Thursday, June 14, 2012

GN Review -- Batman: Venom / Dennis O'Neil, Trevor von Eeden, Russell Braun, and José Luis García-López

I'll say this: if there's anything more visually disturbing than seeing Batman with a drug-induced, Joker-esque rictus playing across his crazed visage, I'm hard-pressed to come up with it right now.  The Dark Knight has come to epitomize--often to an obsession-induced fault--the essence of self-control and discipline, so seeing him lose it to the throes of a drug habit is more than a little jarring.  Given the relevance of Batman: Venom to the pivotal future storyline, Knightfall--which is one of the more memorable and traumatic stories from when I started reading comics--I was very eager to finally get my hands on this precursor.

Batman's failure to save a young girl from death leads him to despair his lack of superhuman abilities.  Her father, it turns out, is developing a designer drug that does just that, and offers Batman an initial dose.  In light of his recent failure, he considers it, but initially turns it down.  When he's beaten up by a couple of thugs, he changes his mind.  The drug, which comes to be known as Venom, enhances Batman's strength, reflexes, and agility to levels beyond even his own natural abilities, but it also wreaks havoc on his sense of right and wrong.  He starts going out without the Batsuit.  He becomes irritable and arrogant.  He even considers killing Jim Gordon to get a continued supply of the drug from Doctor Porter.

Finally realizing how badly the Venom is compromising his identity, Batman names Porter and General Slaycroft, his conspirator, to Gordon, who immediately investigates the two men.  He then has Alfred seal him in the Batcave for a month so he can go cold turkey from the drug and wait out the withdrawal symptoms.  Porter and Slaycroft escape to a foreign country island, where Batman eventually follows and confronts them.  They pit him against several Venom-enhanced goons, including the General's own son, before capturing him and putting him in a room that is slowly filling with water.  He has three days to break out, and is offered the Venom, which would make the job easier, if not possible at all.

Batman breaks out, confronts the two men, and manages to overcome them with the unwitting help of the General's son.  Porter takes the Venom, and manages to put up a struggle against the authorities, but can't manage to escape.  He dies several days later from the withdrawal symptoms.  Batman, instead of considering this a victory, remembers the young girl he failed to save, and the general's son, and silently grieves for them.

This is considered one of the touchstone stories in modern Batman lore.  While the basic plot doesn't factor heavily into future stories, the emergence of the super-steroid Venom would later serve as the catalyst and enhancement agent of one of the most dangerous foes in Batman's history, Bane.  Bane has no qualms with Venom's side effects, and revels in the destructive capabilities the drug grants him.  It becomes one of the major reasons he's able to defeat, overpower, and break the back of Batman, and this is the story where it first appears.

Kids, this is your Batman, on drugs.  Any questions?
And it's pretty good.  We see Batman lose himself in his desire to keep his Venom supply going.  He's willing to make a number of moral compromises, and we see him lose sight of the lines he normally never crosses.  When he finally comes to, when faced with the decision of whether or not to kill the closest person he has to a friend, you wonder if he'll actually do it, and you're genuinely relieved when he chooses correctly.  The self-exile and recovery is only touched on--Bruce is off panel for most of it--but you see that he's been put through the wringer by the withdrawal symptoms when he emerges.  It's powerful stuff, and makes the revenge chase and confrontation all the more satisfying to watch.

It isn't without its problems, though.  While this is an overall excellent story concept, I had a couple of problems with the actual execution.  The way Batman and Bruce Wayne talk in this story just rubs me the wrong way.  Seeing and "hearing" Bruce say things like, "the names I got from the body shop" and "Make 'em afraid," just doesn't jibe with my recollection of his diction and speech patterns.  He sounds more like a private detective from an old film noir story--understandable in theory, I guess--but I've never heard the ultra-refined Bruce Wayne sound like that in any of the cartoons except when he was undercover or impersonating someone's accent.  It sticks out here, and not in a good way.

I also have major problems with the ease of Batman's descent into drug abuse.  He seems to find nothing strange about Randolph Porter's glib handling of his daughter's death, doesn't see any potential legal issues stemming from the drugs he's designing, and trusts him way too much initially for my taste.  I know he's feeling guilty about Sissy's death at this point, but this still struck me as too weak a reason for giving himself over to drugs, even if it ostensibly helps him out physically.

And don't even get me started on Bruce taking Alfred with him to take on the villains, and the identity compromising issues that raises.

Artistically, I enjoy Braun's work well enough on this story.  His visual depictions of Batman, Alfred, and the other characters are familiar, iconic, and convey plenty of emotion and expression.  His Randolph Porter was particularly smarmy; I really wanted to punch his lights out just about every time I saw his smug, arrogant mug.  The action scenes are serviceable, though I felt they could have been a little more dynamic in places.  Put bluntly, I wasn't wowed by them, but I knew when struggles were taking places.

Overall, I enjoyed this story quite a bit.  I like the concept--the loss of Batman to drugs and his redemption is a cool idea--but have a few issues with how it's actually carried off in the plotting and dialog.  Setting those aside, there are some genuinely interesting situations and scenarios we see in the narrative.  The art is enjoyable, if nothing particularly special.  Batman fans should definitely read this, especially for the continuity points.  Recommended.

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