I take Batman comics seriously by default. And if it’s hard for me to tell for certain that a particular story isn’t meant to be interpreted in some other way, I struggle to enjoy it. I’m hesitant to call art and dialogue poorly-formed or ridiculous, because I don’t know that it wasn’t intended. But neither am I comfortable embracing as a joke what a team of writers and artists have meant to be taken at face value. Batman: Unseen presents just this sort of dilemma.
Inside this fairly standard paperback volume, you’ll find all five issues of the Batman: Unseen limited series, by writer Doug Moench and artist Kelley Jones.
You won’t believe your eyes!
Batman is on the trail of a mysterious killer, who witnesses have reported not seeing killing various folks around Gotham. The culprit is a disgruntled doctor bent on revenge against all those who have wronged him, from a former flame all the way up to Bruce Wayne himself. Can Batman stop this transparent terror?
Underlying Unseen is Batman’s coming to terms with his no longer being a novelty. As criminals learn of and encounter him, the shock of the Bat goes away, and much of the fear with it. This is a fantastic foundation for a story, and to give Moench his due, the shape of the tale is well-formed: considered from a high level, Bruce’s struggles, his doubts, and the means he uses to reclaim the night are all natural, effective ways to develop the core concept. Early on, I feel like I’m in for a strong, character-driven drama.
Jones’ first few images–from the cover to this fearsome shot above–likewise give the expectation that what follows will be a thoughtful, existential examination of what it means to be Batman. How can Bruce work out his crusade once familiarity has eradicated superstition from the hearts of even the most cowardly of criminals?
Fear’s mask began to slip
Unfortunately, things start getting odd in a hurry. Moench at times writes both Bruce and his present nemesis–Nigel Glass–like players in a work of Shakespeare. This wouldn’t be a terrible approach if it were consistent, but when the same person saying “as long as dead presidents show their faces in sweet green” also says “you’re a liar–and I kill liars”, it’s difficult to settle into one way of reading the character.
The confusion carries over into the artwork. Jones has some remarkable panels throughout the book, but he also has a habit of drawing Batman in strange poses–even and especially when he’s in mid-conversation with Commissioner Gordon on a rooftop.
To be honest, I’ve long struggled with Jones’ rendering of Batman. I’m not a fan of the cornstalk-height ears, and the weird posturing like that in the above image seems born of the same sensibility that produced the cover of Knightsend. My favorite panels in this volume usually feature Batman shrouded in darkness, which helps to mask some of the exaggerations present in Jones’ style, but again, the mixture makes it difficult to read this one way or the other.
The best mask of all
My favorite character in Unseen is easily Black Mask. He is consistently (and delightfully) himself: a sharp criminal mind in a rough-around-the-edges package. In my opinion, he also represents Jones’s best work, his skeletal facial features often peeking out from shadow to great effect. For me, Mask also serves as a bridge between the two interpretations of this book; he is a serious enemy who is nonetheless a bit ridiculous.
At some point during my first read, I decided to stop being confused, and instead enjoy this for what it is. This does prevent me from taking any of it seriously, and any emotional resonance with Batman’s existential crisis is gone, but the book becomes at the very least entertaining, and I can appreciate its successes–even those perhaps unintended ones.
I want that gargoyle on the hood of my car. Full size.
For starters, I love the way Kelley Jones draws Gotham. There are a lot of Batman books that present a Gotham that is visually uninteresting up close, but shots like this one are as memorable for the bricks in the buildings and the slant in the roofs as they are for the central action.
There’s also a lot to laugh at in here, whether by design or by accident. Jones manages to create some very memorable faces, full of expression and character:
Winner, “Favorite Insignificant Character in a Comic Book”, 2009
Even Moench’s poetics can be entertaining, serving as a sort of caricature of drama, rather than the real thing. Matched with Batman’s hocus-pocus hands, these drippy lines almost convince me that Moench and Jones have actually set out to take a loving poke at hero comics.
I guess the nail clippers are in his other belt…
Read like that, this volume actually isn’t half bad. You get to watch the Detective do his thing, and you get some especially tasty artwork at times, but you also have occasion to laugh at a man in a ridiculous costume overcompensating for how unthreatening he looks. I can get on board with that.
Value: Dirt Cheap
There’s nothing extra included, and the content is definitely not must-read. Look for it in the bargain bin.
Taken as your standard Batman fare, Batman: Unseen is a decent detective story made ridiculous by overcooked dialogue and bizarre visuals. But taken less seriously, the book manages to feel entertaining–fun, even. Moench’s detective story is actually pretty good, as is Jones’ Gotham and Black Mask, and the poetry and silly poses add a humorous self-awareness that made this stodgy Bat-fan smile.