Wednesday, November 29, 2023

Correcting an oversight

There's a comic book creator whose recent work has impressed me and I've failed to mention it, but today I correct that oversight.

That creator is, improbably, Chip Zdarksy.

Now, I have said plenty of bad words about Zdarsky's work and every word was much deserved.  I take none of that back. In fact, I'm going to start by adding a few more...

His recent "Gotham War" trivializes itself by driving by utilizing the old "Batman Frazzled Beyond His Limits" and "Batman versus Everyone Else" motifs that are somehow both trite and out of character for Batman.  He draws semi-arbitrary lines and puts Bat-characters on either side of moral/stragetic debate in the War Against Crime.  Because, you know, nothing says IMPORTANT drama than heroes, especially ones who work closely together, FIGHTING ONE ANOTHER rather than, I dunno, criminals and because someone still thinks he's writing for Marvel.

It also included silly Morrison-manqué touches (such as the Batman of Zurh-An-Arrrh), laughable plot-twists (like Vandal Savage BUYING Wayne Manor, without Bruce knowing), false deaths (courtesy of Clayface), and... the list goes on.

In some ways, the execution of this storyline simply couldn't be worse.  

But I refuse to let that blind even me, hard-core Zdarksy anti-fan that I am, to the fact that:

the STORYLINE is nothing short of g-d brilliant.

The storyline, in case you have not been following it, is essentially that Catwoman siphons away all the goons that populate the gangs of all of Gotham City's kooky costumed criminals.

DVD: Filmation's The Adventures of Batman Finally Comes To DVD -
The Joker! Clown Prince of Crime!

The Penguin! Pudgy purveyor of perfidy!

and the cool, CRUEL, Mistah Freeze!

Et al., of course. 

She does so to teach them to work ON THEIR OWN as BETTER criminals but NON-VIOLENT ones who target only "worthwhile" scores (that is, to say, rich people).  And violent crime PLUMMETS in Gotham.  

This is so brilliant, for a variety of reasons, even typing it makes my teeth hurt. Here's a few.  This is old-style, Golden Age plotting, where Our Criminal Of The Month has Some New Scheme, Theme, Or Tactic.  This is the **** that MADE most still-used Golden Age villains FAMOUS in the first place.  "The House That Joker Built"; "The Penguin Takes a Flyer Into the Future"; the Beauty Shop of Elva Barr; old comics were FULL of plots where 'some new wrinkle' would be brought to bear against Gotham (or Batman). Instead of having each of these schemes performed by The Ugly Suit gang or some such throwaways, writers used already familiar and popular costumed criminals as the perpetrators.  This made the stories more memorable because of the colorful criminal and made the criminal more memorable by showing, through a new gimmick, that they were more than one-trick ponies.

Detective 128 – The Joker's crimes in reverse | Babblings about DC Comics
What do crimes in reverse have to do with THE JOKER?
Nothing. Absolutely nothing. It's just an amusingly ironic idea that popped into his head one day.  This is the secret to Batman's longtime villains' longevity: their versatility.

Catwoman running a "school for larceny" is exactly such a scheme.  The Golden Age teams with stories about masterminds who run 'academies' where they teach criminals to Rob Better or who sell 'foolproof' crime-plans to members of the Ugly Suit Gang.

The Faginesque  "Crime College" from Batman #3

As this excerpt from a 1982 story ("The Academy of Crime") shows, the phenomenon was not confined to the Golden Age.

So, look, that aspect of the plot is by no means original.  But Zdarsky is using the Golden Age method of putting this otherwise generic plot under the banner of the Catwoman.  This is another part of the brilliance of the plot: it is rooted firmly in Catwoman's historical characterization as being a THIEF who avoids KILLING.   The plot is character-based.

In Catwoman's case, however, she's not doing it (solely) for profit or power.  It's also her way of FIGHTING CRIME... with CRIME.  She's doing it to help keep Gotham City SAFE.  That's not only NOVEL, it's shear genius.  Catwoman is remaking Gotham's underworld in her own image and IT WORKS, because it has drained away all the raw goon-power that Gotham's kooky criminals

The Single Best Sequence of FILMATION BATMAN | 13th Dimension, Comics,  Creators, Culture
Look out, criminals! Here come...
Batman and Robin!

are dependent upon to cause all the mayhem that they do.  This is painfully clever. As readers, we are just accustomed to assuming the goons are available in plentiful supply to these people; they are just part of the scenery.  Zdarsky smartly goes right to the heart of that assumption and turns it against that: does that HAVE to be the case? What if it's NOT, and what could deplete the supply? And his answer is original and (comic book) realistic; not the reformation or capture of all these goon, but rather their empowerment as independent operators. 

It's also brilliant because, of all people, Chip Zdarsky finally is the writer WHO GETS WHAT CATWOMAN IS.  Catwoman is not a hero; Catwoman isn't even an anti-hero.  She's a criminal, but a practical one with a conscience.  Only simplistic writers (and readers) think that characters must either be All-Good or All-Bad.

BATMAN THE GOLDEN AGE Omnibus Volume 9 – Buds Art Books
If only the Batman mythos had some character that could serve as a constant reminder of this fact.

Zdarsky has some of Batman's team slowly being seduced to Catwoman's way of thinking; violent crime is down, and the victims of the new wave of thefts are, frankly, people who are not objectively harmed by the loss of their excess property.  

Jason Todd Stealing Tires
Three guesses which member of the Bat-Family is most attracted by Catwoman's approach.

And it frees up the Bat-fam to focus on more serious crimes if they simply 'wink and nod' a bit to what Catwoman's doing. What's not to like?

After all, what harm can it really do...?

Batman, naturally, finds plenty to not-like.  Batman is very good at finding things to not-like.  He rightly points how indulging crime, of any type, will not have good results and how inevitably this democratization of crime will lead to unplanned and unpleasant results by those clumsier than Catwoman. Which, you know, is exactly what does happen. Because Batman doesn't do "wrong".

13 GREAT THINGS About Filmation's 1968 BATMAN Cartoon | 13th Dimension,  Comics, Creators, Culture
" protect life, limb, AND PROPERTY as Batman and Robin".
Bruce wrote that himself; doesn't want anybody stealing his Batman stuff.

Too many writers like to depict Batman as stupid or blinded by obsession. But Batman is simply the adult in the room. He is not swayed by your magical thinking, he knows there are no easy solutions. The World's Greatest Detective and has no trouble deducing the mess that will inevitably result from Catwoman's plan.

Batman is the adult in the room.
If you just remember that, every story with him in it makes a lot more sense.

Batman-- despite the "I'm Batman"reputation-- has a much more realistic sense of his limitations than Catwoman, in her criminal egotism, does.  Zdarksy uses this conflict to drive a wedge between the two characters and IT'S ABOUT DAMNED TIME SOMEBODY DID.  Golden Age Batman knew it; Adam West's Batman knew it; heck, even Robert Pattinson's Batman got it: Batman and Catwoman have essential worldviews that render them incompatible.  Are they hot for each other? Do they lurve each other? Maybe; who cares? They truly have--have had-- "irreconcilable differences" for some 80 years and cannot be together as a result.  

JSA Gotham War
There is only ONE reason for Batman & Catwoman to finally "get together" and it's Huntress and Geoff Johns has ALREADY plopped her back into existence (as he does, when motivated), so that reason is GONE.

For that ALONE, Zdarsky deserves my, and everyone's, thanks.


Anonymous said...

Hear hear about Batman being the adult in the room. For all the people who will tell you that Bruce Wayne gets his jollies beating up the mentally ill, nobody spends more time trying to fix Gotham's many systemic problems than him. He tries charity, good jobs, neighborhood redevelopment, mobilizing the wealthy, interacting with politicians, and if all else fails dressing up as a bat to fight murder-clowns.

People are always eager to blame whatever person is trying to actually fix things, and I'm not sure where that comes from. I have guesses, but they sound insulting, so I'll keep them to myself for now.

- HJF1

Scipio said...

"People are always eager to blame whatever person is trying to actually fix things, and I'm not sure where that comes from"

Anonymous said...

... it occurs to me that Batman and Catwoman should be repositioned so they're at odds with each other. Why? Because that would make for a potentially useful role for Helena, as someone who's in-between. It puts Helena more into the Gotham scene, and it gives her a reason to establish relationships with the two of them independently.

Of course, the version of Selina that Helena remembers gave up crime, and the still-criminal version will take some getting used to. But Helena's seen the potential; she's probably a bit too inclined to read Selina in the best light she can, even make excuses for her.

All in all Helena would click a lot better with Bruce, because when push comes to shove, Selina is taking what isn't hers and that's still wrong (even if it's less wrong than poisoning the Gotham water supply). But I could see Helena being frustrated with Bruce for being too judgmental about Selina, even if Helena knows deep down he's right.

- HJF1

Anonymous said...

Your comment about Golden Age villains going in different directions made me think of how very early in Penguin’s career after a couple of bird-related crime sprees, he showed up selling umbrellas. And it became a major part of his schtick.

Scipio said...

Most people nowadays don't think of Penguin as "a bird-themed" villain and may have never even seen him PORTRAYED that way.

Bryan L said...

Anything that moves Bat-villains away from mass murder is a welcome change. I've said it before: Why would anyone live in Gotham City? If at any moment some lunatic could set off a dirty bomb or lethally gas everyone in a 2-mile radius why would you stay? No job, investment, relationship, or other inducement works as a motivator if the increasingly frequent alternative is death.

But we've watched all of the villains rack up increasingly high body counts for decades now, and it simply doesn't make sense that Gotham isn't a ghost town. Hell, it's tough to get people back to cities and offices after COVID. Why would they flock back to Gotham after No Man's Land?

Scipio said...

"Why would they flock back to Gotham after No Man's Land?"

Unnaturally cheap real estate.

Anonymous said...

@Bryan: I actually discussed that with a friend while playing Gotham Knights. I had two missions back to back where a lot of civilians died (Freeze froze the city/Harley took over a hospital), and I blurted out that the ONLY reason people gotta live in Gotham is because they can't afford rent elsewhere.
"Joker killed my whole family, but you can't beat the price for this apartment!"
No thanks, I rather swim across the river and live poor in Metropolis.

Anonymous said...

The Joker, champion of affordable housing.

– Jack of Spades