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Peter Milligan, who had a brief stint on Detective in the early nineties, returns to Batman for DC’s continuity-light Batman Confidential title. He’s joined by recent Batman & Robin artist, Andy Clarke. In fact, this gig on Confidential might have been a test run for him on the character (though chances are such things are figured out well ahead of time.)
The book follows Batman as he chases a perceived threat overseas to Moscow, where he lands in unfamiliar territory a widely feared beast at his back. Batman is the title character of this book, but it’s as much about Bear, the monstrous force under control of the Russian crime lord.
To those familiar with their work, the creative team alone might be enough to sway you to pick up the book. Those unfamiliar are sorely in need of an introduction – Milligan’s run on Shade The Changing Man was part of the founding line up of Vertigo, for good reason, and Andy Clarke is a talented artist near the start of what is hopefully a long career – already with critically acclaimed titles like R.E.B.E.L.S. under his belt.
Like the team, this arc is a mix of old school Batman and modern storytelling. It’s not too complicated and flows quickly, but it’s not shallow either. Milligan sprinkles subtle messages and interesting characters throughout the tale. It’s nice to see a story that works on multiple levels without feeling forced.
Many Batman stories, at the core, are about finding a bad-guy and punching him in the face. This book has that. If you like, you can read the whole thing quickly, enjoy it, and move on without troubling yourself about deciphering twists and motivations. Everything you need to make sense of it is right there on the surface – there is a Russian mobster, a madman, who wants to blow up Gotham. Or Moscow. He doesn’t care which. Or maybe he just wants control of the organized crime in both cities. We’re familiar with him.
And then there is the beast, his tool, conflicted and perhaps beautiful – but violent and at odds with our hero from the outset. There’s a dirty cop who would like to live his life with honor, but must protect his family. And there’s Batman, seemingly early in his career before his persona is a worldwide crime deterrent, fighting to gain the upper hand by fear while adhering to his code.
These people come together how we’d expect them to, but it doesn’t seem cliche. I can’t say there were many surprises, but I was never bored. In fact, all these elements make up many of the best Batman stories and I only fondly remembered them as I explored this one.
But if I recognized this story, why wasn’t I bored? The elements that keep it from becoming trite are subtle, but essential. First, not every character in the drama has an obvious role to play. Some are just encountered and go the rest of the story unexplained. Petr, a man who lives in the sewer, doesn’t need to have an express function. He asks, to Batman, but also us – “Aren’t you just a little curious?” Batman turns away, and the story moves onward, but that curiosity keeps rumbling underneath, where the reader is free to come to conclusions about his story and what it means.
In similar vein, the surface is easy – Batman spends much of the book musing on his power of fear. He wonders how he can make the Russians fear him. Fear him like the American criminals, fear him more than the Tsar, more than the Beast. He attributes victories to this fear, but a close read may show that even he is wrong. It’s certainly not fear of the Batman that makes the difference during the climatic scenes with Bear.
The art, also, is subtle. Sometimes a little too subtle, as a few of the Russians look confusingly similar, but luckily they have distinguishing facial features (a scar here or birthmark there) and Clarke more than makes up for the cookie cutter Russians with his perfect use of expression on the main characters. I’ve never been convinced by widemouthed surprise coming from Batman, even in classic pre-crisis tales. I get more here from Clarke’s illustrations of Bruce’s attempts at stoic control than I have from other artists’ exaggerated emoting.
A little curl of the lip here, slight twist of the jaw there, and a mask that seems fluid enough to allow the tiniest hints of furrowed brows to show. Clarke shows a worried Batman, a spirit of vengeance that cares, no matter how hard he hopes to show himself as. Those around him may be intimidated, but we the readers, we know.
The beast, Bear, is treated similarly, and his sadness is palpable. With such play in the eyes of our main characters, and the other human players in this story, it’s all the more obvious when it is lacking. It’s immediately noticeable – here. Here’s a cold man, here’s the real psychopath, that smug bastard.
Clarke’s men have broad shoulders and his characters all have solid weight to them. The linework is a little strange, with a hatching that sometimes suggests furriness or softness. It bothered me when I noticed it, but it also worked well in some places. I’ve decided it’s recognizable, but has little effect besides that. For Bear, it’s perfect, and that’s what matters. The coloring is excellent, with much of the book bathed in a deep purple night. And Jock’s cover for the volume is absolutely beautiful.
Altogether, I enjoyed this book much more than any other Confidential run I’ve read thus far. It stands on its own perfectly and could probably be read at any point in the Batman mythos, though I place it soon after Gordon is appointed Commissioner and before such things as the JLA. There’s a confusing reference to September 11th, which skews things a bit, but the lives of the characters always seemed to be immune to historical accuracy – Robin could use a cell phone in one story and be fighting WII era Nazis in the next. What would matter more is that he’s older in the second.
It probably stands as a good introduction to both creators – it’s not nearly as crazy (crazy good) as Milligan’s work can be, but might show you that he can write a great Batman. And Clarke’s work will only get better, I’m sure. I’ve already seen some amazing things he’s done in Batman & Robin. Plus, it can be picked up for under ten dollars brand new on Amazon. A great place to start, even if you haven’t read much or any Batman.
And I can’t help hoping that we’ll see more from this plotline – the end, while maybe a joking high note to tie things up, leaves something open. Something that I think would be perfect for the Russian branch of Batman, Inc.
I’m crossing my fingers.
Not yet, but I kind of hope it will be. If I’m lucky, some writer will agree with me.
It’s a continuity light Batman tale and is a fine jumping on point for the character. If you’re a die-hard book sorting fan though, I’d read the “Year One Era/ Early Years” Batman up to Batman: Two Face and Scarecrow: Year One following this list of Modern Age Batman books.
If you want to get right into it, I bet you could head right to the current Grant Morrison headed epic Batman RIP / Reborn list. Though you might want to stop off and learn a bit more about Dick Grayson first.
Alternatively, if you just want to find out more about Milligan (constantly undervalued compared to the rest of the UK invasion), I can’t recommend Shade: The Changing Man highly enough. Start with The American Scream.