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Friday, August 7, 2015

Panel Vision - Batman: Haunted Gotham

Last week, geek vlogger and critic Bob Chipman ran anepisode of his Screw Attack Show Trust in Bob about whether or not it’s time to revampBatman’s origin in some way.  I’m not sure I totally agree but he did raise a lot of good points about Batman’s wealth being a pretty easy answer to Gotham’s woes as well as the skeevy nature of Batman’s origin being rich enough to beat people senseless and damaged enough to not get called out on it by anyone.  However, I’m not here to debate the merits of Batman vigilante vs. Batman philanthropists, especially because Chris Sim alreadymade all the points I would make in favor Batman.  Instead, the whole conversation got me thinking about a little know Elseworld adaptation of the character. 
An Elseworld is a DC Comics imprint where “heroes are taken from their usual settings and put into strange situations and places- some that have existed, and others that can’t, couldn’t, or shouldn’t exist.”  They’re essentially a way to tell stories with characters without having to worry about continuity with a lot of notable installments like Gotham By Gaslight or JSA: The Liberty Files.  Most of the time Elseworlds comics tend to revolve around Batman and that’s thanks to one man: Doug Moench.

 Doug Moench is one of the strangest yet thoroughly influential creators of all time.  The guy penned no less than 7 Elseworlds tales including the one I’ve chosen to spotlight today: Haunted Gotham.  I have a good amount of his other work including Book of the Dead, in which Batman serves as the avatar of an Egyptian Bat God who was actually an alien, and Red Rain, in which Batman became a vampire.  Moench is one of the biggest Batman fans of all time, writing a ton of his issues and even obsessing over the character in non-Batman comics like JLA: Act of God.  He’s also weirdly obsessed with putting Batman into supernatural and horror situations, a trend so numerous I’m tempted to devote an entire solo review series to it.  Though most folks probably know his work through the Batman vampire Elseworlds saga Haunted Gotham is how I first encountered him.  As a kid I was huge into Elseworlds, huge in Batman, and (growing up in Salem, Massachusetts) huge into all things spooky, supernatural, or Lovecraftian so a comic where Batman fights demons and zombies was everything I wanted and more.  Looking back at it now…this is one of the strangest comics I’ve ever read.  

The reason I brought up Haunted Gotham in regards to the question of revising Batman’s origin is because the comic actually fixes a lot of people’s key problems.  In Haunted Gotham, Bruce’s parents don’t die till he’s an adult and have actually spent their lives helping train Bruce to fight the darkness in the city.  Said darkness swaps out poverty and crime for a literal infestation of demons.  See the title to Haunted Gotham is quite literal, the central concept of the comic being that demonic lords of darkness have somehow blocked Gotham off from the rest of the world and heaven.  This means that anyone who dies in Gotham is forced to wander the city as the undead while demonic lords of darkness hunt and devour their souls, that’s the darkness Batman fights against here. 
I think that’s actually a pretty clever way around a lot of people’s complaints with Batman as the rich abuser avoiding dealing with his personal trauma by beating on the lower classes.  Now, he’s actively working to carry on his parents work fighting to free Gotham from its literal demons while also assuaged of any real trauma because his parents can still hang out with him as ghosts.  What’s more you can’t even make the argument he’d be better off trying to throw money at the issue of poverty because regardless of how much more efficient he makes Gotham anyone who dies within it will remain trapped there and devoured by lords of darkness.  They even manage to neatly sidestep the trap of Bruce being “destined” for Batman by actually making the nature of his origin more vague.  The idea is that Bruce’s father was visited by a mystic sign that instructed him to prepare his son to champion the cause of righteousness in Gotham city while also outfitting all of Bruce’s required infrastructure.  Now that plot could easily fall into the same rigmarole as The Amazing Spider-man but it’s kept ambiguous as to where the sign came from and whether or not this suggested destiny truly is for the greater good or a plan by dark forces.  

Putting aside all the fixes to Bruce’s origin the comic is just nuts after that.  Batman now fights werewolves, zombies, and ghosts with a couple of wrist-mounted flamethrowers; the idea being that since an afterlife is confirmed and the things he’s fighting are basically just demons it’s totally fine for Batman to incinerate most of his foes.  They do manage to avoid making him a flat out killer in the supremely surreal 3rd issue where he fights a cult worshipping alien snake Gods from a sentient constellation.  The alien Gods have mutated a human into their snake-man servant called the Ophidian but Batman refuses to burn him, stating point blank to the authorities he’s a victim not a monster.  He’s even the one to start up Arkham Asylum as a place to try and help and reform those impacted by Gotham’s supernatural terrors. 
Part of what makes Haunted Gotham so surreal and compelling is the weird blend of aesthetic styles informing the supernatural and horror elements.  The great Kelly Jones is on art duty and his style is already grounded in the style of gothic horror with a tendency to cast characters as skeletal corpses or hulking brutes.  From there the visuals are mainly drawn from classical monsters and demonology, all of which goes out the window in the third issue when it’s revealed the dark lords are actually alien God monsters from beyond the stars.  This is probably the only time I’ve seen a series try to pass off satanic demons and werewolves as basically the spawn of Cthulu.  It’s a weird vibe all around, exacerbated by how odd the entire setting is.  Gotham looks like this bizarre blend of the animated series’ Art Deco stylings but filtered through the lens of old, eastern European cities.  All of this is coupled with a uniquely archaic tech system that’s both ancient and modern, sort of like if modern tech ran of the design sensibilities of the early 1900s.  

As this is an elseworlds there are other Batman characters who appear in the series.  Commissioner Gordon is on hand to act as Batman’s ally in the fight against evil though he spends most of the series being suspicious of Batman for no real reason.  Alfred is also there and actually one of the better depictions of the characters.  There’s even a very brief but still well done scene where we see Alfred speaking to the Wayne’s grave, a role usually reserved for Bruce.  It’s easy to forget that he lost people the night the Waynes were murdered as well.  Also there’s a thoroughly bizarre reimagining of the Joker as a chuckleheaded scientist who uses sorcery to augment his experiments.  His ultimate goal is just to create a zombie army but he doubles down on the weirdness by creating a Frankenstein body for himself complete with Thomas Wayne’s head.  It’s a weird idea and just adds to the overall surrealness of the story.  Catwoman is also on hand, reimagininged as a fortune teller and psychic named Cat Majik.  She’s easily the weakest point of the book, mainly because she only exists to give Bruce convenient aid and pose sexily for the reader.  Her asides are always very sleazy and off-putting, especially in light of Moench’s other work with the character in Catwoman: Guardian of Gotham.  
I’m not sure Haunted Gotham will change anyone’s life but reading is such a surreal experience it really has to be seen to be believed.  What’s more I really do think that if DC were to reboot or relaunch Bruce Wayne Batman in an attempt to fix some of the conflicting elements of his character, something in line with Haunted Gotham would be a pretty great first step.  Heck, the series actually has a very open ending so I’d be perfectly willing to revisist this universe to see whatever its strange “Halloween but with Demons by way of Cthulu” interpretation of classic Batman foes like Clayface, Mr. Feeze, or the Riddler might be.  Regardless, the point is pretty moot currently thanks to Scott Snyder’s excellent redesign of Batman but even so, I recommend tracking this one down to give it a read, I guarantee you won’t find anything else like it. 

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