begins a war to take over Gotham's mobs. Batman, now a full vampire, must fight the call to drink blood, instead subsisting on Tanya's blood substitute formula as the hunger increases. But his mind is put at ease when he meets Selina Kyle, in this reality a were-cat after being bitten by Creach, Joker's right hand vampire who was in a wolf form at the time, and he two hunt together until Joker kills Catwoman, and Batman finally breaks, killing Joker and drinking his blood, leaving it up to Gordon and Alfred to do what must be done, giving us one of the book's indelible images, of them driving a stake through Batman's heart, reciting the mantra Tanya introduced in volume one, "To death... in peace."

While the plot seems very similar to the first volume, with Joker taking Dracula's place and Selina taking Tanya's, they are very different stories. Most importantly, this story is not about Batman discovering and coming to terms with the existence of vampires, and about being haunted by visions of Tanya until he realizes the truth, but about him fighting the beast inside him. Much of Batman's internal narrative is about how hard it is to resist the urge to drink blood. It shows Batman's strength of will, and more how insidious the vampire disease/curse is, and makes it all the more tragic when he finally submits to it.

Joker and Catwoman work well as deepening the connection between this world and the prime DCU while also pointing out how different they are. Joker is, well, pretty much Joker, mad and cunning, using the vampires to turn mobsters instead of the homeless, while still staying human. It's interesting that Joker does not seem to desire the immortality of the vampire, but instead simply uses them as a means to an end. Keeping him human establishes him even more as a counterpoint to the vampiric Batman. Meanwhile, the Selina Kyle of this world seems to bear little resemblance to her traditional counterpart, other than her affection for cats. There is no indication that she is a thief, but instead just a woman who wound up on the wrong side of a vampire. She is also tremendously noble, often addressed as an innocent woman, since it is the love of an innocent woman that is said to hold off the curse. More than that, it is her nobility that leads to her downfall, as she takes a crossbow bolt meant for Batman.

This second volume takes the horror of the first volume and amps it up to eleven. There's almost a black comedy vibe, appropriate for a Joker story, as the vampire deaths and murders seem more grotesque, from Creah tearing himself open to expose his internal organs to a mobster before tearing ones face off with his fangs (that vampire is later seen with his face stitched on) to a vampire who was shot in the head before being turned having a small Band-Aid to cover up the wound. Also, Batman gets a new weapon that is just so cool I have to call it out, these silver-cored wooden throwing knives with bat-tooled hilts; even when he's slaying vampires, Batman does it in style.

You'd think that being staked would put an end to Batman's problems, but you would be wrong. In this vampire mythos, a stake just immobilizes a vampire, and only beheading or sunlight seems to make he undead permanently dead. And when the costumed criminals of Gotham run completely amok, Alfred makes the hard decision and pulls the stake. Batman rises from the dead, more monstrous than ever, and begins to hunt down and slay Gotham's criminals unrepentantly, but still enough of himself to behead each one to not spawn more vampires. Finally, after a series of atrocities, it comes down to an unholy alliance between Jim Gordon, Alfred, Two-Face, and Killer Croc to put an end to the vampire Batman. And in a final battle with a body count straight out of a Shakespearean tragedy, Batman is given his final rest, along with everyone else.

By this point in the series, the vampire Batman has become nearly entirely a monster. He hangs onto his humanity by barely a thread, and its only there in that he only kills the guilty, but he is constantly tempted to give in and just drink from anyone else he runs across. Still, the haunting narration has Batman almost as a passenger in a body driven by his hunger. I say almost because even he acknowledges that it's still him in there, just with the hunger pushing him. One of the major differences between this volume and the former two is that Batman is the only vampire in the story, and while not the only monster, he is by far the scariest.

The other monsters in the story are pretty much all of Batman's remaining major rogues, who pop up to mostly be victims of Batman's insatiable thirst. Some appear as they traditionally have: Penguin, Poison Ivy, Black Mask, Scarecrow, Killer Croc, and Two-Face all look like you'd expect. Riddler, though, gets a creepy resdesign, with question marks etched into his face and chest with stitching. I also seems that the timeline is different than what we're used to, as both Two-Face and Scarecrow are just being introduced to the world, with no previous history with Batman. It's Two-Face who is the most used of the villains, as most fall pretty quickly. Two-Face, with Croc as his henchman, is the one planning on finding a way to eliminate Batman and ascend o king of Gotham, and its a Two-Face similar to the one Moench wrote when he was writing Batman, whose personality is far more split than he's often portrayed, referring to himself as "we."

This volume also spends considerably more time developing both Jim Gordon and Alfred's character arcs. While both have had parts in the first two volumes, it is here they not only come into their own, but in the final battle show their defining characteristics. Alfred sacrifices himself to Batman's thirst after Batman is struck by a crossbow bolt so Batman can stop Two-Face from killing Gordon, showing his intense loyalty, and Gordon finally hits a detonator that opens to cavern ceiling above the Batcave, showing his resolve by being willing to not only kill his one-time friend but in the end dying to stop him. The last page, spotlighting the three fallen friends and heroes, is another one of the series highlights.

While Moench's story is excellent and haunting, I don't think this story would stick out as one of the greatest Batman Elseworlds stories if not for the art by Kelly Jones. Jones is a master of horror, his art very stylized and exaggerated to almost the point of the grotesque, with many great horror comics in his past, one of the most notable being the legendary Sandman: A Season of Mists. Gotham, though, seems to be a place he was meant to draw. His Gotham is one of the most haunting versions out there, with gargoyles and creepy buildings at every turn. The red rain and he general atmosphere gives the already horror filled story an extra edge.

And even if Gotham wasn't at it's darkest, Batman most assuredly is. Jones is most famous for how he portrays Batman's cape, competing with Todd Macfarlane for artist who draws the biggest, most billowy, most almost alive cape award, but here he adds Batman's slow descent into monsterdom; it is perfectly shown in the art. Batman starts out looking exactly like you're used to seeing him, and over the course of the first volume, he changes slowly, but even at the end he's pretty much the same, only with wings and fangs. By the second, he is slightly more grotesque, broader and more haunted looking, with he fangs ever evident. By volume three, Batman is a revenant, basically a walking corpse, with ribs evident, his vertebrae appearing almost as spikes down his back, sallow skin, and regularly shifting into a form similar to Man-Bat and to the titular crimson mist. It's Batman as the biggest, scariest monster in the series, and that makes it all the worse, as he is the guy you want to root for now transformed into the terror of the night.

Of the other monsters and villains, the designs are similarly spectacular. The were-cat Selina is lithe and sexy, while still being a terrifying monster when she is in combat. The various vampires are all hideous and scary, and I really like the design for Creach as a werewolf; he's a massive hulking brute. Oh, and the Joker has crazy long hair, almost pushing mullet levels. Nowhere else will you see a mullet Joker.

Before I close up, I want to toss in a few other interesting Batman Elsworlds and vampire stories. Sadly not as well known or in print as these ones, Moench and Jones did another Elseworld Batman original graphic novel, Dark Joker: The Wild, set in a fantasy world with Joker as an evil sorcerer. Also, for a very different take on Baman fighting Dracula, there's the direct to DVD Batman Vs. Dracula, the one feature length animated film from the continuity of the oft-forgotten animated Batman series, The Batman. Its probably the best part of that series, with some really atmospheric moments, and is well worth watching if you have the time.

Elseworlds stories range from the sublime to the, well, the stuff I don't talk about on this blog, and as there were more Batman Elseworlds than any other character, you would expect a mix of both. The Batman: Vampire trilogy falls in the sublime category, mixing the elements of Batman with some great horror elements to create a vision of Batman like no other.

All three books in the Batman: Vampire series are in print and available as one volume, whose name I used for the title of this post, Tales of the Multiverse: Batman-Vampire.

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