Thursday, 10 October 2013

Batman: Prey by Doug Moench and Paul Gulacy Review

Set in the early years when Bruce was just starting out as Batman, Gotham City is slowly adjusting to the appearance of the Dark Knight with many still fearing him. Dr Hugo Strange, a prominent psychiatrist, builds upon that fear to leverage power and fame by convincing the Mayor to order Captain Gordon to set up a Batman task force to take down the vigilante and haul him in for questioning. Gordon gets hot-head officer Max Cort to lead the team as another vigilante, a cat burglar, emerges – but what does Hugo Strange really want? 

Doug Moench wrote a lot of Batman comics in the early 90s and none of them were any good. The Knightfall Trilogy where Bane famously broke Batman’s back was wayyy too long and his other books, like the more recent Batman: Unseen with Kelley Jones, have been similarly terrible. Batman: Prey has gained some prominence in recent years thanks to Hugo Strange’s appearance in the brilliant video game Batman: Arkham City, but, based on this book, he’s nowhere near as cool or interesting. In fact, Batman: Prey is a downright awful book but not just because of Strange but because of the entire cast, including Batman, as written by Moench. 

Let’s start with Strange. It’s an obvious comment but the name is apt. When he’s not saying weird things about Batman on TV, he’s talking to his female mannequin in his apartment and dressing up as Batman. Yeah, that’s pretty nutty, but on the barest pieces of information, he’s able to figure out Bruce Wayne is Batman – although never explicitly saying so out loud or to anyone else – and can set up elaborate traps in Wayne Manor involving lifelike mannequins who look exactly like Bruce’s parents. You’d think Bruce would’ve set up some security cameras or anything around Wayne Manor – he is trying to stop people figuring out he’s Batman after all! Anyway, Strange needs to do all of that because the plot says so, not because it makes sense. 

The dialogue in this book is horrendous. Strange spends most of his time turned towards the reader making speeches about this and that, thinking out loud, repeating plot points, etc. Strange’s dialogue is the worst but none of the characters really say anything that sounds at all convincing. Everyone’s thinking out loud and telling you what they’re doing as they’re doing it! 

Catwoman’s outfit is just bad. She’s called a cat burglar in the press so she has to play up the cat part by literally having a tail, cat ears and whiskers, all of which do nothing. If you think the tail is her whip, it’s not – her whip is coiled up around her shoulder. A tail, cat ears, and whiskers – honestly, what’s the point? It’s sooo stupid! Forgetting her appearance (in theory – I won’t forget this, Moench!), she is a completely pointless addition to the book. She shows up, steals some jewels, runs away from Batman across Gotham’s rooftops, escapes – repeat, rinse. They smooch, she saves him (but only because Bruce is so damn incompetent in this book), and that’s it. In other words, just like every other Catwoman appearance ever. 

Max Cort is the worst character in the book. He’s apparently a great police officer who behaves more like a bar brawler, only more dangerous because he has guns. After repeatedly failing to bring Batman in, he’s brainwashed by Strange through hypnosis (really) into becoming a vigilante himself laughably called Night Scourge. He just happens to have a ninja outfit with spikes tailor made for him, complete with a variety of knives and swords, all of which he’s suddenly proficient in, and manages to successfully take on Batman. So, as a police officer with far more resources at his disposal he was unable to do anything about Batman but suddenly, mind-wiped, with fewer resources, and a mask, he’s able to achieve more? Whaaat?! 

But the worst of the bunch is Batman. When Bruce became Batman for the first time, he’d gone through years of training, physically and mentally preparing himself for the demanding role he was now taking on. In Batman: Prey, it’s like that training never took place. Not only can he barely deal with Strange – a non-super-powered psychiatrist – or any of the GCPD, but he’s routinely challenged by no-name street thugs, and, in the second story arc of the book, Terror, he gets beaten up by Jonathan Crane aka Scarecrow! These two are the villains of the book: Strange and Scarecrow, and they’re supposedly Batman’s physical equal! Only in this book. I understand this is Batman in the early years but you can only play up Bruce’s lack of experience so much. 

Moench is famous (relatively speaking) for doing this kind of nonsense narrative. In Batman: Unseen, Batman fights an invisible man by taking off his clothes, drinking the invisibility potion thus becoming invisible – then he puts on his Batman outfit again, negating the invisibility and then goes out to fight him! Moench writes Batman as a brain-dead nitwit and it seems whether he was doing it in the early 90s or the late 00s, that’s how his Batman will always be. 

In Terror, the sequel to Prey, also included here, Scarecrow is the main villain. This story is also utterly hideously written and conceived, but it at least has a genuinely hilarious origin story for Jonathan Crane. Apparently he was teased in high school for being scrawny and his bullies would say to him “Go scare some crows, Crane!” (which sounds exactly like something teenagers would say) and these insults so scarred him(!) that the only way he could relieve his frustration was, yes, scaring some crows(!!!). The panel showing Crane lunging after some crows is amazing. He then developed his own “Crane-style” fighting moves which involves him kicking his legs up really high while waving his arms around - this weird dance move is the same fighting style that bests Batman! So of course he puts on a Scarecrow costume and (sigh) becomes Scarecrow. This is one of the dumbest origin stories I’ve ever read. Good for a chuckle though. 

The story, in both instances, is plodding and tedious at best. Batman is chased by doofuses (doofi?) and, because he’s also moronic in this book, he has trouble escaping them and solving the “mystery”. The storylines are utterly forgettable and stupid, how anyone can rate this book at all is beyond me. Paul Gulacy’s art is no great shakes but I didn’t mind it and it’s definitely the only commendable thing about this book. But it’s still not that good – the expressions on the mannequins and the human characters look exactly the same. 

And one last thing, and it’s rare to have to bring this up, but the lettering in this book is diabolical. Batman’s narrative boxes – of which there are a sizeable number – are written in this flowery cursive style that makes reading them really hard. I suppose this being part of the Legends of the Dark Knight series, Batman is writing these adventures down in a book or something and maybe that’s why we’ve got this awkward handwriting style? It’s the only reason I can see why the letterer has chosen to do this but it underlines a basic truth about comics – if a comic has bad lettering, then it becomes a bad comic. Even if it had legible lettering, it’s still be the pits because of Moench’s script, but the two combined make this a nightmare to read. 

Batman: Prey is a book written by an idiot, for idiots, starring idiots - don’t bother. In fact avoid anything written by Doug Moench!

Batman: Prey

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