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Nexus Graphica
by Mark London Williams

Other Nexus Graphica Columns
For more information, you can try the following:
Batman: Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader?
What Studs Terkel's 'Working' Says About Worker Malaise Today (from 2004)
Batman Showcase vol. 4
Frank Robbins
Irv Novick
Mauldin's "Willie and Joe" collection
Recent Books of Interest

Batman: Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader? written by Neil Gaiman, art by Andy Kubert (DC) Batman: Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader?
In being easily cajoled -- by his account -- into writing the "final" issues of regular Batman and Detective comics continuity, before one of those "reboots" that of which comics publishers are so fond, Gaiman has created one of the handful of indispensable Batman GNs (along with The Dark Knight Returns, The Killing Joke, and others), with both issues collected here. And he is aided immeasurably by Kubert's art, which recreates various eras and iterations of Batman -- and his nemeses -- as the Caped one is being eulogized at his own funeral. Or is he? In any case, the journey through the decades becomes a riff on what Batman means to Gotham City, to the villains who need him, and finally, to us. And in a way, all those changes through the decades, from late 30s Deco to austere 80s angst, and more, are "explained" with a mystical twist similar to themes in the latest Battlestar: Galactica. Except, for all its virtues, BSG never used a version of Goodnight, Moon as well as Gaiman does here. All this, plus additional Gaiman-penned tales in the handsome hardcover -- including an intriguing Riddler origin, and a great Pirandello, comics-qua-comics tale of Joker and Batman conversing "backstage" and rehearsing lines, while waiting for their respective entrances in an impending panel. Fun stuff all around...

Studs Terkel's Working adapted by Harvey Pekar edited by Paul Buhle (The New Press) Studs Terkel's Working
Pekar -- with an assist from Buhle, and an array of artists -- adapts some of the testimonies from Terkel's great 70s-era book, Working. For those who don't know Terkel's work, he essentially assembled printed "documentaries," relying on stories told by participants about the subject at hand (work, World War II, etc.) Working has already been turned into a musical, but the material -- letting everyone from hookers to waiters to organizers, ball players, heiresses, and more -- simply speak about their relationship (as Americans) to "work" is illuminating. Especially given the source material was compiled almost 40 years ago, and especially given that most of the respondents seem to be "on" to the fact that while they may "work" in a society, they don't really own a piece of it. "Jobs are not big enough for people," one interviewee laments. Makes you wonder how everyone allowed policies detrimental to all their interests to flourish, in the intervening decades. Too much TV, instead of trenchant graphic novels?

Willie & Joe -- The WWII Years by Bill Mauldin (Fantagraphics) Willie & Joe -- The WWII Years
A terrific (though not inexpensive) two-volume collection of the legendary Bill Mauldin's "GI Joe" cartoons from "the last good war," which in this case, wasn't always so good if you were a regular enlisted man, trying to make sense not only of the imminent danger around you, but the foibles of officers, as well. Fantagraphics gives us a comprehensive collection of the cartoons that fellow enlisted man Mauldin created during the war, both for civilians and fellow soldiers alike. Often, they were different cartoons for different markets, and the latter would frequently get Mauldin in trouble with superior officers. Though some -- like Eisenhower -- realized the cartoons detailing a less-than-perfect American army helped the foot soldiers blow off some needed steam. In many ways, given the wars and conditions American GI's have been put through since, the cartoons almost seem innocent, despite the horrors of the war in question. But this compendium makes is both a great time capsule, and a fitting tribute to an American original.

Madeleine Cookies

Batman 204 -- Operation Blindfold
Batman 205, Blind As...a Bat
Here I was, en route to writing another column entirely this mid-month -- or so I thought, until about a week ago. Originally, I was going to write about the burgeoning field of online comics, and how a lot of successful offline collections of comic strips, in particular, start on the web.

This may not be news to some of you, but through the good offices of my 15 year-old son, I kept discovering new strips, and it seemed to warrant some attention here at NG.

And then I had not one, but two "madeleine cookie" moments this week, with comics arriving over the transom.

The madeleine, of course, refers to the legendary tea cake, the taste of which sparks the flood of memories that Proust uses to start the multi-volume narrative of Remembrance of Things Past -- or however the title is being more clearly translated into English these days.

I had the first such moment when a copy of the DC Showcase series arrived, in this instance the fourth volume of their Batman compilations. This particular Showcase volume gathers Batman and Detective comics from the summer of 1968 through the fall of 1969.

I was nine, going on ten, and the United States was, of course, falling apart in ways from which it has arguably never recovered.

What's a young boy to do when the world starts going kablooie? Well, start buying Batman comics, I guess. And the first one I ever bought is reproduced in this B&W, sawbuck-and-a-half edition. And by "bought," I don't mean "read," or even "given to me," but rather, the first one I can recall picking up and getting myself.

That'd be issue #204, from August of 1968: Operation Blindfold.

Written by Frank Robbins, who seemingly wrote every Bat-script in those days -- and who was the first guy I was aware of as being a "comics writer" (later, his heavily-inked artwork would start appearing on DC's pages, too) -- and boasting solid Irv Novick art on the cover and the interior, the two-parter -- it concludes in #205, Blind As...a Bat?

As you might infer from the titles, it has to do with blindness -- in this case though, not as any kind of terrifying metaphor, but rather, as part of a scheme by a villain called, well, "the Schemer," whom I didn't remember, but who has owl-like cowlicks where his sideburns should be, and indeed, an owl as a familiar.

In the tradition of many of the plotlines of the day, The Schemer is planning to hijack a large shipment of gold. That's about it, really, except what made this story transcendent -- memorable -- for me was the opening sequence in the first part, and the cover art in the second.

More specifically, the Schemer's scheme involves creating a fake "convention" of blind men -- they're all men -- who will somehow be able to move around Gotham unnoticed. In that era of transforming awareness (concurrent with the falling apart), civil rights hadn't quite found its dialogue among the disabled or physically challenged yet, and the blind guys look like Central Casting types, tapping around with canes, with "I am blind" signs around their necks, and holding tin cups for, variously, collecting coins from passers-by, or from which to vend pencils at street corners.

And the narration in the captions is in the style of the 60s Batman TV series, with an unseen announcer having an omniscient view -- or sense -- of the action, and making some creaky jokes (which the characters do, as well).

But about that artwork: The first book opens with the murder of one of the blind men; he's gunned down in cold blood as he walks down an alley. It's so stark -- more like an EC crime comic from the 50s -- that I wonder how it passed the then-prevailing comics code. Perhaps simply the lack of blood. Before he dies, the victim etches a message in the wall -- with his cane -- to Commissioner Gordon: they found out I'm Batman!

It's as slambang an opening as I've ever seen in comics, and perhaps no surprise the rest of the story, in those pre-Gaiman (see sidebar)/Moore/Vertigo-y/Dark Knight-ish days couldn't live up to those initial panels.

But some of the energy is recaptured in the cover to part two, which shows both Batman and Robin each reflected separately in another blind man's glasses -- and each with a bullet flying toward their respective faces.

Novick's art captures some of the inchoate terror hinted at in the first panels of the first part, and re-reading each issue now, I remembered how I felt then -- the kind of delightful dread at the opening, always wondering what twist would allow Batman not to be murdered after all (and for another view of that, once again, I refer you once again to the review of Gaiman's latest, on sidebar).

That was the most "madeleine cookie" aspect of the whole thing: I could clearly remember how I felt, and thought, reading the originals.

Which, in turn, has sparked some reflection on how I felt, and thought, about other things back then, and how I've changed -- or not -- since.

All from two comics whose total cost was less than a quarter!

And I still have those two issues, squirreled away somewhere in bags and boxes. Now I mostly only come across them when I move, and at that, I generally only look at the covers. So I hadn't laid eyes on them in awhile. Sometimes I would get as far as glancing at the first page or two before putting them back, when I did run across them.

But it's been decades (!) since I've read the stories cover-to-cover.

I had little or no recollection of The Schemer, or the relatively prosaic unfolding of the story -- replete with quips and Alfred's then-combover hairstyle -- but I was surprised at how vivid my recollection of my initial reaction to the artwork, and the menace of the opening frames was.

Robbins was writing his "blind" tales just before the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy that same year. Reading the comics that came after the two-parter -- for some reason, I didn't buy them all, back then, so many in the anthology were new to me -- I didn't notice they didn't grow as dark as the world did.

That would come later.

Strangely, though, there are at least two different reproduced covers (and attendant stories here) showing Batman surrounded by rebelling women -- Bat Girl and her minions in one instance, manifestations of Cat Woman in another -- so there was certainly a nascent fear of something in the late 60s air, manifested in these comics, though other recurring themes in these stories are nuclear mishaps (or in the case of one time travel tale, a future nuclear war), and the ongoing notion of identity (i.e., who is "really" who?)

Which kind of makes sense, if you're in disguise, all the time.

As for the second "madeleine" moment, evoking a time some years later (yet still some years ago), that will have to wait for a second column, probably in fall (!), since it's that time of year when I write two consecutive editions of NG, though the second July column will once again be a rumination on Comic Con, two weeks hence. Rick will then write the two August columns and I will, as we did last summer, "See you in September." Speaking of time's swift passing...

Pass the cookies.

Copyright © 2009 Mark London Williams

Mark London Williams writes the Danger Boy time travel series, which is currently being developed for large and small screens. He also works as a journalist covering both entertainment and politics,for the Hollywood trade paper Below the Line. When not eating cookies, he gets Twittery @mlondonwmz

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