I’ve been having a great time watching connected films and a variety of horror books this season, but it’s very possible that re-visiting the Batman run by Doug Moench and Kelley Jones has been one of my favorite experiences so far. As I mentioned in the first part, these post-KnightFall books were bedrock-forming for my knowledge of not just the Dark Knight, but also the imagery of horror as put through Jones’ incredibly capable lens. As good as the Batman developments are in these issues as he regains his life after the Bane and Azrael incidents, it’s equally exciting to see these two creators work their magic on a variety of villains and co-stars.
After reading Batman #516-534 last time, I hit up #535-552 this go-around. These issues basically go right up until Cataclysm which then went into No Man’s Land. While Moench stays on as the writer for a while, #552 marks the end of his collaboration with Jones.
Before that, though, we have a lot of fun with these issues! We kick off with the well-meaning, but short lived 1 of 1 campaign which was a reaction to fans getting sick and tired of all the crossovers. Based on an Edgar Allan Poe story, Batman meets a pair of new tragic characters called Ogre and Ape. Not only does this issue allow Moench and Jones to dig into mad scientist territory, but it also features a foldout, die-cut cover which is kinda funny when you think about the fact that fans wanted to have to spend less scratch on huge storyarcs. I dug it.
From there, #536-538 coincide with the Final Night crossover while focusing on the Man-Bat. I am a huge fan of Jones drawing this villain and Moench does a nice job using the larger event to bring a classic villain into the mix. With #539, they tell a dark tale about what happens when a less-then-well-balanced art student is forced into the family mortuary business.
The Spectre story from #540-541 didn’t sit super well with me as far as the details, but it had some incredible art. In the next two-parter they introduced a villain called Faceless, a play on the “going postal” theme of the mid-90s with a wildly grotesque modus operandi. To me, #542 is one of the most iconic and memorable Jones Batman covers. I also wasn’t overly sold on the Joker/Demon set-up (they let Joker have arcane texts in Arkham?), but it still managed to showcase Batman’s dedication to the sanctity of life.
I was really surprised #547. Using the Genesis company crossover as a springboard, Moench and Jones tell an incredibly moving story about depression, suicide and even gun violence. Part of the Genesis story involved the approach of a cosmic power that filled humanity with a hopeless dread, which makes this a very good issue to read during a pandemic that never seems like it will end (where a damn mask!).
Things get a little lighter with #548-549 as Penguin decides to leave his comfy booth at The Iceberg Lounge to prove he can still mix it up with Batman and get away scott free. It was cool seeing this guy who I mostly know as a behind-the-scenes mastermind get out there and get his hands dirty. I also really enjoyed the Clayface one-off in #550 that also introduced Abby Chase. Since I mostly know ‘Face from Batman: The Animated Series, I forget how complicated his story is, but Moench, Jones and guest artist J.H. Williams III put together a nice one-off built on history that also gives nice monster vibes while introducing a new character (who solo series, Chase, I want to read).
Finally, the partnership ends with #551-552, which feature Ragman! This is a very obscure character, but as chance would have it, I actually had the first issue of his 90s solo series from a multi-pack or something and had some familiarity. Unfortunately, this story feels all-too familiar today as it did then with Batman trying to stem a neo-Nazi terrorist group in Gotham all while also trying to keep control of the increasingly dangerous souls that make up Ragman.
Having just finished #552, I’m sitting back and feeling very lucky. There is so much greatness in these issues. People give the 90s a bad name, but Moench clearly had this huge amount of curiosity in the world and put much of what he learned in these comics. Just off the top of my head, I learned about graffiti, alchemy, depresesion, fighting the darkness and the Jewish struggle from these issues. That’s good to experience as a 37 year old adult, but it was far better to have all of these ideas coming at me when I was 12-15. I might not remember the actual reading experience or the stories from that time, but I hope they helped shape me into the open-minded person I am today.
I also want to look back on a few story ideas from the back half of this run. I love that Bruce got to a place where he was finally completely confident being Batman once more. With that, he intended to rebuild his life as Wayne, which resulted in the love interest I most associate with the character: Vesper Fairchild (killer name, especially for a radio host). I love their relationship, though I have a vague idea how it ultimately ends, which is unfortunate.
I won’t be digging into Cataclysm or No Man’s Land in the near future, though I do love those sweeping epics. Right now I’m left with a few questions, though. Who was that woman who showed up at Wayne’s functions early on? Her name escapes me, but it felt like something was supposed to happen with her. Also, what’s the deal with the weird puppeteer guy who appears in shadows? Maybe these get answered elsewhere, but I’m also okay with the occasional lingering question. This is comics after all!