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Batman Bites Back

This review appears in today's Observer:

Batman_year_100_2When Paul Pope was asked to reimagine the Batman mythos, the artist and writer described the opportunity as "being handed the keys to a really, really hot car." Oddly, the really hot car that’s usually driven by our comic book hero doesn’t appear, though a rather impressive motorbike does. This choice of vehicle is broadly symbolic of Pope’s approach to an elaborate iconography developed over seven decades. Pope strips away much of the customary Bat paraphernalia to focus on narrative and a smaller, grittier, more street level, hero. There’s no Batcave, no old money mansion and no long suffering Alfred Pennyworth. It isn’t clear whether the man behind the bat mask is in fact a traumatised billionaire or is even called Bruce Wayne. And it’s to Pope’s credit that he manages simultaneously to frustrate his readers with unresolved questions while keeping them glued to the unfolding story, puzzles and all.

What is clear in Pope’s imagined future is that anxiety is the norm, privacy is practically non-existent and the state knows everyone’s business in unsettling detail. Even the ever-present police dogs have tiny TV cameras implanted in their skulls. In a country under quasi-martial rule, where no-one can remain “off the grid,” an unidentified vigilante is an unacceptable anomaly. In a neat visual conceit, Pope contrasts this Gotham of 2039 with a portrayal of our hero that harks back to Bob Kane’s earliest drawings circa 1939. This is an Expressionistic Batman, stylishly distorted and grotesque, rendered in loose, inky artwork and with an eye for amusing detail. Batman’s arsenal of tricks not only includes various acids and explosives, but also a set of misshapen ceramic dentures to heighten his inhuman appearance. This masked avenger is, as Pope puts it, “pretending to be Nosferatu.”

Batman_year_100_5Vampiric imagery runs throughout the book. We first see the aforementioned motorbike suspended overhead and shrouded in canvas, like some enormous sleeping bat. But most disturbing are the few images of Batman available to the police – blurry glimpses of something half animal captured by CCTV in grainy, night-vision green. A federal agent has apparently been murdered by this "Bat-Man of Gotham" and a team of Washington’s top agents are determined to capture him by any means. Gotham Police Department’s Detective Gordon - grandson of a famous former commissioner - finds himself entangled in a mystery of identity and coerced into pursuit of a man who shouldn’t exist at all.

Pope makes the occasional nod to Frank Miller’s Dark Knight Returns, most notably in his use of visceral physicality and grim humour, and at times the pacing and intensity is reminiscent of the TV drama, 24. Readers are likely to reach the end of the book with several questions left unanswered, not least regarding this Batman’s identity and background, both of which are left open-ended for later elaboration. But the ride is certainly fun and Pope demonstrates that ageing icons from the Thirties can still be reinvented for each new generation.

© David Thompson 2007

Paul Pope & Jose Villarrubia, Batman: Year 100, DC Comics, 232pp, £12.99