Shiny Shelf

Batman: The Black Casebook

By Steffan Alun on 07 May 2010

If Grant Morrison’s introduction is to be believed, the comics chosen for DC’s ‘The Black Casebook’ – a collection of Batman issues from the 50s and 60s which influenced Morrison’s run – are generally unpopular among Batman fans, owing to their supernatural and sci-fi content.

How much a given reader will enjoy this collection, then, depends entirely on the appeal of the central concept. And the concept is a strange one.

Cards on the table, then – I’ve never read any Batman comics. He never appealed when I was growing up, but having enjoyed other comics of Morrison’s, I thought I’d start with his chosen comics.

I love them. They’re unapologetically melancholy, and offer a distressing perspective on the caped crusader’s lifestyle.

Take ‘A Partner for Batman’, where Batman trains new superhero Wingman by appointing him his temporary sidekick. Throughout this, Robin is terrified he’ll be replaced – and Batman, far from putting his mind at rest, takes advantage of this fear as an additional test of Wingman’s prowess.

Robin’s not the only character to fear being replaced – Batman himself, and even Superman, are put through the wringer in ‘Am I Really Batman?’ and ‘The Club of Heroes’ respectively. The plot devices used to engineer these situations are often laughably elaborate – if you’re hoping for tight plot logic, you won’t find it here.

Speaking of plot devices, several stories in the volume, such as ‘The Superman of Planet X’, ‘Batman Meets Bat-Mite’ and ‘Robin Dies at Dawn’, incorporate standalone mechanisms to allow for a whole host of crazy action – a planet on which Batman has super-strength, a creature with seemingly endless powers who animates a giant Batman statue and a test chamber which causes Batman to hallucinate wildly.

Taken as part of a normally-sensible ongoing series, I can understand why readers might flinch at some of these stories, but presented as a collection of oddball stories, they make a lot more sense.

Less interesting to me are the ‘mythology’ stories – tales which explore the existence of Batman-style superheroes in other lands, from the Native American Man-of-the-Bats, to the Knight and the Squire of the UK. It seems they’re included here because Morrison used these forgotten characters in his later run, and the same goes for ‘The First Batman’, which explores Bruce Wayne’s father. Some of these stories were interesting, but the fact that they’re included solely because of characters they introduce means they’re not as fascinating as the stories chosen for their content. That said, they may be of more interest to Batman fans.

Two stories – ‘The Rainbow Creature’ and ‘The Batman Creature’ – were apparently included because Morrison liked the covers.  They’re quite mad, but again, nothing compared to the crazy stories mentioned above. Ultimately, they feel like run-of-the-mill superhero comics, only unusual because they featured the normally-grounded Batman.

That may sound like a criticism, but it’s not, really. The range of stories in the volume comes as a surprise considering its central premise, and that’s certainly a strength.  In the end, it’s a nostalgic volume which benefits from modern hindsight. You’ll need to do a lot of the work yourself to see the streak of darkness running through the volume, since the comics themselves are presented like any other kids’ comics – but once you see it, it’s addictive.

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