Batman: Creature of the Night #1
“Book One: I Shall Become…”
Writer: Kurt Busiek
Artist/Colors/Cover artist: John Paul Leon
Letters: Todd Klein
Editors: Chris Conroy & Joey Cavalieri
Publisher: DC Comics
Price: $5.99 US
I had no idea this project was in the works at DC, but as soon as I saw the cover and who was writing it, I immediately recognized it as a sister book to the much heralded (and deservedly so) Superman: Secret Identity from 2004. In that book, a man living in a world in which Superman is a comic-book character just as he is in ours ends up developing the same powers as the Man of Steel, and essentially becomes Superman. It was a fascinating character study and an exploration of how the world who really react to such a powerful figure. With Creature of the Night, Busiek offers the same examination, but this time, he delves into the notion of the Batman. I suspected it wouldn’t work as well in this context, given that Batman is a hero without powers; I thought the lack of the fantastic might not offer the same opportunities to the writer. I might be right, but I don’t know, because Busiek surprised me, bringing an element of the supernatural or paranormal to bear here as well. Creature of the Night hasn’t quite hooked me as strongly as Secret Identity did right off the bat, but I remain intrigued. What pleased me the most about this book was how it appears to serve as another example of DC’s willingness to experiment with format and non-continuity examinations of its more noteworthy properties again.
When Bruce Wainwright first discovered Batman comics as a child, he immediately connected with his namesake in those four-color adventures. He’s even got Alfred — his Uncle Alfred — as his right-hand man in his adventures. But tragically, young Bruce ends up having far more in common with the Caped Crusader he so admires after he and his parents fall victim to a horrible, random crime. But Bruce Wainwright is no billionaire. He isn’t travelling the world, training himself to be a paragon of physical and mental power. But somehow, something dark is stalking the criminals of the city, hunting those who destroyed Bruce’s world.
I’ve long been a fan of John Paul Leon’s artwork, and his dark, deceptively simple yet rich architectural details don’t disappoint here. He also handles the colors for this tragic tale, and the muted palette he employs conveys the sullen, depression mood of the story incredibly well. But as I read the book, something nagged at me. Stuart Immonen’s work on Secret Identity reinforced the powerfully realistic tone of the premise. But the more gothic qualities of Leon’s linework here certainly doesn’t come off as “realistic.” Sure, he has a great eye for anatomy and backgrounds, but he offers a more darkly stylized approach here. I wondered if he was the right fit for this project. As the book progresses, something unreal reveals itself, and then I wondered if my initial impression was in error. Ultimately, I haven’t decided. I know Leon’s craft is as good as ever here, but it remains to be seen if his style will work with the more grounded elements of the story or work against them.
I was delighted to see that master letterer Todd Klein participated in this project, but I have to admit this isn’t the best example of his craft. I found the cursive font of Alfred’s narrative captions to be a bit difficult to read at times, and the more crude font employed to convey young Bruce’s voice didn’t quite look like a child’s printing, as it was intended. I get how that attempt at a childish font is meant to mirror the voice of another player introduced later in the book, but it never looked quite right to my eye.
The mystery of Alton — AKA Uncle “Alfred” — would seem on the surface to be a somewhat predictable one, that he’s a criminal who’s keep the grieving Bruce at a distance to keep him safe. But Busiek is far from a writer to go the obvious route, so I’m genuinely interested to see what the character and the writer are hiding from the audience. I wonder if it’s more a lifestyle issue — perhaps Alfred is gay and as an older man, erroneously thinks he can’t offer Bruce the stability he needs. Nevertheless, I’m hopeful Busiek takes the character and the reader to an unexpected place with that plotline.
Despite the darker leanings of the story, I suspect Busiek might be trying to foster a more positive message, albeit in a macabre manner. The “real” elements of the story seem to be about the futility and ineffectual nature of the justice system. Bruce’s case is one that’s shunted to the side all too quickly (just as Bruce himself appears to be shoved aside and expected to blend into a system designed to make him invisible). But the child refuses to let his loss go, and as a result, he refuses to let the killer go. He continues to inquire with the police, and as a result, we see a jaded system do its best to pay him on the head and send him on his way. But Bruce’s persistence leads somewhere else. Is the message that if one believes strongly enough in a principle, wants a result badly enough, that there’s hope? I’d like to think so, but it’s just as likely this story will lead Bruce Wainwright down a self-destructive path. I wonder if there’s a happy ending awaiting him, but I’m fully aware the circumstances of such tragedy don’t lend themselves to such an ending easily. I’m thoroughly interested to find out that answer and others as the limited series progresses. 7/10