Robot 6

Greatest Comic of All Time | Batman

The greatest comics of all time don’t appear on bestseller charts or canon lists or big-box bookstore shelves.  They are the property of the back issue bins and thrift store crates and convention tables of America, living like the medium itself in the unseen crags and pockets of publishing history…

Batman, by Josh Simmons.  Dated 2006-’07.  Self-published.

Best single image:

Hard to argue with this comic’s screenprinted cover drawing, actually…

Suggested soundtrack to this comic: This

How acquired: I just walked into the comic shop one day and found a copy of this one, disappointing anecdote as that may be.  Of course, it’s a little more interesting than that — I’d been reading about this comic for a long, long time and always just assumed I’d never get a chance to own it in real life.  An illegal bootleg Batman comic made without permission or oversight from the Dark Knight’s corporate masters at Time Warner, only a few hundred copies were ever printed.  The only one I’d seen in person before snatching the one I now own up resided under glass in a back room at a comic shop I’d worked at, and my desire to see what was inside only grew every time I saw it after reading Simmons’ fantastic feature-length interview in The Comics Journal #291.  The only reason I was ever able to get one is probably that I shopped for a few years at the same store in Los Angeles that Simmons himself did.

The history lesson: There’s more of one than you’d expect for a comic that’s barely five years old.  As I’ve said, Batman was originally released as a limited-run bootleg print comic that did most of its sales by mail order and might as well have had “connoisseur’s choice” spray-painted on its cover.  After gaining no small amount of notoriety in that form, it got a second life as a free webcomic, which I have to imagine got the story more reads than the printed version ever could have.  Then after being mysteriously removed from the internet, it emerged in slightly altered form (retitled Mark of the Bat with a few small dialogue alterations for legal reasons) onto its most prominent stage yet, as part of the recent Fantagraphics collection of Simmons’ ultra-disturbing horror comics work The Furry Trap.  The real “comics history” that Batman forms a crucial chapter in is that of the bootleg superhero comic, a 21st century breed of comic if there ever was one.  Simmons’ book is part slash fiction and part underground comics, wearing the danger that unsanctioned takes on corporate characters always carry right on its sleeve.

Why it’s the greatest comic of all time: Batman isn’t just the best of the recent crop of bootleg superhero minis by prominent alternative-comics creators, it’s also the best entry another prominent new comics genre, superhero deconstruction, has seen since Watchmen, the one that started it all.  Simmons’ entrenched stylistic identity as an alt-comics guy is a huge part of what makes this book work.  Unlike the crop of mainstream horror-comics writers who’ve made careers out of stealing scenes from horror movies that even my mother has seen, Simmons learned to make genuinely scary comics by trial and error, over years and years of scratching away at the same basic apocalypse scenarios and learning a bit more about what to do and what not to do every time.  Make no mistake: Batman has superheroes, but it’s first and foremost a horror comic about the terrifying reality of vigilante justice, and how the moral choices underpinning all superhero comics are ones only a sociopath would actually make.

Simmons’ art is key to the fully realized world he manages to build up in just sixteen pages.  Relying heavily on readers’ previous impressions of Batman’s visual milieu, this comic adds just the right amount of true darkness to the gothic soundstages we’re used to seeing these characters prance across.  Pitched somewhere between the stylings of alt-comics greats like Chester Brown and Tony Millionaire and the crude expressionism of the nightmarish earliest Batman comics, Simmons’ deep-shadowed black and white drawings nail Gotham City from the first panel with an accuracy that few others have managed.  Batman’s world under Simmons’ pen feels both like a real modern city in the advanced stages of urban decay (see also: Detroit, Cleveland, Mexico City), and a Tim Burton dreamscape built by artists and madmen sometime long ago.  None of the illustrative polish and sheen that’s snuck into superhero art since the advent of digital photo-referencing is present here: there is only black ink on paper, approximations of the human figure that do little more than crouch and punch and curl up in corners.

This is the last Batman comic, the story of where the character’s lunatic drive and willingness to violate the law for justice inevitably ends up.  It’s Batman gone rogue, divorced from the regular human contact that keeps him sane, possessed by the idea that it’s become necessary to identify criminals before they can commit crimes, inventing a new bat-gadget to help him do just that.  This comic’s action is the same thrown punches in dark alleys that all the best Batman stories trade in, and it depicts a Batman who walks the same line between true vision and madness that Frank Miller and Doug Moench and Grant Morrison and Alan Moore have all set him on — but here both the character’s actions and the creator’s outlook put him on the wrong side of the equation, finally gone too far, fallen into the abyss he’s gazed on for the better part of a century.  Batman is incredibly violent comics (though crucially, not worse than some of the ones DC has put the character in), but the violence here is far from entertaining.  It hits like real violence does, as something that shouldn’t be happening, and by forcing the audience to recognize it as such, it casts our gaze back from Simmons’ bootleg onto all the “real” Batman comics we’ve read.  There’s no denying Simmons “gets” the character he’s writing, and  seeing such a faithful rendition of the Batman tropes we know and love taken to the far end of the psychological disturbance that powers is is an unforgettable, harrowing experience.

And now, somewhat astonishingly, it’s an experience everyone can share in, thanks to the recent reprinting of Batman in a book that isn’t impossible to find on the shelves of your local Barnes & Noble.  Still, that iteration of this story — which I rush to mention is still a great one, better than just about any other Batman comic you might choose to read — is one that lacks some of the original print edition’s power.  Though it’s obvious who Simmons is talking about in Mark of the Bat, so much of the first version’s power comes from reading a comic that’s so subversive and disturbing but still somehow features the word BATMAN stamped in blazing red and black on its cover, from seeing the exact same characters we’ve all known since childhood finally being stripped down to the bones, and from holding something printed by one man, not a company, in grainy Xerox on overly slick paper underneath a strangely porous cover.  This comic is a powerful object, one that stands in utter defiance of the corporate culture that extends its reach further into comics every day.  It does what it does with no permission and no apologies, and it does it as well or better as anyone who ever got the go-ahead from the people in charge.  The proof is here: comics isn’t about “creating IP” or “managing franchises,” and it never will be.  It’s about making as bold a statement as you possibly can with nothing more than ink and paper.

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Comments

22 Comments

Damn you for making me really really want to read a comic I have no chance of getting a hold of!

The last page of this gets me every time.

Yes you can. Fantagraphics just reprinted it in their recent collection of Simmons’ minis.

Furry Trap by Josh Simmons

http://www.fantagraphics.com/browse-shop/the-furry-trap.html?vmcchk=1

Simmons is one of two or three comickers who has managed to give me nightmares. I don’t think this Batman one is as viscerally upsetting as a lot of his other comics but there’s a melancholy to it that makes it as good or better than a lot of his other stuff.

@Pants: Woah, what does DC think about this?

Oh nevermind, they changed, and it even says so in the article!

Oh what a tool I’ve been! It’s late and I’m tired, is my excuse!

I can’t speak for Detroit or Mexico City, but as a Cleveland resident I think you’re a bit wide of the mark, Matt. (In what is otherwise a fascinating review.)

I’m pretty sure that few would describe Cleveland, Ohio as both “a real modern city” and “in the advanced stages of urban decay.” Lots of people would call it one of these things, I’m sure, but would probably then deny that it’s deserving of the other classification. :-)

Brian Nicholson

July 18, 2012 at 4:58 pm

Hey Matt have you ever read the Igort comic “Dulled Feelings” that Catalan put out in the early nineties? Just got a copy in the mail, (one of those things that’s cheap via Amazon Used) it’s got Batman with a hard-on on the cover. It is nothing like this Josh Simmons thing.

This seems kind of tired to me. Both the “Batman is so mentally unstable that he must constantly pull himself back from becoming a murderous psychopath” and the “If superheroes were real it would be dark and gritty and violent” tropes got played out a long time ago. Superhero deconstruction, or at least this particular flavor of it, isn’t innovative or intriguing anymore- it’s lazy. I’d buy this as a parody of the Frank Miller style, but it’s bizarre to me that this could be intended or enjoyed as something serious.

@Pat um, you should read the comic.

@Brian ya i used to have a copy, cool stuff even though as you mention it has nothing in common with the simmons aesthetic…

@Wraith i put that in there specifically to mess with one of my boys who’s from cleveland – he’ll agree with you, i’m sure.

Eh, it’s hard for me to give much weight at all to any superhero comic that looks like it should be next to Makkies in the Murcury or the Stranger.

For a very different unauthorised take on Batman, some of you may enjoy Ed Pinsent’s various Illegal Batman stories, which can be downloaded for free from http://comics.edpinsent.com/downloads/
The relevant titles are Illegal Batman, Illegal Batman In Moon and Desperate Failure Comics; if you enjoy those, you’ll also enjoy the other stories available.

Hmmm… Can “criticism” be connected to the legal safeguards of “parody” and “satire”? Satire can be quite vicious… and quite subtle.

I’m reminded of the Moebius “Ratman” printed in Penthouse comics.

Given the iconography, do you even need to say it’s Batman? If you remove the bat from the costume, can it still be read as “Batman”? How abstract (and comics are very abstract) can the art be?

The “last Batman” story will be one which strips the character bare, showing off all of the flaws of the character and the creators in not showing what would be true if Batman was really as cold and calculating as he is perceived to be.

Francis Dawson

July 19, 2012 at 12:31 pm

Great comic this.

Anyone want to shill me a copy? ‘Coober Skeber’ #2 would be nice to have too …

Francis Dawson

July 19, 2012 at 12:33 pm

I also really dig Michael De Forge’s bootleg Spider-man comic ‘Peter’s Muscle’.

Yikes that seems like really low quality work. The linework is awful.

@Steve: Really? Not a fan of indie comics? Fine. The line work is far from awful, though. The totality of comic book art is not Jim Lee slick or Frank Miller stark. It’s not even Jack Kirby simple. The art looks great to me: easy to read, good storytelling, and interesting! Love it.

Along the same lines, has anyone else ever seen the Lois Lane bootleg from the late 80’s?

Gee…a dark take on Batman where’s he’s a killer. YAAAAWWWWWNNNNNNNN. Tiresome, completely devoid of creative thinking, redundant, and boring. The art is interesting, but this is nothing new. He just took things a bit further. It’d be interesting to see someone actually do something completely novel with Batman. This aint it.

@Brian Garber I’m an artist. Indie is not an actual art style, and disliking this doesn’t have anything to do with Jim Lee Frank Miller or Jack Kirby. Come back when you’re able to talk like an adult.

Indie is not an actual art style. This art is interesting but hardly stupendous. It’s nice work for an amateur. But I could certainly understand a professional artist not liking it.

While I enjoy many horror comics not from the Big Four, I’ve never had a taste for the Fantagraphics stuff. I remember working in my LCS in my teen years, seeing Yummy Fur and the like, and just wondering who would look at this comic and actually find it aesthetically pleasing. I don’t “get” Kolchalka or much really of the other comics work with a similarly lacking style. Some comics artists who’ve been smacked with the *indie* label do appeal to me, like Crumb or Burns or Clowes, but there’s a depth of style to their work that I just can’t find in the majority of work offered at cons like APE. For example, I found Blankets to be an amazing piece of dramatic fiction to read, but the artwork just comes off *TO ME* looking like something a high school senior fiddled with in advanced art class. The inherent value of any type of artwork is undeniably estimated by one’s perception, and I have no doubt that many find this Batman bootleg to be a work of genius… but not me. I just need more apparent talent from the artist to be able to appreciate the images.

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