Saturday, November 1, 2014

Review: 'Batman: A Visual History'

Batman must have passed through more dark, goofy, and weird incarnations than any other major superhero. Forget Tim Burton's blockbuster visions and Chris Nolan's grim, gritty, mumbling version of The Dark Knight. Forget the forties serials with its saggy-pajamas wearing Batman who battled racist stereotypes. Forget the camp sixties series (just briefly, of course; then you should remember it again because it's awesome). Batman changed almost constantly in his key medium. On the pages of D.C. comics, Batman might be a nasty customer who thought nothing of gunning down a crook or a colorfully rendered goof dueling with aliens and monsters or a disturbed dude dealing with a Joker who does horrible things Bill Finger never would have envisioned seventy five years ago. It's really hard to keep track of it all, which is why Matthew K. Manning's new book Batman: A Visual History is a necessary research tool.

I'm not certain what percentage of Batman comics are covered in this book, because Batman appeared in a lot of comics. But there are a lot in here. Manning uses this wealth of material to tell Batman's story on page in a very satisfying way. The character's major innovations, historical milestones, and transformations earn multi-paragraph summaries with half-page reprints of the relevant comic's cover art. Tales of secondary importance are told in single-paragraph summaries alongside quart-page cover reproductions. The rest are given single-sentence descriptions sans art. The essential series (Batman, Detective Comics, The Brave and the Bold, World's Finest Comics, Justice League of America, etc.) are featured with oddities like guest appearances by Batman or his co-stars in Wonder Woman, Swamp Thing and Richard Dragon: Kung-Fu Fighter, as well as co-star-centric titles like Nightwing, The New Teen Titans, and Man-Bat.Through it all, Batman befriends Superman and punches dinosaurs, Alfred transcends his bumbling origins, Robins die, The Joker disables Batgirl, Batman dies, and he and his multitudinous co-stars are given more varying and contradictory origin stories than you can count. Strange trivia arises (I had no idea screenwriter Leigh Brackett, who famously worked on The Big Sleep and The Empire Strikes Back, wrote for Batman in 1953!). Strange supporting players too (The Condiment King... a guy who shoots guns loaded with spicy mustard!).

But let's not merely focus on the "history" aspect of this visual history. That visual component plays an integral part in this book's success too, as each over-sized page is stuffed with covers and blown-up art details. Sometimes this doesn't work well, with details from early comics blown up so huge that the quality degeneration makes them look like blurry stained glass, but most are good quality. The packaging is excellent quality: a hardback book housed in a heavy slip case and furnished with a pocket containing a couple of prints depicting the art on the slipcase and book covers. A very nice package and important addition to any Bat library overall.

Get Batman: A Visual History on Amazon.com here:

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