Saturday, March 14, 2009
Batman: Scarecrow Tales
As much as I enjoy quote unquote "good" comics, sometimes all I want is comics about people punching other people. In the face. Also kicking.
And along comes Batman to save the day. Scarecrow Tales was presumubly released at the time of Batman Begins, and it seems to be one of the best ways to collect older Batman comics. Batman probably has more collections devoted to him than any other comic book character (or at least American character, there's probably some Japanese ones with more). When I worked in a comic store our Batman trade section was immense, the only thing that rivaled it in size was X-Men comic section, which included all the spinoff stuff, while Catwoman, Robin, Nightwing, and others were filed by themselves. Despite this there aren't that many Batman trades you can tell someone to buy.
The recent years seem to be filled with things that aren't that good (how could I not enjoy Morrison's run on Batman? Awful art and obtuse storytelling it seems), huge crossovers (we sold so many copies of all of Knightfall, which meant that people kept coming back), and, um, yeah. I'm sure Rucka and Brubaker wrote some good Batman comics, but it seems only their crossover stuff is collected.
For older Batman comics you have the Archives and Chronicles collecting the early stuff, and the recent Showcase Presents Batman are collecting some of the stuff from the '70s. But Batman has been around for like 80 years, and there's a bazillion comics out there.
Scarecrow Tales collects some of them, picking about one a decade from the Scarecrow's first appearance in the '40s up to the early 2000s.
It is kind of funny reading the first few of these comics in a row, as they all tell, or retell, the Scarecrow's origin. He was a university professor who spent his money on books instead of clothes and the other (continually updated for the times) professors insult him for this by saying he is shabby and "positively weird"*. Then they don't invite him to a party so he decides to steal some money (to buy more books). Yes, that's it. Oh, and he shoots a flowerpot in one of his classrooms to show his students fear.
Ignoring the fact that he is clearly insane to begin with, lets look at what pushes him over the edge, other professors not inviting him to a party because he dresses poorly. This is something that is not conveyed in any of the _three_ comics in this collection to show his origin. He's wearing a three piece suit! And a hat! He dresses classier than I do! He dresses better than my dad does and he is a university professor. Nothing about his appearance screams "shabby" or "scarecrow" to me. His clothing isn't patched or anything, he looks the same as the other professors shown. Thus we can only assume that the other professors at Gotham U are a bunch of jerks.
The earliest comic here is from World's Finest Comics #3 published Fall 1941, and to my surprise there's actually a few panels of really nice art in there. None of them involve Batman or Robin, but whoever drew it did a pretty good professor Crane and Scarecrow. The story itself is the standard story of the Scarecrow. He tries to scare people into giving him money, he fights Batman. The one major difference in this early story is how Scarecrow repeatedly gets the best of Batman in straight up fights, something few characters could do today, let alone one as physically inept as Scarecrow. He looks as though I could take him. Thus based on bad logic I could beat up 1940s Batman.
The next comic is from the '60s, and Scarecrow hasn't changed a bit in the intervening years. What has changed is that Dick Grayson is now a playground instructor in Gotham Park, which involves forcing other kids to climb on a jungle gym, while Bruce Wayne and Alfred drive around in an ice cream truck. While Batman looks better art wise in this story, the Scarecrow doesn't. And the story itself is kind of terrible. The Scarecrow blinds Batman and Robin aboard a replica of Noah's Ark and releases a jaguar and a panther at them. After some endangered animal punching (good thing Catwoman didn't see you Batman), Batman and Robin chase down Scarecrow and punch him too.
The '70s comics (including an issue of The Joker, where was the collection of that to capitalize on the movie?) feature an abandoned amusement park (Gotham must be 20% abandoned amusement parks) and Scarecrow's seemingly magic crow Nightmare. Seriously.
By the '80s writers have apparently realized that "Scarecrow uses fear gas/machine to make people afraid of him" is a plot that has kind of reached its limit. So we have stories of people being afraid of Batman and Batman having no fear at all.
The second of those stories is drawn by Alan Davis, who apparently drew a bunch of Batman comics in the '80s, but the only other issue I've read is the first issue of Year Two (which isn't that good a story). Alan Davis was probably the first comic artist I really liked, and I find his art so tied to old Excalibur comics, where I first discovered him, that seeing him draw Batman is kind of weird. Davis has a very specific style, that I still like a lot, but he totally has haircuts and looks that he uses over and over again. One thing he totally has going for him is that the flashback origin in this issue actually has Crane looking awkward and weird when he was a professor, and his scarecrow looks considerably more scarecrow-like, then anyone else up to this point (most of the artists just drew him as a guy in a costume). Davis draws him like he's on muscle relaxants and is constantly about to fall over, which is, I guess, how a scarecrow that walked would look like. Floppy.
But the clear stand out here is Davis' grinning, fearless Batman. He looks awesome. It is totally Batman about to have some wikkid fun by escaping a death trap. Yeah! Hurray!
This page ends on a total downer though as the "most terrible fear [Batman] could conceive" is the death of Jason Todd. Something that would actually happen a few years later. How long was Jason Todd Robin anyway? I don't think it was that long. Tim Drake has been Robin for like 15 years without aging hasn't he?
The '90s comic is by Peter Milligan and Duncan Fegredo, which seems to be a fairly super team if I was trying to think of people to do a Scarecrow comic. Fegredo does a Scarecrow who looks actually scary, and the story itself, featuring Scarecrow trying to use fear to create someone like him, is pretty good.
The final story features probably the worst gas masks I have ever seen in comics, and a story that is more about exploring Bruce Wayne's fears, than it is about the Scarecrow. I guess the current trend of 4-6 issue story arcs to be collected into trades means it's harder for stand alone stories to be found for collections like this. Kind of too bad really.
Oh, there's also various pinups of the Scarecrow by a bunch of different artists in between the stories. It's neat to see different artists takes on the character, though I think I like Mike Mignola's the best.
In the end though, this collection really just shows the limitations of the Scarecrow as a character. Yeah, he's been in a couple of good stories, but it's kind of surprising he's as big a name as he is. Still, I like the way this collection worked, and wouldn't mind reading similar books about other Batman villians like the Penguin or the Riddler.
*Which, when you think about it, is actually a compliment. Better than "negatively weird" at least.