REVIEWS

Tales of the Batman – Gene Colan, Volume One

A high point in the late Gene Colan’s long career was the influential work he did throughout the 1970s and early 1980s. Now DC pays tribute to that era with Tales of the Batman – Gene Colan, Volume One, which compiles the first two years’ worth of stories from Colan’s five-year run as Batman’s lead penciler, which began in 1981.

These beautifully reproduced pages showcase Colan’s natural and unexaggerated energy, consistent character modeling, and abiding mastery of atmosphere.

Through the late ‘70s, Batman’s writers had invested him with new depth that rescued his appeal and mythos from the self-parody of the ‘60s. Colan’s influence on later incarnations of Batman and Gotham City is immeasurable. The tales in this volume are all solid, entertaining superhero stories. They also demonstrate a special sensitivity toward Batman as a character. Batman grew and deepened on Colan’s watch, becoming more multi-dimensional, more elusive, hinting at how grim the character would later become. In these stories, Batman/Bruce Wayne inhabits a chaotic world, rife with crime and corruption.

Colan’s covers and title pages set a moody but energetic tone. His art is fluid and deceptively simple in its design. His pages are uncluttered, focusing on key narrative elements and atmospherics. Backgrounds are detailed only when necessary. There is never a question of where to look, which keeps the stories speedy and engaging.

Gerry Conway wrote or co-wrote all but two of the stories contained in this collection. They are colorful, suspenseful, and often surprising. In an era of perfunctory comics writing, Conway was a standout, bringing a depth of character that remains convincing today. Conway excelled at weaving gritty, realistic arcs through his stories, which helped maintain a high level of plausibility amid the usual outlandish villains and supernatural elements. In this volume, ongoing plotlines pertain to a hotly-contested mayoral election, Poison Ivy’s attempt to swindle the Wayne Foundation, and the politically-motivated forced resignation of Commissioner Gordon.

The longest multi-issue story contained here has Conway and Colan reaching back to The Tomb of Dracula, as well as some of the earliest Batman comics, for inspiration. The four-part story beginning with “Blood Sport” finds Batman and Robin temporarily transformed into vampires after Robin is seduced and trapped by his would-be girlfriend Dala. She turns out to serve a character who would appear to be the Mad Monk, who first appeared in Detective Comics #31 (1939). However, due to continuity issues resulting from the stories selected for this volume, the villainous vampire’s identity is not confirmed. This type of collection, organized by artist rather than by narrative continuity, makes for occasionally frustrating reading, despite the pleasures of the individual issues. There are issues of Batman and Detective Comics not present here (i.e., not penciled by Colan) that flesh out the vampire arc. As presented here, it is full of holes, and the conclusion is sudden.

But this is a minor issue in a book crammed with creepy highlights and moody character moments: Batman searching for Kirk Langstrom/Man-Bat in the caves beneath Wayne Manor, carrying Langstrom’s young daughter on his shoulders; Dick Grayson flirting with his girlfriend on a penthouse balcony, only to glimpse an airborne plague blanketing the city below; Barbara Gordon prodding her father out of a blue funk after his forced resignation; and Poison Ivy cruelly transforming her assistant into a gigantic half-man/half-tree monstrosity.

It goes without saying that there is also a moment or two of Golden Age-tinged absurdity:

But what is most germane  about this volume is its demonstration of this team’s influence. The legacy of Colan’s shadowy, noirish artwork and Conway’s economic, even poetic, phrasing are easily detected in Loeb and Sale’s The Long Halloween, and Brubaker, Rucka, and Lark’s Gotham Central. Without Colan, Conway, and the rest of this team (which includes inkers Klaus Janson and Tony DeZuniga, and colorist Adrienne Roy), we would not have had Frank Miller’s Batman – or Christopher Nolan’s, for that matter. Colan and Conway’s stories do more than just hold up well. They maintain a place of permanent excellence in Batman’s  long and layered graphic genealogy.

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10 Responses to Tales of the Batman – Gene Colan, Volume One

  1. I enjoyed Gene Colan’s Batman stories, and especially liked his work when it was inked by Bob Smith (who became Colan’s quasi-regular inker after the stories included in this volume). Colan’s move to DC in the early 1980′s seemed to bring out a new enthusiasm in Colan for his work. Nice to see his work collected, but (as the reviewer points out) I’m not sure that skipping the non-Colan issues was the best decision.

    Have to admit though that I have a hard time seeing the relevance of this material as a precedent for the work Frank Miller did a few years later. Miller’s work seems to be mostly a rejection of the type of Batman stories that had been published in the 1980′s, appealing to a fanboyish myth of Batman originally being a “dark” character (a myth that I’m not sure has much basis in fact, but that’s material for another discussion).

  2. Got to put this on my to get list. The few panels you show here would stand up next to comics on the shelves today. That’s one of the great things about Bats. There really are so many different different directions to take him in.

  3. Robert says:

    I am going to get this book. I may have read it in the Journal, but didn’t Dick Giordano have a problem with Colan’s art? I don’t get where he was coming from. All of Gene’s art was top notch and above and beyond the best of the best. I can’t believe how Jim Shooter found fault with his work at Marvel. To think that Shooter was critical of his work just astounds me.

  4. steven samuels says:

    It’s all about the $$$$. You’re talking about executives, remember. Sales volume comes first.

  5. joey f says:

    SWEET! I have most of these, however the reviewer is right: “This type of collection, organized by artist rather than by narrative continuity, makes for occasionally frustrating reading, despite the pleasures of the individual issues.” Why not just reprint chronologically or storywise? Maybe I’ll see these in those big black & white newsprint reprints. I mean that time period it was, usually, Gene Colan and Don Newton, you can’t go wrong!

  6. Steven Ely says:

    Batman originally was indeed a dark, mysterious, terror striking, brutally violent vigilante character. Read the Batman Chronicles volumes. Batman began to be returned to his dark roots with Batman #217 (1969) “One Bullet Too Many” by Frank Robbins and Irv Novick and the proceeding Denny O’Neil and Neal Adams run in the Bronze Age which started with Detective Comics #395 (January, 1970) “The Secrets of the Waiting Graves.” “I just wanted to make it Gothic and spooky,” Denny O’Neil explained. “We went back to a grimmer, darker Batman, and that’s why those stories did well,” inker Dick Giordano explained. Which all lead up to the Gerry Conway and Gene Colan run. That all paved the way for Frank Miller. Frank wasn’t under the restrictions of the Comics Code so he was able to return Batman much closer to the dark roots. Frank Miller brought Batman back to his dark roots further than anyone else had, more in line with the original vision of the character. Closer to the police-beating, bone-breaking brutal Bill Finger-Bob Kane original. First is the use of the bat emblem on his chest without the yellow moon in Batman: The Dark Knight Returns. In the Golden Age this was the standard. Batman carrying and using guns, which hadn’t been seen since 1940. Frank Miller brought back Robin’s sling shot which had not been seen since 1940. The gadgets and bat vehicles which had been toned way down in the ’70s. Batman originally was a terror striking creature of the night wanted by the police and fighting the police. Batman: The Dark Knight Returns was also a return to that concept.

  7. Chris says:

    One of the first comic books my brother and I ever purchased was a Gene Colan Daredevil, and I liked Gene’s style from the start. A year or so ago, I bought the black and white reprints, and frankly, Gene’s work then looks even better in black and white than color. Over time, his style changed and shadows become even more important. I remember DC printing the pencils of one of his Dracula (I think) comics, saying Gene “paints with a pencil” and that DC wanted fans to see what Gene did before the inker had to tackle the awesome job of inking Gene’s pencils.

    The man had huge talent and a incomparable style.

  8. Daniel C. Parmenter says:

    DC made several attempts to shoot from Gene’s pencils on the Nathaniel Dusk series that he did with Don McGregor, but it took them a while to get it right. Plus, that book was kind of awful. His other collaboration with McGregor, RAGAMUFFINS at Eclipse was much better, with far better writing *and* better reproduction of his uninked pencils. I’d love to see that back in print somehow or other.

    Some of his work on Marvel’s black and white mags with rendering by Alfredo Alcala were quite good, much better than their later pairing on Detective Comics. Again, black and white seems to be the key. Dave Simon’s inks on the Mantlo b&w Howard the Duck issues were also kind of cool, though Simons took a totally different approach. Of course it wasn’t really Howard by any stretch, but the stuff looked great.

    Pity that Stewart the Rat wasn’t better (IMO). In theory, it should have been great: essentially Howard the Duck without interference from Marvel and in glorious black and white, but somehow it just didn’t seem to work.

  9. Daniel C. Parmenter says:

    For the record, the first two issues of TDKR featured the yellow oval Bat-logo. Miller even provided a rationale for it.

  10. Daniel C. Parmenter says:

    Will they do Doug Moench’s run at some point? I seem to remember the Joker Land storyline being a bit of a hoot.

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