Gaiman’s Batman and two Kings: 20th Century Ghosts and American Vampire

A quick round-up of some recommended recent catch-up reading:

batman caped crusader

Batman: Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader? (DC, 2009), written by Neil Gaiman, pencilled by Andy Kubert. Batman has always been my favourite superhero. There were others I enjoyed, but it was the Bat who’s stayed with me since the 1970s when I scoured the secondhand book stores for the Murray Comics’ collected issues of Batman and Detective. There’s something about him: the peak — maybe a little over the peak — of human excellence, but human. Using intelligence as much as brawn — the detective bit gets lost too often these days — and battling with that famous crime-fighting obsession. The battle between Bruce Wayne and Batman — who’s the real disguise here? It’s all so Gothic …

Gaiman tackles a bunch of this stuff in this tale, anchored around a funeral for Batman at which he is a ghostly observer and some of his greatest foes provide requiems. Catwoman features, naturally, another simply human (even with uber athleticism and kitty affinity) character with the most simple of motivations: she’s just a thief with a desire for a keen, bloodless getaway. The unresolved sexual tension is front and centre here.

Kurbert has risen to Gaiman’s challenge of capturing some great styles of past artists in the mini-stories. It’s a superbly realised tribute to the Dark Knight. The deluxe issue contains four other Gaiman Batman-universe stories, but for me, anchored in the black-and-white art of the ’70s, these don’t fly as high as the core collection. My pick would probably be the Poison Ivy origin story — a lovely, morally ambiguous villain — though the art isn’t quite to my taste.

American Vampire

American Vampire (Vertigo, 2010), Scott Snyder and Stephen King, drawn by Rafael Albuquerque. Stephen King weighs into the bloodsucker graphic novel ouvre in Snyder’s project about, well, an American vampire born in the outlaw times of the Wild West. The aim was to put the nasty back into the vampire genre and it succeeds well, givin’ them crusty ol’ Euro-vamps a taste of American independence. It casts the vampire as villain and gives the law back its star: not as camp as the film Billy the Kid vs Dracula, and with an air of old-fashioned values being dusted off. Vampires, vengeance, six-shooters: it’s entertaining stuff. Compare and contrast to the excellent Vamps, a 1996 Vertigo graphic novel penned by Elaine Lee, which tells the tale of a group of female biker vampires wanting to break free.

20th Century Ghosts by Joe Hill

20th Century Ghosts (William Morrow, 2005), Joe Hill. Joe Hill is Stephen King’s son, and he’s learnt a lot from his old man. Namely, character and voice. This collection of short stories is hugely entertaining, a real tour de force of style, most (but not all) using supernatural elements to put the pressure on. ‘Best New Horror’ is a gripping opening with its clever meta elements and ‘Abraham’s Boys’ visits vampire lore in an intriguing fashion. ‘The Cape’ is deliciously nasty, others hit the melancholy mark, one had me laughing out loud. A very few left me unsatisfied, belonging to the vignette camp whereby there is meagre beginning, mostly middle and no real end, but always the characters are spot-on. I still can’t believe it took me this long to get to this collection …

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