Comic Book Review: Showcase Presents: Batman, Volume 6

Comic Book Review: Showcase Presents: Batman, Volume 6 edited by Julius Schwartz

By 1971, the Batman television show had been off the air long enough that its sales boost to the Batman and Detective Comics series had faded, and with it, the incentive to model the magazines on the show.  Bruce Wayne moved from stately Wayne Manor to a penthouse in downtown Gotham City and started a charitable organization for victims of crime.  Dick “Robin” Grayson went off to college on the other side of the state, and guest-starred infrequently.  And most of Batman’s regular rogues’ gallery took a vacation.

Showcase Presents: Batman Volume 6

This freed up space for a more somber tone, although this run certainly had its own silliness, such as a return engagement by the Ten-Eyed Man, whose optic nerves had been transplanted into his fingers.  And Two-Face made an appearance for the first official time since the 1950s.  But quite a few of the stories had Batman facing off against ordinary murderers and organized crime…as well as what appeared to be ghosts and psychic powers.

This volume covers Batman 229-236 and Detective Comics 408-416.  The first story, “Asylum of the Futurians” pits the Caped Crusader against a group of apparent lunatics who’ve captured a photographer in the mistaken belief he possesses psychic abilities that will make him their leader.  (It’s never clear that the Futurians actually have ESP; it certainly doesn’t help against Batman; but then how do you explain the sudden impulse he had to investigate the neighborhood?)

Several stories are topical to the 1970s.  Thinly veiled versions of consumer advocate Ralph Nader and “participatory journalist” George Plimpton make guest appearances.  Stories featuring youth activism and black radicals have aged poorly; the latter mixes in a police corruption subplot, the end of which supposedly fixes injustice in the legal system of Gotham City.  Batman’s platitudes towards the radicals he’s fighting/helping come off as tone-deaf.

Other stories focus on Batman as the World’s Greatest Detective, revealing at the end the one clue he noticed where the criminal slipped up.  One, taking place at a production of Macbeth, involves the literal pricking of Batman’s thumbs.

The most notable plotline was the first appearances of Ra’s al Ghul and his daughter Talia.  Talia appeared first, helping Batman bring down Dr. Damien Darrk of the League of Assassins, who had fallen out with her father.  Then Ra’s contrived a scenario where both Robin and Talia were kidnapped in order to test Batman’s fitness to marry Talia (who had fallen for Bruce) and eventually take over his shadowy empire.

As created by writer Denny O’Neil and artists Dick Giordano and Neal Adams, Ra’s al Ghul was a mastermind in the Fu Manchu style (particularly the later novels.)  He controlled a vast criminal network, but did not consider himself a criminal, but rather humanity’s eventual savior.  Over his long life, Ra’s had become convinced overpopulation was the root of all the Earth’s problems.  Therefore he was going to do something about that.

Like Fah Lo Suee before her, Talia was conflicted between loyalty to her father and the desire to jump the hero’s bones.  Ra’s respected Bruce’s intelligence and skills enough to allow them to be mated, but only if Batman accepted a place as the Demon’s Head’s heir presumptive.  And no, Batman was not impressed by the “kill most of humanity to save the rest” plan.

After several encounters, Batman decides to take down Ra’s al Ghul once and for all, assembling a small team of specialists to help.  (This was the first appearance of the Matches Malone disguise, as Batman’s attempt to recruit the hitman went awry.)  After much ado, they finally catch up to the mastermind, or rather his corpse.

Except that it turns out Ra’s has access to something called the Lazarus Pit, which allows him renewed life and vigor at the cost of temporary insanity.  (This puts a different cast on an earlier story where Talia had supposedly believed her father dead.)  Eventually, Batman and Ra’s al Ghul must duel in single combat to determine which of them shall triumph in the last story of the volume.

This is nifty stuff, with some crackerjack writing and excellent art.  On the other hand, Talia’s personality is entirely defined in this storyline by her relationships with men, and she wavers back and forth between them as the plot demands.

Overall, this is a good run of Batman, and well worth requesting for the library, or even buying if you are a big Batman fan.  (Batgirl has a couple of blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameos.)

Book Review: Ben-Hur

Book Review: Ben-Hur by Lew Wallace

Judah of the house of Hur is a handsome and wealthy seventeen-year old Judean, saddened by the death of his father, but still possessed of a wise mother and sweet sister.  He’s initially pleased when his Roman friend Messala returns to Jerusalem from several years being educated in Rome.  But Messala has learned the wrong lessons, sarcasm and arrogance, and blasphemes Judah’s deeply held religious and cultural beliefs.  The two young men quarrel.

Ben-Hur

Judah resolves to become a soldier, but this ambition is detoured when he accidentally drops a roof tile on the new Roman governor of Judea, Valerius Gratus.  Gratus, with the connivance of Messala, chooses to interpret this as an assassination attempt, seizes the Hur property, imprisons Judah’s relatives, and sentences Judah to the slave galleys for the rest of what is assumed to be a very short life, without an actual trial or legal conviction.

Three years later, The rowing and a certain amount of cleverness has turned young Judah into a physical marvel, and he catches the eye of a wealthy and prominent Roman admiral.  When he subsequently saves the admiral’s life (and it’s established he was never legally enslaved in the first place), that worthy adopts him as a son to learn Roman combat skills.

Some time later, Judah returns to the East, equipped for vengeance on those who wronged him, they who will learn to fear the man called “Ben-Hur.”  But maybe Judah isn’t actually the important character here.  Maybe he’s just a side story in “a tale of the Christ.”

This 1880 novel was a huge seller for former Union general Lew Wallace, who was governor of the New Mexico Territory at the time, and later became ambassador to the Ottoman Empire (which allowed him to actually visit the area he’d written about.)  Indeed, it became the best-selling novel of the Nineteenth Century, and one of the most influential Christian fiction titles of all time.  You may remember the 1959 movie with Charlton Heston.

So, how does it hold up?  To be honest, it’s aged badly.  The story moves at a crawl for most of the book, with pages upon pages of excessive description.  In fairness, when this was written, the reading public didn’t have years of movies and television shows to give them instant mental pictures of the exotic localities and clothing of ancient Judea, so Mr. Wallace needed to go into details of setting and costume.

Judah Ben-Hur doesn’t even show up for the first eighty pages, as we are treated to a retelling of the Nativity which focuses on the viewpoint of Balthasar, the Egyptian wise man who eventually befriends Judah.  The first chapter is actually a very good example of scene-setting, placing us in a desert in the middle of nowhere, with a white camel that has neither bridle or reins, ridden by a man who gives it no direction at all.  When the camel stops, the man prepares a tent with places for two others.  Two white camels, similarly not guided by human hand, approach from different directions to this rendezvous in the trackless desert.  Their riders dismount, and the three men greet each other with a prayer in their three native tongues–and all of them understand each other perfectly!

The second chapter reveals one of the difficulties for the modern reader, as the characters do not so much talk to each other as declaim at each other, making the dialogue a chore to get through.  On the other hand, this is about as much characterization as we get for the Three Wise Men in any adaptation, so that’s nice to have.

The section where we meet Mary, mother of Jesus, is also interesting.  Mr. Wallace takes a vague description of King David as artistic license to portray Mary as beautiful by Nineteenth Century America standards–blonde, blue-eyed, fair-skinned with delicate features.  He goes into great detail about her face, her clothing, her movements and speech…and never once mentions in the narration or in dialogue that she’s nine months pregnant at the time.  There’s just suddenly a baby a couple of chapters later that she claims to be the mother of.

I should point out that despite the archaic nature of the writing, there is a good story going on here that was lifted out for the movies.  If the reader is patient, there is much to enjoy.

One plotline that didn’t make the 1959 movie is the existence of Ben-Hur’s other love interest, Iras.  She’s the daughter of Balthasar (he presumably married late in life; there’s no mention of her mother), beautiful, musically gifted, learned in poetry and capable of acting on her own initiative.  She makes a good contrast to Daddy’s girl Esther, who is more modest and self-effacing, and Iras takes an early lead in the romantic triangle.

However, Iras’ motivation is largely based on the notion that the Jewish Messiah will be an earthly king that Judah will serve, and become powerful thereby.  The notion of a spiritual savior, so dear to her father Balthasar, doesn’t appeal.  So when Jesus turns out to be more the latter than the former, Iras falls back to her other interests.

This is pretty much Bible fanfiction, so those who don’t like “God-talk” or having a Christian viewpoint forced on them are likely to dislike this book.  Some readers might see homoeroticism in certain passages, as Judah is so handsome that even other men notice, and Messala outright uses classical allusion to hint he’s attracted.

All that said, this is an important and influential book; if you’re willing to put up with its difficulties.  On the other hand, you could just watch the movies for the chariot race.

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