Friday, October 8, 2010

Chronic Review: Batman Hidden Treasures # 1!

Batman: Hidden Treasures # 1
DC Comics

Scripts: Ron Marz/Len Wein
Pencils: Bernie Wrightson
46 (sort of) pages for $4.99

The opening page of text tells us that this story has been gathering dust and building its own urban legend at DC for 13 years. Mark Chiarello tells us about other unpublished stories whispered about in the hallowed halls of comicdom - including an adaption of Dante's inferno by Jim Steranko, and a secret Superman tale by Bolland and Dave Gibbons.

Both of those sound intriguing. This urban legend is a buried Batman tale by Bernie Wrightson told completely in splash pages! Um, not nearly as interesting. A comic book told in splash pages is well, a comic book in 2010.

So why the hell did I buy it, then, you might ask? I did so because Bernie Wrightson is my favorite artist. So you can guess how I feel about the art in this book. Yes, absolutely wonderful.

The story inside the comic is also an urban legend of sorts, a tale told around hobo campfires about Batman and Solomon Grundy. I've decided not to say much more than that about the plot than that. It's not a "Sixth Sense" shocker or anything, but there's some worthwhile turns you might not see coming if I don't spoil it for you here.

Wrightson is a kind of genius with monsters, mood, and evoking emotion with eyes. Grundy is fearsome and also sadly human. There's a little mystery, a little detective work, some combat, and some surprises. There are some text-heavy panels, especially toward the beginning. You need them for exposition, and it works fine. Toward the end the art does most of the heavy lifting, and that works quite well when you have a real storyteller like Wrightson. If you hadn't guessed yet I really enjoy his work.

I'm really not sure why it took this long for the story to hit stands. There's nothing controversial in it, like the Warren Ellis Hellblazer story that DC killed because it involved a school shooting right after the Columbine incident. It's a perfect standalone issue that could have been plugged in anywhere, a particularly nice fit around Halloween, I would think.

That's the front half of the book. The back half of the book is a reprint of Swamp Thing # 7 from 1973, also pencilled by Wrightson. This is where it gets a little dodgy for me.

Maybe if it had been another previously unpublished Batman story it would feel more viable. And on the one hand, I haven't read that issue of Swamp Thing, so for me it was all new content and basically two issues for $5, which I'm sad to say in 2010 isn't too bad.

But on the other hand, we're talking about content where the creator dollars were off the books 13 and 37 years ago. They just sold me some tangentially connected old stuff they had lying around the office for $5. And that feels like assault, honestly.

The Swamp Thing reprint isn't a bad story. It's actually sort of fun to look back on 1970s material. You can see an entirely different brand of storytelling, where pages will often contain 8-10 panels. You can get away with this when you have a good artist, who doesn't need 30 open acres to convey action or add details. There are no stick figures in this comic. I would wager that if the same Batman/Swamp Thing team-up were told today, it would at least be a two-parter.

These things weren't necessary in 1973. Plus, you get super strong dialogue like this little bit from Matt Cable. The comics code era was so goddamn weird. Slap a colander on somebody's head and torture them with electrocution? Sure, why not. But mind your language, you fucks! Nobody sucks on peaches in the postmodern era, unfortunately. Me? I could eat a peach for hours.

My bottom line on this one is that both stories have some positive elements, and I thought the opening act was actually very strong. Unless you like Bernie Wrightson as much as I do, though, I don't think you're really getting $5 out of this one.

- Ryan

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