Wednesday, August 17, 2011

going retro

I've been more and more concerned about the ongoing recycling across popular culture, wondering when a truly new trend, art form, genre of music, etc. etc. etc. would hit (the arrival of Simon Reynolds' RETROMANIA in the mailbox today may help me put words to my anxiety). But I've always been (perhaps too) nostalgic by nature, and I'm always happy to experience new work by creators I've enjoyed in the past. At its best, this experience reveals that my old favorites continue to create vital work (as Wire, Gary Numan, and Ryuichi Sakamoto, among others continue to do).

So when DC Comics announced DC Retroactive, a series of special, single-issue stories returning creative teams from the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s to the characters they worked on, I was intrigued. Particularly by the return of writer Alan Grant and artist Norm Breyfogle to the Batman book.

The original Grant/Breyfogle run on Batman (with Grant's JUDGE DREDD co-writer John Wagner) was at a fortuitous time. I was as excited about Tim Burton's then-forthcoming BATMAN movie as any of my peers, so excited that in the run-up to the movie's release I resumed reading the Batman titles after years away. At that time, the books included the Wagner/Grant/Breyfogle run on Detective Comics, which I took to instantly. These issues remain something of an unsung classic - Wagner and Grant released all kinds of their Dredd-styled pop madness on the book, combining the street-level grit of Dredd with a weirdly cartoonish darkness (their run is a nice bridge between the classic, pop-artish Englehart/Rogers run and the Bruce Timm animated series). The writers also introduced a mess of new villains to Batman's sizable rogues gallery, including Scarface and the Ventriloquist, who've been revisited by other writers and artists many times since. And Norm Breyfogle was a perfect artist for their run, creating a mise-en-scene of high energy darkness for the stories and realizing the characters with a sometimes cartoonish style that included a downright expressionistic take on physiognomy.

Plus, some of Breyfogle's covers were truly stunning:

The new book, sadly, falls into a number of traps that plague many "retro" style adventures. Grant and Breyfogle resurrect Scarface for their story, but his fate is left weirdly unresolved in Batman's battle with new foe Big Mel (whose origin - given deadly powers after being dunked in chemical goo, he seeks revenge on his criminal former employer - is too close to too many other comic book villains, including Wagner/Grant/Breyfogle's own Corrosive Man). Breyfogle's shapes and staging are as striking as ever, but his lines are a bit too think, and the coloring too soft to recapture the bleeding darkness that served his Batman so well. But the thing works, mainly thanks to the introduction of a sympathetic cab driver, once a criminal, now an expecting father. If his constant intersection with the action of the main story breaks credibility (I was reminded of the Mambo Taxi driver of Almodovar's Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown), his humanity offsets the superheroics nicely, and helps give the final page a modest but genuine lift. (Which rhymes well with the downbeat ending of "Trash," the 1990s Grant/Breyfogle/Mitchell story also included in the book.)

So though your proprietor's not quite down with the package as a whole, I can't help but be pleased to have a new issue of the Grant/Breyfogle Batman in my grasp. Hollow or unsuccessful as it often is (you can never really go home again, after all), there are joys, even fleeting ones, to going retro.

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