Crusader with a cape

batmanchalice

Chuck Dixon Batman: The Chalice
Illustrated by John Van Fleet
DC Comics 1999

Into Bruce Wayne’s hands is entrusted an object for safekeeping. Once sought and guarded by his medieval ancestors, the house of Gevain, the Holy Grail — for this is it, a relic missing since the time of the Crusades — proves a dangerous legacy for Wayne to guard, even when he is in his guise of Gotham City’s finest, Batman. Shall I list those who also seek the cup for its power? Ra’s al Ghul, the Penguin, Catwoman, Ubu, the Brotherhood of the Merivingians [sic] for a start. Lined up on the caped crusader’s side are Alfred, Azrael, the Oracle and Commissioner Gordon, but will they be enough to hold off the dark forces that hanker after the sacred receptacle? Or will Bruce be forced to call upon a more superior being to spirit it away.

Simple digital editing
Simple digital editing

The standout feature of this graphic novel is John Van Fleet’s distinctive art, which graces not only the cover but also the interior. The inside art features bold outlines and dark contrasts against impressionist colour washes or subtle but detailed background images. The effect is rather like playing with the digital editing facilities on your camera phone app. The noir-ish results are entirely in keeping with classic Batman comics from the 50s and 60s allied with the re-vamping that happened in the late 70s and 80s as the caped crusader’s exploits became darker in tone and character. Unlike the camp treatment of half a century ago, where comic panels didn’t require much effort to visually scan, this more shadowy presentation makes increased demands on the viewer: concentration and attention seem to be the watchwords of many graphic novels.

Chuck Dixon’s story is a little more workaday. The dark knight has to battle a succession of enemies, dodging bullets and withstanding physical assaults — so what’s new? — but ultimately has to give up the struggle by *spoiler alert* sending the grail via another DC character to the Fortress of Solitude. I liked the notion of the Guardian of Gotham becoming a Guardian of the Grail via the supposed derivation of Wayne from Gevain (‘Gawain’, one assumes), but after a promising beginning there seemed little meat in the narrative, no real climax to a succession of shoot-em-ups and beat-em-ups. And the unquestioning assumption that the Grail was genuinely miraculous via some questionable medieval theology sits badly with the heightened realism underlying the action that one associates with the Batman mythos.

Am I being too analytical? Perhaps. Probably the best thing is to enjoy the ride and especially the scenery.

In my Reading Challenge this counts, as if you hadn’t already guessed, as a graphic novel

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18 thoughts on “Crusader with a cape

  1. Never read a graphic novel, though I’ve always fancied From Hell by Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell and The Sandman by Neil Gaiman. My other half has read a lot of the early Walking Dead books – all very grim stuff, though.

    1. ‘Graphic novel’ is, to me, just a pretentious term to mean a comic with serious overtones, a wordy story with added pictures (sometimes even with few words or none). The Dandy or Beano is at one extreme, while much of my childhood reading was Classics Illustrated, digests of fictions and biographies in cartoon strip form and therefore graphic novels before the term had been invented.

      They don’t have to dark or full of horror, by the way. Though it helps.

      1. It’s reading for the TV/Cinema generation, I suppose. Like watching a movie on the page.
        My other half bought my son a Batman graphic novel for his birthday – the illustrations are so ‘graphic’ the poor kid hasn’t had the courage to read it yet!

        1. Can I suggest a graphic novel like Alan Moore’s Watchmen (reviewed http://wp.me/s2oNj1-watchmen) as a good example of the genre, Lynn? Here we have pages of typical comics fare (panels, speech or thought bubbles, bold colours) interweaved with pages of straight text (such as an imagined book chapter, newspaper item or academic paper).

          Though atypical fare for most comics these days, this mix of images and text was common enough in early issues of UK children’s weeklies like The Eagle or Dandy: more like magazines, they had cartoons mixed in with puzzles, short stories, letters pages and competitions.

          As for graphic novels being more ‘graphic’ than one would imagine traditional comics aimed at young readers to be, I suspect this is a crucial difference, the boundaries of which have been very blurred for some time now. Let me know how your son (how old is he?) gets on with his Batman birthday present!

          1. Yes, I’d heard the Watchmen was good – I only know it from the film (which wasn’t that good). My son’s eleven, so maybe a bit young for some of the genre, though I try and come at these things more from a Scandi/Grimm’s fairy tales stand point – you do need a touch of terror in childhood or you won’t be ready to meet adolescence and punch it on the nose 🙂 I think he’s drawn to the book, but unsure if he finds it too unsettling. We shall see.

  2. Pity they didn’t pull out more stops on the credibility side. There is a real art in making the utterly fantastic believable, and many of the old fantasy or sf writers had it finely honed. Too few seem to bother, these days.

    1. Chuck Dixon is a respected and prolific writer for comics, but this seems a bit run-of-the-mill to me. It may be that I’m just jaundiced, that knowing a bit about the subject matter has prejudiced me against weak points in the plotting; still, it does seem as if writers need to treat their readers as intelligent so that the finished work isn’t a triumph of style over matter, as it seems here.

      1. Au contraire, it seems that writers have discovered that there is no need to treat their readers as intelligent, because from what meets with acclaim it is clear that they are not.

        1. I see what you mean, Col, but I suppose it depends on the acclaim — would that be critical or monetary? — and of course a lucky few have both! Better that than neither, I guess?

          When I taught music I frequently opined that — regardless of whether it was classical, pop, jazz or folk — 90% of all music was rubbish/forgettable/not-worth-repeat-listenings. I might relent on the actual precision of my figures (90% of my opinions are worthless anyway) but something similar probably applies to published literature …

          1. I meant adoring-public-type acclaim. As for most modern music – well, Ravel’s Bolero is a feast of variety by comparison. It amazes me how many ‘songs’ have three or four notes endlessly repeated and with a background of bangs.

            1. I prefer to think of music of the genre you describe as dance music with words rather than songs with a beat — better to bop to than to appreciate as artistic expression.

  3. Graphic books can be fun, though I’m picky about which ones I read. My two favorite are Micheal Keller’s On the Origin of Species and R. Crumbs’ Genesis.

  4. I use the terms “graphic novels” and “comics” interchangeably, but I’ve read some blogs that describe graphic novels as comics released as novels (as in, they’re not a collection of single issue releases). I still use the terms interchangeably 😀 I’m not much of a DC reader, although lately I’ve been more interested in Batgirl and Suicide Squad

    1. Terminology in this area is certainly a morass I find it tricky to wade through, Mari. Whether comics, manga, bandes desinées or graphic novels (for static visuals) or cartoon, animation or anime (for moving images) — it all depends on origin, audience, snobbery or nerdiness what these terms signify and for whom.

      I can see why the US used to call syndicated comics ‘funnies’ (because that was what they mostly were: humorous) but in the UK ‘comics’ still tends to be a judgemental term, implying enjoyment of the medium is a juvenile or immature pursuit. No doubt but graphic novel was adopted in the Anglophone West as a way of giving some comics the gravitas that, say, the French or the Japanese automatically applied to Tintin and its ilk.

  5. I couldn’t stop myself from adding another two cents (pennies? pfennigs?) to this discussion of graphic novels. In the US, most of the discussions I’ve heard or participated in have explored the use of graphic novels in schools. The question is how to explain such choices to parents, who don’t want their children to be reading “comics”. The works under discussion have included Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis, Gene Luen Yang’s American Born Chinese, and Art Spiegelman’s Maus. These novels aren’t about action heroes (Yang created a Chinese action hero in another graphic novel, Shadow Hero), but rather about meaty issues like cultural displacement, revolution, and the Holocaust. Sure, these could have been written as traditional novels, but the graphic genre allows a different type of story-telling: one that leaves the linear format and speeds up one type of reading while slowing down another. How the author/illustrator makes use of space and framing devices becomes just as important as character development, language use and plot — the audience must read the images as well as the words. At a recent conference, Spiegelman’s partner, Francoise Mouly, said that “Graphic novels are simple the way that poetry is just a few words.” I know, Chris, that you haven’t said or even implied that graphic novels are simple, but do I detect a hint of dismissal?

    1. Oh no, no hint of dismissal, Lizzie! It’s just that these days ‘graphic novel’ is sometimes used to label the whole gamut of comics when once — perhaps — it implied literally what it described: a novel that happened to be illustrated. A lot of action comics don’t pretend to be novels, serious or otherwise, and I’d happily call them by the traditional term. But Alan Moore and his fellow writers value the word as much as the picture, and their work deserves the title of novel.

      Batman: The Chalice to me falls between two stools, a little more pretentious than the average production from the Golden Age of Comics, and rather less worthy than the graphic novels you’ve so ably reviewed on your blog and that you mention above.

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