Pop Culture Gadabout
Friday, December 01, 2006
      ( 12/01/2006 02:31:00 PM ) Bill S.  

"THE JOKE IS THAT BATMAN NEVER LAUGHS!" – That DC would inaugurate its new monthly series of comics featuring Will Eisner's "The Spirit" with a one-shot Batman/Spirit team-up may make marketing sense (even among many American comics readers, Eisner's Sunday supplement hero is more known as a piece of comics history rather than a vibrant character – while everybody knows the Batman), though it's up for grabs whether the end results actually work as a satisfactory introduction to Denny Colt & Friends. As scripted by Jeph Loeb and penciller Darwyn Cooke (the primary creative force behind DC's upcoming solo Spirit comic), "Crime Convention" centers on a plot cooked up by Spirit nemesis, the perpetually unseen Octopus, to attack a Police Benevolent Association gathering in Hawaii. Lots of Batman and Spirit villains partake in said scheme – with femmes fatale Poison Ivy and P'Gell swapping burgs, locking onto the police commissioners from Central and Gotham City and casting 'em both under their respective spells. Turns out Commissioners Gordon and Dolan know each other, of course, though neither one apparently has time to read up on the villainesses plaguing each other's city. And so poor Jim Gordon is seduced by that merry black widow P'Gell, while Dolan is sealed with a kiss from Poison Ivy.

Meanwhile, back in their respective cities, Batman and the Spirit have taken note of the sudden migration of every "big-time crook" in their stomping grounds. Separately deducing that this new criminal alliance (which calls itself Friends of the World) is headed toward Hawaii, our heroes show up to try and quash the plan, though in the end it's the criminals' proclivity for double-crossing each other (why anyone would willfully attempt an alliance with the Joker is beyond me) that ultimately does 'em in. As in many of the Eisner "Spirit" stories – particularly the later ones – the heroes exist more to mop up afterwards than to actually prevent a crime from being committed.

Though some effort is made to connect the two lead heroes' worlds in this book (during a speech to the PBA gathering, Commissioner Gordon notes the similarities between Gotham and Central City: "We both have a colorful gallery of rogues who seem to think they are above the law . . . and we both have a costumed vigilante who shares in the hard work while creating more than his fair share of headaches"), Loeb & Cooke wind up tweaking both series' casts to get 'em to work together. Thus, we get a Robin who speaks like the character in the 60's era teevee campfest ("Holy, torpedo, Batman!") and a P'Gell who is a much less ambiguous villainess than she was in the Eisner stories. (One of the great things about Eisner's version of the character was the way she managed to dance around responsibility for the deaths of her short-lived wealthy husbands – here, she's much less slippery.) Neither shift does much for either series of characters, though I've gotta admit that the flattening of one of Eisner's great comic seductresses is a bit more worrisome if it's meant to provide a glimpse into the way that Cooke'll be treating the monthly comic.

For, despite Commissioner Gordon's words, "The Spirit" has less to do with a "colorful gallery of rogues" (contrast the number of quickly recognizable Eisner villains in this book with the number of Batman baddies: aside from the vulture-bedecked Mister Carrion, there really aren't that many in Eisner's universe) than it does a cast of urban schmoes and wise-guys who are more likely to have backed into a life of crime than actively pursued it. The great "Spirit" stories were seven- and eight-page nuggets focused around little guys who turn to violence because they lack the imagination to come up with a better solution. They weren't about elaborate larger-than-life killing schemes. Though Eisner wasn't above giving us an occasional mad scientist or criminal mastermind, the stories we most remember are the microcosmic ones like "Ten Minutes," where a neighborhood kid foolishly attempts to rob a soda fountain and it all goes wrong in the amount of time it takes to read the seven-pager.

Cooke's art (inked by J. Bone, who I mainly remember from a Jingle Belle comic) is, admittedly, a kick. But in terms of atmospherics, it's probably closer to the work produced during WWII by the Eisner Shop when the man himself was in the service than the (admittedly assisted) Sunday supplements he created back from the war. We see little of Eisner's baroque Gregg Toland-influenced camera angles or the shadowy, drippy urban backdrops, though a sequence where both our heroes duke it out in a dark room filled with Hawaiian totems is a step in the right direction. Cooke & Bone are more successful with the small comic character bits (also a draw in Eisner's original): some choice irrelevant gags playing different villains off each other; an amusing scene where Barbara Gordon meets her dad's new girlfriend, P'Gell, for the first time; a shot of Denny Colt eyeing the streetlight that has snagged his coat. The book's cover is cute, too: a variation on the Batman-Faces-Off-Against-His-Co-Star cover, showing the Caped Crusader as his usual scowling self, while the Spirit smirks knowingly from his half of the frame. (A quick irrelevant movie thought: wouldn't Ben Affleck have worked better as Denny Colt than he did Matt Murdock?) It tells us almost as much about both leads as we get from the entire story, which may, unfortunately, be part of the problem . . .
# |

Pop cultural criticism - plus the occasional egocentric socio/political commentary by Bill Sherman (popculturegadabout AT yahoo.com).

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