EXCLUSIVE: Warren Ellis Brings "Genius Storytelling" to Dynamite's "James Bond 007"
I’m almost done with the flashbacks! So let’s get to this controversial selection – maybe I’ll convince you to give it a chance!
DC, 12 issues (#801-808; 811-814), cover dated February – September 2005; November 2005 – February 2006.
SPOILERS abound, I should note.
I was somewhat reticent about claiming these comics as Ones You Should Own. When people talk about the excessive “grim-‘n’-gritty” nature of Batman comics in the past 20 years, they could be talking about these twelve issues exclusively. These are bleak comics, to be sure. There is only one glimmer of hope throughout the entire run, and that gets snuffed out on the last few pages. These are not comics you want to read for fun.
But don’t we read comics for fun? Well, not all of them. We read them for various reasons, and these comics should be read. Put simply, these are terrifying comic books. That’s not something you often associate with a Batman comic book, although there’s no reason why it shouldn’t be. I mentioned in my last column that not enough writers use supernatural elements in Batman books, and not enough writers scare us in Batman books. Lapham has written a book that is scary and unnerving and freaks you out. It’s an uncomfortable experience reading these books, because we are confronted with a Batman that we don’t recognize, and it bothers us. This story disturbs us, but it remains compelling. We are trying to get through it and figure out how Batman (and Robin with Jim Gordon) are going to survive a truly horrific experience. The truth is, Batman loses even though, ostensibly, he wins. “City of Crime” (as the story is called) is a gripping read because it is unlike almost anything we’ve read in a Batman comic before. It is terrifying on two levels – the threat of the Body, which is slowly taking over Gotham City by replacing the citizens with creatures that look human but are made from dirt, is a creepy and malevolent force, while what drives Batman is a promise he made to a mother to find her kidnapped daughter, and as each issue passes, we’re less sure that he will succeed. These two stories, running side by side and interweaving with each other, keep us on edge throughout the entire run, building our sense of fear slowly but inexorably.
Lapham is famous (if “famous” is the correct word) for Stray Bullets, which I have not read [Edit: I now have read some of it, but not all; and Virginia Applejack gets a mention in this story, so that’s kind of cool]. If it is like these twelve issues, though, I may have to, because Lapham shows a remarkable grasp of the idea of Gotham City and what makes a noir classic. In the tradition of other great Batman writers, he makes Gotham a character in the book, and she is not necessarily a friendly character. Gotham in “City of Crime” is not overtly evil, but it does take on a strange personality, which Lapham insinuates is because its oldest building was a madhouse, something that is less than subtle but still interesting. Gotham has often been portrayed as someplace where the insane congregate, but Lapham suggests that it is more than the insane simply coming to the city, but that the city has an active role in making people insane. The Joker lurks throughout this entire story, even though he does not show up (the Penguin and Mr. Freeze show up, and Scarface and the Ventriloquist play a central role). The Joker’s insanity has been linked to the city in subtle ways before, but it has never (as far as I know) been suggested that he became insane because he lived in Gotham. As we read further and delve deeper into the “City of Crime,” Lapham begins to suggest that it is the very bricks and mortar and neighborhoods of Gotham that drive normal men to insanity. The central figure of the Body’s plot is an insane man, Crazy Jeffrey, who may or may not know exactly what he is doing to the city. Lapham leaves unanswered the question of how much influence this “insanity vortex” of Gotham has had on our hero. He’s not the first to suggest that Batman is less than sane, and he never does it overtly, but the suggestion is there, especially when Batman goes undercover in the neighborhood of Crown Point, which is the focus of the Body’s work. These few issues, when Batman is absent and Bruce Wayne, in disguise, tries to discover what is going on, are the most disturbing issues of a regular Batman comic you might ever read. He goes undercover in issue #807 but the truly frightening issues are #808 and #811-812, when he almost loses himself in the disguise and must find his way back out. It is a portrayal of Batman that jars us, because it is a Batman who is afraid, something we have almost never seen. This Batman must confront his fears directly, not in dreams of his parents’ murder (although, like most people who write the character, Lapham makes reference to that). He must feel the fear that the citizens of Crown Point live with every day and overcome it, and we’re not entirely sure he will be able to. The only way, really, that he does overcome it is because there is a damsel in distress, and her husband, with whom the disguised Bruce has been staying, thinks Bruce and his wife are having an affair. Through action (stopping Raffi from beating his wife, Siran), Bruce is able to regain his edge. It’s an ugly portrayal of Batman, but an effective one. When Batman is forced to defend the innocent, he is able to push past his fear and regain control. But it is only when he goes on autopilot that he can. His vaunted self-control has failed him, otherwise.
The effectiveness of Lapham’s story rests in this feeling of despair we get while we read it, and despite that feeling, wanting to read more. Lapham throws us right into the fire in the first issue, when he relies heavily on the omniscient narrator to tell us what we are seeing. He uses this “voice of God” captioning a lot in the book, and although it might get annoying if used for too long, in these issues it works, because Batman is an impersonal force who remains aloof from us. We cannot be allowed to experience his fear and pain on a personal level, because Lapham implies that it is too horrible for us to handle. Therefore, the omniscient narrator stands in and allows us to watch as Batman goes through this hell without allowing us to be dragged down with him. We are also allowed to feel his bitter triumphs, as at the end of issue #804, when a myriad number of masked dirt creatures are descending upon him: “Right now, he is surrounded by a score of unknown enemies … Right now, he is grinning. Finally, men he can feel good about hitting.” Batman would never voice these twisted pleasurable thoughts aloud, and therefore we can’t “listen” to his thoughts on the matter. The narrator, however, knows Batman’s deepest desires, including the thrill that comes from violence, and the line, which is the last in the book, hits us with greater force. But the despair is still there, more so than usual in Batman comics. If Batman, Gotham City’s hero, can feel such perverse pleasure in violence when his life is framed by such violence, what hope do we have? In issue #808, Bruce’s despair comes to the surface as he goes undercover at Raffi’s construction site and insinuates himself into the foreman’s life. He follows Raffi to a bar and sees him meeting a man “who smiles more than people should.” This man is the Face of the Body (not the Body itself) and Bruce follows him to the park at the center of Crown Point. As the smiling man enters the park, Bruce hesitates and the narrator tells us his thoughts: “Will it matter? Will the people of Gotham care? Will it make their lives better? It’s overwhelming. So much suffering here. So much. He never makes it across the street. Tonight, the park will fill his sleep with nightmares. Tomorrow, it will be forgotten.” Bachs’ full-page shot of Bruce, head down, defeated, walking away from the park as the text scrolls around him is a powerful image of a hero who has been defeated. It is really at this point that Lapham’s epic takes on its stature, because prior to this is was simply a chilling story, but now it has become one man’s struggle to regain his soul. If Bruce can’t regain his strength, what hope do the rest of Gotham’s citizens have?
Tying into this attempt to regain a soul is what makes the book so scary, and that is the question of identity. Identity is always present in superhero comics and in a great deal of literature as well, because it is something we can relate to but can also make for powerful drama. Bruce, of course, must fight to keep his identity and move past a force that is trying to deny it to him, but that’s not the only important point Lapham wants to make. Gotham City’s identity is in question throughout the book, as Batman struggles to understand what is happening to his city and if she welcomes it. This ties back into the possibility of the city being an evil entity and whether Batman’s true war is against the very stones of the town. Lapham implies that it is, as he ends his story, not on a high note, but with a sad scene in an apartment in Gotham and finally, a Bosch-like full-page drawing by Bachs of the city, dark spires of modernity in the background, hauntingly similar to jagged teeth, while in the foreground, the neighborhoods of Gotham sprawl like a medieval town, packed together with no rhyme or reason. Over this image Lapham’s words remind us that Gotham is the real enemy: “They don’t see her like this. No one sees her like this until it’s too late.” No matter what Batman does, the city prevails. Its identity remains strong, even though Batman has thwarted the latest attempt to remake her. The Body is never clearly defined, but one thing we do know about it is that the Smiling Man, as its emissary, is replacing the citizens of Gotham with creatures of dirt. This is where the problem of identity becomes acute and gets into our heads and unsettles us. Throughout the book allies of the Body realize that people they know have been replaced, but they ignore it. The mayor’s advisor, Norman Steiner, thinks the changes in his wife are wonderful – she lost weight, cooks, and is a hellcat in bed. But not everything is perfect: “Sometimes, late at night, his mind drifts and he wonders how he got so lucky. And sometimes, he wonders how his wife got a half foot taller. At those times, he makes himself a martini and goes back to sleep.” Frank Ivers, the unlikely hero of the story, is a crooked cop who is investigating the disappearance of a girl named Cassie Welles, the crime which touches off the entire epic. He and his partner, Elliot Lynch, visit Cassie’s mother and Ivers rudely tells her they will probably not find Cassie. Lynch thinks Ivers has lost it, so Ivers calls someone to take care of it. He thinks “they” will simply talk to Lynch, but instead they kill him and his family and replace them. It’s then that Ivers realizes that he has allied himself with something far more evil than he thought. Ivers and Lynch find Cassie, but Batman discovers that it’s simply a dirt facsimile. Lynch gets the call that Batman is coming to the Welles’ apartment while he and Ivers are there, and his orders are to kill them all. Ivers comes to his senses and tries to stop Lynch, but gets shot. Batman gives Cassie’s mother enough time to grab Ivers’ gun and shoot Lynch in the head. This one small act of redemption for Ivers means that he is able to regain that small piece of his soul he was selling away. It comes in issue #806, which is the end of the first part of the story. Batman realizes he needs to go undercover in Crown Point to get to the bottom of the mystery, while Ivers is taken to the hospital, where his drama will intersect with Robin’s and Jim Gordon’s and he will spiral into madness. Lapham wants us to consider how we would feel if we were uncertain of the identities of those around us. Ivers is an ugly individual, but he remains, at his core, human. Gotham has sucked the nobility out of his soul, but when he is faced with a choice, he makes the right one. Later, in the hospital, he makes an even better choice.
The hospital scenes, which begin in issue #808 and continue to the end of the story, frighten us not only because of the problem with identity – the Body is slowly replacing the policemen in and around the hospital – but because of the claustrophobic nature of the action. The idea of a small band holding out against a large group of attackers is a standard theme in entertainment, and Lapham uses it effectively. Robin is at the hospital because Arnold Wesker – the Ventriloquist – is there, in a coma. The Ventriloquist is one of the villains that the Body used to slowly infiltrate Gotham’s underworld, and he knows a great deal about this new, weird threat to the city. In another unsettling scene, Batman and Robin track down the Ventriloquist on his yacht after agents of the Body have already been there, and Wesker lies on the ground, bleeding from a wound in his head, while Scarface – his Edward G. Robinson puppet – rambles on and fires an empty gun. Wesker is alive only through his puppet. Once Bruce goes undercover, Robin goes to the hospital to guard Wesker. At the same hospital is Frank Ivers, recovering from his gunshot wound, and eventually, another patient shows up – Crazy Jeffrey from the neighborhood of Crown Point. I’ll get back to him. Ivers, not surprisingly, trusts no one, and he freaks out, only to have Robin take him down. Robin realizes he’s a bit out of his depth, especially when the Body’s policemen show up to kill Ivers and the Ventriloquist once and for all, so he calls in Jim Gordon. This sets up the final showdown at the hospital. In issue #811, Crazy Jeffrey infects the Crown Point neighborhood with paranoia and despair, and Bruce, disguised, watches as Raffi stops him by breaking his neck. Unfortunately for those in the hospital, Jeffrey is not dead, and when he arrives there at the end of the issue, the insanity is transferred from Crown Point. In issue #813, Robin, Gordon, and Ivers, plus two honest cops helping protect the Ventriloquist, begin to feel the fear that Crazy Jeffrey brings, and they see visions of terror that cause them to become hysterical. Robin watches as Scarface gets off the gurney and begins to walk toward him. Gordon sees the Joker, and becomes enraged because of what he did to his daughter. He and Robin pursue each other down into the hospital, leaving Ivers and Wesker behind. With nothing left to live for, Ivers wanders through the halls, coming closer to the center of the fear – Crazy Jeffrey. Lapham doesn’t give us a good answer as to why Ivers is drawn to Jeffrey – the narration says, “The endless depths of self pity are drawing him here,” “here” being where Jeffrey lies on an operating table, with all the doctors and nurses dead around him. “Self pity” isn’t really a good enough reason why Ivers is able to find the source of the fear, but Lapham implies it is because Ivers, like Jeffrey, who was once a rich lawyer before he disappeared and showed up in Crown Point, was once a noble man who gave away his soul and is now closer to Jeffrey than he is to “sane” men. Ivers has gone too far for redemption, but he can, unlike Batman, who is at the same moment fighting thousands of the Body’s creatures, find the source of the fear and insanity because he is so close to it himself. When he does, the narrator tells us, “Twenty-two years of cleaning the filth off the street. Clearing the red ink off the board. He deserved his piece. Earned that little extra. What did it get him? Divorce. A dead son. A dead partner. Now, he’s all alone.” Ivers has been destroyed by the city, and he has nothing left except a tiny shred of dignity, which he uses to overcome the almost crippling fear he feels and kill Crazy Jeffrey. In that instant, he saves the city, as everyone – Robin and Jim Gordon included – wake up from their own personal nightmares. Ivers, however, cannot wake up, and he turns the gun on himself. In the end, he is a hero, but a hero who could only do what he had to because he no longer had a soul. It’s a difficult conclusion to the story, because it allows us no feeling of triumph. Batman still fights the dirt creatures across the city. He must be a hero as well, even though the hard part has been accomplished.
One of the reasons why this is such an interesting story is because the central figure of the Batman fails so often. Despite Ivers’ murder of Crazy Jeffrey that finally ends the threat of the Body, despite Batman’s final battle against the hordes of the Body and the destruction of the Gotham Waterfront Project, “the cancerous heart of the city,” he fails. If we return to the beginning of the story, Bruce Wayne really sets the plot in motion. He shows up at a gala to celebrate the groundbreaking of the new waterfront project, which he did not invest in and which has morphed from an area of low-income housing for those displaced by the Gotham earthquake into a tony mall and arts center that will bring even more money to the city’s elite. At this party he meets Haddie McNeil, a spoiled fourteen-year-old who flirts with men triple her age. Haddie flirts with Bruce, too, and in one crucial panel, he smiles at her. The narration says he “instantly regrets it.” She feels like she can flirt with Bruce, but he feels nothing but disgust for her, even though he knows he should pity her. On the very next page after their tête-à-tête, Batman stands over her dead body, a needle protruding from her arm, her tongue lolling out of her mouth and eyes rolled back in her head. It’s a horrible image, but worse is what Batman is thinking: “He should have remembered. She was like him. Like him but not like him. She broke. And he broke her.” At the party Bruce had told her to stop pretending to be something other than she was, and later, looking at her dead body, he realizes how close they were – his parents were dead, and hers might as well have been, since they were never around. She didn’t have the will to survive, but that’s no reason to condemn her. In that one panel, we see a Batman who has failed, but more importantly, we see a Bruce Wayne who has failed as a human being, something very few writers are willing to examine. Batman can and does fail, but Bruce is always a paragon of virtue. Lapham, unlike other writers who separate the two personae (sometimes to very good effect) allows Batman’s contempt for weakness to color Bruce’s compassion for orphans, which is what Haddie really is. This failure drives him forward throughout the book. At the end of this issue, he and Robin are about to enter a burning building to rescue the occupants. In the apartment building are six pregnant girls who are being held hostage, and five of them die in the fire. The girls are part of a crime ring run by the Penguin and Mr. Freeze in conjunction with the Body, but they remain a bit of a red herring. At the same time, however, Marlene, the mother of Cassie Welles, who has disappeared, goes to the media to condemn the police for not doing enough to find her daughter. She wants to know if Cassie was one of the girls who died in the fire, and her press conference starts a media storm and starts the dominos falling. It’s fascinating to read and re-read this story, because it is, ultimately, very tightly plotted, and we can see how small things set other things in motion that lead Batman to the Body and what has been happening to his city. He even makes the point to Robin that “there’s something larger at work here” – something he should have noticed, but didn’t. The disappearance of Cassie Welles sets it all going forward. Interestingly, Lapham leaves us a few clues (not many) about Cassie’s fate. When we first see her mother chopping vegetables in her apartment, the narration tells us she “thinks about Robbie. And not about Henry, her husband of sixteen years. And not about Cassie, her daughter of sixteen years. Her darling Cassie who thought she was in love. And made the same mistake she did … Now her beautiful Cassie is gone. And she’s not coming back. She doesn’t think about that.” Batman goes to her apartment at the end of the issue and promises to find Cassie. He must find her, to assuage his guilt over ignoring Haddie and not saving the five pregnant girls from the fire. But that promise will haunt him.
His investigation leads back to the crime ring of the Penguin. Cassie was pregnant when she disappeared, so he tracks the babies. This leads him to a black market adoption scheme catering to the rich elite of Gotham. This leads him to the Body, who is running the show and trying to cover up all their tracks. Even when he goes undercover and enters Crown Point, he never forgets Cassie. When he tries to enter the park in issue #812, the guilt he feels for failing Haddie and not finding Cassie knocks him unconscious, and it is only when he rescues Siran from her abusive husband, as I mentioned, that he snaps out of it. The action brings him back to his senses, and the Batman mask and outfit, which he gets at the end of the issue, allow him to overcome his still-present fears when he finally does enter the park on the final page. In issue #813 he sees visions of Cassie’s mother and Haddie, but he has finally been able to realize that guilt and fear are simply emotions, crippling in their way, but able to be overcome. Bruce and his disguise are gone, and only the Batman remains. It allows him to penetrate the darkest part of the park and go down underground, where he comes across the city’s original building – a church that became a madhouse. Again, Lapham isn’t being terribly subtle, but the way he has built the story up until this point means that we can accept his heavy-handed metaphor. Inside, Batman finally meets the Smiling Man – Mr. Friendly – who tells him that he will answer three questions. Batman says, “I have no questions. I already know where Cassie Welles is.” This is a hero who has overcome the worst Gotham could throw at him and cares only about justice now, because he can find the answers on his own. Mr. Friendly laughs and tells him that he thinks he has found the head, but the Smiling Man is not it. He pulls his own head off and leaves Batman with no answers. But Batman doesn’t care about that anymore. He knows that the agents of the Body are waiting for him, and he knows that he will have to fight them all. The mayor turned on the Bat signal to trap Batman, and the thousands of dirt creatures are waiting in the shadows for him to arrive. At the beginning of the final issue of the run, Batman stands majestically on a building as the narrator tells us, “He could pick them off. Break them in two before they were aware of his presence. But his city has gone astray. She must be put in her place. A show is required. A big show.” Again, the idea of Gotham as an entity is brought up, and rarely before has the idea of Batman possessing the city been so pronounced. He always calls it his city, which is why other heroes get the brush-off, but it’s rare that the relationship between the two is examined so closely. As Frank Ivers kills Crazy Jeffrey and the city is released from its fear, Batman leads the dirt creatures to the Gotham Waterfront Project, which he has rigged with bombs. When they are all there, the bombs go off, destroying the remnants of the Body once and for all and ruining the wealthy financiers who allied themselves with such an unholy being. Lapham adds just a small touch of doubt to the whole story, however, when Norman Steiner breaks from his fog and murders his wife in front of reporters and the mayor’s supporters. He straddles her, holding a corkscrew, as her body turns to dirt. The narration, however, tells us that “the main thing they’ll all remember is the blood. Buckets and buckets of blood. Even though there wasn’t any blood.” Was Norman’s wife really a creature of the Body? Was everyone in the city gripped by hallucinations and the Body never existed? Did Batman murder hundreds of actual people rather than dirt creatures? The questions go unanswered, and they add to the level of unease we get when we read the story.
Lapham never forgets the fate of Cassie Welles, either. The final nail in the coffin of “City of Crime” is that Cassie isn’t all right. Batman has failed even her. But she has nothing to do with the Body. Marlene Welles killed her in a fit of rage, when she found out that Cassie was pregnant and about to leave home. It’s a small disappointment that we don’t find out how Batman knew, but Marlene confesses it all. She wanted to protect her son from learning the truth, but Batman knows that justice has to come first. He tells her that Robbie, her son, will be okay, but he knows it’s a lie. This leads into the final page I’ve already quoted, in which Gotham is the ultimate victor. Lapham leaves us with nothing really to feel good about except that Batman, Robin, Gordon, and Frank Ivers managed to keep the city from becoming even worse than it already is. The city returns to “normal,” which means instead of a place where the terror can be identified and dealt with, it becomes much more sinister and vague. The last lines of this epic are “The madwoman’s eyes gleam and spin. She smiles a toothless smile.” When the city itself is insane, can Batman do much to alleviate it? No writer has ever tried to make this kind of statement about the city and Batman’s relationship to it before. Many writers have set up Gotham as being beyond hope, but the nature of superhero comics means that they always allow the reader to believe Batman can make a difference. Lapham isn’t interested in that. He wants to examine why a man would fight so hard for something that is hopeless. Batman fails in this story, but his failure illuminates once again why he is a hero. He fails but never quits. He fails, but realizes that there is always someone else who needs saving. He fails to save Haddie McNeil, or Cassie Welles, or the girls in the apartment building, but he does save the girl that Mr. Freeze kidnaps and plans to “marry,” and he does save Siran, Raffi’s wife. Sometimes it’s not what you set out to do that matter, it’s what you do along the way that counts. Gotham City triumphs in the end, but Batman will fight on, because even at his lowest, he is able to rescue some people from their fate. And one person saved is worth it.
I have failed to mention Ramon Bachs and Nathan Massengill a lot, as usual with me, since I am not an artist. I had never heard of Bachs prior to this story, but his art is transcendant throughout the story. His Batman is a mythic figure, cloaked in shadows and always present, as in the first few pages of the epic, when we don’t see Batman but we see the marks of his passing, letting the citizens know that he is everywhere. Bachs uses Lapham’s story to create a cast of dozens, each with a distinct look and personality. He’s not flashy, but he still handles the action scenes well, especially the big set pieces toward the end – Robin and Gordon’s flight through the hospital, during which he helps out the claustrophobic feel of the narrative by using lots of close-ups of the terror-stricken participants, and in the final fight between Batman and the dirt creatures over the rooftops of Gotham, where the city almost becomes part of the battle. He is excellent at portraying emotion, too – a key in a story about emotion. The fear the Gothamites feel is the chief emotion, naturally, and Bachs does wonders with body language and facial expressions, even when we’re looking at Bruce in disguise from behind as he confronts the park in issue #812. Though we can’t see his face, we feel his terror, and it’s largely through the way Bachs draws him – his stance is less than defiant, his fists that were clenched are looser as he struggles to cope, and his head is raised in awe of the darkness that lurks deep within the trees. Bachs draws other emotions well, too, from Ivers’ horror at his partner being replaced and his regret at a career thrown away, to Haddie’s flirtatiousness and her teenage uncertainty with that flirting, even to Robin’s boredom when he’s guarding the Ventriloquist in the hospital (an expression he soon loses, of course). “City of Crime” rests on Bachs’ shoulders as much as it does Lapham’s, and both acquit themselves wonderfully.
These twelve issues are not pleasant to read. They expose the lie of Batman and his fight against crime, and they make us wonder more about the sanity of a man who would do this to himself. Batman remains an enigma to us, because we can’t fathom what drives him. The murder of his parents, ultimately, isn’t enough. His motivations are always unclear, but Lapham is more than willing to show that he may not be completely in control of his actions. Gotham wants the Batman to exist so she can torment him. She allows him petty victories like the one over the Body, but even though he feels that he has taken back his city, we know better. She remains a “City of Crime” and will always be so. Although it has to rank as one of the bleakest Batman stories of all time, Lapham’s epic is also one of the most intriguing and devastatingly honest. Batman saves people almost by accident, and fails to save those he really wants to. The city is unmoved, and unchanging. It is a difficult read, but a rewarding one, and it challenges us to delve deeper into Batman’s psyche than we really want to. There’s a trade of the entire run, and I encourage you to check it out. You may be unnerved, but you won’t be disappointed.
Look at those archives, almost finished and all! How cute!
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