Friday, November 21, 2014

[Best of Batman] Strange Apparitions by Steve Englehart & Len Wein

First off, I would like to state that I'm very torn about my rating for this graphic novel. On one hand I can acknowledge the influence and impact it has on the Tim Burton movie adaptations and  the initial conceptual work for Batman: The Animated Series (which I am both a big fan of, most particularly of the latter). On another, I don't think the tonality and composition style of the Batman stories herein really appeal to my sensibilities, and that's mostly because I've been soaked with so much New 52 stuff this year that it's probably the only version of Batman that resonates with me at this point. I'm not saying it's a good thing, however, because there are a few major criticisms that I have for New 52 about some of its long-game decisions, especially when it comes to their treatment of Batman villains and tropes.

Still, if you'll make me choose, I'd still go for the most current material and continuity. I don't think that this 70's era Batman is also something I can recommend to everyone (even if a lot of quintessential Batman elements are present here), let alone to a novice whose primary recognition of Batman might come alone from the Christopher Nolan franchise. That being said, the eleven stories featured in this collaborative work of Steve Englehart and Len Wein for Strange Apparitions is a fun-filled adventure that makes use of a roster of villains such as Dr. Phosphorous, Hugo Strange, Penguin, the Joker and Clayface. This collection also gives us Bruce Wayne's girlfriend Silver St. Cloud who I consider to be a well-written female character even if she's still subjected to certain glaring gender stereotypes back when this comic book was published.

Upon reading the first two issues of this volume, I was immensely entertained even when the narrative boxes are self-aware and cheesy in a lot of ways. I just pretend that there is an old-timey voice speaking in my head as I read. But as I progressed on, this linguistic style started to irritate me that I have to consciously block it out in order to invest myself in the stories themselves. If you don't take the prose into consideration, the stories can be very riveting, especially the way Batman does his investigative work and deduces the motivations and process of the crimes that were committed. Too often we became used to Batsy using state-of-the-art gadgetry and beating up the bad guys to a pulp. It's nice to see Batman be a detective since this is after all issues taken from Detective Comics. Another thing I liked about these stories is the way the villains are written which is thankfully composed of the right amount of sass, theatrics and snarling attitude. I will always despise Hugo Strange but his appearances for this collection didn't bother me as much as I expected.

My favorite story of the volume has to be the Joker-centered ones. If any of you read my review of The Man Who Laughs by Ed Brubaker last week, I made a startling confession there that I've been so sick to death with Jokermania. However, the story The Laughing Fish, which I first watched in Paul Dini's Batman: The Animated Series as an episode, was simply hilarious that I started to remember why the Joker is such an entertainingly diabolical villain in the first place. But my favorite aspect of Strange Apparitions has to be the character subplot concerning Silver St. Cloud and Bruce Wayne whose relationship problems were reflective and interesting enough for me to pay attention to. I like that Bruce back then can still have time for romantic relationships even if he has to put the woman he loves at arm length's. I also like that Silver is shrewd enough to figure out that Bruce Wayne is Batman; and that she's torn about telling him that she knows or keeping it all to herself and just wait for him to come around and tell her himself. Sadly, this was only a very small subplot and if an issue further tackling this plot thread was explored, it was never included for this volume. I should also mention that Dick Grayson is still Robin here although he's definitely a grown man now so seeing him in that Boy Wonder costume is pretty dorky (especially when he and Bruce started wrestling in the bat-cave like a couple of nerdy chums). You will NEVER SEE New 52, post-Nolan Bruce EVER DOING THAT so it's quite a gem to be provided by that here.

It's worth noting that 70's era Batman comics was still experiencing the aftershocks of the 60's era when the Adam West and Burt Ward show was a national phenomenon which explains the tendency for campiness in this volume. But there is depth and maturity in the stories themselves as well if you consider the content alone; yet I consider the structure and delivery to be the reason why they can be grating in some moments. However, I think I'm going to be less generous with my rating and base it on my own personal preferences. In general, if we consider its objective importance to the Bat-verse, Strange Apparitions will be a solid 8. But I will remove one star in my final verdict because it's my own prerogative to do so. This is also something I cannot recommend to novices right away but should be explored for posterity's sake no less.


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