Sunday, March 15, 2009

The Colors, the colors....

And now for something completely different. Not the content of the comics reviewed, though they're certainly different from the usual line of major character stories that are part and parcel of an ongoing story with endless plot threads and convoluted character involvements. No, the different of particular note for this post is that I've been to happy hour first, so coherence should not be sought out here.

What am I writing about? Oh, just the best anthology of a major superhero character in the last, say 30 years. Forty? Eh, best I can remember, anyway. And not a dollop of color to be found in the telling ,too. Well, almost. The covers of issues 2 and 3 have some red, but that's about it.

That's right, today's selection from the Comics Cabinet is Batman Black and White. Published in 1996, this may be the last anthology book I've bought. Anthology not being my favorite, the only onther one I can think of is Kitchen Sink's Bizzare Sex, which I only bought for the Omaha the Cat Dancer stories. Oh, and there's also the great Dark Horse Presents, but that's been gone awhile and I stopped buying it well before it ended. In fact, I think I bought it primarily for the Concrete and Sin City stories. So, unless you count the old Marvel What If... line or Elseworlds, I haven't bought be so much in anthology books.

But this is a different kind of anthology than What If... or Elseworlds, which were mostly one, sometimes two, stories of a particular character or set of characters. Each issue of Batman Black and White contained 5 eight page stories by various writers and artists. I'm talking the original limited series only here, not the subsequent back up stories that appeared in Batman Gotham Knights (I think that was the title).

These stories featured such talents as Bruce Timm, Joe Kubert, Howard Chaykin, Archie Goodwin, Walter Simonson, Jan Strnad, Chuck Dixon, Neil Gaiman, Klaus Janson, Matt Wagner, Bill Sienkiewicz, Dennis O'Neil, and Brian Bolland, to name a few. Hell, the covers by Alex Toth, Barry Windsor-Smith, Frank Miller and Jim Lee are worth the price of admission alone, but there were also inside covers and back covers by various notable and sundry artists. What's more, there was nary an add throughout.

The stories were, being only 8 pages each, tightly focused. They played off of known qualities of Batman, though sometimes Batman didn't appear at all, or only tangentially, in the story. Quite simply this is some of the finest and most concise Batman story tellilng ever. None of it's within continuity or the least bit concerned about continuity. Each story is solely about telling a good story. Sure, some are better than others, but they're all good in one way or another.

As always, I seem to discover something new in re-reading these older books, even though this one's only about 13 years old. The cover of issue 4 really reminds me of Matt Wagner's art. It's not. It's Alex Toth, but there's certainly a lot of resemblance between them. For a not so much into the art guy like myself, this is something of a revelation.

Aside from the covers, it's nice to see the strength of the individual artists without color. Color is a good thing in comics, of course, but at times it either disguieses weaknesses or detracts from strengths in the pencils. These books showcase the strenghts of the many artists involved.

To a significant degree this is what I'd like to see from all comics, super hero or otherwise. Strong stories and strong art telling good stories without care or concern for continuity. Keep the essential characteristics of the characters but don't worry about whether it fits within a grander whole. Tell your story and when you run out of story, let someone else come in and tell a story with the character. Obviously, in creator owned books with one or two creators with a long story to tell you have a certain continuity and a necessity for it. But with a company owned character with a defined set of characteristics, this kind of flexibility allows for substantially more creativity, and, as a consequence, substantially better stories, in my opinion. And they don't even have to be in black and white to achieve that.

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